Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Nov. 25 2015 12:10 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Giving Thanks for Cybersecurity

Howdy Slate-liens,

Happy Thanksgiving! Will you be heading out to some of America’s dying department stores for our annual ritual of post-consumption commercial gluttony this Friday? If so, look out for the Salvation Army’s new digital red kettles. And keep in mind that some stores are now using face recognition technology to monitor shoplifters (and the rest of us). Let’s just hope they don’t expect crime fighting algorithms to save their floundering business models.


There are, of course, plenty of options for those who’d like to shop from home, like this new company that makes shirts for shorter guys. But if you’re doing your gift-buying online, consider activating two-factor authentication on your Amazon account, especially in light of the company’s recent admission that some user passwords were improperly stored.      

Are you hoping to get a drone this holiday season (or planning to buy yourself one on the sly)? You may have to register it with the FAA before you send it aloft, but the process should be surprisingly simple. What’s more, that registration will probably be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests, a detail that has Slate’s Justin Peters up in arms. For now, at least, all you need to know is that third-party drone registration services are a waste of time and money

Here are some of the week’s other stories that had us wishing we’d learned to code in the classroom:

  • International education: Online exchange programs are letting kids from all over the world reach out to one another. But can they really transform the ways students interact?
  • Data breaches: Think your Thanksgiving conversations are going to be awkward? Cybersecurity expert Josephine Wolff has to tell her relatives—whom she had to list on government forms while getting a security clearance—that their information was compromised in the OPM data breach.
  • Energy independence: Though its identity has long been entangled with oil, California is finally breaking free from its reliance on refineries.
  • Online relationships: Facebook is making it easier to deal with breakups. And Lily Hay Newman has a poignant story about why that change was so necessary.


  • Join Future Tense in Washington, D.C., for a screening of October Sky hosted by Dr. France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation, at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 2. To attend, please RSVP to futuretensedc@gmail.com with your name, email address, and any affiliation you’d like to share.
  • Join Future Tense in New York on Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m. for “Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity.” Click here to RSVP.
  • Algorithms are learning more and more about us while we seem to understand them less and less. Join Future Tense for lunch in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, for a discussion of this emerging topic. Visit the New America website to learn more and RSVP.
Preparing the stuffing,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

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Nov. 25 2015 10:33 AM

Palestinians Finally Get Mobile Broadband

In 2014, Tim Berners-Lee, known best for creating the World Wide Web, proposed that the Internet is a human right. While not everyone agrees, it’s hard to deny that it plays an increasingly central role in almost all of our lives. Ensuring equal access can be an important step toward guaranteeing economic, social, and political equality. That’s all the more reason to celebrate the arrival of 3G wireless networks to Palestinians, who live, as the AP explains, in “one of the last places in the world without mobile broadband services.”

The AP’s Mohammed Daraghmeh and Daniella Cheslow report, “Under interim peace accords, Israel controls Palestinian wireless networks in the West Bank.” As Al Jazeera’s Samuel Nelson Gilbert wrote in 2013, the Oslo accords—signed in the mid-’90s—also “cover Palestinians' right to faster communications.” Nevertheless, for years, Israeli authorities have limited the region to 2G connectivity, making it difficult for residents to utilize GPS services and other applications that require rapid data transfer. According to a 2012 World Bank report, this has restrained Palestinians’ economic development. 


Daraghmeh and Cheslow write that this development comes after “years of delays.” Notably, it arrives on the heels of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent meeting with President Obama. And as the Jerusalem Post adds, it also comes in advance of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Israel. Daraghmeh and Cheslow suggest that this decision derives from an attempt to ease tensions in the region. Nevertheless, as they note in passing, Israel still declines to “extend 3G frequencies to the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.”

Why did it take the Israeli government so long to make these changes? Where some suggest that it was a product of technical complications, others propose that profit motives drove the delay. According to the AP, one former Palestinian communications minister “believes Israeli carriers were behind the ban, trying to protect their interest in the captive Palestinian market.” Previously, Palestinians who needed faster mobile Internet were obliged to use Israeli carriers, resulting in inconsistent and unreliable coverage.

Whatever the case, a definite date for these changes is not yet clear, but the Jerusalem Post writes that they’re “expected to go into effect in mid- 2016.”

Nov. 24 2015 5:26 PM

The FAA’s Drone Registry Shouldn’t Be Exempt From FOIA Requests

When its proposed national drone registry comes online, the Federal Aviation Administration will be poised to collect the names and street addresses of recreational drone users across the country. Who will be able to access that data after it is collected? If the FAA’s drone task force has its way, the answer will be not journalists.

FT-drone logo

In an article Monday, I praised the task force’s recent report on what the impending drone registry should look like and urged the FAA to pay it heed. I’d like to temper my initial enthusiasm just a bit. On Twitter today, journalist Alex Howard pointed out a section of the report that I somehow overlooked during my first read. In it, citing individual privacy concerns, the panel recommended that the FAA issue “an advance statement that the information collected will be considered to be exempt from disclosure under FOIA.” (FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act.)


As a journalist, I blanch whenever I see the phrase exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think that nonclassified public records ought to be made accessible to the public. Government agencies are allowed to withhold data from FOIA requestors if, among other reasons, the data being requested contains “information that, if disclosed, would invade another individual’s personal privacy.” And, yes, the FAA could make a case that disclosing the names and addresses of drone registrants would constitute a violation of individual privacy.

But the idea of a blanket exemption is nevertheless troublesome. The FOIA.gov website states that “even if an exemption applies, agencies may use their discretion to release information when there is no foreseeable harm in doing so and disclosure is not otherwise prohibited by law.” The task force is basically recommending that the FAA should never use its discretion and should always presume foreseeable harm.

This emphasis on guarding registrants’ data against legitimate FOIA requests seems especially curious because overall the panel had very little to say about securing data. Though the FAA had asked the task force to consider how the registration data should be stored, accessed, and used, these questions went unanswered. The final report said nothing about how—or even if—the registry data would be kept secure, let alone how to shield it from hackers or others who might prefer to access it through illegal means.

In the report, the task force noted that “the timeframe provided for deliberations did not allow for in-depth analysis of all the factors involved in instituting a federal requirement for registering [drones],” and I can only presume that this compressed timeframe is also responsible for some of these omissions. But it’s also worth noting that the panel was comprised almost entirely of trade organization representatives and industry personnel; as I noted in October, no dedicated civil-liberties advocates were appointed to serve. This imbalance was a mistake, and I can only hope that the agency rectifies it by taking civil libertarians’ concerns into consideration before implementing the registry. Far from instilling trust in the FAA’s ability to protect registrants’ personal information, a preemptive strike against FOIA will just end up making people wonder what the FAA has to hide.

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.

Nov. 23 2015 4:06 PM

Some Good Advice for the FAA’s Drone Registry Initiative

Earlier this year, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta woke up in a cold sweat. (Dramatization, may not have happened.) Christmas was coming, and hundreds of thousands of drones would soon be sold to novice pilots. If one of these newcomers were to do something stupid, like fly a drone over an airport or crash it into a sports stadium, the FAA would have no good way of tracing the errant aircraft back to its reckless owner. “We need a national drone registry,” Huerta shrieked, “and we need it by Christmas. Or else our planet is doomed. Doomed!”

FT-drone logo

With the stakes thus established, Huerta and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx convened a task force and charged it with considering what, exactly, that registry might entail: the types of drones that would have to register; how the registration process would work; how much, if anything, registration would cost. On Saturday, the panel delivered its final report to Huerta, and its recommendations are good and sensible, meant to encourage compliance by making the registration process simple and free.


According to the panel’s recommendations, drones weighing between 250 grams and 55 pounds would be have to be registered, and their owners would complete this registration process through a website or an app. (The report urged the FAA to “expressly establish a reasonable and proportionate penalty schedule” to punish noncompliance but did not offer any specifics on what those penalties should be.) The task force recommended that the registrant provide her name and address and receive one single registration number that she must then affix to or inscribe on each of her drones. The panel also recommended that before a registrant can complete the registration process, she must affirm that she has received some basic safety information that “could be similar to the existing content in the Know Before You Fly program.” If the task force has its way, registration would not cost drone owners a penny; at most, it would cost $0.001.

According to the report, the panel sought “to provide the FAA with a workable solution that met its safety and policy requirements while not unduly burdening the nascent UAS industry and its enthusiastic owners and users of all ages.” On first read, it looks like the final report met both of these goals. The recommendations are not binding; the FAA will consider the report alongside public comments and other factors before ultimately deciding what the registry will entail. Still, the FAA would do well to pay it heed. The drone registry as outlined by the task force’s report might not save the planet—but it’s a significant step toward making the national airspace slightly less chaotic as we move toward our inevitable drone-dense future.

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.

Nov. 23 2015 3:30 PM

The Tyranny of Algorithms

Algorithms are learning more and more about us while we seem to understand them less and less. Somewhere in the past few years, we ceded some of our individual autonomy to ostensibly life-enriching algorithmic intelligence. Computational systems regularly tell us where to go, whom to date, what to be entertained by, and what to think about—to name just a few examples. With every click, every app, every terms of service agreement, we buy into the idea that Big Data, ubiquitous sensors, and various forms of machine-learning can model and beneficially regulate our lives. Algorithms drive the stock market, compose and curate our music, approve loans, drive cars, write news articles, and make hiring and firing decisions. Are they in charge?

Join Future Tense for lunch in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, to explore the underlying tensions between law, technology, and culture in a moment where algorithms are beginning to define the boundaries of our own personal media bubbles. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.



David Auerbach
New America fellow, software engineer, and Bitwise columnist for Slate

Ian Bogost
Ivan Allen College distinguished chair in media studies and professor of interactive computing, Georgia Institute of Technology

Nick Diakopoulos
Assistant professor of journalism and member of the Human Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland

Jenny Finkel
Machine learning engineer, Mixpanel Inc.

Ed Finn
Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University

Jennifer Golbeck
Associate professor, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland

Lee Konstantinou
Science fiction writer and assistant professor of English, University of Maryland

Gideon Lichfield
Fellow, Data & Society Research Institute, and global news editor, Quartz

Christine Rosen
Future Tense fellow and senior editor, the New Atlantis

Jacqueline Wernimont  
Author, How to Do Things With Numbers: Histories of Quantified Cultures and Lives, and assistant professor of English, Arizona State University 

Nov. 23 2015 1:07 PM

New Sunset-Quality Forecasts Mean You’ll Never Miss Another Stunner

Sunday night’s sunset in New York City was a showstopper. What? You missed it?! Well, you’re in luck: Three enterprising Pennsylvania meteorologists want to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

Enter: SunsetWx. The project is still very much a work in progress—it just launched last week—but it appears to be the first systematic attempt at a rigorous, meteorologically based daily sunset quality forecast coast to coast. Here was its forecast for Sunday night, for example, issued just after 2 p.m.:


Bull’s-eye, New York City. Lo and behold, about three hours later, the sky over Manhattan lit up like the Fourth of July—leading to a surge of activity on social media:

Within a few minutes, #sunset and #nofilter started trending in the New York City area … instantly making it even less cool to post brilliantly hued sky shots. In an ideal world, you’d have known this rapturous event was coming, and watched it with your own eyes, not on your Instagram feed.

Adam Sobel sunset
The view from Upper Manhattan on Sunday night.

Adam Sobel

The team behind SunsetWx has already published a thorough methodology of its algorithm and a case study of successfully predicted “vivid” sunsets its first day of forecasting last week. Basically, the model blends high-resolution forecasts of humidity, pressure changes, and clouds at various levels of the atmosphere, weighting wispy upper-level clouds the strongest and penalizing for thick, low-level clouds or average clear sky evenings.

These days, in a world where you can get the temperature and rainfall outlook with a swipe of the lock screen on your phone, it seems that true weather aficionados are keen to, as co-founder Steve Hallett says, “bond with the forecast.” I think anything like this that encourages people to step away from technology for a second for an unplanned trip outdoors is a victory. “We take it for granted sometimes that we have nature and weather around us,” said co-founder Jacob DeFlitch. “This, hopefully, will help people to go out and see for themselves.”

Nov. 20 2015 5:26 PM

Chicago Becomes the First Big City to Enact Drone Regulations, Nails Them

FT-drone logo

Earlier this week, the Chicago City Council made history, albeit in a very minor sense, when it approved an ordinance setting restrictions on the use of unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones, within city limits. The passage of the ordinance makes Chicago the first major American city to approve a comprehensive set of drone regulations. That’s notable in and of itself, but perhaps even more notable is that the new rules are sensible and intelligent—which hasn’t always been the case when the drone-regulation game has been played in other locales.

Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Fran Spielman notes that the city’s new regulations are an effort “to strike the appropriate balance between protecting public safety and encouraging innovation and technology,” which seems like the right approach to take. Under the terms of the ordinance, a drone cannot fly higher than 400 feet, beyond the operator’s line of sight, or between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The rules prohibit drones from flying within five miles of the city’s airports, or over schools, hospitals, churches, police stations, outdoor stadiums, and “property the operator does not own.” The ordinance basically codifies on the local level many of the common-sense rules that the FAA recommends for drone operators—and, in so doing, gives local authorities the power to punish transgressors. That's important, because the federal drone guidelines in their current form are basically toothless.


The world of drones is in a weird regulatory moment right now. Recreational drones are taking off even as the federal government has done relatively little to govern their use. (The FAA’s impending national drone registry will be a big step in that direction.) Similarly, the FAA has not yet issued any comprehensive guidelines to regulate the commercial-drone sector. Right now, commercial drone operators must apply for and receive FAA permission before launching their businesses, but plenty of entrepreneurs have reportedly decided to skip that step and just operate under the federal radar. It’s basically the Wild West, except with little flying robots. (And it’s also basically Wild Wild West, except without a giant mechanical spider.)

Many state and local governments have tried to fill this regulatory gap with their own laws and ordinances, but these are often reactionary in nature, seeking to impose hard and extensive limits on droning. The resulting laws inevitably please no one—they’re either too hard or too soft. But privacy advocates, drone enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs alike seem to be happy with Chicago’s new regulations, which is almost never the case.

And this stuff needs regulation. The Sun-Times reports that one Illinois drone entrepreneur spoke to the Chicago City Council about “rogue commercial operators” who “go out and buy a drone online and they start to try to make money immediately off of it. They don’t get an [FAA] exemption. They don’t get insurance.”

By codifying some common-sense drone operation principles, the city now has the power to discipline irresponsible drone pilots—which will only end up being a positive thing for the industry as a whole.

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.

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

Nov. 20 2015 1:29 PM

Tesla Is Recalling Every Model S on the Road. Good Move.

Tesla today is emailing customers to recall every Model S sedan on the road. That’s a total of 90,000 cars worldwide.

The company said the recall, which it is conducting voluntarily, was prompted by a defect found in the seat-belt connector of a single Model S in Europe. Tesla said the car’s front seat belt “was not properly connected to the outboard lap pretensioner.” The vehicle was not involved in any crash, and no one was hurt, the company said. However, the issue would make the seat belt less effective if a crash were to occur.


A pretensioner is a safety feature that immediately tightens the seat belt when sensors detect a crash or violent change of velocity. That keeps the passenger from whipping too far forward before the seat belt restrains him. It also reduces the chances of a passenger sliding out from under an overly loose safety belt.

After finding the defective belt in Europe two weeks ago, Tesla said it went on to inspect the seat belts in more than 3,000 other vehicles and found no problems. However, it decided to conduct the recall just in case the issue does crop up in other cars. The company is asking every Model S owner to bring his or her car in for an inspection, to make sure the front seat belt is working properly.

“In early November, a customer sitting in the front passenger seat turned to speak with occupants in the rear and the seat belt became disconnected,” a Tesla spokeperson told Bloomberg Business. “The seat belt is anchored to the outboard lap pretensioner through two anchor plates that are bolted together. The bolt that was supposed to tie the two anchors together wasn’t properly assembled.”

Tesla’s stock plummeted more than 2 percent Friday morning on news of the recall. It’s the first major recall on the Model S, a car that has defied skeptics to win virtually every accolade that a car can win since its introduction in 2012. Among its virtues is a sterling safety record that includes perfect scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Because Tesla is such a polarizing company—many believe it is the automaker of the future, while others view it as a gimmicky startup propped up by overheated hype and government subsidies—the recall is likely to make headlines and fuel fresh skepticism. For all of the Model S’s accomplishments, the car’s design and electric drivetrain are unusual enough that some still wonder how safe and durable it will prove in the long run.

That said, it should be very reassuring that the company is willing to risk all that bad press over a single bad connector on a single car’s safety belt. CEO Elon Musk has always been a big-picture thinker, and this is the move of an executive who understands that a small dent to the company’s reputation today is far preferable to the firestorm that could erupt if the company didn’t address the issue immediately.

In the long run, the company views the Model S less as a moneymaker than as a proof of concept for electric cars in general, and its forthcoming Model 3 in particular. Telsa aims to release the Model 3 in 2017 at a price of $35,000, which it hopes will help it reach a far larger market than the pricey Model S.

Nov. 20 2015 12:38 PM

Future Tense Event: Afrofuturism—Imagining the Future of Black Identity

Future Tense is hosting a conversation about Afrofuturism in New York City on December 3rd, 2015 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Afrofuturism emphasizes the intersection of black cultures with questions of imagination, liberation, and technology. Rooted in works like those of science fiction author Octavia Butler, avant-garde jazz legend Sun Ra, and George Clinton, Afrofuturism explores concepts of race, space and time in order to ask the existential question posed by critic Mark Dery: "Can a community whose past has been deliberately erased imagine possible futures?"


Will the alternative futures and realities Afrofuturism describes transform and reshape the concept of black identity? Join Future Tense for a discussion on Afrofuturism and its unique vantage on the challenges faced by black Americans and others throughout the African diaspora.

During the event, enjoy an Afrofuturist inspired drink from 67 Orange Street. Follow the discussion online using #Afrofuturism and by following @NewAmericaNYC and @FutureTenseNow.

Click here to RSVP. Space is limited so register now!


Michael Bennett
Principal Investigator, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University

Ytasha Womack
Author, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture and Post Black: How A New Generation is Redefining African American Identity

Juliana Huxtable
DJ and Artist

Walé Oyéjidé
Designer and Creative Director, Ikire Jones

Aisha Harris
Staff writer, Slate

Nov. 19 2015 4:52 PM

Now When You Have a Bad Breakup, Facebook Will Help You Avoid Your Ex

On Thursday Facebook announced it is testing new features meant to give users more control "when a relationship ends." The idea is to avoid all those awkward digital reminders of people users might want to avoid (ahem, exes) and give them the ability to basically scrub their profiles of a former partner’s presence.

Product manager Kelly Winters explained the new granular features in a blog post:

See less of a former partner’s name and profile picture around Facebook without having to unfriend or block them. Their posts won’t show up in News Feed and their name won’t be suggested when people write a new message or tag friends in photos. Limit the photos, videos or status updates that a former partner will see.

Facebook will even offer a feature that untags you from past posts you were tagged in with your ex.

Usually even the coolest new Facebook features aren't that exciting, but this change will positively impact tons of users in one fell swoop. Facebook can't be expected to predict every specific tragedy that a person could endure, but death and breakups are two big ones that particularly relate to how people use the social network. And Facebook has already done a lot of work on how it addresses the deaths of its users.

Before the social network started testing these new breakup features, there were some third-party hazmat cleanup approximations, like the Chrome extension Eternal Sunshine and KillSwitch, an app that makes "breakups suck less." I know about these because in April I got a call from my college best friend. After three years, she and her girlfriend were breaking up. And my friend asked me for a big favor. She wanted me to purge her Facebook and Instagram accounts of all references to her ex-girlfriend. She gave me her login credentials, and I got to work.

It took hours.

I couldn't find the right tools to automate the types of changes she wanted so I had to download and untag every photo by hand. I keep them all in a folder on my computer in case she ever wants them. I unfriended people. I changed her profile picture and wallpaper. I deleted some statuses and posts. She had asked me to deactivate the account at the end of my sweep, so I felt pressure to think of everything and get everything right. The idea was that when she logged back in it would be months later and she would be ready for a fresh start. I didn't want there to be any glaring mistakes.

It was surprisingly emotional work. Of course I was sad about the breakup, but it was also just such an intimate responsibility. I felt like I was dismantling a relationship piece by piece. When I got to the final step—canceling their relationship status—it was 2 a.m., and I actually cried. It felt so final, because everything I deleted reminded me of how hard it would be to rebuild this exact digital footprint as it had been. It was an honor to be trusted with such a private task—but I'm glad Facebook will now offer the tools that I would have wanted to use on that night.