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Technology | The Atlantic
Technology | The Atlantic
The People Selling Hand Sanitizer for 10 Times Its Price
“I saw a little bit of an opportunity. Worst-case scenario, I have hand sanitizer for the next six years,” Anthony Del Zio, a 39-year-old Long Island man who owns an industrial-power-washing company, told me on the phone.Two weeks ago, Del Zio went to the drugstores near his house, as well as a Dollar Tree, and stocked up on hand sanitizer. At the time, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in New York State, but he had a hunch that his efforts would be worthwhile. As of yesterday, 173 cases have been confirmed in New York, a large share of the 1,015 nationwide. In response to the exploding case numbers, people all over the country have been preparing for worst-case scenarios of prolonged quarantine by panic-buying supplies such as food, toiletries, and other household staples—along with hand sanitizer and face masks, which they hope will protect them from the disease when they do venture out in public. But Del Zio was a little faster. He said his experience trading baseball cards on eBay taught him how to anticipate a financial win: “You learn supply and demand.”Del Zio is one of a wave of coronavirus price gougers, buying up basic supplies in the midst of the crisis and then upcharging people. Last week, he said, he found a bottle of Purell at Rite Aid for $7.99 and sold it on eBay for $138 the same day.[Read: What you can do right now about the coronavirus]eBay has since banned the sales of both face masks and hand sanitizer, saying that the prices on some listings may be so high as to be illegal. In emails to sellers, the company has also cited its “disaster and tragedy” policy, which prohibits attempting “to profit from human tragedy or suffering.” Amazon is still allowing third-party sales of hand sanitizer, although it told The Wall Street Journal that it is taking down listings that price gouge or make “deceptive claims.” Many sellers, for example, were writing that their products could “kill” the coronavirus, which is not an approved medical claim for hand sanitizer, though it does effectively reduce many types of germs. Facebook Marketplace announced a temporary ban on sales of medical face masks last week, though The Verge reported Monday that the site was still “littered” with listings—some asking for up to $1,000. Hand-sanitizer listings are still allowed, but with the same caveats as Amazon, and an added prohibition against implying a sense of urgency or limited supply.After eBay disallowed hand-sanitizer sales, Del Zio switched his operation over to Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, where new listings are going up every hour. (Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment about whether it was considering any bans on sanitizer sales.) Del Zio said he doesn’t feel moral qualms about charging online buyers 17 times what he paid for a bottle of Purell because he doesn’t consider it to be an essential supply. “I’ve always washed my hands and used hand sanitizer wherever I went,” he said, but added that he doesn’t think sanitizer is going to protect anyone from the coronavirus—you touch your phone and your keys and the subway railings, and you can’t soak your hands in Germ-X all day long. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy caused gas shortages and power outages on Long Island, Del Zio remembers neighbors paying $25 a gallon for gasoline for their generators. Now he said he knows people who fill up jugs of gasoline every time there’s a particularly gnarly-sounding forecast—both to prepare for their own needs and to sell at a markup. This kind of strategizing is just good sense in general, in his opinion. In any case, he gave some of the sanitizer away to his family and to friends of his elderly mother, who couldn’t get to the store themselves.Del Zio repeated some common misinformation about the novel coronavirus: “I know most of the cases are in China. I’m hearing stories that it’s from bats being boiled into soup. I don’t know how true that is.” (For the record, the virus is spreading faster outside China than within it. And the virus likely originated with bats, but not because they were boiled into soup.) He said he isn’t particularly worried about contracting COVID-19. “Me and my friends were concerned about the flu more than anything.” (There is not yet enough information to say exactly how the mortality rate of COVID-19 compares to that of the flu.)[Read: What happens if you get sick]Densely populated areas like New York have had trouble keeping hand sanitizer in stock for the past week, so the “For Sale” categories on local Craigslist pages have started to look like super-expensive sanitation-themed yard sales. In New York, single eight-ounce bottles of Purell are listed for as much as $25 apiece. A listing from Brooklyn advertises 78 bottles of industrial sanitizer for $750, while a California man is offering to ship 25 single-ounce bottles to New York for $150—which works out to $6 an ounce. “Fight the COVID-19 with easy [sic] and protect yourself and your love ones [sic],” a listing in Queens reads. It also suggests that the buyer use a contactless form of payment, as cash is a vector of disease.Russ, a 43-year-old IT specialist in Michigan, listed his stock of hand sanitizer on the Craigslist pages for six major cities. I agreed to identify him and others in this story by only his first name because it was the only way he would agree to explain his decision to price-gouge antibacterial gels. Russ offers to ship bottles and accepts cryptocurrency payments. (His area is not yet experiencing a shortage.) When he first heard there might be a demand in some cities, he told me in a phone call, he bought just five bottles and listed them on eBay for $15 each. They sold out within 30 minutes, so he bought 15 more bottles and upped the price to $20. He sold eight of them before eBay announced the ban on hand-sanitizer sales, so now he’s selling the rest of his stock on Craigslist for $25 each.“I know what you want to ask me. I weighed whether or not this was a moral thing,” he said. “My conclusion was: If I don’t do this, someone else is going to. That allowed me to do it.”Not everyone shares his assessment. Somebody on eBay messaged him and called him a “dick,” he said, in addition to informing him that God is watching. “I’m not trying to sell someone an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for $100, which I’ve seen. I’m not a bad person,” Russ said. He argued that the people who are going online to buy hand sanitizer are the same people who are buying out grocery stores, spending thousands of dollars on supplies. If he can make a little money off someone who’s willing to spend any amount to make herself feel safer, who really loses?Personally, Russ washes his hands and is now avoiding handshakes, but as for hand sanitizer, “you can buy a bottle of vodka and pour it on your hands and it will do the same thing.” (It won’t. Don’t buy a bottle of vodka and pour it on your hands.) “If hand sanitizer somehow became a miracle cure, I would give it away,” he said.[Read: 20 seconds to optimize hand wellness]I contacted half a dozen Craigslist hand-sanitizer sellers, and not all of them were so relaxed. David, a 35-year-old Brooklyn man, told me in a phone call that he had been buying face masks in early January specifically to sell on eBay, but that business dried up after his suppliers stopped being able to fulfill his orders. He’s “a little bit of a prepper,” he said, adding that he’d bought a second freezer so that he could stock up on food in case of a coronavirus lockdown.After the masks, he started buying as much hand sanitizer as he could: about 100 bottles. He’s not buying any more, he said, because he started to think it was immoral to even imply that hand sanitizer is something people need. “I don’t even know for sure how much it helps with the coronavirus.” (Using alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good way to help prevent the spread of the virus, though washing your hands with soap is equally helpful.) He made only about $300 and said it wasn’t worth the effort.As the coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, Americans will have to consider the morality of stockpiling, price gouging, and even commuting to work. They’ll also have to consider how to avoid behaving stupidly.Sam, a doctoral student in Manhattan, was concerned about the possibility that he could “look like an ass who tried to take advantage of a crisis to profit.” He wound up with an excess of hand sanitizer because he panicked and bought 250 ounces of it on Amazon for $160 about a week ago. “Which is nuts since I make, like, 25K a year,” he explained over text. “I wish I hadn’t bought it in the first place.”[Read: The coronavirus is more than just a health crisis]He started selling the sanitizer on Craigslist just to make his money back, he said, and has sold about 210 ounces for $165; he plans to keep the remaining 40 ounces. “I am slightly embarrassed about buying so much, given the shortage,” he said. “It was a moment of anxiety.” He’s not worried about getting COVID-19, but he was startled by his own behavior, and what he’s witnessed from the people around him. It’s led him to the conclusion that “the atomized American soul is being laid bare.” Everyone is acting in their own best interest, he said, and the government is totally unequipped to deal with the crisis.“I am worried about living in a society that is completely unprepared for this,” he said.
2020-03-11 13:59:52
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A Chart to Explain Your Entire Worldview
How do you keep track of what page you’re on in a book?The answer tells you everything you need to know about the moral lens through which you view the world. At least, that’s according to a chart that was widely circulated on Twitter last month (and originally shared on Tumblr). The axes of the nine-square grid—lawful, neutral, chaotic across the top; good, neutral, evil down the side—assign expansive significance to each choice. Using a book ribbon as a bookmark, the chart tells you, is “lawful good.” Scrap paper and receipts are still good, but also chaotic. Using a normal bookmark is “true neutral,” while leaving the book open and upside down is “neutral evil.”This chart went viral mainly because it prompted debate and defensiveness. How is dog-earing a page more “evil” than marking it with random garbage? How can reading an ebook be considered a “neutral” choice? And that’s just bookmarks. Alignment charts have been used to sort politicians, versions of Windows, and seemingly everything else. They’re tossed around every major social platform, and have become a common cultural reference point. They pop up on Pinterest, in the Alignment Charts subreddit, and in lifestyle publications. chaotic good and chaotic evil pic.twitter.com/QQM5RGYB4u — m (@wingheadd) February 9, 2020Truly, it is hard to find a category that the internet hasn't aligned. Alignment charts have covered face-washing techniques, middle-aged working actors, New York City transit options. Avril Lavigne’s white tank top is chaotic neutral. Signifying one’s acknowledgment or acceptance with okay is neutral good, while writing ok then is neutral evil. A moral significance apparently can be gleaned from the way people sit in a chair or cut an apple or drink their coffee or position their bed relative to their bedroom walls. The same goes for how they get rid of earwax, and how they respond to a meeting invitation.The grid comes from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, but has been long divorced from that context. It is now used by people who have never sat around a table pretending to be druids and clerics, or possibly even heard of the game. Alignment charts are easy to customize, and they have a crisp legibility. They spread easily because they clash with other people’s instincts: I get viscerally angry looking at an absolutely wrong alignment chart of Gilmore Girls characters, which might prompt me to make my own. Here’s a suit alignment chart pic.twitter.com/nQ44D5NugM — Emilia Petrarca (@EmiliaPetrarca) March 5, 2019The pleasure of filling out an alignment chart is similar to that of playing a simple brainteaser, or completing an elementary-school worksheet: You’re making judgment calls, sorting, putting objects into little boxes—and you end up with something neat and composed. It has the allure of surety. If we could decide, once and for all, what is the exact best way to live, maybe everything would fall into place.The two-axis moral-alignment chart appeared in a 1977 version of the Dungeons & Dragons handbook, three years after the game was first released. In the game, players select a moral alignment for their characters at the start, to guide the way that they will make decisions throughout. It’s meant to prevent people from behaving randomly, and gives the story some structure.[Read: The friends who have been playing the same game of Dungeons & Dragons for 30 Years]A “good” moral alignment means a character will lean toward altruism and personal sacrifice. Evil means harming and oppressing. A neutral person is one who wouldn’t kill somebody for no reason, but wouldn’t protect anybody for no reason either. Along the side axis, lawfulness, in the game’s third-edition handbook, “implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.” Chaos, meanwhile, “implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.”The handbook recommends good and lawful alignments, because evil characters are distracting and disruptive, and neutral characters are untrustworthy (“they are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him/her”). Penalties are incurred for switching alignments in the midst of a game, or for acting egregiously out of character.Kicking off the internet life of the alignment chart, a template was posted to the now-defunct Pinterest-progenitor Polyvore in 2012, allowing charts of game characters and memes to start circulating on websites such as Reddit, Tumblr, and 4chan. In 2014, people still referred to the template as “the D&D alignment chart” and sometimes acknowledged themselves as “ridiculously nerdy” for sharing it. But while most of the charts posted around that time covered subjects that came from fandoms or from meme culture, some branched out into more mainstream topics. See: a Shia LaBeouf alignment chart, which put his character from Even Stevens in the “neutral evil” spot. And another, which put Indiana Jones Shia in that spot instead.As alignment charts grew in popularity, Dungeons & Dragons got its own boost thanks to ambient ’80s nostalgia and the mainstreaming of the high-fantasy genre with Game of Thrones, among other factors. But the chart’s cultural position is increasingly divorced from that of the game. Today, sharing an alignment meme has much less to do with nerdy hobbies than it does with the internet’s favorite petty debates, such as “Are you supposed to wash your legs?” and “How would dogs wear pants?” (Don’t even get me started on whether cheesecake is pie.) According to Google Search Trends, interest in alignment charts started increasing sharply in November 2016. The desire to align everything has gotten measurably more powerful in the years since the last presidential election, which have been marked by polarization and the use of Harry Potter metaphors to describe real-world events.Alignment charts serve a clear purpose during a game that you sit down and play with your friends, but the way they work online is hazier. In his 2003 book, Designing Virtual Worlds, the game researcher Richard Bartle argues that moral alignment is useful for role-playing games because, in face-to-face gameplay, there’s a referee—the Dungeon Master—who is empowered to say when violations occur and to penalize players. Moral decisions occur along a clearly-outlined spectrum.The internet is much less tidy. Bartle recommends against using an alignment chart in a virtual space or online game because, on the internet, “much of what is good or evil, lawful or chaotic, is intangible.” The internet creates so many unpredictable conflicts and confusing scenarios for human interaction, judgment becomes impossible. At the same time, judgment comes down constantly online. Social-media platforms frequently enforce binary responses: either award something a heart because you love it, or reply with something quick and crude when you hate it. The internet is a space of permutations and addled context, yet, as the Motherboard writer Roisin Kiberd argued in a 2019 essay collection about meme culture, “the internet is full of reductive moral judgment.”[Read: The misogynistic joke that became a goth-meme fairy tale]The first time Dungeons & Dragons was popular, moms and media outlets spent a few years hand-wringing about its overtones of Satanism and witchcraft. But the game persisted by reimagining war and strategy games, then in vogue; it was more about developing characters and exploring moral choices than it was about mass destruction or colonialism. (In the 1989 edition, some of the demon stuff was removed.) Its vocabulary has remained common even outside of the game because it proposes that life might be made up of logical choices. Even outside of the charts themselves, the internet-fluent frequently describe things as “chaotic good” or “lawful evil.” The former is everyone’s favorite, a shorthand for saying that someone is kind and cool but disrespects authority—in a funny, sweet way.Today, it’s fairly obvious why people would gravitate toward something a little bit witchy but morally clear-eyed. Americans’ trust in each other and in most institutions is declining. A little clarity is a treat. But while a nine-grid chart is more nuanced than “good” and “bad,” it’s unnaturally tidy all the same. There are infinite ways to conduct yourself in the world, and no rules that force you to be consistent.I took three versions of a quiz that was supposed to tell me my personal moral alignment, and would have liked to be told that I am chaotic and good, but I got a different result every time—at one point, “lawful neutral,” which was traumatizing. What charts like these can’t address is the fact that what we want to be is often different than what we are. What quizzes really do—as anyone who ever had a Seventeen subscription knows—is force you to think of the responses you should give in order to get the result that you want. It would be nice, though, to just pick a way to be and stick to that box.
2020-03-05 22:25:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
You Already Live in Quarantine
Last Wednesday, I sat down in my office in midtown Atlanta to conduct a lunchtime writing seminar in Durham, North Carolina. I had considered flying in for the event, but my schedule was in flux, and the hassle of transit for a short meeting seemed excessive. At the suggestion of my hosts, I logged in to the videoconferencing program Zoom instead and led the event from my desk chair.[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus]I hadn’t avoided the trip out of concern about the coronavirus; my plans had been set before cases really began to crop up in the U.S. But over the next day, Zoom’s stock rose more than 10 percent, shored up on the perverse hope that global disruption might increase demand for remote meetings. In Italy, whole towns had been locked down, tens of thousands of people immobilized at home. Zoom was a diamond in the rough; lockdowns such as Italy’s and general global tumult caused by the uncertainty of pandemic drove most stocks down precipitously as cases of the disease known as COVID-19 ticked up in the United States and proliferated internationally.Ever in search of the upside of a downturn, financial analysts started looking for companies such as Zoom, whose business might remain stable or even thrive under mass-quarantine conditions. Netflix shares, for example, inched up last week while other tech issues reliant on disrupted Chinese supply chains, such as Apple, fell. The equity-research analyst J. C. O’Hara dubbed these “stay-at-home stocks,” adding Facebook, Amazon, the streaming-workout provider Peloton, and the workplace-chat platform Slack to the list. “What would people do if stuck inside all day?” O’Hara asked, consecrating quarantine as a market trend.[Read: What you can do right now about the coronavirus]The answer is far more familiar than the fearful conjecture forebodes. Many Americans would do the same thing they do now, mostly. Netflix has already fused us to our couches. For years, contemporary society has been bracing, and even longing, for quarantine.More than 100 cases of COVID-19 have been identified across 13 states, and the numbers have been quickly rising. Older people and health-care workers are at greater risk of danger from the virus, which also might have been spreading for weeks undetected in Washington State. Certain containment measures are already in place: Americans traveling from Italy and South Korea are being screened before boarding U.S.-bound flights. Public-health officials have started urging citizens to ponder self-quarantine in the event of illness, even though many workers don’t have the luxury of staying home sick anyway. Today, Los Angeles declared a health emergency.A number of organizations have also started preventative action. Twitter has banned noncritical business travel for its workers and “strongly encouraged” all its employees to work from home if they could. Amazon introduced restrictions on company visitors after two employees in Europe contracted the virus. Large trade shows and conferences have started pulling the plug, among them Facebook’s annual event for its platform developers.If conditions get truly bad, a serious public-health lockdown would indeed upend ordinary life. Barring that extreme, efforts such as the ones just mentioned extend a process that was under way long before a novel virus threatened to go pandemic. In a way, “quarantine” is just a raw, surprising name for the condition that computer technologies have brought about over the last two decades: making almost everything possible from the quiet isolation of a desk or a chair illuminated by an internet-connected laptop or tablet.[Read: A coronavirus quarantine in America could be a giant legal mess]As Twitter’s new policy emphasizes, Americans whose jobs involve pressing buttons on keyboards to create or manipulate symbols into ideas might not really need to go to the office to do so. A laptop and an internet connection are sufficient. Then, when it’s time for a break, DoorDash or Grubhub hastens lunch to the work desk, helping you avoid the coughs and foreign doorknobs of eating out. Later, Instacart or Amazon Prime Now drops groceries on stoops. TaskRabbit lets you schedule assistance with errands, and Washio will pick up and deliver your laundry. Nowadays doing something for real, with your own body, sometimes feels stranger than summoning it by smartphone.For an even broader demographic, entertainment has become shut-in, too. Cable and streaming have made cinema-going precious. Hanging out with friends is enjoyable, but Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and others make socializing possible from anywhere.Against the backdrop of coronavirus uncertainty, the banal normalcy of this reality finally hit me over the weekend: I live this way by default now. I ordered wallpaper online, so I can redecorate my home without even leaving it. A week earlier, Best Buy had already delivered my new television, an irresponsibly huge apparatus I mounted on the wall. I fired it up and loaded in all my accounts: Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime—enough content for a lifetime of excellent, let alone compromised, respiratory health.[Read: I prepared for everything, but not coronavirus on a cruise ship]From the next room, I’ve uploaded this story to Google Docs, where my editor and I have revised it by wire, across whole states. I didn’t meet, or even talk on the phone, with any of my colleagues at The Atlantic who were involved in the process. Like the employees of many media companies, we communicate with one another on Slack, one of O’Hara’s stay-at-home stocks. Together, from afar, we quietly tap away at stories, which you can then read on a screen in any setting you wish—from atop a Peloton saddle, perhaps, or while Netflix streams on the television.Not everyone gets to make that choice. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal noted last week, the gig workers who handle DoorDash or Amazon deliveries actually have to risk entry into the material world, putting them at far greater risk of contagion. Service-sector workers in retail, health-care, transit, teaching, and housekeeping have even less ability to choose when and where they do their jobs. From the beginning, the safety and security of service and flex workers has taken a back seat to that of the knowledge-economy elites who are their customers. A massive power imbalance is at work here.There’s peril for white-collar workers, too. Homeboundedness risks becoming an excuse for further belt-tightening, a version of disaster capitalism inspired by contagion rather than economic crisis. If remote learning, work, and leisure prove more profitable or more easily controlled than their in-person equivalents, employers with the means to make temporary shifts permanent might attempt to do so. Eventually, an unseen worker might be seen as an unnecessary one.Even so, the benefits of a life online have begun to outweigh the costs for some Americans. The flip side of quarantine’s threat is technology’s promise—we have been preparing for the end of in-person work for some time. As this week began, one of my Georgia Tech school chairs encouraged faculty to consider how we might conduct our classes remotely should the need arise. But that possibility is already daily practice. Canvas, an online courseware platform, powers our classes. We hold institutional licenses to videoconferencing services similar to Zoom. And we are invested in large-scale online education, including online degrees that enroll thousands of students all around the world. Never before in human history has it been so easy to do so much without going anywhere. Cinema box-office receipts fell sharply in 2019, as streaming entertainment became more plentiful and high quality. Apps and games and podcasts and digitally delivered matter of all kinds have followed suit. Now, absolutely drowning in it, the last thing anyone might worry about is getting bored at home.
2020-03-04 22:02:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Official Coronavirus Numbers Are Wrong, and Everyone Knows It
Editor’s Note: The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here. We know, irrefutably, one thing about the coronavirus in the United States: The number of cases reported in every chart and table is far too low.The data are untrustworthy because the processes we used to get them were flawed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing procedures missed the bulk of the cases. They focused exclusively on travelers, rather than testing more broadly, because that seemed like the best way to catch cases entering the country.[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus]Just days ago, it was not clear that the virus had spread solely from domestic contact at all. But then cases began popping up with no known international connection. What public-health experts call “community spread” had arrived in the United States. The virus would not be stopped by tight borders, because it was already propagating domestically. Trevor Bedford’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which studies viral evolution, concluded there is “firm evidence” that, at least in Washington State, the coronavirus had been spreading undetected for weeks. Now different projections estimate that 20 to 1,500 people have already been infected in the greater Seattle area. In California, too, the disease appears to be spreading, although the limited testing means that no one is quite sure how far.In total, fewer than 500 people have been tested across the country (although the CDC has stopped reporting that number in its summary of the outbreak). As a result, the current “official” case count inside the United States stood at 43 as of this morning (excluding cruise-ship cases). This number is wrong, yet it’s still constantly printed and quoted. In other contexts, we’d call this what it is: a subtle form of misinformation.[Read: What Trump could do right now to keep workers safe from the coronavirus]This artificially low number means that for the past few weeks, we’ve seen massive state action abroad and only simmering unease domestically. While Chinese officials were enacting a world-historic containment effort—putting more than 700 million people under some kind of movement restriction, quarantining tens of millions of people, and placing others under new kinds of surveillance—and American public-health officials were staring at the writing on the wall that the disease was extremely likely to spread in the U.S., the public-health response was stuck in neutral. The case count in the U.S. was not increasing at all. Preparing for a sizable outbreak seemed absurd when there were fewer than 20 cases on American soil. Now we know that the disease was already spreading and that it was the U.S. response that was stalled.Meanwhile, South Korean officials have been testing more than 10,000 people a day, driving up the country’s reported-case count. Same goes for Italy: high test rate, high number of cases. (Now some Italian politicians want to restrict testing.) In China, the official data say the country has more than 80,000 cases, but the real number might be far, far higher because of all the people who had mild(er) cases and were turned away from medical care, or never sought it in the first place. That may be cause for reassurance (though not everyone agrees), because the total number of cases is the denominator in the simple equation that yields a fatality rate: deaths divided by cases. More cases with the same number of deaths means that the disease is likely less deadly than the data show.[Read: What you can do right now about the coronavirus]The point is that every country’s numbers are the result of a specific set of testing and accounting regimes. Everyone is cooking the data, one way or another. And yet, even though these inconsistencies are public and plain, people continue to rely on charts showing different numbers, with no indication that they are not all produced with the same rigor or vigor. This is bad. It encourages dangerous behavior such as cutting back testing to bring a country’s numbers down or slow-walking testing to keep a country’s numbers low.[Read: A coronavirus quarantine in America could be a giant legal mess]The other problem is, now that the U.S. appears to be ramping up testing, the number of cases will grow quickly. Public-health officials are currently cautioning people not to worry as that happens, but it will be hard to disambiguate what proportion of the ballooning number of cases is the result of more testing and what proportion is from the actual spread of the virus.People trust data. Numbers seem real. Charts have charismatic power. People believe what can be quantified. But data do not always accurately reflect the state of the world. Or as one scholar put it in a book title: “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron.The reality gap between American numbers and American cases is wide. Regular citizens and decision makers cannot rely on only the numbers to make decisions. Sometimes quantification actually obscures as much as it reveals.
2020-03-03 20:32:09
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
You Can’t Buy Memes
Yesterday, WorldStar Hip Hop, the content aggregator and music blog with 22.1 million followers on Instagram, posted a video of a boy taking his girlfriend’s photo while she poses in front of a graffitied wall. As the video goes on, the camera zooms in on the boy’s phone screen, and rather than images of a young woman in a baggy sweatshirt, it shows only the words “This is a bloomberg ad.” The caption, written in the style of a popular SpongeBob SquarePants meme, reads “#sPoNsoReD: bY @mIkEbLoOmbErg.” And the video has been viewed more than 500,000 times as of writing.Mike Bloomberg, the Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City mayor, has paid for sponsored Instagram posts on at least 20 major meme accounts in the past two weeks, all with followings in the millions, as reported by The New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz. The first round of posts were styled as fake direct-message conversations between the account owners and Bloomberg himself, offering to pay for memes that would make him “look cool for the upcoming democratic primary.” In an image posted on @kalesalad (3.5 million followers), Bloomberg’s fake pitch includes the promise “I’ll give you a billion dollars.”The joke, insofar as there is one, is that Bloomberg knows he’s out of touch and he also knows that he is very rich. For a post on @middleclassfancy (1.8 million followers)—a page that mostly shares memes about suburban ennui, chain restaurants, and semi-creepy dads who are clinically obsessed with grilled meat—the Bloomberg campaign submitted a staged conversation in which the billionaire tech mogul writes, “Even though I myself am not a member of the middle class, I still find your memes relatable and humorous.” [Read: Just how rich is Michael Bloomberg?]“While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics,” the Bloomberg campaign’s national spokesperson, Sabrina Singh, told me in an email, “we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation.”The bet makes sense, but it’s a little off. Memes spread by imitation and iteration. They need to be remixed and repeated. (As with the recent spontaneously circulated image of Bernie Sanders in an oversize coat, saying, “I am once again asking,” or 2016’s “Nasty Woman” micro-economy.) Bloomberg’s images, in paid-for spots on meme accounts, are not really spreading; apart from a semipopular parody post that mocks the former mayor, there have been no major copy-pastes of his template.The attempt at self-aware humor and the affiliation with a specific sort of Instagram account make Bloomberg’s ads meme-culture-adjacent, but they don’t actually make them memes—which can’t be bought, or at the very least, can’t be bought this simply.The campaign’s goal was to get Bloomberg’s name in front of more eyeballs, and it has done so. His team tells me it considers the campaign a success, based on the growth of his Instagram following: His account has gained more than 50,000 followers since the first sponsored posts appeared on major meme accounts on February 12. The campaign has not given specifics about what audience in particular it’s hoping the meme ads appeal to, or the amount of money it has paid for them. (The Daily Beast reported earlier this month that the campaign would pay a flat rate of $150 for original content from micro-influencers with followings from 1,000 to 100,000. So, a reasonable guess at the rate for these posts would be in at least the thousands.)All of the candidates in the Democratic primary are under pressure to engage with internet culture. When Bernie Sanders joined the game-streaming platform Twitch last summer, he gave the same “meet people where they are” justification as Singh did for Bloomberg. The former candidate Andrew Yang’s strategy of taking a simple “free money” talking point onto a range of popular podcasts helped him wriggle into the hearts of many super-online young people (if not the rest of the country).[Read: The real power of Bloomberg’s money]People who care about meme culture tend to think of making and sharing memes as amoral but somehow pure: A meme can be a package for vulgar or stupid ideas, but it almost always moves through a network because of some desire on the part of the people who make up the network. Introducing money into this process can make it feel fake. In response to a Bloomberg ad on @grapejuiceboys (2.7 million followers), one of the top comments uses the word “shill.” On a @fuckjerry (15.1 million followers) post: “I hope he paid you good[,] because you’re about to lose a lot of followers including myself.” Each Bloomberg-sponsored post has thousands of comments, not all negative, but these are the sorts of sentiments that hover near the top, getting hundreds of likes.There is, undeniably, something uncomfortable about watching an extraordinarily wealthy person try to purchase organic expression. There’s also a jarring discordance to the collaboration between WorldStar Hip Hop—once a flashpoint in the Bush-era conservative panic over rap culture—and a presidential candidate who has been extensively criticized for his defense of racially discriminatory police tactics during the same years. Bloomberg has been endorsed by dozens of politicians, most recently the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as a handful of celebrities; he’s proven his sincerity in ways that make sense to certain types of influencers. But in the meme world, the backlash to the Bloomberg posts “definitely has to do with the fact that people have this ideology of authenticity, or that meme should be organic,” says Piia Varis, a media and online-discourse researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Then there is this billionaire who buys memes, and that’s just something that is not done.” Varis compares the Bloomberg campaign to “Warren’s Meme Team,” a large-scale digital effort (primarily involving Snapchat and Instagram filters) organized by the MIT engineer Misha Leybovich, who supports Warren but is unaffiliated with her campaign. In an extensive, emoji-covered document published in November, Leybovich showed a passable understanding of what a meme is (calling it “any ‘unit of culture’ that spreads as people replicate it and add their own twist”) and a miserable understanding of who makes them: “Skilled creators who [can] run the full stack process from message to creative to distribution.”The people who really make memes do not have to execute a five-point strategy for distribution, typically. The plan was widely mocked on Reddit and Twitter, and taken as further proof of a far-right claim popularized on 4chan during the 2016 election: “The Left can’t meme.” By contrast, take @dasharez0ne, an anonymous artist who has been tweeting for five years in the persona of a socially anxious skeleton who advocates crying at work. That account has only 137,000 followers, but its unsolicited endorsement of Bernie Sanders earlier this month was covered by digital-media outlets and retweeted more than 1,700 times. The top responses to the initial tweet are mostly some variation of “thank you admin” and “the only endorsement that matters.” In an email to me, @dasharez0ne said of Bloomberg’s approach: “CULTURE ISNT A YACHT YOU CANT BUY IT. STAY OUT OF OUR CULTURE AND WE WILL STAY OUT OF YOUR PENT HOUSE.”Certainly Bloomberg’s Instagram strategy is helping his campaign on some level. Each of the campaign’s posts has hundreds of thousands of likes. The disbelieving comments themselves drive engagement, and bump the post’s position in other users’ feeds. But the ads do not contain any content other than the information that Mike Bloomberg exists and is running for president. “Reach and visibility is not the same as impact,” Varis says. “The message also has to speak to somebody on some level.”
2020-02-28 18:54:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Gig Economy Has Never Been Tested by a Pandemic
The shadow of the new coronavirus finally reached American shores this week, as markets jittered downward and new cases crept up. The scope of any outbreak here is not clear, but experts suspect that the virus will become widespread. While the disease, known as COVID-19, is a global phenomenon, the response to it is necessarily local, and divvied up among more than 2,600 local health departments in the U.S.Municipal governments have prepared plans and local officials are on high alert, but they have little experience dealing with a new infrastructural fact in a major disease outbreak: the gig economy. In Wuhan, China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, delivery drivers have played a major role in keeping the city going during containment efforts. In San Francisco, say, if people begin to shelter in place—or even simply shy away from heading out—it would seem likely that more people would order groceries or dinner rather than put themselves at risk.Gig-economy companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Instacart have two distinct features. One, they are particularly popular in large urban centers, where they play a now-crucial role in transportation and the delivery of local goods. Two, California’s recent legislation notwithstanding, the labor platforms don’t have employees as they have traditionally been understood. Uber drivers and Instacart delivery people receive financial incentives to work, but they are not compelled by a set work schedule.These two factors make for all sorts of possible disruptions to normal life if a large-scale disease outbreak were to strike an American city. What will people who have grown used to DoorDash delivery and Lyft rides do? How will the gig workers respond? What will the labor platforms do? What will local governments allow or attempt to compel?[Read: You’re likely to get the coronavirus]People’s actions will influence how the outbreak plays out, and these questions have never been answered in practice. There’s no this-worked-last-time playbook to run. The new coronavirus is novel not only in its biological configuration, but in how it will be linked to these new technological systems.County health officers do have experience preparing for disease outbreaks, with the closest analogue being the variant of H1N1 that arose in the spring of 2009. But back then, the whole set of technologies that underpin the gig economy was not around, Jennifer Vines, the health officer for Multnomah County, Oregon, told me. “We’re having to think differently,” she said. Her county is “just starting to map out a regional summit around these exact questions that would include transportation workers. We’re not going with doomsday, but what are the cascading effects?”For now, Vines and her team have issued basic guidance with fairly standard advice about washing hands, considering future child-care plans, and lightly stocking up on food. They’ve worked with schools, businesses, and some health clinics. Next will come guidance for cities, correctional institutions, long-term care facilities, and homeless shelters. Then they’ll try to convene other companies, including gig-economy outfits, though precisely what will come out of that meeting is unclear. Another thing that’s not clear: the extent to which the companies themselves have considered the issues of the disease outbreak deeply. I asked America’s most prominent delivery and ride-hailing services—Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, Instacart, and Amazon—for comment about their disease-outbreak preparedness planning. Only Postmates and Instacart responded to me.“Community health and safety is paramount at Postmates, and we have shared precautionary [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance with those carrying out deliveries so that they are aware,” Postmates told me in a statement. “We will continue to encourage employees, merchants, consumers, and everyone to follow preventative measures such as washing hands and staying in if you are sick.”“We’re actively working with local and national authorities to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” Instacart said in a statement. “We’re adhering to recommendations from public-health officials to ensure we’re operating safely with minimal disruption to our service, while also taking the appropriate precautionary measures to keep teams, shoppers, and customers safe.”It’s possible to think through some of the basic scenarios that people will face if an outbreak becomes severe. The dilemmas are, in fact, all too easy to imagine in the absence of clear plans. Consider ride-hailing. If public transit comes to be seen as too risky because it’s so filled with people, Ubers and Lyfts could be considered the least risky option. Demand would surge.[Read: The servant economy]In many wealthy urban cores, Uber and Lyft drivers actually come from far outside the center of the metro area. If those drivers decide to quarantine themselves at home as demand goes up, the price of a ride could shoot very high. Conversely, if drivers flood into metro centers from outlying regions, they could become vectors spreading COVID-19 within cities and bringing it to outlying areas.Conflicting situations such as this pose hard choices for cities and companies alike. Uber and Lyft could limit price increases, or prevent drivers from entering certain areas. Or local public-health officers could determine that ride-hail drivers are a risk to public safety and tell the companies to stop operation within their jurisdictions. Would Uber and Lyft accept an exclusion zone? Would drivers and riders? Such restrictions could leave drivers with precarious finances unable to pay their bills.One silver lining could be that the tracking the companies do of their drivers and riders can make the work of epidemiologists easier, Vines noted. In recent years, during a measles outbreak, health officials were able to contact drivers who had been exposed to the disease by their riders. Still, it’s hard to find this comforting.Imagine another not-far-fetched scenario. If people see a public-health crisis unfolding, they might begin to make large orders on Amazon to stock up. But Amazon itself could easily suffer during an outbreak. Given the demanding labor policies of the retail behemoth and its subcontracted delivery companies, workers might be unlikely to want to miss shifts if they’re feeling a little under the weather. It could just be sniffles—but what if it’s COVID-19? An outbreak at one or more key facilities could cause the infrastructure that provides delivery services to falter just as demand surges. Suddenly, the convenience of having all the supplies you need to weather an outbreak arrive at your doorstep would disappear.For every little thing in modern life, a “servant economy” app exists. If schools are out, will demand at Care.com surge? If people don’t want to run out for dog food, will they turn to Chewy and Pet Plate? The dark side of hitting buttons on a phone and having things happen out there in the world is that other people—humans susceptible to viral infection—have to make all those things happen.No one knows yet how serious a COVID-19 outbreak will be in America, nor how disruptive it will prove for everyday life in any given place. But even if the virological properties of the disease are less nasty than early reporting implies, some Americans may witness a grim technological future that few imagined. Crossbreeding this disease with the nation’s platform economy might mean that the rich will shelter in place, safe and sound, while the poor troll through the streets, taking their chances for a necessary payday.
2020-02-28 15:35:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Cameo Is Weirder Than Anyone Expected
Pretend for a moment that your lifelong dream is to pay $400 for a 16-second video of the Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil mispronouncing the name of your charitable organization while standing in front of a Gulfstream IV. Or to exchange $150 for blurry footage of the disgraced actor Tom Sizemore comparing his innumerable career failures to your close friend’s recent cancer diagnosis. Five years ago, this would have been an impossibility. Today, thanks to Cameo, your dream is finally within reach. Oh, by the way, three more people ordered Cameos from Sizemore while you were reading this, so his price went up to $175.Cameo is a 4-year-old videogram service that was started by three friends who wanted a way to connect regular, everyday people (bad!) to famous people (good!). Fans pay anywhere from roughly $1 to $5,000 for a roughly one- to 5,000-second (the two amounts are not correlated) clip of their favorite celebrities offering a personalized message. These can be for the Cameo buyer or, often, a friend or family member, and in honor of any occasion imaginable: Scroll through the site’s offerings and you will see birthday wishes and promposals next to congratulatory messages on strong sales in Q1 and encouragement in the face of chemo.The app uploads the celebrity’s content as soon as it’s made—no matter if there are mistakes, or the celebrity looks awful, or the camera is facing the wrong way, or the video was recorded on a Motorola Razr—and any performer’s six most recent Cameos are by default public, unless the requester marks them private. The only thing that demarcates the level of celebrity is the price said celebrity sets for his or her messages. YouTubers, Twitch streamers who joined Cameo strictly as a bit, and Snoop Dogg are all equal on the site, which, like many other businesses before it, appears happy to take anyone’s money for any reason. On Cameo, a “celebrity” is anyone you would potentially pay money to receive a shout-out from, and in the 21st century, that list grows ever longer.[Read: Why celebrities are so susceptible to grifters]The results are digressive, low-touch, strangely intimate, and utterly demented: a parade of distracted, famous strangers offering warmed-over aphorisms about life’s great milestones from parked cars and darkened bedrooms and, weirdly, lots of malls. Cameo is an almost painfully contemporary-feeling invention. It’s fan service taken to its most literal extreme, celebrity mania mediated by a front-facing camera and monetized with gig-economy efficiency, its product accessible to nearly anyone and clearly designed to be shared on social media. The company reported profits in the 8 figures for 2019, and its co-founder was recently named to the Forbes Top 30 Under 30.Of course, it was also only a matter of time before online ne’er-do-wells figured out how to best exploit the service for the purposes of content—as they did with Twitter, and Facebook before that, and email before that, and, well, you get it. So long as celebrity culture thrives, and so long as things like Cameo exist to capitalize on it, Cameo will be twisted and manipulated by people into whatever they want it to be. Last year, the comedians Nick Ciarelli and Brad Evans used it to trick a series of bodybuilders into ordering a nonexistent child to stop stealing fudge, and if there's only one Cameo you’ve ever seen or heard of, it's probably the one where Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath “break[s] up” with someone’s boyfriend for them. Hell, we managed to make the beloved comedy icon Pauly Shore record a rambling anti-circumcision PSA for our comedy podcast. (Cameo did not respond to a request for comment.)But as delightful as all these joke Cameos are, they will never be as insane as the sincere ones. It is surely impossible, for instance, to request a Cameo as mind-bendingly awful as the one in which the NFL legend Terry Bradshaw spends the entire video mistakenly filming his unknowing wife with the wrong phone camera. Or the one in which Tommy Lee both offers his heartfelt condolences on the recent death of someone’s father and wishes them a happy birthday. (Look, Lee’s $300 a pop. You expected this guy to order two?) Or this brief glimpse into the life of the progenitor of the floss dance, Backpack Kid, in which BK feebly attempts the aforementioned floss from bed, barely lifting his fists out from under the covers while wishing someone a happy bat mitzvah. (The video is eight seconds long, and cost only $35 and the dignity of everyone involved.) Or this four-second Cameo that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi ($300) clearly uploaded by mistake, in which a horrified look passes over her face as she realizes she’s botched basically the only thing she’s been asked to do—say the buyer’s name correctly—and then stops the video immediately.Cameo offers discomfiting authenticity in the era of the professionally managed Twitter account and the 15-person celebrity social-media team. It is incontrovertible video proof that stars are Just Like Us—they have gross apartments and weird facial-hair phases and sometimes poor reading comprehension, and they are willing to humiliate themselves for some quick cash. With the simple click of a button, anyone can pay Richard Karn $80 to congratulate them on finally regaining custody of their son (“I don’t think so, Trimble County Family Court!”). That is not a real Cameo, but it could be. Sure, he would be walking through Glendale Galleria the entire time, but if anything, that would just makes it more authentic. Not only is it a personalized message from your favorite celeb, but it’s video proof that Al Borland shops at Hollister![Read: How disappointment became part of fandom]Before Cameo, if the average person wanted to interact with a celeb, the best they could hope for was an autograph, or perhaps a hastily taken selfie. For a time, Twitter also served this function: Reply to a famous person’s post and there was a nonzero chance they would have to read whatever you wrote to them, no matter how rude. However, thanks to the mute function, mass block lists, and a sharp increase in strict “no longer reading my replies” policies, those days are long gone.Cameo blurs those lines again. The service gives you a 250-character limit in your request to the celebrity. Most people will use that to get the actor Michael Rapaport ($150) to clown on their college buddy for finishing last in fantasy football. But if you were so inclined, you could also use that text box to, say, tell the far-right internet troll Jacob Wohl ($45) that he’s going to prison. As long as you’re fine with the possibility of the celebrity in question just straight up bowling through your message and recording your Cameo regardless, thus charging you for a video you don’t want, you can say literally anything you want to anybody on the site and know with 100 percent certainty that they saw it. Last year, we asked the American Idol Season 1 runner-up, Justin Guarini, to record a Cameo for Mark McGrath, apologizing to him for something we had said to him earlier (long story). Guarini responded personally in less than a minute with a polite but firm “No. Happy Thanksgiving.” It was indeed Thanksgiving, so that was thoughtful of him, but most important, this provided us with proof that he saw, and then immediately rejected, our request. Sure, some of the bigger names on Cameo most likely have somebody else running their online affairs, but the risk is worth it. Cameo has not only given people unfettered access to celebrity inboxes—a perk that was surely unanticipated by both Cameo and the talent alike—but it’s inverted the power differential between stars and the public. Now fans are literally writing the script, and as odd as the results are, it’s a thrill to watch them.You can see it in the reviews of these videos: People want a connection with a celebrity so badly that they’ll do anything to manufacture one, no matter how much distance actually exists between them. Surely Tommy Lee didn’t expect one man to write a dissertation on his lifelong relationship with Mötley Crüe after recording a 27-second Cameo as he’s walking in the desert, but it’s clear by the use of nicknames and the multiple paragraphs of the review that this exchange meant much more to the man than it did to Lee.Unless stalking becomes legal, Cameo is the logical endpoint of celebrity interaction—it’s the perfect storm of convenience, access, and affordability. As a window into the deluded culture of celebrity obsession, Cameo is unparallelled. Its creators’ original intent was to connect regular folks with famous people, and it’s hard to argue that they didn’t succeed—the results are just way weirder than they ever imagined. Oh, and just a heads-up: Tom Sizemore is back down to $150.
2020-02-27 19:02:41
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Hard Drive With 68 Billion Melodies
In an era when millions of songwriters upload music to the internet—and just about any song can be plucked from obscurity by TikTok teens—it seems inevitable that the same melodies end up in different songs. There have been a number of high-profile music copyright-infringement cases, including a multimillion-dollar decision against Katy Perry for her song “Dark Horse.” A jury found that she’d infringed upon the copyright of Flame, a Christian rapper who’d posted a song with the same melody to YouTube, even though Perry insisted that she’d never heard of the song or the rapper. For some musicians, musicologists, and lawyers, the verdict felt scary; after all, large numbers of songs now live on SoundCloud and YouTube. It became thinkable to ask: Could the world run out of original melodies?Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin were two of those worried musicians. Riehl is a lawyer who has worked on copyright. Rubin is a coder. They were hanging out after a long day at work when a “a lark, a thought experiment” occurred to Riehl: Maybe they could exhaust all possible melodies—and in so doing, protect musicians from being sued for copying songs they don’t remember hearing.On the one hand, they can’t really create them all. A melody, simply put, is a sequence of notes. If you’re talking about all the notes and all the traditions of music around the world, the combinatorics yields functionally infinite possibilities for the melodies that result. Take just the 88 notes on a piano and, for instance, 12-note sequences. You get 216 sextillion melodies. And of course, that’s only within the Western tradition, in which these particular frequency ranges are considered notes.On the other hand, if we’re talking practically about Western popular music in the range in which hit songs are made, that is already a radically restricted domain. And within it, the number of melodies is in a more comprehensible part of finitude. Popular music tends to use a more limited range of notes than an entire piano. And Riehl and Rubin figured that most pop melodies run fewer than 12 notes. If you generated every possible melody with just the eight notes of the C scale, that’d be 8^12 melodies, which is 68,719,476,736. That’s a big but thinkable number, considering that SoundCloud receives tens of millions of uploads a year.Riehl and Rubin hatched a plot to create software that would write every melody, at least within this popular range. It wouldn’t be unlike dialing every possible telephone number: 111-111-1111, 111-111-1112, 111-111-1113, and so on: do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-re.As it turns out, there were considerable complications to even writing 68 billion melodies within the team’s existing hardware, which amounted to Rubin’s computer. “It is true that the set of all melodies is finite. But finite is still large,” Rubin told me. “It’s quite large, with the current computing technology that we had access to. We’re not Amazon.”[Read: Musicians are wired to steal each other’s work]The duo built a simple system working with MIDI, the computer music framework, and started outputting melodies. They’d wanted to generate all possible melodies on the piano, but after some prototyping, settled for 12-note melodies in a popular range that Riehl had seen implicated in copyright litigation: the octave ascending from middle C. Even to complete this set, Rubin had to switch programming languages (from Python to Rust), he said, “and that gave us the speed increase we needed.” Soon, they had a hard drive filled with almost 69 billion melodies. In a conversation with Adam Neely, a YouTuber who helped spread the word about the project, Riehl alluded to previous copyright thought experiments. “This has been a concept that has been discussed,” he said. “But no one has ever brute-forced [it] in this way.”Now Riehl and Rubin want to release the fruits of that brute-forcing into the public domain. They figure that in a future suit where a musician is hit with copyright infringement, she could point back to the melody on that hard drive as her uncopyrighted inspiration. Their point, ultimately, is that melodies could be seen as math, which is to say facts, and facts cannot be copyrighted. This is not to say that songs cannot be copyrighted, but that each possible series of notes is not a creation so much as a selection from a fairly limited set. (Information theorists might add that selection from a set of possibilities is the very nature of all information—but that’s beyond the theoretical scope of the melody project.)Riehl and Rubin’s work is provocative on several levels. One, it raises some of the same issues about originality that haunt many discussions of creativity. A recent 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode about the song “Who Let the Dogs Out” provided an especially evocative example of the possibility of unintentional duplication. Ben Sisto, an artist who spent a decade tracing the origins of the woof-woof-woof hook, found variation after variation of that horrible song throughout musical history, some seemingly connected by a chain of transmission, others not at all. “One of the big myths we tell ourselves about art is that it is made by individuals, and that myth is what the art market is propped up on,” Sisto told the show’s hosts. He’s come to believe instead that it is impossible to reliably distinguish what people invent from what they borrow. “I think that all these ideas apply to every piece of creative work ever made,” Sisto concluded in the episode. “It’s just about the very nature of art and life.”[Read: Could a robot write the perfect pop song?]On another level, the melody project asks some interesting questions about machine creation. Is writing some software to output MIDI melodies to a hard drive the same as if you’d created the song, played it on your xylophone, and uploaded it to SoundCloud? Did Riehl and Rubin free music from restriction, or did they infringe on millions of copyrights?At the very least, the work highlights the long-standing flaws of the current music-copyright system. But legal experts were decidedly less enthusiastic about whether it would actually help musicians in a live-fire copyright case.“I just don’t get it,” Lawrence Lessig, an eminent copyright scholar at Harvard Law School, told me in an email. “Whether or not melodies can be represented in math, they are not just math. So that seems like a dead end.”Lessig did agree that it’s unfair that anyone can be dinged for “copying” work even if they could not be shown to have consciously done so. “The whole doctrine of subconscious copying is absurd. So I get the motivation,” he said.Kristelia García, a law professor at the University of Colorado, saw things in mostly the same way. “It’s an interesting thought experiment,” she told me in an email. “And I think it does a good job of exposing the absurd point we’ve reached in music copyright infringement.” But she didn’t think the project could prevent copyright-infringement suits over melodies. “I am not at all convinced it does what they hope it will do (i.e., give artists a free pass out of infringement suits) since so many of their melodies are almost certainly already ‘owned’ by someone else,” she said.Undaunted by the somewhat chilly responses from copyright lawyers, Riehl and Rubin are expanding their range of notes and starting to account for rhythm. Ultimately, Riehl hopes that legislation, not coding projects, can reform how copyright works in the United States. He would not want to see their melody project adjudicated in court. “A better place to do it is in Congress, to modify the copyright law in a way that makes sense,” he said.
2020-02-26 20:09:35
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Where Everyone Goes When the Internet Breaks
It can happen at any moment, yet we’re never prepared. When Twitter crashes, how do we tweet about it? We try and try. When Instagram is down, no one can see what we see. When the instant-chat apps of American offices sputter and crash, we go to Twitter and say, “We promise we are still working!” We feel lost, bereft, confused, fidgety, as we are forced to make typing noises with our mouths (“talking”). We hover over our keyboards, moving our hands in ways that don’t make sense, like former nicotine addicts who continue to hold pens as if they are cigarettes.There is only one place to take all this pain and nervous energy: Downdetector, a simple, boring website founded in 2001 to report outages of all kinds of internet services. It’s the first search result for questions such as “Is Twitter down?” and “Is Facebook down?” and “Is Gmail down?” and “Is the whole internet out in New York City?” On any given day, if everything is working fine, a graph showing just tiny smatterings of failure reports will be painted a soothing aquamarine. If, as with Facebook’s News Feed this morning, something is starting to go wrong for a greater number of people, the graph will spike and turn red.On the most basic level, the site is an SEO play, its CEO, Doug Suttles, admits. The technology is not so sophisticated—the outages are determined almost exclusively by user reports—so Downdetector stands out as the internet-outage website mostly because Downdetector has already been, in so many people’s brains, the internet-outage website. It has become the internet’s panic room, suffused with snow-day energy.[Read: When the entire internet seems to break at once]During big outages, even Suttles scrambles to the site to watch users solving their own problems. “It’s fun, I can’t deny,” he says. The summer of 2019 was a particularly eventful one because of an outage of Google’s core services in June and another Facebook outage in July bringing in millions of reports. “We have fallen in love with outages,” Suttles says. “There’s always a bit of joking giddiness internally. We all go, Whoa!”These tiny states of emergency draw all kinds of people to Downdetector, sometimes just to hang out. Our days are made up of habits and places, and more and more, these habits and places exist online, argues Caroline Haythornthwaite, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University and a co-editor of The Internet in Everyday Life. “It’s like hanging out with friends,” she told me. “That’s what makes people stay—just socially being there with others.” Though we sometimes talk about the internet as ambient noise or an otherworldly demon, it has become a near-physical environment, where there’s always someone to make fun of or gush over or accuse of stanning the wrong K-pop band.Downdetector cannot re-create the experience of Tumblr or Twitter or Reddit or Instagram. (Especially not Instagram.) All it re-creates is the feeling that there’s someplace to go.The comment sections on most Downdetector pages—“How much longer until internet is back and running in La Grande, [Oregon]??” or “Yo what’s going on in Texas with my internet???”—are largely practical. But when the social-media platforms as integrated into users’ daily routines as eating or bathing or breathing air go down, the comment sections on Downdetector become something like a life raft.“Since Reddit is down this is the next best thing,” posters in Downdetector’s comments, which use the Disqus widget common on WordPress blogs, sometimes joke. Or, “Disqus is the new Reddit.”This is not how Downdetector is meant to work: The comment sections exist for reporting outages and asking questions about outages. It is not considered ideal to go to Instagram’s Downdetector page and write “we havin a party in downdetectors disqus comments board [100 emoji] [100 emoji] [monkey covering his eyes] only real ones can come !!! free refreshments [heart-eyes emoji] [heart-eyes emoji].” Although another disappointed Instagram user offered to “bring da Capri Suns,” so it does sound fun.Each platform’s outage page offers a distinct little character study. “This comment section is 70% kpop stans,” reads one comment on the Twitter-outage page, which is very Twitter. The comments on Tumblr’s page distill the essence of Tumblr into a substance so sweet and pure, it could cause instant cavities: “i had such a shitty day 2day but the december 21st 2016 tumblr crash ™ rlly made it brighter ily all <333333,” one thread starts, followed by a cascade of responses: “i love you very much,” “good post,” “purest,” “very good post,” “pure.”It seems that some users even come to Downdetector to check on the status of specific Tumblr blogs, such as a confused Taylor Swift fan who wrote, “Taylor’s Tumblr is down?? WTF?? WHAT IS HAPPENING???” (Another commenter did pop in to explain that all of Tumblr was down, not just Swift’s page.)[Read: Alone in the dark in the Bay Area]Idling away a Reddit outage in the Downdetector comments, Redditors will carry over memes and play games—such as “Ask Ouija,” in which one person posts a sentence with a blank word in it and a spontaneous reply chain fills it in just one letter at a time. (It stops when someone replies “Goodbye.”) For Reddit users, the Disqus widget is particularly fun because it allows upvoting comments in the same way Reddit does. Upvotes on Reddit translate into “karma,” the site’s contribution-quality ranking system, so users drawn to Downdetector during an outage joke about upvoting for “that sweet disqus karma.”“Since one of the reasons I go to Reddit is to pass the time, [Downdetector] fits the same purpose,” Matt, a 28-year-old Reddit user from France, says. (Matt asked to go by only his first name for professional reasons.) “People try to keep themselves and the others entertained. There is human connection in some way because the community is trying to cram itself in there.”“There are shared stories and shared understandings of norms that can indicate that you’re part of this in-group, like, I get it, I’m a Redditor,” Sarah Ann Gilbert, an online-participation researcher at the University of Maryland, says. To her, the Downdetector migrations are a type of “social signaling,” in which Redditors reaffirm that they’re part of Reddit by showing up in this other, Reddit-touched space. Even apart from the nod to Hasbro-ified séances, the conversations have a slumber-party vibe. “This feels like a sleepover honestly,” one Tumblr user wrote on that site’s Downdetector page. When it’s over, there’s celebration and a tinge of sadness.Downdetector does not actually want to be a backup social network, though, and Reddit users often report that they’ve been banned from the Disqus comments. “The comments within our website are supposed to relate to outage information,” Adriane Blum, the head of marketing for Downdetector’s parent company, Ookla, wrote in an email. “We do monitor the site to ensure that the comments displayed are as closely related to the outage as possible.”There’s a rift here between intention and practice, form and function. Downdetector is supposed to be a bare-bones site built to point out the moments when other platforms are breaking. But its commenters have made it into a freewheeling, slightly chaotic party destination, used only in moments when the real event is off: Those who want to circumvent a Disqus ban are downloading VPNs and spoofing new IP addresses to get back on and keep talking. It’s a funny little space, acting as an inadvertent commons for people who can’t quite sit with the fidgeting of hands over a useless keyboard, or who think there’s something exhilarating about following a bunch of strangers to a second digital location.Downdetector is itself hosted on the Cloudflare network, which underlies some of the internet’s most popular destinations, including Discord, Medium, and Peloton, and which went down for 30 minutes in July. The event “underscor[ed] the fragility of the digital world,” The New York Times wrote. Anyone looking for a place to complain was left adrift. There was no Downdetector to report that Downdetector was down.
2020-02-25 18:38:16
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The ‘Dating Market’ Is Getting Worse
Ever since her last relationship ended this past August, Liz has been consciously trying not to treat dating as a “numbers game.” By the 30-year-old Alaskan’s own admission, however, it hasn’t been going great.Liz has been going on Tinder dates frequently, sometimes multiple times a week—one of her New Year’s resolutions was to go on every date she was invited on. But Liz, who asked to be identified only by her first name in order to avoid harassment, can’t escape a feeling of impersonal, businesslike detachment from the whole pursuit.“It’s like, ‘If this doesn’t go well, there are 20 other guys who look like you in my inbox.’ And I’m sure they feel the same way—that there are 20 other girls who are willing to hang out, or whatever,” she said. “People are seen as commodities, as opposed to individuals.”It’s understandable that someone like Liz might internalize the idea that dating is a game of probabilities or ratios, or a marketplace in which single people just have to keep shopping until they find “the one.” The idea that a dating pool can be analyzed as a marketplace or an economy is both recently popular and very old: For generations, people have been describing newly single people as “back on the market” and analyzing dating in terms of supply and demand. In 1960, the Motown act the Miracles recorded “Shop Around,” a jaunty ode to the idea of checking out and trying on a bunch of new partners before making a “deal.” The economist Gary Becker, who would later go on to win the Nobel Prize, began applying economic principles to marriage and divorce rates in the early 1970s. More recently, a plethora of market-minded dating books are coaching singles on how to seal a romantic deal, and dating apps, which have rapidly become the mode du jour for single people to meet each other, make sex and romance even more like shopping.The unfortunate coincidence is that the fine-tuned analysis of dating’s numbers game and the streamlining of its trial-and-error process of shopping around have taken place as dating’s definition has expanded from “the search for a suitable marriage partner” into something decidedly more ambiguous. Meanwhile, technologies have emerged that make the market more visible than ever to the average person, encouraging a ruthless mind-set of assigning “objective” values to potential partners and to ourselves—with little regard for the ways that framework might be weaponized. The idea that a population of single people can be analyzed like a market might be useful to some extent to sociologists or economists, but the widespread adoption of it by single people themselves can result in a warped outlook on love.Moira Weigel, the author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, argues that dating as we know it—single people going out together to restaurants, bars, movies, and other commercial or semicommercial spaces—came about in the late 19th century. “Almost everywhere, for most of human history, courtship was supervised. And it was taking place in noncommercial spaces: in homes, at the synagogue,” she said in an interview. “Somewhere where other people were watching. What dating does is it takes that process out of the home, out of supervised and mostly noncommercial spaces, to movie theaters and dance halls.” Modern dating, she noted, has always situated the process of finding love within the realm of commerce—making it possible for economic concepts to seep in.The application of the supply-and-demand concept, Weigel said, may have come into the picture in the late 19th century, when American cities were exploding in population. “There were probably, like, five people your age in [your hometown],” she told me. “Then you move to the city because you need to make more money and help support your family, and you’d see hundreds of people every day.” When there are bigger numbers of potential partners in play, she said, it’s much more likely that people will begin to think about dating in terms of probabilities and odds.Eva Illouz, directrice d’etudes (director of studies) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, who has written about the the application of economic principles to romance, agrees that dating started to be understood as a marketplace as courtship rituals left private spheres, but she thinks the analogy fully crystallized when the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century helped dissolve many lingering traditions and taboos around who could or should date whom. People began assessing for themselves what the costs or benefits of certain partnerships might be—a decision that used to be a family’s rather than an individual’s. “What you have is people meeting each other directly, which is exactly the situation of a market,” she said. “Everybody’s looking at everybody, in a way.”In the modern era, it seems probable that the way people now shop online for goods—in virtual marketplaces, where they can easily filter out features they do and don’t want—has influenced the way people “shop” for partners, especially on dating apps, which often allow that same kind of filtering. The behavioral economics researcher and dating coach Logan Ury said in an interview that many single people she works with engage in what she calls “relationshopping.”[Read: The rise of dating-app fatigue]“People, especially as they get older, really know their preferences. So they think that they know what they want,” Ury said—and retroactively added quotation marks around the words “know what they want.” “Those are things like ‘I want a redhead who’s over 5’7”,’ or ‘I want a Jewish man who at least has a graduate degree.’” So they log in to a digital marketplace and start narrowing down their options. “They shop for a partner the way that they would shop for a camera or Bluetooth headphones,” she said.But, Ury went on, there’s a fatal flaw in this logic: No one knows what they want so much as they believe they know what they want. Actual romantic chemistry is volatile and hard to predict; it can crackle between two people with nothing in common and fail to materialize in what looks on paper like a perfect match. Ury often finds herself coaching her clients to broaden their searches and detach themselves from their meticulously crafted “checklists.”The fact that human-to-human matches are less predictable than consumer-to-good matches is just one problem with the market metaphor; another is that dating is not a one-time transaction. Let’s say you’re on the market for a vacuum cleaner—another endeavor in which you might invest considerable time learning about and weighing your options, in search of the best fit for your needs. You shop around a bit, then you choose one, buy it, and, unless it breaks, that’s your vacuum cleaner for the foreseeable future. You likely will not continue trying out new vacuums, or acquire a second and third as your “non-primary” vacuums. In dating, especially in recent years, the point isn’t always exclusivity, permanence, or even the sort of long-term relationship one might have with a vacuum. With the rise of “hookup culture” and the normalization of polyamory and open relationships, it’s perfectly common for people to seek partnerships that won’t necessarily preclude them from seeking other partnerships, later on or in addition. This makes supply and demand a bit harder to parse. Given that marriage is much more commonly understood to mean a relationship involving one-to-one exclusivity and permanence, the idea of a marketplace or economy maps much more cleanly onto matrimony than dating.The marketplace metaphor also fails to account for what many daters know intuitively: that being on the market for a long time—or being off the market, and then back on, and then off again—can change how a person interacts with the marketplace. Obviously, this wouldn’t affect a material good in the same way. Families repeatedly moving out of houses, for example, wouldn’t affect the houses’ feelings, but being dumped over and over by a series of girlfriends might change a person’s attitude toward finding a new partner. Basically, ideas about markets that are repurposed from the economy of material goods don’t work so well when applied to sentient beings who have emotions. Or, as Moira Weigel put it, “It’s almost like humans aren’t actually commodities.”When market logic is applied to the pursuit of a partner and fails, people can start to feel cheated. This can cause bitterness and disillusionment, or worse. “They have a phrase here where they say the odds are good but the goods are odd,” Liz said, because in Alaska on the whole there are already more men than women, and on the apps the disparity is even sharper. She estimates that she gets 10 times as many messages as the average man in her town. “It sort of skews the odds in my favor,” she said. “But, oh my gosh, I’ve also received a lot of abuse.”Recently, Liz matched with a man on Tinder who invited her over to his house at 11 p.m. When she declined, she said, he called her 83 times later that night, between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. And when she finally answered and asked him to stop, he called her a “bitch” and said he was “teaching her a lesson.” It was scary, but Liz said she wasn’t shocked, as she has had plenty of interactions with men who have “bubbling, latent anger” about the way things are going for them on the dating market. Despite having received 83 phone calls in four hours, Liz was sympathetic toward the man. “At a certain point,” she said, “it becomes exhausting to cast your net over and over and receive so little.”[Read: Tinder’s most notorious men]This violent reaction to failure is also present in conversations about “sexual market value”—a term so popular on Reddit that it is sometimes abbreviated as “SMV”—which usually involve complaints that women are objectively overvaluing themselves in the marketplace and belittling the men they should be trying to date.The logic is upsetting but clear: The (shaky) foundational idea of capitalism is that the market is unfailingly impartial and correct, and that its mechanisms of supply and demand and value exchange guarantee that everything is fair. It’s a dangerous metaphor to apply to human relationships, because introducing the idea that dating should be “fair” subsequently introduces the idea that there is someone who is responsible when it is unfair. When the market’s logic breaks down, it must mean someone is overriding the laws. And in online spaces populated by heterosexual men, heterosexual women have been charged with the bulk of these crimes.“The typical clean-cut, well-spoken, hard-working, respectful, male” who makes six figures should be a “magnet for women,” someone asserted recently in a thread posted in the tech-centric forum Hacker News. But instead, the poster claimed, this hypothetical man is actually cursed because the Bay Area has one of the worst “male-female ratios among the single.” The responses are similarly disaffected and analytical, some arguing that the gender ratio doesn’t matter, because women only date tall men who are “high earners,” and they are “much more selective” than men. “This can be verified on practically any dating app with a few hours of data,” one commenter wrote.Economic metaphors provide the language for conversations on Reddit with titles like “thoughts on what could be done to regulate the dating market,” and for a subreddit named sarcastically “Where Are All The Good Men?” with the stated purpose of “exposing” all the women who have “unreasonable standards” and offer “little to no value themselves.” (On the really extremist end, some suggest that the government should assign girlfriends to any man who wants one.) Which is not at all to say that heterosexual men are the only ones thinking this way: In the 54,000-member subreddit r/FemaleDatingStrategy, the first “principle” listed in its official ideology is “be a high value woman.” The group’s handbook is thousands of words long, and also emphasizes that “as women, we have the responsibility to be ruthless in our evaluation of men.”The design and marketing of dating apps further encourage a cold, odds-based approach to love. While they have surely created, at this point, thousands if not millions of successful relationships, they have also aggravated, for some men, their feeling that they are unjustly invisible to women.Men outnumber women dramatically on dating apps; this is a fact. A 2016 literature review also found that men are more active users of these apps—both in the amount of time they spend on them and the number of interactions they attempt. Their experience of not getting as many matches or messages, the numbers say, is real.But data sets made available by the apps can themselves be wielded in unsettling ways by people who believe the numbers are working against them. A since-deleted 2017 blog post on the dating app Hinge’s official website explained an experiment conducted by a Hinge engineer, Aviv Goldgeier. Using the Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality within a country, and counting “likes” as income, Goldgeier determined that men had a much higher (that is, worse) Gini coefficient than women. With these results, Goldgeier compared the “female dating economy” to Western Europe and the “male dating economy” to South Africa. This is, obviously, an absurd thing to publish on a company blog, but not just because its analysis is so plainly accusatory and weakly reasoned. It’s also a bald-faced admission that the author—and possibly the company he speaks for—is thinking about people as sets of numbers.In a since-deleted 2009 official blog post, an OkCupid employee’s data analysis showed women rating men as “worse-looking than medium” 80 percent of the time, and concluded, “Females of OkCupid, we site founders say to you: ouch! Paradoxically, it seems it’s women, not men, who have unrealistic standards for the opposite sex.” This post, more than a decade later, is referenced in men’s-rights or men’s-interest subreddits as “infamous” and “we all know it.”Even without these creepy blog posts, dating apps can amplify a feeling of frustration with dating by making it seem as if it should be much easier. The Stanford economist Alvin Roth has argued that Tinder is, like the New York Stock Exchange, a “thick” market where lots of people are trying to complete transactions, and that the main problem with dating apps is simply congestion. To him, the idea of a dating market is not new at all. “Have you ever read any of the novels of Jane Austen?” he asked. “Pride and Prejudice is a very market-oriented novel. Balls were the internet of the day. You went and showed yourself off.”[Read: The five years that changed dating]Daters have—or appear to have—a lot more choices on a dating app in 2020 than they would have at a provincial dance party in rural England in the 1790s, which is good, until it’s bad. The human brain is not equipped to process and respond individually to thousands of profiles, but it takes only a few hours on a dating app to develop a mental heuristic for sorting people into broad categories. In this way, people can easily become seen as commodities—interchangeable products available for acquisition or trade. “What the internet apps do is that they enable you to see, for the first time ever in history, the market of possible partners,” Illouz, the Hebrew University sociology professor, said. Or, it makes a dater think they can see the market, when really all they can see is what an algorithm shows them.The idea of the dating market is appealing because a market is something a person can understand and try to manipulate. But fiddling with the inputs—by sending more messages, going on more dates, toggling and re-toggling search parameters, or even moving to a city with a better ratio—isn’t necessarily going to help anybody succeed on that market in a way that’s meaningful to them.Last year, researchers at Ohio State University examined the link between loneliness and compulsive use of dating apps—interviewing college students who spent above-average time swiping—and found a terrible feedback loop: The lonelier you are, the more doggedly you will seek out a partner, and the more negative outcomes you’re likely to be faced with, and the more alienated from other people you will feel. This happens to men and women in the same way.“We found no statistically significant differences for gender at all,” the lead author, Katy Coduto, said in an email. “Like, not even marginally significant.”There may always have been a dating market, but today people’s belief that they can see it and describe it and control their place in it is much stronger. And the way we speak becomes the way we think, as well as a glaze to disguise the way we feel. Someone who refers to looking for a partner as a numbers game will sound coolly aware and pragmatic, and guide themselves to a more odds-based approach to dating. But they may also suppress any honest expression of the unbearably human loneliness or desire that makes them keep doing the math.
2020-02-25 15:00:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
It Doesn’t Matter If Anyone Exists or Not
You encounter so many people every day, online and off-, that it is almost impossible to be alone. Now, thanks to computers, those people might not even be real. Pay a visit to the website This Person Does Not Exist: Every refresh of the page produces a new photograph of a human being—men, women, and children of every age and ethnic background, one after the other, on and on forever. But these aren’t photographs, it turns out, though they increasingly look like them. They are images created by a generative adversarial network, a type of machine-learning system that fashions new examples modeled after a set of specimens on which the system is trained. Piles of pictures of people in, images of humans who do not exist out.It’s startling, at first. The images are detailed and entirely convincing: an icy-eyed toddler who might laugh or weep at any moment; a young woman concerned that her pores might show; that guy from your office. The site has fueled ongoing fears about how artificial intelligence might dupe, confuse, and generally wreak havoc on commerce, communication, and citizenship.But are these people who don’t exist any different, really, from all the Tinder profiles on which you swiped left, or the faces in the crowd on the subway whom you might never see again? Modernity—the historical period roughly but not exactly contemporaneous with the rise of industrial societies—invented anonymity and erasure, mustering sorties of human faces at one another every day. Contemporary individuals have trained all their lives to treat people in exactly this instrumental way—not only the strangers on city streets, but also the models in the photos that grace IT-solutions banners inside airport terminals, the youth of all skin shades draped across college quads on application mailers, the baristas who hand over one-Splenda soy lattes with names misspelled on the cups.[Read: The AI-art gold rush is here]The internet has made it worse, by evaporating physical bodies into digital phantoms and then pressing them into ever-denser slums of infinite scrolling. The sheer profusion of actors online has foreclosed their need to be real at all: the armies of bots and the Russian sockpuppets, the corporate tweeps and the AI deepfakes. One can just as easily get into a heated dispute with a bot account generating random replies, or with an automated customer-service agent matching inputs to outputs, as with a human foe who is frantically tapping words into a glass rectangle.Humankind has remedied the shock of modern life with pleasures from its reverberations. It is telling that the early commercial applications of AI similar to This Person Does Not exist include stock photography and pornography, two domains in which the actual, lived experience of human beings are completely subordinated to their deployment as vessels for pure spectacle, banal on the one hand and lurid on the other. Whether or not someone “really exists” has been of little concern in most social contexts for 150 years. It seems quaint and facile to act as if machine learning has suddenly invented the problem.In 1863, the French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire published an essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in which he celebrated the power of the crowd, and of becoming lost in it. This was still a relatively new experience: The feudal cities of the Middle Ages and the mercantile ones of the Early Modern period had become larger, denser, and more diffuse. Industrialism would allow, and even force, the different classes to rub up against one another more, sometimes literally.One major consequence of this change was that people would encounter strangers far more frequently. Initially, this was a deeply alienating experience. Compared to pastoral life, it was starling to see someone unknown, to be amid their form and even their stench, and without having chosen to do so—and then for them to vanish as quickly as they had arrived.Lithograph of an 1827 New York City street scene (Library Company of Philadelphia)Baudelaire’s solution embraced the new horror of urban life as delight. The dandy and the flâneur (a “wanderer”) became his paradigms for this process. Instead of being shocked, these “perfect spectators” would choose to “become flesh with the crowd.” They would indulge, and even manufacture, the “immense joy” of “the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” For Baudelaire, the experience of sipping from the myriad fountains of modern anonymity offered “an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” Instead of fighting alienation, the modernist would embrace it, transforming fleeting experience into lasting vitality.Over time, the alienation associated with modern, city life only deepened in its appeal. In 1996, the writer Vivian Gornick characterized the “endlessly advancing crowd” that jostled against her in New York City as both relaxing and energizing. An overheard conversation among young professionals; a fragment of an older couple’s argument; the honks and screeches of cars and trucks; the wafting scent of food from sidewalk vendors; the barker cries of a street hawker. “The misery in my chest begins to dissolve out,” Gornick wrote. “The city is opening itself up to me.” More than 130 years after Baudelaire jostled among the top hats of Paris, the flâneur (or flâneuse) persists, extracting energy from the crowded bustle.Back when Gornick was writing about the urbane urban life, the commercial internet was still new. In 1995, 36 percent of Americans owned computers, and only 10 percent of them used email. As human culture tried to make sense of life in the middle of a global, decentralized network, topological metaphors ruled. The internet was said to realize a “global village,” after an idea of the media theorist Marshall McLuhan from three decades prior. It was called an “information superhighway” in an effort to make its many physical couplings comprehensible.Today, these nicknames seem retrograde, if not just plain wrong. Thinking of the online world as a place, especially a separate place, has become outmoded. The belief that online and offline spaces are separate realms has even earned its own derogatory name, digital dualism. It’s a false dichotomy, the critics hold, to construe the “virtual” and “physical” words as distinct, or of offline and online personalities as divergent. To some extent, that speaks to the power the internet has accrued in the two decades since it became commercialized. People do so much online, from work to shopping to socializing, that virtual life has colonized and become “real” life.Yet the internet is a place where people go, and it has never ceased to be useful to think of it as one. As a place, it feels a lot like a crowded, modernist city. As it happens, that’s how some films, such as The Emoji Movie and Ralph Breaks the Internet choose to depict it: big, dense, urban expanses, which subdivide into towers and hovels representing apps, websites, and services. The global village has become a global metropolis.Walt Disney Animation Studios ©2018 DisneyThere, in its crowded streets, the modernist experience recorded by Baudelaire, Gornick, and so many others breaks down. Web browsing once felt like “surfing,” to invoke another outmoded metaphor, along with the “cyberflâneur,” a very 1990s online reimagining of the 19th-century dandy. For a time, gliding across the internet in those costumes felt pleasurable. But no longer. The grimy streets of Facebook, the angry mobs of Twitter, the irritable swarm of neighbors on Nextdoor—the experience of the online crowd has long ceased to imbue energy. Mostly, it just drains it.There are reasons for this. The delight of online life gave way to its moil, and the pleasure of online services has been eroded by their many downsides, from compulsion to autocracy. But the trouble is also partly quantitative. Even in a big, dense city like Paris or New York, there are only so many people one can encounter in Bryant Park or when alighting from the Châtelet metro stop. The physical constraints of an actual city, along with the apparatus of its built environment, put a lid on the totality of human bodies, faces, and spirits from which one might face estrangement or draw electrified energy. The young age and smoother operation of the urban environment helped, too. Today, Gornick’s successors might tweet similar sentiments glorifying the energy of the New York City crowds, but they’d just as likely lament the endless volumes of that throng, thanks to the increasingly inoperative subway.The flâneur was always a bit of a creeper, too. One of Baudelaire’s most famous poems, “To a Woman Passing By,” typifies how. In it, a man catches the briefest glance of a woman on the street. She is entering a carriage, dressed for mourning (and therefore potentially available); their eyes meet and then withdraw—a whole life suggested, then plucked away. “I could have loved you,” Baudelaire wrote (as I’d translate it), “And you, you knew it too.”The chance encounter is an experience no less common to the urbanite of 2020 than to the dandy of 1863, immortalized in the “missed connections” personals sections of alt-weeklies now defunct. But it’s also presumptive, the encounterer drawing invigorating energy from a counterpart who did not consent to the affair. Still common on trains or elevators, those encounters have also burgeoned online, where easy access makes it easy to assume that the people one encounters are there for you, that they owe you a reply, or a redress, or a sex act, or worse.Capitalism has always transformed people into latent resources, whether as labor to exploit for making products or as consumers to devour those products. But now, online services make ordinary people enact both roles: Twitter or Instagram followers for conversion into scrap income for an influencer side hustle; Facebook likes transformed into News Feed-delivery refinements; Tinder swipes that avoid the nuisance of the casual encounters that previously fueled urban delight. Every profile pic becomes a passerby—no need for an encounter, even.In his time, Baudelaire’s response was an ethereal one. He hoped to map the patterns of the world to those of the spirit, in a doctrine of “correspondences.” The dandy, the flâneur, even the creeper weren’t solutions so much as doomed attempts to make do, for a time—as a stopgap, not a permanent remedy, which is how the doctrine was inadvertently received. One hundred and thirty years hence, Gornick was still galvanizing her routine by cannibalizing the troubled energy of her fellow city dwellers.[Read: The era of fake video begins]A quarter of a century later still, you and I and everyone else fashion the scraps of images and symbols, the physical exhaust of industrialism having given way to the symbolic exhaust of the information economy. The crowd isn’t made up of people anymore, but of pictures that might be people, of corporate brands impersonating them, of young people dancing politically in TikToks, of tweets about youths in TikToks, of disputes absent referents, of bots shouting into the void. Cacophony, an ever-amassing crowd awaiting a train that will never come.There is no escaping this city of the internet, no flying the coop for its proverbial countryside, no respite from the constancy of its jostling beings, its barrage of images, its discharge of new distresses. But here, today, a century and a half later, armed with all of humanity’s knowledge in your palm and the latent confrontation with its billions of members, maybe the least you can do is to stop believing that you like it.Solutions are difficult to imagine because few really want them. It is convenient—and probably necessary—not to have to know who makes your sandwich, or ever to see them again. It is still tempting to translate a glance into a fantasy. It remains essential, to some extent, to refuse engaging with the entire being of all the hundreds of individuals you might perceive every day, lest you go mad from the attempt to address them all with deep respect. Refreshing the page of people who do not exist only irritates that sore. You know you don’t need to care about them, but that’s not because they are generated by a computer. It’s because you already have had so much practice.
2020-02-24 15:00:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Mapping Wikipedia
Wikipedia matters. In a time of extreme political polarization, algorithmically enforced filter bubbles, and fact patterns dismissed as fake news, Wikipedia has become one of the few places where we can meet to write a shared reality. We treat it like a utility, and the U.S. and U.K. trust it about as much as the news.But we know very little about who is writing the world’s encyclopedia. We do know that just because anyone can edit, doesn’t mean that everyone does: The site’s editors are disproportionately cis white men from the global North. We also know that, as with most of the internet, a small number of the editors do a large amount of the editing. But that’s basically it: In the interest of improving retention, the Wikimedia Foundation’s own research focuses on the motivations of people who do edit, not on those who don’t. The media, meanwhile, frequently focus on Wikipedia’s personality stories, even when covering the bigger questions. And Wikipedia’s own culture pushes back against granular data harvesting: The Wikimedia Foundation’s strong data-privacy rules guarantee users’ anonymity and limit the modes and duration of their own use of editor data.But as part of my research in producing Print Wikipedia, I discovered a data set that can offer an entry point into the geography of Wikipedia’s contributors. Every time anyone edits Wikipedia, the software records the text added or removed, the time of the edit, and the username of the editor. (This edit history is part of Wikipedia’s ethos of radical transparency: Everyone is anonymous, and you can see what everyone is doing.) When an editor isn’t logged in with a username, the software records that user’s IP address. I parsed all of the 884 million edits to English Wikipedia to collect and geolocate the 43 million IP addresses that have edited English Wikipedia. I also counted 8.6 million username editors who have made at least one edit to an article.[Read: The lopsided geography of Wikipedia]The result is a set of maps that offer, for the first time, insight into where the millions of volunteer editors who build and maintain English Wikipedia’s 5 million pages are—and, maybe more important, where they aren’t.Source: Analysis of Wikipedia IP editor activityThis map shows the percentage of households editing by county. It contains a number of distinct patterns, the most striking of which is the span of very low editing activity across the Plains, from the Dakotas through West Texas, and in the South, excluding the Carolinas and Florida, and cities such as Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; and Atlanta.Source: The 2010 U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS)This pattern appears to closely and inversely resemble religious adherence: Counties with high religious adherence also have a low level of Wikipedia-editing activity, and counties with low religious adherence have high levels of editing. Of course, the modern encyclopedia is a largely secular project: The first large-scale one, Encyclopédie,did emerge from the Enlightenment after all, and took the then-radical approach of organizing its contents according to reason, not theology.The possibility that areas of high religious adherence might be less active on Wikipedia has some support in Conservapedia, which was founded in 2006 to counter what its founder perceived as Wikipedia’s liberal bias. Its most popular articles include “Homosexual Agenda,” “Counterexamples to Relativity,” “Homosexuality and Anal Cancer,” and “Dinosaur,” which advances the argument that dinosaurs were created on the sixth day of Creation. It’s not all that difficult to imagine that Wikipedia may not appeal to those interested in creating an information ecosystem that confirms religious beliefs not verifiable by the independent, secondary reliable sources that Wikipedia requires. To put it another way: If your belief system is rooted in a book that has hardly changed for 2,000 years, you might be less interested in contributing to an encyclopedia that is continuously being written and rewritten.Sources: MIT Election Data and Science Lab, 2018, "County Presidential Election Returns 2000-2016", https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/VOQCHQ, Harvard Dataverse; Alaska Results by County Equivalent, 1960-2016, RRH Elections, https://rrhelections.com/index.php/2018/02/02/alaska-results-by-county-equivalent-1960-2016/Meanwhile, though many of the low-editing-density areas are Republican-heavy counties in the Plains and the Rockies, the areas of high activity do not follow such clear voting patterns. Some swing states exhibit lots of editing across the state; in others, the activity isn’t distributed evenly. Likewise, states with histories of internal political divisions, such as California and New York, also have high overall editing activity that does not conform to political boundaries. (In California, notice the strong participation of historically Republican Orange County and San Diego.) Households in conservative upstate New York are as likely to contribute as ones in New York City, except for the two upstate counties (Lewis and Hamilton) that are also among the most religious and politically conservative in the state.If Wikipedia is a place where people come to negotiate a shared understanding of the truth, these patterns of editing activity suggest that it might work in part because people come from regions of differing political beliefs, especially including the bellwether swing states, and that trustworthiness is established through the interaction of contributors across the political spectrum.Source: 2010 census; 2013–17 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimatesSource: 2010 census; 2013–17 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimatesSource: 2010 census; 2013–17 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimatesSource: 2010 census; 2013–17 American Community Survey (ACS) five-year estimatesEditing patterns also map onto other demographic lines: The pattern of editing activity in Appalachia and the South appears to match population density, income, education, and broadband access. Does proximity to other people make you more inclined toward collective action, or is it simply the fact that editing would be difficult without the income to purchase a computer, access to broadband, and education to feel comfortable with formatting citations? While idealistic Wikipedians might like to think it is the former, the persistent and well-documented poverty of the rural South seems the more likely cause. This area of low editing, from East Texas to Virginia, includes the highest concentration of African Americans in the country, raising the likelihood that income, education, and internet access intersect with racial inequity as factors that prevent participation.Following this pattern, Native American communities also appear to be prevented from editing by similar factors: low education, high poverty, and lack of internet access. Nearly all counties with majority Native American populations have low editing rates.The absence of participation from majority Native American counties, and rural, poor, black counties in the South, is troubling. This absence is not a choice—as it may be with the deeply religious—but an inability to contribute due to intersectional inequality. Furthermore, the Wikipedia community’s forms of outreach are ill-equipped to reach these rural regions, because in-person meetups, edit-a-thons, and university programs all require population density to succeed.English Wikipedia Editors by CountrySource: Analysis of Wikipedia IP editor activityWhile the United States accounts for nearly half of the editors, looking at the data from an international perspective reveals the United States as just one part of the colonial legacy of the English language. The five largest contributors were part of what once was the British Empire, and account for nearly 75 percent of all editors.Source: Analysis of Wikipedia IP editor activityGlobal editing patterns also trace specific geographic contours of the British Empire: While editing activity across Africa is orders of magnitude lower than all other inhabited continents, the more active countries are mostly former British colonies; Francophone West Africa is one of the regions with the lowest activity. India is the third-largest contributor to English Wikipedia. I spoke with the Indian regional organizer for Art+Feminism—the Wikipedia editing nonprofit I co-founded—about the importance of translating our training materials into Hindi, Bengali, and other languages of India; she said that it wasn’t a priority, because her participants are focused on editing English Wikipedia and have little interest in editing the Hindi or Bengali Wikipedias. This is a result of the colonial legacy of English and its contemporary role in social and economic mobility, but also because of the gravitational pull of English Wikipedia: 92 percent of all Wikipedia traffic in India is to the English version, and if you want to share your knowledge, for better or worse, you go to where the audience is.The map of households editing Wikipedia shows other constellations of low editing activity, including in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Central America, as well as the former Soviet countries (especially in contrast to their surrounding areas in Europe). In some cases, these patterns mirror income, broadband access and affordability, and education. In others, the cause seems more likely to be war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen) or isolated, repressive regimes (Myanmar, North Korea).Source: Analysis of Wikipedia IP editor activityThese geographic editing trends have remained consistent over the past 15 years. As many others have reported, editing volume grew from 2002 to 2005, peaked in 2008, and declined slightly to remain fairly stable over the past 10 years.It is important to note that working with IP data has significant limitations. IP geolocation is not a perfect science, and I have been careful to avoid some of the known pitfalls with mapping IP addresses. Because dynamic IPs are reassigned to new users, they move around, potentially diminishing the accuracy of the old data. But these maps help validate the data: In fact, the trends in these annual maps stay consistent.Like the Enlightenment itself, the modern encyclopedia has a history entwined with colonialism. Encyclopédie aimed to collect and disseminate all the world’s knowledge—but in the end, it could not escape the biases of its colonial context. Likewise, Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte augmented an imperial military campaign with a purportedly objective study of the nation, which was itself an additional form of conquest. If Wikipedia wants to break from the past and truly live up to its goal to compile the sum of all human knowledge, it requires the whole world’s participation.Data, source code, and a more detailed methodology are available on Github. This project was supported by the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism. Danara Sarıoğlu contributed programming assistance. Frank Donnelly and the GIS Lab at Baruch College contributed spatial-analysis assistance.
2020-02-23 20:36:42
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
How the Coronavirus Revealed Authoritarianism’s Fatal Flaw
China is in the grip of a momentous crisis. The novel coronavirus that emerged late last year has already claimed three times more lives than the SARS outbreak in 2003, and it is still spreading. More than 50 million people (more than the combined metro populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco) remain under historically unprecedented lockdown, unable to leave their city—and in many cases, even their apartment. Many countries no longer accept visiting Chinese nationals, or if they do, quarantine them for weeks. Big companies are pulling out of trade shows. Production is suffering. Profound economic consequences are bound to ensue, not just in China but around the world.How did Xi Jinping—the general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who has been consolidating his power since taking over the post in 2012—let things get to this point?It might be that he didn’t fully know what was happening in his own country until it was too late.Xi would be far from the first authoritarian to have been blindsided. Ironically, for all the talk of the technological side of Chinese authoritarianism, China’s use of technology to ratchet up surveillance and censorship may have made things worse, by making it less likely that Xi would even know what was going on in his own country.[Read: Coronavirus is devastating Chinese tourism]Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.Smart rulers have tried to create workarounds to avoid this authoritarian dilemma. Dynastic China, for example, had institutionalized mechanisms to petition the emperor: a right that was theoretically granted to everyone, including the lowest farmers and the poorest city dwellers. This system was intended to check corruption in provinces and uncover problems, but in practice, it was limited in many ways, filtered through courtiers to a single emperor, who could listen to only so many in a day. Many rulers also cultivated their own independent sources of information in far-flung provinces.Thanks to technology, there is a much more robust option for authoritarians in the 21st century: big-data analytics in a digital public sphere. For a few years, it appeared that China had found a way to be responsive to its citizens without giving them political power. Researchers have shown, for example, that posts on Weibo (China’s Twitter) complaining about problems in governance or corruption weren’t all censored. Many were allowed to stay up, allowing crucial information to trickle up to authorities. For example, viral posts about forced demolitions (a common occurrence in China) or medical mistreatment led to authorities sacking the officials involved, or to victim compensation that would otherwise not have occurred. A corrupt official was even removed from office after outraged netizens on social media pointed out the expensive watches he wore, which were impossible to buy on his government salary.The public sphere in China during those years wasn’t a free-for-all, to be sure. One couldn’t call for collective action or for deposing the central government. But social media gave citizens a voice and a way to make an impact, and it served as an early-warning system for party leaders. (The only other topic that seemed to be off-limits was the censors themselves—researchers found that they eagerly zapped complaints directed at them.)This responsive form of authoritarianism didn’t happen just on social media. Beginning in the early 2000s, China held “deliberative polls” in which citizens debated local budgets, important issues, and even reforms that would give them the right to information on government actions. In Zeguo township in Wenling, a municipality of more than 1 million residents, authorities created deliberative bodies wherein they engaged citizens (usually a few hundred, with randomness ensuring they were representative of the population) over a few days by providing information (including detailed accounts of the city’s budget) and hosting discussions to decide on issues of public significance. Authorities sometimes went as far as to pledge, in advance, to abide by the decisions of these bodies. For many years, such experiments flourished all over China and, combined with the digital public sphere, led scholars to wonder whether the “deliberative turn” in the country’s otherwise authoritarian state was not a means of weakening authoritarianism, but of making it more sustainable.Yet, this deliberative turn was soon reversed.Since taking power in 2012, Xi has shifted back to traditional one-man rule, concentrating more and more power into his hands. He has deployed an ever-more suffocating system of surveillance, propaganda, and repression, while attempting to create a cult of personality reminiscent of the Mao era, except with apps instead of little red books.[Read: China’s surveillance state should scare everyone]Unlike books, though, apps can spy on people.One hundred million or so people in China have been, ahem, persuaded to download a party-propaganda app named “Study Xi, Strong Nation,” which makes users watch inculcation videos and take quizzes in a gamified, points-based system. It also allegedly gives the government access to the complete contents of users’ phones. It almost doesn’t matter whether the app contains such backdoor access or not: Reasonable people will act as if it does and be wary in all of their communications. Xi has also expanded China’s system of cameras linked to facial-recognition databases, which may someday be able to identify people everywhere they go. Again, the actual workings of the system are secondary to their chilling effects: For ordinary people, the safe assumption is that if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, the authorities will know.An earlier hint that Xi’s China was falling into authoritarian blindness came during the ongoing Hong Kong protests. The demonstrations had started over a minor demand—the withdrawal of an extradition bill of little strategic importance to Beijing. Protest is the traditional way that Hong Kongers, who do not have full voting rights, express discontent. But this time the Beijing insiders miscalculated. They genuinely believed that the real cause for the Hong Kong unrest was the high rents on the densely populated island, and also thought that the people did not support the protesters. Authoritarian blindness had turned an easily solvable problem into a bigger, durable crisis that exacted a much heavier political toll, a pattern that would repeat itself after a mysterious strain of pneumonia emerged in a Wuhan seafood market.In early December, a strange cluster of patients from a local seafood market, which also sold wildlife for consumption, started showing up in Wuhan hospitals. These initial patients developed a fever and pneumonia that did not seem to be caused by any known viruses. Given the SARS experience of 2003, local doctors were quickly alarmed. With any such novel virus, medical providers are keen to know how it spreads: If the virus is unable to spread from human to human, it’s a tragedy, but a local one, and for only a few people. If it can sustainably spread from human to human, as was the case with SARS, it could turn into a global pandemic, with potentially massive numbers of victims.Given exponential growth dynamics of infectious diseases, containing an epidemic is straightforward early on, but nearly impossible once a disease spreads among a population. So it’s maximally important to identify and quarantine candidate cases as early as possible, and that means leadership must have access to accurate information.Before the month of December was out, the hospitals in Wuhan knew that the coronavirus was spreading among humans. Medical workers who had treated the sick but never visited the seafood market were falling ill. On December 30, a group of doctors attempted to alert the public, saying that seven patients were in isolation due to a SARS-like disease. On the same day, an official document admitting both a link to the seafood market and a new disease was leaked online. On December 31, facing swirling rumors, the Wuhan government made its first official announcement, confirming 27 cases but, crucially, denying human-to-human transmission. Teams in hazmat suits were finally sent to close down the seafood market, though without explaining much to the befuddled, scared vendors. On January 1, police said they had punished eight medical workers for “rumors,” including a doctor named Li Wenliang, who was among the initial group of whistleblowers.While the unsuspecting population of Wuhan, a city of 11 million, went about its business, the local government did not update the number of infected people from January 5 to January 10. But the signs of sustained human-to-human transmission grew. Emergency wards were filling up, not just with people who had been to the seafood market, but with their family members as well. On January 6, Li noticed an infection in the scan of a fellow doctor, but officials at the hospital “ordered him not to disclose any information to the public or the media.” On January 7, another infected person was operated on, spreading the disease to 14 more medical workers.[Read: The coronavirus is spreading because humans are healthier]Things went on in this suspended state for another 10 days, while the virus kept spreading. Incredibly, on January 19, just one day after the death of yet another doctor who had become infected, officials from across the populous Hubei province held a 40,000-family outdoor banquet in Wuhan, its capital, as part of the official celebrations for China’s Lunar New Year.The dam broke on January 20—just three days before Wuhan would initiate a draconian lockdown that blocked millions of people from leaving. On that day, the respected SARS scientist Zhong Nanshan went on national television, confirming the new virus and human-to-human transmission. That same day, Xi Jinping gave his first public speech about the coronavirus, after he returned from an overseas trip to Myanmar.Things have dramatically escalated since then. Just one month later, by some estimates, more than 700 million people in China are living under some form of restrictions to their movements, in addition to the severe lockdown in the Hubei province. Domestic social media has erupted in anger at both China’s central leadership and local officials in Hubei province, where the disease began. There are calls for free speech, fury over the death of one of the early medical whistleblowers from the virus, and frustrations with the quarantine.It’s not clear why Xi let things spin so far out of control. It might be that he brushed aside concerns from his aides until it was too late, but a stronger possibility is that he did not know the crucial details. Hubei authorities may have lied, not just to the public but also upward—to the central government. Just as Mao didn’t know about the massive crop failures, Xi may not have known that a novel coronavirus with sustained human-to-human transmission was brewing into a global pandemic until too late.It’s nearly impossible to gather direct evidence from such a secretive state, but consider the strong, divergent actions before and after January 20—within one day, Hubei officials went from almost complete cover-up and business as usual to shutting down a whole city.Another reason to think Xi did not know is that he would have every incentive to act quickly given China’s experience with SARS, during which he was already a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Both SARS and the Wuhan virus (which causes the disease now dubbed COVID-19) are zoonotic coronaviruses, with similar origins and pandemic potential. SARS was contained, though barely, and not before significant economic costs following a failed cover-up. Such an experience should have made it clear that cover-ups are futile when it comes to pandemics, because viruses don’t respect borders. (The Soviet Union learned that radiation doesn’t either, when Sweden alerted the world to the Chernobyl accident.)It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts.If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for “rumors” becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis. Later, under criticism, Xi would say he gave instructions for fighting the virus as early as January 7, implying that he knew about it all along. But how could he admit the alternative? This is his system.Contrary to common belief, the killer digital app for authoritarianism isn’t listening in on people through increased surveillance, but listening to them as they express their honest opinions, especially complaints. An Orwellian surveillance-based system would be overwhelming and repressive, as it is now in China, but it would also be similar to losing sensation in parts of one’s body due to nerve injuries. Without the pain to warn the brain, the hand stays on the hot stove, unaware of the damage to the flesh until it’s too late.During the Ming dynasty, Emperor Zhu Di found out that some petitions to the emperor had not made it to him, because officials were blocking them. He was alarmed and ordered such blocks removed. “Stability depends on superior and inferior communicating; there is none when they do not. From ancient times, many a state has fallen because a ruler did not know the affairs of the people,” he said. Xi would have done well to take note.
2020-02-22 14:00:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Tech Experts Are Pessimistic About Their Industry
Updated at 1:22 p.m. ETIt’s hard to watch an old friend go through a midlife crisis, isn’t it? The new girlfriends, younger and wilder. The workout regimens and hair treatments. Running off to Esalen and talking about mindfulness, doing intense meditation. That particularly tragic combination of bravado and self-loathing, hanging on to past glory, and seeking new space. The unquenchable desire to be understood.It’s shocking how many of the tropes of middle age have been acted out by the most visible tech titans. And now the companies they built are also showing signs of entering an existential crisis: Despite the ideals that drove their younger selves to excellence, they’ve gone corporate, sold out, and moved to the top of the power hierarchy instead of tearing it down.A new report from the Pew Research Center on digital technology’s influence on democracy shows just how muddled and dark experts’ views have become. The report is based on written comments from almost 1,000 people in or close to the technology industry (including scholars, entrepreneurs, developers, and researchers) in response to this prompt: “Between now and 2030 how will use of technology by citizens, civil society groups and governments affect core aspects of democracy and democratic representation?”The top line: About half of them expect tech to “weaken democracy between now and 2030.”“Digital media overwhelm people with a sense of the complexity of the world and undermine trust in institutions, governments and leaders. Many people seize simplistic unworkable solutions offered by actual and wannabe tyrants,” wrote Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft. “Add to this the ease of spreading false information and the difficulty of formulating effective regulations for a global system and it is difficult even to envision a positive outcome, much less take steps to realize it.”Gina Neff, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, put it a little more bluntly. “There is simply no reason to believe that technology can strengthen democracy,” she wrote in her response. “Western democracies are grappling with the power from the increased concentration of financial capital and its response in the form of the rise of populism.”Like Neff, many respondents noted the way that democracy, technology, and capitalism have become braided together, as algorithms built on data structure more and more of modern life. Pew summarized their concerns in a handful of common themes, and they will not be surprising: Technology empowers the already powerful; technology “diminishes” the governed; information technology is easily weaponized; digital illiteracy and the collapse of journalism create an ill-informed public.Add it up and not only do many tech experts see that their industry has created massive problems, but—unlike fossil fuels, say—they don’t have a set of technologies they could work on to remedy the social problems that the ubiquitous deployment of network technologies created. The tech world has no solar power to look forward to.[Read: The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president]Most technologists are builders. They want to make stuff. But the stuff they made in the era of phones and social media, all the way down to its bones, has had negative effects that many of them can see with their own eyes. It’s become harder to say ‘We’ll just build this other thing and that’ll fix it.’ That way of thinking was termed solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, and it’s arguably the very thing that got tech companies into this mess.That’s taken some of the purpose out of the technology industry. For some, it clearly doesn’t matter. The intrinsic pleasures of coding or wealth are enough. But for hundreds of respondents to the Pew survey, the shift is downright depressing.The people who work in Silicon Valley once thought they were doing something more meaningful than building profit-making machines. That’s where the midlife crisis lies: What is tech, as an industry, all about anymore? In the past, I’ve described how tech’s powerful mythology fell apart, and its excuses were exposed, but I hadn’t considered how confusing that would be for the people inside the industry.It’s not that everything went wrong, or that everyone agrees with the dour assessments. But the pessimists have specific critiques and piles of evidence. The optimists have … optimism.Some are clinging to the idea that eventually society will simply get over the problems that the internet introduced into civilization’s core functions. Paul Saffo, a longtime futurist and now the chair for future studies and forecasting at Singularity University, leaned heavily into the idea that societies have been destabilized by technology before and have recovered. “There is a long history of new media forms creating initial chaos upon introduction and then being assimilated into society as a positive force,” Saffo wrote in his Pew response. “This is precisely what happened with print in the early 1500s and with newspapers over a century ago. New technologies are like wild animals—it takes time for cultures to tame them.”But even that outlook, which denizens of Silicon Valley have leaned on for decades, came tempered with the admission that “the next five to seven years will not be fun,” even if “the current chaos” eventually yields to “a sunnier digital upland.”The most realistic happy scenarios arise from the fifth of Pew respondents who thought that maybe internet companies will not create a “significant change” in democracy over the next 10 years. Douglas Rushkoff, who has chronicled technology and the cultures surrounding it, suggested in the survey that “the damage has already been done, or at least that the degree to which the public is misinformed remains fairly constant.” Surveying the many ways people have misled each other through the ages, he concluded, “When I say things will stay about the same between now and 2030, I take into account that they’re already in pretty horrific shape.”If things don’t go completely south, the experts quoted in the survey thought that the government would not be democracy’s savior. In many of the comments, governments were framed as both unable to respond quickly enough to digital disruptions and the only real source of protection from the problems that so many of the analysts could identify. “Today we have the ability to amass massive amounts of data, create new types of data, weaponize it and create and move markets without governance structures sufficient to protect consumers, patients, residents, investors, customers and others—not to mention governments—from harm,” wrote Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group.[Read: What Facebook did to American democracy]Inside tech, new kinds of calls for reform have begun to gain some momentum. The New York Times recently described a “revolt” by some Google employees, in which they fought projects that the company has taken on for agencies such as the Department of Defense and Customs and Border Patrol. Others have decided to change the labor model for the industry; Kickstarter employees, for example, recently formed a union. Kickstarter is the first current-era tech company to do so (though there have long been a small number of old-school IT unions).Judith Donath, the founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, put forth two scenarios, one especially hopeful. “Post-capitalist democracy prevails,” she imagined. “Fairness and equal opportunity are recognized to benefit all. The wealth from automation is shared among the whole population. Investments in education foster critical thinking, and artistic, scientific and technological creativity. New economic models favor sustainability over growth.” But for anyone who has been watching the evolution of the internet, all of these outcomes feel deeply implausible. There’s no bridge from here to there, no technological process that must simply be miniaturized or scaled up or optimized to reach a solution.The technology industry, as it was known over the past several decades, has not survived middle age with its ideals or confidence intact. The wealth the industry generated will continue to fuel massive philanthropy, gaudy displays of riches, and moonshots, but no one can say whether any of that will be enough to stop the damage tech companies have done.
2020-02-21 17:26:14
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
How to Murder Harry Potter
When Rachel was growing up in upstate New York, she was what she calls “a creepy girl child”—one prone to wild crying jags that often baffled her mother. Rachel was also, like something close to all American 13-year-olds in the early aughts, an ardent fan of Harry Potter. She read the books, obviously. And once she had exhausted those, she turned to the internet, where she found a seemingly endless supply of stories about Harry Potter characters written by fans like herself.Soon, Rachel was reading stories in which the characters did things they would never do in the books, or in which the characters found themselves in horrible situations. (Even more horrible than being forced to lead a magical army as teenagers.) One night, she sat down to a story about the nerd-heroine Hermione Granger (a witch born to non-wizard parents) falling in love with the über-blond villain Draco Malfoy (whose parents belong to the wizarding world’s equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan). The pair’s non-canon love story unfurled slowly and sexily over thousands of words, and then the ax dropped—literally. When Malfoy’s father found out that Hermione was pregnant, he beheaded his own son. End of story.“I sobbed for like an hour straight,” Rachel says. “I was wrecked. Absolutely wrecked.” (Rachel asked to be identified by only her first name to separate her online fan activity from her professional life.)The memory is funny to her now; she’s sure that particular story was poorly written, knowing she didn’t have discerning taste as a middle schooler. But 16 years later, now living in Los Angeles, Rachel still goes online to re-create that feeling of emotional demolition. She continues to read fan fiction, and she’s drawn to a particularly high-stakes category within the world of fan-created literature: deathfic, the kind of fan fiction in which a beloved character dies, typically in a way that is as painful for the reader as possible. “Sometimes I’m just in the mood to hole up and read the saddest thing I can find on the internet,” Rachel says.[Read: The purest fandom is telling celebrities they’re stupid]Quantifying the amount of deathfic available online is difficult. It pops up in surprising places, tucked into comment sections on obscure fan pages and sometimes written—flash-fiction style—entirely in the tags of a Tumblr post. On user-generated-fiction platforms such as Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, and FanFiction.Net, the number of deathfic entries is in the hundreds of thousands. These sites ask authors to label these stories with “character death” warnings, and authors also tend to tag them with notes such as “why do I do this to myself” and “why did I write this.”A baseline assumption of love is that a person you adore is not someone you would like to watch die. Presumably, you would also not like to be the sole architect of that person’s death. But to deathfic writers, the genre isn’t about having some kind of sick control over the life of someone else. It’s about a different kind of control entirely.There is deathfic for almost every fictional character and real-life celebrity you can imagine. You can find stories in which Rihanna dies and is reborn as a modern Messiah, and hundreds in which members of the K-pop supergroup BTS haunt one another as beautiful ghosts. These can be “crack” stories, in which writers are openly striving to make the strangest fictional reality they can imagine. BuzzFeed, for instance, has documented the rise of Justin Bieber deathfic, which includes freak accidents and maimings of all kinds. They can also be beautiful and thoughtful reworkings of familiar stories, as is the case with one of the most popular deathfics of all time, a Sherlock Holmes story called “Alone on the Water,” which has more than 200,000 hits.Some fandoms have higher concentrations of deathfic than others. The television shows Supernatural and House, in particular, tend to inspire the really dark stuff. But virtually every real or fictional idol gets killed off at some point: the early-aughts Disney Channel cartoon character Kim Possible and the British actor Tom Hiddleston. The hosts of the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast and Kyle from South Park. The tennis player Rafael Nadal, the main character on USA’s White Collar, several members of the pop-punk band My Chemical Romance, and on and on.Generalizing about the demographics most interested in deathfic is also difficult. The authors featured in the biggest repositories tend to use pseudonyms. But fan fiction in general has always been heavily female—a FanFiction.Net survey from 2010 found that 80 percent of its users identified as women. And long-form fan fiction is most popular with the generation that came online before Tumblr. (So, like Rachel, women in their late 20s or older.)When deathfic readers chat with each other, they’re the bubbliest mercenaries you’ve ever read. In comment threads or “request” posts for fiction on Tumblr and LiveJournal, they tease one another about being twisted and offer effusive thanks to friends who do “beta” reads of particularly devastating works. They’re eager to give recommendations based on their encyclopedic knowledge of the thousands of available stories. “I’m looking to be broken tonight,” one poster wrote in a LiveJournal group dedicated to Supernatural fic requests. “Tear me to pieces, people.”[Read: What fan fiction teaches that the classroom doesn’t]Some writers of deathfic—particularly those who are fans of series that already commonly kill off characters, such as Marvel—come to the genre to create a sort of elegy, or to give a beloved character the mourning that the commercial narrative didn’t have time for. Other writers sort out experiences from their own life. Rachel, the onetime Harry Potter fan, writes her own deathfic now, in addition to reading it. Many of her most popular stories are about the MTV series Teen Wolf, and in one, Rachel killed off a character’s mother. “My mom was in the hospital at the time,” she remembers. “I was specifically working through that emotion.”Despite these various motivations, the goal of sadness is consistent. In Rachel’s most popular deathfic, the teen wolf’s best friend, Stiles, dies of cancer. That one, Rachel says, was inspired by another Teen Wolf deathfic that had been widely praised for being super sad, but that she didn’t find sad at all. “I was so mad,” she says. “This is not making me cry!” She spent two months writing a story with the goal of breaking her own heart. “I ended up sobbing when I finished it,” Rachel says. “I was pretty proud of myself.”Looking at deathfic as a grotesque hobby would be easy. But among writers and readers of fan fiction, value judgments about what qualifies as “grotesque” are burdened with decades of history of the pathologizing of fandom and restrictions on its expression. On Archive of Our Own, conversations about free speech have simmered for years. The site has an ethos of “maximum inclusiveness,” its policy and abuse chair told The Vergein 2018, which means it allows stories that involve rape, incest, and graphic violence, including swaths of highly detailed suicide fic.This is a controversial position. Plenty of writers don’t think that Archive of Our Own and other platforms do enough to moderate content, and find the glorification of suicide on sites with significant teen usership disturbing. At the same time, while certain aspects of deathfic are thoroughly modern—in the way it is circulated, collaborated on, and consumed—stories have been dark for ages.“The curious minds of early Christians kept asking, What was the meaning of the death of Jesus,” the Bible historian Kasper Bro Larsen told me. He refers to iterative gospels written long after Jesus’ death as a form of fan fiction, because they filled in gaps that people were frustrated by. “What did Jesus’s resurrection look like? The old Gospels don’t tell us that, but the Gospel of Peter [shows] a big cosmic shaking of the universe,” Larsen said. The motivations of the Roman politician who ordered Jesus’s execution were explored in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which also answered the question of what Jesus did during the three days between his death and resurrection (he gave sermons in hell.) “People sought to overcome the trauma by telling stories about it,” Larsen added.Some of the earliest deathfic published on the internet was about Frodo Baggins, the Jesus-like martyr in Lord of the Rings. These stories tended to be long and meandering, giving Frodo ample time to contemplate the significance of his life and the meaning of his death. “A Passage to the West,” one particularly accomplished Frodo deathfic from 2003, shows him wondering “if beyond death there were noises. The sound of waves crashing against jagged reef, distant and muted.” It’s not so different from excerpts scholars have of a lengthy, novelistic Virgin Mary deathfic, the fifth-century author of which is unknown, but which was so widely circulated that the Church made concerted efforts to stamp it out. “People know [the Virgin Mary] must have died, so they said, ‘Give me a nice heroic version of how she died,’” Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, told me.For both readers and writers of deathfic, their preexisting relationship with the character who is killed sets the stakes for a challenging emotional experience. “The purpose of deathfic is to create an emotional background where the falling of the character hits us right home, and the sense of loss is real,” a LiveJournal user who loved to kill Batman wrote in 2007. Most writers I spoke with echoed this sentiment that the point of killing your darlings is to create a controlled environment for heightened feeling. In this way, deathfic seems to be the ice bath of recreational reading: It stuns the system and then allows an easy exit. You can always come back to a world in which Frodo—or Justin Bieber, for that matter—has not died horrifically.Like all literature, deathfic is a way for people to explore their curiosities about what feelings we’re capable of, how we can be changed by loss, and whether our lives have meaning. But deathfic differentiates itself by promising control, or the choice to selectively cede it. It’s as psychologically messy as any other art form, but tinged darker by its frankness about what it is doing: seeking thrills in devastation, manipulation, or both.Rachel says writing a good deathfic can take months, which makes it a labor of love as much as an assassination. When readers comment on her stories, saying they broke down at work or cried about specific paragraphs she toiled over, she says it’s “nice to know that I was able to write something that could affect someone emotionally.” The comments follow a pretty similar pattern: How could you do this to me? then some form of Thank you so much. Or, as one reader put it: “My eyes are completely red and swollen and I had to leave the room to go and sob without waking everybody … It’s beautiful!!”
2020-02-19 19:09:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Coronavirus Is a Data Time Bomb
So far, less than 0.0008 percent of the humans on Earth have been diagnosed with the disease caused by the coronavirus known as COVID-19. But thanks to the circulation of disease and capital, the whole world has been affected.Chinese manufacturing cities such as Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, are intimately entangled with the supply chains of the entire world. That means that both the disease and the containment measures enacted to control it (take, for example, the quarantine still in place for 70 million people) will have a dramatic effect on businesses across disparate industries.Any company—including Apple and Walmart—that brings things in from China has to worry about production and distribution slowdowns. That’s partly because supply chains are less linear than they sound. Production networks often have complex interrelationships that go back and forth across borders. An American retailer might contract with only one Chinese company, but that entity in turn might act like a general contractor, pulling in components from many sources or farming out work to a changing list of factories. In 2018, for instance, more than 1,000 facilities were involved in some way with the making of Apple products.Meanwhile, exporters—such as Brazilian ranchers and Chilean winemakers—are facing a massive drop in Chinese demand. Inside China, the economic decline is expanding beyond the manufacturing sectors; even a media company said it was laying off 500 workers because of the epidemic.[Read: A historic quarantine]What makes this all so strange is that a mosaic of facts is known about the economic consequences of the coronavirus, but the arrival of those consequences outside China will be delayed, and their magnitude is uncertain. It doesn’t help that experts inside and outside China have questioned the reliability of the country’s official statistics for years. And local reporting provides reasons to doubt coronavirus numbers as well.What Target executives are worried about today will actually show up for shoppers in April. You might think that financial markets, at least, would be “pricing in” the problems, but share prices are at record highs. The coronavirus has likely already dealt many of its economic blows—and now those disruptions will trickle through the networks that connect China to the rest of the global economy.Some of the effects will be material: There might be fewer items on store shelves, some prices might rise, product development could slow down. But some of the impact, and an additional source of lag, will come from the data describing the reality of the past two months, much of which has yet to be tabulated. Companies and governments need statistics to understand what’s happening in the world. The U.S. government, for example, maintains a complex data-gathering operation: the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certain survey programs of the Census, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the Economic Research Service, and many others. The data that these organizations publish take time to reflect on-the-ground commerce. Under normal conditions, this may not be significant. But when the economy suffers a globe-altering shock, statistical windows on the world can be dangerously out of step with reality.For now, the data points that can be marshaled to make sense of the macroeconomic picture are not good. Chinese oil demand was down 20 percent earlier this month, “probably the largest demand shock the oil market has suffered since the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009, and the most sudden since the Sept. 11 attacks,” as Bloomberg put it. With some huge Chinese cities under varying versions of lockdown, the total number of cars and trucks on the road has fallen. Factories are not running at full capacity either. Pollution near Shanghai, a reliable and hard-to-fake indicator of economic activity, has plummeted, according to Morgan Stanley. Container ships are sailing with smaller than normal cargo loads. Prices for bulk carriers that move iron ore and coal have collapsed. One analyst told the Financial Times that the coronavirus “will have a bigger impact on the global tech supply chain than SARS and creates more uncertainty than the U.S.-China trade war.”That very trade war led some companies to move their supply chains to other Asian countries, but China remains the beating heart of manufacturing and assembly for the world’s goods. “Suddenly, all supply chains seem vulnerable because so many Chinese supply chains within supply chains within supply chains rely on each other for parts and raw materials,” Rosemary Coates, a supply-chain consultant, wrote in the trade journal Logistics Management. “That tiny valve that is inside a motor that you are sourcing for your U.S.-made product is made in China. So are the rare earth elements you require to manufacture magnets and electronics.” The impacts may also vary widely from province to province and even factory to factory based on how local governments regulate their regions, CNBC’s Beijing bureau chief, Eunice Yoon, noted.[Read: How to misinform yourself about the coronavirus]The slow industrial march out of China has also left some industries, like toy making, with depleted inventories. Companies that spent last year building new production networks in other Asian countries are more resilient in the long term, but at this particular moment, they may not have enough product to sell.Less predictable secondary effects have cropped up too. As Indonesia’s president called for stimulus spending to guard against an economic slowdown, the price of Indonesian garlic went up 70 percent, apparently because Chinese consumers were buying up the folk cure in bulk. Even small ripples must have some effect: In Australia, where students from China could not return to class after the summer holiday, universities pushed back their start dates, which hurt the businesses around them. The question is whether all those small problems and complications will add up to anything more serious than annoyance.Then, consider the political ramifications of the economic slowdown. What if the coronavirus crisis slows China’s economic growth enough to destabilize the Communist Party’s control? Bill Bishop, a longtime China analyst, wrote that the outbreak is the closest thing “to an existential crisis for Xi [Jinping] and the Party that I think we have seen since 1989.”The coronavirus is a remarkable probe for the complex relationships that hold up today’s economy. In our world, information flows much more quickly than goods. That means we can glimpse a major world event, in tweets and videos from the quarantine zone, weeks before its impact will be quantified. It is an uneasy and strange position, like knowing an earthquake has struck but not knowing whether a tsunami is on the way. One upshot for Americans is likely, though: Even if the worst of the outbreak is over—and it might not be—bad economic news may well be in our future.Or if tens of millions of Chinese workers can be sidelined, and the American economy can plow through it all without a hitch, then it might be time to revise how deep the “Chimerica” connection really is.
2020-02-13 17:58:19
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Tinder’s Most Notorious Men
Alex is 27 years old. He lives in or has access to a home with an enormous kitchen and granite countertops. I have seen his face dozens of times, always with the same expression—stoic, content, smirking. Absolutely identical to that of the Mona Lisa, plus horn-rimmed glasses. Most days, his Tinder profile has six or seven photos, and in every single one, he reclines against the same immaculate kitchen counter with one leg crossed lightly over the other. His pose is identical; the angle of the photo is identical; the coif of his hair is identical. Only his outfits change: blue suit, black suit, red flannel. Rose blazer, navy V-neck, double-breasted parka. Face and body frozen, he swaps clothes like a paper doll. He is Alex, he is 27, he is in his kitchen, he is in a nice shirt. He is Alex, he is 27, he is in his kitchen, he is in a nice shirt.I have always swiped left (for “no”) on his profile—no offense, Alex—which should presumably inform Tinder’s algorithm that I would not like to see him again. But I still find Alex on Tinder at least once a month. The most recent time I saw him, I studied his profile for several minutes and jumped when I noticed one sign of life: a cookie jar shaped like a French bulldog appearing and then disappearing from behind Alex’s right elbow.I am not the only one. When I asked on Twitter whether others had seen him, dozens said yes. One woman replied, “I live in BOSTON and have still seen this man on visits to [New York City].” And apparently, Alex is not an isolated case. Similar mythological figures have popped up in local dating-app ecosystems nationwide, respawning each time they’re swiped away.On Reddit, men often complain about the bot accounts on Tinder that feature super-beautiful women and turn out to be “follower scams” or ads for adult webcam services. But men like Alex are not bots. These are real people, gaming the system, becoming—whether they know it or not—key figures in the mythology of their cities’ digital culture. Like the internet, they are confounding and scary and a little bit romantic. Like mayors and famous bodega cats, they are both hyper-local and larger than life.In January, Alex’s Tinder fame moved off-platform, thanks to the New York–based comedian Lane Moore.Moore hosts a monthly interactive stage show called Tinder Live, during which an audience helps her find dates by voting on who she swipes right on. During last month’s show, Alex’s profile came up, and at least a dozen people said they’d seen him before. They all recognized the countertops and, of course, the pose. Moore told me the show is funny because using dating apps is “lonely and confusing,” but using them together is a bonding experience. Alex, in a way, proved the concept. (Moore matched with him, but when she tried to ask him about his kitchen, he gave only terse responses, so the show had to move on.)When I finally spoke with Alex Hammerli, 27, it was not on Tinder. It was through Facebook Messenger, after a member of a Facebook group run by The Ringer sent me a screenshot of Hammerli bragging that his Tinder profile was going to end up on a billboard in Times Square.[Read: The five years that changed dating]In 2014, Hammerli told me, he saw a man on Tumblr posing in a penthouse that overlooked Central Park—over and over, the same pose, changing only his clothes. He liked the idea, and started taking photos and posting them on Instagram, as a way to preserve his “amazing wardrobe” for posterity. He posted them on Tinder for the first time in early 2017, mostly because those were the photos he had of himself. They have worked for him, he said. “A lot of girls are like, ‘I swiped for the kitchen.’ Some are like, ‘When can I come over and be put on that counter?’”Hammerli shows up in Tinder swipers’ feeds as often as he does because he deletes the app and reinstalls it every two weeks or so (except during the holidays, because tourists are “awful to hook up with”). Though his Tinder bio says that he lives in New York, his apartment is actually in Jersey City—which explains the kitchen—and his neighbor is the photographer behind every shot.I had heard from women on Twitter, and from one of my offline friends, that Alex was rude in their DMs after they matched on Tinder. When I asked him about this, he said, “I’m very narcissistic. I own that.”Hammerli works in digital marketing, though he would not say with what company. He uses Tinder exclusively for casual sex, a fact that he volunteered, along with an explanation of his views on long-term relationships: “Idiotic in a culture where we move on from shit so easily and upgrade iPhones every year.” When I asked whether he’s ever been in love, he responded: “lmao no.” Monogamy, he said, is “a fly-over state thing.”Hammerli’s methods aren’t exactly harassment, but they do border on spam. They violate Tinder’s terms of service, and the company is supposedly cracking down on the account-reset hack that he so diligently employs. (Tinder did not respond to a request for comment about Hammerli’s account.)He’s not the only one using this strategy. “I have hundreds of photos of this one guy Ben on LA’s Bumble scene,” one woman told me over Twitter, adding that he seems to have a new profile “literally” every day. She’s been seeing Ben’s photo—always accompanied by a new straight-from-the-box bio, such as “Looking for a partner in crime”—for at least a year, and says “MANY” other women have told her they’ve seen him too.“Ian in NYC who claims to be a lawyer would show up for me and my roommate at least once a week,” another woman wrote. “It was so frequent that I began to think he was a bot account. So I matched with him out of curiosity once and he was real!” Another woman asked whether I had seen a guy named Craig, who was extremely muscular, was always standing in a swimming pool, and had given his age as 33 for “at least the past five years.” (I had not, because I will date only people who are my exact age or up to 18 months younger.) “I’ve run into him so many times, and so have several of my friends,” this woman told me. Guys like Craig, she hypothesized, “just think they’re being persistent and have no idea they are minor internet legends.”[Read: The rise of dating-app fatigue]These legends seem to be more common in large coastal cities, but smaller cities have them too—I heard from a woman in Des Moines, Iowa, who told me about a terrifying profile that had haunted her and her roommates (the bio was about how “girl’s [sic] are shallow”), as well as women from Durham, North Carolina, and Toronto who had recurring figures of their own (“Tights Guy,” a guy who was obsessed with pantyhose, and “New to the City,” a guy who was perpetually in need of navigation help, respectively).There is something alarming about these persistent men: We live in a culture where persistence is often a euphemism for more dangerous types of male behavior. But there is also something fantastic about them: While the easiest mental response to dating apps is to conclude that everyone is the same, men like Tights Guy and Craig take up space in local cultures, and remind bored daters that people are specific and surprising. It’s odd, and somewhat thrilling, to feel so curious about someone who is only a pile of photos on an app. Hammerli’s stunt didn’t make me want to date him, but it did make me want to know everything about him.While I was delighted by Hammerli’s theory that love is only appropriate for people who live in the Midwest, I was a little disappointed by the simple and mostly inoffensive reality of his shtick. I feel a bit like I’ve ruined something. The thrill of a Tinder celebrity is the moment of surprise and recognition among people who are accustomed to drudgery. Finding that hundreds of other women had the same fascination with Granite-Counter Guy provided me with a brief reprieve from the bleak, regular chore of looking for someone to date. But talking to the man himself was not the same fun because, in that conversation, I was alone again. I haven’t seen Hammerli on Tinder this week. It may be because Tinder has finally caught on to him, but Hammerli also told me he was thinking of taking a “sabbatical” from the app. The kitchen wasn’t fun anymore, because everyone expected it. It was time to work on a new gimmick.
2020-02-12 14:30:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
How Your Laptop Ruined Your Life
The New York City subway is a terrible place for productivity. During the morning commute, the crowds force many people to stand, one hand occupied by a pole for balance, so getting any real work done is often impossible. Riders can use their phones to browse their inboxes or draft a couple of emails, but internet access in the city’s tunnels is spotty. When you look around, people mostly are reading books, scrolling through their music libraries, playing colorful phone games, or just staring into space, disconnected.Occasionally, though, someone violates the morning subway’s slacking-off sanctity. Earlier this week, a woman managed to find a seat next to me on the train, took out her laptop, and started plugging away at a spreadsheet. The sight filled me with dread, as it does every time I spot a fellow commuter writing code or finessing a PowerPoint presentation while I listen to podcasts. I suddenly became much more aware of the hard, thin edge of my own work computer, digging into my thigh through my tote bag.It’s a common existential crisis among American office workers that virtually nowhere is now safe from the pull of their jobs. This inescapability is usually attributed to the proliferation of smartphones, with their push notifications signaling the arrival of emails and other workplace messages. The first iPhone, released in 2007, helped make social media omnipresent and pave the way for hyper-connected professional lives. Now, on-call retail workers and law-firm partners alike often feel as though they never really clock out.But that blame is often applied solely to the wrong piece of take-home technology. If staying home with a cold still requires a full day of work or you can’t find a seat at your local coffee shop on a Tuesday afternoon, iPhones are not responsible for ruining your life. The novelty and early popularity of smartphones seem to have distracted America from how quickly its laptops were also dissolving much of the boundary between work and home.You could be forgiven for not picking up on every important thing that happened in America in 2008. The economy and housing markets cratered that year, evaporating 2.6 million jobs and pushing more than 3 million homes into foreclosure. Barack Obama was elected as the country’s first black president, after an especially bitter race. Millions of people were super-into the Twilight series of young-adult vampire-romance novels. There was a lot going on.But 2008 was also a crucial period in the construction of the tech-addled world Americans now live in. The first iPhones sold 10 million units. Google launched its first Android phone, setting up the key rivalry that still animates the American smartphone market more than a decade later. As those world-changing devices made their way into the hands of millions of curious people, another mobile gadget quietly rose to the top of its market. Some disagreement exists over whether 2007 or 2008 was the first year that laptops outsold desktops in the general market, but 2008 was the first year that American employers bought more laptops than desktops.[Read: Three theories for why you have no time]Amid the economic upheaval, there was optimism about how laptops might improve things. They were cheaper, lighter, and more powerful than they’d ever been, which meant more types of office workers could use them. The rapid availability of wireless internet meant more people could unshackle themselves from their rigid office life and daily commute. “Laptops and U.S. consumers are in the honeymoon stage,” the Los Angeles Times explained then. “Users can connect their laptops to external monitors, keyboards and mice while seated at a desk, then eject them and work from a coffeehouse, library, airplane or living room.”At work, receiving a laptop became a status symbol. It showed that you were a person worth investing in at a regular company, or that you had found a way into the booming, then-mysterious tech industry. When I got my first office job in 2008, only upper management had laptops. The devices separated the important people from those of us who were subject to their decisions.As laptops have kept improving, and Wi-Fi has continued to reach ever further into the crevices of American life, however, the reality of laptops’ potential stopped looking quite so rosy. Instead of liberating white-collar and “knowledge” workers from their office, laptops turned many people’s whole life into an office. Smartphones might require you to read an after-hours email or check in on the office-communication platform Slack before you started your commute, but portable computers gave workers 24-hour access to the sophisticated, expensive applications—Salesforce CRM, Oracle ERP, Adobe Photoshop—that made their full range of duties possible.According to a recent study, Americans with college degrees and beyond—the ones most likely to start a new job and immediately be handed a laptop—spend 10 percent more time working now than they did in 1980. Those extra hours have been deeply felt: “Screen time” has become a thoroughly modern boogeyman, and to escape it, people are often advised to avoid bringing their phones to the dinner table, to stop scrolling through social media before bed, and to stay away from their email app before they’ve taken their morning shower.But those habits won’t fix Americans’ relationship with work when their entire job comes home with them every night. More than the smartphone, laptops ended “work hours” as a concept. An office used to be a thing you went to for a certain number of hours a day; now, work is an entire plane of existence. When people fret about work invading all hours of life, what they’re really worried about isn’t the email that lets you know something needs to be done, but the expectation that they’ll start a task immediately, or continue working after they commute home. Things that might have been handled at 9 a.m. the next morning have suddenly become 9 p.m. problems. [Read: Give up on work-life balance]For young people who have never experienced professional life any other way, being constantly available and ready to put in another hour or to solve another problem is often seen as a reputational requirement, which shoves personal interests, hobbies, and goals to the periphery of people’s life and burns them out. It makes it hard to focus on cooking dinner or getting a good night’s sleep. People take their laptop on their vacations, just in case. At many companies, laptop culture creates the expectation that a real sick day is only available to the seriously hobbled; otherwise, you and your head cold better be working from home.Laptops, of course, aren’t all bad. They remove a barrier for those who want to write, create art, make music, or develop a new skill. Laptops can be portals of procrastination, leading to hours of Bojack Horseman or YouTube makeup tutorials. Because they’re still pretty unwieldy, they don’t lend themselves to the same kind of mindless check-ins that can make smartphones so stressful. I’ve never seen anyone nearly get hit by a car because they couldn’t look up from a computer.Even at work, laptops do deliver some of the perks with which they were sold. For people who would rather freelance than go into an employer’s office, they really do provide the flexibility that gave people so much optimism more than a decade ago. For jobs that have always required long hours, they might mean fewer nights chained to an office desk. You can wait at home for the plumber on a Tuesday without sacrificing a day of vacation time. In real emergencies, they can be invaluable.But laptops’ biggest sin might be granting employers the convenience to treat any little hiccup like an emergency, no matter how inconsequential. Their employees don’t have much of a choice but to pull out their computers and get to work.
2020-02-10 17:06:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Ethical Folly of ‘Modern Witch-Burning’
Editor’s Note: This film contains footage that depicts hate speech. Viewer discretion is advised. When Mike Nayna boarded a crowded bus in Melbourne, Australia, in 2012, he braced for an uncomfortable commute. It was late, and many of the bus riders were intoxicated. On top of that, people had been waiting for more than an hour for the bus to arrive. Nobody seemed thrilled about the situation—except, maybe, the group of tourists who were singing French songs at the back of the bus. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a disgruntled man took stood up and began verbally attacking the tourists, spewing racist and sexist vitriol. His anger intensified, and the verbal aggression became more explicit. Other passengers began to add to the tirade. Mike was appalled. He did what many of us would do in a quickly escalating situation: He took out his phone and filmed it. What happened next is the subject of Nayna’s short documentary Digilante. “I was rewatching this footage and thinking about these guys going off and telling their friends and becoming heroes of this story,” Nayna says in the film. “At that point, I was like, If that’s the narrative you’ve got, my footage shows something else.” Nayna and his friend, the producerMark Conway, uploaded the video to Facebook. Within a week, it was uploaded to YouTube with 1 million views. “It was thrilling,” Nayna told me. “Mark and I had set out to make the video viral, so watching it spread beyond what we thought possible felt like discovering a superpower.” For a while, Nayna rode the wave. On Australian television, he was portrayed as a hero who had exposed an injustice. But as the video racked up millions of additional views around the world, a different, more morally ambiguous narrative began taking shape. He’d created a firestorm of public shaming, fueled by social media. “Seeing the anger and vitriol it generated at such a large scale made me reassess the dynamics of a media event like that,” Nayna said. “The conversations about racism it generated didn’t seem to be constructive, or even coherent, really.” Initially, Nayna had thought that exposing something ugly about his culture’s prejudices might “somehow spark a net good.” But he wasn’t achieving the results he’d hoped for. At best, sharing Nayna’s video was a shortcut to condemning racism and misogyny; it merely created the illusion of positive change. At worst, it was “a modern form of witch-burning,” with people calling for the vigilante murders of those responsible for the racist attacks. “We build a digital effigy of a human being and set it alight in some kind of group catharsis,” Nayna said. “It's not something I'll ever take part in again, and I’m fairly confident that if we’re ever able to settle into a mature code of ethics for the internet, we’ll look back at shaming as a primitive phase we went through.” To this day, Nayna struggles to find the right way to respond to people who regard him as a hero for having created the video. “It was a shitty thing that I did,” he says in the film. “If you look at the outcomes, I was exacting revenge. Do you make someone better by attacking them and making them feel horrible? I don’t think that’s true.” Eight months following the incident, two perpetrators were charged and sentenced to prison.
2020-02-08 00:11:26
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
A World Without Privacy Will Revive the Masquerade
Twenty years ago at a Silicon Valley product launch, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy dismissed concern about digital privacy as a red herring: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”“Zero privacy” was meant to placate us, suggesting that we have a fixed amount of stuff about ourselves that we’d like to keep private. Once we realized that stuff had already been exposed and, yet, the world still turned, we would see that it was no big deal. But what poses as unsentimental truth telling isn’t cynical enough about the parlous state of our privacy.That’s because the barrel of privacy invasion has no bottom. The rallying cry for privacy should begin with the strangely heartening fact that it can always get worse. Even now there’s something yet to lose, something often worth fiercely defending.For a recent example, consider Clearview AI: a tiny, secretive startup that became the subject of a recent investigation by Kashmir Hill in The New York Times. According to the article, the company scraped billions of photos from social-networking and other sites on the web—without permission from the sites in question, or the users who submitted them—and built a comprehensive database of labeled faces primed for search by facial recognition. Their early customers included multiple police departments (and individual officers), which used the tool without warrants. Clearview has argued they have a right to the data because they’re “public.”In general, searching by a face to gain a name and then other information is on the verge of wide availability: The Russian internet giant Yandex appears to have deployed facial-recognition technology in its image search tool. If you upload an unlabeled picture of my face into Google image search, it identifies me and then further searches my name, and I’m barely a public figure, if at all.Given ever more refined surveillance, what might the world look like if we were to try to “get over” the loss of this privacy? Two very different extrapolations might allow us to glimpse some of the consequences of our privacy choices (or lack thereof) that are taking shape even today.***In one plausible future, many people routinely are offered, and use, technical tools to keep their identities obscure. Call it Pseudoworld. When controlling what is known about us is difficult, the natural path is pseudonymization: establishing online presence without using a real name. One recent study found that the more sensitive a topic is, the less likely people discussing it online are to use their real names. It recorded about one in five accounts on English-speaking Twitter as plainly using pseudonyms. In Pseudoworld, that will be far more common. There, to tweet or blog—or sign on to Facebook—under a real name will be seen as a puzzlingly risky thing to do. Just as universities remind students to lock their dorm-room doors, civic education will teach us how to obscure our identities so we can’t be traced online.We get to Pseudoworld precisely by trying to take individual responsibility for our own privacy. Ten years ago, Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham Law School, asked his students to find personal information online about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose remarks at a conference had hinted at McNealy-like skepticism about privacy concerns. Despite having no access to obvious sources such as a public Facebook account, the students were able to produce a 15-page dossier about the justice and his family, including his home address and his home phone number. Scalia was not pleased, calling the exercise “an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment.”Of course, Reidenberg’s students had gathered the information as an academic exercise and then moved along. But the assembly of someone’s personal information can turn into a “doxxing,” a public outing of once-obscure or concealed data, which can serve as the basis for online and offline harassment. The “get over it” theory of zero privacy serves to blame the victims of doxxing, suggesting that if they didn’t want the information getting out, they should not have so cavalierly shared it.Tracking reputation will still be possible in Pseudoworld. People can simply establish track records under their pen names, and platforms (and other users) might choose to pay more attention to comments by those whose previous comments have been deemed constructive or engaging under whatever standard the platforms want to set. The science-fiction author Orson Scott Card imagined this in his book Ender’s Game, in which two preternaturally smart kids pseudonymously accrue great respect through their participation on global message boards, and from there influence the course of the world. Appropriate skepticism of the power of the pen aside, there are lots of Twitter influencers who fit this mold.[Read: A grand bargain to make companies trustworthy].This drive for pseudonymity won’t stop at the porous borders of the online world. Recently, Kate Klonick, a professor at St. John’s University Law School, gave her students an assignment that was the reverse of Reidenberg’s: Instead of seeing what they could learn about a known person, Klonick’s students were to observe nearby strangers during spring break and see how many they could ID. Their results were successful in a way that was shocking but not surprising; a few snippets of overheard conversation, or a glance at something such as a luggage tag, were enough to seed a successful search.As that kind of surveillance grows, catalyzed by free-range viral videos recorded wherever an embarrassing incident unfolds, coupled with a contest to name the bad actors and where they work, the demand for pseudonymity will require more than non-revealing Twitter handles. As yesterday’s locks are supplemented by today’s networked home-security cams, companies will market tools for us to secure the manifold ways in which our identities could leak. Nico Sell (which may or may not be her real name) has led the way: She’s a digital-security researcher who has worked hard to never be publicly photographed without wearing sunglasses. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have designed special glasses to confuse facial recognition without requiring shades, and the artist Adam Harvey has pioneered an open tool kit of new fashions for the same purpose. Next up will be shoe inserts to stymie gait detection, and the commandeering of Auto-Tune to prevent voice recognition.With its new morning routines of adjusting one’s voice disguiser, gait blocker, and special glasses, Pseudoworld has a lot of clear drawbacks. It requires personal vigilance to avoid identification, with lingering problems if one’s mask should slip. It portends daily social interactions that tilt more toward the configuration of a confessional booth—or a 4chan message board—than an exchange of pleasantries with a store clerk bearing a name tag, or an earnest discussion thread on Facebook with each participant’s home town, relatives, educational history, and favorite book voluntarily one click away.In Pseudoworld, lots of data mining is still available to companies and governments. Anonymized data from Fitbits and iPhones can still be used to determine well ahead of time if, say, Cleveland is particularly restless one evening—and its people seem to be assembling in protest.Pseudoworld will happen if the legal frameworks for protecting privacy aren’t updated. In the absence of public protection, and the presence of bandits, we’ll procure what private help we can afford to protect ourselves—and companies will cater to our paranoia. It’s the apotheosis of the internet-as-Wild-West cliché, one that goes at least as far back as internet-as-information-superhighway.But let’s consider Pseudoworld’s near opposite.***What if the law were tightened up with more accountability for bad actors in an attempt to make us feel more comfortable sharing? Or perhaps Pseudoworld never worked, as the hydraulic pressure of disclosure overcame all the strategies of resistance? We could end up in Transcriptworld.Here, Facebook’s real-name requirement will have become near universalized. Those who can’t or won’t identify themselves will be excluded. But identification, unlike pseudonymity, won’t be technically burdensome. It will be built into everything we do. An Uber or Lyft ride will record the ID of the driver and the passengers through a fingerprint or facial recognition (thanks, Apple!), along with the exact route they take and at what time. All other cars will too, especially self-driving ones, with such sensible biometrics as those we use to unlock our smartphones today. Indeed, identification will be belt-and-suspender: Even if the car doesn’t record who and where you are, your phone will, and you’re not giving up your phone. In Transcriptworld, high-profile privacy cases such as United States v. Jones, in which the police were required to get a warrant in order to place a tracking device on a vehicle, will be quaint, because vehicles will already have multiple tracking devices, and acquiring that information will be as easy as sending a business-records demand to the relevant companies, such as Apple, Tesla, and Verizon—or smaller and sketchier startups such as Clearview AI, designed solely to transact in data.[Read: The age of misinformation].Doxxing someone in Transcriptworld will be even easier than it is today—Google’s database is hardly shrinking—but here, anyone in the country who engages in it, or harassment based upon it, will face swift and sure punishment in a newly energized legal system, especially because the bad actors’ own anonymity is so hard to maintain. (For those outside the country, it will be a different story.) And short of law enforcement, Transcriptworld will allow private platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to enforce permanent low visibility, or outright bans, for those said to be violating their terms of service, wherever they may be in the world. It’d be as easy as an airline banning an unruly (and vaping counts as unruly) passenger for life—and far less costly to the company.To get to Transcriptworld from our current time, most alternatives of anonymity simply need to be removed for most transactions, online and offline. That could happen, as with the move to Pseudoworld, through commercial decisions as much as through government action: If identification can be made even easier, storefronts and social-media platforms might decide to try to help themselves to it through facial recognition and other involuntary tools, or require it before serving anyone, especially if identifiable data collection is part of their business model. Already we see a move in physical retail spaces toward the rejection of cash as more and more people have credit cards.Most people won’t even notice a difference from today, where, in the absence of hard-to-deploy countermeasures, they’re already this traceable.Transcriptworld might then sound like an incremental change to what we have today—indeed, from what we had in 1999—except more bad actors are held to account. So isn’t it obviously more desirable than the constant, exhausting shadowboxing of Pseudoworld?No.The Transcriptworld that’s emerging is a decoy, a scrim placed over the complex machinery that slices and dices personal data to multiple ends, invisible to us. It looks nothing like the world of 1999 where we “already” had zero privacy.Surfing a website or using an app may feel like a solitary experience, but as a duck may coast serenely across a pond while invisibly paddling madly underneath, as soon as you press something—indeed, merely hover over it—more computing power is available to instantly scrutinize that single act than NASA spent sending Apollo 11 to the moon. Data from one place can be used to inform another. A car-insurance company discovers that “writing in short concrete sentences, using lists, and arranging to meet friends at a set time and place, rather than just ‘tonight’” is linked to better driving, and it can price rates accordingly, by cross-referencing applicants with their social-media accounts.In the meantime, a playful quiz may be later used to try to hone specific political messages for your particular personality. Inferences can be made not only about you as a person, but about your state of mind at any given moment. Someone who’s recently quit drinking can be offered a drink—or, more subtly, shown a compelling drama whose noble characters just so happen to be hard drinking. Emotionally vulnerable because you lost your job and just had a fight with your spouse? It might be the perfect—or, for you, worst—time to offer you a scammy higher-education degree program, or a car you can’t afford, financed by a payday loan to make you think you can.[Read: Why surveillance is the climate change of the internet].To be sure, all this can happen in Pseudoworld, too. So what’s really different? Well, background checks for sensitive jobs will include scrutiny of public and private behaviors, including seemingly quotidian ones such as liking tweets about alcohol or using four-letter words. The list of sensitive positions will grow. And, as a counterpart to Pseudoworld citizens’ development of identity-hiding technologies, people in Transcriptworld will seek advice and tools to help shape their behavior so that what’s associated with their identities suits their later job applications and dating prospects. The best companies—and governments—in the system will be a step ahead of people earnestly but still clumsily presenting themselves as different than they are.Thus Transcriptworld may appear normal, but it’s really the Truman Show, a highly realistic but still completely tailored video game where nothing happens by chance. It’s a hall of mirrors whose horizons and features are digitally generated and honed for each person, in which even what constitutes “normal” is defined by the system: both in the type of world— violent or peaceful, pessimistic or hopeful—that’s presented, and in the ways that people will rapidly adjust to try to avoid the penalties of the system’s definition of negative behavior.Transcriptworld is a lousy place even assuming, as we have so far, that government’s primary role there is to make sure that people don’t doxx and harass one another. And when government doesn’t embrace the rule of law, Transcriptworld provides the soil—fertilized by commercial data processing—in which to grow the authoritarian nightmares we’ve come to call Orwellian.There have to be better alternatives than these. To find them, we must overcome the learned helplessness about the state of our privacy—a helplessness often abetted by technology leaders moving fast and breaking things. Privacy defenders have perhaps inadvertently encouraged the same sense of inevitability by speaking in generic apocalyptic terms. But this fight is not simply about keeping particular facts about people out of the public eye. Privacy now is as much about freedom, the freedom to maintain a boundary between ourselves and those who want to shape us.We’ll need a combination of old-fashioned political pressure to situate and vindicate privacy rights in law, limiting data collection and use, and the forging of new technical tools to make compliance with that law easier. Restrictions on collection and use of data can bring up short the current race to the bottom, and a follow-on slide toward the paranoia of Pseudoworld. It should not only be that the lucky few can manage to buy and practice their way into a semblance of even the reduced privacy we enjoy today. Functional anonymity is as valuable in commerce as in speech. The burden shouldn’t be borne by those on whom these technologies are deployed. It must be shared by those who want to know all about us, and who would further subtly shape us according to their own imperatives.
2020-02-07 22:00:57
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Risky Dream of the Fast-Food Franchise
Burgerim had all the ingredients for fast-food-franchise fame: a novel concept (sliders); a modern logo evocative of an emoji; and a celebrity connection, in the form of Kim Kardashian West’s confidante Jonathan Cheban, who legally changed his name to his Instagram handle, Foodgod.By promising high returns on investment and ensuring that Americans would love its signature lamb sliders, Burgerim, which opened its first American location in 2016, enrolled nearly 1,200 new franchisees and oversaw the opening of more than 200 locations in just a few years. The company billed itself as America’s “fastest growing burger franchise” of 2019.Then, last month, the trade magazine Restaurant Business detailed explosive allegations suggesting that the company just might be a Ponzi scheme. Burgerim sold franchises, pulling in tens of thousands of dollars from each would-be restaurant owner, but then, for reasons that remain unclear, did not collect ongoing royalties. This set up a nearly unprecedented and clearly unsustainable situation, the magazine reported. Burgerim needed to recruit ever more people to stay afloat, and the company’s alleged inconsistencies, false promises, and acceptance of inexperienced, cash-strapped franchisees caught up with it. “If this was a stock, everyone would be in jail,” Keith Miller, a fast-food-franchise consultant, told the trade publication. Dozens of franchisees lost their life savings. Others reportedly filed for bankruptcy. The company’s new CEO, Michel Buchbut, admitted mistakes but defended the company to Restaurant Business, saying, “I cannot call it a Ponzi … It was not exactly a Ponzi.” On Wednesday, Senator Diane Feinstein called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the chain.Stories of start-up fails are commonplace in the 21st century. Investors vie to be the first to pour dollars into vague ideas. The environment is rich for scamming. Some observers are characterizing Burgerim’s fall as historic or unprecedented. But the franchise has always been a way to buy a tiny piece of the capitalist dream—and where you find hopes, you find people exploiting them.The United States is the land of franchise opportunity, home to more than 190,000 quick-service restaurants. Although most American consumers associate franchising with fast food, the model has been used to make business ownership possible across other sectors—from oil-change centers to day-care centers. In a nutshell, a franchisee pays for the right to run a business outlet, follow all their rules, and assume most of their liabilities, in hopes of squeezing out some profits. In fast-food franchises, you can become pretty wealthy if you are able to maintain the bottom line for top earners like McDonald’s. While conducting research for my most recent book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, I learned that for African Americans, franchising isn’t just about making individuals rich. In fact, African Americans have used the wealth generated from franchising to help close the racial employment gap by providing jobs in their communities, and they’ve shared their dollars with historically black colleges and universities and partnered with storied civil-rights groups, like the NAACP. Even today, black franchise owners often see themselves as torchbearers of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, although they often forget about his wish to see organized labor and his critiques of capitalism. But franchising is all about dreams—and sometimes fantasies—about building wealth without leveraging your entire future.The reality is far more stark. As I reviewed the pages of trade magazines and the prospectuses of companies long gone, like Muhammad Ali’s ChampBurger—yes, that Muhammad Ali—I found many examples of concepts that spectacularly collapsed. When a roast-beef-sandwich stand or fried-fish shack franchise dissolved, it often left eager, first-time businesspeople deeply disappointed and in debt. If a closure happened in a black community, it often meant that a youth jobs program had fewer assignments. It forced people to wonder if blacks could actually get a piece of the capitalist pie, because of the systematic denial of African Americans to pursue business ownership and experience economic mobility.[Read: The unfulfilled promise of black capitalism]Perhaps the most striking example of the racialized boom-and-bust of franchise restaurants arose in Tennessee, the center of the fried-chicken industry in the 1960s. (Even Kentucky Fried Chicken moved its headquarters to Nashville in 1963.) Inspired by the growth of KFC, the local lawyers John Jay Hooker and Henry Hooker decided to get in on the action in 1967. With no experience in restaurants but with a keen sense of marketing and connections to the city’s political and business elite—particularly the ways in which markets were segmented across racial lines—the brothers established one fried-chicken company with two high-powered brand ambassadors and namesakes from the music industry. For white customers, there was Minnie Pearl’s; for black consumers, there was Mahalia Jackson’s.Minnie Pearl’s was named for the white Opryland comedian who played a country bumpkin character famous for wearing a hat accessorized with a still-affixed retail tag. Mahalia Jackson was a black gospel singer known as “the Negro songbird,” and her stores would be designed to look like a church. She appealed to black community groups looking to use franchising as an economic-development tool. John Jay summed up something advertisers said in a far more delicate way in an article in the black newspaper Atlanta Daily World: “Why should Black people have to buy chicken from [a] white face?”The similarities and divergences in the two chicken restaurants created by the lawyers foreground the varied ways in which African Americans and whites shaped their expectations for what a business was to do. Minnie Pearl’s sold a sense of down-home domesticity in a changing world; think of Pearl as the influencer who wears gingham dresses with cowboy boots and takes lots of filtered pictures in front of barns. Mahalia Jackson’s sold black empowerment; her brand would be more aligned with today’s Black Restaurant Week. Minnie and Mahalia’s recipes were identical, and both chains set a goal of 500 stores within three years. The two restaurants rarely opened in the same communities, and few in the business cared to discuss their ties.Doing business across racial lines in such an intentional way required a differentiated strategy. The effort to bring Minnie’s to America relied on the Hookers’ well-connected friends, wealthy investors, and franchisees able to take a risk in the restaurant business. During the last six months of 1967, the company attracted franchisees in Nashville and Atlanta, and by the year’s close, they had dozens of signed contracts extending from Florida to California. Unlike the larger companies, the charismatic brothers only asked franchisees for security deposits. They collected the rest of the cost upon turning over the keys to a completed restaurant. The Hookers signed up southern businessmen, University of Tennessee football alumni, and local politicians to purchase 50-cent and $1 shares in their company.[Read: Fried chicken tells the story of America]Meanwhile, Jackson and her associates were reaching out to black America in their own way. Mahalia’s Glori-Fried Chicken announced itself in Memphis in 1968, in the summer after MLK was assassinated in the city. Flanked by the future NAACP head Judge Benjamin Hooks and the civil-rights lawyer A. W. Willis, who fought to desegregate the University of Mississippi, Jackson may have believed that she was bringing a bit of hope to black America by describing her franchise as providing an economic uplift. With every cardboard box of golden fried chicken or platter of cornmeal-crusted catfish purchased, the restaurant was allowing customers to “buy black,” an imperative in an era where black capitalism captured the attention of black radicals and Republicans alike. Mahalia’s Glori-Fried, as an ostensibly black-owned business, ensured that managing a franchise was dignified and important work for the black community. The chain offered training courses in franchise management that were punctuated by formal graduation ceremonies. After enjoying a bit of success in majority-black neighborhoods, like Chicago’s South Side, Mahalia’s was able to ink a deal for a takeout concept connected to Gulf Oil stations. By partnering with the chicken chain, Gulf could signal that it understood and appreciated long-neglected and -disrespected black consumers. In black America, a franchise wasn’t just a franchise; it was a marker of hope and a way for corporations to add a layer of gravitas in their search for profits. Gulf gushed to the Chicago Defender that “since Mahalia Jackson’s System is black-owned, -managed, and -staffed, and is hiring in the communities in which it operates, Gulf hopes it is helping to provide black business and employment opportunities.” Mahalia’s was providing jobs, but was it really growing black wealth? With the Hookers out of the sight of the Black Power diners who thought they were buying black when they ordered hand pies, these restaurants—like many franchises—were offering a mirage. Mahalia’s was a name leased to a concept, and franchising, regardless of the race of the franchise owner, could never revolutionize an economy that left blacks vulnerable to the excesses of racial capitalism.Defining Jackson’s business was quite difficult, because it was a subsidiary of the Hookers’ franchising entity, but it needed to maintain the impression that it was a quasi-philanthropic, black-owned endeavor. Willis described it as a “partnership with equal rights and opportunities for both parties. Ours will be a distinctive product, tailored to the taste of our market.” Willis was not clear about who the partners actually were and what parties meant. Willis connected Glori-Fried to the conversation about black capitalism delivering solutions to the day’s problems. “Recent urban unrest has resulted in a desire for economic development and independence within the black community,” he said, promising that “most of the profits … will be directed toward this new economic development.” Hooks explained that the Minnie Pearl’s system-management team would serve as a “consultant” to the new effort and help “speed up” the training necessary to open new stores. “The urban black ghetto is a virtually untapped market for an intelligent fast food franchise business, and we know our market,” Hooks said. “We think that’s a perfect partnership.”[Read: Why celebrities get scammed]Like many get-rich-quick schemes, the Hooker brothers’ chicken racket enjoyed a boom before the inevitable bust. In the spring of 1968, Minnie Pearl’s stock went public, and its initial offering of $20 a share doubled by the end of the day. They were soaring—or so it seemed. But the expansion was expensive, and it’s quite possible that the brothers did not know how to run a restaurant chain. Eventually, the blazing-hot enterprise became the subject of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. With all the brothers’ far-flung plans and development enterprises, “there was almost no way to actually figure out how much money was being spent,” the Nashville historian Bill Carey noted. When the financial instability became clear to investors, the stock plummeted to $10 a share. Soon, a chain that seemed destined to become not just one but two household names was worth almost nothing.John Jay Hooker never succeeded with Minnie Pearl’s chicken, but he never left public life, and he emerged from the meltdown as the CEO of another company. When a chain fails, the franchisees suffer the most. They often have to pay back loans for businesses that are shuttered, and if the franchisor doesn’t pay their bills, vendors and contractors come knocking on the franchisee’s door. Even for the folks who didn’t invest in the brothers’ restaurants, there were hard feelings. Some of Mahalia’s fans were shocked to learn that she didn’t own the restaurants that piped in her music in the dining rooms. The notion of leading an economic civil-rights movement by opening one chicken restaurant at a time didn’t quite materialize. Rather, a small cohort of black businesspeople were able to become wealthy by working with mainstream companies like McDonald’s and Burger King, and they did their part for black communities, but their wealth did not translate into economic liberation for the vast majority of African Americans.Perhaps Burgerim’s new recruits were as hopeful as the franchisees who signed up to join Mahalia’s capitalist choir. As in the aftermath of the industry-shaking collapses, 50 years ago, it seems like there won’t be any reforms or changes to the industry as a result of what happened to Burgerim. Meanwhile, Burgerim franchisees are learning how little recourse they have when the parent company goes bust. There will be months of meetings with attorneys, attempts to break leases, and fire sales on restaurant equipment, but if the past is an indicator, we also know that the franchising dream won’t be liquidated with this latest round of scandal.
2020-02-06 19:07:13
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Only Telephones Are Good
As you kneel beside your bed tonight, and dote briefly on each of the world’s miseries, expend a few seconds on Shawn Sebastian. As a Democratic precinct secretary in Story County, Sebastian needed to report the results of his local caucus to the state party.“I’ve been on hold for over an hour with the Iowa Democratic Party,” he told Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, around 10 p.m. last night. The party “tried to, I think, promote an app to report the results. The app just, like, doesn’t work, so we’ve been recommended to call into the hotline.” Muzak piped in the background. “I’m just waiting on hold and doing my best,” Sebastian repeated.Then, suddenly, the hotline came alive—a woman’s voice asked if he needed help. “Hello? Hello?” said the voice. “I’ve got to get off the phone,” Sebastian said. Yet before he could actually greet the operator (“Okay, hi. Hello?”) came the tell-tale click of a dead receiver.And with the rising resignation of a trained Shakespearean, Sebastian turned to Blitzer and announced: “They hung up on me.” It took him roughly another hour to finally deliver his results. (They are: Sanders, 2; Warren, 2; Buttigieg, 2.)The point of this story is not that technology is bad. In the pandemonium of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus—in which a custom-made and little-tested app failed, with no apparent backup plan, delaying the results nearly a day—that argument will be advanced loudly and often. The point of the story is that telephones are, in fact, the best technology. If the Iowa Democratic Party had recognized this truth, Sebastian would never have been left lingering on hold. And not only should the Iowa Democratic Party have relied more eagerly on telephones, but we all should use them more. Phones are efficient, irreplaceable, and essential to civic life. And we are reckless and stupid, as a society, to be abandoning them in pursuit of software’s siren song.[Read: Why the Iowa caucus birthed a thousand conspiracy theories]Iowa is a microcosm of this effect. There was an obvious alternative to developing a new piece of software: Just get a bunch of volunteers to sit in a big room in Des Moines and talk to precinct secretaries on the phone. Had the state party developed some form of authorization ahead of time—perhaps by giving each precinct secretary a codeword, on a sheet of paper—callers could have provided results quickly and securely. Iowa has 1,681 precincts: Assuming the state party could find several hundred volunteers, and that each conversation with a local secretary lasted 20 minutes or so (as Sebastian later reported), the task would be complete in about two hours. If the party were asking only for final caucus results, it could complete the same task with about 60 volunteers.Such a system could be infiltrated, maybe, but it could not be easily hacked. It requires little training: Almost everyone, of every age, knows how to place a phone call. And simple voice calls are accessible to the roughly one in five Americans who do not own a smartphone.[Read: Why no one answers their phone anymore]A telephone-based system is also proven. Year in and year out, in races big and small, the Associated Press provides gold-standard election-result data. It compiles those data through an old-fashioned phone tree: First, a local AP stringer calls a set of county clerks and gets vote tallies, then she calls an AP vote-entry clerk in Spokane, Washington, and reads them over the phone. This seemingly low-tech process has produced nearly every live election result that you have seen on TV or website—emphasis on live. “It’s an essential process that requires dedicated people and documented expertise,” brags the AP. That may be true. But it is not so mysterious that it should elude a local political party.Yet it should not surprise us that the Iowa Democrats declined to use phones. We all do. Every single day, for no good reason, Americans now eschew making phone calls, even when they will provide the best information in the most efficient way. If it’s 5 p.m. on a Monday of a three-day weekend, and you want to know whether your local pizza place is open, the fastest and best option is to call it. But time after time, I have seen people satisfy themselves with Google’s sheepish approximation. “Well, it looks like they’re usually open till 6, but that may change because of the holiday,” announces whoever happens to be in the car’s passenger seat, their nose three inches from the glowing iPhone. “I guess we’ll see,” says the driver, turning onto the interstate. Twenty minutes later, you have no one to blame but yourself when you find Vito’s of Poughkeepsie uses Sunday hours on President’s Day.Already I can hear the roars of “OK Boomer” that will inevitably meet this post. So let me clarify, first, that I was born in the 1990s. I have come to love the phone as an adult. There remains an immense amount of information in the world that is easiest to access by phone. Should you worry about your child’s mild flu symptoms? Call the pediatrician. Need to know if funding for the town library increased last year? Call city hall.And while I hear my fellow Millennials complain about phone anxiety, I wonder who is encouraging that particular neuroticism. For in every other realm, the country’s largest companies have midwifed this societal retreat from telephony. It is far easier for corporations, of course, if we use their apps, whether it be to complain or query or order a grande nonfat chai latte. If we order on the app, our request is tabulated and measurable; it is automatically monitored and easier to optimize. Best of all, local employees—those people called, in any other context, our neighbors—can be judged based on how fast they respond to our needs. The rise of what the writer Malcolm Harris calls “servant apps” is stripping the world of the easiest form of solidarity, which is geography. It used to be that, when you moved into a new home, the previous occupants left you their binder of local takeout and delivery menus. In those first months, you tried out the local offerings; over the years, you got to know the voice on the other side of the phone. Today, when city dwellers move to a new neighborhood, they reload Seamless.[Read: The company that botched the Iowa caucus was formed only months ago]Talking on the phone is also—let’s be clear—very easy. Toddlers can do it with aplomb. First graders learn how to call 911. Whereas texting or Instagram DMing proceeds as a kind of ambient chatter with no clear start or stop point—allowing all sorts of innovative new forms of passive-aggression, chief among them ghosting—a phone call is simple. It requires a greeting. Then it requires a statement of purpose. Then the two parties talk. Then eventually someone needs to get off the line, and the conversation ends. This discrete pattern holds whether you called to report Story County Precinct 1-1 or whether you just called to say “I love you.”Phones are beautiful, really. “The telephone lets anybody say what he wants to the person of his choice; he can conduct business, express love, or pick a quarrel. It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with—or protect—the privacy of their exchange,” observed the philosopher Ivan Illich in 1973. To him, phones had the best quality that a technology could have: conviviality. “They can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user,” he wrote. Phones, in his view, were a tool of both liberty and equality.Which is to say: They are a tool of democracy. Make no mistake about the end goal of all of this. As Americans, we have spent the past several decades building a sociotechnical system that aims to free people from ever having to talk to strangers. “‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ That is a lesson for four-year-olds,” writes the political theorist Danielle Allen. She points out that only the president gets to pretend that no American is a stranger: He can look into everyone’s eye and shake everyone’s hand. “The more fearful we citizens are of speaking to strangers, the more we are docile children and not prospective presidents; the greater the distance between the president and us, the more we are subjects, not citizens,” she says. “Talking to strangers is a way of claiming one’s political majority and, with it, a presidential ease and sense of freedom.” (It is also a good way of figuring out who should run for president.)We hate talking to strangers—so instead we argue by tweet, order by servant app, and address the world from behind constructed veils of personal comfort. What a calamity. Talking to strangers is good. It is good for you, and it is good for the stranger. It is an economic good, as a kind of public luxury; it is a moral good, as a form of ethical instruction. Exodus 22:21 famously commands its readers not to mistreat or oppress a stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” To this we should add an American epilogue: Do not abandon the stranger on the phone, for you were left on hold in Des Moines.
2020-02-05 00:23:24
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Company That Botched the Iowa Caucus Was Formed Only Months Ago
Updated at 10:58 p.m. ET on February 4, 2020. It’s all fun and games until someone’s app messes up the Democratic Iowa caucus.Before yesterday’s debacle, “Shadow” was merely a playful name. A small team of political technologists had given it to their company when it launched early last year, largely as a reference to their primary product: Lightrail, which is supposed to make moving data among different campaign tools easier. Light and Shadow, get it?That might have been clever in a conference room. But now the name seems sinister. After problems with an app made by Shadow, the Iowa Democratic Party had to postpone announcing the results of yesterday’s caucus, throwing the presidential race into chaos, enraging Democrats and Republicans alike, and birthing a ton of conspiracy theories about hacking and other malicious interventions.How could this have happened? At this early juncture, the Shadow situation seems like a testament to the faith that people place in technology and political insiders. (The company’s core team, led by CEO Gerard Niemira, is made up of veterans of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2016.) Shadow incorporated only in September, meaning that a crucial piece of the Iowa caucus was in the hands of a company that was technically five months old. Despite serious warnings from experts, Iowa’s Democratic Party handed part of its election infrastructure to a highly networked start-up with a handful of engineers building an entirely untried app. The resulting mess shows the deeply interconnected nature of political operatives and the risks of chasing the newest new thing.In preparation for the caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party wanted to update its reporting infrastructure, moving away from a system in which the state’s precincts would phone in results to the state party and introducing an app the precincts could use to simply upload the information. The party paid Shadow $60,000 over the past few months to develop an app called IowaReporterApp, according to financial disclosures. In principle, this is not a complicated application. It must send the results from 1,700 precincts to a central office for tabulation. The caucus runners had to take and upload a picture of their results, which were then supposed to be captured by the app.[Read: Who needs the Russians?]But something or somethings went wrong. Vice detailed failed attempts to log in to the app, and noted that very little testing could have been completed on the app, because of the short development period. In cases when precinct chairs were able to log in, according to CNN, the Shadow app struggled at the final step of the results-reporting process. A precinct chair told CNN that after the precinct chairs uploaded the photo, “the app showed different numbers than what they had submitted as captured in their screenshot.”The Iowa Democratic Party appears to have confirmed that this is what went wrong. “While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system,” the party’s chair, Troy Price, said in a statement this morning. “This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”To damp down fears about the integrity of the data, the Iowa Democratic Party has emphasized the existence of a paper trail, a key facet of election integrity. “Because of the required paper documentation, we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate,” Price said.Over the past 20 years, small technology companies like Shadow have become an important piece of what it is to run for office. You need websites, digital advertising, and voter-data handling, as well as fundraising and voter outreach via text and email. While large campaigns can afford their own tech teams, most candidates and pieces of the party infrastructure rely on outside vendors, which supply them with software. Before this week, Shadow had highlighted only one client: the Hampden Township Democratic Club, in New Jersey.Niemira, the CEO of Shadow, was the director of product for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, working on voter-outreach tools. One staffer who worked closely with Niemira described him as “an exceptionally nice guy who knew what he was doing,” and told me that the email and text-messaging tools his team built worked well. (The staffer requested anonymity for privacy reasons.)Even if someone is not a grifter or a shady character, if you look anywhere in political tech, you’ll find a dizzying web of connections. The reason is that campaigns are short-term affairs, so people jump from one job to another, sometimes founding consultancies or small companies. Shadow has precisely that profile. It sold its text-messaging platform to many political organizations, including Pete Buttigieg’s and Joe Biden’s campaigns.[Read: Why the Iowa caucus birthed a thousand conspiracy theories]It seems clear that Shadow will take the fall here, even if the behind-the-scenes story of what went wrong with the app is probably complicated. The company fell on its sword on Twitter, apologizing. One crucial piece is what role another new and well-funded nonprofit called Acronym (another cheeky name!) played in the Iowa debacle. Acronym has received massive funding ($75 million) from Silicon Valley technologists and other wealthy individuals to build campaign tech for progressives. According to Niemira’s profile on LinkedIn, he was the CTO of Acronym until the spring of 2019, while also serving as the founder and CEO of a separate company, Groundbase, until Shadow spun up. (Both Shadow and Acronym have not responded to requests for comment.)Acronym has muddied the waters by repeatedly revising how it describes its relationship with Shadow. In January 2019, Acronym’s founder, Tara McGowan, tweeted that her organization had “acquired Groundbase, the best CRM + SMS tool on the political market, along with their incredible team led by @gjniemira + are launching Shadow, a new tech company to build smarter infrastructure for campaigns.” It also appears that McGowan was at some point operationally involved with Shadow: She invited interested parties to direct message her about the company’s “roadmap.”Then, as the debacle unfolded, Acronym put out a statement running from the flaming wreckage. “Acronym is an investor in several for-profit companies across the progressive media and technology sectors,” the company said. “One of those independent, for-profit companies is Shadow, Inc, which has other private investors.” Sometime between last night at 2:34 a.m. eastern time, when I took a screenshot, and this morning, Acronym changed the language on its website from saying that it had “launched Shadow” to saying that it “invested in Shadow.”Things happen with campaign technology. People are building fast with shoestring budgets. The apps don’t get enough testing. The volunteers don’t get enough training. “There was never any training on how to use the app or real-time getting the users in a room and seeing if they could log in,” says Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats in Iowa. “A lot of people were only getting the ability to download in the last couple of days.” Bagniewski also says that it wasn’t just the reporting app that failed. Much of the technology that the state party rolled out did not work correctly, he says, noting a glitchy online-accessibility request form.Democrats had a famous flameout with software called Houdini in 2008. Mitt Romney’s campaign had similar problems with tech it called Orca. “We had time. We had resources,” Harper Reed, who ran the technology team for Barack Obama in 2012, told me at the time. “We had done what we thought would work, and it still could have broken. Something could have happened.”But how the decision was made to select Shadow, what the Iowa Democratic Party asked for, and what the company delivered all merit scrutiny. The biggest question is: Why and how did an unproven company end up building this one-off caucus app, which seems entirely distinct from its primary work?That’s one reason clarifying the relationship between Shadow and Acronym is important. McGowan’s husband, Michael Halle, was Hillary Clinton’s lead organizer in Iowa, and has deep links to the state-party infrastructure. For those upset by the caucus situation—particularly Bernie Sanders supporters who have long had beef with the Democratic hierarchy—the fact that Halle is now a Buttigieg adviser won’t do anything to tamp down their anger. Ben Halle, Michael’s brother, is Buttigieg’s Iowa communications director, and made waves tweeting out caucus results sheets that had an as-yet-unexplained PIN written on them. (I’ve reached out to Michael Halle for comment and will update the piece if I hear back.)Before the caucus mess, the Iowa Democratic Party had kept the app under tight wraps, refusing to disclose any details about it. Now the only way it can restore trust in the integrity of the process will be to come clean about how it settled on this app developer.The problem with conspiracy theories, though, is that they assume high levels of coordination and competence. Look around and that seems far-fetched.Jeremy Bird, a star field director with the Obama campaign, has noted that the problems with the caucus reporting went far beyond the app itself. People were downloading the app on the day of the caucus itself, not far in advance. “That is a training/planning/organizational problem,” Bird tweeted. “Should have had multiple dry runs & zero people should have been downloading anything on caucus night.”As is often the case, the technology that gets deployed doesn’t solve problems. It reveals them.
2020-02-04 23:02:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
Who Needs the Russians?
You may be wondering if the Iowa caucus chaos is a hit job by election-meddling Russians. The morning after caucus-goers filed into high-school gyms across Iowa, the state’s Democratic Party is still unable to produce results. The app it developed for precisely this purpose seems to have crashed. The party was questioned before by experts about the wisdom of using a secretive app that would be deployed at a crucial juncture, but the concerns were brushed away. Troy Price, the state party’s chairman, claimed that if anything went wrong with the app, staffers would be ready “with a backup and a backup to that backup and a backup to the backup to the backup.” And yet, more than 12 hours after the end of the caucus, they are unable to produce results. Last night, some precinct officials even waited on hold for an hour to report the results—and got hung up on.If the Russians were responsible for this confusion and disarray, that might be a relatively easy problem to fix. This is worse.It appears that the Iowa Democrats nixed the plan to have precincts call in their results, and instead hired a for-profit tech firm, aptly named Shadow, to tally the caucus results. (As if the name weren’t enough to fuel conspiracies, the firm is run by an alum of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.) The party paid Shadow $60,000 to develop an app that would tally the results, but gave the company only two months to do it. Worried about Russian hacking, the party addressed security in all the wrong ways: It did not open up the app to outside testing or challenge by independent security experts.[Read: Chaos at the caucus]This method is sometimes dubbed “security through obscurity,” and while there are instances for which it might be appropriate, it is a fragile method, especially unsuited to anything public on the internet that might invite an attack. For example, putting a spare key in a secret place in your backyard isn’t a terrible practice, because the odds are low that someone will be highly motivated to break into any given house and manage to look exactly in the right place (well, unless you put it under the mat). But when there are more significant incentives and the system is open to challenge by anyone in the world, as with anything on the internet, someone will likely find a way to get the keys, as the Motion Picture Association of America found out when its supposedly obscure digital keys, meant to prevent copyright infringement, quickly leaked. Shadow’s app was going to be used widely on caucus day, and independent security experts warned that this method wasn’t going to work. The company didn’t listen.If Shadow had opened up the app to experts, they likely would have found many bugs, and the app would have been much stronger as a result. But even that process would not have made the app secure. An app that is downloaded onto the phones of thousands of precinct officials across Iowa—with varying degrees of phone security and different operating systems—cannot be fully protected against Russian or any other hackers. Underground “hacks” for sale allow remote attackers to infiltrate phones, especially ones without the latest system updates, as is the case for many Android phones. Creating a more hardened phone network is possible, but that would require issuing secure phones to every official, and providing training and technical support. There is no indication that any of that was done here.But why bother hacking the system? Anything developed this rapidly that has not been properly stress-tested—and is being used in the wild by thousands of people at the same time—is likely to crash the first time it is deployed. This has happened before, to Orca, Mitt Romney’s Election Day app, which was supposed to help volunteers get voters to the polls, but instead was overwhelmed by traffic and stopped working, leaving thousands of fuming voters without rides. It happened in 2008 to Barack Obama’s app, dubbed Houdini, which also crashed on Election Day. It happened to HealthCare.gov—the website that was launched to help people find coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but that failed so badly, it took a team of people from Silicon Valley who quickly and voluntarily left their much cushier jobs and worked seven-day weeks for months to fix it.[Read: The Iowans who reject their state’s special privilege]Immediately after it became clear that the Iowa Democratic Party was unable to produce results and, worse, was talking about “inconsistencies” in results, Donald Trump surrogates started talking up how this must have been a fix perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee, perhaps in hopes of riling up supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who were already suspicious of the party establishment. Some Sanders supporters, wary after a last-minute poll widely expected to show a Sanders surge was scrapped due to errors, needed no such encouragement, and suspected that this was designed to trip up the momentum their candidate expected from his anticipated win.(To which I can only say: The DNC isn’t competent enough to pull off such a plot.) Chaos reigned last night, as campaigns struggled to figure out what to do. Some started hinting that their candidate had won or done very well. Senator Amy Klobuchar showed real political talent and quickly gave a cheery “we outperformed expectations” victory speech early in the night. Being out in front of the other candidates gave her a chance to demonstrate a calm demeanor to a national audience. Other campaigns quickly followed suit, giving hasty overlapping speeches. The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, who seems to have performed poorly, has lawyered up. (Biden may want the Iowa results to remain questionable until he can get to states where he is expected to perform better.) The result of this collective chaos will be more mistrust at a time when mistrust in America’s political system is rampant.There never should have been an app. There are officials responsible for precinct results, but there are also representatives of campaigns on the ground in every precinct. Even without a more substantial reform of the complex and demanding caucus process, a simple adversarial confirmation system (a process used by many countries) would have worked well.Here’s how it might go: Once the results are known in each precinct, representatives designated by the campaigns get together and sign copies of the results. Each campaign gets a copy of the results signed by everyone else, as does the precinct official. The official phones in the results and texts a photo to a designated number. The integrity is guaranteed by the fact that every campaign can also tally its own results, tracking official precinct announcements as they come in. Such a system would be immensely difficult to meddle with at scale, as designated representatives from every campaign (who are adversarial and have no incentive to cooperate) would have to fully collude and keep it all secret at thousands of locations, under the watchful eyes of the citizens there. Everything is checked twice, and no paper trail is discarded until the results are finalized. Results would be known within the hour, with very little reason to worry about hacking or meddling.America already knows how to do election integrity. The National Academy of Sciences released a lengthy report about it last year, complete with evidence-based recommendations for every step of the electoral process. I wrote a summary of that report, but the full thing is available online. It tells us why optical paper-scan systemsoffer us the best mix of convenience and security, and advises us how to keep a proper paper trail. Experts and civil-society organizations have been advocating for these changes for years. It would take just a bit of money and political will to fix much of this, and fairly quickly. Instead, we’ve kicked off a 2020 election season that promises to be fraught in any number of ways. Several campaigns have reported that the same app is due to be used in Nevada in just three weeks.Who needs the Russians?
2020-02-04 20:02:03
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Misogynistic Joke That Became a Goth-Meme Fairy Tale
The internet’s cast of characters always has room for one more. The newest is Doomer Girl, a quickly sketched cartoon woman with black hair, black clothes, and sad eyes ringed with red makeup. Visually, there’s not much to Doomer Girl beyond that. She has a lightly sad expression and a permanent blush that give the impression she is bummed, but not dysfunctionally so. She’s aspirational-gloomy, like Billie Eilish with a bob and no hands.Doomer Girl is also almost unaccountably popular. People started sharing the original sketch of her on social media less than a month ago, clearing and refilling the thought bubble above her head each time. Fans have since flooded Twitter with art depicting the character’s imagined friendships or romantic relationships with other internet-famous cartoon women. Some people post pictures of themselves dressed up as her. Already, Doomer Girl’s image has become flexible. Her eyes are canonically dark, but new drawings of her sometimes make them green; her black sweater has been replaced with a muscle tank. “Her aesthetic looks similar to mine and, well, I’m a depressed 21-year-old just trying to survive HAHAHA,” Luna, a cosplayer from the Philippines, wrote to me on Twitter.To Doomer Girl’s fans, who are mostly young women, her appeal is simple enough: If Doomer Girl were real, she’d be a cool girl, dark and sad in a stylish way. Who hasn’t cosplayed as one of those? But Doomer Girl’s past is as twisted as her implied outlook on life. She came out of 4chan, the infamous hotbed of frequently racist and misogynistic internet culture. She was created as the female counterpart to another cartoon character called Doomer, a ragged-looking guy with three-day scruff, a black beanie, and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his mouth. In Doomer comics, the joke is that Doomer Girl should realize she is Doomer’s perfect match, but she rejects him instead because she’s a woman, and women live only to withhold. (A classic!)Doomer Girl could have waxed and waned and died there, but she was plucked from 4chan and moved to Reddit, then onto Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram in a matter of days. The viral spread was driven largely by women who were removing her from a context in which she was a mechanism of male self-mythologizing and remaking her into something joyful.Doomer Girl was posted by an anonymous 4chan user in January 2020.In the history of memes, the familiar story is one of harmless images accruing sinister meanings that turn them into weapons—the most famous example being Pepe the Frog, an innocuous web-comic character that was co-opted by various extremist groups leading up to the 2016 election. But Doomer Girl shows how the reverse can happen too: A cruel idea gets whittled down and recirculated without context, because its origin is less interesting than the creative possibilities.For the past year and a half, crudely drawn internet characters named with the -oomer suffix have been getting odder and more specific. The original was a “30-year-old Boomer,” created on 4chan to make fun of Millennials who espouse ideas associated with Baby Boomers. “Zoomers” are teenagers whose entire personalities were molded by the algorithms of SoundCloud and YouTube. Doomers, meanwhile, are the nihilistic cousins of “Bloomers” and “Gloomers,” all three gradients of the same 20-something. Whereas Bloomers are well adjusted and Gloomers are depressed because they are not, Doomers have simply stopped trying. They are no longer pursuing friendships or relationships, and get no joy from anything because they know that the world is coming to an end. As one of the many iterations of the meme goes, a Doomer “pays for his phone but only use [sic] it to know what time it is.”The -oomer family extends even further, into dozens of oddly specific and niche types—an entire visual vocabulary for young people who want to make fun of happy idiots and stereotype themselves as particular shades of down-and-out. The Doomer character was first posted in September 2018, on 4chan’s business-and-finance board, and reposted the next day on the /r9k/ board, which is one of the more repugnant places on the internet. To an outsider, the average post will read either as garbled nonsense or almost parodically misogynistic and racist vitriol. The board is probably best known for its frequent calls for a “beta uprising,” in which neglected cerebral men take revenge against women and “alphas”—including a September 2015 post that the FBI investigated for its possible connection to a mass shooting.[Read: It’s Not Easy Being Meme]Many Doomer memes, as Mel magazine’s Miles Klee reported last spring, nod at anti-Semitism and other alt-right extremist views. Among all the usual sad stuff, several incarnations of the original 4chan Doomer template include phrases like “Redpilled on Jews, but bored of discussing it,” and “The West is gone and genuinely I fear for the future generations.” When the question of whether a girl could identify as a Doomer first came up—several months before Doomer Girl herself was born—Doomer fans bickered. Maybe, but she’d have to be exceptionally messed up or “unusually intelligent.” More likely, she would be vapid and amoral: “No clue who the Smiths are,” “Not actually depressed,” “Cheats on bf all the time,” and so forth. Another batch of early Doomer Girl memes were vaguely transphobic, positing that Doomer Girl was just Doomer after he’d eaten a meatless Impossible Burger.Shortly after she appeared, however, Doomer Girl was reposted into r/transitiongoals and r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—two large communities organized around memes and in-jokes about transitioning. Members commented on one post that Doomer Girl had a “nice face shape” and a “cute haircut.” The commenters were fully aware of her origins: Reddit’s thriving network of trans-specific spaces tend to be deeply versed in meme culture and the language of 4chan. One commenter summed up r/Doomer, the subreddit dedicated to Doomer memes, as “extreme nihilistic depression with a dollop of toxic masculinity.” But the original poster of Doomer Girl in r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns, a 16-year-old from Germany named Siobhan, told me it was “kinda fun” to take the Doomer idea out of its original context—where she saw it being used to express anti-Semitism—and make it into something positive. Doomer Girl “presents herself as a goth, which I also want to be,” Siobhan added. (She asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons.)As Doomer Girl became more popular, her connection to her origins became far less clear. According to Tumblr, searches for Doomer Girl increased by 558 percent from January 7 to January 15. Most of what they turned up weren’t memes, but people dressed up as Doomer Girl or images of her redrawn in more detail. Within a few days, versions of Doomer Girl that were actually human faces or borderline-unrecognizable overhauls were more visible on the platform than the original.Fan art by the Tumblr user unzipstaco. (unziptaco / Tumblr)Doomer Girl is, a month into her young life, a generalized prompt. She’s the basic idea of a melancholy girl with an elegant bob—neutral to some, inspirational to others. The term context collapse is often used to refer to the potential danger of pulling an idea out of a specific social network and placing it in front of a much larger and diffuse one. But context collapse isn’t always dangerous; it’s only inherently chaotic. As Forrest Wilkins, a 26-year-old U.S.-based developer who posted a meta remix of the Doomer Girl meme to Tumblr, sees it, so much online culture starts out harmless and spirals into something toxic. “It’s nice to see it go in the other direction,” he told me.The people who claim ownership of Doomer, meanwhile, are pissed. Two weeks after the first Doomer Girl cartoon hit 4chan, the moderators of the r/Doomer subreddit banned her. “Anyone posting doomerette memes will get his post removed and his account will be banned for 3 days,” the announcement read. Once Doomer Girl was added to the mix, the moderators told me, the subreddit had blown up, adding 6,000 new members in a matter of two weeks.The moderators criticized the new members as a bunch of “normies” who didn’t understand the Doomer lifestyle, or as self-obsessed women eager to get attention by playing dress up. “We don’t want our forum to be invaded and taken over by a bunch of snapchat addicted zoomers, e-girl worshipping simps, and histrionic e-thots looking to expand their collection of orbiters,” one moderator posted. On 4chan, an anonymous user shared a copypasta—a punchy paragraph meant to be copied and pasted wherever relevant—that began, “The doomer girl meme is destroying the whole point of doomerism,” and ended with a reference to Fight Club.This is the type of internet conflict that reflexively admits its own silliness. While some members of r/Doomer are freaking out, others are mocking them for their inability to relax. But many members do appear to consider this a matter of gravity: The memes that define social identities and shape the borders of a subculture are also the memes that can trigger the most severe defensiveness. “A good part of meme-ing, especially at this level, is gatekeeping and keeping people out,” Matt Schimkowitz, an editor of the internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme told me. “The more spread they see, the more they want to tighten up the ship.”In the past week or so, there has been some pushback against the moderators’ gatekeeping. The comment section on a recent post making fun of a “cute” and “wholesome” Doomer Girl meme is mixed. Some Doomers share in the original poster’s ire, while others respond flatly: “You cannot copyright a meme.” The question of whether you can copyright a meme, though, has been haunting the internet for years. Matt Furie, the illustrator behind Pepe the Frog, issued dozens of takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and successfully sued Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, for using it in promotional materials. It was an understandable move that fair-use proponents still found “troubling” because it set a precedent for stifling the internet’s fundamental remix culture.The openness that allows art to be remixed toward detestable political ends is also what allows something hateful to be redeemed. (In a world with strict copyright for images that circulate online, Doomer Girl would have stayed what she was: a mechanism for a bad joke.) The argument going on in r/Doomers is mostly about whether young women have any right to remix things in the first place. As one Reddit user wrote, “Women and normies [are] taking something original and meaningful to a specific group of men and making it about themselves.” But the truest tradition of memes has always been pilfering things from boring places with rigid rules, redoing them, and creating chaos.
2020-02-03 17:48:00
2021-05-12T08:53:47.000000
1 y
theatlantic.com
The Staggering Vulnerability of Global Elites
After United Nations officials aired allegations that Jeff Bezos’s phone had likely been hacked in the course of his WhatsApp communications with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the logical next question was whether other rich-and-famous pen pals had been maliciously spammed too.An aide to Jared Kushner did not respond to myqueries about whether Donald Trump’s son-in-law was worried about his own devices being compromised as a result of his reported WhatsApp correspondence with the Saudi leader. A spokesperson for Virgin confirmed that its billionaire founder, Richard Branson, had communicated with the crown prince (known as MbS) by phone, but told me the company had nothing more to add. Twitter, whose CEO, Jack Dorsey, has met with MbS, declined to comment.But focusing on the specific individuals who may or may not have come into the crown prince’s crosshairs risks missing the larger lesson of this episode: that these people could conceivably come into his crosshairs at all.[Read: What Jeff Bezos’s reported phone hack says about billionaires]In this dystopian digital age in which we’re desperately trying to salvage some semblance of privacy, we have become accustomed to raised alarms about companies mining people’s data and about governments waging elaborate cyberattacks against their adversaries. But this is different terrain: a powerful state actor allegedly infecting a powerful non-state actor as their personal relationship soured. It’s the specter of cyberwarfare at its most atomized and human, the end of our collective innocence about adding a “new contact.”Many observers have noted that if a hack like this can happen to as well-resourced a figure as Bezos—the head of Amazon and the owner of The Washington Post, who enjoys the additional distinction of being the wealthiest person in the world—it can happen to anyone. But the more significant takeaway may be that if it can happen to anyone, it can happen to the rich and powerful, and with extraordinarily high stakes, convulsing international relations and global business in the process.As my colleague Alexis Madrigal wrote, “You and I could chat on WhatsApp, but we would not have a cyberattack team able to craft us a virus for hacking each other’s phones, nor would our beef contribute to the collapse of certain Silicon Valley business models” predicated on Saudi investments. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden put it another way: “If the Saudi government had access to Jared Kushner’s phone, it'd be practically like putting a bug in the Oval Office.”“That is the real story here. That is the most amazing story,” Thomas Rid, an international-security expert at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “Bezos, one of the richest and most influential businesspeople in the United States, on the planet, is using the same technology—an iPhone X and WhatsApp—that all of us are using.” And even with all of his money and clout, he’s still struggling to get "proper visibility into whether his phone was hacked."Agnes Callamard, one of the two UN human-rights rapporteurs who released the statement on the Bezos allegations last week, told me the announcement was intended as a “warning” to the world that a no-holds-barred battle is brewing over information and that mechanisms need to be put in place to scale it back. Callamard invited “individuals who feel that they may have been compromised or their phone may have been compromised” by state-sponsored cyberattacks to approach her office confidentially, whereby they could be connected with cybersecurity experts.The UN statement also called for further investigation by U.S. and other relevant authorities into what Callamard and her colleague, David Kaye, deemed a credible forensic analysis of Bezos’s iPhone, which the businessman had commissioned from the consulting firm FTI. That probe concluded with “medium to high confidence” that a malware-laced video sent from a WhatsApp account belonging to MbS secretly siphoned data from the businessman’s device. The Post had been publishing columns critical of Saudi leaders by the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who in 2018 was murdered by agents of MbS’s government. But several information-security experts have questioned the FTI report. Rid, for instance, argued that FTI’s findings are “a very potent lead for further investigation” but not conclusive. The Saudi government, for its part, has dismissed the claims as “absurd.”Yet even if Bezos wasn’t hacked in the way FTI indicates he likely was, that doesn’t mean the scenario the company sketched out couldn’t happen. The fact remains that states currently have largely unfettered ability to purchase digital-surveillance technology from a growing number of private companies, and can exploit it for their own ends. Security experts at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have accused the Saudi government of deploying advanced spyware against journalists and dissidents, and these groups have been similarly targeted by other governments as well.The malware that allegedly breached Bezos’s phone is “almost impossible to trace and it has the capacity to self-destroy, so finding the source with 100 percent certainty is never possible,” Callamard said, underscoring the peril of such stealthy technologies in the hands of so many actors angling for access to sensitive information. (Consider, for example, the head-spinning speculation that MbS himself could have been hacked.)She urged a moratorium on the global trade in commercial surveillance tools until an international framework is created for preventing their misuse. Noting that more than 150 such tools are now on the market, a Washington Post editorial this week proposed that the framework involve governments requiring “vendors to certify that clients pass human rights muster, and that they don’t abuse a tool after purchase.”Such a regulatory framework, however, is unlikely to be erected. And even if one is, as Callamard acknowledged, “there will always be bad apples.” Rigorously policing the kind of spyware that may have infiltrated Bezos’s phone will be challenging; the depressing truth is that anyone who has the resources to develop or acquire this technology and access to valuable targets—two conditions that most governments meet—will not hit many obstacles along the way. "There are enough powerful players in this space who want these capabilities that they will continue to be created and sold,” Rid said. “But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything about it.”While Rid, who has written a forthcoming book on the history of disinformation and political warfare, said he sees value in seeking to rein in these technologies, he also noted that efforts to raise awareness about the tools risk going too far. When “we overstate the threat, we are creating more of it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he explained, pointing to how exaggerated characterizations of the effectiveness of Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 U.S. election encouraged other countries to invest in those capabilities.“I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of intelligence agencies, a lot of powerful players in the world are thinking [after high-profile incidents such as the Bezos case], This is interesting … I want one of those,” Rid said. And some of those new players will develop much more sophisticated operations than the one allegedly prosecuted against Bezos. These days, he said, “I am trusting my phone less and less.”[Read: Cancel billionaires]What makes this an especially confounding public-policy issue is that today’s unparalleled connectedness is both irresistibly alluring and profoundly dangerous, nowhere more so than in the circles MbS and Bezos inhabit. As the heir apparent to the Saudi throne since 2017, the crown prince initially dazzled luminaries around the world with demonstrations of his accessibility and determination to get down to business unencumbered by bureaucracy. The Wall Street Journal reports, “WhatsApp was a key tool of the young prince’s global charm campaign.” MbS “handed out his WhatsApp contact information to visiting dignitaries, businessmen, academics and some journalists so often that his phone streamed messages day and night,” which he would read and respond to regularly, the paper notes.During a whirlwind tour of the United States in 2018, MbS met with influential figures including the media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg, now a Democratic candidate for president. He swapped phone numbers with Bezos during a dinner party in Los Angeles, which gave way to chats about business partnerships. Soon enough, the crown prince was referring to Bezos as “my friend.”For billionaires, exchanging numbers must seem like a wonderful way for them to construct an ecosystem of influential friends. But it’s just as much a foolhardy way of stripping themselves of whatever enhanced protection their respective positions afford. As the journalist Richard Waters wrote in the Financial Times, attacks like the one Bezos allegedly suffered “play on weaknesses in the human operating system that can’t easily be patched”; electronic channels of communication, and the trust and personal networks they help build, are essential in the highest echelons of business and government. “For anyone aspiring to power and influence in the world, this prompts deeply uncomfortable questions,” Waters noted. “For instance, which is worse: that a future head of state hasn’t been sending you internet memes over WhatsApp, or that he has?”Securing the intimate access granted by a phone number may seem like an unqualified good. Having the email address of a powerful person is one thing; it’s quite another to be able to make the Saudi crown prince’s hand vibrate. But the connection cuts both ways. It can, as Bezos and his investigators now suspect, amount to handing over the keys to your digital life.
2020-01-30 20:21:44
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theatlantic.com