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Links: March 2018

Hello, dear reader!

March is gone, but its links remain.

I gave a brief talk about designing information at the annual Society for News Design conference, and also shared my notes from the other talks I took in.

Always ahead of the trends, I left Facebook at the beginning of the month, a little over two weeks before the news about Cambridge Analytica broke (news which long-time readers may not have found shocking). Since think pieces about Facebook are, you know, definitely not a thing anyone is writing right now, I’m planning to share some thoughts soon.

Among other things, this month’s links include analyses of Trump’s recent Cabinet shakeups, thoughts about reclaiming the open web, and mitigating the damage of monolithic social networks. As always, if you want to keep up with these links in real time, follow me on Twitter.

Ends and means

There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.

One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.

I, for one

The article argues that this trend of corporations-as-activists is the result of an ongoing politicization of the public sphere, which is itself the result of a government that’s unable (or unwilling) to serve its citizens

We Need Design That Is Faster and Design That Is Slower.

Our industry needs design that is faster for people who are trying to get things done, for they are our customers. We need design that is slower for people who are trying to comprehend, for they are our only chance of saving the world.

City Noise Might Be Making You Sick

The noise that does the most harm doesn’t come from clubs and house parties—the causes of many garden-variety noise complaints and violations.

The two largest sources of environmental noise are transportation and industrial activity. The cars for which early noise ordinances helped clear the streets have amplified that noise to a universal, inescapable level. Industrial areas, often designated for land close to the poorest nonwhite areas in a city, are even worse.

In Baltimore, two loud sounds pervade the city: police sirens (120 decibels) and low-flying police helicopters (which I measured at 80 to 85 decibels during a recent visit). In low-income communities, these sounds are almost constant. The relationship between noise laws and the police reach another level of conflict that speaks to the fundamental problem of policing the sounds made by individuals. In a city where encounters with police can spell life or death for people of color, noise complaints are more than a disturbingly antisocial means of dealing with a neighborly dispute; they can also become weapons of violence in the hands of the carceral state. If the noise complainers are also the noise punishers, it becomes clear that the current system of fighting noise is built to trap the most disenfranchised citizens.

To solve the environmental-noise problem, cities and their citizens should learn from the mistakes of the past. Targeting the noise of individuals is ineffective, antisocial, and fails to eradicate the noise that really hurts people: environmental noise. Solutions to that problem must be systemic, requiring a large-scale, collective response across many different targets.

Sign o’ the Times

Prince’s spectacular 1987 concert film is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Neither Death Wish film dares to grapple with the anti-vigilante stance of the novel

Garfield hated the adaptation; nearly 40 years after the book was published, he was still repeating that vigilantism was just “an attractive fantasy” that “only makes things worse in reality.” In 1975 he wrote a sequel, Death Sentence, that underlined this point. Death Wish 2, needless to say, took inspiration elsewhere. In that rich tradition, Joe Carnahan, the credited writer of the remake, disowned Roth’s film after submitting a draft that was apparently closer to Garfield’s book. It’s remarkable how, with such a basic and replicable premise, both Winner and Roth feel the need to cite the source novel while running from its message.

Garfield is so perceptive about masculinity’s relationship to crime and violence that he becomes downright prescient. Despite massive drops in crime over past decades, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently proclaimed that “for the first time in a long time, Americans can have hope for a safer future.” Why would someone oversell crime? Per Death Wish, it’s “part of the spurious hearty masculine myths that city men constructed to reassure themselves of their machismo and the toughness of the world they inhabited.”

“Please keep politics out of your talk.”

Sometimes when people hear the term “political,” they understand it as “partisan.” To be political is to acknowledge the lived experiences of people outside of yourself. To be partisan is to advocate for the beliefs or propaganda of a specific party affiliation.

If simply hearing about people’s experiences in the world causes someone to assign a partisan value to them, well, that’s on them.

Our choices are always guided by something—laws, morals, values, rules. And because that something is not neutral, our choices cannot be either. And what is design, if not a series of choices? Our web work, no matter how insignificant we may think it, is inherently political, and to pretend otherwise is willful ignorance.

What Should I Teach My Sons?

But how am I supposed to feel about my children’s success when I know, deep down, in my heart of hearts, that the world around them would be a better place if more children like them won fewer of the spoils? Am I a jerk for cheering for them? Would I be a jerk if I didn’t? I want equality, and a fair playing field, and more opportunities for people who haven’t had them in centuries past. But I’ll be damned if I want my kids to fail. Who in the world wants their kids to step aside? I want my kids to become co-presidents of Mars: I want them to invent cold fusion; I want them to learn to fly. I want them to believe they can do everything. Isn’t that, in its own way, entitling them?

Bitcoin Is Ridiculous. Blockchain Is Dangerous

Point is, this sort of thing used to be prohibitively difficult to pull off at any scale, because anonymity can be hard to protect, and platforms are hard to run and easy to attack. Now the frameworks are coming to build such tools and make them anonymous and decentralized, so that they might endure, and, as with all internet things, they’ll arrive well ahead of the ethics we need to make sense of them.

In the past, building a market required users, products, all that mess—farmers taking their plump pigs to market. What we have now is a means of spinning up any number of auctions, a method for the mass manufacture of middlemen. This is the destiny of Silicon Valley. And with ICOs and Bitcoin exchanges, we have a marketplace to value marketplaces. What in Galt’s name could be wrong with that? We’ve never (surveys vast tracts of empty Florida homes) had trouble before.

The Internet Isn’t Forever

Not infrequently, the Wayback Machine and other large digital archives, such as those in the care of the great national and academic libraries, find themselves holding the only extant copy of a given work on the public internet. This responsibility is increasingly fraught with political, cultural, and even legal complications.

Dawn of Midi: Dysnomia

Today’s brain training in polyrhythmic minimalism. I can’t stop listening to this record.

Tillerson’s Departure Adds To Trump’s Historic Levels Of Cabinet Instability

If, after Rex Tillerson’s ouster, you’re looking for Cabinet turnover context from past admins, here’s a cheat sheet.

The Tipping Equation

Even at a generally clueless age 18, when I was told I’d be paid $2.25/hour, I was like, “How is this legal?”

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions

He ultimately provided over 50 million raw profiles to the firm, Mr. Wylie said, a number confirmed by a company email and a former colleague. Of those, roughly 30 million — a number previously reported by The Intercept — contained enough information, including places of residence, that the company could match users to other records and build psychographic profiles. Only about 270,000 users — those who participated in the survey — had consented to having their data harvested.

Mr. Wylie said the Facebook data was “the saving grace” that let his team deliver the models it had promised the Mercers.

“We wanted as much as we could get,” he acknowledged. “Where it came from, who said we could have it — we weren’t really asking.”

Under the guidance of Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s digital director in 2016 and now the campaign manager for his 2020 re-election effort, Cambridge performed a variety of services, former campaign officials said. That included designing target audiences for digital ads and fund-raising appeals, modeling voter turnout, buying $5 million in television ads and determining where Mr. Trump should travel to best drum up support.

In case anyone is wondering why Parscale is helming the 2020 campaign.

The Nancy Pelosi Problem

Nancy Pelosi does her job about as well as anyone could. But because she’s a woman, she may not be doing it well enough.

Not everyone agrees that Pelosi’s unpopularity is a function of gender. Some observers note that her Republican counterpart, Speaker Paul Ryan, is unpopular too: According to HuffPost’s poll aggregator, Americans disapprove of both Ryan and Pelosi by 20 percentage points. But Ryan’s unpopularity tracks his party’s, which Americans disapprove of by 23 points—whereas Pelosi’s disapproval margin is almost twice that of the Democratic Party as a whole. Others chalk up Pelosi’s image problems to her ideology (liberal) and home base (San Francisco). But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a liberal from Brooklyn, has a disapproval margin half as large as hers.

For a 2010 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the Yale researchers Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto showed study participants the fictional biographies of two state senators, identical except that one was named John Burr and the other Ann Burr […] When quotations were added that described the state senators as “ambitious” and possessing “a strong will to power,” John Burr became more popular. But the changes provoked “moral outrage” toward Ann Burr, whom both men and women became less willing to support.

It would be comforting to think that Pelosi is alienating because she’s a rich liberal Democrat from San Francisco—not because she’s a woman. Yet despite attributes that should make her endearing to cultural conservatives—she is a Catholic Italian American grandmother of nine who entered politics only after staying home to raise her kids—many Americans greeted her rise with, in the words of the Yale researchers, “contempt, anger, and/or disgust.” It was the same for Hillary Clinton: Her deep religiosity, career-long focus on child welfare, and insistence on keeping her family together in the face of near-unimaginable humiliation didn’t spare her in the 2016 presidential election.

The Case Against Retweets

I’d argue that following thousands of people is the crux of Alexis Madrigale’s Twitter woes, so I took this piece with a huge grain of salt, but he does make some good points:

But social-media platforms don’t have to be organized around shareability. Instagram, for instance, doesn’t allow links, except a single one in each user’s profile. This dampens self-promotion and slows down the spread of information from the rest of the internet on the platform. It doesn’t have native reposting tools, either. And it is, by pretty much all accounts, a nicer place to spend time online.

I’m not a fan of Instagram, and this doesn’t change my mind, but I hadn’t thought too much about the intentionality of the features it doesn’t have.

Tech companies have designed their interfaces to maximize the spread of information, to amplify faster, to increase the ß in the network. They could peel away those layers—increase the friction of posting, make it harder to amplify information with a single click, redesign user interfaces to encourage thoughtfulness.

What’s the Difference Between a Frat and a Gang?

But if experts on gang violence and sexual violence came together to extract the most effective policies and ideas from both, what lessons would they learn? Perhaps they would extract from the approach to the gang: the intense political will, the recognition of the crisis, the billions in public resources, the aggressiveness of investigators, the absolute refusal to blame the victims of violence, the centering of the victim. Perhaps they would extract from the approach to the fraternity: efforts focused on prevention and education, empathy for the accused, factoring in substance abuse, recognizing the causal complexity of human violence.

Back to the Blog

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

When I left Facebook eight years ago, it showed me five photos of my friends, some with their newborn babies, and asked if I was really sure. It is unclear to me if the re-decentralizers are willing to be, or even should be, as ruthless as this. It’s easier to work on interoperable technology than social psychology, and yet it is on the latter battlefield that the war for the open web will likely be won or lost.

Silicon Valley Has Failed to Protect Our Data. Here’s How to Fix It

So this is an era of breaches and violations and stolen identities. Big companies can react nimbly when they fear regulation is actually on the horizon—for example, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have agreed to share data with researchers who are tracking disinformation, the result of a European Union commission on fake news. But for the most part we’re dealing with global entities that own the means whereby politicians garner votes, have vast access to capital to fund lobbying efforts, and are constitutionally certain of their own moral cause.

Maybe we should think about Google and Facebook as the new polluters. Their imperative is to grow! They create jobs! They pay taxes, sort of! In the meantime, they’re dumping trillions of units of toxic brain poison into our public-thinking reservoir.

How might a digital EPA function? Well, it could do some of the work that individuals do today. For example, the website of Australian security expert Troy Hunt, (“pwned” is how elite, or “l33t,” hackers, or “hax0rs,” spell “owned”), keeps track of nearly 5 billion hacked accounts. You give it your email, and it tells you if you’ve been found in a data breach. A federal agency could and should do that work, not just one very smart Australian—and it could do even better, because it would have a framework for legally exploring, copying, and dealing with illegally obtained information.

The Trump Administration Goes to War — With Itself — Over the VA

David Shulkin, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was the second Cabinet member to be pushed out in March. This ProPublica piece from February saw the writing on the wall. Like many people, I’ve seen the VA as fundamentally inept ever since a huge scandal about its apparent inefficacy made headlines a few years ago. Both sides of the aisle took jabs at the agency. Turns out we all drank the Kool-Aid of what was just a run-of-the-mill, misleading partisan attack:

The scandals may come as less of a surprise than the fact that the VA actually enjoys widespread support among veterans. Most who use its health care report a positive experience. For example, 92 percent of veterans in a poll conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars reported that they would rather improve the VA system than dismantle it. Independent assessments have found that VA health care outperforms comparable private facilities.

In an April 2014 hearing, Miller revealed that officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix were effectively fudging records to cover up long delays in providing medical care to patients. He alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting to be seen. A week later, CVA organized a protest in Phoenix of 150 veterans demanding answers.

Miller’s dramatic claims did not hold up. A comprehensive IG investigation would eventually find 28 delays that were clinically significant; and though six of those patients died, the IG did not conclude that the delays caused those deaths. Later still, an independent assessment found that long waits were not widespread: More than 90 percent of existing patients got appointments within two weeks of their initial request.

But such statistics were lost in the furor. “Nobody stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, time out, are we destroying this national resource because a small group of people made a mistake?’” a former senior congressional staffer said.

Spotify Is Killing Song Titles

I collected 18 years of music data and broke them down into two groups: 2000–2008 data and 2009–2017 data. These sets coincide closely with the pre and post Spotify eras.

In addition, the methods used by Billboard to decide what goes into the Hot-100 have changed over the years. In the pre-Spotify era, the Billboard charts were based on albums/single sales and radio airplay. With the introduction of streaming services, the formula changed to 35–45% sales, 30–40% airplay, and 20–30% streaming². Most people below a certain age (myself included), consume music exclusively through streaming services, so if anything, the effects of Spotify and their internet brethren are being underweighted here.

If you think radio was a consumer service and not merely a cynical tool of the music industry, check out the stark difference in the top charting artists after Billboard changed its methods.