Unwiring in upstate

Here in upstate NY, driving miles of country roads to go hiking in an ancient gorge and plunge into the cool depths of the natural swimming pool is well worth the trip.

Visiting Stony Brook takes me back nearly 4 decades, to looking for fossils in the ancient walls, waterfalls, and the indelible memory of chilly, clear waters dappled with sun.

As forest baths go, this was restorative.

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As screens become more ubiquitous, how people use them becomes more important

This weekend, the Sunday New York Times Magazine published a new feature that made a bold assertion: “human contact is now a luxury good.” (I tweeted out a thread about it, but it merits being a blog post.)

Honestly, before we accept an underlying premise, I’d like to see hard data that supports this article’s conclusion about how wealthy people live today, including:

  • how much screentime “the rich” spend daily vs everyone else
  • whether they’re on computing devices versus TVs
  • what they do on those screens (consumption, production, management)

It’s possible that wealthy people spending more on experiences versus on consumer technology reflects a cultural shift and their deeper understanding of the “secret to happiness.” It could also be that cohort already has big TVs, smartphones, tablets, & computers in 2019.

Minimizing screentime in favor of human assistants or meetings is one thing, but I’d like to read more about how, exactly, the wealthy have “opted out” of having their data and their attention sold as a product. Who has been able to leverage their wealth to do this, where, and how?

For instance, how much does Uber know about how some of the rich, more powerful people in the world move around DC and when? Have “the wealthy” opted out? Or what does Google know about their interests? Have they blocked data brokers compiling a profile? And so on.

I don’t doubt many wealthy parents have altered personal tech use themselves & academic use for kids in response to growing evidence of negative impact. We all should be. That’s why I wish NYT had linked to the NIH study on screen time, not a CBS News report on it.

Parents, teachers, principals, and legislators all need to be even more involved not just in crucial access issues (like whether a school has a broadband Internet access or a computer for each child) but also their use. Are kids gaming, watching and consuming? What? How often? At what ages? Or coding, writing, or creating? Are teachers showing them videos on their personal devices?

But education tech aside (the most important part of this piece, to me) I think the assertion that “human contact is rare” for poor people also needs more data behind it, particularly as the result of tech companies intending to confuse themes.

If you don’t have money, you can’t pay for someone else’s time. You can’t outsource a task or errand. You trade time, labor, & even health to earn money. For some parents, work means letting kids watch TV or phone isn’t as much of a choice.

The NYT reporter talked to Sherry Turkle about this, who compared screentime to fast food. It’s…an apt comparison! People know it’s unhealthy, but it’s cheap, accessible, ubiquitously marketed, & can be comforting. Behavioral addictions mediated by tech have parallels to other public health problems.

What’s missing is the extent to which tech use and human contact is mediated not just by wealth but by power, as I discussed with Turkle years ago. It’s implicit, but bears discussion. I suspect it’s only a “status symbol” to be device-free within tiny wealthy and/or highly educated cohorts.

As technology is integrated more into every profession & industry, who has to be connected & when is only the start of a conversation implicating not just workers’ rights but civil liberties & human dignity. Consider who has to wear GPS anklets after they serve their sentences in prison, or the explosion in workplace tracking and the expansion of the “employer surveillance state.”

The NYT article ends not by interrogating this dynamic between wealth or power, or disparities in screen use across class, race or gender, but exploring how tech connects humans in nursing homes, enabling remote workers interact with bed-ridden seniors, the impact of which could be its own followup story.

Some research I’ve seen (and the New York Times has published) suggests technology is not driving us apart, but connecting us.

How, where, when, who, and to what effect remain questions I hope we all keep asking.

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A new texting project to make sense of the zeitgeist

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This spring, I’ve started a new experiment to connect to people with ideas and, perhaps, to one another: a text messaging newsletter about democracy and technology.

Here’s my basic pitch: Emerging technology has the power to make democracy stronger or weaker.  For $2 every month, you’ll get a mix of news, ideas, projects, proposed laws, and analysis about how technologies are changing our democracy – or vice versa.

Understanding where, when, and how that’s happening is the hard part, as I’ve learned over the past decade of covering this space as an independent writer, digital governance expert, and open government advocate based in the District of Columbia. Figuring out why is often the most difficult, and it’s there that I hope to hear back from people, too: a distributed audience has always made me smarter.

I haven’t decided on how often I’ll send updates, but I’ve been trying a daily practice, to begin. I will be paying close to attention how people respond and what they want. If this interests you, I hope you’ll consider subscribing.

If you’re wondering how the financial side works, by the way, here’s the deal: a subscription cost $2 every month. Of that amount, Stripe will take 5%, data fees will take 5%, and Project Text (which is part of Advance Media) would take 10% of the remainder (18 cents), which would leave me with $1.62 per subscriber.

I should note that I have no plans to stop sharing public insights online on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, articles,  interviews and talks. It’s just that it’s important to me professionally to keep growing, trying new things, and seeing if people are willing to pay a little bit for my insight.s

Thank you, as always, for listening.

Image: Wikimedia

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The Sounds of Email

Over on Twitter, Amie Stepanovich shared adapted lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” to email.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I helped finish the song there yesterday, and thought it was worth pulling together today. You can listen to an excellent version from their concert in the park in the embedded video below, if you’d like some voices in your head as you read.

The first verse is hers, the rest are mine. I shared a lightly edited because I enjoyed the writing exercise & it made me smile. Perhaps reading will do that for you, too.

Hello email, my old friend
Don’t think that you’ll ever end
Because an inbox that is heaping
Keeps on growing while I am sleeping
And the unread that are waiting in the cloud
Are disavowed
To be met with the sound of silence

In restless dreams I browsed alone
Narrow screens of Apple phones
‘Neath the halo of a desk lamp
I moved my fingers as they were cold and cramped
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a laptop light That split the night
And heard the sound of email

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand emails, maybe more
People writing without speaking
People reading without listening
People sending spam that servers never shared
No one dared
Disturb the sound of email

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Email like a cancer grows
DM me so I might teach you
Text my phone so I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the bowels of email

And the people refreshed and prayed
To the smartphone gods they made
And my inbox flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the screen said, “The words of the spammers
Are written on Facebook walls
And firewalls”
And whispered in the sounds of email.

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Facebook blocks boost of Facebook update about Facebook adopting public interest feature

I shared the piece I wrote for Medium about the need to preserve ephemeral updates by politicians & civil servants on my Page. I decided to experiment with boosting it.

Facebook did not approve the “ad,” classifying it as political.

When I experimented further by seeing what was required of me for “identity confirmation,” it simply…didn’t work for me in the Facebook app. Tap button, nothing happens.

Some irony here: I was at the tip of the spear pushing Facebook to adopt political ad transparency & worked with Congress on a law to mandate it!

And now, as a result of their ham-handed self-regulation, I can’t engage people on Facebook about my piece advocating Facebook creating a public interest file for politicians and civil servants who create ephemeral media (“Stories”) on Instagram and Facebook.

UPDATE: When I shared this on Twitter, Rob Leathern, the director of product at Facebook responsive for ads integrity and transparency, replied to my @mention, stating that “This is not blocked – this is an ad about an issue of national importance and so requires you to go through the authorization process, before it will run.”

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

When I said the feature wasn’t available on mobile, he told me to visit Facebook from a desktop computer to complete the process. When I did so, Facebook prompted me to enter a mailing address and upload images of my passport, driver’s license or state ID.

There’s an interesting wrinkle here, as I noted to Leathern on Twitter: I’ve been “verified” on Facebook for years now, with a big blue checkmark next to my name and a special signifier in comments. What, exactly, does being “Verified” mean if Facebook still needs to identify who I am?

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How to support open government on #GivingTuesday

Today is the seventh “Giving Tuesday,” a “global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration” created by Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

As the holiday season begins, you can support the change you want to see in the world by subscribing to newspapers that produce accountability journalism that informs the public about our governments and corporations, or donating to trustworthy, transparent nonprofits that hold government accountable. Since many nonprofits are receiving matching funds today from companies or individuals, donating on #GivingTuesday can have double the impact.

Make sure your donations lead to impact

Before you click to give, however, do your homework! Not all nonprofits are well-run.

Before you click donate, take a moment to evaluate the organization using its website, Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and media reports.

Look at the most recent tax return (Form 990) and for evidence of commitments to transparent, good governance.

Are there 5 independent board members? Are the organization and its leadership transparent and accountable on social media about their decisions regarding activities, expenses, personnel, or errors?

Does a nonprofit disclose its donors, or is it a “dark money” group? Does a high percentage of spending go to programs? Do they show demonstrable impact in the activities described in its charter?

If the nonprofit produces news, how many standardized “trust indicators do they disclosure to provide clarity about their ethical standards, fairness, accuracy, and “show the work” behind a news story?

Nonprofits supporting open government

Following is a list of a worthy organizations, with links to donate.

ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity report in the public’s interest, informing us of what is being done in our name by governments and holding corporations accountable.

The Center for Responsive Politics adds sunshine to campaign finance, publishing open government data at OpenSecrets.org.

The Project on Government Oversight fights corruption, defends the Freedom of Information Act, and works to improve oversight and government integrity in all three branches of government.

Protect Democracy monitors, investigates, and litigate against any anti-democratic actions taken by the Executive Branch of the United States.

MuckRock makes it easy to make Freedom of Information Act requests, publishes responses, and reports on the documents and data its users bring into the sunshine.

Code for America is reimagining how government systems can and should work better through civic technology and user-centered design.

The Institute for Investigative Editors is the nation’s largest group of watchdogs, improving the quality of investigative reporting. It sustains the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders protect and defend press freedom, bringing important freedom of information lawsuits and supporting journalists.

The past two years have also shown how important watchdogs and advocates are to defending civil liberties and democracy itself, online and off.

This #GivingTuesday, I hope you’ll also consider supporting the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Brennan Center, the Campaign Legal Center, the Electronic Privacy Center, and Privacy International.

Remember: your donations today will have twice the impact!

Thank you for reading us, and for supporting open government.

 

 

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Trumping Trump on Twitter

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012. It was recovered from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and republished in 2018.]

This is the most retweeted tweet I’ve ever tweeted:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

It blew up so much it attracted Donald Trump’s notice. He responded:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I dream of the day when I get nearly 1,700+ retweets of a story instead of a sentiment. Apparently, I touched a nerve. My tweet just kept going and going and going.

By the numbers, my tweet was amplified five times as much as Trump’s, with a bit less than 10% of the followers. On particular count, I may have “trumped” the real estate mogul on Twitter, although I think it’s safe to say that this is an imperfect gauge of public opinion. He also shows no signs of shifting his course.

On a more qualitative level, Trump’s @mention of me exposed me to a day’s worth of emotional feedback online. I received many negative @replies on Twitter when the @WhiteHouse retweeted me last July. The angry responses after Donald Trump @mentioned me this week, however, were worse in scale and composition.

As I gain more surface area online and in the media, through television appearances, I’m finding that I’m encountering more hate, fear, ignorance and anger everywhere. Honestly, I have a hard time not responding to people online. I’ve never liked seeing broadcast journalists and celebrities ignore people, even angry viewers or fans. It’s not how I’ve worked over the last decade and I don’t intend to change.

As I gain more of a platform to focus attention on issues that matter, this won’t get easier. The Internet mirrors what is worst in humanity, along with what’s best in us. The Web is what we make of it. It’s a bitter reality, though I think it’s been part of the public sphere as long as we’ve had one.

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