... My heart’s in Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 2015-09-04T21:39:57Z hourly 1 2000-01-01T12:00+00:00 Lessig 2016: A radical institutionalist runs for President http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/09/04/lessig-2016-a-radical-institutionalist-runs-for-president/ 2015-09-04T21:36:20Z Continue reading ]]> My friend Lawrence Lessig is exploring a run for president. His first step was to ask individuals to pledge towards a $1m war chest before Labor Day, agreeing to enter the Democratic primary if he received enough support. As of this evening, over 7000 donors have pledged over $860,000, and it looks likely that Lessig will become a candidate in three days.

I’m one of those 7000 donors who is encouraging him to run. But supporting Lessig’s campaign is different from supporting Sanders or Clinton, (or Bush or Trump, for that matter), and I’m supporting his cause for different reasons than I’d support any of theirs.

If Lessig is elected, he does not plan to serve his term as President – instead, if elected, he would stay in office long enough to pass a package of voting and campaign finance reforms, then resign, leaving his vice-president (possibly Bernie Sanders, possibly Elizabeth Warren) in charge. His reforms, contained in the Citizen Equality Act 2017, would require public funding of Presidential and Congressional campaigns, seek anti-gerrymandering reforms like Single Transferable Voting, and strengthen laws against voter suppression, like the Voting Rights Act.

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Lessig calls this a referendum presidency. In other words, he’s not asking people to vote on him as a potential president, but to use the presidential election as a referendum on campaign finance reform. If Lessig won the presidency, he would have a strong mandate to advocate for this legislation in Congress, and perhaps Congress would finally act on meaningful electoral reform once they saw a majority (or plurality, or plurality of electors, given our nation’s baffling electoral college system) supporting these reforms. This referendum strategy is consistent with an argument he’s offered in his last three books: campaign finance is more important than all other political issues, as we can’t make progress on other issues until we fix the laws that have turned the US from a democracy into an oligarchy.

I don’t think Lessig is going to win. He’s late to a race in which Clinton has a strong team, fundraising and endorsements in place, and where Sanders is already doing well in channeling the left of the party into a protest vote – splitting a liberal electorate with Sanders is an unlikely primary strategy. While I do think that there’s a large number of people on both the left and the right who see money in politics as a critical problem to solve, I think those who’ve aligned with Trump because they believe him to be beholden to no one will have a hard time switching their allegiance to a liberal Harvard professor. (It’s interesting to read Lessig on Trump, who Lessig concedes is a far more influential speaker on campaign finance reform at the moment than he is.)

It’s also reasonable to observe that even if Lessig did win, he’s still unlikely to accomplish what he wants. He would likely face a Republican-dominated Congress which would oppose a set of reforms that would disproportionately damage Republican’s chances in Congress. (Gerrymandering has disproportionately benefitted Republicans in Congress, and the voter suppression he’s fighting largely impacts groups that tend to vote Democratic. Both parties have some candidates with heavy SuperPAC support and others with primarily small donor support.)

What these analyses miss is that Lessig often wins by losing. Despite lambasting himself for losing Eldred vs. Ashcroft, Lessig’s failure to persuade the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act became a rallying point for the anti-copyright movement, helping build Creative Commons as credible alternative to a system determined to keep works out of the public domain. Lessig was dismissed as special master from United States v. Microsoft after the software giant claimed Lessig was biased against him, but the experience helped shape Lessig’s masterful and influential book, Code… and the case was ultimately decided in ways consistent with Lessig’s arguments. Some of Lessig’s recent losses are harder to parse: the $10m Mayday PAC raised and spent without tipping a single 2014 congressional race might be read as evidence that the influence of money in politics is not as simple as buying elections by raising soft money. Or it might have been a win in drawing attention to the cause, yielding a New York Times front page profile, a New Yorker story, Washington post articles and a great deal of public debate on the topic.

Seen in that light, Lessig’s once again in a good position to win by losing, so long as his referendum attracts sufficient attention. Were Lessig to pass the threshold to participate in the Democratic Party’s six debates, he’d have an unprecedented stage to make his case, and it’s possible he could get a commitment from Sanders or Clinton to make his reforms a central priority. Even if he achieves a level of visibility where his possible inclusion in the debates is discussed, the unusual nature of his candidacy suggests coverage would focus less on personality and electability than on his issues. And the unexpected success of Zephyr Teachout, Lessig’s close friend and now head of the Mayday PAC, who captured 34% of the vote in the New York State gubernatorial election suggests that frustrated progressives may be willing to support campaigns that raise issues, even if they don’t win offices.

I respect and admire Lessig deeply, and support the reforms he wants to make. I think his strategy to “hack” the election and turn it into a referendum just might work, and that even if it fails, it could have an enormous positive effect on the 2016 elections.

But that’s not why I pledged to Lessig’s campaign. I pledged because I’m becoming an insurrectionist, and I wish I could still be an institutionalist.

Chris Hayes, MSNBC host and author of “The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy”, offers institutionalism and insurrectionism as a new duality to help explain American politics. Institutionalists (on the left and on the right) see the challenges faced by our country as challenges of reforming and strengthening the institutions we depend on: Congress, the courts, the tax code, immigration enforcement, banks. Insurrectionists have lost faith in one or more of these institutions, and no longer believe they can be saved. Instead, insurrectionists want to overturn these institutions and replace them with something that works better.

Those lining up to seek the election of candidates on the left and right are institutionalists – they see control of the Presidency and of Congress as critically important, as these are the institutions that govern our nation. Insurrectionists, from the Tea Party to Occupy, are often unconvinced that it matters who’s running these institutions, since the institutions are so broken that it’s very hard to use them to make meaningful change. Insurrectionism helps explain both a Tea Party insistence that professional politicians cannot solve America’s problems, as they are too much part and parcel of existing broken institutions, and Occupiers’ insistence that they did not have a package of political demands to present, but rather a different way of organizing a society.

Historically, insurrectionists have preached revolution. But it’s harder to make a case for revolution in the wake of the Arab Spring, where most revolutions left their societies wracked by conflict, or dominated by the strongest institution remaining once the government was toppled. (In Egypt, the government gave way to the institution of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the institution of the military.) Fortunately, we’re seeing the emergence of effective insurrectionism, ways in which people who’ve given up on institutions are making change by building new technologies to fight climate change and by building movements to challenge social norms.

I’m fascinated by these new directions and have been writing and speaking about effective insurrectionism. But these ways of changing the world for the better would work a hell of a lot more smoothly if we had functional institutions working towards the same goals.

Lessig is a radical institutionalist. He’s trying something deeply unconventional, but the goal is not to overturn the institutions of American democracy, but to fix them. This approach can look crazy to most of the institutionalists because it’s so far outside the realm of established behavior, where predictable candidates run for office, and engage in the “art of the possible” once they’re elected. It looks doomed to many of the insurrectionists – we don’t believe Congress will let Lessig make the changes he wants even if he receives the majority of the popular vote.

And while it might be both crazy and doomed, it’s also the most hopeful and least cynical idea of this campaign season. While I’m calculating ways Lessig can win by losing, I believe that Lessig believes that the majority of Americans both hate the way our system currently works and believe it can be fixed. I believe that Lessig believes that we can cross boundaries of party and ideology to fix a problem that’s paralyzing our most critical government institutions and keeping America from meeting the needs of all her people.

I believe that’s a hope worth investing in.

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Renormalizing hitchhiking http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/09/02/renormalizing-hitchhiking-2/ 2015-09-02T20:39:09Z Continue reading ]]> I’m publishing lots of my new writing on other platforms as well as here. It’s a good chance to reach larger audiences, and often to see how my writing benefits from editing. Inevitably, whatever I submit ends up shorter after an editor works with it – often that leads to stronger work, but it sometimes means that something I loved ends up cut. So I’m using the blog to publish the original pieces, which I sometimes think of as the extended dance remixes (rather than the director’s cut). So here’s a longer version of “Could the Sharing Economy Bring Back Hitchhiking?” published on The Conversation yesterday, and now on Fair Observer and Gizmodo AU.


On August 1st, hitchBOT, a robot that had successfully hitchhiked more than 10,000km across Canada and northern Europe, was destroyed by unknown vandals in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. For a week, the robot’s violent decapitation was a favorite “news of the weird” story, a chance for commentators to reflect on the Philadelphia’s public image, to muse about human empathy for robots and, of course, to warn of the dangers of hitchhiking. As one commentator put it, “With hitchhiking so rare today, especially among non-sociopaths, it has increased the chance that a sociopathic hitchhiker will get picked up by a sociopathic driver.”

At the risk of revealing any hitherto-unrealized sociopathic tendencies, I want to speak in defense of hitchhiking.

I started picking up hitchhikers during my brief stint in graduate school. I was living on the border of New York and Massachusetts in a town so tiny that it was seven miles drive to buy milk or gasoline. It was, as they say, centrally isolated – a half hour drive from my girlfriend (now my wife), and 45 minutes from Troy, NY, the county seat and home to Rensselaer Polytechnic, the school I would soon withdraw from.

Anyone hitchhiking during the upstate NY winter was doing so out of necessity, not on a lark. I began to discover that some of my neighbors didn’t have cars or couldn’t afford to keep theirs on the road, and so relied on rides to Troy for groceries or essential medical services. Giving rides was a low-cost way of meeting people in my community, getting a better sense of where I lived, and doing a good deed.

It’s something I continue doing now on the Massachusetts side of the border, in Berkshire County, where I now live. I’ve learned a great deal from my riders: how easy it is to lose your driver’s license and how expensive it can be to get it back; the state of manufacturing where we live, which employers fire workers before employees are eligible for benefits and who helps blue-collar workers build careers; what being without a car does to your financial, health and romantic prospects when you live in a rural area. I’ve had a lot of good conversations and a fair share of stilted ones. But I’ve never had a ride that made me feel uncomfortable or endangered. No one has attempted to take my keys, phone or money, soiled my car, made sexual advances or even complained about what was on the radio.

(Let me pause for a moment so I can acknowledge the privileged position that I hold to be able to offer these rides. I’m male, large enough to be physically intimidating, wealthy enough that I can afford whatever extra fuel an extra passenger costs, secure enough in my employment that I can take a few minutes to drop someone at a destination. I live in a safe place. I’m not arguing that everyone should pick up hitchhikers, just explaining why I do and why I wish more people who are similarly privileged would do so.)

Hitchhiking used to be a normal thing to do. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of American men hitchhiked from their hometowns to the bases where they shipped off to war – picking up hitchhikers was a patriotic duty. But this began to change in the 1950s, and by the mid-1970s, hitchhiking was nearly extinct.

Historian Ginger Strand argues that hitchhiking didn’t die a natural death – it was killed. As early as the mid-1950s, the FBI ran campaigns designed to convince American motorists that hitchhikers were risking their lives in getting into strangers cars, and that drivers picking up riders were in equal danger. Advertisements like the one above connected hitchhiking with Communism, and given J. Edgar Hoover’s distaste for American counterculture, it’s possible that the FBI’s war on hitchhiking was a reaction both to books like Kerouac’s On the Road, and to the tendency of civil rights activists and other student radicals to use hitchhiking as their primary means of travel.

A second blow to hitchhiking came from the visibility of serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s. Widely publicized in the news media, the “Freeway Killer” – later revealed to be three serial killers operating independently – claimed to have killed more than 100 people in California, mostly hitchhikers. While these spectacular and brutal killings captured public attention and led municipalities to pass laws against hitchhiking, a California Highway Patrol study in 1974 found that hitchhiking was a factor in 0.63% of crimes, hardly an epidemic. But the apparent connection between hitchhiking and murder, combined with law enforcement campaigns to end the practice, succeeded in de-normalizing hitchhiking.

Now, with the rise of the so-called “sharing economy”, we’re seeing the renormalization of the practice of catching rides from strangers. When “ridesharing” service Lyft launched in 2012, it encouraged passengers to exchange a fist bump with their driver, and to sit in the front seat, making Lyft more like hitchhiking for a fee than taking a taxi, distinguishing it from Uber. (By late 2014, Lyft had phased out the fist bump and the front seat, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t such a bad idea to look like the clone of a business valued at $50 billion.)

Of course, neither Lyft nor Uber are promoting hitchhiking – they’re promoting unlicensed taxi services where ambitious startup companies charge users a commission to be matched with an “independent contractor”. But the language used to promote these services could be as easily used to make a renewed case for hitchhiking. Uber advertises itself as an environmentally friendly way to take private cars off the road and to reduce solo rides with its Uber pool service. Lyft no longer advertises itself as “your friend with a car”, but it offers a “profile” service to encourage passengers and drivers to meet each other, positioning a ride as a way to make a new friendship. Ridesharing companies want the benefits of social practices like hitchhiking – they just want us to pay for them, and take a cut of the revenues.

Behind the “sharing economy” is massive effort to reshape social norms around trust, work, ownership and personal space. Most of us are used to entering a car driven by a stranger – a taxi – but sleeping in the spare bedroom or couch of a stranger is less familiar, and deeply uncomfortable for some. The front page of AirBnB’s website features a video designed to address these concerns on an emotional level. A baby in a diaper walks down a sunlight hallway while a woman’s voice asks, “Is man kind? Are we good? Go see.” The service’s tagline – “Belong Anywhere” – is a direct response to the anxiety many of us would feel about sleeping in a stranger’s house: “No, this isn’t transgressive – you belong anywhere.”

In a world where it’s too dangerous to hitchhike, why are women willing to let strange men sleep in their spare bedroom? Why are people willing to get in a vehicle driven by a stranger whose background may have been only cursorily checked?

One possible reason for this increase in trust is the technology that enables it. Since eBay made it commonplace for individuals to sell goods to one another outside the traditional retail system, technologies to track user reputation have become the norm in peer to peer marketplaces. Uber, Lyft and AirBnB all rely on mutual reputation systems: you rate your driver or host, they rate you as a passenger or guest. Develop anything other than a stellar reputation and it becomes difficult to use the system: passengers won’t ride with you, owners won’t rent to you. With economic consequences attached to reputation systems, there are consequences for bad behavior, and a strong disincentive to cheat (or worse, kidnap and rape) the other party in the transaction.

In theory. In practice, these reputation systems don’t work very well. The reciprocal rating systems have a strong social pressure towards positive ratings – because ratings are public, there’s a strong tendency towards both collusion and towards revenge. Either passenger and driver give each other top marks, or if you rate a driver unfavorably, she is likely to rate you poorly as a passenger. The net effect, as Tom Slee discovered analyzing publicly available ride sharing data, is that the overwhelming majority of ratings are the highest possible, providing no meaningful way to distinguish between great and mediocre participants. It’s not even clear that these systems deter bad actors. Despite its celebrated reputation systems, eBay was so ripe with fraud that PayPal was able to develop a lucrative business as an escrow service, holding funds until both parties in a transaction reported themselves satisfied with the outcome.

If we were really concerned about our safety when entering a car or an apartment, reputation systems wouldn’t provide much reassurance. Rapists don’t attack everyone they meet. And the real disincentive against attacking a passenger in your car or a guest in your house is not the danger to your online reputation but the legal and moral consequences of your actions.

A less generous explanation for why we trust Uber and not hitchhiking is that class-based discrimination is at work in these systems. Last year, Wired writer Jason Tanz interviewed freelance yoga teacher and Lyft driver Cindy Manit for an article about trust in the sharing economy. Asked whether she was scared to pick up riders, she explained, “It’s not just some person from off the street”, distinguishing smartphone-equipped, credit-card holding technology early adopters from the hitchhiking riffraff. While technological assurances, like the connection to a Facebook account and the guarantee of a payment via credit card offer one level of reassurance, the economic, technical and social barriers to using the service offer another assurance, that the user likely belongs to a middle to high economic class. By contrast, in my experience, people hitchhiking are not doing so as a hip alternative to Uber – they often have no other economically viable way to get from point A to point B.

Questions about discrimination in systems like Uber and AirBnB are multilayered and complicated. Writer and editor Latoya Peterson celebrated Uber in late 2012 as offering an (often expensive) escape from the frustrating and humiliating experience of trying to hail a cab as a black person. In contrast, Law professor Nancy Leong worries that the ability to see the name and photo of a passenger before choosing to pick her up could lead to conscious racial discrimination, or simply to discrimination through unconscious bias. Using data from Airbnb in New York City, Harvard Business School professors Ben Edelman and Michael Luca were able to demonstrate that black hosts are paid 12% less for their properties, suggesting that renters consciously or unconsciously discriminate against black hosts, leading to market pressure for those hosts to lower prices on their rentals. It’s unclear whether the rise of Uber and Lyft will alleviate or aggravate racial discrimination. In the meantime, though, these services signal that a user is a person of means, an assurance that may lead to increased levels of trust.

Perhaps the most optimistic answer to the question of why we trust transaction partners in the sharing economy is that most people are trustworthy. The message AirBnB is paying handsomely to promote is, ultimately, true. In 2013, 1.16 million violent crimes were reported in the US, the lowest number since 1978, when 1.09 million violent crimes were reported. But the US population in 1978 was 222.6 million, versus 318.9 million now. Bureau of Justice statistics paint the picture of nation getting steadily safer since 1994, with adults now 3x less likely to be victims of violent crime than a generation ago.

Our perceptions have not caught up to this new, safer world, which is part of why activities like hitchhiking still seem so transgressive. 68% of Americans polled by Gallup believed that crime was on the rise in the US, though only 48% believed crime in their local area was worsening. The picture that emerges is one where many Americans perceive the world as a dangerous, crime-ridden place even if they’ve not personally experienced crime in their communities, an image reinforced by media coverage of incidents of violent crime that don’t talk about larger, statistical trends.

There are technological reasons as well to believe hitchhiking is safer now than in the 1970s. 91% of American adults carry mobile phones, enabling them to call 911 if a driver or passenger becomes threatening, something that simply wasn’t possible in the 1970s. The 64% of American adults with smartphones could take a picture of the driver (a possible disincentive against sexual assault) or look up a driver’s license plate to ensure there’s not an active bulletin about a stolen vehicle or a fleeing criminal.

But while hitchhiking has become safer, it hasn’t had the advantage of a well-funded campaign to renormalize it as a behavior. And while AirBnB has the resources to encourage people to trust strangers, it’s not clear that their campaign will have benefits for pro-social, non-revenue generating activities like carpooling, couchsurfing, or hitchhiking.


Graphic and slogans credited to Dennis Nyhagen,for The Stephanie Miller Show in 2004, reproduced by Al Haug

That’s a missed opportunity. Whether or not the giants of the on-demand, peer economy believe their own rhetoric about sharing and social connection, or are simply using it as a marketing strategy, realizing that we live in a nation where it’s safe to trust other Americans, for a ride or just for a conversation, is a first step in addressing inequality, racism and political division. Picking up hitchhikers, for me, has been one of the best ways to understand the community I live in and the problems my neighbors face. Whether or not it’s the right way for you to make connections is something I can’t tell you. But I can tell you that social serendipity is too important a task to hope that sharing economy startups will accomplish it as a side benefit.

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For further reading:

A helpful Reddit thread on the death of hitchhiking in the US

An excellent piece by Molly Osberg on the history and stigmatization of hitchhiking

Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road, which is remarkably pro-hitchhiking despite a focus on the connection between interstate highways and serial killers in America

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Future of News: The View from Accra http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/08/28/future-of-news-the-view-from-accra/ 2015-08-28T09:16:38Z Continue reading ]]> I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)

I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.

Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.

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Kwami Ahiabenu, president of PenPlusBytes, leading our event

My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.

First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.

We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.

Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.

The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.

Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.

So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.

Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.

I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.

A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in january of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.

What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?

To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.

Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.

To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.

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Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/08/24/digital-media-and-ghanas-place-on-the-global-stage/ 2015-08-24T14:33:20Z Continue reading ]]> I head to one of my favorite cities, Accra, later this week, to participate in a conference on “The Future of News” and to attend a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO that trains journalists in computer-assisted reporting, and operates Accra’s New Media Hub.

In preparation for the conference, The Daily Graphic – Ghana’s leading daily newspaper – asked me to write about Ghana and the contemporary media environment. My piece ran in the paper today, and follows below in a slightly different form. It’s written for a Ghanaian audience, so please assume that the references you don’t get are ones Ghanaians will understand.


Digital Media, and Ghana’s Place on the Global Stage

If you know where to look, it’s not hard to find Ghana online. Take #233moments as an example. At 2:33pm each afternoon, a handful of Ghanaians share a photo of what they’re up to on Twitter, a glimpse of daily life, marked with the “hashtag” #233moments so those in the know can find them. From church posters to the backs of tro-tros, from business conferences to roadside sellers, from beach resorts to lazy lunches (especially on “WaakyeWednesday”, when it’s customary to post from your favorite chop bar), #233moments celebrates what’s colorful, wonderful and unique about this remarkable nation, and shares it with anyone willing to hear. Follow the tag, as I do, and you’ll have visibility into a fascinating and diverse nation.


A sample #233moment

It wasn’t always so easy to learn about Ghana.

When I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993, as a student at Legon, I knew virtually nothing about the country that would be my home for the next year. While I had studied with Ghanaian musicians in the United States, I knew almost nothing of Ghana’s politics, history or daily life. My ignorance wasn’t unusual for an American – we hear very little about sub-Saharan Africa in the news, and when we do hear about Africa, we hear a relentless litany of bad news.

Twenty two years later, Ghana is a very different place. It’s the region’s poster child for democratic elections, an emerging economic powerhouse, but also a nation where unequal development and divides between rich and poor are showing strains in the social fabric (not to mention strains on the electric grid).

Some of the nation’s most dramatic transformations are in the world of news and media. Walking in Osu, where I lived in 1994, every radio was tuned to GBC, for the simple reason that there was nothing else to tune to! The explosion of radio journalism, talk radio, new glossy magazines and newspapers as well as digital services delivering news to our phones have led to a diverse and open media environment that Reporters Without Borders classifies as more free than the press in my country, the US, or the press in the UK.

Yet the rest of the world still doesn’t hear much about Ghana.

My research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focuses on global media coverage. Our system, called Media Cloud, collect stories from half a million publications from all over the world so we can understand what topics, what people and what nations are capturing the attention of the press. I checked our database this year to find out how many times Ghana had been mentioned in the US’s 25 largest media outlets, in comparison to two nations with similar population: Taiwan and Australia. Taiwan appeared almost three times as often as Ghana, while Australia was mentioned almost thirty times as often.

And when Americans read about Ghana, we mostly read about football. American media’s interest in Ghana peaked during the semifinal match in Malabo, when Ghana’s fans were attacked by their hosts in Equatorial Guinea. The tragic explosion at the Circle GOIL station received only a third as many stories as the semifinal victory.

To be clear, this isn’t Ghana’s fault. The US has a massive blind spot about the African continent, despite having a president with deep roots in Kenya, and increasing trade with the continent. The long legacy of slavery and the racism it has engendered in American society also helps explain why very few African nations receive much notice in the American press.

But this disparity in attention is one Ghanaians should take seriously, as it has implications for investment, for trade, and for tourism. Investors who can’t find Ghana on a map are unlikely to buy bonds or invest in startup companies. Travelers who don’t know about Ghana’s music, food, culture, color, castles and beaches won’t schedule holidays here.

Ghana’s comparative invisibility is an American problem – my countrymen are the ones missing out, choosing to live in a narrower world – but it’s a problem ordinary Ghanaians could help solve. The rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other tools – mean that anyone who is online, or has a sufficiently powerful phone, can be a publisher. We’re used to using Facebook to stay in touch with schoolmates, or using Twitter to share stories and tell jokes. But these tools can also be a powerful way to challenge the way Ghana is understood by the rest of the globe.

But when people use social media to offer their own narratives and perspectives, does anyone listen? Slowly but surely, the world is starting to. When President Obama visited Kenya, CNN reported on the dangers of the visit, characterizing Kenya as “terror hotbed”. Kenyans took to Twitter to complain, using the hashtag #someonetellCNN: “#someonetellCNN the Hotbed of Terrorism is the fastest growing economy in the world”; “#SomeoneTellCNN that we now have @AlJazeera for reliable news. @CNNAfrica @CNN is so last century…” Tony Maddox, CNN’s managing director, eventually flew to Nairobi to apologize and admit the network should have handled the story differently.

Challenging media coverage directly can work. The “Black Lives Matter” movement in the US, a reaction to the alarming trend of unarmed black people killed by US police, has used social media to demand coverage of protests and to challenge how media has portrayed police killings. When Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, many newspapers and television stations portrayed him using a photo that made the 18 year old look taller and older than he actually was, instead of another readily available photo, where his age was more apparent. Black activists began posting pairs of photos to Facebook, asking “If they gunned me down, which photo would the media use”, showing two photos of themselves taken from Facebook, one showing them in a positive light, another in a more negative light. The activists called attention to the fact that the images we choose have political significance and weight – in choosing a photo where Brown looked threatening, the media was siding with the police. The campaign was successful – the troublesome photo of Brown disappeared from most newspapers, and the other photo was widely circulated.

Social media gives Ghana a chance to talk back to the rest of the world. And Ghana has a great deal to talk about: the nation is facing the opportunities and challenges associated with becoming a middle-income nation. It’s never been easier for people to write about these issues online, using free blogging sites like Medium.com, or connecting with sites like Fair Observer, or my organization Global Voices, who are always looking for new perspectives from the African continent.

Ghanaians are never shy with their opinions in drinking spots, in shared taxis and tro-tros, on talk radio. Maybe it’s time that Ghanaians start sharing their perspectives with the world as a whole. Perhaps a few more #233moments, shared with the rest of the world, can help Americans and others see Ghana, and Africa as a whole, in a clearer light.

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Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/07/23/harnessing-mistrust-for-civic-action/ 2015-07-23T18:25:39Z Continue reading ]]> Yes, it’s international press day here on my old, creaky blog. Friends at Süddeutsch Zeitung asked whether I could turn my Re:publica Keynote on mistrust and civics into a newspaper op-ed. Here’s what I came up with, which ran in yesterday’s newspaper.


On Monday, British comedian Simon Brodkin pelted outgoing FIFA leader Sep Blatter with a stack of dollar bills as Blatter spoke at a press conference. Brodkin’s dollar shower expressed the boundless anger football fans feel about the corruption within football’s world governing body.

When Swiss police arrested senior leaders of FIFA at a posh hotel in Zurich in late May, football fans around the world were shocked. Unfortunately, very few were shocked to learn of corruption in the world governing body of football. Instead, they were surprised that the leaders of an institution with a long reputation for malfeasance might be held responsible for their misdeeds.

This misplaced surprise is characteristic of the current popular mood in many nations. We are so accustomed to news of institutions acting incompetently or unethically that we are less surprised by their misbehavior then that such misbehavior has consequences. Whether we consider the disastrous failures of the US and UK in Iraq from 2003 to the present, the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 or the discovery of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, it’s easy to understand why there is pervasive mistrust in many institutions: governments, big business, churches and the press have failed us time and again.

In the US, mistrust in government has deepened over the past 50 years, with 24% of Americans now reporting that they trust their government all or most of the time, down from 77% in 1964. But it’s not only government that Americans mistrust: polls show a steady decline in trust in corporations, banks, newspapers, universities, nonprofit organizations and churches. The only institutions that Americans trust more than they did a generation ago are the military and the police. And while specifics of mistrust differ between the US and Europe, the general pattern is similar. Public relations firm Edelman surveys a thousand citizens in 33 nations each year to build a “trust barometer”, measuring public trust in government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media. According to their survey Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have lower levels of institutional trust than the United States.

One predictable consequence of mistrust in institutions is a decrease in participation. Fewer than 37% of eligible US voters participated in the 2014 Congressional election. Participation in European parliamentary and national elections across Europe is higher than the US’s dismal rates, but has steadily declined since 1979, with turnout for the 2014 European parliamentary elections dropping below 43%. It’s a mistake to blame low turnout on distracted or disinterested voters, when a better explanation exists: why vote if you don’t believe the US congress or European Parliament is capable of making meaningful change in the world?

In his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes suggests that the political tension of our time is not between left and right, but between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe we can fix the world’s problems by strengthening and revitalizing the institutions we have. Insurrectionists believe we need to abandon these broken institutions we have and replace them with new, less corrupted ones, or with nothing at all. The institutionalists show up to vote in elections, but they’re being crowded out by the insurrectionists, who take to the streets to protest, or more worryingly, disengage entirely from civic life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that insurrectionists will grow up, stop protesting and start voting. But we may have reached a tipping point where the cultural zeitgeist favors insurrection. My students at MIT don’t want to work for banks, for Google or for universities – they want to build startups that disrupt banks, Google and universities.

The future of democracy depends on finding effective ways for people who mistrust institutions to make change in their communities, their nations and the world as a whole. The real danger is not that our broken institutions are toppled by a wave of digital disruption, but that a generation disengages from politics and civics as a whole.

It’s time to stop criticizing youth for their failure to vote and time to start celebrating the ways insurrectionists are actually trying to change the world. Those who mistrust institutions aren’t just ignoring them. Some are building new systems designed to make existing institutions obsolete. Others are becoming the fiercest and most engaged critics of of our institutions, while the most radical are building new systems that resist centralization and concentration of power.

Those outraged by government and corporate complicity in surveillance of the internet have the option of lobbying their governments to forbid these violations of privacy, or building and spreading tools that make it vastly harder for US and European governments to read our mail and track our online behavior. We need both better laws and better tools. But we must recognize that the programmers who build systems like Tor, PGP and Textsecure are engaged in civics as surely as anyone crafting a party’s political platform. The same goes for entrepreneurs building better electric cars, rather than fighting to legislate carbon taxes. As people lose faith in institutions, they seek change less through passing and enforcing laws, and more through building new technologies and businesses whose adoption has the same benefits as wisely crafted and enforced laws.

“Monitorial citizens” are activists whose work focuses on watching and critiquing the work conducted by institutions. The young Italians behind Monithon.it, a project that invites citizens to visit, investigate and review projects paid for with European cohesion funds are monitorial citizens. So are the civilians who review complaints against the police, holding commanders accountable for mistreatment of the citizens. The rise of new tools and techniques, including video sharing and crowdsourced reporting, are helping mitigate the power imbalances between established institutions and the citizens who want to hold them accountable.

Some of the most radical thinking about a post-institutional future comes from proponents of systems like bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to free its users from trusting in central banks and the governments that back them. Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, from mesh networks that provide internet connectivity without a central internet service provider, or Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box“, a system for serving webpages that mirrors content around the internet, rather than centralizing it on a single server. But decentralization is a difficult technical problem. Technical systems like Google and Facebook have become powerful institutions not just due to the ambitions of their founders, but from the difficulty of building search engines and social networks in a decentralized way.

Could citizen monitors of FIFA have kept Qatar from hosting the 2022 World Cup? Would decentralized social networks have resisted NSA surveillance? Maybe so, maybe not. But the citizens finding ways to challenge institutions and engage in politics through other means are the ones to watch in this age of mistrust.

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Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/07/23/who-benefits-from-doubt-online-manipulation-and-the-russian-and-us-internet/ 2015-07-23T17:10:24Z Continue reading ]]> I was asked by an editor at RBC, one of Russia’s best respected independent news organizations, to offer my thoughts on the Russian/US infowar. It was a great chance to think about Adrian Chen’s provocative tale about Russia’s Internet Research Agency (a topic that Global Voices RuNet Echo has done a terrific job of covering) and broader questions about skepticism, mistrust and who benefits from doubt. The piece ran on RBC today in Russian, but my English language text follows below.


In early June, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story by investigative reporter Adrian Chen about a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, reported to have close ties with Vladimir Putin. In the article, Chen interviewed Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistle blower who is suing the Internet Research Agency, her former employer, in hopes of shutting down their operations of posting pro-Kremlin comments on social media sites in English and Russian.

Until Chen’s story, many American readers had never heard of paid Russian propagandists writing online. But followers of the RuNet, Russia’s online spaces, have seen the Russian internet as one of the world’s most fiercely contested online spaces. In 2011, internet researchers in the US and Canada published a book, “Access Contested”, which suggested that battles over online spaces were progressing from censorship – preventing the posting of controversial content or preventing a nation’s citizens from reading that content – to a more complex model of contestation, where governments used a wide range of methods to disrupt dialog online: harassing users with frivolous lawsuits, rendering sites unavailable via denial of service attacks, and flooding comment threads. While these tactics have become popular worldwide, anywhere governments wish to disrupt online speech, many of them were pioneered in Russian cyberspace. My coauthors and I documented some of these early attacks, including attacks on Novaya Gazeta, in a 2010 study published by the Berkman Center at Harvard University.

What was surprising about Chen’s story was not that people were producing pro-government comments in Russian, but that this same Internet Research Agency appeared to be responsible for a set of fabricated news stories, released in English and intended to mislead US audiences. These stories have fascinated and baffled American media scholars. They are complex hoaxes, involving dozens of social media accounts, fake websites and fake YouTube videos, all towards the apparent goal of making American social media users believe that a chemical plant in Louisiana had been attacked by ISIS terrorists, or that there had been an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. These hoaxes were not successful in fooling many people for very long – they were quickly dismissed after mainstream news reports made clear that these tragedies had not occurred.

These hoaxes suggest an interesting new chapter in the ongoing infowar between the US and Russia. The goal of the infowar may no longer be to promote or discredit either the Kremlin or the White House. The goal may be to destroy trust in the internet, in social media and in news.

For decades, nations have worked to produce news that reflects their specific point of view. The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuban audiences), Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa (for Arabic-speaking audiences), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, which includes Radio Svoboda, aimed at Russian audiences. Defenders of these projects see them as providing objective news reporting in countries where press freedom is constrained. Others – including some US legislators – see these stations as pro-US propaganda. Until 2013, Voice of America was banned from broadcasting in the US because Congress believed that these broadcasts, played in the US, would function as pro-government propaganda. In recent years, BBG has broadened its remit beyond broadcasting, and proposed spending $12.5 million in 2016 to support internet anti-censorship technologies, intended to allow citizens of countries that censor the internet to access blocked content.

It should not have been a surprise that Russia would take to international broadcasting to promote a national agenda, joining stated sponsored channels France24 (France), CCTV (China), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). These channels have experimented with different mixes of news reporting and public diplomacy, sometimes coming under fire for compromising journalistic standards in favor of national interests.

Russia Today (RT) has taken some unusual and surprising approaches in deploying this tool of soft power. The network promotes a view of Russia as defender of the principle of international sovereignty in the face of relentless US-led globalization, a viewpoint that turns not only protests in Armenia into a US-led grab for power, but the arrest of FIFA officials for corruption into a plot to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. While Al Jazeera, in particular, has worked hard to gain respect as a journalistic outlet rather than a government mouthpiece, Russia Today seems content to take an explicitly pro-Russian, anti-US stance.

And then there’s the weird stuff. As Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds has observed, Russia Today seems to be trying to cultivate a US audience of conspiracy theorists. Yablokov notes that one of the first stories RT ran after launching RT America in 2010 was titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job”. The idea that the US government killed over 3000 of its own citizens, including 500 police officers and firefighters, as a pretext to invade Iraq, is deeply offensive to most Americans, and unlikely to win RT a broad US audience. But as Yablokov notes, that may not be the point.

There’s a long history in American politics of conspiracy theories gaining wide audiences. Historian Richard Hofstadter identified this in 1964 as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a tendency for those who feel alienated and dispossessed to see America as controlled by a secret cabal. Knowing that it is unlikely to persuade the majority of Americans to see their government as a global hegemon and Russia as the tireless defender of sovereign nations, perhaps RT is appealing to those who are predisposed to “Question More”, as the network’s slogan suggests. While that approach won’t work for most Americans, it may work for the 19% of Americans who believe the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that a Russian focus on conspiracy theories, especially about outside agitation in creating “color revolutions” is consistent with Russia’s preferred framing of the world – sovereignty versus agitation – rather than the US’s preferred framing – democracy versus authoritarianism. Brian Whitmore, a senior correspondent for RL/RFE, argues that conspiracy theories suggest a government incapable of taking citizen movements seriouslydocumented attempts by the government of Azerbaijan to portray the internet as a dangerous and lawless space, linking internet usage to sexual abuse of children, trafficking of women, breakdowns of marriages and mental illness. The campaign has been quite successful, keeping 86% of Azeri women offline, and helping ensure that internet penetration in Azerbaijan has stayed far behind of its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia. Turkish media scholar Zeynep Tufekci suggests that Erdogan’s government has deployed similar tactics in Turkey, working to demonize social media in the hopes of keeping his large support base off these networks, which are heavily used by opposition organizers.

Raising doubt in online media as a whole might help explain why a Russian firm would start easily dismissed rumors on American social networks. The net effect of these rumors has been to remind American Internet users that everything they read online should be doubted before being vetted and verified. And RT’s main brand message is that Americans shouldn’t trust their government or their media, as both are hiding the “other side” of the narrative, and the secrets behind far-reaching conspiracies.

But the question remains: who benefits from doubt?

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have a possible answer. Their book “Merchants of Doubt” looks at techniques used by energy industry lobbyists in the US to create uncertainty and doubt about climate change. They trace these techniques back to the tobacco industry, which used similar tactics for decades to prevent tobacco from being regulated as a drug. Their key weapon was doubt. Tobacco companies sponsored legitimate medical research on other causes for cancer and heart disease. The net result was that they kept alive the appearance of a debate about whether tobacco use was the primary cause of lung cancer for far longer than there was an actual scientific debate. Similarly, climate scientists sponsored by energy companies insist that there is a diversity of opinion about humans’ role in creating climate change, relying on the media’s tendency to tell both sides of a story and keep a “debate” alive years beyond when it would otherwise be settled.

Who benefits from doubt? Ask instead who benefits from stasis. So long as there was doubt that cigarettes caused cancer, regulators were less willing to label packages, restrict their sales or ban them altogether. So long as there is doubt about humanity’s role in climate change, governments are less likely to pass carbon taxes, ban the burning of coal or subsidize the shift to renewable energy. It’s not necessary to persuade people that cigarettes are safe to smoke or that we can burn coal indefinitely without raising global temperatures – it’s enough to raise sufficient doubt to lead to paralysis.

Stasis benefits the Russian state. People baffled by claims and counterclaims over whether Russian troops are in Ukraine or whether the US toppled the Yanukovych government are less likely to demand NATO military intervention in Crimea. Russian citizens who wonder whether Alexei Navalny is an embezzeler are less likely to support his candidacy. Internet users who doubt whatever they see online are less likely to use social media to organize and topple those who are currently in power.

It’s expensive to persuade someone to believe something that isn’t true. Persuading someone that _nothing_ is true, that every “fact” represents a hidden agenda, is a far more efficient way to paralyze citizens and keep them from acting. It’s a dark art, one with a long past in Russia and in the US, and one we’re now living with online.

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Instaserfs: Precarious Employment in the New – and Old – Economy http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/07/20/instaserfs-precarious-employment-in-the-new-and-old-economy/ 2015-07-21T00:56:42Z Continue reading ]]> (This summer, I’m going to publish some of my work on FOLD, the beautiful platform my student Alexis Hope is building. There’s a graphically enhanced version of this story there.)

Benjamen Walker makes some of the best radio around. (Okay, it’s mostly digitally-delivered audio storytelling these days, but who’s counting?) His finest work tends to come out in series of podcasts, exploring a complex issue through interviews and stories that unfold over two or more sequential weekly episodes.

The most recently concluded series is called “Instaserfs” and it focuses on the “sharing economy”, aka “the 1099” economy, the “gig economy” or as Ben offers, “the demand economy” or “the exploitation economy”. Struck by the ability to outsource virtually any task, Benjamen hires San Francisco native Andrew Callaway to make three episodes of his podcast as an “Instapodder”. The working method? Andrew’s task is to take on as many sharing economy jobs as he can and to report Benjamen about the experience, and whether he can pay his San Francisco rent with the money he earns. (Spoiler alert: he can’t.)

There’s no shortage of articles out there with titles like “I spent a week as a Lyft driver/ Taskrabbit/ Instacart shopper“, so this experiment is hardly original. But following along as a listener as Andrew goes through the process of deciding where to work, becoming a contractor, trying out the work arrangement and hearing the frustrations and small joys makes for some excellent listening. We get a taste of the horribly repetitive onboarding sessions, where the main point is to ensure the contractor knows that the company absolutely, positively won’t be responsible for anything bad that happens. We learn about the unpredictability of earning on the platforms, the radical difference between a good day and a bad day as a Lyft driver. We get a sense that some of these platforms treat their workers well – Taskrabbit and Wash.io are ones Andrew expresses particular fondness for – though even good platforms change the rules of the game, and these changes always make things harder for the contractor. We learn that an alarming number of San Franciscans pay a sharp premium to have Chipotle burritos delivered to them.

Ben and Andrew identify the ways that these services create a conceptual gap between the haves and have nots, those who can afford a $9 delivery charge for a burrito, and those who wait in line to earn their share of the delivery fee. Losing that collective experience of waiting in line, the leveling effect of shared inconvenience, Andrew speculates, is making the wealthy into nastier people… and the behavior of some of the oafish tech bros he encounters as a Lyft driver makes the case that these services are somehow unhealthy for society as a whole.

There’s utility in this insight, and in the shame that Andrew sees in the wash.io users, who seem embarrassed that they’re paying people to do their laundry. Outsourcing your routine tasks to a poorly-paid contractor is good for efficiency, but likely bad for something else. And some of the services Andrew works for seem designed to create class warfare. In the third episode, Andrew begins working for ManServants, a company whose core premise is so uncomfortable, I spent an enjoyable hour trying to determine whether the company is real or a splendid art piece. (Yes, it’s a service to let women rent well-dressed men, at $125 per hour, to act as “personal photographer, bartender, bodyguard, and butler all in one.” Yes, it appears to be real – Lane Moore tried it out and wrote about it for Cosmo – and doesn’t appear to be stripper rental in disguise.) But the main point of Instaserfs, for me at least, was not that rising inequity is turning America into Downton Abbey, but how badly the service economy is stacked against its participants.

Near the end of the second episode, as Andrew settles into his new lifestyle, he begins interviewing other 1099 workers. Andrew confesses to a driver for Luxe, a company that provides valet parking services, that he’s terrified to try working for the company out of fear of damaging a client’s car. The Luxe driver tells him that he’s right to be worried – he dinged a client’s truck the other day and is now on the hook for the damages. Luxe insures customer’s vehicles, but contractors are liable to pay the $500 deductible if they damage the car. The Luxe contractor explains that the company will deduct the deductible from his paycheck automatically and break it up over the course of months, if need be.

Given the modest amounts these jobs pay, a $500 payment is a major, potentially crippling, setback (something that wouldn’t have been clear to me, had I not listened to two episodes of Andrew figuring out whether his jobs had paid enough to cover gasoline for his car.) This practice of limiting liability and transferring it to the “contractor” is routine for this emerging industry, and seems like the core sin of this business model. Yes, the work and pay are unpredictable, the workplace rules arbitrary and sometimes demeaning. But a job where it’s common to end up owing the employer more than when you started working sounds like something out of the days of the company store.

Benjamen and Andrew have fun exploring this question of capital and of risk. Andrew can’t get a job as an Uber driver because of a dent in his bumper, which will cost thousands to fix, and Benjamen is unwilling (and probably unable as a podcast producer) to invest that capital in Andrew’s “business”. Later, ManServants cuts Andrew off until he can upgrade his shoes, which don’t meet their high standards – in this case, Benjamen is willing to dip into his own funds in the hopes of obtaining tape of Andrew on the job. Benjamen interviewed Mansur Nurullah, a San Francisco grad student and cabbie, who became an Uber driver when the startup disrupted the taxi business to the point where he could no longer profitably drive a cab. Nurallah needed a car to become an Uber driver, but balked when the company steered him towards a 27% interest auto loan. (Uber’s lending partner, Santander, is under investigation for predatory lending. And Uber loans explicitly prohibit the vehicles purchased this way from being used for personal use… or for a competing service.)

The capital’s all yours to provide, and the risk is all yours to assume. Benjamen and Andrew never discuss whether the podcast will pay legal fees if Andrew’s arrested for solicitation while working his Manservants gig. But the rules within the 1099 economy are well established: if you park illegally while making a delivery for Postmates, the fine is yours to pay. Andrew shares a great exchange he has with his Postmates dispatcher as they try to calculate the smallest parking ticket he could risk to make an order. (Dispatch suggests he park in a driveway, because it will take longer for the homeowner to call the police or a tow truck, but makes clear that he can’t offer advice, as it’s the driver’s problem, not the company’s.)

Contractors provide the capital and assume the risk, while the companies collect the profits and the investments. But that’s not the core insight of Instaserfs – it’s that this blatantly unfair arrangement isn’t news to most working people.

Andrew interviews Brooklyn, a Taskrabbit worker and advocate for the sharing economy, who tells him she left a six figure job to have more control, freedom and flexibility. He’s hired Brooklyn to help him make a viral video protesting the 1099 economy. Instead, she sets him straight. As they talk, Andrew realizes, “What I find horrible about the sharing economy is what most Americans have been dealing with in the workplace for decades.” And Brooklyn replies, “Welcome to life. As a black, gay female, I have been dealing with this since I was born.”

Uncertain work hours, unpredictable income, onerous workplace rules, no benefits and zero job security? That’s a reality of the American workplace that Barbara Ehrenreich documented in Nickeled and Dimed, which Benjamen evokes in Instaserfs, hoping to extend her critiques to this proposed future. But if the working conditions and uncertainty of the 1099 economy aren’t new, the aspirational tone is. For the most part, low wage jobs don’t ask you to consider yourself an entrepreneur. They have their own ways of transferring cost and risk to you, but at least they don’t transfer blame. When you fail as a low wage worker, you fail because you’re living in a country that doesn’t mandate a living wage, and until recently, didn’t provide basic universal healthcare. Slowly, all too slowly, Americans are waking up to the reality that the deck is stacked against the working poor, that paying rent would require 80-120 hours a week of minimum wage work in most states.

But in the 1099 economy, you’re an entrepreneur. Your success or failure depends on your skill, your hustle and your drive. That company offering predatory loans and flooding the streets with drivers competing for your passengers is valued at $50 billion (larger than 80% of the top 500 S&P companies) and will be the hottest IPO in years when it inevitably goes public.

Instaserfs is the tale of two well-educated white guys discovering what people with fewer advantages have knows for decades: the game is rigged. Fortunately, Andrew is not going to be a Wash.io delivery man for much longer – he’s a talented video producer whose skills should lead him to a less precarious freelance existence. The question is whether listeners to this excellent series will see the connections between the new exploitation economy and the old exploitation economy, and work towards a future of work where fewer people can rent manservants at $125 an hour, and fewer people need new shoes to work those servant jobs.

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Pattern recognition: racism, gun violence and Dylann Roof http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/06/19/black-lives-matter-gun-deaths-matter-understanding-the-patterns-behind-dylann-roof/ 2015-06-19T20:08:35Z Continue reading ]]> When you read about Dylann Roof, the man who killed nine black men and women as they prayed, think about the patterns he represents.

Over the next few days, we’re going to hear about mental illness. We’re going to hear about troubled loners. We’ll hear about a young man’s racist fantasies, so outrageous that he would
celebrate the apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. We’ll hear from family, neighbors and high school friends, and the picture that will emerge is of a young man who was strange, disturbed, sick, abnormal. The message will be that the massacre in Charleston was an unpredictable, unavoidable tragedy carried out by an individual madman.

Don’t lose sight of the patterns.

When Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, it was a hate crime. We know, because Roof told the survivors precisely why he had come to this historic church to commit mass murder: “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.” It was an act of domestic terrorism. Roof has reportedly told investigators that he wanted to start a race war with his actions. Shooting nine black people as they prayed was a way to terrorize all black people and to destroy the safety and comfort of what should be the safest of spaces.

Attacking black Americans was also part of a pattern.

The United States is a dangerous place to be a black person. Black Americans are twice as likely to die from gun violence than white Americans are. Hispanic and Asian Americans are less likely to die from gun violence than white Americans. Gun violence is a tragedy that disproportionately affects Black Americans.

So is murder. In 2012, blacks represented 13% of the US population and represented 50% of homicide victims. Black men were 8.5 times more likely to be the victim of a homicide than white men. Politicians and commentators – notably Rudy Giuliani – are fond of pointing out that most black men who die of homicide are killed by other black men. That’s true. But it’s also true that most white men are killed by other white men. Most murder – 78% between 1980-2008 – is committed by someone the victim knew well, a family member, friend or other acquaintance. Given high rates of homophily in American society, it’s not surprising that black people know – and kill – black people and white people know – and kill – white people.

What is surprising is how police handle these murders. In New York City, the “clearance rate” for homicides with white victims is 86%. For homicides with black victims, the rate is 45%. In other words, in the majority of homicide cases where the victim is black, the case is unsolved and the murderer remains on the streets. Yes, investigating homicides of black people is often complicated by a culture that discourages cooperation with the police, the result of decades of mistrust between police and the communities they serve. But they are also the result of police decisions about resource allocation, and a culture of underpolicing black neighborhoods, in which police have demonstrated that they’re more likely to harass individuals at random through racial profiling than they are to investigate serious crimes.

And while we’re talking about the police, let’s remember that at least 101 UNARMED black people were killed by law enforcement in 2014. That includes Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley and Darrien Hunt, but it includes dozens you probably haven’t heard about, like Justin Griffin, a 25 year old basketball coach who had an argument with a referee – the referee was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and he and another deputy beat Griffin to death. From 2010-2012, teenage black men were 21 times more likely than teenage white men to be killed by police.

We need to learn to see these patterns, some of us more than others. The pattern of police violence against black lives is much easier to see if you’re personally affected by it than if you’re not a member of a targeted community. In that case, it can be hard to see patterns from single incidents. We read about the death of a black man in police custody and are likely to see it as an isolated incident, unless someone points out the larger pattern of undue force applied by police to black suspects.

Thanks to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, we have a narrative – #blacklivesmatter – that helps draw connections between Walter Scott’s death at the hands of the police in North Charleston, and the slaughter of nine of Charleston’s finest citizens at the hands of Dylann Roof. As Cullors has explained, #blacklivesmatter is not just about the death of black people at the hands of police or vigilantes: “The media really wants to say ‘This happened in Ferugson, this happened in Baltimore, this happened in New York. Are they the same?’ Yes, they’re the same. Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising.”

Cullors talks about a “Black Spring”, a parallel to the Arab Spring, where black people and their allies start uprising and demanding a more just nation. People who knew Roof tell us that he was obsessed with the protests resulting from the Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray deaths – a Black Spring is exactly what he appears to have feared the most. Those he killed, notably the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator was a key figure in the fight to bring body cameras to South Carolina police, were precisely the people working to better the lives of the black community – and the community as a whole – in Charleston, SC.

Was Dylann Roof a troubled loner? Yes. But he was also resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above the State Capitol and can’t be taken down or lowered to half mast without approval by the state assembly. To reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for confederate generals. He lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence. Dismissing him as a uniquely sick individual ignores the pattern.

Roof also lives in a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns. Reflecting on the murders in Charleston, President Obama pointed out, “At some point, we as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – it’s twice as high as in Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency.

Our gun murder rate is off the charts in comparison to high-income nations – to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of Latin America greatly outpace the US in gun murders per capita, but some of our most dangerous cities for gun violence – New Orleans, Detroit – have as high a rate of gun violence as the world’s most dangerous countries.

Not only were Dylann Roof’s crimes part of a pattern of gun violence that’s near-unique to the US, they are part of a pattern of mass shootings. Mother Jones, tracking shootings by single killers in public places in which four or more people were killed, has identified more than 70 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Like most mass killers, Roof used a handgun, and like the vast majority of mass killers, he obtained his weapon legally.

We have a pattern of mass gun killings in the US, and we have a pattern of doing nothing about them. Two years after the massacre of elementary school students in Newtown, CT, The New York Times has tracked gun laws passed in the year after the Newtown shootings. 39 laws tightened gun restrictions; 70 loosened them. If the pattern continues, South Carolina – a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun – is more likely to legalize concealed carry without a permit than it is to significant restrictions on handgun ownership.

We didn’t have to wait long to hear the argument that more guns would have saved lives in Charleston. Fox and Friends managed to find a pastor who argued that religious leaders should preach while armed, so that they could defend the flock from attack. NRA Board member Charles Cotton found a way to blame Roof’s crimes on a man he slaughtered, Reverend Pinckney: “he [Rev. Pinckney] voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

American resistance to sane gun control laws is based on fantasy. We fantasize that guns will protect us from being victims of crime. They don’t. Gun owners are five times more likely to be shot than non-owners. Women who live in a house containing one or more guns are 3.4 times more likely to be killed than women who live in gun free homes. For each instance someone used a gun to kill in self defense, more than fifty people were killed with guns. We fantasize that we will stop crimes with guns, if only pastors or teachers or any brave civilian were allowed to carry concealed weapons. We’d do well to remember Joe Zamudio, a bystander at the rally where Representative Gabby Giffords was shot, who had a concealed weapon and narrowly missed killing not the gunman, but the man who wrestled the weapon away from the gunman.

These fantasies keep us from seeing the pattern. We live in a country where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal, or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. People in other countries think we’re crazy. As the Economist wrote today, “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.” These fantasies are constructed and marketed by people who don’t want us to see the pattern, people who believe, sincerely or cynically, that America would be a safer place if everyone was armed.

Here’s why patterns matter. So long as we treat each mass shooting, each black death as an isolated tragedy, there’s nothing we can do. We’re the victim of the law of large numbers, the reality that in any large group of people, there are those that will harm others, abuse positions of power, do crazy and horrific things. Every news report that focuses on Roof’s mental state, that tries to unpack the biography that led him to his crimes is a distraction from these patterns. There’s nothing we can do to bring back the lives of the nine people Roof killed. But there’s work we can do to make sure black lives matter. There’s work we can do to help Americans see our neighbors as people, not targets.

If it’s hard to see patterns, it’s really hard to see how they intersect. Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain how forms of oppression reinforce and compound each other, that understanding the challenges black women face involves considering not just racism and sexism, but the intersections of the two. The killings in Charleston are the product of intersectionality as well, of a society where racial hatred makes it possible for a young man to want to kill black people and where the ready available of weapons makes it possible for him to kill a lot of black people. America’s obsession with guns is a big part of what makes this nation so dangerous for black people. America’s endemic racism is a big part of what makes American buy, own and lobby for guns, to protect ourselves from an “other” that we fear.

Jon Stewart did a wise thing in reacting to the shootings in Charleston – he admitted that there were simply no jokes that could be made. But he also articulated a sense of hopelessness that’s easy to feel, and hard to fight: “I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.”

We’ve got to do better than that.

Help people see these patterns. When you talk about Dylann Roof, don’t talk about a sick. sad young man. Talk about the lines that link Charleston to Ferguson and Charleston to Newtown. Rail at the confederate flag flying over South Carolina, but rail at the less obvious ways we disrespect black lives – over-incarceration, underinvestment in education, the disappearance of economic mobility and the rise of economic inequality – that prevent black people in America from having a fair chance. Understand that fighting gun violence is a way to fight racism. Help build a narrative to understand and combat gun violence in America the way that #blacklivesmatter helps us work for a Black Spring.

Mourn, but act. Support the people working at the intersection of these patterns, as the Brady Center is in campaigning against “bad apple” gun dealers, the 5% of dealers responsible for selling guns used in 90% of crimes. Look for new patterns, like the emergence of anti-government “Patriot” groups, heavily armed and often racially motivated, whose actions get far less media attention than protests against police violence.

We can’t bring back the nine people Dylann Roof killed. But we can and we must work to fight the patterns that make these killings possible.

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Listening Machines, and the whether, when and how of new technologies http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/06/15/listening-machines-and-the-whether-when-and-how-of-new-technologies/ 2015-06-15T22:46:53Z Continue reading ]]> One of my great pleasures in life is attending conferences on fields I’m intrigued by, but know nothing about. (A second pleasure is writing about these events.) So when my friend Kate Crawford invited me to a daylong “Listening Machine Summit” this past Friday, I could hardly refuse.

What’s a listening machine? The example of everyone’s lips was Hello Barbie, a version of the impossibly proportioned doll that will listen to your child speak and respond in kind:

…a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: “Welcome to New York, Barbie.”

The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: “I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?”

Barbie accomplishes this magic by recording your child’s question, uploading it to a speech recognition server, identifying a recognizable keyword (“New York”) and offering an appropriate synthesized response. The company behind Barbie’s newfound voice, ToyTalk, uses your child’s utterance to help tune their speech recognition, likely storing the voice file for future use.

And that’s the trick with listening systems. If you can imagine reasons why you might not want Mattel maintaining a record of things your child says while talking to his or her doll, you should be able to imagine the possible harms that could come from use, abuse or interrogation of other listening systems. (“Siri, this is the police. Give us the last hundred searches Mr. Zuckerman asked you to conduct on Google. Has he ever searched for bomb making instructions?”)

As one of the speakers put it (we’re under Chatham House rules, so I can’t tell you who ), listening machines trigger all three aspects of the surveillance holy trinity: they’re pervasive, starting to appear in all aspects of our lives; they’re persistent, capable of keeping records of what we’ve said indefinitely, and they process the data they collect, seeking to understand what people are saying and acting on what they’re able to understand. To reduce the creepy nature of their surveillant behavior, listening systems are often embedded in devices designed to be charming, cute and delightful: toys, robots and smooth-voiced personal assistants.

Proponents of listening systems see them as a major way technology integrates itself more deeply into our lives, making it routine for computers to become our helpers, playmates and confidants. A video of a robot designed to be a shared household companion sparked a great deal of debate, both about whether we would want to interact with a robot in the ways proposed by the product’s designers, and how a sufficiently powerful companion robot should behave. If a robot observes spousal abuse, should it call the police? If the robot is designed to be friend and confidant to everyone in the house, but was paid for by the mother, should we expect it to rat out one of the kids for smoking marijuana? (Underlying these questions is the assumption that the robot will inevitably be smart enough to understand and interpret complex phenomena. One of our best speakers made the case that robots are very far from having this level of understanding, but that well-designed robots were systems designed to deceive us into believing that they had these deeper levels of understanding.)

Despite the helpful provocations offered by real and proposed consumer products, the questions I found most interesting focused on being unwittingly and unwillingly surveilled by listening machines. What happens when systems like ShotSpotter, currently designed to identify shots fired in a city, begins dispatching police to other events, like a rowdy pool party (just to pick a timely example)? Workers in call centers already have their interactions recorded for review by their supervisors – what happens when Uber drivers and other members of the 1099 economy are required to record their interactions with customers for possible review? (A friend points out that many already do as a way of defending themselves from possible firing in light of bad reviews.) It’s one thing to choose to invite listening machines into your life, confiding in Siri or a cuddly robot companion, and something entirely different to be listened to by machines installed by your employer or by local law enforcement.

A representative of one of the US’s consumer regulatory agencies gave an excellent talk in which she outlined some of the existing laws and principles that could potentially be used to regulate listening machines in the future. While the US does not have comprehensive privacy legislation in the way many European nations do, there are sector-specific laws that can protect against abusive listening machines: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPA and others. She noted that electronic surveillance systems had been the subject of two regulatory actions in the US, where FTC protections against “unfair and deceptive acts in commerce” led to action against the Aaron’s rent to own chain, which installed privacy-violating software in the laptops they rented out, capturing images of anyone in front of the camera. The FTC argued that this was a real and concrete harm to consumers with no offsetting benefits, and “>Aaron’s settled, disabling the software.

I found the idea that existing regulations and longstanding ideas of fairness could provide a framework for regulating listening machines fascinating, but I’m not sure I buy it. Outside of the enforcement context, I wonder whether these ideas provide a robust enough framework for thinking about future regulation of listening systems, because I’m not sure anyone understands the implications of these systems well enough to anticipate possible futures for them. A day thinking about eavesdropping dolls and personal assistants that can turn state’s evidence left me confident only that I don’t think anyone has thought enough about the implications of these systems to posit possible, desirable futures for their use.


Dr. Doolittle meets the Pushmi-Pullyu

Over the past thirty or more years, we’ve seen a particular Pushmi-Pullyu pattern of technology regulation. Companies invent new technologies and bring them to market. Consumers occasionally react, and if sufficient numbers react loudly enough, government regulators investigate and mandate changes. There’s a sense that this is the correct process, that more aggressive regulation would crush innovation before inventors could show us the benefits of their new ideas.

But this is a model in which regulation is a very modest counterweight to market forces. So long as a product is on the market, it’s engaged in persuading people that a new type of behavior is the new normal. When Apple brough Siri to market, it engaged in a multi-front campaign to persuade people that they should regularly speak to a computer to make appointments, order dinner, check traffic conditions and seek advice. Apple was able to lower barriers to adoption by making the product a pre-installed part of their very popular phone, making it available for free, and heavily advertising the new functionality. Even the wave of jokes about the limits to Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and feature films that seek to complicate our relationships with digital entities serve the purpose of calcifying “the new normal” – people talk to their phones and share sensitive information with them, and that’s just the way things are now.

Perhaps at some point, we’ll see a lawsuit challenging Apple’s use of Siri data. Perhaps Apple will offer different financing packages for a future iCar with lending rates determined by a personality profile generated, in part, by a purchaser’s interactions with Siri. Empowered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, regulators might get involved and demand that credit decisions be made only using transparently disclosed, challengeable fiscal data, not correlations between one’s taste in takeout food and creditworthiness. Fine. But in the ensuing years, Apple has already won – we’re talking to our phones, sharing our lives, generating terabytes of data in the process.

The problem with this approach to regulation is that we rarely, if ever, have a conversation about the technological world we’d like to have. Do we want a world in which we confide in our phones? And how should companies be forced to handle the data generated by these new interactions? (We’ve got smart policy people in the room, and they’ve got suggestions, including “robot privilege” which behaves like attorney/client privilege, prohibitions against letting law enforcement lure robots into making you testify, in-line “visceral” notice of privacy risks in these systems, banning price discrimination based on privacy protected data, and reform of the “third party directive”.)

These questions, a friend points out, aren’t regulatory questions, but policy ones. The challenge is figuring out how, in our current, barely functional political landscape, we decide what technologies should trigger pre-emptive conversations about whether, when and how those products should come to market. If my example of Siri affecting your credit score seems either fanciful or trivial, consider the NSA’s expansive data collection programs as revealed by Edward Snowden. Again, we’re seeing pushmi-pullyu regulation in which branches of the intelligence community got out way ahead of popular opinion and congressional oversight, and is only now being modestly pulled back.

There’s encouraging news from the world of synthetic biology, where a powerful new technology for gene manipulation called CRISPR is promising to revolutionize the field. CRISPR makes it vastly easier to cut the DNA within an organism, which allows biologists to remove genes they don’t want and add genes they do. (Turns out that the cutting is the hard part – DNA’s self-repair mechanisms mean you can introduce sequences you’d like incorporated within DNA and the cell’s DNA-patching systems will include your sequence as a patch.)

By itself, CRISPR is provoking lots of thought about what sorts of genetic manipulation are appropriate and desirable. But a further idea – the gene drive – is leading to impassioned debate within the scientific world. It’s possible to make CRISPR inheritable, which means that not only can you change the genome in an organism, but you can make it virtually certain that its offspring will inherit the genomic change. (Inherited changes generally propagate slowly through a population, as only half the offspring inherit the change. But if you make a change on one half the chromosome and put CRISPR on the other half, the offspring either inherits the changed gene, or CRISPR, which will then make the change.) The upshot is that it could well be possible to engineer a species of mosquitoes that couldn’t pass on malaria, or that simply couldn’t reproduce, ending the species as a whole.

Who gets to make these decisions? The good news is that there’s both a precedent of executive authority to ban certain lines of research, and a robust tradition of debate within the scientific community that seeks to influence this policymaking. Smart people are making cases for and against gene drive, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to scientists who are researching gene drive, trying to make it possible, who are genuinely thrilled to be having public conversations about whether, when and how the technology should come into play.

We need a better culture of policymaking in the IT world, a better tradition of talking through the whether, when and hows of technologies like listening machines. I’m grateful to Microsoft Research and the New York Times for hosting this conversation and hope it might be a first step towards more conversations that aren’t about what’s possible, but what’s desirable.


Note – I edited my blog post at 5:57PM to change the wording in two paragraphs, based on corrections from a speaker at the event.

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Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.) http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/06/11/mystery-show-is-the-new-serial-kinda-but-its-an-awesome-moment-for-radio/ 2015-06-11T20:45:24Z Continue reading ]]> Hey guys, Mystery Show is the new Serial!

Well, sorta. Not quite. Actually, it’s almost the antidote to Serial. But in a way that acknowledges the awesomeness of both shows.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a long commute, a serious walking habit, and an apparently endless need for distraction. The list varies, but heavy rotation currently includes Reply All, Love and Radio, StartUp, Song Exploder, the memory palace, Welcome to Night Vale, Theory of Everything, 99% Percent Invisible, The Moth, On the Media, This American Life, and Story Collider. All of which ended up taking a back seat when new episodes of Serial came out.

You remember Serial, right? The podcast by Sarah Koenig that spun out of This American Life, the one so popular that Slate ran its own podcast commenting on each episode? Serial brought podcasts to a much wider audience (specifically, the NPR listening audience) and helped demonstrate that podcasts didn’t need to resemble existing radio shows, but could tell very different types of stories.

I was thoroughly addicted to Serial until it became clear that we weren’t going to get the satisfying resolution we were looking forward to, a convincing explanation of Hae Min Lee’s final hours, giving us clarity as to whether Adnan Syed was a victim of terrible injustice, or whether he was a phenomenal liar. I still think the show was a brilliant example of storytelling, and I think Koenig took an amazing risk in telling a story without knowing how it ended. But I ended up feeling both disappointed and vaguely creeped out as it became clear that Koenig’s reporting wasn’t going to clear Syed of a crime. Instead, we were exhuming the worst days of people’s lives as a form of entertainment and contemplation, not righting a wrong or solving a mystery.

And despite the feeling that we were intruding where we shouldn’t, I listened to the end, fascinated. And I think the meta-lesson Serial told about the perils of investigative reporting, of digging deep and not being able to unearth Truth are invaluable. But Serial left me feeling implicated in a project I’m not entirely comfortable with.

So now here’s Starlee Kine, who like Koenig has featured prominently on This American Life (Koenig was a staff producer for TAL, and Serial is an official TAL spin-off, while Kine was a frequent guest producer on the show, and Mystery Show is unaffiliated with TAL) with another podcast about mysteries. And that’s roughly where the similarities end.

The mysteries explored by Koenig in the first season of Serial were as important as they get, matters of life and death. Those explored by Kine on Mystery Show couldn’t be more trivial. The three episodes thus far have explored a video store that unexpectedly closed, a novel that might have been read by Britney Spears, and a lost belt buckle. With the stakes so laughably low, Kine sets up a fascinating storytelling problem: how does she get listeners to care about mysteries so banal that the parties to the mystery barely even care?

The answer is that Kine is an otherworldly interviewer, capable of drawing people down conversational paths they never expected to tread. After all, this is a woman who persuaded Phil Collins to help her write a love song about breaking up with her boyfriend. She’s got chops. In early episodes of Mystery Show, Starlee gets a bar owner talking about Fellini films and his fear of love, and turns an informational phonecall with a Ticketmaster customer service representative into a counseling session, helping him recover his self confidence. If I saw Kine at a cocktail party, I would run in the opposite direction, afraid that I’d immediately reveal my deepest hopes and fears, then hear them a week later in my headphones, over a bed of tastefully twee indie pop.

It’s the third episode of Mystery Show that’s got me hooked. It’s the story of a belt buckle, found in a ditch, inscribed to “Hans Jordi”, from “Bill Six”. And lest you worry that Kine will leave you hanging, by the end of the episode, I promise that you’ll know who those people are and why a simple story of lost and found stopped me in my tracks with its emotional weight.

This is a remarkable moment for “radio”, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm. Podcasting appears to have found a business model, and with phones increasingly integrated with other devices, like cars and home audio systems, there’s a large and growing audience for time-shiftable audio content. What’s great is that despite the fact that audiences are large and growing, the field seems to be getting weirder and more adventurous, rather than safer and more dull.

Take The Truth, part of the Radiotopia family of storytelling podcasts. Jonathan Mitchell makes “audio movies”, contemporary radio dramas that use all the affordances of audio, not just the human voice, to tell powerful and profound stories. It’s not my everyday listening because I find so many of the stories so affecting that they’re often disorienting. For example, “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” is probably the best thing I’ve heard this year, but so powerful that I’m reluctant to play it for some of my favorite people… and I can’t even craft a proper trigger warning without giving away the best part of the story.

When Chris Anderson and other prophets of the long tail predicted the future of cultural products online, there was a lot of talk about finding markets for the previously obscure. What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least, was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio. It’s as well produced (sometimes ludicrously better produced, in the case of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder), more intellectually challenging and at least as likely to spark conversation around the proverbial watercooler (or, these days, on Twitter.)

Turns out that there was a massive backlog of talented radio producers who couldn’t get their content on the air. Turns out that some producers who were often on the national stage, like Koenig and Kine, had ideas big enough to be successful shows. Turns out that this is a very exciting moment for those of us with time to listen and ears to hear.

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