Jay Zaveri of Social Capital characterizes cities as a human experiment successful enough to harness the lion’s share of global economic output. But just as they represent human ingenuity in its greatest form, cities also reflect a darker side of human nature littered with poverty, pollution and poor social planning. How to move forward? Social Capital is drawing on the “legacy knowledge” of expert urban planners and designers to build consensus from geospatial data, scenario modeling and analytical intelligence, a medley of new tech Zaveri calls “the ground truth.”
Facebook has been shaken to its core as it came to grips with being perhaps the most powerful media outlet in the world. Among other things, the company grappled with claims of liberal political bias, accusations that it was destroying the free press, and outrage that it had sold ads to Russians trying to influence the 2016 election. What was it like inside the company as these crises unfolded? How has Facebook changed as a result? What is it doing now to address its shortcomings?
WIRED’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein spoke with more than 50 current or former Facebook employees to answer these questions in an enthrallingly detailed article titled “Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook.” Thompson and Vogelstein realized in October that they were both interested in writing features on different aspects of the epic tale, so they decided to team up. Having worked together on “The Plot to Kill Google” in 2009, they knew it would be a happy marriage. The result is an investigative tour de force.
Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it.
Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.
That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — still seems to govern it.
“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame professor Timothy Carone, who added that it’s true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.”
Many renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging, meeting each other and actively engaging in public life.
But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being devoid of the public life they’re envisioned to support.
Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability. Thinking about why we have so many dead plazas also helps to advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.
Just being in an urban environment, scientists have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.
One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.
This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we’re crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it’s become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.
Humans are full of conscious and unconscious biases. For example, a 2012 study in Quebec showed that in considering equally qualified and skilled candidates, those with last names like Ben Saïd were 35 per cent less likely to be called back for an interview than those with last names like Bélanger.
Our machines are learning from this data. They are being taught through AI systems that in fact “Bélangers” are more qualified than “Ben Saïds.” So, as we use AI to predict recidivism in the criminal justice system, to determine loan eligibility or for job application screening, we are further embedding systemic discrimination in our institutions. This is unfair and unethical. It is also a great economic loss. One solution is to teach machines in a similar way to the human brain.
A lot of failed cross-sector projects happen because of a lack of government oversight, a lack of public understanding, a lack of public pressure in what is going into a complex project. That’s where journalism comes in.
Interest in addressing problems through collaboration among business, government and nonprofit sectors is on the rise. Meanwhile, journalists want to understand the mechanics, benefits and limitations of these relationships — partnerships that involve the “linking or sharing of information, resources, activities and capabilities by organizations in two or more sectors to jointly achieve an outcome.”
Journalists have a key role in covering these partnerships, not only to fulfill the Fourth Estate’s mission of holding public officials and agencies accountable for their work in these collaborations, but also to educate the public about cross-sector collaboration as a model for addressing public problems — both its benefits and limitations.
When I first started out, I felt like I always had to be “go, go, go.” One month here, a week or two there, and although I enjoyed the adventurous aspect, that sort of pace is not sustainable, at least not for me. The more I traveled and the more nomads I met in co-working and co-living spaces, I found a lot of them traveled at a slower pace.
The most successful nomads — either financially or those who have been maintaining a nomadic life for years — all have a home base (or two) somewhere where they spend 3 to 6 months on average. The rest of the time, they travel and work from other locations. So, I think that there’s this sort of misconception that to be nomadic you have to constantly be on the move and that is just not the case.
Apple users usually expect for their devices to perform basic system management and maintenance, monitoring background processes so that a rogue task doesn’t drag down the currently active app, for example.
But when Apple confirmed users’ suspicions that a recent update was aggressively slowing older devices, the story quickly gained national attention, culminating in the company cutting the price of battery replacement service and apologizing for the misunderstanding in an open letter to customers. Though Apple never goes as far as to admit wrongdoing in the letter, their direct appeals to customers’ “trust” and “faith” serve as an implicit acknowledgement that the company disregarded a boundary somewhere.
Given how social media and messaging services have, as Jenny Davis says, “extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions,” Apple’s moves to smooth device performance and subtly automate connectivity make some sense. “They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Data & Society scholars argued in response to Carpenter v. United States.
The ubiquity of networked phones not only facilitates access but furnishes society’s layers of contingency – the many convenient, useful and at times crucial services we enjoy and rely on every day. When our societal infrastructure shifts, as it inevitably does, we feel it and often anticipate its impact.
Indeed, as part of the “cyborgian bargain,” we both expect and are specially equipped to continually renegotiate our status within ever shifting socio-technical systems. For the trust we exercise conditionally with and through society’s mediating infrastructures and institutions, we do not expect an equitable exchange so much as we demand reciprocation, however tenuous and incomplete, commensurate with our wants and desires.
The sort of user we are becoming now might be better described as interstitial, a status emerging from our agency in relation to and actions afforded by socio-technologies. Instead of the ancillary user that platforms imagine molding and fixing in place, the interstitial user contends that our interests and desires necessarily defy simple categorization and we will use what options we have at our disposal to pursue our aims in spite of designers’ wishes.
The most important thing that’s lacking is actually any kind of private space where you are not being monitored by the corporations whose tools you’re using to have whatever conversation you’re having.
So, every time you have a conversation in a digital environment, all of it, there’s a third party who’s got that information — always a corporation. And then all of that exchange is also being monitored by the government.
If the fundamental premise is that this activity of non-profits happens outside of those realms, it literally doesn’t exist in digital space, because we’re playing in their house, if you will. We may well need and would all benefit from an environment that provides some protections for us in those spaces as they exist.
When we talk about digital civil society we always say, ‘Look, we need to invent this, because we don’t have it.’ The best way to protect somebody else’s digital data in that environment is to not collect it. If you don’t have it, then it’s not at risk.
Non-profits have been excited to use things like free online documents and spreadsheets that are stored in the cloud and shared across organizations, and this comes at no direct financial cost to them. If you upload to those systems the names of everyone participating in your programs, with their address their email and their phone number, you’ve just given it away to other parties.
But, if you collect that information and don’t store it online, for one, or you encrypt it, for two, or you store it on your own servers and not in other people’s houses, as I like to think about it, then you are providing the same degree of integrity to that data that you again provide to the money that you rely on to do your business in the first place. You’re treating it with integrity toward your mission.
And if your mission, for example, is helping vulnerable people in your community, don’t do it in such a way that you essentially make them more vulnerable.