Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 27 2016 5:45 AM

When a Cat Crashes a Video Conference Call, Is It Charming or Irritating?

My husband was in a Skype-based job interview a couple of years ago when he noticed that the men he was talking to suddenly looked a little puzzled. Then he saw their eyes move across the screen. They had spotted one of our cats, or rather the tip of her tail, as she walked through the background. When he realized what was going on, Chris picked her up and said, "Callie, not now." His interviewers laughed, and their conversation continued.

He got the job.

When you’re in the office, holding conference calls on Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts is terrible: There’s always some problem with the technology, and everyone gets a little snippy, blaming the other side when things go haywire. (No, New York office, you froze.)

Doing a video conference call from home is even worse. You have to clear out any mess in the frame, fuss with the lighting, think about thinking about fixing your hair, maybe put on a bra. (OK, this isn’t completely logical, but I always do it anyway.) As my colleague L.V. Anderson put it, “Video conferencing counteracts the benefits of working from home, makes participants distracted and self-conscious, and fails to reproduce the social benefits of meeting in person.”

It’s true. There is just one reason why it’s worth putting up with video meetings while working from home: the opportunity to see pets.

Callie crashes
Callie doing her thing on Zoom.

Callie seems to be somehow drawn to the sound—she also gets very worked up when calls are on speakerphone—and so crashes my video calls on a regular basis. Her ears will show up in the corner of the screen, or she’ll headbutt my face, or she’ll place her front paws on my shoulders. She’s quiet, luckily—though I always keep myself on mute when not speaking, just in case. In my heart, Callie’s antics are utterly delightful. My kind-souled colleagues are good sports about it, sending me enthusiastic messages that say “CAT!” when they spot her on Zoom. I’m not the only Slatester with a feline interloper. My colleagues Jim Newell, Rebecca Onion, and Jacob Brogan all have cats—Leo, Behemoth, and Molly, respectively—who make guest appearances in our regular meetings. Their better-behaved pets typically sleep in frame, instead of winding their way back and forth the way Callie does.

But not everyone finds a cat cameo so endearing. I was once Skyping with a potential contact whom I didn’t know very well. Callie did her thing, this time walking on the table right in front of the camera. “Oh, sorry, it’s my cat!” I said, grinning. The woman I was talking to nodded and kept talking, not giving me even a little bit of a smile. I was miffed.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that it can be distracting—like when Callie nonchalantly positions her butt in the exact wrong place. And then I don’t quite know what to do: Do I just ignore it and hope everyone else does, too? Do I gently shove her away? Do I let her blackmail me into petting her off-camera so she doesn’t interrupt more? My standard practice after the first intrusion is to smile with a self-deprecating roll of my eyes to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous, and then ignore her. But at times, her presence is undeniably intrusive—like when Slate Editor Julia Turner had to ask me to repeat something because Callie was blocking the mic. (Julia was very nice about it. Still: Sorry, boss!)

When I informally polled some people about whether it’s distracting or charming when a cat crashes a meeting, most expressed enthusiasm. But a candid few admitted it could be a problem. “It’s charming and great unless the cat owner decides to use it as an opportunity to turn the conversation onto his/her cat, in which case it’s unprofessional (and also very un-cat-like),” one former colleague told me. And while I certainly don’t want to turn the conversation onto my cat, this does hit at my “What do I do when it happens?” anxiety. It was a good reminder me not to spend too much time apologizing for the cat.

Another friend mused that this is another example of how the line between work and life is blurring. When your co-workers can literally see into your home, professionalism has to lose some of its gloss. Normally, I’m simply taken by how tastefully decorated my colleagues’ apartments are—but it’s comforting to sometimes see a little disorder, a little lived-in chaos, like a messy living room or a poorly behaved cat.

A colleague who is a mother took this idea a bit further. “I think it’s kind of cute when it happens. But I’m annoyed because I know everyone wouldn’t laugh and say it’s OK if someone’s kid crashed their conference call, which I’m always terrified of when I’m working from home.” When she Zooms in from home for a call, she said, she goes into a room and locks the door so her young son can’t interlope. It was disheartening to hear. I’d like to say that I would laugh and say it’s OK if her kid—who is lovely—popped up.

But I can understand where the anxiety might come from. Of course, a child can actually speak, while my cat is (usually) just a visual interruption. And it’s not socially acceptable to shove a child away—with love—as you can do with a cat.

But maybe it’s that we find a glimpse of a home life endearing, but we don’t want to see too much. A friendly cat and a ratty couch are fine. A child and an unmade bed in the background, with a CPAP machine on the nightstand? Unfair as it is, that might be too far. At least for now.

Dec. 20 2016 1:11 PM

Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Turn in a Way That Can Kill Bicyclists

No one sets out in the morning planning to be an angry bike commuter, the one banging a fist on a car’s hood after swerving to avoid being hit, but sometimes it’s the only way to tell a distracted motorist that he or she nearly pancaked you. Right now, Uber is previewing a future in which we’re banging our fists at an empty driver’s seat. As the Guardian reports, the self-driving Ubers currently tooling around San Francisco have a bike lane problem.

Uber has long envisioned replacing the human drivers on its platform with autonomous vehicles, an ambition it has been testing on the roads of Pittsburgh since this summer (with human backup drivers in tow). Last week, it rolled out an autonomous-vehicle pilot in San Francisco, but didn’t seek a permit from California, which regulates tests of self-driving cars, like Google’s. After one of the autonomous Ubers blew through a red light—the company says a human engineer was in control of the car at the time—the California Department of Motor Vehicles said it would crack down on Uber if it did not stop the testing and apply for a permit. Uber, being Uber, defied the threat and said it would continue testing its cars in San Francisco.

On Monday, the Guardian reported that Uber’s engineers were trying to fix a problem with the way its self-driving cars cross bike lanes when making right turns. That’s not a small issue in a dense environment like San Francisco, which has 200 miles of bike lanes and, hilliness aside, a robust population of bike commuters.

Like being doored, getting “right-hooked” is a first-order worry for anyone who uses bike lanes. Bicyclists die that way. Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of a local cycling advocacy group called the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, rode in a self-driving Uber as part of a demonstration two days before the test launched and observed the vehicles taking a dangerous right-hook turn—that is, abruptly crossing over a bike lane to make a right turn in an intersection. (The safer practice is to check to see if bikes are approaching and, if possible, merge into the bike lane or parking lane before completing the right turn.) He says he shared his concern with Uber, which told the Guardian that it is now instructing its testers to take control of the cars to make right turns on streets with bike lanes.

It’s reassuring that Uber has made that move, and it’s true that self-driving cars, which may ultimately reduce vehicular deaths, will need to be tested on the streets in order to improve. I can’t help but think, however, that Uber would not have addressed this issue had a bicycling advocate not been present at its demonstration and had that bicycling advocate not been willing to make a public stink. And the autonomous Ubers’ initial trouble with bike lanes further deepens the sense that the future envisioned by self-driving car proponents—of a perfectly efficient urban latticework of autonomous-vehicle byways—is one that doesn’t account for the other people who share the road on foot or on bike. Or as Washington City Paper’s bike columnist recently tweeted:

It is likely for the greater good that companies like Uber and Google and General Motors are racing to perfect the self-driving car. But to do so they need to respect public space—something Uber, whose M.O. is to enter cities no matter their laws and later lobby for favorable regulations, has often not done. (Its argument in San Francisco is that its self-driving Ubers are closer to Teslas, which have an Autopilot mode, than to the Google car.) And they need to respect our roads as they are currently designed and used, not as they eventually might be, which means working with the agencies that design and regulate them, and not asking for forgiveness instead of permission.

Then again, if this is where we’re headed, American cities can do something, too: Give bicyclists protected bike lanes that cars can’t swerve into even if they want to.

Dec. 20 2016 10:07 AM

How Bad Was Imperial Cybersecurity in Rogue One? We Asked Some Experts.

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But come on: If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen it.

Dec. 15 2016 1:03 PM

Facebook’s Cautious, Sensible Plan to Fight Fake News

As fake news and political hoaxes proliferated on Facebook during the presidential campaign, the company did little to stop them. Facing a backlash in the days following the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg downplayed the problem, while making vague assurances that Facebook would look into it further. That only intensified the criticism.

Now, it seems, Facebook is taking it seriously. The company announced on Thursday several new features designed to identify, flag, and slow the spread of false news stories on its platform, including a partnership with third-party fact-checkers such as Snopes and PolitiFact. It is also taking steps to prevent spammers and publishers from profiting from fake news.

The new features are relatively cautious and somewhat experimental, which means they may not immediately have the intended effects. But they signal a new direction for a company that has been extremely reticent to take on any editorial oversight of the content posted on its platform. And they are likely to evolve over time as the company tests and refines them.

The company detailed the changes in a post on its News Feed FYI blog Thursday.

First, it’s trying to make it easier for users to report fake news stories. The drop-down menu at the top right of each post in your feed will now include an explicit option to report it as a “fake news story,” after which you’ll be prompted to choose among multiple options, which include notifying Facebook and messaging the person who shared it. (This approach is similar to the one Slate itself has taken with its fake-news fighting tool, a Chrome browser extension called This Is Fake, which launched on Monday.)

Facebook fake news reporting
Facebook users can now report a story as "fake news," which gives them the option to notify Facebook and/or the message the person who posted it.

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

Facebook’s approach to adjudicating the thorny question of what constitutes fake news is a cautious and probably prudent one: It will partner with established fact-checking organizations to assess the accuracy of individual news stories. At launch, the company said the partners will be Snopes, Factcheck.org, ABC News, and Politifact, with more to be added later. They’ll all be drawn from the nonprofit Poynter’s international fact-checking network.

This careful, manual approach to fact-checking is likely to be slow, because such organizations generally have limited resources. Facebook will try to aid them, a company representative told me, by providing them with a virtual dashboard that uses an algorithm to surface the viral stories that are being most widely flagged as fake by Facebook users, among other signals.

When a fact-checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will appear on Facebook with a notice that the story has been disputed. Its ranking in the news feed will also take a hit, inhibiting its viral spread. And while users will still be allowed to share such stories, they’ll be given a warning that the story has been disputed before they post it. Additionally, Facebook will ban disputed stories from being promoted as ads in the news feed.

Facebook fake news disputed
Stories identified as fake by Facebook's fact-checking partners will appear in users' feeds with a notice, and users will be warned before sharing them.

Screenshot courtesy of Facebook

At the same time, but separately, Facebook is adding a new signal to its news feed algorithm that will look at whether users are sharing a post before or after they’ve taken the time to read it. This is similar but distinct from another feature that Facebook already uses to assess whether a story might be clickbait. Stories that are being shared mostly by people who haven’t taken time to read them will be ranked lower in the news feed, on the theory that the content itself might not be credible or worthwhile.

Finally, Facebook is stepping up its efforts to prevent spammers and fake-news sites from promoting stories on its platform, including a mechanism to prevent domain-spoofing, a common tactic of hoax websites.

What’s cautious about this effort is that Facebook is avoiding the responsibility of deciding which news stories are genuine and which are fake. The company is highly sensitive to claims of editorial bias, because its value lies in its ability to appeal to users across the political spectrum. It also avoids using data, algorithms, or artificial intelligence to try to discern truth from fact, which is wise given the difficulty of doing so.

I do have one important criticism, however: The company has declined to define its criteria for fake news. A spokesperson did tell me the company will set a high bar for what counts as fake, which I’ve argued is crucial. But the company was unable to say exactly how it would handle stories that its fact-checking partners identify as containing a mixture of truth and falsehood.

Dec. 15 2016 10:32 AM

RSVP for a Free Screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai

Join Terrell McSweeny, a commissioner with the Federal Trade Commission, for a screening and discussion of the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.* This offbeat comedy follows the adventures of Buckaroo Banzai—a celebrity neurosurgeon, rock star, experimental race car driver, and science enthusiast who is called upon to save the world from a hostile extraterrestrial invasion.

The screening of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, at Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema at 555 11th Street NW. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share. You may RSVP for yourself and up to one guest. Please include your guest’s name in your response. Seating is limited.

This is the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series, which features thought leaders hosting their favorite movies and short conversations about them.

*Correction, Dec. 15, 2016: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this post misstated that Terrell McSweeny was with the Federal Trader Commission, not the Federal Trade Commission.

Dec. 14 2016 2:49 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Russia Didn’t Hack the Election. It Hacked Voters.

Greetings Future Tensers—

After a flurry of speculation about Russia interfering in our presidential election over the past few months, the picture is becoming clearer. Retired naval officer Ted Johnson, who worked in information warfare, writes that though the Kremlin didn’t hack the actual election, its cyberinterventionism did something just as menacing: It hacked us, the voters. Russia was behind many of the stories, both real and fake, that dominated the campaign—particularly pro-Trump propaganda and the Democratic National Committee hacks. Manipulating the news cycle, it turns out, was much easier than trying to hack into voting machines.

Russian hackers didn’t just target the DNC. According to a New York Times report, intelligence agencies concluded with “high confidence” that cyberspies gained access to Republican National Committee’s computer systems too. Though RNC Chairman Reince Priebus quickly rejected the claims, Josephine Wolff writes there’s no way he could know this. Anyone who confidently, categorically denies such a breach is, she says, “either flat-out lying or dangerously delusional.”

Speaking of undermining democracy, we have published a lot about the ascendance offake news” (including why it’s a knotty term) and its power in our polarized political environment. And now, Slate has done something about it with “This Is Fake,” a Chrome extension that will flag those bogus stories Uncle Joe keeps sharing and give you the opportunity to help debunk them. Be a good internet citizen and join the fight against media dysfunction.

Here are some other stories we read between trying to prevent the next “Pizzagate”:

Wrongful Arrest by Software: California’s Alameda County has a glitch. When it upgraded its court case management system, software errors led to dozens of mistaken arrests and detentions. University of California­–Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh explains how these big data hitches can lead to even bigger injustices.

‘Tis the Season: Suzanne Monyak gives us a friendly holiday reminder not to click on those “Undelivered Package” emails, which hackers love to use to lure unsuspecting gift-givers.

What a Year for a New Year: We’re starting 2017 out with a monster. And no, we’re not talking about the new president. January means Futurography is back, and we’re kicking off with a deep dive into how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein changed the ways we think about scientific advancement. Jacob Brogan previews what else we have in store.

Upcoming events:

  • TONIGHT: Join Future Tense in New York for a happy hour conversation with Tim Wu and New York Times writer (and Slate alumna) Amanda Hess about the barrage of distraction our connected age has ushered in—and the consequences we may face for leading more artificially moderated lives. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
  • RESCHEDULED: Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., to explore the internet’s nationality, and the extent to which it’s an expression of American culture, and how that may be changing. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Flagging the fakeries,
Kirsten Berg
for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Dec. 9 2016 4:05 PM

Here’s Your Friendly Holiday Reminder Not to Click on “Undelivered Package” Emails

Ever gotten an email that your package could not be delivered? A recent USA Today report warns online shoppers to think before they click. Holiday season is open season for hackers who send out these fake “undelivered package” emails to lure unsuspecting gift-givers to open attachments containing malware or ransomware.

Dec. 9 2016 12:15 PM

Futurography Newsletter: What’s Ahead in 2017

Return to Futurography

Hello, Futurographers,

It’s December and—you may have noticed—we’re not running a new Futurography course this month. Never fear, though: We’ll be back in January to celebrate the 199th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, looking at the ways the book has changed the ways we think about scientific advances. We’ll be featuring discussions of bioethics, the language of scientific innovation, and maybe even why our monsters have gotten so much sexier than they used to be. Stay tuned: It’ll be fun.

And that’s not all! In February, we’re planning our most practical unit yet—a series on self-defense against cybercrime. Then in March, we’ll be blasting back toward the stars with a course on the new space race. And in April we’ll be taking on synthetic biology. We hope you’ll continue to follow along.

In the meantime, this is the perfect moment to revisit our recently concluded course on internet governance. Here’s what we published in November:

Once you’ve worked through all of that, test what you’ve learned against our quiz about internet governance. And then find out what your fellow Slate readers think in our write-up of our survey on the topic.

Setting up my VPN,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Dec. 8 2016 5:36 PM

What Slate Readers Think About Internet Governance

Return to Futurography

Throughout November, Futurography focused on internet governance. We looked at the effects of China’s live streaming revolution, how the rest of the world feels about U.S. dominance of the internet, what the internet’s like in North Korea, and much more. But we’re also interested in what you have to say, so we’ve written up the results of our survey on the topic. Futurography will return in January with a course on the legacy of Frankenstein.

Slate readers don’t always agree with one another. But there was one area of consensus among the readers who wrote in to our survey: When asked to name the most important internet governance debate, nearly all said that it is net neutrality. As Charles Kenny argued in Futurography, that opinion may not hold everywhere in the world—in developing regions, mere access is more important for many. Other issues our respondents identified as important included “transparency in tracking by private companies,” government spying, and open internet borders.

Most of our readers also agreed about which debates are overblown, pointing out that despite the conspiracy theories, it isn’t really worth talking about who runs the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. In line with Danielle Kehl, who laid out the ins and outs of ICANN for Future Tense, readers seemed to agree that the organization is largely clerical. As one observed, “Those who help govern the internet are not some kind of secret cabal,” but are instead mostly “industry experts and academics.”

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that most respondents also felt that individual countries shouldn’t have the right to control the internet within their borders—going against calls for internet sovereignty that have been pushed by countries such as China. While one reader held that the issue is too complex for a simple yes or no answer, most others seemed convinced that information should be able to flow freely between and within nations. One ambitious reader went so far as to propose, “The internet should be engineered in such a way to make it impossible for a government to even have the choice either way.” That may be easier said than done, though: “Realistically there’s nothing that can be done to change this,” one reader observed.

The question of practicality also haunted responses to a question about whether countries should work to preserve a free and open internet. Most felt that nations should, but only a few readers laid out ideas about how to do it. One suggested “requiring network neutrality and prohibiting zero-rating,” a type of service in which an internet provider "allows internet users to access certain sites or apps without accumulating data charges," as we explained on our cheat sheet. Another got more specific, suggesting that we “mandate the separation between content creators/owners (on the one hand) and ISPs/backbone (on the other).” As that same respondent noted, it may also be important to “work on international oversight so that companies can’t simply circumvent restrictions by hopping a border,” though that too presumably presents another set of complications.

When it came to which internet governance trends truly worried them, though, some readers didn’t seem especially concerned about nation states. To the contrary, many echoed Emily Taylor’s assertion that companies—not countries—control of the internet. “Vertical integration of content providers and ISPs” troubled one reader, and another wrote that “mega media mergers are a concern.” Still, a few did discuss issues originating in specific countries, as did one who pointed to the U.K. Investigatory Powers Act 2016—a recent bill that gave government authorities the right to hack and otherwise surveil individuals—and another who gestured more broadly to “China's ability and willingness to control IT content.”

The United States, for its own part, did not come out clean, with one reader claiming that we have a “Congress and SCOTUS who clearly have little or no understanding of how the internet … works.” We applaud the readers who took the time to find out over the past month.

Dec. 7 2016 1:00 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: When Is News Actually Fake?

Greetings, Future Tensers,

Jill Stein’s recount effort isn’t going to change the results of the presidential election, but Frank Pasquale argues that it’s still a good idea. Voting machines in the U.S. are rife with vulnerabilities, Pasquale writes, and re-examining the vote could help make sure that future elections are secure and reliable. It’s better to find and fix problems now instead of waiting till 2020.

Though there is no evidence foreign actors interfered with the vote, it’s almost certain that Russia hacked the computers of U.S. officials and used its findings to sway the election. Maria Farrell examines why Russia has such a fraught relationship with Western countries when it comes to the internet. And while we’re talking about the election and its fallout: Will Oremus argues that we should be careful about how we use the term fake news. (But guess who else is worried about fake news? Russia.)

Some other stories we read this week while thinking that an abandoned moon colony sounds pretty good right about now:

  • Facebook: Ellen P. Goodman suggests Facebook should begin subsidizing and supporting local news, which has been damaged by the rise of social media.
  • Military technology: Brad Allenby explains why it’s surprisingly difficult to define “military artificial intelligence”—and why that’s important.
  • Law and order: I recapped our recent Future Tense event in Washington, D.C., in which experts discussed the potential for technology to prevent crime and improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. You can watch the full event on New America’s website.

Upcoming events:

  • Join Future Tense in New York the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 14, for a happy hour conversation with Tim Wu and New York Times writer (and Slate alumna) Amanda Hess to discuss the impact of advertisement and consequences we might face for leading more artificially moderated lives. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
  • RESCHEDULED: Will the internet always be American? On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Future Tense will host a live event in Washington, D.C., to explore the internet’s nationality, and the extent to which it’s an expression of American culture, and how that may be changing. You can RSVP to attend in person or watch online here.

Packing for the moon,
Emily Fritcke
for Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.