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Dear Young People: “Don’t Vote”

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The old white people of America have a message for the young adults of America: we’ll be dead soon but if you don’t vote, you’re letting us determine what kind of world you’ll live in.

Everything’s fine the way it is. Trump…that was us. He’s our guy. Tax cuts for the rich? Hell yeah, I’m rich as fuck. Climate change? That’s a “you problem”…I’ll be dead soon. Sure, school shootings are sad, but I haven’t been in a school for 50 years.

A look at the voter participation rates in Presidential election years confirms that the 65 and older cohort votes at a much higher rate than the 18-29 group.

Voting By Age

If young people voted at a higher rate, our government would look a lot different. (via df)

Tags: politics   USA   video
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21 days ago
Interesting to see the youth spikes in 1992 (Clinton) and 2008 (Obama), and the relative lows in 1988 (Bush Sr), 1996 (pre-impeachment Clinton), and 2000 (Bush Jr).
23 days ago
Washington, DC
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Facebook Is Giving Advertisers Access to Your Shadow Contact Information

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Terrific reporting by Kashmir Hill for Gizmodo:

Facebook is not upfront about this practice. In fact, when I asked its PR team last year whether it was using shadow contact information for ads, they denied it. Luckily for those of us obsessed with the uncannily accurate nature of ads on Facebook platforms, a group of academic researchers decided to do a deep dive into how Facebook custom audiences work to find out how users’ phone numbers and email addresses get sucked into the advertising ecosystem. […]

The researchers also found that if User A, whom we’ll call Anna, shares her contacts with Facebook, including a previously unknown phone number for User B, whom we’ll call Ben, advertisers will be able to target Ben with an ad using that phone number, which I call “shadow contact information,” about a month later. Ben can’t access his shadow contact information, because that would violate Anna’s privacy, according to Facebook, so he can’t see it or delete it, and he can’t keep advertisers from using it either.

The lead author on the paper, Giridhari Venkatadri, said this was the most surprising finding, that Facebook was targeted ads using information “that was not directly provided by the user, or even revealed to the user.”

Paraphrasing, Hill’s back and forth with Facebook over these practices went like this:

Hill: Facebook, are you doing this terrible thing?

Facebook: No, we don’t do that.

Hill, months later: Here’s academic research that shows you do this terrible thing.

Facebook: Yes, of course we do that.

At this point I consider Facebook a criminal enterprise. Maybe not legally, but morally. How in the above scenario is Facebook not stealing Ben’s privacy?

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23 days ago
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Some (Older, Whiter, More Conservative) Audiences React Negatively to Kaepernick’s Nike Ad

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A research company called Morning Consult had 1900 people watch the new Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick and record their reactions in realtime. The video above shows the commercial and the graphed reactions of four age groups: Gen Z (18-21, white line), Millennials (22-37, teal line), Gen X (38-53, yellow line), and Boomers (54-72, red line). The report also has graphs showing results by race and political affiliation (the dashed line is when Kaepernick first appears on screen).

Nike Ad Graph

Nike Ad Graph

Gen Z & Millennials rated the ad higher than the older viewers throughout and had a less negative reaction to the polarizing parts. Now, the report only mentions the effect of Kapernick appearing on the screen, but to my eyes, there are four distinct moments when the opinions of some viewers (white, older, Republican) turn negative:

1. Right before Kapernick is shown for the first time, ratings start to decline when the ad refers to LeBron James as “the best basketball player on the planet” and “bigger than basketball” for recently opening his I Promise School.

2. Kapernick’s first appearance in front of an American flag with his large Afro triggers a steep decline in favorability among older viewers, particularly Boomers and Republicans.

3. Serena Williams being billed as “the greatest athlete ever” results in the steepest decline during the entire ad…and this was before the controversy at the US Open. Across all groups, only black Americans had no problem with that characterization whatsoever (Gen Z & Millennials showed only slight declines).

4. Immediately after that, Kapernick is shown again and there’s a continued follow-on decline from Serena.

So that’s interesting! What’s going on here? [insert an entire apologist NY Times Op-Ed piece here about how famous athletes are polarizing no matter what, particularly when accompanied by best-ever proclamations, etc. etc.] But of course, it’s probably racism with a side of sexism — three outspoken black athletes, one of them a woman, are uppity. That’s the simplest explanation.

Tags: advertising   Colin Kaepernick   LeBron James   Nike   racism   Serena Williams   sexism   sports   video
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39 days ago
A few days ago my (white, conservative, Navy vet) dad mentioned that Kap was all over the news, and I quickly changed the subject, because I was not in a place to go anywhere near that third-rail. I grew up around openly-racist white people, and I still cannot understand how so much hate can be held for someone.
36 days ago
Well, at least you're proof one can escape that environment
35 days ago
I'm not yet sure about the best approach to changing racist minds in grown-ups, but my initial suspicions are that positive media portrayals of issues which affect the disadvantaged only comes second to actual positive interactions with disadvantaged people.
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40 days ago
white ppl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPmDiOcDIpU
Victoria, BC

Charles Wagner’s 100-Year-Old Warning About Social Media

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The Simple Life

Charles Wagner was a French reformed pastor who worked around the turn of the twentieth century. He preached a radical gospel that rejected dogma and promoted simple living and love of nature.

In 1901, he published a book titled The Simple Life, which angered religious authorities, but became popular in America once translated into English by Mary Louise Hendee.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “Simplicity in Speech.” It opens with Wagner’s assessment of the current state of  human communication. It starts with a familiar claim:

“Formerly the means of communication between men were considerably restricted. It was natural to suppose that in perfecting and multiplying avenues of information, a better understanding would be brought about. Nations would learn to love each other…citizens of one country would feel themselves bound in closer brotherhood…Nothing could have seemed more evident.”

But even in Wagner’s time, it was clear that this theory wasn’t playing out as expected:

“Alas! this reasoning was based upon the nature and capacity of the instruments, without taking into account the human element, always the most important factor. And what has really come about is this: that cavilers, calumniators, and crooks — all gentlemen glib of tongue, who know better than any one else how to turn voice and pen to account — have taken the utmost advantage of these extended means for circulating thought, with the result that the men of our times have the greatest difficulty in the world to know the truth about their own age and their own affairs.”

As Wagner elaborates:

“For every newspaper that fosters good feeling and good understanding between nations, by trying to rightly inform its neighbors and to study them without reservations, how many spread defamation and distrust! What unnatural and dangerous currents of opinion set in motion! What false alarms and malicious interpretations of words and facts!”

Writing in 1901, Wagner was commenting on the rise of tabloid newspapers, and the decontextualization of information caused by the telegraph (as Neil Postman so expertly documented).

I’m citing his commentary here, of course, because he could have just as easily been referring to the cycle of utopian hope to fake news despair that describes the recent rapid progression from the early internet boosterism to the Facebook Age.

It’s worth revisiting Wagner because his diagnosis of the issue is as relevant today as it was in 1901: when confronting new technology we cannot reason based only on the “nature and capacity of the instruments,” we must also remember the “human element.”

It’s this “most important factor” that keeps tripping us up.

(Hat tip: Cliff)

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50 days ago
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A Brief Summary of the Social Media Reform Movement

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A Lonely Voice Finds Company

I’ve been publicly criticizing social media since at least 2010. For most of this period, most of the people I encountered were either puzzled or annoyed by my stance on these services.

When the event organizers first posted the video of my anti-social media TEDx talk, for example, they changed my suggested title, “Quit Social Media,” to something blander, along the lines of “Why deep work is important in the new economy.” I think this was a good-intentioned effort to make me seem less eccentric. I had to ask them to change it back.

When I subsequently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that social media’s role in career advancement was overhyped, I created such an uproar that the paper took the rare step of commissioning a response op-ed the next week with the sole purpose of refuting my dangerous ideas.

But then things began to change.

At some point in early 2017, as the various shockwaves emanating from the Trump election victory began to align and amplify, sentiment toward these services started shifting in ways I hadn’t noticed before.

I began, for example, to receive more notes of support and less confused looks when I told people I’ve never had a social media account.

Prominent figures suddenly announced they were leaving these services.

Last weekend, at the Kent Presents ideas conference, I sat on a panel called “The Social Media Crisis.” The crowd attending was so large they had to setup chairs in the hallway outside the auditorium doors.

The cultural conversation surrounding social media, in other words, is undergoing a rapid and surprisingly complicated evolution.

With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise for both my readers and myself to do my best here to briefly summarize my understanding of the current state of this burgeoning social media reform movement…

 The Main Anti-Social Media Arguments

There seems to be at least three main arguments against social media at the moment. These concerns overlap in interesting ways, but also maintain distinct characteristics, and are advanced by their own vocal constituencies.

Argument #1: Social Media is Harmful to Individuals.

This argument focuses on the ways that heavy social media use can make users less happy, less healthy, and/or less successful. Most of my writing and speaking on this topic falls into this category. (My main point is that the benefits of these services are exaggerated, while we tend to underestimate their damage to our ability to do valuable things with our brains.)

In recent years, this argument has been bolstered by important whistleblowers and flashy media attention; c.f., the Atlantic’s cover stories on Tristan Harris, a former Google executive who sounded the alarm on how social media companies engineer their products to be addictive, and Jean Twenge, a demographic researcher concerned that smartphones might have sparked a youth mental health crisis.

A growing scientific literature, featuring top researchers, is also starting to quantify this harm with a precision that’s hard to ignore.

Argument #2: Social Media is Bad for our Democracy.

This argument was instigated, in large part, by revelations surrounding Russian election meddling, and, more generally, the relatively unsupervised role of social media in the otherwise heavily regulated election process.

Conservative commentators have also become increasingly vocal with their concerns about the unchecked ability of these services to censor ideas they don’t like, and users from all points on the political spectrum are experiencing fatigue from the constant drip of outrage and division these services seem to instill into their daily experience.

Argument #3: Social Media is Bad for Privacy.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal from earlier this year underscored the degree to which social media platforms harvest and exploit their users’ personal data. Facebook’s PR professionals did a good job at the time of casting Cambridge Analytica executives as Bond Villains, performing dastardly deeds. But what much of the media reports at the time missed is that there was actually very little illegal (beyond some potential issues with user agreements) or even all that unusual about Cambridge Analytica’s actions.

As several different social media researchers confirmed to me, what this firm was up to — using personality quizzes to gather information about users’ friend graphs — was basically standard fare in the growth industry of social media influence marketing. (Policy changes starting around 2014 have since impeded — though not stopped — some of these practices.)

The banality of Cambridge Analytica, of course, is what makes their case study even more scary from a privacy perspective.

The Main Proposed Reforms

The obvious follow up question is to ask what reforms might help solve the problems summarized above. Here are the main categories of proposed fixes that I’m hearing a lot about at the moment.

Reform #1: Cultural Changes.

Tristan Harris, Adam Alter, and former Facebook president Sean Parker, among many others, have been recently revealing ugly secrets about how major social media platforms engineer their products to be more addictive. Jaron Lanier has effectively portrayed these service as trying to manipulate your actions and emotions toward dark purposes.

These assaults from technology insiders are serving a similar purpose as the anti-tobacco Truth ad campaigns of my youth (which helped drop teen smoking rates from 23% to 6%) — they’re changing the narrative surrounding social media from one of cultural ubiquity and hipness, to something more exploitive, corporate, and icky.

This category largely captures my own modest efforts to help with this issue. My push to better protect your cognitive capabilities from relentless distraction, as well as my upcoming book on digital minimalism, are efforts to change the cultural conversation about these services.

Reform #2: Youth Protection.

The data on the negative impact of addictive smartphone use on teenage well-being is stark and alarming. Jean Twenge’s work on the mental health of iGen is an example of a strong early warning that there’s a serious problem lurking. I get the sense from others I know in this space that the scope of this issue is going to keep expanding until it becomes an unavoidable public health crisis.

My prediction (and I could be wrong here) is that we’re going to start to see more serious restrictions on young people’s access to this technology. France, for example, recently outlawed smartphones and tablets in their schools. Their education minister was clear about why: “our main role is to protect children and adolescents.” We’ll likely see similar moves in many American school districts.

I also think social media companies will be pushed to increase the minimum age for their users, and that the normative age at which kids receive their first smartphone will rise to something closer to 18.

Reform #3: Federal Regulation.

The E.U.’s response to social media’s excesses was to pass a sweeping new set of privacy measures known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR is aimed, primarily, at giving users more control over the data online sites and services gather from them. Under these regulations, which provide users de facto ownership over their personal data, you can now demand to see what information a given service has collected on you, and the service must delete it all if you request. These requirements are enforced with strict fines.

US lawmakers are increasingly more willing to discuss thematically-similar regulation, though probably not fixes as sweeping as the GDPR. A paper recently leaked from Senator Mark Warner’s office, for example, proposed reforms built around increased transparency and more aggressive FTC audits of the major social media platforms. There are also rumblings about developing anti-trust cases against the biggest of these platforms.

On the other hand, the people I know who are up to speed on Capitol Hill machinations in this area keep emphasizing the massive amounts of money these tech giants are spending on lobbying efforts, and Congress, of course, is not exactly a shining paragon of efficient lawmaking at the moment, so there are serious impediments to this rising regulatory enthusiasm.

My Thoughts

My commentary on social media has traditionally deployed a narrow focus on the individual: this is how social media is harming you, and here is what you can do to avoid these harms.

I was caught off guard by how quickly the social media reform movement, once it finally lumbered to life in the past two years, blew past the individual to seek facets to these issues that demand systemic solutions.

What I’m trying to figure out at the moment is whether I was ignoring these broader responses because I don’t think they’ll be particularly productive, or if after spending so many years alone in the wilderness on this issue, I haven’t yet recalibrated to the full scope of what’s possible.

Either way, it’s an interesting time to be engaged with this issue…

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50 days ago
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On Liking Stuff (or not)

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So, back when Ancillary Justice was essentially sweeping that year’s SF awards, there was some talk from certain quarters about it not really being all that, people only claimed to like it because Politics and SJWs and PC points and Affirmative Action and nobody was really reading the book and if they were they didn’t really enjoy it, they just claimed they did so they could seem cool and woke.

My feelings were so hurt that I wept bitter, miserable tears every time I drove to the bank with my royalty checks. I mean, those people must be right, it’s totally typical for non-fans who don’t actually like a book to write fanfic or draw fan art, totally boringly normal for students to choose to write papers about a book that just isn’t really very good or interesting, and for professors to use that boringly not-very-good book in their courses, and for that book to continue to sell steadily five years after it came out. I totally did not laugh out loud whenever I came across such assertions, because they were absolutely not ridiculous Sour Grape Vineyards tended by folks who, for the most part, hadn’t even read the book.

Now I am sorry–but not surprised–to see some folks making similar assertions about N.K. Jemisin’s historic (and entirely deserved) Hugo Threepeat. Most of them haven’t read the books in question.

But some of them have. Some of them have indeed read the books and not understood why so many people are so excited by them.

Now, Nora doesn’t need me to defend her, and she doesn’t need lessons from me about the best way to dry a tear-soaked award-dusting cloth, or the best brands of chocolate ice cream to fortify yourself for that arduous trip to the bank. Actually, she could probably give me some pointers.

But I have some thoughts about the idea that, because you (generic you) didn’t like a work, that must mean folks who say they did like it are Lying Liars Who Lie to Look Cool.

So, in order to believe this, one has to believe that A) one’s own taste is infallible and objective and thus universally shared and B) people who openly don’t share your taste are characterless sheep who will do anything to seem cool.

But the fact is, one doesn’t like or dislike things without context. We are all of us judging things from our own point of view, not some disembodied perfectly objective nowhere. It’s really easy to assume that our context is The Context–to not even see that there’s a context at all, it’s just How Things Are. But you are always seeing things from the perspective of your experiences, your biases, your expectations of how things work. Those may not match other people’s.

Of course, if you’re in a certain category–if you’re a guy, if you’re White, if you’re straight, if you’re cis–our society is set up to make that invisible, to encourage you in the assumption that the way you see things is objective and right, and not just a product of that very society. Nearly all of the readily available entertainment is catering to you, nearly all of it accepts and reinforces the status quo. If you’ve never questioned that, it can seem utterly baffling that people can claim to enjoy things that you see no value in. You’ll maybe think it makes sense to assume that such people are only pretending to like those things, or only like them for reasons you consider unworthy. It might not ever occur to you that some folks are just reading from a different context–sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically different, but even a small difference can be enough to make a work seem strange or bafflingly flat.

Now, I’m sure that there are people somewhere at some time who have in fact claimed to like a thing they didn’t, just for cool points. People will on occasion do all kinds of ill-advised or bananapants things. But enough of them to show up on every SF award shortlist that year? Enough to vote for a historic, record-breaking three Hugos in a row? Really?

Stop and think about what you’re saying when you say this. Stop and think about who you’re not saying it about.

You might not have the context to see what a writer is doing. When you don’t have the context, so much is invisible. You can only see patterns that match what you already know.*

Of course, you’re not a helpless victim of your context–you can change it, by reading other things and listening to various conversations. Maybe you don’t want to do that work, which, ok? But maybe a lot of other folks have indeed been doing that, and their context, the position they’re reading stories from, has shifted over the last several years. It’s a thing that can happen.

Stop and think–you’ve gotten as far as “everyone must be kind of like me” and stepped over into “therefore they can’t really like what they say they like because I don’t like those things.” Try on “therefore they must really mean it when they say they like something, because I mean it when I say it.” It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many folks step into the one and not the other. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

This also applies to “pretentious” writing. “That writer is only trying to look smart! Readers who say they like it are only trying to look smarter that me, a genuine,honest person, who only likes down-to-earth plain solid storytelling.” Friend, your claims to be a better and more honest person because of your distaste for “pretentious” writing is pretension itself, and says far more about you than the work you criticize this way. You are exactly the sort of snob you decry, and you have just announced this to the world.

Like or don’t like. No worries. It’s not a contest, there’s no moral value attached to liking or not liking a thing. Hell, there are highly-regarded things I dislike, or don’t see the appeal of! There are things I love that lots of other folks don’t like at all. That’s life.

And sure, if you want to, talk about why you do or don’t like a thing. That’s super interesting, and thoughtful criticism is good for art.

But think twice before you sneer at what other folks like, think three times before you declare that no one could really like a thing so it must be political correctness, or pretension, or whatever. Consider the possibility that whatever it is is just not your thing. Consider the possibility that it might be all right if not everything is aimed at you. Consider that you might not actually be the center of the universe, and your opinions and tastes might not be the product of your utterly rational objective view of the world. Consider the possibility that a given work might not have been written just for you, but for a bunch of other people who’ve been waiting for it, maybe for a long time, and that might just possibly be okay.

*Kind of like the way some folks insist my Ancillary trilogy is obviously strongly influenced by Iain Banks (who I’d read very little of, and that after AJ was already under way) and very few critics bring up the influence of C.J. Cherryh (definitely there, deliberate, and there are several explicit hat tips to her work in the text). Those folks have read Banks, but they haven’t read Cherryh. They see something that isn’t there, and don’t see what is there, because they don’t have the same reading history I do. It’s interesting to me how many folks assume I must have the same reading history as they do. It’s interesting to me how sure they are of their conclusions.

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53 days ago
52 days ago
It's hard to define yourself by who you are in today's world, because that's something you have to justify. So people identify themselves by who they are not: "I'm not a emotional high schooler who uses Tumblr", "I'm not a white guy", "I'm not an asshole who uses reddit", and so on. This seems like an extension of that problem. Let people like what they like. On the other hand, I don't want to be judged for what I don't like, and plenty of that seems to happen as well.
54 days ago
Washington, DC
54 days ago
Thanks for sharing this, I had several arguments with folks at my old work that tried to call me out on saying how much I enjoyed her series; this really resonates.
54 days ago
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53 days ago
It always amazes me that people find it so hard to understand that they might not be the intended audience for a given piece of fiction.

Also, re the footnote, I must go and check out C.J. Cherryh
52 days ago
C. J. Cherryh has some really good books in the pantheon of sci-fi classics. Including the Hugo Awards to prove it. The other thing that's useful about that footnote is that sci-fi has always been known as a dialogue between authors, and everything's strongly influenced by so many other things. In the early history of the genre that was often celebrated ("I love how you used this idea and took it a new direction." "I like what you had to say about this other author's worldbuilding idea." "Did you borrow that thing from other author? It's so cool" "Did you read other author's response to your response in their followup". Even: "I know you didn't get this thing from the other author, but it is cool how you both arrived at the same spot.") The dumb thing is seeing people today use that for gatekeeping ("You can't write an FTL novel until you've read this exhaustive reading list" or "Everything to be said about cryonics has already been said" or as simple, but damaging, as "Stop stealing ideas" as a useless critique). It is a stark contrast in what you see in today's Hugo coverage alone versus what you find in old classic Hugo discussions (some of the very early Hugo winners weren't even good books outside of the conversation they were a part of in that dialog zeitgeist). It's possible that the genre is too big now to celebrate as easily that weird idea that books can be naturally in conversation with each other, even accidentally, rather than use that as gatekeeping to distrust books that are "conversing wrong" (miss "required" reading lists or alternatively have new perspectives that are unwelcome because the old traditions are set in stone now/outside perspectives are less interesting now). It's a shame if that's the case, but maybe we can hope to rekindle that original spirit of the genre. Bringing things full circle, my personal discovery of C. J. Cherryh was in the early days of the internet when I was a high schooler posting sci-fi short stories to a predecessor to what we'd now call a "blog" and then called a "zine". I was doing some random internet searches and discovered one of the made up words in some of my stories was also a setting of C. J. Cherryh's, which lead to me reading some of her books. For whatever reason, in hindsight perhaps we'd call it Impostor Syndrome now, I wrote an email to her to apologize for using the same name in some of my stories, not expecting a reply back. C. J. Cherryh sent back a nice email that basically said that that's alright, somewhat common, and a part of how the genre works. Sometimes it leads you to interesting directions like reading interesting new-to-you authors because you both happened to pick the same random made up word for some stories.
54 days ago
We aren't satisfied with being right. We also want to feel obviously right. So right that the people who disagree must be evil, stupid, crazy, or all three.

When something that we don't get turns out to be wildly popular, it is most comfortable to laugh it off or make negative claims about those who subscribe. But it is more useful to think very hard about what it brings to the table that you don't get. And to try to understand the perspective of those who find it delightful. As in so many things, comfort and truth pull us in different directions.
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