Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 5 2017 4:57 PM

Can YouTube Solve Its Moderation Problems by Hiring Hundreds of People?

YouTube announced on Monday that it will be expanding the staff of its content moderation and rule enforcement team to more than 10,000 people by the end of 2018, which represents a 25 percent increase, according to BuzzFeed. This decision comes after a number of controversies concerning children’s safety on the platform—for those who watch the content as well as those who appear in videos. Yet as other platforms have also struggled with the delicate task of protecting viewers while also ensuring free speech, the big question next year for YouTube is whether this will work.

Dec. 5 2017 2:29 PM

Was Your Identity Stolen to Help Repeal Net Neutrality?

It’s no secret that something went awry during the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality public comment period earlier this year. It was intended to let Americans weigh in on whether the FCC should repeal the 2015 rules that protect net neutrality, and more than 20 million comments were submitted online. But as we learned last week, a study from the Pew Research Center found that tens of millions of submissions were posted multiple times, and many came from email addresses that were used repeatedly. Many of the repeated messages likely came in response to calls for action from advocates such as John Oliver, indicating that the sentiments they convey may still be sincere. Other comments, however, carried more troubling implications: In some cases, commenters may have stolen the identities of real people in order to submit opinions.

Want to find out if it happened to you? New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who has been an active opponent of Trump administration priorities, might be able to help. Last week, Schneiderman’s office posted a tool that allows you to check whether your name shows up in the FCC’s database of public comments. (If you have an especially common name, you may want to visit the FCC’s own site, which allows you to specify city, state, and other details that can help narrow your search.) Schneiderman’s site also links visitors to a page where they can submit information about false comments.

The tool has yielded troubling results for many. In one Reddit thread, a user suggests that their name shows up in a pro-repeal comment with an address “from 15 years ago.” “My fake comment was littered with tinfoil references to ‘Soros’ and Obama. As this is a matter of public record, it puts my name on the wrong side of history,” the user writes. Many others describe similar discoveries in the thread, with one claiming, “My name and address was used ten times since July.” Others claim that they found comments “from” deceased relatives, seemingly substantiating reporting from earlier this year.

But it may not be a purely partisan issue. A few Reddit commenters suggest that comments in favor of current net neutrality standards were submitted in their names. As CNN reports, however, the Pew Research Center “found 1.52 million comments with language that only appeared once in the FCC database in favor of the current rules, and only 23,000 against.” In other words, the vast majority of the comments that at least look authentic ask the FCC to preserve existing protections.

On Monday, Schneiderman claimed that his office had already received close to 3,000 reports of false comments. In response, Schneiderman proposed that the FCC should delay its planned net neutrality repeal vote, a position shared by at least 28 senators and a Democratic FCC commissioner. According to Ars Technica, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s office responded dismissively to a question about calls for delay, describing net neutrality supporters as “desperate” and claiming that the vote would proceed as scheduled on Dec. 14.

It’s possible, of course, that attending to public comments may leave us focused on the wrong issue. As April Glaser wrote last week in Slate, Pai has effectively embraced alt-right talking points in his call for net neutrality repeal. Meanwhile, Pai himself has been a pro-telecom opponent of net neutrality for years. At worst, then, fake repeal comments are probably just giving him cover for something he had every intention of doing anyway.

Dec. 5 2017 1:08 PM

Silicon Valley Needs to Face Its Demons. This Bougie Retreat Center Run by an Ex-Googler Isn’t the Place to Do It.

2017 has been a wakeup call for many people in tech who’ve had to come to terms with some of the effects of the inventions that have made them millions—for example, how Russian agents used Facebook to try to manipulate voters before the 2016 election, and how white nationalists organized over social media for years before showing up with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

But any guilt—over, say, the addictiveness of social media, or its algorithms’ perpetuation of racism, sexism, and online abuse—has not cut into the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley too much, as ex-techies are now moving to open retreat centers that specifically cater to people in the industry who are disturbed by the negative consequences of tech’s most successful products.

Take the Esalen Institute, an old hippie stomping ground in Big Sur, California, known for hosting yoga and meditation workshops, and which also has an incredible hot spring popular for offering free, open night hours. As reported in an illuminating New York Times piece on Monday, the property is now run by Ben Tauber, a former Google product engineer who became Esalen’s executive director in October, ushering in a new business plan tailored for disenchanted workers from Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech class, replete with classes on internet addiction, virtual reality, and the relationship between technology and depression. If all of that sounds almost kind of normal, there’s also a class called “Connect to Your Inner-Net,” taught by a Google brand marketer. Esalen charges Silicon Valley prices, too; a weekend for two can cost nearly $2,900.

“They wonder if they’re doing the right thing for humanity,” Tauber told the Times, referring to the rudderless tech workers he hopes to attract. “These are questions we can only answer behind closed doors.”

Got it: Techno-elites’ impulse after realizing their inventions haven’t necessarily made the world a better place is to partake in a particularly upper-crust form of self-care via a regimen designed specifically for people like them. This, of course, isn’t the only way people concerned with the pernicious effects of their own work can engage in some self-reflection and atonement. You can donate more of your considerable wealth—and even your time!—to underfunded nonprofits. Concerned techies are perfectly capable of even changing careers, opting to, say, teach computer science or ensure more equitable access to the industry where they earned their wealth.

Many who visit the revamped Esalen probably already do donate to causes they care about, and some may even be engaged directly with communities in need or advocates working to change broken systems. In the Times article, one of the workshops also had an affordable housing advocate and a nurse in attendance, which shows some level diversity beyond Tauber’s tech-executive target demo. It’s also very true that developing mediation and mindfulness practices can be extremely fulfilling, and provide much needed clarity to people struggling with depression or a lack of motivation.

But if the goal is for the tech elite to do some soul-searching and self-reflection after a year of endless bad press about the downsides of their inventions, gathering in a rather homogenous setting of other techies might not offer the most useful perspective. It seems far more likely that the Silicon Valley retreat-goers will leave ready to launch a new startup that’s supposed to be less bad rather than re-enter the world possessed by a deeper understanding of how the popular technologies they develop frequently hard-code social inequities and undermine democratic processes. Any critique of Silicon Valley that radical probably wouldn’t have kind words for the self-affirming care routine on display at Esalen. It might suggest, instead, that while workshopped self-reflection shouldn’t be discouraged, it’s not really a replacement for a sustained practice of activism or community care.

Dec. 4 2017 5:48 PM

The Far Right's New Toad Mascot Is a Fatter, More Racist Pepe the Frog

Pepe the Frog, the meme that rose to mainstream prominence during the election as a mascot for pro-Trump trolls, has a plumper and more racist toad counterpart called Groyper that is proliferating through social media.


Dec. 1 2017 8:50 AM

The Word Cyber Now Means Everything—and Nothing At All

In early October, at the launch of Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator, Secretary Hillary Clinton said, “We need to get serious on cybersecurity.”

It’s hard to argue with the sentiment, but what does it actually mean? Is she suggesting that companies should invest in data breach insurance? That governments should build new weapons? That police should have better decryption tools? That tech companies should write safer code, especially for critical infrastructure? That international differences in internet governance must be resolved? That individual citizens should review their online behavior? Or all of the above?

The problem is in the word cyber. At first, the word’s flexibility was a good thing—it helped raise awareness and offered an accessible gateway to discussing all kinds of security. But it has now become an obstacle to articulating credible solutions.

The term cyber has been around for decades, stretching back to MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener’s coinage of cybernetics in the 1940s. Wiener borrowed the ancient Greek adjective ‘kubernētikós’, meaning governing, piloting, or skilled in steering, to describe then futuristic idea that one day we would have a self-regulating computing system, solely running on information feedback. In the 1980s, novelist William Gibson married the prefix to space, creating the term so ubiquitous today. Since then, cyber has been used by anarchists and policymakers, scholars and laymen, artists and spies. It has been attached to concepts ranging from warfare to shopping, and it can denote opportunity as well as threat.      

Yet, cyber is, in a way, empty: It acts like a sponge for meaning, soaking up whatever content is nearby. Gibson described this nicely in an interview with the Paris Review: “The first thing I did was to sit down with a yellow pad and a Sharpie and start scribbling—infospace, dataspace. I think I got cyberspace on the third try, and I thought, oh, that's a really weird word. I liked the way it felt in the mouth—I thought it sounded like it meant something while still being essentially hollow.”

The hollow aesthetic captured by Gibson—the peculiar position of being both intuitively meaningful and a self-consciously strange word—is part of the appeal of cyber. The prefix is popular, and growing in use, not despite its hollowness, which is bemoaned by many, but because of it.

Thomas Rid, in his book Rise of the Machines, shows how various narratives have accompanied the prefix cyber since World War II, all of which cross boundaries between technology and society, between science and culture, and between the impetus created by war and security and more benign visions.

As Rid explains in the preface, the cyber idea is “self-adapting, ever expanding its scope and reach, unpredictable, yet threatening, yet seductive, full of promise and hope, and always escaping into the future.” In short, it is a sponge—but one that fails to clean up the conceptual problems of its terrain.

We can see this clearly in recent events. With new information seeping in on an almost daily basis about the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, the cyber sponge has been absorbing everything related to disinformation campaigns, information warfare, social media bots, and election hacking.

Clinton’s talk demonstrates all of this. “In the 21st century, war will increasingly be fought in cyberspace. As Americans we need to approach this new threat with focus and resolve. Our security, physical or otherwise can’t be taken for granted,” she said. She went on to discuss the various new “weapons of choice” coming from “the highest bowels of the Kremlin”: email releases, probing voting systems, the industrialization of fake news, targeted use of Facebook ads, and more.

She isn’t wrong about these things, but speaking about them in this manner mashes them together with previous uses of the term in relation to militarized cyber operations, critical infrastructure attacks, DDoS attacks against Estonia and Georgia, and Stuxnet. In this case, the cyber label doesn’t improve our understanding of this influence. Instead, the generic term flattens the terrain by conflating the potential hacking of critical infrastructure systems and the buying of advertisements by foreign nations. This incorrectly implies similarities in response, suggesting that we can handle all of these things in a similar manner. But ensuring that the industrial control systems of a power plant will not be accessed by a malicious actor requires a very different set of actions than curbing the spread of fake news. Labeling both actions as cyber encourages the inappropriate transplant of policies and technologies across these issues.

Finally, cyber also masks significant political and organizational hurdles. Clinton speaks about “the need for public and private cooperation,” but this cooperation takes very different forms for critical infrastructure and social media, not to mention questions of state and commercial offensive actions—yet all fall ostensibly under the rubric of cybersecurity.

We’ve wrung all the utility we can out of the cybersecurity sponge. To address the “serious and urgent challenges” of our time, we need to acknowledge that they are indeed challenges plural—not one single, monolithic domain.

Nov. 30 2017 4:33 PM

Some Questions About That Time Donald Trump’s Twitter Account Was Deactivated for 11 Minutes

When President Trump’s Twitter account disappeared for 11 minutes earlier this month, the internet went wild. Twitter first said it was human error that caused the brief deactivation. Then it added a compelling second detail: The employee responsible was on his final day.

Nov. 30 2017 12:42 PM

Man Charged With Threatening to Kill Congressman and His Family Over Net Neutrality

A 28-year-old man in Syracuse, New York, named Patrick Angelo faces criminal charges for threatening Rep. John Katko and his family over the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed repeal of the network neutrality rules. If found guilty, Angelo could spend up to 10 years in prison and be fined up to $250,000. Katko is a Republican whose district includes Syracuse.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, Angelo called Rep. Katko’s Washington, D.C., offices on Oct. 19 and left a disturbing voicemail. From the U.S. attorney’s office press release:

The message stated: “Listen Mr. Katko, if you support net neutrality, I will support you. But if you don’t support net neutrality, I will find you and your family and I will kill…you…all. Do you understand?” The message continued: “I will literally find all…of…you and your progeny and t- just wipe you from the face of the earth. Net neutrality is more important than the defense of the United States. Net neutrality is more important than free speech. Net neutrality is more important than health care. Net neutrality is literally the basis of the new society. That even if you don’t understand, how important it is, net neutrality is literally the basis of the new…free…society. So if you don’t support it, I am willing to lay down my li- (recording ends).”

Katko’s office reported the message to the U.S. Capitol Police, who, with the help of the FBI, were able to trace the phone number back to Angelo. The defendant told investigators that he “made a call,” according to the Syracuse Post Standard, but that he wasn’t sure who he called. Angelo also admitted to being worried about the federal government’s move to remove net neutrality regulations, which currently prohibit internet providers from blocking or throttling access to websites.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has been championing for the dissolution of the Obama-era open internet protections, condemned the threats against Katko and his family. Pai himself has been the subject of racist, threatening comments related to his efforts to undo network neutrality.

The FCC is slated to vote on Dec. 14 on Pai’s proposal to lift prohibitions on internet providers charging websites fees to reach users, which could dramatically alter the architecture of the open internet and make some websites easier to load than others. With a majority Republican FCC, the Pai’s proposal is expected to pass, and internet providers may be able to start to throttle content by the end of January 2018.

Nov. 30 2017 9:05 AM

How a Small-Town Funeral Home Is Trying to Go Digital

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Dec. 6, Future Tense will hold a happy hour event in Washington, D.C., about planning your digital afterlife. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Death as an industry has been difficult to disrupt. Right now, the average age of a funeral director hovers somewhere around 55. The death industry is heavily regulated, with federal and local laws governing everything from the management of bodily fluids to the quality of caskets ordered online. And, of course, grieving is tied up in millennia of religious and social tradition.

But the ritualistic, omnipresent, and uniquely difficult nature of death hasn’t just stymied startups; it’s also made it hard for innovative minds already working in the field to push the boundaries of their profession. The funeral industry was late to the internet and late to social media. Even as custom websites proliferate and funeral home’s Facebook pages amass a following, the industry is still struggling to mold the digital tools of the era to their peculiar needs. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to get the industry up to speed.

Bryan Chandler is the owner of Chandler Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Caldwell, Ohio. A little town with less than 2,000 people, Caldwell sits along Interstate 77 near the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There, as in many small communities around the United States, deaths are always the talk of the town. Outside of the funeral home, along a well-trafficked road, Chandler has installed a reader board with the names of the recently departed. And at lunchtime, everyone in town tunes into for a daily radio roll call that also lists the name of the dead. The local paper, which comes out once a week, runs obituaries, as do daily papers in neighboring towns like Columbus to the west or Cleveland to the north.

But Chandler knows that, at least in the internet era, these methods don’t cut it. “I bought [Building a Website for Dummies] and learned coding myself,” Chandler says. “[Fewer] people are purchasing newspapers, more and more people are getting information on the web.” His funeral home now tweets out obituaries; posts death announcements, guides to grieving, and funeral how-to’s on Facebook; and even started an email alert system to send obits direct to people’s inboxes.

Facebook has given Chandler and the families he serves an unprecedented tool for communication. When loved ones are writing an obit, they can send it to family all over the country for feedback. When someone’s struggling to arrange a funeral, they’re just a click away from some of Chandler’s warm words or advice. But Facebook and other social media platforms have also opened mourners up to abuse. Chandler says memorial pages and obituary comments sections have been targeted by trolls, but more often, the problems arise when people share real gripes they had with the deceased.

Even the email system for obituaries has had some blips. Currently, the page where you can sign up for email announcements, for example, is plastered with a reminder to add Chandler Funeral Home to your safe senders list. In the past, Chandler says, some people haven’t received the obituaries because their email service provider marked the funeral home as spam. But he says he never expected these tools to be flawless. “We just try to get it out every way we can,” he says. “Unfortunately, you always have someone who says, ‘I had no idea.’ … There are just people we’re never going to reach.”

In addition to his desire to keep community and family members in the loop, Chandler, like many of his peers in the funeral industry, also sees profit potential on the web. While older people may be hesitant to see some of these newfangled technologies sliding into one of the most ancient experiences on Earth, Chandler says young people are all for it. He offers a clever four-step cremation service that can be initiated with a single phone call. He relies on sophisticated but user-friendly online design tools to meet the rising demand for high-quality memorial videos. Families order everything from coffins to floral arrangements online. And the trend of personalization, which has resulted in a thriving thumbprint jewelry market, likely won’t stop, so long as these memorial services are just a click away. While online services have drawbacks— trolls do glom onto online memorials and issues can arise when online deliveries arrive late—Chandler thinks the web is full of promise.

The internet has made information easier to spread, allowing people who might otherwise have missed the memo to come together and mourn the dead. But it has also made it possible for tragic and unexpected Facebook notifications from a still-active account of a dead person to proliferate online. Perhaps what’s really happening is that we are in the midst of an unprecedented and even unnerving opportunity: to create and refine new rituals around death that embrace the internet while remaining comforting and communal.

Nov. 30 2017 8:35 AM

How Amazon Is Eroding Your Smartphone Dependence

Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and Alexa virtual assistant are infringing on your smartphone’s territory—and it’s no accident. Amazon is expanding the capabilities of its Alexa-enabled products in a bid to slowly win a bigger place in our smartphone-centric world.

This week, at its Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced a few important additions. Starting Wednesday, third-party Alexa apps can alert users with notifications. And next year, apps also will gain the ability to identify multiple users in a household by voice in order to customize experiences for each individual.

The former ability—notifications—is a big one for the Echo ecosystem. Until now, using an Amazon Echo product has been a passive experience. The device sits quietly until you wake it with a command. For the first time, Echo products can draw your attention when there’s breaking news, a notification from a family member, or a weather alert (The Washington Post, family location app Life360, and AccuWeather are among the first to test out this feature).

It works like this: When you get a notification, your Echo product will emit a chime and then a yellow light will ring the top of your Echo, Echo Dot, or Echo Show. You can then ask, “Alexa, what did I miss?” or “Alexa, what are my notifications?” and she will speak them back to you. In this way, you can stay up to date on what’s happening in your world without isolating yourself in front of a smartphone screen.

As for voice identification, Amazon first announced this feature back in October, and third-party apps can begin employing it early next year. This will allow apps to figure out who is speaking when they summon Alexa and then pull up the content that’s relevant to them. This is particularly useful when it comes to playing music or pulling up to-do lists or calendar events, which could vary from household member to household member.

These updates may sound small, but they’re not insignificant. They’re part of a slow, deliberate push to make Amazon Alexa technology the logical evolution out of our dependence on smartphones. Like how the smartphone made accessing information on desktop computers more convenient, voice-enabled home assistants like Alexa could do the same for the information we currently rely on our smartphones for.

“We’re trying to get people away from all the personal electronics and create more of a family, communal experience,” Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s head of product management for Alexa, said in an interview with Fast Company. “So you’re not just looking down into your individual phones, and you’re actually collaborating with your family members.”

This push began when Amazon enabled third-party skills (questions apps can answer or tasks they can accomplish) in late 2015. The platform now boasts more than 10,000 skills. While it’s no App Store, it has integrations with many popular apps, services, and games, including Uber, Jeopardy!, and Starbucks. Then, largely this year, Amazon made a big expansion to its Echo product line: It added options with different sizes and two models that include screens. It also is allowing other hardware manufacturers to integrate Alexa into their products. In the latter case, for example, you can even get Alexa in your car with the Garmin Speak.

Even without an Alexa product, Android and iOS phone owners can also talk to Alexa within the Amazon shopping app, where you can make shopping-related requests (naturally) but also control smart home products or ask about the weather. Amazon is also reportedly working to integrate its virtual assistant into upcoming Android handsets as well. (Amazon did attempt to build its own smartphone in the past, but it never did as well as its other hardware products, such as its Kindle e-readers and Echo hardware.)

It’s worth talking more specifically about the two Echo models with screens—the Spot and the Show. These products start to blur the line between using a smartphone and using a smart speaker. On these models, you can stream a feed from your home security camera, look at photos or videos, and read short news summaries instead of having them spoken by Alexa. And the Amazon Echo Look, while screen-less, still includes a camera.

Communication seems like one of the last major smartphone functions the Echo hasn’t begun to tackle, but even there, you can use Echo speakers (or the Amazon app) to act as an intercom system. Still, it’s unlikely the Echo will take on all the capabilities of a smartphone, such as photo editing and sharing. If you’ve got to stare at its small screen for more than a minute or two, that defeats the point of the “communal experience” Daniel mentioned. However, it can offload a lot of quick, tedious, or productivity-related phone functions.

Amazon certainly could have gone other directions with Alexa and its Echo products. Like Apple’s upcoming HomePod, the company could have focused more on high-end audio and music performance with its Echo speakers. It could also have focused the devices more as members of the smart home space—hubs for controlling the other connected tech and appliances in your home. And like Apple did with Siri at the start, Amazon could have kept Alexa closed to third-party app integration and controlled the environment itself.

Instead, Amazon has built out the Alexa empire into a companion to your smartphone experience and, soon, a largely screen-less replacement for many of the functions we’ve come to rely upon them for. There’s growing backlash against our smartphone obsession, which one MIT psychologist likened to the obesity epidemic. But Amazon’s solution, with the updates rolling out today, satisfies our need for connectivity and instant access to information without the anti-social negatives of smartphone use. Amazon has been sneakily building up to this point, but now it’s clear: Alexa is far more than just an assistant.

Nov. 29 2017 6:40 PM

This Security Flaw Was So Dire, Apple Is Automatically Updating Macs

On Tuesday evening, disaster struck Apple when a software developer from Turkey announced that he had uncovered a massive vulnerability in High Sierra, the latest version of the company’s desktop operating system. The “root bug” basically allowed anyone with basic working knowledge of using a computer to log in without a password. Not good.

It must have been a long and intense night for Apple software developers. But as predicted, Apple pushed an update Wednesday morning that fixes the major security vulnerability.

But you don't have to set a reminder to update your computer as you go to bed. In a short statement accompanying the patch, Apple subtly mentioned something surprising: Because of the risks presented by the root bug, it will silently update anyone running High Sierra (OS 10.13) later today whether they like it or not. It’s an unusual but appropriate measure to counter this flaw in its software.

Apple releases security updates regularly through the App store. But for better or worse, it’s typically up to the user to click “yes” to updating. If you use a Mac, you are probably familiar with clicking the “Remind me tomorrow” button after you get an ill-timed prompt to manually install an update.

This automatic patching feature has been present in OS X for a few years now, but Apple has only used it once before, in 2014, for the network time protocol bug that would’ve allowed hackers to remotely access computers and potentially initiate distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Network time protocol is used for synchronizing clocks on computer systems, and Apple wasn’t the only tech company affected. It pushed the automatic update after the Department of Homeland Security and Carnegie Mellon University issued a warning about the bug. In both cases, using the baked-in silent update was necessary—but hopefully Apple will continue to use it only in cases of emergency. I appreciate Apple letting us choose when to update, even if for a lot of people, that might be never. (It helps that in general, Apple faces fewer security problems than Windows does due to market penetration)

The scary thing about this most recent “root bug” is that you don't need much technical knowledge to exploit it. Considering Apple is a company that likes to boast about how much it values security and privacy, it’s alarming to know such an accessible bug slipped past during development and the beta stage of High Sierra. Apple’s prompt response might allow us to forgive it for now, but it will need to raise the bar for its development auditing.

Only a few weeks ago, a software update included a patch for an annoying, albeit less serious, bug that autocorrected “i” to “A” with a question mark in a box on some iPhones. While the “I” bug isn’t comparable to this latest “root bug,” both are still major disappointments to Apple fans who remember its old slogan: “It just works.”