Sheesh, Even Street Lights Are Getting Cameras and Internet Connections
We've been hearing about the amorphous idea of "smart cities" for a while, but trash cans, sidewalks, and stop signs still seem the same, right? As in the broader Internet of Things movement, though, some subtle creep is beginning, and street lights are the most recent target.
In New York City, GE is working to get a pilot of its intelligent lamppost project approved. So far the company has tested the lights, which have LED bulbs on dimmers and include sensors and cameras, in San Diego, California, and Jacksonville, Florida. But putting them in New York would be a whole other experiment in terms of what they can do for ultra-high density urban issues like traffic and crowd movement.
DNA Info reports that GE is touting the potential energy savings of the dimmer bulbs as a major reason that the New York Department of Transportation should consider a pilot. "If you’re having a festival or an emergency you can make them really bright, or dim them down," Jason Whittet, a director at GE's Intelligent Cities program, said at a local Community Board meeting in Manhattan on Thursday.
The GE street lights could even be outfitted with custom sensors to monitor things like air quality and noise, similar to a smart streetlight project Chicago started in 2014. A big difference, though, is that the GE lampposts have cameras and motion sensors, too. GE is currently talking about these instruments in terms of congestion management (a big problem in New York) and pedestrian flow, but you can see how they could easily transition to functioning as surveillance tools even if GE never intends that as a use.
In the video below, GE explains, "Connecting a city to the industrial internet drives the change that can help turn ... challenges into opportunities." Kind of sounds like opportunities for a cybersecurity nightmare, but, hey, less traffic is always a good thing.
Apple’s 3-D Touch Is the Tapping, Pressing, Popping Future of the Interface
If you want to understand the potential of 3D Touch, the new of method of tapping and pressing on the screens of the latest iPhones, forget about the marketing lingo. Don’t think about Peeks or Pops or Quick Actions. Instead, think about reading—the kind you do with a textbook, highlighting text and scribbling in the margins. The kind of reading that you basically can’t do on your phone.
“Compare [reading a book] to reading in the New York Times app. Are you scrolling?” asks Georg Petschnigg, CEO of FiftyThree, the company behind the excellent Paper app. “Are you flipping articles? Are you selecting text? It’s actually really painful.” We don’t think about how dumb these processes are, but when you hear someone describe it out loud, it feels ridiculous. “If you want to select something you have to press, pause,” he says. “Selection handles pop up, you have to drag them out, and then you have to wait, then you have to do an action, you have to wait for that stuff to appear. Then you move down.”
All those steps will soon turn into this: Press extra-hard on the screen and swipe across the letters. Presto; highlighted. “Instead of being an entrenched action that’s really full of friction,” Petschnigg says, “it becomes something that’s really intuitive.” Apple has already shown a couple of 3D Touch-based improvements here—you can now press extra-hard on your iPhone screen to define a word, for instance. But that, as with all of the tech inside 3D Touch, is just the very beginning. What’s lost inside the flash and branding of Apple’s new features is that your iPhone now has a pressure-sensitive display—and Apple’s providing data about it to developers in real time. On the iPhone screens are incredibly sensitive, and incredibly responsive. (“It’s very clean, very linear, very high resolution,” Petschnigg says. “That’s technical speak for, it’s rock solid, it’s totally accurate. You probably could build a sail using that stuff.”) Developers are still trying to wrap their heads around what all that means, but when they do, it could turn 3D Touch from glorified right-click into really, truly, the biggest interface innovation since multitouch.
The key change, Petschnigg says, is that pressure can help you distinguish between selecting something and doing something to it. Until now, those have been the same—as soon as you tap the screen, the thing under your thumb snaps to your control. But if you separate selection from manipulation, you get much more powerful, much more natural control. Things move more naturally, with weight and inertia. You can move the same things different ways, and different things can happen. “Say, a building block,” Petschnigg says. “Kids know that there’s a difference between lifting up the silicon block, and pushing it.” We lost that nuance with multitouch, and pressure touch can give it back.
It’s all very heady and philosophical—Petschnigg apologized a few time during our conversation for having his head so far in the clouds. Developers are still figuring out what this all means. Petschnigg imagines you could use Peek and Pop to look through your notes faster, for one thing. And who knows what else? “We know basic selection, text selection is going to change,” he says. “Object selection is going to change. We know on the tools side we gained an entirely new dimension of expressiveness.” They’re prototyping a lot of new ideas. “Diagram tool!” he proclaims at one point, like he just remembered it. “In our diagram tool, if you want to pick up a shape, duplicate a shape, stamp a shape, these all start to feel totally natural. ”
There’s one more example he’s excited about: window management. As the world moves from mouse and keyboards to touchscreens, even for productive uses, how do we deal with having a dozen apps running at once? Right now, Petschnigg points out, the metaphor fails. “You know, you click on the window, it comes to the front. The same with ordering of shapes on the screen.” When you want something else, you Alt-Tab, which no one does, or rely on some hacky workaround. “Now,” he says, “you can push things back. You can’t push a window back today. Now, all of a sudden, the street that used to be one way is now two way. Things will change.”
Again, theoretical. Who knows how all this will shake out? Right now there’s really one big upside for FiftyThree: the $49 Pencil stylus lots of people already own just became way better. The Paper app knows the shape of the Pencil’s tip, and can read its changing geometry as you move it around; now, thanks to pressure touch, the app also knows how hard you’re pressing on the screen. “With our sketch tool,” Petschnigg says, “you’ll be able to not just vary the width of a stroke, but the opacity, the lightness of it. Now it really feels like you’re carving on the screen as if you’re carving with a pencil.”
Here’s an easier example to understand. Magic Piano, Smule’s popular ivory-tickling app, uses 3D Touch in the most obvious of ways: to figure out how hard you hit the keys. Smule CEO Jeff Smith says this changes everything. “What’s happened with this new technology is we’ve moved from the harpsichord to the Steinway.” Before, the only way to change the tone and feel of a piece of music was to play a note longer—now you can play it louder. Or softer.
Apple’s data is rich enough that Magic Piano can measure the force from multiple fingers in real time, so you can pick out a single note in a chord to play a little more strongly (that’s called “voicing”). Pressure touch has single-handedly turned the iPhone and iPad into “an instrument that can now be expressive in terms of dynamic—loud, soft, but also articulation,” Smith says. “How notes are connected. For the first time, now, you can actually be quite expressive on the iPad and the iPhone, as you might be on a Steinway.”
Most people, though, won’t know this tech exists. And many more won’t know what to do with it. So Magic Piano now comes with a new slider in the app—slide it to the left, and the app does all the crescendo and dynamism for you. But slide to the right, and you’re entirely in control of whether “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sounds stiff, lively, happy, sad, whatever you want. The slider solved a key problem, Smith says: “How do we find the balance of opening this up to people, but over time giving people the tools to literally perfect piano playing?” He suspects that most people who use Magic Piano will start with the slider to the left, but soon start moving it right and taking more control over the sound of their music.
After a week of using the new iPhones, I’m not blown away by what 3D Touch looks like now. Quick Actions are great, Peek and Pop are handy in spots, but none deserves the praise lavished upon them so far. So far. It’s been a while since I’ve talked to developers so excited about the possibilities of a new feature, simultaneously trying to integrate it and wrap their head around how big the possibilities actually are.
3D Touch is going to make using your phone—with your finger, with a stylus, with the tip of your nose—more natural, more obvious. It will let you do things you’ve never been able to do before, and it’ll let you do things in a way that actually makes sense. You’ll swipe to move something, press hard to select it. You’ll stop pinching—which, if you think about it, is a non-intuitive gesture—and start moving things with a single push. But it’s going to take a while.
Think back to the first introduction of the iPhone, in 2007. “To unlock the phone,” Jobs said, “I just take my finger and slide it across.” The audience gasped. “Want to see it again?”
Petschnigg remembers that moment well. “There was a physical thing on the screen,” he says. “You had to select the button and move it over.” It was better than the existing ideas, sure, but what was that button? It moved too freely, you didn’t know how it would move or how to make it stop. “By iOS 9, Petschnigg says, “you can actually use the entire screen to unlock. And that’s right — you don’t need to move a button around. The button was a holdover from old times. The entire screen can take the gesture.”
His point: That took years to figure out. And it was just a lockscreen! But we’re learning, slowly but surely, how the digital world should (and shouldn’t) reflect the natural one. And with pressure touch, we have more tools than ever to help us do it. Eventually, they won’t just come from Apple and that Huawei phone you can use to weigh an orange. Just as multitouch did, this kind of technology will be everywhere, fast. Everyone will have their own branding just as ridiculous as 3D Touch. But together, they’ll reinvent the way we use our phones.
In the meantime, it’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun. “We now have an opportunity for people to be even more expressive on these devices than ever before,” the piano-app-maker Smith says, “and in fact to begin to perfect technique that’s like in the real world.” Then he corrects himself, sort of. “I’m not saying this is as good as a piano. If you really want a piano, go buy one. But this is pretty good. And it’s getting way better!”
Also in Wired:
In Iran, Even Bloggers Who Stay Away From Politics Can Be Arrested
In early September 2015, members of the Iranian technology community noticed that prominent Iranian tech blogger Arash Zad seemed to be missing from cyberspace. They soon learned from his family and friends that Zad had been under arrest since the end of July, when he was detained by the Revolutionary Guard's intelligence units. Zad is an Iranian who lives in Turkey but had been visiting his home country for a holiday. His arrest has shaken the Iranian technology community because Zad, while an advocate for women and digital security, has always steered clear of politics—and if he can be detained in Iran, there’s little hope for others who are fighting for digital freedom.
Zad's arrest comes at a time of great tension around Internet policy and regulation in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has advocated for more Internet freedom and development in the field of IT—but there seems to be a counterbalancing effect by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei as well hardline factions such as the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards. According to recent reports, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace’s authority is increasing, alongside the launch of the guard’s new surveillance program known as Spider.
Amin Sabeti, an Iranian Internet researcher who follows cases of arrests of netizens inside Iran closely, told me that he saw Zad's arrest “as a strong signal from the Revolutionary Guards.” In the new climate of open foreign investment following the nuclear agreement, the guards are issuing a warning, he says, to entrepreneurs, technologists, and bloggers. The news of Zad's incarceration explained phishing emails that had been sent from his email account to many of his contacts at the beginning of August. For instance, Internet researcher Nariman Gharib received one such email on Aug. 2. Although not certain, it’s possible these attacks originated from the Revolutionary Guards intelligence units.
Zad, who was visiting Tehran on a trip from Turkey, is widely considered a tech pioneer tech in Iran. He first rose to prominence between 2008 and 2012 within the Iranian blogosphere with Weblogina, where he wrote about technology, Iran's IT culture, and startups. His work is largely focused on improving people’s digital lives. He founded Zig Zag Labs, a tech start-up that developed Ladybug, a project intended to encourage and empower Iranian women in the field of technology and entrepreneurship. Zig Zag Labs won the United Nations Youth Award for advancing the Millennium Development Goal of “Power to Women.” Zad is also one of the core members of the volunteer moderator team for Farsi translations on Twitter. In September 2012, the state-run IRIB Education channel Shabakaye Amoozesh Sima even featured Zad in an interview on its technology show Barkhat (“Online”). Prior to his arrest, he was slated to launch a new project aimed to educate elderly Iranians on new and secure communications tools.
The details of Zad's arrest remain unclear, though human rights organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 have called it out as arbitrary. Those close to Zad and his family have been reluctant to speak or publicize the case for fear of compromising his release.
Zad was a prolific presence on Twitter, and tweeted about his trouble-free trip to Iran up until a few hours before his arrest on July 31. His tweets give no indication that Zad considered his work in opposition to the Iranian authorities—indeed, he had seemed welcome by the government. This arrest highlights the often unexpected turn of events for those with a public online presence within Iran can face. This is not the first time a technologist and blogger, with no particular political agenda, has been persecuted in Iran. In 2013, the eight technology bloggers known as Narenji were similarly arrested for arbitrary reasons that many associated with their connections to Western organizations.
It is clear, however, that Iranian authorities such as the Revolutionary Guards perceive threats to the state based on red lines that are often invisible to the “offenders” and tied to the current political climate. It seems as if Iran’s hardliners are increasingly concerned about the country’s startup community. In an article of caution against startup projects, the newspaper Kayhan, which is affiliated with the office of the Supreme Leader, warned that Western-funded startup projects could steal the ideas and labor of Iran’s educated and entrepreneurial youth. Given the importance of this publication, this is a clear sign that greater controls in this sphere are coming.
The nuclear agreement raised hopes among Iranians that improvement in economic development and online freedoms could be on the horizon. Cases like Zad's give pause to that optimism. Like many other policies in Iran, the arrest of a figure like Zad further reinforces fear and self-censorship online.
Why Don’t Companies Want to Hear About Their Security Problems?
You probably already realize that perfect security is an illusion. If someone really wants to get into a house, the deadbolts and window locks most of us have aren't going to be enough protection. And the same holds true in cybersecurity. There’s a growing consensus that strong security actually comes from assuming the worst and viewing vulnerabilities as inevitable, instead of relying on traditional anti-virus software and patches alone. But in practice most institutions, like companies and governments, still use the outdated “patch and pray” approach. In a Washington Post story from June, Craig Timberg called this disconnect "a tragedy of missed opportunity."
As large-scale corporate and government hacks grow increasingly common, though, it's clear that this inertia will have to change one way or another. And instead of coming from within, change may actually come from outsiders.
Some companies have accepted scrutiny in the form of bug bounty programs. Security professionals or hobbyist hackers can submit vulnerabilities and potentially receive rewards for their discoveries. But until recently these dedicated communication channels were rare.
The shortage speaks to longstanding tension between institutions and hackers. A prominent example came in April when security researcher Chris Roberts tweeted from a United Airlines flight about his ability to access the vital controls of a plane through its in-flight Wi-Fi. He was met at the gate by FBI agents and banned from United.
Meanwhile, in August, the chief security officer of software company Oracle published a blog post/rant (which was removed a day later) about why she is frustrated by customer feedback about potential security bugs. She noted that she tells individuals who submit concerns, “Please comply with your license agreement and stop reverse engineering our code, already.”
One of these is HackerOne, a startup founded in 2012 to connect companies with the white hat (ethical) hackers who want to break sites and services in a good way. HackerOne does all the work of maintaining a bug submission platform, building a community of trusted hackers, and managing reward money. Companies just have to fund awards and be open to receiving feedback. (Disclosure: HackerOne's chief policy officer, Katie Moussouris, is a cybersecurity fellow at New America; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)
But why has it been so hard for companies to admit that vulnerabilities are inevitable in the first place? “It’s such a break from the norm in any other enterprise," said Alex Rice, a HackerOne co-founder and the former head of product security at Facebook. "That’s just how most companies operate. It’s like ‘Yeah, we’ve got this one, we’re good.’ ”
And Rice says that even the security professionals within a company may not understand just how much risk there is unless they've dealt with a massive corporate breach firsthand. “They want to convey accountability and ownership over [security],” he said. “In most cases there’ll be some one-off thing, they’ll say that they’ve got it, and then the next breach won’t come up for another three years and for those three years it will look like they’re doing a great job.”
HackerOne doesn't give its network of volunteer hackers any special insight or advantages. They have the same access a malicious hacker would. (Most volunteers work on bug bounty projects because they want to sharpen their skills or simply because they find it enjoyable. Reward money doesn't hurt either.) And by using one of these bug bounty coordinator platforms, companies are preparing themselves to welcome inspection and critiques, rather than receiving it grudgingly, ignoring it, or deploying law enforcement.
The situation is far from resolved, though. As Kathleen Richards wrote on SearchSecurity in March, “The reality is most organizations still do not have mechanisms that enable ‘outsiders’ to safely report security flaws.”
It's a bad climate for individuals, but a big opportunity for companies like HackerOne. When there's a major breach, “It feels like it’s this failure by the company to have not prevented it,” Rice said. “But it’s really quickly shifting to the point where everybody’s had a breach at some point, and the real differentiator for companies is how they respond and how much confidence they build.”
A Short History of the Gitmo Undersea Cable No One Is Talking About
Generally, when we hear about undersea fiber-optic cables, it's because some sharks are trying to shut down the Internet with their teeth. But there’s more to them than that. Right now, there is a kind of magic at work beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Xtera Communications Inc. is in the midst of building an undersea fiber-optic cable from Dania Beach, Florida, to Guantánamo Bay. The $35 million project, which the Defense Department awarded to the Texas-based firm in May 2014, hasn’t been much publicized, for obvious strategic reasons. Not many people are talking about the cable—certainly not President Obama or Cuban President Raúl Castro.
But the cable is critically important—not least because of the effects it could have on the ever-evolving diplomatic talks between Cuba and the United States. As more and more people urge the U.S. government to shut down the Naval Station at Guantánamo, it's important to remember that Gitmo is no longer just a surface structure. This subterranean submarine cable, predicted to be 950 miles in length, represents a substantial investment in the future of the base. And the real question: Who will benefit from it?
The world first got wind of it in July 2012, when Navy Capt. Kirk R. Hibbert revealed in an interview with Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald that U.S. officials had sent a diplomatic note to Havana explaining the fiber-optic project and that he'd received no opposition from his Cuban military counterparts.
A year later, Ronald Bechtold, then the the chief information officer at the office of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, unexpectedly announced, "It’s going to be for the entire island in anticipation that one day that they’ll be able to extend it into mainland Cuba." The Miami Herald sought to confirm these reports with the Army Col. Greg Julian, who refuted them in the strongest of terms and stated, “[Bechtold] was out of his mind. He is no longer working for the Department of Defense." He emphasized, “There is no intent to extend the cable to the mainland. It's a closed node for Department of Defense personnel.” In March 2015, the Department of Defense confirmed that the undersea cable would let the base end its reliance on slow commercial satellite services. The latest update regarding the cable came on Sept. 6, 2015, when the Miami Herald's Rosenberg shared that the XTera Communications' contractors hoped to wrap up the project by January 2016. She noted, "It should also end complaints by some of the 2,000-member prison staff that Internet access was better during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan."
That brings us up to the present. Contractors are finishing their work on the cable. A few weeks ago, the New York Times' Editorial Board published "How to Close Guantánamo," highlighting what it would take for President Obama to fulfill a key promise made early in his first term. Gitmo was in the news again this past Monday, when Cuban President Raul Castro, in his speech during the 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, called for "the return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base."
There are several possible results for the cable should Gitmo close. Fred Soons, a professor emeritus of public international law at Utretcht University in the Netherlands, weighed in by email and speculated, "If Cuba is interested, it could buy the cable."
Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the activist group CODEPINK, had a different vision: "We'd love to see [the Naval Base] converted into an international center for sustainable energy and non-violent conflict resolution. The submarine cable would come in very handy to ensure that this international center is connected to the rest of the world." She added, "If the U.S. company XTera had any sense, it would be negotiating with the Cuban government right now about how the cable could help connect to Cuban people to the Web."
But the Cuban government isn't exactly rushing to provide Internet access to its citizens. Freedom House estimates that a mere 5 percent of the country has unrestricted Internet access that's compatible with what's available in the United States.
What other fate could the Gitmo cable face if the U.S. Naval Station shut down? In an email, retired Capt. Ashley Roach suggested that the controversial cable, if ever declassified by the U.S. government, could end up much like the U.S. Navy's former sound surveillance system off the West Coast. Ultimately, civilian researchers were allowed to use part of it to monitor marine mammals like whales. Lionel Carter, a professor of Marine Geology at Victoria University of Wellington, told me, "If, for any reason the proposed cable was retired before the end of its design life (circa 20–25 years), it could be utilized to monitor the ocean currents passing through the Florida Straits to feed into the Gulf Stream. Such monitoring has been underway for several decades."
But for now, even if the Department of Defense were to close the military prison camp, it's likely the Naval Base would stay operational. And, so long as the sharks don't get the Gitmo cable, it's apt to support the American military for a long time to come.
A Drone Linked to a VR Headset Lets You Explore the Sky, Almost for Real
The Indiegogo campaign for the new FLYBi autonomous drone system touts plenty of cool features, but the clear winner is its first-person virtual reality goggles. For those of us who wish we could fly—everybody raise your hand—this could be the closest we get while still staying on the ground.
FLYBi’s 12-megapixel camera streams 1080-pixel high-definition video to a pair of HD LCDs in its VR goggles. The goggles track your head movements, so when you look up, down, or to the side for a different view, the drone gets you what you want to see. Eyes in the sky, indeed.
Then there’s the FLYBi system’s Helideck. FLYBi lifts off from the Helideck and comes back to land when you’re ready, or, when it runs out of power, it will automatically swap batteries by itself. The Helideck keeps three batteries on hand and it recharges them continuously when it’s plugged in. (It also has USB ports for charging other things, like the phone you use for controlling FLYBi.) The Helideck folds up to serve as a hard-shell carrying case for FLYBi.
FLYBi flies autonomously, without joysticks, guided by an app running on your phone. Pilots create its flight plan by picking the desired destination on a map, and then setting waypoints where they’d like FLYBi to pause and hover for an extended view. If FLYBi encounters any obstacles, it just navigates around them. When the mission’s accomplished, the drone returns to the Helideck.
The Real Danger of That Yelp-for-People App Isn’t Negativity. It’s Empty Positivity.
If you want to restore your faith in humankind, you need look no further than the public response to the controversial, and as yet unreleased, iOS app Peeple. Typically described as “Yelp for people,” Peeple has met widespread derision and horror ever since Caitlin Dewey wrote on it for the Washington Post. Responding to the rhetorical question, “If we have it for restaurants, why [don’t] we have it for people?” one Twitter user offered the withering reply, “[B]ecause restaurants [don’t] kill themselves??”
This hurricane of disgust should quell most fears that Peeple is likely to become a real success when it’s released, supposedly in November. No one I spoke to seemed to think it was anything other than a nightmare product. “An idea like this should be treated like smallpox and not exist outside of a few well-guarded laboratories,” one of my Slate colleagues told me. Others followed suit, many of them angry that it existed at all. While I’d like to believe that my friends and co-workers are unusually good people, I suspect they’re a representative sample where Peeple is concerned. Everyone—everyone who’s speaking up, at any rate—seems to think that Peeple is a tragedy in the making.
Is all our hysteria and hullaballoo misplaced, then? There’s arguably something self-congratulatory about our dismissal of the app, our public performances of distaste a sign that we are tasteful. Of course, one reasonable fear about Peeple is that we’ll be forced into using it, whether or not we want to. As Dewey explains, someone needs nothing more than your phone number to start reviewing you. In this light, Peeple might not need widespread acceptance to find traction. Its mere existence could create the conditions for its ugly world, effectively blackmailing all of us into joining in.
Some have sought out the lighter side of participation. “I can’t wait for everyone to give the creators of Peeple terrible reviews on Peeple,” one journalist joked. Many apparently didn’t bother to wait, needling the app’s creators so aggressively that they soon made their official Twitter page private. (It has since gone public again.) If nothing else, this temporary profile lockdown suggests that many of us are more than capable of being nasty on our own, no app required.
Peeple’s creators, for their own part, seem baffled by the anger their app has elicited. In a statement posted to the company’s website after Dewey’s article ran, they suggest that it’s all a misunderstanding. Veering into martyrological terrain, they write, “We are bold innovators and sending big waves into motion and we will not apologize for that because we love you enough to give you this gift.” And what is that gift, exactly? The gift of community, of connection, of contact: “You deserve better and to have more abundance, joy, and real authentic connections,” the update’s authors declare. Here, Peeple emphasizes the good above all else. “We are a positivity app,” the statement reads in a phrase sure to baffle many. What does that mean? It means that they want “the opportunity to prove how great it feels to be loved by so many in a public space.”
It would be too easy to laugh off Peeple’s insistence that it has everyone’s best interests at heart. How could an app that would allow us to rate one another on a five-star scale invite anything other than the basest negativity? And yet the app really is set up to encourage affirmations. Any review of two or fewer stars is subject to a 48-hour arbitration period before going live, during which you’re encouraged to “work it out” with your critic. And if you haven’t set up an account, only more positive reviews of you will show. (Here, there’s a lilkely loophole: Since it’s the numerical rating that triggers review, someone could presumably give an acquaintance five stars but write nasty things about him or her.) Users are also assigned a “positivity rating,” based on the ratio of good to bad reviews that they leave for others. This figure will allow us to quickly judge others on the way they judge, separating the cruel from the kind.
Such features lend some credence to the developers’ claims that Peeple is about recognizing that you’re loved, not about cultivating hate. Maybe the Peeple people are baffled because they recognize that much of our contemporary social media environment is already centered on the positive. It’s this cultural climate that they seem to think they’re participating in. I’ve argued before—and I’m hardly the only one to do so—that Facebook is changing the way we share our sorrows, encouraging us to emphasize the affirmative at even our darkest hours. Above all else, Peeple seems likely to produce something like the irritating follow-back mentality of Twitter—five-star me and I’ll five-star you!
Of course, despite its creators’ protests, it could easily become a haven for bullies; it could be much worse for some groups than others. And to use it at all might well be to court lawsuits. But at a more general level, it belongs to our culture of empty affirmation. It’s of a piece with the implicit obligation to rate eBay sellers or Uber drivers as high as possible. And as the language of Peeple’s statement suggests, it builds on the same foundations as positive thinking fantasias like The Secret.
So, if we’re all blackmailed into using Peeple, I don’t worry that it will make us uglier. I worry that it will further polish us to an artificial shine.
It’s Come to This: Artist Turns Dead Animals Into Drones
Every now and then, a story comes around that transforms the way that you see the world and makes you realize that it is a much more gross and frivolous place than you have ever imagined. For the latest epiphany of this sort, I would like to thank Business Insider for bringing me the tale of Bart Jansen, an artist-provocateur from the Netherlands who, in 2012, asked himself something that we’ve all wondered at one point or another during our respective dark nights: “I wonder if I could turn my dead cat into a quadcopter drone?”
Well, you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and Jansen busied himself installing a motor in his dead pet’s stomach and propellers in its paws. I won’t make you look at it, but the end result is like something out of a Tim Burton movie: the cat’s eyes bulging, its limbs splayed out like wings. But it flew, and Jansen was satisfied. “When Orville was killed by a car, I decided to pay tribute to his lost life by giving him a new one,” Jansen wrote on his website. “Electronic life. How he loved birds.”
The project inspired extreme reactions, with some Dutch animal lovers dubbing Jansen “the worst person in the country.” The criticism didn’t dissuade him from performing similar transformations, in collaboration with the engineer Arjen Beltman, on a dead rat, a dead shark, and a dead ostrich. (“OstrichCopter, half ostrich, half helicopter. Always handy to have around,” Jansen wrote.) Now, Business Insider reports, Jansen is working to convert a dead badger into a small submarine and is also mulling designs for a vague project called a “mancopter,” which, thankfully, does not seem to involve converting a human corpse into a flying machine. (As far as I can tell, Jansen wants to turn a large animal, like a cow, into a kind of wearable flying suit or something.)
So, to be clear, it is definitely possible to turn a dead animal into a drone. But is it art? Humans are sometimes fond of anthropomorphizing technological objects, and Jansen’s corpse-copters effectively satirize this tendency. If nothing else, Jansen’s imaginative transfigurations certainly make you think, even if the only think you’re thinking is, What in the world is wrong with Bart Jansen? I would also like to note that there is a USA Today transportation reporter named Bart Jansen who often writes about drones, and it would be wonderfully serendipitous if one day this Jansen wrote about the other.
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.
Confusion and Disarray in the Education Aisle of the App Stores
The touch-and-swipe interface of the digital marketplace makes it feel so easy. Looking for an app to teach your 5-year-old how to read? Flick your finger over to the education aisles of the App Store (or Google Play, or the Amazon Appstore), and press “buy.”
In reality, putting your finger on the right app takes a lot more effort. Glossy graphics belie a confusing mess. Since developers choose where to put their wares, many of them select the “education” section with little evidence that their products are educational. Their products might be better labeled as entertainment, but because they include characters that sing the ABCs, they reside in that borderland yet to be defined. It’s as if you arrived in the grocery aisle of Target to find packages of soap next to the boxes of cereal, which are jumbled in with jars of paprika and applesauce. In fact, the disorder is even worse because the packaging for the applesauce and the soap might lead you to think they are the same thing.
In 2012, in a report published by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we named this bazaar the “digital wild west.” Two years later, our research teams went back to the app stores to conduct a deeper analysis. We explain the results in Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens, a new book and website for parents and educators, and in a report forthcoming this fall. Findings show that the marketplace is teeming with early literacy products that are disorganized, mismatched, and missing labels that could help consumers make better choices.
Why does this matter? First there’s the question of truth in labeling. Developers have an obligation to adhere to educational principles and tenets of child development if they are going to lead parents into thinking that children may learn something. Apps may look cheap ($2.99 here, 99 cents there), but those costs add up, especially when the purchases are made for siblings and multiple devices or by educators for use with 20 kids in a classroom. What’s more, in the physical world, if that container of applesauce happens to be full of soap, you can return it for your money back. Ever try to return an app?
The mismatch also matters because of the pressing need for young children to gain skills in language learning and early literacy and advance into strong readers by third grade. According to data from the Nation’s Report Card, more than two-thirds of fourth-graders in the United States cannot score high enough on literacy tests to meet the proficient mark. Fixing this problem—by helping teachers and parents find materials with a research base in language development and reading comprehension—is increasingly important, especially as children are spending more time with touchscreen tablets on a daily basis.
In our app-store study, Sarah Vaala and Anna Ly of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop scanned the Apple, Google, and Amazon app stores and downloaded scores of apps. They analyzed nearly 200 apps targeted to children ages 0–8, with emphasis on early literacy and the top 50 most popular apps in the education sections of those stores.
They soon discovered that few apps were labeled to help parents find particular products for particular ages. Instead, they were often vaguely described as being for “young children,” not recognizing there is a large difference between the needs of a 3-year-old and the needs of a 6-year-old. In fact, 40 percent of app descriptions in stores or on websites gave no discernible age range for the target users at all. Only 11 percent provided parents with an age range that spanned three years or less (“this app is for 3–5 year olds,” for example). This means parents may be paying for apps that are way too easy, or way too advanced.
Vaala and Ly compared the most popular apps with those that appeared on websites that apply some expertise and curation to the process of finding apps, including Common Sense Media, Parents’ Choice, and Children’s Technology Review. They found a disconnect between what the experts liked and what became most “popular” in the app stores. Also interesting: The experts put a premium on creativity and art (such as using drawings to express ideas) but found those kinds of apps to be rare in the “most popular” lists in app stores.
The science of reading, recently distilled in the excellent book Raising Kids Who Read, shows that children develop into readers by advancing through skills that grow in complexity, from producing and distinguishing between basic sounds to reading fluently and understanding what is read. Among the apps Vaala and Ly examined, however, this range was hard to find. For example, among free apps, more than 50 percent focused on teaching children to recognize the letters and sounds of the alphabet. Less than 10 percent of free apps focused on reading comprehension, and even rarer were skills like reading fluency (the ability to read without stumbling over certain words) and self-expression.
Looking inside the apps, they found other shortcomings. Very few allowed for children or parents to form social connections around the stories or games they were playing, few allowed for content to be shared among family members, and even fewer were explicitly designed to promote moments with parents and children learning from media together. These social interactions build foundational skills for being good readers and critical thinkers, and contrary to conventional wisdom, this kind of social interaction is, in fact, possible with digital technology—for instance, Skyping and reading a book with Grandma.
App stores need to do more to promote apps that encourage this deeper learning. For example, they could become stricter about what it takes to be part of their “education” sections and push developers to take the “education” label seriously. In the physical world, there are whole industries focused on the placement of products on the shop floor and regulations around packaging. It’s time for the equivalent digitally, with parents and educators first in mind.
Until then, it’s not only buyer beware, it’s “buyer, don’t expect miracles.” Apps can’t make up for the social interactions, content knowledge-building, and storytelling that parents and educators can and should be doing with children every day.
Netizen Report: Will Brazil Give Up on Defending Digital Rights?
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. Mary Aviles, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Taisa Sganzerla, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Brazil’s lower house of Congress is considering a bill that would double penalties for libel and defamatory speech when they occur online, and dissolve protections for communications privacy in criminal investigations.
The bill has a long way to go before it can reach the desk of President Dilma Rousseff—it needs committee and plenary approval in the lower house, in addition to Senate approval. But if enacted, it would dismantle privacy protections in the Marco Civil (Brazil’s so-called “Bill of Rights for the Internet”) by allowing prosecutors in a criminal case to request users' personal data, including the content of private messages, without first obtaining approval from a judge. It would also “update” Brazil’s penal code by simply adding the words “social media” to a list of crimes defined as libel and doubling resulting penalties for violations, plus allowing claimants to request the permanent removal of online content that they could prove was harmful to their honor. The bill justifies these changes pointing to the “devastating” effects of libelous speech when spread through social media.
But history just might be on the side of human rights here. Civil liberties advocates have nicknamed this the “spy bill” (#PLEspiao) or the “digital AI-5,” calling up memories of AI-5, a decree issued in 1968 during Brazil’s military dictatorship that severely restricted freedom of assembly and expression. Online campaigns against the amendments have flourished and appear to have helped delay a vote on the bill that was scheduled to take place last week, but has now been postponed. A public hearing on the matter took place Sept. 29, and another vote has been tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1.
The Center for Technology and Society at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil’s premier social sciences university, called the bill unconstitutional. "Who does this project benefit? Public interest as a whole or those who want to shield themselves from public scrutiny?"
Ecuador’s president wields tools of censorship to avoid hurt feelings
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is asserting the right to be forgotten—but only for himself. Using millions of dollars in public funds, Correa hired a Mexican company to remove critical information about him and his wife from the Internet, including a documentary by filmmaker Santiago Villa, an electoral broadcast from a rival politician, and even a report on a jailbreak from an Ecuadorean prison, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed. The news adds to the growing list of roadblocks that Correa’s administration has put up against freedom of expression in the country: Just two weeks ago we reported on the closure of media freedom group Fundamedios, and in August the Hacking Team leaks revealed the aggressive investment by the Ecuador government in malware and pro-government trolls.
More Ethiopians jailed for seeking digital education
The Zone9 bloggers are not alone among Ethiopians charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for alleged offenses such as online activism and pursuing training in digital security tools. Zelalem Workagenegu, Yonatan Wolde, and Bahiru Degu, whose cases only recently became public, were detained July 8, 2014, for applying to attend an online security training. Like the Zone9ers, their hearings have been delayed multiple times. They are next expected to appear in court between Nov. 7-9 of this year.
French National Assembly targets global communications at their core
On Thursday, Oct. 1, France’s National Assembly will vote a new international surveillance bill that would amend a law passed last summer, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, that vastly increased the powers of French intelligence authorities to monitor and record electronic communications in the name of national security. The amendment would update the current law to allow for more pervasive surveillance of transnational and global communications through submarine Internet cables. Civil liberties advocacy groups including European Digital Rights and La Quadrature du Net are sounding the alarm with analysis and an open letter opposing the bill.