Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

May 26 2016 3:58 PM

Mark Zuckerberg Needs to Dump Peter Thiel From the Facebook Board of Directors. He Won’t.

Here’s an easy test of Facebook’s attitude toward journalism: whether Peter Thiel remains on its board of directors.

For now, Mark Zuckerberg and his company are staying silent. If Zuckerberg does ultimately allow Thiel to stay on the board, you’ll know how the CEO—who holds absolute control over the world’s most-powerful media company—feels about the free press. He wants to exploit it, but doesn’t honor it. 

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Thiel is the billionaire co-founder of PayPal—and an early, fabulously enriched investor in Facebook. He’s Zuckerberg’s friend and mentor, by all accounts.

He’s also the person who secretly funded a revenge—he calls it “deterrence”—lawsuit against a media company, Gawker Media, that engaged in speech he hated. 

I’m not an unbridled fan of Gawker, though it has done some sterling, important journalism over the years. I had deep qualms about what its Valleywag site did years ago in telling the wider world what it said many in Silicon Valley already knew, that Thiel is gay. But there is no question that this was protected speech, and when Thiel embarked on his revenge campaign—ultimately using the odious Hulk Hogan, whose home-state judge and jury slammed Gawker in a recently concluded libel trial—he crossed a line. 

The Hogan case is far from over, with appeals just starting, but Thiel may well be the instrument of Gawker’s destruction. That is vastly scarier than anything Gawker could imagine doing. As Fusion’s Felix Salmon pointed out, Thiel has given fellow members of the ultra-rich and powerful a “dangerous blueprint” for shutting down legal speech. (Note to people equating Gawker’s actions with Thiel’s: This is so far from equivalence that you embarrass yourselves.)

Thiel’s secret laundering of the Gawker lawsuit disqualifies him as someone who should be on a board of directors of any organization that claims to value freedom of expression. Facebook’s other directors, employees, and users should ask how much they want to be associated with a company that keeps someone like Thiel in a position of such power and influence.

This all comes in the context of Facebook’s exerting increasing control over what people say online in the U.S. and around the world. Conservatives freaked out when Gawker Media’s Gizmodo recently reported, using anonymous sources I still don’t trust, that Facebook was curbing their influence in the “trending” news section, through outright editing and manipulation by site editors. The conservatives were finally grasping, as too few of us seem to understand, what a single company controls in the fabled marketplace of ideas. Even if Facebook wasn’t manipulating information in this way now, it could.

Zuckerberg and company want journalists to move their stories and conversations inside Facebook, where the First Amendment is irrelevant and the Terms of Service determine what people can say. Journalism organizations, in their standard shortsighted way, are flocking to turn over publishing to a company that has demonstrated its untrustworthiness when it comes to honoring its privacy promises, and which is rapidly becoming the journalism trade’s most formidable business competitor.

As they hand their futures over to Silicon Valley billionaires, journalists need to remember what they should be doing: as the saying goes, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Telling truth to, and about, power is the core of what journalism should mean but in the age of Trump and Thiel, too many “mainstream” journalists, not to mention the essentially co-opted tech press, have all but forgotten their duty.

Trump and Thiel belong in a sentence together, for several reasons. Both have declared war on journalism they don’t like. War, for them, is a take-no-prisoners affair. Trump, who’s sued or threatened to sue some journalists he couldn’t seduce, says one of his missions is to curb the press. Thiel, a Trump supporter and pledged convention delegate, has offered a case study in how to do it. 

In this increasingly plutocratic era, we desperately need fierce watchdogs to monitor the predations and hypocrisies of billionaires and politicians who control so much of our world. If not journalists, who will fulfill that role? 

And who will remind us, again and again, of free speech’s core, enduring principle: You defend your own right to speak when you defend the rights of people whose speech you loathe.

Facebook claims to believe in freedom of expression, and in journalism, and at some level that’s true. But every minute it allows Thiel to remain on its board of directors, it will be broadcasting how limited those values truly are.

Disclosure: One Slate editor is married to a Gawker editor. One is married to a lawyer who represented Gawker in the Hulk Hogan trial. One is a former Gawker Media executive editor. None of these Slate staffers worked on this story.

May 26 2016 11:40 AM

This Comic Book Series Captures the Enticements—and Evils—of Social Media

Social media has a way of holding us tight once it’s pulled us in. No matter how much we hate it, it’s hard to let go, partly because abandoning it often means losing access to friends and family, making its enticements at once blackmail and bribe.

A similar problem operates in the background of the ongoing comic book series Unfollow, the first collected volume of which, 140 Characters, is now available. As the story begins, the terminally ill Larry Ferrell, creator of the fictional social network Headspace, summons 140 individuals—a supposedly randomly selected group—to his private island, where he informs them that he’ll be dividing his massive fortune between them. But he also imposes a condition somewhere between a tontine and a dead pool: Each time one of them dies, his or her wealth will be divided up between the survivors. All you have to do to become a billionaire, he tells them, is kill 130-odd strangers.

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Though chaos quickly ensues, the series—written by Rob Williams and drawn by Mike Dowling—remains focused on its eccentric cast, each of whom seems troubled in one way or another. There’s Courtney, a spoiled heiress with a death wish; Akira, a Japanese novelist who once hacked off his legs with a katana; and Deacon, a special forces operative who holds private conversations with God and carries an impressive arsenal of firearms. They’re joined by plenty of others, including the streetwise Dave, who’s being stalked by a talking leopard that he may or may not be hallucinating.

It would be easy to dismiss the book’s social media components—especially that too clever title of the series’ first volume, a reference to Twitter’s famous character limit—as so much window dressing. In practice, however, that context is essential to Williams and Dowling’s world-making—and to the way they introduce their diverse cast. The messages the protagonists are posting to their online profiles occasionally pop up in panels, giving us a sense of the ways they’re presenting themselves to the world, and in the process helping us to better understand what each of them is hiding. Meanwhile, we see their follower counts swell as their notoriety grows, providing a constant reminder that their small actions have global consequences. It’s a clever use of the medium’s collapse of word and image, further texturing the book’s richly colored pages.

Strikingly, though, these posts exist in relative isolation: Though we sometimes get the sense that our characters are responding to messages from others, we never glimpse those larger conversations. In that sense, Unfollow may be best understood as a story about the ways that technologies of connection beget disconnection. It’s no accident that Ferrell’s death inspires much of what follows: In his absence, those he’s gathered together—both through his social media platform and his Mephistophelian will and testament—are forced to confront the ways he’s long been pulling them apart and playing them against one another.

No matter how much of themselves they present online, Unfollow’s characters can’t seem to penetrate the inner worlds of their fellows. Indeed, the closer they get to one another, the stranger those around them seem. We’ll likely get to know them much better as the series continues, but if they’re truly going to befriend one another, it’ll only be by breaking free from the puzzle box that Ferrell has forced them into.

Thanks to its more surreal elements, Unfollow also has mysteries on offer. Some of those details—especially Dave’s leopard—might be explained as products of incipient insanity: As in an H.P. Lovecraft story, everyone here seems primed to snap, assuming they haven’t already. The series foregrounds madness in a way that suggests social media somehow brings mental illness to the fore—whether or not it’s actually contributing to our instability. In this regard, this first book is sometimes troubling. Though it features frank portrayals of depression and other states, its approach to mental illness sometimes feels glib. That will, one hopes, change, as the series continues to unpack its characters and their backstories.

For now, at least, the first volume’s most intriguing enigmas are those that are harder to explain. Given the name of Ferrell’s company—Headspace—it seems entirely possible that this will all turn out to be unfolding some sort of Matrix-like virtual world. If that’s the case, Unfollow will likely grow into a very different sort of story. For now, at least, it’s a promising take on the already post-apocalyptic landscape of our socially mediated world.

May 26 2016 10:58 AM

Gchat Was the Future of Messaging, But Google Didn’t Know What It Had

Everyone has been talking about Slack lately. The chat app, which is primarily aimed at offices and productivity, is simple, well designed, fun to use, and powerful. Slack is also the company people were obsessed with in 2015. Whether you love the product or not, though, it’s time to admit something: Slack is just Gchat.

10 Years ago people didn’t necessarily understand that they could use Gchat the way they use Slack now. They envisioned it as a way to talk to people and goof off, not work with colleagues and teammates. But Gmail archived chats, made them searchable, allowed for group chats, and facilitated media transfers. It’s Slack, and Google had it (in a less evolved form) in 2005 without realizing it.

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Of course Google didn’t invent instant messaging. To deny the importance of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) would be to deny the formative experiences of most millennials. (Don’t forget about the ICQ, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger crowd, too.) But Google made broad interoperability the main goal of Gchat and supported AIM integration, for example, by the end of 2007. As Gmail’s popularity grew and Gchat incorporated more and more messaging services, the product became an increasingly beloved choice.

The first sign that Google didn’t love Gchat the way consumers did was in the name. We can talk about Gchat all day, but Google never officially acknowledged that as the service’s title or explained why it wasn’t. The company staunchly referred to the application (released in 2005) as Google Talk and the Gmail integration (released in 2006) as Google Chat or just Chat.

It took some creative linguistics to deal with the situation. Mashable wrote that the service was “officially called Google Talk and unofficially known as Gchat.” The Telegraph tried, “Google Talk, more colloquially known as Google chat or Gchat.” It was confusing! And for Gchat’s loyal user base it felt like loving Gchat—both the name and the community that grew around the service—was somehow illegitimate.

In 2011 Google started experimenting with a communication tool called Hangouts in Google+ and by 2013 Google wanted Hangouts to be the new Gchat. It had advanced video calling features, location sharing, and support for GIFs. Basically Hangouts was a natural evolution. But many Gchat users resented the transition and criticized the new product, clinging to the classic Gchat interface. “So I just ‘upgraded’ to google hangout and now the chat column on my gmail is jankey,” one Gchat user wrote on a Google help forum in 2013 as Google ramped up the pressure on users to transition.

Two years later, John Brownlee wrote an impassioned defense of classic Gchat on Fast Company:

There's a reason that online professionals love Gchat. In a world of instant message clients that feel like a Tokyo Pop fever dream, Gchat was proudly text-based. Putting functionality first, it co-existed with Gmail without ever trying to overpower it. … When you clicked on a name to message someone, you could send them text, and later initiate a video conference, but that's it. … It was proudly, even defiantly no frills, but it still had some beautiful, understated touches.

Presenting the new version as a rebrand and replacement seemed to confirm the suspicion that Google didn’t really love Gchat the way users did. And it was also the moment where the company's vision for chat stopped making sense. In its company history, Google writes that as of May 2013 Hangouts “will be Google’s single communications system, replacing Google Talk, Google+ Hangouts and Messenger.” Yet Google Messenger still exists alongside Hangouts. And there are even still some holdout users on old-style Gchat.

But wait, there’s more.

Last week, Google announced an instant message app and a video chat app, called Allo and Duo respectively, that incorporate personalization through machine learning. The company also announced a collaboration and productivity app called Spaces the week before that mixes multimedia sharing and in-app web browsing with chat.

This seems like, well, a lot of communication options. A Google spokesperson told me in a statement that, “With Allo and Duo, we’ve focused on starting from the ground up, building mobile-only single-purpose apps. Hangouts on the other hand is a strong multiplatform app, serving the needs of users in productivity and group scenarios.” Google seems to add new brands whenever they build new products, even when there is extensive overlap in functionality.

From an internal perspective it makes sense to start with a clean slate and then show off exciting and novel work. “We didn't want to weigh down the [engineering] team with decisions from previous products,” Erik Kay, Google's engineering director for communication software, told CNET on Sunday. But from the consumer perspective, these name changes can read as redundant and disrespectful to beloved products that could be improved instead of phased out. (RIP Google Reader.)

In a meditation on Digital Trends about Google’s glut of communication apps, Andy Boxall wrote that Google was “vomiting out three new messaging apps. … Which one should we use? If you’re not sure, don’t look at Google. Based on its confused approach to messaging, it doesn’t have a clue either.” This speaks to the idea that Google had something much more valuable than it realized with Gchat. Back in 2005 and 2006 the company was offering the foundation of what would become the next big trend. Gchat was simple, elegant, and most importantly, focused. That's all gone now.

Beyond just Slack, Google was five or six years ahead of WhatsApp, GroupMe, and Facebook Messenger on offering a fun, functional chat app with lots of features. The company could have won the day if it understood what it had. In fact it’s still common to hear people calling any Google communication product Gchat. It’s an impressively powerful brand, especially given that it never existed.

May 26 2016 10:21 AM

Future Tense Newsletter: Dealing With Drones

Greetings, Future Tensers,

The increasing ubiquity of drones makes it easy to forget that they’re relatively recent additions to contemporary life. That novelty helps explain why we haven’t quite figured out how to properly discuss them yet. As Kristen Thomasen writes in Future Tense this week, none of the metaphors we’ve used to describe drones are entirely accurate. Thomasen argues that if we want to understand these devices properly—and regulate them well—we’ll need to think about them more broadly, refusing to treat them as if they were simply akin to aircraft.

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While the language we use to discuss drones will carry great significance as we move ahead, it’s also important that we think carefully about how we’re actually using them today. We may not yet have comprehensive legislation regulating drones, but that doesn’t mean there’s an excuse to be a jerk when you’re flying one. With that in mind, Faine Greenwood has drawn up an etiquette guide for both established and aspiring drone pilots. Greenwood suggests that droners avoid buzzing over private property without permission, take the time to read the operating instructions, and otherwise avoid disturbing the peace, among other things. Given that drones are clearly here to stay, it’s ultimately on their users to determine whether they’re “creepy.”

Here are some of the other articles we read while we were puzzling over Jack Dorsey’s Twitter bio:

  • Education: A program called BlocksCAD lets kids design virtual objects that can then be fabricated by a 3-D printer.
  • Privacy: Just because you can access personal data about individuals doesn’t mean you should. Woodrow Hartzog argues that we need to rethink the way that we understand what counts as “public” data.
  • Facebook: In the wake of accusations of bias, Mark Zuckerberg met with conservatives. Will Oremus was surprised to find that he agreed with much of what Glenn Beck had to say about the resulting conversation.
  • Law enforcement: The FBI claims that the program it employed to track anonymous users on a child porn site isn’t malware, even though it meets some of the ordinary criteria for malicious software.

Events:

  • Curious why artificially intelligent digital assistants are so hot right now? Join Future Tense for a happy hour conversation in Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m. on June 8 to discuss the technology behind our new helpers and their implications for society. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
 

Chatting up a bot,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense

P.S. The newsletter is a little late this week because Future Tense is on a retreat discussing what we should cover in the year ahead. Got ideas for us? Hit me up on Twitter or send me an email at jacob.brogan@slate.com!

May 24 2016 2:50 PM

Even the Most Well-Intentioned Hashtags (#YesAllHashtags) Quickly Devolve Into Kitsch

A Twitter bio is an opportunity to inform and play. As it does with tweets themselves, the site caps bios at 140 characters, but the platform’s users still manage to cram a great deal of personality into that compact space. Donald Trump’s fans frequently nod to their even less savory political beliefs, for instance. Freelance journalists, meanwhile, will often name publications that they’ve written for, both to brag and to promote their own availability.

And then there’s Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. For months now, Dorsey’s bio has simply read “#withMalala!” That hashtag is a reference to a social media drive inspired by Malala Yousafazi, the teenage human rights activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. An advocacy campaign for an advocacy campaign, #withMalala “is a global digital art project” supported by the Malala Fund in which users submit images to a gallery that “support[s] Malala’s global campaign to guarantee 12 years of free, quality, and safe education to millions of girls worldwide.” None of this information appears in Dorsey’s bio—the hashtag stands alone.

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Dorsey probably needs no introduction on the site, but the brevity of this message is nevertheless odd. Composing a telling Twitter bio is like choosing the perfect Facebook photo: If you don’t bother to write one, you’d better be cool enough to pull it off. Some get away with an icily brief self-description (say “writer,” with the first letter pointedly lower case) while others are just badass enough to manage no bio at all. Dorsey’s enthusiastic proclamation, by contrast, is just kind of dorky.

The #withMalala campaign has a worthy goal, of course, whatever one might say about the project’s execution. It’s also feels authentic to Dorsey, who’s marched in protests and otherwise trumpeted his political commitments. Though some have dismissed hashtag activism as mere virtue signaling, this message may well be very real, and very deeply felt, for Dorsey. But it’s still tempting to make fun of him for it because the way he’s conveying that message still feels so silly—and because that silliness gets at the nature of the modern internet.

By design, hashtags are concessions to the excess of our technological present, an excess embodied more fully by Twitter than virtually any other online destination. The site’s users compose and send thousands of messages per second. Words pile up too fast to be read, meaning that something always gets lost: Follow too many accounts, and your feed will devolve into chaos. But if you try to dive into the larger conversation, you’ll soon be lost, unable to discern who’s speaking, and what they’re speaking about.

Over the years, Twitter has deployed a number of features to help users sort through its morass of content. In late 2015, it debuted Moments, curated narratives that help explain what users are discussing on the site, and in 2016 it started organizing users’ timelines algorithmically. While both of these much mocked and maligned features are better than most acknowledge, neither is quite as functional as a simple hashtag, which allows you to see at a glance everyone what everyone’s saying about a particular topic.

Precisely insofar as they pare away at our information overload, hashtags also tacitly acknowledge that communication is ephemeral on the internet. They help direct our attention in the flux of our online experiences. Sometimes they can broaden your field of view—like many others, I use them to see what other fans are saying during live television broadcasts, for example—but they’re still tied to the immediacy of perception itself.

It’s this capacity of the hashtag that makes Dorsey’s bio—and other lingering messages like it—so dopey. Even the best hashtags work because they’re tied to the specificity of an event; urgency makes them effective. Later, when we’ve had the opportunity to dig through the rubble of experience, we no longer need them quite so much. With the distance of retrospection, even the most useful hashtags feel like so much kitsch. While the Mala Fund describes the still in-progress #withMalala as “a 12-month social action and advocacy campaign,” in hashtag form it forever feels like yesterday’s news.

Someone who continues to use a hashtag that has outlived its moment is like a friend who insists on recounting his fast-fading dreams. It represents a fundamental failure to read the room—or, as the case may be, how the internet works. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the Malala Fund’s campaign, and there’s arguably something noble about trumpeting its importance. But hashtags are the wrong way to promote such a program, since they make it feel like a project of merely temporary significance.

There’s a certain irony to seeing Dorsey fall into this trap, not least of all because he helped engineer the snare. Twitter succeeds—to the extent that it does—by embracing the internet’s culture of impermanence. Dorsey looks silly because he doesn’t grasp the way his own platform works. Of course, Dorsey isn’t the only public figure with politicized hashtags in place of a proper bio. There’s also Donald Trump, who allows himself two: #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #Trump2016. Let us hope that they too soon feel like so much forgotten internet fluff.

May 23 2016 6:13 PM

FBI Says the Sketchy Software It Uses in Investigations Isn’t Malware

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been sneaking surreptitious code onto computers for years as part of its inquiries. This software is often referred to as “malware,” a portmanteau of “malicious” and “software,” because targets don’t know that they’ve downloaded the programs or that some part of their digital lives is being monitored. It seems like a pretty accurate descriptor, but in testimony last week the FBI objected to the characterization.

As Motherboard spotted, FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin said Thursday that software used to identify thousands of anonymous users on the child porn site Playpen shouldn’t be labeled as malware. The comment came during court testimony for a case against one of the identified Playpen users. Alfin said that the “Network Investigative Technique” (NIT) used on Playpen “was court-authorized and made no changes to the security settings of the target computers to which it was deployed. As such, I do not believe it is appropriate to describe its operation as ‘malicious.’ “

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Malware is a concept, not a codified industry standard, so there’s no official definition. The networking company Cisco describes malware as “code or software that is specifically designed to damage, disrupt, steal, or in general inflict some other ‘bad’ or illegitimate action on data, hosts, or networks.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Information Systems and Technology Department describes it as “Any software that gets installed on your machine and performs unwanted tasks, often for some third party’s benefit.”

A clandestine FBI surveillance tool seems to squarely fit these definitions, though Alfin made it clear that the NIT didn’t cause damage or harm to anyone’s computers. The FBI may be getting sensitive about defending its digital investigation practices as situations like the Apple/FBI dispute call the agency’s methods into question. The bureau will have to work hard to soften the image of secret spy software, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Administration. Whether or not it’s a fair comparison, Americans are bound to feel like they’ve seen where these things can go.

May 19 2016 9:13 PM

What Glenn Beck Gets Right About Facebook and Bias

Glenn Beck, of all people, may have just helped to defuse a controversy over allegations of liberal bias at Facebook.

After sitting down with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a host of prominent conservatives this week, the pundit wrote a blog post provocatively titled “What disturbed me about the Facebook meeting.” It’s a clever headline because it sets you up to expect a diatribe against the social network. Instead, Beck points the finger at his fellow conservatives for overreacting to one ex-Facebook contractor’s anonymous allegations. Those allegations, published by the tech blog Gizmodo last week, incited a media frenzy and unleashed a wave of conservative outrage in which Facebook became the latest emblem of the vast liberal media conspiracy. (Here’s a primer on the whole convoluted controversy.)

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Beck came away from the meeting impressed by Zuckerberg—but by his fellow conservatives, not so much. “I looked around the room, I heard the complaints, I listened to the perspectives, and not a single person in the room shared evidence of any wrongdoing,” he writes. Instead, he goes on:

I sat there looking around and heard things like:
1) Facebook has a very liberal workforce. Has Facebook considered diversity in their hiring practice? The country is 2% Mormon. Maybe Facebook’s company should better reflect that reality.
2) Maybe Facebook should consider a six-month training program to help their biased and liberal workforce understand and respect conservative opinions and values.
3) We need to see strong and specific steps to right this wrong.
It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges.
I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ …
What happened to us? When did we become them?

He adds:

The overall tenor, to me, felt like the Salem Witch Trial: ‘Facebook, you must admit that you are screwing us, because if not, it proves you are screwing us.’

Beck gets some important things right here. For the conservative politicians and talking heads who fanned this firestorm, it was never about “evidence.” (It rarely is.) It was about seizing an opportunity to stoke resentment and mistrust of the media. That resentment and mistrust is crucial to causes like convincing people that climate change is a hoax or that Donald Trump is qualified for the presidency.

That the controversy is largely the product of cynical conservative grandstanding is not Beck’s only insight. He also recognizes that it is very much in Facebook’s own business interests to appeal to conservatives every bit as much as liberals, and he sees that Facebook is smart enough to recognize that, too. He writes that Facebook has in fact been as much a boon for conservative media as it has for liberal outlets. (If there’s anyone suffering from Facebook’s reign over the media, it’s probably centrists and nonpartisan organizations, whose messages tend to be less conducive to reflexive likes and clicks.) He recognizes that Facebook’s “trending” news feature, which lies at the center of the controversy, is peripheral to what the platform is really about.

Beck is also right that big Silicon Valley tech companies and their leaders share some values in common with him:

These are people who want to innovate and disrupt, they want the government to stop regulating their businesses, they want small business to succeed, they value personal responsibility, etc. Why they are liberal? I don’t know, but in general, they’re not Progressives, at least not the folks I met with today (though I’m sure there were a few).

No, Mark Zuckerberg is not a progressive. That said, it’s no mystery why he and other Silicon Valley CEOs consider themselves liberal. They’re liberal mainly on social issues because social conservatism is rooted in fear and resistance to change, whereas Silicon Valley’s ethos is one of boldness and embrace of change. Still, Beck is not wrong to find some common ground.

But the biggest thing Beck gets right, at least partly, is that bias is human and natural, and that the key is not to deny one’s biases but to acknowledge them. Early in his post, Beck writes:

Before I dig in, since I’ll be talking about bias, let me share a bit about mine. I have been an avid Facebook user for about 8 years. I have 3.2 million followers. I consistently see high engagement on my Facebook page. We have begun using Facebook’s live video streaming platform and are encouraged by the results and plan on utilizing it more. The Facebook staff has always treated me and my staff kindly. They have been responsive, helpful, and available. I came into the meeting today wanting to believe that Facebook was a good, if not perfect, actor.

By acknowledging those biases, Beck allows us to better evaluate his arguments and understand how he arrived at his conclusions. In the same spirit, I should say here in case it wasn’t blindingly obvious that I am not a political conservative; that I’m generally not inclined to view Beck favorably; and that as a writer for an online opinion magazine I tend to view bias as something to be acknowledged and disclosed and confronted rather than denied. As for my views on Facebook, they’re mixed but based on my years of experience covering the company I regard it as generally well-intentioned but also, like most for-profit multinational corporations, deeply self-interested. That probably helps to explain why I’m so certain that as a matter of policy, Facebook would not intentionally suppress news of interest to conservatives, whose ad dollars are worth just as much as liberals’.

But to get back to Beck’s biases: It’s not hard to see, given his stated desire to think well of Facebook, how he came out of Wednesday’s meeting with Zuckerberg thinking just that. The fact that he saw “no evidence” of deeper problems at Facebook is also not surprising given that he was there for at most a few hours, in a carefully staged setting, no doubt surrounded by a phalanx of PR handlers.

And for all the things Beck got right, I think he also got a few wrong. Facebook is not as committed to “openness” as he seems to believe, and while Zuckerberg may be “earnest” in some ways he is certainly not guileless. Most significantly, Beck misses what I believe is Facebook’s own crucial role in creating the conditions for this controversy. Specifically, I’ve argued that it’s the opaqueness of Facebook’s product and its own refusal to admit the possibility of human bias that set it up for its public drubbing, silly though it may have been.

Several days into the story, after it had spiraled out of the company’s control, Facebook published the guidelines its curators rely on to decide which stories belong in the trending news section, and which sources to link to. (It did this only after the Guardian had published a leaked version of them.) That act of transparency, belated and grudging though it may have been, was exactly what the company needed to demystify its decision-making process. If only Facebook had been more open about this from the start, it might never have had to meet with Beck or his cohorts. Beck himself seems to get that. Why doesn’t Zuckerberg?

May 19 2016 12:03 PM

It’s So Hard to Get Good Digital Help These Days!

You don’t have to be a CEO to have an executive assistant anymore. Meet Siri, Alexa, Jibo, and Cortana, just four of the new artificially intelligent digital assistants from prominent technology companies designed to make your life easier. By a simple voice command they will answer your every question, restock your groceries, order lunch, remind you of your next appointment, and fire up the latest episode of your favorite TV show.

But before you welcome them into your home, you might want to ask where that friendly (why do they all tend to be female?!) voice is really coming from. Behind this technology are companies vying to bring you into the conversation age. Whoever succeeds will know us more intimately than ever before—our needs, thoughts, and desires—allowing them to exert even more influence over our lives. Which raises the question: will they help keep our secrets? 

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Join Future Tense for a happy hour conversation in Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m. on June 8 to discuss the technology behind our new helpers and their cultural implications for society. Slate senior technology writer Will Oremus will discuss the topic with Brigid Schulte, director of New America’s Better Life Lab program and the Good Life Initiative, and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. The conversation will be moderated by Washington Post opinion writer Alexandra Petri. Refreshments will be served. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

May 18 2016 6:00 PM

Google Launches New Chat and Video Apps Alongside ... Existing Chat and Video Apps

There's Google Messenger, there's old Gchat, there's Hangouts, there's all of Hangouts' specialized video chat services, but today at its I/O developer conference, Google announced two new apps: Allo for messaging and Duo for video. Huh.

Both incorporate tech like photo vision and machine learning to make it easier to get information and services from Google without ever having to leave the apps. Both are connected to your phone number so you can use them more like Apple's iMessage and Facetime. Allo offers pre-written predictive responses to messages you recieve and lets you use Google's AI assistant to do things like browse restaurants and book a dinner reservation from within a chat. You can also chat with the assistant directly to find out whether your flight is delayed and what the weather is where you're going.

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Duo offers HD video calling but can also adjust to a lower quality if you try to use it on a slow connection. It switches between mobile data and Wi-Fi when possible, and generally seems designed to work in varied conditions—not just places with top connectivity infrastructure.

Both apps will be available on Android and iOS this summer.

Duo offers end-to-end encryption on all calls, and Allo has an Incognito mode (similar to turning your Hangouts history with someone off or going "off the record") that is also fully end-to-end encrypted and has a seperate type of notifications. The FBI may not be happy about it, but these security measures are becoming more standard for communication apps.

Google seems to be debuting Allo and Duo as alternatives to their main offerings, similar to how their Inbox service for Gmail has been hanging out for a couple of years alongside main Gmail. For something like chat, though, where it's more convenient when everyone you know is on the same platform, it's unclear why Google would choose to fragment its users instead of just updating Hangouts with a bunch of new features.

May 18 2016 5:56 PM

The Google Home Is Like the Amazon Echo, Only Smarter. And Maybe Creepier.

For more than a year now, there has been a popular tech gadget that is the only one of its kind on the market. The Amazon Echo, a “smart speaker” that you control by voice, was the company’s end run around the smartphone industry, which it failed to break into with the Fire Phone. Widely viewed as quixotic upon release, the Echo gradually won over many of its critics, and a surprising number of consumers, with its dead-simple interface and just enough practical use cases to insinuate itself into one’s daily routines. It was only a matter of time before one of the other big companies copied it. And now Google has.

At its annual developer conference Wednesday, the company announced Google Home, a “smart speaker” that—well, I probably don’t need to repeat it. It does basically the same stuff the Echo does, plus or minus a few features. It’s also very similar in design, if perhaps a little friendlier-looking. It bears some resemblance to an air freshener, or perhaps a modernist salt shaker.

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Usually when big tech companies copy each other’s ideas, they put up some pretense of originality. Google, to its credit, barely bothered to pass off Home as its own innovation. In fact, in a moment of honesty and magnanimity that is nearly unheard of in the world of tech product launches, Google CEO Sundar Pichai explicitly cited the Echo’s success, saying, “Credit to the team at Amazon for creating a lot of excitement in this space.”

I can think of a reason, beyond politeness or human decency, why Pichai might feel comfortable offering this sort of credit to a rival product before extolling the virtues of his own. It’s that he’s supremely confident that Google can beat Amazon at its own game.

Yes, Amazon has a head start in the “smart speaker” space, and the Echo offers more integrations with services like Spotify and Domino’s and 1-800-Flowers than the Google Home will at launch.

But what Google knows is that “speaker” isn’t the operative word here, and the Echo isn’t the real product. The operative word is “smart,” and the real product is the voice-control virtual-assistant software that animates the speaker. In Amazon’s case, that’s Alexa. In Google’s case, it’s the newly rebranded “Google assistant,” which builds on the company’s already successful Google Now software.

Viewed through this lens, it’s actually Google that’s the incumbent here, with years and years of experience developing industry-leading voice recognition, natural language understanding, and conversational search technology. What Amazon found with the Echo was really just a fresh use case for the type of software that Google has been building all along.

As a result, Google Home will enjoy two big advantages over the Echo right from the beginning. First, the virtual assistant that lives inside it (or, more precisely, that resides in Google’s server cloud), will be essentially the same one that already lives inside some 1.5 billion people’s Android devices. As a result, it will connect directly and seamlessly to the many Google services that people know and use, like Google Maps, Gmail, and Google calendar.

Second, Google assistant is likely to be far more intelligent than Alexa, in the sense that it will be better at both understanding your queries and answering them. Ask Alexa a question about the world, and it will recite an answer straight from Wikipedia, one of a very limited number of information sources to which it has access. Ask Google assistant a question about the world, and it will tap into all of the knowledge and power of Google search. Not only that, but it will draw on Google’s state-of-the-art “conversational search” technology, which intuits not only the denotative meaning of a given query, but some of the conversational context that surrounds it.

So, as Pichai demonstrated, Google assistant will not only answer the question, “What is Draymond Green’s jersey number?”, but if you then ask it, “Where did he go to college?”, it will recognize that “he” refers to Green and will answer that question too. Alexa simply can’t do that yet. Which is why Pichai was not exaggerating when he bragged that Google assistant will boast capabilities “far beyond what other assistants can do.”

Like the Echo, the Home will also serve as a remote control for various household devices: “Turn the lights on in Kevin’s room” was Pichai’s example. Here, too, Google enjoys an incumbent advantage, thanks to its 2014 acquisition of the smart thermostat company Nest.

All of which might make the Google Home sound far more appealing than the Echo. But don’t forget that virtually everything Google does has a shadow purpose that it doesn’t talk much about, which is to collect data on users’ behavior and harness it to build a hyper-detailed profile of their likes, dislikes, buying habits, and nonbuying habits.

People have given the Echo somewhat of a pass in the privacy department, despite its radically intrusive potential as a surveillance device. (It listens to literally everything you say in your own home.) That may be because Amazon has relatively limited access to the rest of our private information. Not so for Google, which will now be as privy to everything we say and do offline as it is to our online behavior. To the extent that Google assistant is smarter than Alexa, it’s also likely to be that much creepier.  

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