Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

July 28 2017 6:08 PM

The Absurdity of Honolulu's New Law Banning Pedestrians From Looking at Their Cellphones

If the fusty sigh of “Kids these days!” were a law, it would look something like the new Honolulu ordinance making it illegal to cross the street while looking at a cellphone. The fines will start in October at $35 and increase to $75 for a second offense and $99 for a third.

The law, signed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Thursday, is intended to lower the city’s pedestrian-fatality rate , which is among the highest in the U.S. In practice, however, it will inject police discretion into another routine of daily life—while perpetuating the media-driven myth that pedestrians are responsible for their own deaths.

 

There is an epidemic of American pedestrians getting killed by drivers. But there is virtually no evidence that they are being run over because they are too busy reading Slate on their phones.

There are a few reasons why the “distracted walking” narrative has taken hold. The first comes from a 2013 Ohio State study that reported that the percentage of pedestrians visiting an emergency room for injuries sustained while using cell phones has risen, from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 3.5 percent in 2010. But the numbers of victims remains quite small—in the low four figures, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission data—and injuries related to cellphone use seemed to track neatly between pedestrians and drivers.

July 28 2017 5:30 PM

Yes, U.S. Scientists Edited an Embryo’s Genes, but Super-Babies Are a Ways Away

MIT Technology Review reported Thursday that a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon were the first team of U.S.-based scientists to successfully create a genetically modified human embryo. The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of—in MIT Technology Review’s words—“many tens” of genetically-diseased embryos by injecting the host egg with CRISPR, a DNA-based gene editing tool first discovered in bacteria, at the time of fertilization. CRISPR-Cas9, as the full editing system is called, allows scientists to change genes accurately and efficiently. As has happened with research elsewhere, the CRISPR-edited embryos weren’t implanted—they were kept sustained for only a couple of days.

In addition to being the first American team to complete this feat, the researchers also improved upon the work of the three Chinese research teams that beat them to editing embryos with CRISPR: Mitalipov’s team increased the proportion of embryonic cells that received the intended genetic changes, addressing an issue called “mosaicism,” which is when an embryo is comprised of cells with different genetic makeups. Increasing that proportion is essential to CRISPR work in eliminating inherited diseases, to ensure that the CRISPR therapy has the intended result. The Oregon team also reduced the number of genetic errors introduced by CRISPR, reducing the likelihood that a patient would develop cancer elsewhere in the body.

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Separate from the scientific advancements, it’s a big deal that this work happened in a country with such intense politicization of embryo research. But the climate around these issues has changed recently: The U.S National Academy of Sciences has repeatedly endorsed basic research related to embryo editing, doing so again this February.

But there are a great number of obstacles between the current research and the future of genetically editing all children to be 12-foot-tall Einsteins.

Possibly chief among these obstacles is that a CRISPR intervention would have to be completed at or just after fertilization to yield a super child. The authors of the upcoming paper (which is apparently scheduled to be published, though it’s unclear where) used the donated sperm of men carrying inherited disease mutations to create embryos with those mutations with the goal of then editing out the genetic diseases. This required the authors to know the disease carried by the sperm, and to be able to correct for that disease at the time of fertilization. Since human eggs can be fertilized by sperm half an hour after sex, CRISPR editing would likely require IVF, which is increasingly common but still out of reach for many families.

Furthermore, Stanford University law professor Hank Greely tweeted that the “key point” was that no team had yet implanted a CRISPR-edited embryo in a uterus for development. Until this research is done with real embryos that are allowed to reach maturity, and not research embryos, we are still far away from CRISPR being used widely.

And no matter the amount of academic interest in the topic, further research and clinical trials won’t take place unless funding is given. Right now, all federal agencies in the U.S., including the National Institute of Health, are prohibited from funding research that edits genes in embryos. Science magazine reports this is “because of a congressional prohibition on using taxpayer funds for research that destroys human embryos.” This means that funding for embryo editing must (and will) come from private sources, inherently reducing the degree to which the government can supervise and direct this kind of research.

There’s also the issue of price. Several commercial CRISPR-based gene therapies have gone to market abroad in the last couple years. They’re intended for already-born humans, not embryos. None of them have yet made it to the U.S, but one company that may be the first, Spark Therapeutics of Philadelphia, estimates that its treatment will cost roughly $500,000.  to treat a genetic eye condition in one eye if it finally gets FDA approval. Spark’s treatment isn’t even the most expensive. A 2012 drug called Glybera cost $1.4 million in Germany for genetic treatment of an ultra-rare disease called lipoprotein lipase deficiency.

So, while this research is an important building block for the future, it doesn’t mean the future is already here.

July 28 2017 2:07 PM

Federal Court: Public Officials Cannot Block Social Media Users Because of Their Criticism

Does the First Amendment bar public officials from blocking people on social media because of their viewpoint?

That question has hung over the White House ever since Donald Trump assumed the presidency and continued to block users on Twitter. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University has sued the president on behalf of blocked users, spurring a lively academic debate on the topic. But Trump isn’t the only politician who has blocked people on social media. This week, a federal court weighed in on the question in a case with obvious parallels to Trump’s. It determined that the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause does indeed prohibit officeholders from blocking social media users on the basis of their views.

Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisors involved the chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Phyllis J. Randall. In her capacity as a government official, Randall runs a Facebook page to keep in touch with her constituents. In one post to the page, Randall wrote, “I really want to hear from ANY Loudoun citizen on ANY issues, request, criticism, compliment, or just your thoughts.” She explicitly encouraged Loudoun residents to reach out to her through her “county Facebook page.”

Brian C. Davidson, a Loudon denizen, took Randall up on her offer and posted a comment to a post on her page alleging corruption on the part of Loudoun County’s School Board. Randall, who said she “had no idea” whether Davidson’s allegations were true, deleted the entire post (thereby erasing his comment) and blocked him. The next morning, she decided to unblock him. During the intervening 12 hours, Davidson could view or share content on Randall’s page but couldn’t comment on its posts or send it private messages.

July 27 2017 4:29 PM

The New Wisconsin Foxconn Plant Will Probably Be Staffed By Robots—if It Ever Gets Built

On Wednesday, Foxconn— the Taiwanese manufacturing juggernaut that’s responsible for assembling Apple’s iPhone—announced that it plans to open a new plant in Wisconsin. If all goes to plan, Foxconn says it will create up to 3,000 new jobs initially, not including the labor that will go into building the plant. The company claims that eventually as many as 13,000 people could be employed.

But that’s a big if.

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Any number of things could go wrong before shovels break ground: Foxconn could pull out, or it could decide to significantly reduce the size of the plant. Even if the factory is built, it’s probably going to filled with robots, which could mean far fewer than the promised 3,000 jobs.

Of course, none of that stopped Trump from crowing about it on Wednesday at a White House event, while Wisconsinites (and Republicans) Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan stood by his side. Earlier in the week Trump proclaimed that “three big, beautiful plants” are on the way from Apple.

The new plant, which will make LCD screens, is slated to amount to a $10 billion investment from Foxconn, and each job is supposedly going to clock in an average salary of $54,000. Wisconsin sweetened the deal for the Taiwanese company by offering $3 billion in subsidies to offset the costs of coming to America. The simple math may make that sound like a good deal—$3 billion for $10 billion.

But as Tim Cuplan at Bloomberg points out, $3 billion for 3,000 jobs means the state is paying $1 million per job. But let’s be generous and factor in the construction jobs that would go into building the plant, which the state estimates could total 16,000 jobs, and the long-term estimate of employing 13,000 people at the plant.  Those 29,000 jobs would still cost more than $100,000 a person in state subsidies.

But there’s an even bigger problem than recouping the state’s investment. Foxconn’s history and the future of manufacturing in general both suggest Wisconsinites shouldn’t bust out the six-pack just yet.

For one, Foxconn has a track record of promising factories to cities in need of jobs and not coming through. It happened in 2013 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when Foxconn promised a $30 million factory that would employ 500 workers. The announcement made headlines, adding to both Foxconn’s and the Pennsylvania politicians’ political capital, but it was never actually built, and there’s no sign it will ever happen. Very little was made of the deal’s quiet death. It also happened in Vietnam in 2007 and Indonesia in 2014.

Even if a plant gets built, it could fall short of expectations. In 2011, Foxconn promised a plant in Brazil that was projected to create 1000,000 jobs. In 2015, the factory reported it employed roughly 3,000 people, and the company never explained why it fell short of its projections, according to Reuters.

Last year, Foxconn boasted that it replaced 60,000 workers with robots at a single factory in China. The company even makes its own industrial robots, dubbed Foxbots, that work on its assembly lines. Foxconn was making about 10,000 Foxbots a year in 2015.

Factories are increasingly coming to the U.S. in part because wages in China have been on the rise for the past 15 years—but also because the cost of robots is going down. It ultimately may prove cheaper to manufacturer products closer to the major markets where they sell.

Foxconn isn’t the only company that’s made efforts to manufacture in the U.S. in recent years. Look at the Carrier plant Trump claimed he helped convince to stay in the country last year. Carrier’s decision was driven in part by a plan to save on labor by adding more automation to the plant. Adidas also shared plans last September to open a new factory in Georgia that will be highly roboticized, only employing about 160 human workers.

Even if Foxconn lives up to its promises, the introduction of automated factories may ultimately lead to fewer human workers in the long run. Annual shipments of manufacturing robots to the U.S. are projected to rise 300 percent in the next nine years, according to the research firm ABI.

Those robots are going to have to work somewhere, and they’ll most likely find a home at whatever new factories come to the country, even the new ones that Trump claims to have had a hand in wooing to U.S. shores. Factories aren’t built to employ people. They’re built to make money. If it’s ultimately cheaper to buy a machine than pay a salary and medical benefits, robots are more likely to get the job. There’s no promise here that anything will improve for American workers beyond cheaper shipping costs for factory made goods. After all, it’s cheaper to ship an iPhone from California to Chicago than it is from Shanghai.

July 26 2017 3:38 PM

Trump’s FCC Chairman Is Misleading Congress About Net Neutrality

If Trump’s Federal Communications Commission has its way, the internet of the future is probably going to look a lot like the internet of today—and that’s a bad thing. New websites and innovative startups will have a hard time finding an audience without network neutrality protections––the rules that prohibit internet providers from speeding up access to some websites and not others.

Ajit Pai, the current chairman of the FCC, is laser-focused on, as he eloquently put it late last year,  “taking a weed whacker” to the network neutrality framework—known as the open internet rules—that the FCC passed in 2015 under President Obama. He’s already started whacking away. In May, Pai introduced a new proposal that would undo the Obama-era net neutrality rules, which the current Republican-led FCC could vote on by the end of the year.

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On Tuesday, a House subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the future of the FCC and where its plans to unravel open internet protections are headed next. And Republicans at the hearing wasted no time backing Pai’s plan to rescind the open internet rules.

“Chairman Pai, we hope you’re keeping that ‘weed whacker’ handy because it has a lot of work to do,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, said in her opening remarks.

Pai’s proposal to undo the open internet rules argues that net neutrality has dissuaded internet providers, like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from investing in building out and upgrading their networks. Likewise, at the congressional hearing, Pai said that a convincing argument that investment in internet infrastructure actually was on the rise could persuade him to stop trying to roll back net neutrality protections .

The problem with this argument, though, is that according to the internet providers themselves, investment in their networks actually has gone up since the net neutrality rules were passed.

In the first quarter of 2017, AT&T told investors it “expanded the company’s 100% fiber network powered by AT&T Fiber, which is now in parts of 52 metros with plans to reach at least 23 more metros, across the 21 states.” AT&T further pointed out that it “expects to add 2 million fiber locations in 2017.” If the 2015 network neutrality rules did dissuade infrastructure build out as Pai says, AT&T certainly didn’t get the memo.

In Comcast’s call to investors in February 2016, the telecomm noted that its increased capital spending was due to an uptick in “investment in network infrastructure to increase network capacity.”

And Verizon, too, has told investors that it continued to spend on expanding its network post-net neutrality. “In 2015, Verizon invested approximately $28 billion in spectrum licenses and capital for future network capacity,” the company said in its January 2016 investor report. In April of this year, Verizon noted that its capital spending of $3.1 billion “was largely network-related to maintain leadership in our markets.”

Small internet providers have been even more explicit about the importance of network neutrality for their success. In June more than 40 small internet providers from across the country wrote a letter to the FCC to share that none had experienced “any barriers to investment” as a result of the 2015 decision. They also shared their concerns that repealing the rules would increase the market power of large internet providers like Comcast or Verizon, making it even more difficult for smaller providers to compete.

Now, it is possible that internet providers might have invested even more without the net neutrality rules. But even if that’s true, investments may be stunted for any number of reasons, including the proposed merger between Time Warner and AT&T, the presidential election, or Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo, to name a few. It’s unclear what kind of proof Ajit Pai needs to persuade him that network neutrality rules have not caused investment in broadband infrastructure to slump.

To support his proposal, Pai cited research claiming that capital expenditure from internet providers has gone down 5.6 percent since 2014. But that doesn’t necessarily mean net neutrality is to blame. Reducing overall spending can be a result of shifting investments and priorities at the company—and again, internet providers themselves say that they are still investing in infrastructure.

But one thing is clear: Without network neutrality rules, internet providers stand to make a whole lot of money. That’s because the companies will be able to operate what’s essentially a two-way toll, collecting money from both internet subscribers and websites that want to reach those users at faster speeds. This will inevitably put new, smaller businesses at an extreme disadvantage.

One of the great promises of the internet is that there’s no telling what someone might innovate next. The possibilities are endless––that is, unless internet providers aren’t forced to treat everyone equally.

Pai’s claims that internet providers aren’t investing in their networks is misleading, at best, and potentially ruinous for the future of a vibrant internet if his proposal to gut net neutrality rolls through unchallenged without a big public fight. And the scary thing is that in the current political climate, with so many major changes underway all at once, net neutrality may become a casualty.

July 26 2017 3:02 PM

Future Tense Newsletter: Why the State Department Needs a Cyber Office

We’re on Day 187 of Trump’s presidency and still there’s no shortage of important jobs in the federal government that remain unfilled. The State Department appears poised to add a new vacancy to the USAJOBS website as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly considers shutting down the State Department’s cyber office. Josephine Wolff explains why this is a horrid idea, writing, “cybersecurity for a global internet requires international perspectives and engagement—requires, in other words, the involvement of high-level State Department officials.” At a time when the FBI is warning parents about internet-connected toys spying on their kids and even data from a pacemaker presents privacy concerns, international debates and decisions about internet security and internet freedom—two important areas for the State Department cyber office—are more important than ever.

If news about toys spying on kids has inspired you to search the web for more information on cybersecurity, you might be surprised to see some disconcertingly specific news recommendations from Google’s news feed. Last Wednesday, Google launched an expanded version of “the feed,” a feature in its mobile search app that draws in news stories and blog posts from around the web based on your search history. The result, said Will Oremus, is an almost creepy level of personalization. Yet Oremus noted that even with Google’s records of your online behavior, the feature remains fundamentally impersonal compared with Facebook’s newsfeed. Where Google’s feature falls short by comparison, Oremus writes, “It delivers the topics you care about but not the people you care about.”

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Other things we read this week while bracing ourselves for the app-ocalypse:

  • War on science: Lawrence Krauss warns us that the Trump administration’s censorship of government scientists, appointment of unqualified officials to senior scientific posts, and underfunding of scientific research programs are all part of a dangerous trend.
  • Apocalyptic thinking: Though there are risks to embracing pessimism and fear, Tommy Lynch explains how both are a necessary aspect of confronting the threat of climate change.
  • Radio dramas: While it can feel like we’re moving toward immersive forms of storytelling with the advent of virtual reality, the podcast boom has created something of a golden age of radio dramas, writes Angelica Cabral.
  • Fake images: As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish real images from computer-generated ones, Nick Thieme explores how we can start using technology to tell the difference.
  • Libyan robotics team: The all-female robotics team from Afghanistan wasn’t the only team to struggle to get to the U.S. for the FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition—the team from Libya faced major obstacles, too.

RIP Microsoft Paint,
Emily Fritcke
for Future Tense

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

July 25 2017 12:19 PM

Don’t Blame Online Anonymity for Dark Web Drug Deals

Last Thursday, the Justice Department announced that it had worked with European authorities to shutter two of the largest destinations on the dark web to buy and sell illegal drugs, AlphaBay and Hansa.

The shutdown followed reports from earlier in the month that AlphaBay, the larger of the two, had mysteriously stopped working, causing users to flock to Hansa.  But it turns out that Hansa had been taken over by the Dutch national police, who were collecting information on people using the site to traffic drugs.

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European and American law enforcement collaborated to quietly arrest AlphaBay’s alleged founder Alexandre Cazes in Thailand on July 5. The 25-year-old Cazes later committed suicide in a Thai jail, according to the New York Times.

These dark web drug marketplaces are accessed using a service called Tor, which allows users to browse the internet anonymously. With Tor, you can circumvent law enforcement surveillance as well as internet censorship filters, which are often installed by governments or companies to restrict where people go online. Tor also allows for the creation of anonymously hosted websites or servers that can only be accessed via the Tor Browser. AlphaBay and Hansa were both hosted anonymously on Tor.

Though AlphaBay, Hansa, and, most famously, Silk Road depended on Tor to run their illegal operations, the Tor Project, the nonprofit that maintains the anonymous browser and hosting service, says that only 2 percent of Tor traffic has to do with anonymously hosted websites. The vast majority of Tor traffic is used for browsing the web anonymously. More than 1.5 million people use Tor every day, according to a spokesperson.

The U.S. government has a rather complicated relationship with Tor. On the one hand, documents revealed by Edward Snowden revealed how the National Security Agency had been trying to break Tor for years, searching for security vulnerabilities in browsers that would allow law enforcement to crack the online anonymity service. The Department of Defense has also invested in trying to crack Tor. During the 2016 trial of one of the administrators of Silk Road 2.0, another shuttered dark web drug-trafficking site, it was revealed that DoD hired researchers from Carnegie Mellon University to try to break Tor’s encryption in 2014.

Yet Tor also wouldn’t exist without the U.S. government—it was  originally built as a project out of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The State Department continues to fund Tor (at least someone has told Rex Tillerson about it, presumably) because internet users around the world rely on the anonymity tool to access information and communicate safely online, particularly in countries where the internet is heavily monitored or censored by the government, like in China with its national firewall, or in Thailand, where it’s illegal to criticize the royal family online.

Cazes, the AlphaBay ring leader, was caught thanks to investigative work, not a break in Tor’s encryption. Cazes had sent password recovery emails to his email address, which investigators used to find his LinkedIn profile and other identifiers. (And no, the FBI did not dig up an email from Cazes asking to join his professional network on LinkedIn. According to The Verge, Cazes used the same address on a French technology troubleshooting website, which listed his full name, leading investigators to find a LinkedIn profile where he boasted cryptography and web hosting skills, as well as involvement in a drug front.)

And that’s good news for the vast majority of Tor users who aren’t interested in scoring molly. In 2015, a report from the U.N. declared that anonymity tools “provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age."

Anonymity tools, like so many technologies, have both good and bad applications. And in the same way cellphones aren’t evil just because some people use them to make drug deals, it’s important to not malign anonymity tools just because some people use them to sell drugs, too. If the U.S. government is ever successful in finding a way to disable Tor’s encryption to find criminals, it could put hundreds of thousands of people who depend on Tor at risk, too.

July 25 2017 8:59 AM

Whatever You Do, Do Not Take Your Eye Off Trump’s War on Science

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. standard of living has benefited dramatically from active and open government support of scientific inquiry. But three unrelated recent news stories, two out of Washington and one from China, together strike an ominous warning about a very different future.

In Washington, President Trump nominated talk radio host Sam Clovis to occupy the Department of Agriculture’s top science post—undersecretary for research, education, and economics. The position involves overseeing a budget of $2 billion for research and $1 billion for education. Clovis has no scientific training, but he does have a long history of denying the science demonstrating the reality of climate change.

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Meanwhile, Joel Clement—who as director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis oversaw such things as helping endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to climate change—blew the whistle the Washington Post about goings-on in his corner of the government. Clement writes that he was one of 50 senior employees reassigned to unrelated jobs. Clement, a scientist and policy expert, was shuffled into an accounting job in the office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies. Clement had previously spoken publicly about the dangers of climate change in Alaska, and as he discusses in his Washington Post op-ed, he has filed a whistleblower complaint arguing the reassignment was retaliation against him for his speaking out publicly about possible impacts of global warming.

Finally, out of Beijing comes the story that China has created a development plan to become the world leader in A.I. by 2030. It hopes to “build a domestic industry worth almost $150 billion,” according to the New York Times. This comes at the same time as the Trump administration has proposed severe cutbacks in various government agencies that traditionally support A.I. research, and in high-performance computing that is an essential ingredient in much A.I. work. While it is impossible to predict what breakthroughs will come from this research, A.I. is likely to have a dramatic impact upon the future world economy, much as the internet has had over the past 25 years, and the development of transistors 25 years before that.

Muting or censoring government scientists, appointing unqualified senior government officials to scientific posts, and underfunding scientific research programs are all part of an insidious and worrisome trend. It is insidious because the impacts of such decisions are not immediate. Rather, they will affect the health and welfare of the country a generation from now.

Government should rely on the best and brightest to provide advice and leadership of the nation’s technological base. Government scientists who enter into public service could often gain significantly higher incomes by remaining in the private sector. But instead they help develop a national infrastructure that raises the economic tide for everyone. Or they provide crucial advice that helps direct government resources to support research that may result in significant breakthroughs, eventually aiding the nation and the world.

Instead, existing government scientists are leaving their posts and potential new young scientists will almost surely becoming disenchanted. As a result, the country will lose a valuable resource, and the investment in time and education that helped train these individuals.

When government appoints unqualified people to leadership positions in science and technology policy, the end result is bad advice and missed opportunities. The country can urgently benefit from support of new high-tech research in areas associated with renewable energy production and storage, for example. In the case of the Department of Agriculture, we need proactive research aimed at mediating the impacts of climate change in the coming century. The economic cost of ignoring these challenges will far exceed any immediate savings that may come from cutting existing programs.

The U.S. is already retreating from engaging the rest of the world in diplomacy and trade. It cannot afford to cede its leadership role in science and technology, too. The best young minds are attracted to our graduate schools by the opportunities to engage in exciting, cutting-edge research. Many of these individuals will return to their own countries, providing leadership that helps make those nations more economically stable, which itself benefits the international order. Many other students will remain here, making ground-breaking discoveries, training a new generation of young people, and sometimes going out into the private sector to create companies that bring immense wealth to the nation.

Short-sighted attempts to censor and distort science in the public domain, ideologically based efforts to ignore scientific advice, and efforts to cut support for long-term fundamental research for near-term gain all have the same effects. They may not be noticeable today, or tomorrow, and they may not stop a misguided administration from carrying out its agenda, or even getting re-elected. But they mortgage the future for our children. Good science is the basis of good public policy. We ignore that connection at our peril.

July 24 2017 1:13 PM

An Obituary for Microsoft Paint

On Monday morning, the internet was abuzz with sad news: Microsoft, we learned, is finally killing off Paint, the seminal drawing program that has been around since the first release of Windows in 1985. Getting into the mournful spirit, the Guardian asked its readers to submit their memories of the program. On Twitter, at least one user marked the program’s purported passing with a gravestone seemingly drawn—where else?—in Paint itself.

Look into the story a little more deeply, and you’ll realize that things aren’t quite so grim. In a post on changes coming to Windows 10 this Fall, Microsoft indicates that it won’t be stripping Paint from its flagship OS—at least not yet. Instead, Paint is one of many features scheduled to be “deprecated,” which means that it will no longer be “in active development and might be removed in future releases.” In other words, Paint isn’t quite dead yet; Microsoft is just sending it off to a retirement home and ignoring it while it lives out its final days.

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Nevertheless, many have embraced the sorrowful spirit, offering celebratory remembrances and reminding us how great the program could be. Wired, for example, “tracked down some of the best art made within Microsoft Paint.” Wired notes the top posts on Reddit’s r/mspaint community will “put your terrible paint creations to shame.”

Many of those images demonstrate a striking willingness to laboriously grapple with, and push back against, the program’s limitations. The creator of a finely rendered version of the “astronaut sloth” meme writes that he or she “spent 45 hours on this guy, only using a mouse.” For such artists, Paint was a challenge to be overcome, a creatively generative form of restraint, not unlike the arbitrary restrictions that writers of the Oulipo school place on themselves.

It’s hard not to be impressed by their work, but dwelling on masterpieces misses what makes Paint worth mourning, even if it’s not actually passing into the digital twilight today. Microsoft Paint was always a clumsy program, but in its clumsiness, it offered a powerful demonstration of what computers could do. It was just sophisticated enough that there was always some new trick or tool to discover, but just simple enough that you could stumble through it on your own, sans tutorials or manuals. A virtual breach in the otherwise baffling circuitry of the machine, it offered a way in, acknowledging that computers were complicated, but told us not to fear them.

Try to recall your first time playing with it: Remember what it was like to hold the mouse’s left button down as you dragged your cursor across the screen. Maybe your hand shook slightly. Maybe you weren’t certain what you were trying to draw. One way or another, the line was jagged and rough, but it was still yours. Here there was evidence, however inexact the execution, that you could leave your own mark on the digital world.

Even if you never mastered the program, you likely found idiosyncratic ways to use it. An open, experimental canvas, it amplified your other interests instead of dictating your activities: I remember mapping out mazes for the Dungeons & Dragons games I would play with my friends—square rooms linked by rectangular corridors. Later, I tried to make my own Magic: The Gathering cards. No one would have confused my bootleg template with the real thing, but it still felt like I was contributing, not just playing a game that others had designed.

Those experiences are distant now, but I found myself thinking back on them recently as I experimented with Spaces, Facebook’s virtual reality meeting room product. Grabbing a blue pencil from the menu, I began to scribble, thick lines appearing in the air before me. As with my first experiences in Paint, my initial attempts were clumsy, the lines appearing and disappearing as I struggled to learn the controls. Trying to sign my name, I was left with something that looked like an imitation of Cy Twombly, and a bad one at that. And yet, as I had been when I first opened Paint decades before, I was still impressed with myself, newly convinced that I might one day master this strange interface.

Once, Paint served a similar function. Its awkardness was, to some extent, the point: The blank screen was a digital safe space, one in we could experiment on our own terms without risk. If Paint is fading now, it’s likely because we no longer need the assurances it offered us. Where it once helped us learn to think of the mouse as an extension of the hand, our fingers now slide over trackpads and touchscreens. We have long since internalized the things Paint taught us, allowing us to take up other tools.

Thus, while Microsoft may not actually be killing off Paint, it is, in a manner of speaking, dead already. But insofar as its lessons linger, Paint will never really die.

July 21 2017 3:34 PM

YouTube Starts Redirecting People who Search for Certain Keywords to Anti-Terrorist Videos

On Thursday, YouTube announced a new effort to push back against terrorist recruitment efforts on the site. As the company announced in a blog post, “[W]hen people search for certain keywords on YouTube, we will display a playlist of videos debunking violent extremist recruiting narratives.” Arising out of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, this new feature is part of a larger project called the Redirect Method, an effort specifically targeted at those vulnerable to ISIS’s messaging.

It’s also part of a larger YouTube strategy, one that  Google (YouTube’s corporate parent) counsel Kent Walker laid out last month in a blog post. That announcement came in part out of a response to an advertiser boycott earlier in the year, one driven by companies frustrated to find their own clips running in front of terrorist videos. In response, as Variety reported at the time, Google claimed that it would “be taking new steps to improve controls advertisers have over where their ads appear on YouTube.”

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But as Walker explained in his June post, the company was “pledging to take four additional steps” as it worked to actively combat extremism on its platform: It was stepping up technological-identification of terrorist videos, increasing human flagging of such content, more aggressively some videos that don’t directly violate the terms of service, and “expand[ing] its role in counter-radicalisation efforts.” This newly announced redirection strategy seem to be a a product of that fourth and final prong.

In framing both the problem and its approach to it, Google is careful to avoid rhetoric that would suggest it intends to engage in censorship. That’s less of a concern in Europe, where courts have found that free speech laws do not protect extremist videos. But tech companies walk a finer line in the United States, “where free speech rules are broader,” as the Verge observes in a post on related efforts to rein in terrorist content.

As it grapples with this potential concern, YouTube appears to be stressing that it stands in opposition to those who would silence others. Note, for example, how Walker opens his blog post with the phrase, “Terrorism is an attack on open societies, and addressing the threat posed by violence and hate is a critical challenge for us all.” If terrorists oppose “open societies,” then any attempt to combat them should be in the service of defending openness, a conceit that grows fuzzy if technology companies are seen to be silencing some of their users.

In this sense, YouTube’s embrace of the redirect method looks like a smart strategy. It is, as it makes clear, actively removing content that violates its terms of service. But it also gives the impression of a company more focused on drowning out ugly voices than in actively eliminating them. Here, there’s a small but potentially important detail in its announcement: As it moves ahead, YouTube hopes to collaborate “with expert NGOs on developing new video content designed to counter violent extremist messaging at different parts of the radicalization funnel.” Significantly, redirection has the potential to reach those who come looking for terrorist videos, whether or not they’re present on the site.

All that said, it remains to be seen how effective the redirect method will be.

As the Verge reports, “An earlier pilot of the Redirect Method led to 320,000 individuals viewing ‘over half a million minutes of the 116 videos we selected to refute ISIS’s recruiting themes.’ ” While that’s promising, it may run aground against the ways that terrorists get around YouTube’s existing content restrictions. In a long article on the topic, Motherboard writes, “[I]n order to prevent users from flagging explicit or inflammatory extremist videos, terrorist media groups and disseminators like The Upload Knights and AQ’s As-Sahab Media Foundation often label YouTube videos as ‘unlisted,’ meaning that the videos cannot be searched—only accessed if you are given the link.” If potential recruits are finding extremist material by other means, search redirects may not make that much of a difference.

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