Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 1 2015 4:29 PM

Mark Zuckerberg Wants to Be the Next Bill Gates, but It Will Be Tougher Than He Thinks

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, "When I was growing up, Bill Gates was my hero." Now Zuckerberg, whose net worth is nearly $46 billion, seems to be taking the same all-in approach to philanthropy that Bill Gates (currently worth nearly $85 billion) is known for. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a foundation that will be funded by 99 percent of the couple's Facebook shares, currently about $45 billion.

The goal is "to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation. Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities."


Compare that with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation mission statement. "We see equal value in all lives. And so we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world. From the education of students in Chicago, to the health of a young mother in Nigeria, we are catalysts of human promise everywhere." There is even a line in Zuckerberg's announcement essay that says, "We believe all lives have equal value."

It will be difficult for Zuckerberg to emulate the success, or even just the ubiquity, of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. One reason is that the timing is different. Gates launched the BMGF in 2000 when he was 45 and had just stepped down as CEO of Microsoft. He remained at the company until 2006, at which point he switched to working full-time at the foundation. In contrast, Zuckerberg is 31, and it would be stunning if he were ready to leave Facebook any time soon. Where Gates chose philanthropic work as his next life phase after 30 years at Microsoft, Zuckerberg is running a booming, 12-year-old company and is a new father. (Oh yeah, he and his wife Priscilla also announced the birth of their first child, named Max, on Tuesday.)

Zuckerberg seems proud to be associated with Gates. They appeared together on a Wired cover in 2010, and Zuck posted a photo from that shoot to Facebook on Sunday to announce that he was joining the Gates Foundation–led Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Zuckerberg wrote, "Priscilla and I are joining Bill Gates in launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to invest in new clean energy technologies."

Zuckerberg's effectiveness as a philanthropist is uncertain, though. His $100 million donation to Newark, New Jersey, public schools in 2010 has "slowly melt[ed] into an ocean of recrimination," as Jonathan A. Knee put it in the New York Times. His Internet.org initiative to offer low-cost Internet access in developing markets has been met with harsh criticism from net neutrality advocates. And Fwd.us, the lobbying coalition (largely focused on immigration) he founded with Bill Gates and others has been floundering since the 2014 ouster of then-president Joe Green, one of Zuckerberg's Harvard roommates.

Early failures could be fertile training for bigger successes, though, and there are certainly aspects of the Zuckerberg/Gates comparison that line up. Both started at Harvard and went on to found defining tech companies of their respective generations. Both are programmers-turned-leaders. Both are known for working obsessively on things until they get them right. And the BMGF certainly has its fair share of controversy. It's not always clear what the "right thing to do" is.

Still in his early 30s, Zuckerberg may eventually leave Facebook and double down on the foundation he has created, or he might stumble on another next big thing in the tech industry and put it off. Regardless of how things play out, it takes more than just billions to be the next Bill Gates.

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Dec. 1 2015 4:27 PM

Why Mark Zuckerberg’s Baby Is Front-Page News

Mark Zuckerberg had a baby!

I punctuate the announcement with an exclamation mark, not because it is particularly surprising—he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced that they were expecting in July—but because that is the way it will be read, liked, and shared on the social network he built.


“Priscilla and I are so happy to welcome our daughter Max into this world!” the Facebook CEO wrote on his Facebook page. He announced the baby’s arrival with a lengthy letter to her, which he posted using Facebook’s newly revamped Notes feature. (He announced in the same letter that he is giving most of his fortune to charity.)

You might wonder why I’m writing about Zuckerberg’s baby announcement on a technology blog. Yes, Zuckerberg runs an influential technology company. But so do a lot of other people whose baby announcements have rated no mention in this space. Somehow Zuckerberg’s baby news feels more like, well, news.

That isn’t only because the Facebook chief announced that he’ll take two months of paternity leave, which sadly qualifies as a radical political statement in our gender-biased, productivity-obsessed culture. (Yahoo honcho Marissa Mayer’s baby made headlines for its parental-leave implications, too.) It’s because his social network has redefined what qualifies as news and has reshaped how it is transmitted.

The media used to draw clear lines between news, opinion, gossip, and personal announcements. Each had its own section in the morning paper. Facebook’s News Feed, which has emerged as a news source for an amazing 40 percent of U.S. adults, makes no such distinctions. Your friend’s engagement announcement, your uncle’s political rant, and an article about the latest developments in Syria jostle for the same space on your screen. And it turns out that, for a lot of us, the Syria news feels the least urgent of the three. So Facebook’s algorithms, ever attuned to our behavior, downgrade it in favor of more personal posts from our friends. 

Facebook thus encourages us to broadcast our intimate life changes to everyone we know, complete with catchy headlines to maximize the amount of affirmation we receive in return. Zuckerberg, though he values his privacy more than he lets on, has made an effort to exemplify this principle. Through his massively popular personal Facebook feed, which is followed by 42.5 million people, he has let the world know about the major events in his life, including his marriage to Priscilla Chan and the exploits of their dog Beast, who has his own Facebook page with 2.2 million likes.

The result is that we know Zuckerberg, or at least feel like we do, in a way that we don’t know other tech executives (the living ones, anyway). Did you know that Bill Gates has three kids? Just try naming them without resorting to Bing.

Zuck, Cilla, and Beast may not be celebrities on the order of the Obamas or the Kimyes or the Carter-Knowles, and their baby may not get the full royal tabloid treatment. But Facebook is a medium that shapes the message, and within the context of the social network, a Zuckerberg baby photo is stop-the-presses material.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, you may or may not care about Zuckerberg’s baby as much as you care about the GOP presidential race or the Paris climate talks or Black Lives Matter. But there are probably other babies whose births would merit top billing in your personal news feed, including your own. You won’t see them on CNN, hear about them on NPR, or read about them on Slate. But you will see their tiny faces when you tap the Facebook app, along with all your friends’ delighted reactions.

That Zuckerberg is using his life event as an opportunity to promote a major professional announcement only goes to show that he’s forced to play by the same rules of engagement as the rest of us. If Facebook’s news feed has elevated our personal lives to the status of breaking news, it has also forced us to be awkwardly canny about how we portray them.

Andy Warhol thought we’d all be famous for 15 minutes; on Facebook, we’re all famous to 15 people. For better or worse, it has made minor celebrities of us all.

Dec. 1 2015 4:12 PM

Researchers: Exxon, Koch Family Have Powered the Climate-Denial Machine for Decades

Right now, nearly every leader of nearly every country in the world is gathered in Paris for perhaps the most ambitious and meaningful negotiations humanity has ever undertaken. But if you haven’t heard much about it, you’re not alone. Summing up the climate change conference’s first day for the New Republic, Jonathan Katz was understandably dispirited:

That the build-up to these negotiations to assure humanity’s continued survival on Earth were overshadowed in the U.S. by the latest battle between jihadists and everyone else, the interminable presidential primary, Thanksgiving, the college football playoff draw, and on and on tells you a lot about how we got to this point.


Of course, a major reason the world has delayed meaningful action for 21 years has been a single political party in a single country: the GOP.

It wasn’t always this way. Speaking in 1990 at Georgetown University, President George H.W. Bush said, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways.” Even today, a majority of conservative Republicans believe that climate change is happening and humans are at least partly responsible. 

And yet, you have virtually all the current crop of Republican presidential candidates furthering a message of denial and delay and uncertainty. The latest line, which Marco Rubio professed in a recent debate, is that, somehow, saving the planet isn’t a good return on investment. Why are all these smart people professing such an irrational and flawed belief?

One sociologist thinks he has the answer. Justin Farrell, a professor at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has published two sets of results this week from an analysis of “all known organizations and individuals promoting contrarian viewpoints, as well as the entirety of all written and verbal texts about climate change from 1993–2013 from every organization, three major news outlets [the New York Times, the Washington Times, and USA Today], all US presidents, and every occurrence on the floor of the US Congress.”

By machine-reading this massive amount of information—more than 39 million words—Farrell was able to link a significant amount of the most resonant denialist rhetoric over the last two decades directly to two entities that have derived a significant amount of their wealth from exploiting fossil fuels: ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations.

To conduct this research, Farrell constructed a comprehensive social network of the producers of contrarian climate information—some 4,556 individuals and 164 organizations—and tracked the most common phrases shared among them, like “CO2 is good” or “Al Gore.” He then examined the funding ties between companies and compared them with the use of common phrases. After analyzing them all, he found that donations to organizations from ExxonMobil and the Koch foundations were “the most reliable and theoretically important across-time indicators of corporate involvement”—including the ability to influence the mainstream media and the president.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 11.04.32 AM
Farrell’s analysis of the climate change contrarian network shows that organizations that have received funding from ExxonMobil or the Koch family foundations clustered in green near the center.

Justin Farrell/Nature Climate Change

Farrell’s work finds that Exxon and the Koch brothers and other entities like them form the heart of the American climate denial machine. Interestingly, Farrell found that it didn’t matter how much money organizations received from Exxon or the Koch brothers. Instead, donations of any amount boosted that organization’s “network power”—and its subsequent influence on the overall promulgation of climate change denial rhetoric.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 11.56.13 AM
Frequency of occurrence of climate denialist memes for organizations with corporate funding (red) and without corporate funding (black).

Justin Farrell/Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences

ExxonMobil has refused to publicly acknowledge its role in funding climate change denial. Last month, after a series of high-profile journalistic reports, the New York attorney general launched an investigation into Exxon’s public statements under the premise that it may have violated the law by downplaying the risk of continued fossil fuel burning. As reported in Politico on Monday, Exxon has begun to harass some of those journalists and sent a letter to the president of Columbia University in which it seemingly threatened to withdraw its support for the school. In a tweet Tuesday, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the letter an “absurd” example of corporate intimidation.

Farrell says that, so far, no one from Exxon or the Koch foundations have contacted him. “In all honesty, I suspect that they might be pleased to see that their seed money was effective. From their perspective, their actions are not all that surprising, and are even financially rational, given what they stand to lose.”

In emails to Slate, other researchers whose work focuses on analyzing climate denial corroborated the importance of Farrell’s new research. Naomi Oreskes called Farrell’s results “a very full and definite picture” of the connections between organizations that create climate denialist rhetoric and their corporate sponsors. “It proves beyond any doubt that ExxonMobil has not been a good corporate citizen, simply giving us the energy that we want, but that they have actively worked to spread disinformation and undermine the sensible climate policies that they claim, disingenuously, to support,” Oreskes said. John Cook, whose website skepticalscience.com has become a de-facto clearinghouse for exposing climate denial memes, called Farrell’s research a “crucial piece of the puzzle.”

Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, has examined the conspiratorial overtones of climate denialist bloggers and rhetoric around global warming. In calculations for Slate, Lewandowsky figured that, assuming a social price of carbon of $40 per ton, the denial movement may have cost the global economy a minimum of $2 trillion in the last decade alone.

It’s not more or better science that will challenge this sort of vicious cycle of misinformation—it’s public outrage. Like the tobacco industry decades ago, the fossil fuel industry is living in a world where it feels like it can operate largely unchecked, to the detriment of most everyone else. Until burning oil and coal become as utterly repulsive as smoking cigarettes is now, there’s reason to believe global emissions will keep inching up, putting the future climate further in peril.

Dec. 1 2015 3:01 PM

This Brazilian Campaign Is Putting Racist Facebook Comments on Billboards

Holding racist trolls accountable for online harassment is nearly impossible. But that’s not stopping a clever Brazilian campaign from shaming them. Criola, a civil rights advocacy group run by Afro-Brazilian women, is using geolocation tools to put hateful Facebook or Twitter posts on billboards where the commenters live in cities around the country.

Called “Virtual Racism, Real Consequences,” the project’s main motivation isn’t to publically out the commenters (their names and photos are pixelated) but to send a message that online bigotry has an impact on the physical world. Criola’s founder Jurema Werneck told the BBC: “Those people [who post abuse online] think they can sit in the comfort of their homes and do whatever they want on the internet. We don't let that happen. They can't hide from us, we will find them.”


Launched in the summer, the campaign was sparked by racist remarks made against Afro-Brazilian meteorologist Maria Júlia Coutinho on her news outlet’s Facebook page. Several of the campaign’s billboard comments are taken from that thread, which garnered nearly 20,000 comments and 46,000 likes since it posted in July. While you can go to jail for racist hate speech in Brazil, it’s rarely enforced, according to the Economist. One Facebook user on the thread pledged to report it anyway: "I just printed of all the comments on this post and I will report them to the appropriate authorities. Racism is a crime.”

Maria Júlia Coutinho.

The BBC points out that Brazilians who identify as black or Afro-Brazilian make up about 8 percent of the population, and mixed-race or “pardo” Brazilians make up about 43 percent, according to the country’s 2010 census. Werneck, who identifies as Afro-Brazilian, hopes that calling attention to the country’s long and complex history with racism will help cultivate a stronger black pride movement.

After Criola put up the billboards in cities such as Americana, São Paulo, and Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, the group went around and asked people whether a racist comment online causes less damage than saying it in person. Most people agreed: Internet comments are no less upsetting than direct racist offenses. The first interviewee said (roughly translated from Portuguese): “This is unbelievable. These people should go to prison for these comments. The sign reminds us that racism still exists, and sometimes we don’t even realize it.”

Other people denounced the bigoted comments, expressed disgust, and said that many Brazilians are ignorant of the country’s problem with racism. At minute mark 2:43, an Afro-Brazilian man says, “Everybody is human; color doesn’t matter.”

Dec. 1 2015 12:45 PM

After 11 Years, FBI Gag Order on Warrantless Surveillance Is Lifted

In February 2004, Nicholas Merrill—who owned a small Internet service provider at the time—was served with an administrative subpoena called a National Security Letter, or NSL. He was asked to turn over a client’s electronic metadata to the FBI without any judicial oversight. Because the NSL was accompanied by a gag order, Merrill was forbidden from ever mentioning the request, even to the person targeted by the FBI—who, by the way, was not even suspected of a crime.

Rather than complying with the unconstitutional request, Merrill went to court with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union. He spent more than a quarter of his life fighting challenging the legality of a Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI to issue NSLs in the first place and then fighting for the restoration of his First Amendment rights. The gag order was only partially lifted in 2010. In August of this year, a judge ruled that Merrill could disclose what he’d been asked to turn over to the FBI if the government did not appeal within 90 days. That deadline passed on Nov. 30, and Merrill is now free to discuss the type of information the government sought 11 long years ago.

Nick Merrill's NSL attachment, in various stages of redaction.

Image by the ACLU


A 2008 Department of Justice legal opinion said that the government was asking for “only those categories of information parallel to subscriber information and toll billing records for ordinary telephone service,” but the list Merrill received went far beyond that. He was asked to provide the government with the individual’s complete Web browsing history (which includes search history), the IP address of anyone he or she’d ever corresponded with online, and records of all online purchases. The letter also asked for the radius log, which Merrill believed to include cell site location—essentially turning their mobile device into a location-tracking device. (Although the FBI says it is not currently gathering location data, it reserves the right to request it in the future.) Merrill was also asked to provide anything else he considered an “electronic communication transactional record.”

Although he declined to disclose the target of the original NSL for privacy reasons, Merrill has his own theory about why he or she was targeted. “I had some ideas because I know the person, and they were being harassed, and [the FBI was] trying to strong-arm them into becoming an informant,” Merrill said via encrypted chat. “I thought it was ludicrous from the beginning. I thought the FBI was using an NSL because they didn't have what they needed to go to a judge.”

There have been more than 400,000 NSL requests between 2003 and 2011, but Merrill believes that many more people are affected. “If they issue about 50,000 NSLs per year from 2002 to 2012, that is 500,000 NSLs. If you assume that each NSL relates to one person then that's 500,000 suspects for counter-terrorism or counter-espionage. In a country of 300 million people, that is already 1 in 600 Americans. I find the idea that 1 in 600 Americans could be suspected of terrorism or espionage hard to buy,” he says. Audits from the Department of Justice inspector general show that NSLs have been used on first- and second-degree contacts of people of interest. The inspector general’s report also states that NSLs often ask for bulk data. Says Merrill:

One of [the NSLs] got a list of everyone that went to Vegas over New Years Eve one year. Another few NSLs got the entire phone billing records of 11,000 people. So then you realize that you cannot assume that each letter affects just one person. Now it's one in 300 Americans? Or one in 100 Americans? Who knows? We are reduced to guessing because we have so little actual data. Which brings us back to the gag orders and secrecy, and how that leads to unaccountability.

Because NSLs are shrouded in secrecy, it’s hard to tell whom the information is currently being shared with, what the retention policy is, and whether data is ever purged if a person is never accused of wrongdoing. But in 2007, ACLU policy counsel Michael German, a former FBI special agent, pointed out thatinformation received through NSLs is indefinitely retained and retrievable,” even if the subject is found to have posed no terror threat. Data is shared with the intelligence community, across government agencies, and even with foreign governments.

Some companies have fought back against NSLs by publishing warrant canaries—making public disclosures that they have not received government data requests on a semi-regular basis. In theory, this will allow companies to track gag orders indirectly by seeking a judge’s opinion if the government attempts to force that company to issue a statement saying it hasn’t received an NSL even when it has.

“Warrant canaries are cool because they are pro-business civil disobedience. People want to find creative ways to resist, and there are not that many options,” Merrill says. But, as he notes, warrant canaries don’t deal with the underlying issue.

“The real problem is the government seizing data in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” he says. He recommends that companies try to file facial challenges, which test the constitutionality of the law itself. And in fact the Electronic Frontier Foundation is currently representing two unnamed California ISPs fighting back against NSLs. Although Merrill’s New York case is not legally binding in California, an EFF attorney told U.S. News that “the decision could be influential in that it shows that a gag can be lifted without harming national security.”

Dec. 1 2015 12:11 PM

What a Recently Uncovered Story by W.E.B. Du Bois Tells Us About Afrofuturism

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. On Thursday, Dec. 3, Future Tense will host “Afrofuturism: Imagining the Future of Black Identity” in New York. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” So queried cultural critic Mark Dery, who in the early ’90s coined the term Afrofuturism in “Black to the Future,” his introductory essay to interviews with cultural critics Tricia Rose and Greg Tate and sci-fi writer Samuel Delany. Dery’s nomenclature codified a current of futurist aesthetics thrumming through much of 20th-century art, music, film, and literature by black American artists, from jazz musician Sun Ra and funk legend George Clinton to fiction writers like Delany and Octavia Butler.


Afrofuturism has continued to evolve in the 21st century. The past three years have seen significant museum exhibitions with Afrofuturist themes, and the concept has grown more prevalent as a method for social justice movements to imagine new ways to fight against systemic racism and socio-economic inequality.

“The word really captured everything we’d always known about black culture, but it gave us something to call it,” said Alondra Nelson in an interview posted online in 2011. Nelson, now a dean of social science at Columbia University, founded an Afrofuturism online community in 1998 and, as a grad student at NYU in 2002, edited an issue of the journal Social Text devoted to Afrofuturism. Or, as Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, put it: “Blackness has always been futuristic.”

Yet as much as Afrofuturism is about the future, so too is it about the past. Britt Rusert, assistant professor of African-American literature and culture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studies the short genre fiction of W.E.B. Du Bois as a way to think about what she calls Afrofuturism’s “pre-histories”—works of art and protest that embody its concepts but predate its late–20th century context. Rusert and Adrienne Brown, a colleague who teaches at the University of Chicago, have recently uncovered in Du Bois’ papers a previously unpublished fantasy story, “The Princess Steel,” which they have dated to 1908 and 1910—much earlier than any of Du Bois’ other speculative fictions. The story and their essay on the find appear in the most recent issue of the scholarly journal PMLA.

Rusert and Brown’s find is a significant development in the study of Du Bois, author of 1903’s The Souls of Black Folk and the co-founder, in 1909, of the NAACP. Critics and historians have traced his simultaneous turn toward a more radical politics of race and publication of science fiction works like “The Comet” to the 1920s, when Du Bois was living in the New York City of the Harlem Renaissance. According to Rusert, dating “The Princess Steel” to the final years of Du Bois’ tenure as a teacher at Atlanta University demonstrates “that he is talking about those things much earlier” and from a different geographic home than previously recognized.

In the story, the protagonist Hannibal Johnson, a black sociologist, demonstrates for a honeymooning tourist couple a “megascope,” a machine he created to see across time and space. From the top of a New York skyscraper, they look into the historical “Pit of Pittsburg” and see an allegorical origin-story of steelmaking that frames steel production within a narrative that critiques historical colonization and primitive accumulation—the transformation of feudal production into capitalism. The Princess Steel, daughter of the “dark Queen of the Iron Isles—she that of old came out of Africa,” is separated from her mother, and after the Lord of the Golden Way kills her lover, she encases him in a hearse of “burning breathing silver” spun from her “silvery hair.” The murdering Lord, realizing the value of the steel spun from the Princess’ hair, purloins it strand by strand to create a “mighty loom” of mills that bind the Princess in “the imprisonment to which her spun hair held her as it stretched across the world.”

Uncovering “The Princess Steel” is an important contribution to the evolution of Afrofuturism. “I think you can read in the story that Du Bois is already understanding something about the social construction of technology,” says Rusert, who teaches from his short fiction and other texts in a graduate seminar on Afrofuturism. “In some ways, Du Bois’ commitment to revolution and social justice and social movements of course means he’s always interested in the future,” she says. She also believes that “Du Bois would ask us to think reflexively about what Afrofuturism means. … He would be interested in a kind of critical Afrofuturism, one interested in questions of history with a capital H.”

Rusert—who along with Brown is editing a collection of Du Bois’ fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and crime fiction—unearthed “The Princess Steel” in one of two archival boxes cataloged only as “short fiction,” and was struck by the range of genres—mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales, romance—represented therein. In this and other short stories like “The Comet,” in which a comet unleashes toxic gases on New York City, “you really see that Du Bois was an avid writer and reader of genre fiction,” Rusert says.

At the end of “The Princess Steel,” the reader learns that only the husband has been able to see and hear fully through the professor’s megascope to observe the story of the Princess Steel. His wife has seen merely “clouds and the rising moon”; the professor observes that the megascope “was not tuned delicately enough for her.” While she notes that this plot twist is potentially “disappointing in terms of gender politics,” Rusert aligns it with other moments in the story as “commentary on the social … construction of technology itself.” Du Bois doesn’t see technology as being objective,” she observes. “It is encoded by race, gender, and sexuality.”

Dec. 1 2015 9:27 AM

This App Promises to Donate to Charity Every Time You Watch a Video

As you evaluate the charitable landscape this Giving Tuesday, it’s tempting to dismiss the new app Givvr because it fits so well into narratives of millennial lassitude. Though those narratives may have more to do with our distaste for contemporary technology than they do with the realities of generational malaise, they’re surprisingly resonant here. When you boot it up, Givvr invites you to choose from one of a list of charitable causes, among them the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Los Angeles and the Arbor Day Foundation. Make your selection, and a short video about the cause will play. Each time someone watches that video, a donor has pledged to make a small contribution to the attached nonprofit. You don’t need to do anything more—unless, of course, you want to invite your Twitter followers or Facebook friends to join in.

For now, CEO Malte Kramer told me, the donors are mostly individuals, largely drawn from his co-founder’s personal network, which helps explain why so many of them are currently regionally specific to Southern California. Ultimately, however, the young company hopes to involve more established brands in the process. While all of the money raised through the app currently goes to the nonprofits, Kramer explained that his company will ultimately support itself by charging these sponsor-donors a small handling fee.


Givvr promises to offer a maximal collective return on a minimal personal investment. In this regard, it’s not entirely new. A descendant of the click-to-give-sites—which claimed to donate some or all of their ad revenue to charitable causes—that have been around since at least the mid-aughts, Givvr is a modern variant on an established model. But Kramer suggested his app tries to push the format forward by “making it social and making it mobile.” The former may be the more important of the company’s innovations: By encouraging users to spread videos through Facebook, Twitter, and so on, it hopes to amplify awareness while also raising funds.

Kramer hopes that the established brands the company is courting won’t see their contributions to the app “as an alternative to doing a pre-roll ad on Youtube.” Instead, the company plans to continue to show videos for and about the causes it’s promoting. “It’s a new way of reaching an audience, the socially conscious millennial” that can otherwise be difficult to target. Kramer proposes that while sponsors may attach their logos to videos, they’ll mostly stay out of the picture. If it works, it’ll work because millennials really do want to make a difference.

There’s still reason to be cynical, not least of all because Givvr appears to be developing itself as a stage on which corporations can perform their goodness. To be sure, companies do just that all the time, but here the app’s users also get in on the act, acquiring the illusion of involvement. That’s only really a problem if it keeps them from doing other charitable work, leaving them with the feeling that by partially intervening in the flow of someone else’s money—money that probably would have found its way to its target regardless—they’ve done enough good.

It’s still possible that Givvr might raise actual awareness to worthy causes. But awareness alone is rarely enough, especially when it comes with the idea that you’ve already, well, given. In the long term, however, the real trouble may be with Givvr’s corporate aspirations. Though Kramer told me the company insists on funding only well-vetted nonprofits, it will also, by structural necessity, end up supporting corporate-friendly causes. In the process, it may drain some of the grass-roots gumption that makes Internet activism meaningful. Millennials aren’t the problem, then—capitalism is. Isn’t it always? 

Nov. 30 2015 5:06 PM

Internet-Connected Toys Are Getting Hacked, and It’s As Creepy As We Feared It Would Be

In November 2014, British toymaker Vivid Toys debuted an Internet-connected doll, My Friend Cayla, that used speech recognition and artificial intelligence techniques to have conversations with kids. By February, researchers had hacked the doll to spew curse words. Now other Internet of Things toys are encountering similar problems.

On Wednesday, NBC Chicago reported that security researcher Matt Jakubowski had hacked Mattel's Hello Barbie, potentially exposing users' account information, home Wi-Fi networks, and MP3 files recorded by the dolls. Hello Barbie is a version of the classic toy that converses with kids, remembers things they say, and recalls details later. “I was able to get some data out of it that I probably shouldn’t have,” Jakubowski told NBC Chicago. “You can take that information and find someone’s house or business.”


When Mattel announced Hello Barbie in February, privacy advocates were concerned. The doll is always "listening," meaning that it sends audio files to a cloud server for processing and storage. In March, Angela Campbell, faculty adviser at Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology, told the Washington Post, "If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child's intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed." The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood started a petition against the toy. And Network World published a story with the headline, "How long will it take for Internet of Things Hello Barbie to be hacked?" Well, now we have our answer.

Jakubowski hasn't published the details of his hack yet, and he noted in a tweet that the companies involved in Hello Barbie "really are doing a lot of stuff right." Oren Jacob, the CEO of ToyTalk, which provides cloud computing for Hello Barbie, said in a statement: 

An enthusiastic researcher has reported finding some device data and called that a hack. While the path that researcher used to find that data is not obvious and not user-friendly, it[’s] important to note that all that information was already directly available to Hello Barbie customers through the Hello Barbie Companion App. No user data, no Barbie content, and no major security nor privacy protections has been compromised to our knowledge.

It's fair enough to point out that not everything that is colloquially called a hack is actually an exploitation of a previously unknown vulnerability, but if Jakubowski is accessing data that typical customers would assume is secure, that sounds like a problem.

Meanwhile, Motherboard reported on Friday that cordless phone and electronic toy manufacturer VTech suffered a data breach in early November that exposed personal information from almost 5 million adult customers and 200,000 children, including names, birthdays, and genders. "What’s worse, it’s possible to link the children to their parents, exposing the kids’ full identities and where they live, according to an expert who reviewed the breach for Motherboard," Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai wrote. He added on Monday that the breach seems to include photos of children and family chat logs.

As everything from toys to educational tools come online, more and more data breaches will affect kids. Adults have to make their own choices about whether to trust tech companies with their data, but kids trust adults implicitly to make good cybersecurity decisions for them.

Nov. 30 2015 4:32 PM

Bill Gates Is Finally Tackling Climate Change. That’s Good News for the Climate.

Getting countries to agree to legally binding emissions cuts is famously difficult. Getting them to invest in technologies that could lead to emissions cuts, it seems, is a little easier—especially when tech titans are lining up to join them.

President Obama, French President François Hollande, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates kicked off this week’s Paris climate talks with a pair of announcements that should fuel an unprecedented boom in clean energy investment over the next five years.


The first, called Mission Innovation, is a pact among 20 governments, including the United States, to double their spending on research and development of clean energy technologies by 2020. That figures to amount to an extra $20 billion for the kind of basic scientific research that could lead to new ways to collect and store renewable energy, including solar and wind power. The United States alone will ramp up its annual spending from $5 billion to $10 billion. Also on board are China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, among others—countries that have historically come into the climate talks with a very different agenda than their wealthier counterparts.

At the same time, Gates is spearheading something called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of 28 private investors who will commit various amounts of their respective fortunes to clean energy ventures, provided the governments follow through on their promises. Gates is personally pledging to invest $1 billion, while others have not yet announced the size of their contributions. Among the tech magnates participating are Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s Meg Whitman, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, and SalesForce’s Marc Benioff. More are expected to sign on in the days to come.

Gates’ leadership here is significant. He and his wife, Melinda Gates, have built the world’s largest private foundation, and they’ve dedicated their efforts in developing countries to fighting poverty and disease. Perhaps belatedly, Gates appears to be recognizing that climate change could undo all of that good work.

The good news is that once Gates tackles a problem in earnest, he doesn’t just throw money at it. He uses money as a lever to bring about broader changes. That appears to be the case here, too. An Obama adviser told Mashable’s Andrew Freedman that Gates was the “intellectual architect” of the private-sector effort on clean energy. On Monday, he explained his thinking in a paper called “Energy Innovation: Why We Need It and How to Get It” (PDF).

Gates places his clean energy goals in the context of the broader fight against global poverty. The world will need more energy than ever in the coming decades, he argues, as the poor aspire to a higher standard of living. But unless that energy gets cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient, the pollution it produces will change the climate irreparably. And poor countries will be among the first to bear the costs. 

Gates’ charitable efforts in some fields, including U.S. education, have been criticized by some as naïve and misguided. (Zuckerberg, too, has misfired on education funding.) But his technocratic approach could be a breath of fresh air in the climate battle, which is too often viewed as a zero-sum conflict: between energy producers and environmentalists, government regulators and private industry, rich countries and poor countries.

solar windows
A student reads in front of windows covered with photovoltaic foil panels at a university in Munich.

Photo by Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Clean energy investment, Gates rightly points out, is not zero-sum. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $17.5 billion on research between 1978 and 2000, and realized $41 billion in benefits. Yet Gates argues convincingly that both the government and the private sector have been underinvesting in energy research, because innovations in the energy sector take a long time to pay off. U.S. tech and pharmaceutical companies invest 15 to 20 percent of their revenues on R&D, Gates’ paper reports. For energy companies, that figure is a paltry 0.4 percent. Likewise, a smaller share of government spending on energy goes to R&D than does government spending on the military or health care.

The types of technologies Gates has in mind are not your everyday photovoltaic solar panels or wind turbines. Rather, he’s looking at cutting-edge ideas such as solar paint and flow batteries. They might be years or even decades off, and maybe they’ll never work. But if they do, the payoff could be great.

This is not the first time a bunch of tech tycoons have gotten excited about renewable energy. With help from government subsidies, Silicon Valley fueled a cleantech boom between about 2007 and 2012, which led to a few big hits—think Tesla and SolarCity—but a lot of high-profile busts (like Solyndra). Two of the investors in Gates’ coalition, John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, were among the principal figures in that first boom and bust. The lesson they took away is not that clean tech is a waste of money. The lesson is that it’s foolish to expect the sort of instant mega-returns on capital that Silicon Valley investors can get from, say, social-media startups.

This time around, the tech investors’ motivations are more explicitly altruistic. “Our primary goal with the Coalition is as much to accelerate progress on clean energy as it is to make a profit,” Gates writes. The idea is to take a longer view, helping new ideas to bridge the “valley of death” between the lab and commercial viability. That seems like a wiser approach than pumping dubious startups full of cash and then expecting them to show Y Combinator–style growth within a few years.

As encouraging as the new initiatives are, $20-plus billion really does feel more like a “first step” than a grand solution to the problem of clean energy funding. Fortunately, Gates has a track record of following up and building on his charitable efforts over time. Let’s hope his Silicon Valley friends follow suit after the excitement of the Paris announcement has passed.

Nov. 30 2015 1:35 PM

These Helpful, Adorable Robots Make Sure Your Online Purchases Reach Your Doorstep

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Last December, Amazon gave the public a rare look into the cutting-edge tech that helps it handle the constant deluge of online orders: its robots. The world’s largest online retailer has said it has tens of thousands of warehouse bots working across 10 of its U.S. warehouses or fulfillment centers. While the company is relying on more than 100,000 temp workers this holiday season to supplement its already massive warehouse workforce, the advantages of offloading more of that work onto machines are easy to see. Robots don’t slow. They don’t tire. They don’t get injured or distracted or sick. They don’t require paychecks or try to unionize.

Amazon’s robots were invented by a company called Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired for $775 million back in 2012. With Kiva locked down, a new player wants to give smaller online retail rivals just a bit of that robotic advantage. Locus Robotics is an offshoot of Massachusetts-based Quiet Logistics, a third-party order fulfillment company that gets merchandise out the door for big apparel retailers like Zara, Gilt Groupe, and Bonobos. And the idea behind its bots isn’t just to replace humans, but to create a system where everyone can work together more efficiently.


What most people don’t realize in the age of push-button shopping is the “shopping” part doesn’t disappear. You the consumer are no longer at the store doing the physical work of tracking down the thing you want. But somebody still has to do it. For e-commerce, that task typically falls to a worker at a distribution center who must locate the product, make sure it’s not damaged, and send it off to be packed and shipped. This can be grueling, tedious work. More than anything else, it’s about walking. Lots of walking. Locus aims to have its bots do the walking instead.

Or, well, rolling. Locus’ bots look something like an old-school overhead projector with wheels. While Amazon’s Kiva bots have a mechanism that allows them to physically hoist specially designed shelves and bring them to human workers, Locus’ carry bins on trays while they travel the lengths of standard-issue shelving. The idea is to cut out the worst parts of the job to let humans focus on the parts of the job that robots still can’t do, like selecting the individual items and checking them for any defects.

“Work in warehouses is not always pleasant to begin with, but then you add unproductive travel time, and it works against you,” says Al Dekin, a vice president at Locus, who estimates that warehouse workers walk 10 to 15 miles a day.

Despite its cute bots, however, Locus thinks of itself more as a software company than a hardware company, Dekin says. The logistics of moving merchandise from place to place in a warehouse is analogous to moving people from place to place in a city, he says: If a subway system is like a conveyor belt in a warehouse, then robots are like cars directed by a platform like Uber, sent from place to place based on availability and demand.

Locus has started with 10 robots roaming the Quiet Logistics warehouse, which covers some 500,000 square feet, to support the logistics operations of companies already working with the e-commerce company. In the coming weeks, perhaps just in time for the holidays, it plans to roll out more.

In the new year, Locus hopes to expand to work with other companies, and the demand is likely there. Yes, Amazon dominates online retail. But e-commerce overall still has so much room to grow. E-commerce sales have grown in the double digits for years according to research firm eMarketer—in 2015 alone, it’s projected to rise 13.9 percent. Yet e-commerce still accounts for just 9 percent of total U.S. retail sales. It’s hard to imagine that figure won’t increase substantially as shopping habits continue to change.

So while Amazon might be the giant that no one else can hope to catch at the moment, smaller players do have a chance to carve out space for themselves while the sector is still growing. One challenge to creating the kind of scale and efficiency that Amazon already enjoys is finding enough people to do the raw physical work that makes e-commerce possible. With machines to take up some of that load, would-be rivals have at least a modest chance of getting a leg—er, a wheel—up on Amazon.

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