From July through Thanksgiving this year I worked with Steven Levy, Jessi Hempel, and their team at Backchannel as an editor — an opportunity that became available while executive editor Sandra Upson was on leave. I’ve been around enough online media shops to recognize the fine hum of a great editorial outfit, and this was definitely the feeling at Backchannel, which now operates as a sort of magazine-within-a-magazine at Wired.
I’ve actually been writing for Backchannel since Steven and Sandra started it at Medium — and I’m proud of early pieces I wrote for them on the nature of the blockchain and corporate programming languages. But this was a chance to edit and write at the same time, which has always been my favorite mode of work. As this gig concludes, I want to share a brief recap of the stories I wrote this year — if for nothing else, to help me find them again!
The Fashion App Founder With a Pocket Full of Visas
Purva Gupta talks about what it’s like to be an immigrant leading a startup. (11/22/17)
Taxes on Tech Need an Overhaul — But Not Like This
Taxing stock options on vesting is probably a dumb idea, but let’s talk about ways tax policy could encourage companies to make good on options’ original spread-the-wealth promise. (11/15/17)
The Lean Startup Pioneer Wants Everyone to Think Like a Founder
A conversation with Eric Ries about his new book, The Startup Way. (11/8/17)
The End of the Cult of the Founder
The Silicon Valley founder is uniquely ill-prepared to deal with complex political, social, and economic problems. (11/8/17)
Why Artificial Intelligence Is Still Waiting For Its Ethics Transplant
A conversation with Kate Crawford. (11/1/17)
Burning Memories: Rethinking Digital Archives After the Napa Fire
What artifacts survive, what information endures, and what can you do? (10/25/17)
This Techie Is Using Blockchain to Monetize His Time
Does charging people for your time using a personal digital currency make any sense? Evan Prodromou talks about his “EvanCoin” project. (10/18/17)
Google Home, Alexa, and Siri Are Forcing Us to Make a Serious Decision
Be careful which digital assistant you hire — because firing them isn’t easy. (10/11/17)
Silicon Valley’s Trillion-Dollar Numbers Game
Why do so many startups tout their “total addressable market” when it’s a largely fictional metric? (10/4/17)
Firewalls Don’t Stop Hackers. AI Might
A conversation with DarkTrace CEO Nicole Eagan. (9/27/17)
The Unbearable Irony of Meditation Apps
Can your smartphone possibly help you focus and breathe? (8/30/17)
Bitcoin Makes Even Smart People Feel Dumb
The ’90s web was easy to fathom and participants flocked. Cryptocurrencies, not so much. (8/9/17)
Artificial Intelligence at Salesforce: An Inside Look
Salesforce’s goal is “AI for everyone” — or at least every company. (8/2/17)
Silicon Valley’s First Founder Was Its Worst
What today’s startup world can learn from the (bad) example of William Shockley. (7/19/17)
How Google Book Search Got Lost
Google’s first “moonshot” project ended up way more mundane than anyone expected. (4/11/17)
Inside Dropbox’s Identity Overhaul
How an innovator in cloud storage designed and developed its new collaborative document authoring system. (1/30/17)
Missed you! Here’s my latest news:
(1) I continue to write features for Backchannel, which is still publishing on Medium but no longer owned by Medium, having been acquired by Conde Nast. Index of my stories is here. Some (relatively) recent stuff:
(2) At the start of August I began writing the NewCo Daily for John Battelle and NewCo. It’s an email newsletter that every weekday rounds up, summarizes, and comments on stories that relate to NewCo’s focus on mission-driven companies, cities, sustainability, tech, and how businesses are struggling to improve themselves and the world. You can subscribe over here, and the newsletters I write are indexed here.
(3) I had the pleasure of attending the Botness conference in June, and got drafted on the spot to deliver a very brief impromptu talk on “Fiduciary responsibilities of agents and bots”, which I recently discovered was preserved for posterity. I had one simple point to make: We used to imagine that “intelligent agent” software would represent the user’s interest. But the world of chatbots that’s emerging surrounds users with bots that represent somebody else’s interest (usually that of some large company). This is a problem!]]>
As you can see, I’ve suspended the link-sharing project.
It’s not that there isn’t still an incredible flow of links on the subject of digital authenticity and “being yourself” on social media. (You could fill a whole feed just with links to think pieces on Trump.)
But I’m not satisfied with the format I’ve been using. The quotes have value on their own but the simple bloggy reverse-chronological pile isn’t satisfying enough. I’ve been thinking of better ways to organize, present, and share this material, but I haven’t put them together yet. Stay tuned.]]>
From “How to Make a Bot That Isn’t Racist,” by Sarah Jeong in Motherboard (3/25/16):
“Most of my bots don’t interact with humans directly,” said Kazemi. “I actually take great care to make my bots seem as inhuman and alien as possible. If a very simple bot that doesn’t seem very human says something really bad — I still take responsibility for that — but it doesn’t hurt as much to the person on the receiving end as it would if it were a humanoid robot of some kind.”
So what does it mean to build bots ethically?
The basic takeaway is that botmakers should be thinking through the full range of possible outputs, and all the ways others can misuse their creations.
“You really have to sit down and think through the consequences,” said Kazemi. “It should go to the core of your design.”
For something like TayandYou, said Kazemi, the creators should have “just run a million iterations of it one day and read as many of them as you can. Just skim and find the stuff that you don’t like and go back and try and design it out of it.”
“It boils down to respecting that you’re in a social space, that you’re in a commons,” said Dubbin. “People talk and relate to each other and are humans to each other on Twitter so it’s worth respecting that space and not trampling all over it to spray your art on people.”
For thricedotted, TayandYou failed from the start. “You absolutely do NOT let an algorithm mindlessly devour a whole bunch of data that you haven’t vetted even a little bit,” they said. “It blows my mind, because surely they’ve been working on this for a while, surely they’ve been working with Twitter data, surely they knew this shit existed. And yet they put in absolutely no safeguards against it?!”
According to Dubbin, TayandYou’s racist devolution felt like “an unethical event” to the botmaking community. After all, it’s not like the makers are in this just to make bots that clear the incredibly low threshold of being not-racist.
Trump is said to be an effective campaigner because voters perceive his “I tell it like it is” persona to be real. Yet his coterie turns around and says that the shit-stirring, plainspoken, politically incorrect identity is the act, and the “real” Trump is a more thoughtful kind of guy.
From “Who Is the Real Donald Trump?,” by Charlotte Triggs and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall in People (03/30/2016):
But who can know the real Trump when he deflects serious questions with non-sequiturs?
When PEOPLE asks about the comparisons that have been made between him and Adolf Hitler, Trump peels off a quick “Well, that’s ridiculous,” then says it’s all because “the last person Hillary [Clinton] wants running against her is me.”
Complicating attempts to understand him is his insistence that his public persona isn’t the same as his private one. “I think I’m somewhat different. I’m a much nicer person than people would think, to see me from the outside,” Trump says.
“On the one hand you might see that as bad. But on the other hand you don’t want people to know you that well.”
Friends vouch for the alter-ego premise, saying that Trump’s bellow and bluster (critics call it bigotry and buffoonery) is an act, put on by a salesman and reality TV star for ratings.
“Donald is a showbiz guy, and his talk is his shtick,” says one friend, Christopher Ruddy. Another, Omarosa Manigault, who starred on Trump’s TV competition series The Apprentice, says he hasn’t yet “made the total shift from entertainer.”
Both, like a dozen others who know Trump personally, tell PEOPLE that this offstage Trump – “caring and kind,” says Ruddy; “far more thoughtful and measured,” as British journalist and Apprentice alum Piers Morgan put it – is the real Trump.
From “Runs in the Family: New findings about schizophrenia rekindle old questions about genes and identity,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New Yorker (3/28/16):
What is the nature of instruction that allows an organism to build a psyche, or a nose — any nose — in the first place? The C4-gene variant that contributes to schizophrenia is the same gene that, in all likelihood, is used by the brain to prune synapses and thus enable cognition, the tethering of thoughts to realities, and adaptive learning. Push the activity of the gene beyond some point, and Bleuler’s threads of association break; a mind-demolishing illness is unleashed. Swerve too far in the other direction, and we lose our capacity for adaptive learning; the blooming, buzzing confusions of childhood — its naïve, unshorn circuits — are retained. Our unique selves must live in some balanced state between overedited and underedited brain circuits, between overpruned and underpruned synapses….
Perhaps there will be a way to arrest the overpruning of synapses in schizophrenia, say, or to prevent instability in neural activity in bipolar disorder. But which symptoms would we seek to abrogate or relieve? What if we needed to treat children long before their symptoms appeared; what if the treatment, in its attempts to normalize the psyche, interrupted the construction of individual selves?
Nick Denton in Gawker, writing on the jury verdict in the Hulk Hogan trial:
Celebrities, especially ones as public about their personal and sex life as Hulk Hogan, have a narrower zone of privacy than ordinary people. Regardless of questions about Gawker’s editorial standards and methods, self-promoters should not be allowed to seek attention around a specific topic and then claim privacy when the narrative takes an unwelcome turn. The benefits of publicity come at a price; and for someone like Hogan, whose whole life is a performance, it’s a full-time and long-term commitment.
On the stand, Hogan claimed his sexual boasts and inconvenient public statements fell under the umbrella of his “artistic liberty” as an actor. He can be untruthful when in character, he admitted cheerfully, and he is in character whenever he leaves his home. That split personality was revealed at its most bizarre when he gave an example: Hulk Hogan the character has a bigger penis than Terry Bollea the man, he said. Hogan’s is public, Bollea’s is private, but the fact is that most of us can’t tell the character from the man — especially when the trademark bandana is worn by both, even in court.
Fine, that confusion may be a symptom of the modern era, in which everyday life itself becomes a performance on talk radio, reality television, or social media. Indeed, Hogan’s lead counsel spent some time explaining to the jury the concept of “scripted reality,” in which performance and real life are blurred. We heard an echo of the argument recently, when a spokesperson for Donald Trump dismissed his long history of misogynist remarks as the words of “a television character” rather than a presidential candidate.
But these always-on celebrities should not be surprised when their credibility is questioned, and journalists attempt to sort out what is real and what is fake.
From “Obama Privately Tells Donors That Time Is Coming to Unite Behind Hillary Clinton,” by Maggie Haberman and Michael Shear in the New York Times (3/18/16):
Mr. Obama acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton was perceived to have weaknesses as a candidate, and that some Democrats did not view her as authentic.
But he played down the importance of authenticity, noting that President George W. Bush — whose record he ran aggressively against in 2008 — was once praised for his authenticity….
Mr. Obama said that he understood the appeal to voters of a candidate who is authentic, the official said. But he also reminded the Texas donors in the room that Mr. Bush was considered authentic when he was running for president, suggesting that being authentic did not necessarily translate into being a good president, in his view.
Mr. Trump’s admirers have often praised him for his authenticity and blunt style, contrasting it with Mrs. Clinton’s more cautious approach.
From “I thought my Instagram was all mine, until the algorithm proved me wrong,” by Nellie Bowles in the Guardian (3/17/16), about Instagram’s switch to an algorithm-based personal feed:
“You create this identity for yourself, like your little secret life that interacts with other secret lives, and if that gets manipulated, it can feel disorienting,” said Lacey Noonan, a psychotherapist as Well Counseling in the heart of San Francisco’s tech-centric Potrero Hill. “It happens all the time”…
As I mould myself into these platforms, I claw out a sense of control over what is mine – my profile, my feed. Instagram and Twitter encouraged this sense of ownership and agency. The move toward an algorithm that the company curates is a reminder of both who’s in charge and just how much of myself I’ve given to them. My apps have become so blended into my life, to skew one toward the machine is to skew them both.
Internet historian and University of Michigan professor Chuck Severance said it was “nice” I ever thought I had ownership of something like my Twitter account. Severance teaches a popular class online called Internet History, Technology, and Security and goes by @DrChuck to his 14,000 Twitter followers.
“When a company makes your feed algorithmic, it’s the moment that you’re being squeezed as an asset,” Severance said. “In some way it’s worse than a loss of agency. It’s them reminding you that you’re not the owner, you’re the product. You do know that, right?”
“After the ‘Nice’ Debate: Trump’s Shape-Shifting Power,” James Fallows (The Atlantic, 3/11/16):
Trump talks up his background as a business executive, but the background that really matters is his years as a reality TV star. All politicians need to be actors. But by nature or by experience, Trump is just far better at it than anyone else in the field. The magic is that every one of these roles and tones seems “authentic” to him. That is a large part of why he’s gotten this far, and why the Democrats have to take him seriously. Ronald Reagan, as an actor-presidential candidate, had nothing in the dramatic-skills range over Trump.