My Story at PandoDaily: “The Internet’s Own Boy”

The Internet's Own Boy

At PandoDaily I reviewed the new documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy.” It’s a new documentary about Aaron Swartz, the 26-year old activist and hacker who hanged himself last year just before he was to stand trial for downloading millions of academic articles.

The government’s case against Swartz involved the download of millions of articles from an academic database called JSTOR. In September 2010, Swartz began using a newly purchased laptop, a Python script, and MIT’s open network—which granted its users free access to JSTOR—to grab the articles. Once MIT and JSTOR administrators realized what was happening, the University installed a hidden camera in the unlocked wiring closet where Swartz had stationed his computer. Days later, Swartz was caught on the surveillance camera swapping a new hard drive. He was then swarmed by police, arrested, and eventually indicted on 13 felony counts.

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My Story at The New Yorker: Unseen Hands and The Prices of Things

For The New Yorker‘s business blog, I interview Kate Kelly, a reporter for CNBC, and author of the new book “The Secret Club That Rules the World.”

Why is it important that the public pay more attention to the commodities markets?

The contract market in commodities is analogous to the stock market for public corporations, essentially this unseen hand playing a role in setting the price for actual commodities: corn, copper, oil, gasoline, wheat, and so on. I think the connections between the trading community and the actual cash prices are not fully understood, and I think it’s something we all need to be concerned and upset about.

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Out of Eden Walk: The River Door

This is Paul Salopek. He has embarked on a 7-year journey–all of it walking–from east Africa, up through the Arabian Peninsula across Asia, through Alaska down to Chile. It will span 21,000 miles. He’s retracing the migration of ancient humans and writing about it for National Geographic. This is a piece from his latest dispatch:

At our last camp in the Dead Sea Valley, I asked Hamoudi if he was ill. He had been lagging all day, sometimes by more than a mile. He replied that his favorite niece was dying in a faraway hospital. The news had come that day by cell phone. He had needed to weep alone, so he slowed his step, but that was over now. Across 300 miles of trails in Jordan, I heard not a single complaint from this man.

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Science Deniers Are Freaking Out About “Cosmos”

Chris Mooney writers at Mother Jones:

Denying evolution: Sunday’s episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin’s world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of “artificial selection” by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin’s favorite metaphor: the “tree of life,” an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist’s favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.

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My Book Review at Esquire: The Sixth Extinction

At Esquire’s culture blog I review a new book by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Sixth Extinction. It’s about Darwin, Carbon and the Earth’s extinction events, past and present.

If this sixth extinction event is to be our legacy, will the most influential humans bother to seriously address the affect they’ve had on the Earth’s biology? Based on the latest UN climate summit, the one held in Warsaw where 133 developing countries and many green groups walked out in protest, the answer is a Cretaceous-ending-fireball-sized no. Industrialized nations have opted to do next to nothing, clinging to the illusion that their wealth will shield them from the food shortages and drought already seen in the Global South. Those most culpable and best equipped to handle emissions, are instead preoccupied with the righteous thrill of blue recycling bins and high-efficiency washing machines, praising the small gestures of ethical consumption, which from the perspective of developing nations, must sound like a demented lullaby.

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Spewing From the Facebook News Feed

In a sharp article that takes a curious turn at the end, Derek Thompson discusses the Facebook News Feed and how it’s influenced by users. The broader and more important point speaks to the role of Facebook as a news source and how it shapes the public’s attention on important issues and conversations.

The News Feed is perhaps the world’s most sophisticated mirror of its readers’ preferences—and it’s fairly clear that news isn’t one of them. We simply prefer stories that fulfill the very purpose of Facebook’s machine-learning algorithm, to show us a reflection of the person we’d like to be, to make us feel, to make us smile, and, most simply, to remind us of ourselves.

In Thompson’s view, since each user has the power to alter her News Feed, we can conclude that evocative and emotional stories are extremely popular on Facebook because users prefer engaging with these stories. We choose to like and share this kind of content and we prefer it over traditional journalism and “hard” news. Thompson believes that Facebook has become a portal to entertainment-focused stories because that’s what users actually want to consume.

The problem I see in this line of reasoning is how little attention is paid to Facebook’s own control of the algorithms that determine what users see. In Thompson’s essay he makes it seem as if users have full power to create the News Feed just because a user can friend/de-friend and follow certain pages. But I think Thompson confuses the ability to alter the News Feed with transparency and control over it. Except for Facebook employees, nobody knows what the News Feed algorithms look like. Thompson also fails to acknowledge that even machine-learning algorithms were created by humans and contain very human biases both unintentional and by design (which news sources are favored/what kind of behavior determines that a user actually likes a story).

Facebook’s interest is to maximize user engagement. By measuring likes, shares, and comments, the company is improving ways to keep us on the News Feed. But I think the question “How best to retain the audience?” is different from “What are the deeper preferences for consuming news?” Thompson, however, thinks they are the same.

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What Has Become of Business Journalism?

The New Yorker published my essay about the financial crisis and business journalism; I review a new book that talks about these issues.

“The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark” doesn’t attempt to enshrine old-media institutions. Instead, it defines accountability reporting and what’s needed to foster it, no matter the medium: resources, to fund extensive research; expert knowledge, to decipher sub-cultures; and resilient editors willing to withstand intimidation from the government and from powerful companies. Starkman’s strength is his insistence that we judge journalism from within its own tradition rather than jamming it through the logic of market efficiency or “disruptive” information technology and accepting what comes out.

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From Tweet to Ad to Mini Modern Scandal

AO Scott, movie critic of the New York Times, writes a personal essay on movie marketing and Twitter. After one of his tweets is altered and turned into a print movie ad, a strange conversation sparks.

Here we begin a rapid descent into a wormhole created by the collision of movie-awards campaigning and paracritical chirping. The world may be divided between those who think Twitter defines the boundaries of the universe and those who don’t know what it is. It may also be divided between those who follow every surge and stumble of the “race” to the Oscars and those who might or might not remember to tune into ABC on March 2. Somehow, I have found myself in the Venn diagram circle of hell where two pointless obsessions — with words and statues that, by any reasonable measure of significance, mean nothing — converge, and if you are still reading, I have dragged you along. As they say on Twitter: #sorrynotsorry.

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Foucault and Social Media

Rob Horning of The New Inquiry discusses Foucault and the way we speak, confess and perform on social media.

Sharing can be simply volunteering the self for ridicule, purging, nullification, ritual flaying — self-branding of a different kind. It’s why people sign up for demeaning reality TV shows, as Wayne Koestenbaum suggests in Humiliation. It’s part of why we sign up for Facebook. Moments of humiliation, Koestenbaum notes, “may be execrable and unendurable” but are also “genuine” in a “world that seems increasingly filled with fakeness.” Social media neatly increase that feeling of the world’s phoniness while providing a means for the sort of self-exposure that combats it. As more behavior seems inauthentic and “performative,” we have greater need to expose ourselves and have our own authenticity vindicated through the embarrassment this causes us.

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LinkedIn’s New Network for Teens Is a Wasted Opportunity

My essay at The New Republic

As scholars of education Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson have argued, the kind of behavior LinkedIn asks students to engage in—demonstrating their employability and admissions worthiness in contrast to their peers—exacerbates the inequality faced by students in low income households. The admissions process clearly favors students with the most polished, presentable resumes. LinkedIn mimics the admissions logic compelling students to look good on paper—the same logic that often confuses privilege with accomplishment and rewards achievements that only financial privilege can bring.

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