Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

Neither savage nor barbarian

Clara broke in here, flushing a little as she spoke: ‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — “nature”, as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make “nature” their slave, since they thought “nature was something outside them.’

‘Surely,’ said Morsom; ‘and they were puzzled as to what to do, till they found the feeling against mechanical life, which had begun before the Great Change amongst people who had leisure to think of such things, was spreading insensibly; till at last under the guise of pleasure that was not supposed to be work, work that was pleasure began to push out the mechanical toil, which they had once hoped at the best to reduce to narrow limits indeed, but never to get rid of, and which, moreover, they found they could not limit as they had hoped to do.’

‘When did this new revolution gather head?’ said I.

‘In the half-century that followed the Great Change,’ said Morsom, ‘it began to be noteworthy; machine after machine wa quietly dropped under the excuse that the machines could not produce works of art, and that works of art were more and more called for. Look here,’ he said, ‘here are some of the works of that time — rought and unskilful in handiwork, but solid and showing some sense of pleasure in the making.’

‘They are very curious,’ said I, taking up a piece of pottery from amongst the specimens which the antiquary was showing us; ‘not a bit like the work of either savages or barbarians, and yet with what would once have been called a hatred of civilization impressed upon them.’

–William Morris, News from Nowhere, or an epoch of rest, being some chapters from a utopian romance. Edited by James Remond, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 154-55. (1890)

 

Best practices.

In a still-influential paper from 1937 titled “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist and Nobel laureate Ronald Coase established himself as an early observer and theorist of corporate concerns. He described the employment contract not as a document that handed the employer unaccountable powers, but as one that circumscribed those powers. In signing a contract, the employee “agrees to obey the directions of an entrepreneur within certain limits,” he emphasized. But such characterizations, as Anderson notes, do not reflect reality; most workers agree to employment without any negotiation or even communication about their employer’s power or its limits. The exceptions to this rule are few and notable: top professional athletes, celebrity entertainers, superstar academics, and the (increasingly small) groups of workers who are able to bargain collectively.

Yet because employment contracts create the illusion that workers and companies have arrived at a mutually satisfying agreement, the increasingly onerous restrictions placed on modern employees are often presented as “best practices” and “industry standards,” framing all sorts of behaviors and outcomes as things that ought to be intrinsically desired by workers themselves. Who, after all, would not want to work on something in the “best” way? Beyond employment contracts, companies also rely on social pressure to foster obedience: If everyone in the office regularly stays until seven o’clock every night, who would risk departing at five, even if it’s technically allowed? Such social prods exist alongside more rigid behavioral codes that dictate everything from how visible an employee’s tattoo can be to when and how long workers can break for lunch.

–Miya Tokumitsu, The United States of Work

You won’t get privacy on the Republican party line.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, there are also serious implications for security: If ISPs look to sell consumer data, “internet providers will need to record and store even more sensitive data on their customers, which will become a target for hackers.” Even if they anonymize your sensitive data before they sell it to advertisers, they need to collect it first—and these companies don’t exactly have a perfect track record in protecting consumer data. In 2015, for example, Comcast paid $33 million as part of a settlement for accidentally releasing information about users who had paid the company to keep their phone numbers unlisted, including domestic violence victims.

This is all made much more difficult for consumers by the dearth of broadband competition. More than half of Americans have either one or even no options for providers, so if you don’t like your ISP’s data collection policies, chances are you won’t be able to do much about it, and providers know that. It’s highly unlikely that providers, particularly the dominant companies, will choose to forego those sweet advertising dollars in order to secure their customers’ privacy, when they know those customers don’t have much choice. […]

All is not completely lost. Your ISP still has to allow you to opt out of having your data sold, so you can call them or go online to find out how to do that. (If you do that, let us know how it went.) But today’s news is devastating for privacy overall. Consumers could have had more control over their privacy; your data could have been safer. Things could have been better, if Congress had done what it usually does and done nothing. Instead, they made things worse for anyone who doesn’t run an internet company or an advertising agency.

–Libby Watson, Congress Just Gave Internet Providers the Green Light to Sell You Browsing History Without Consent

 

Ice Age Solastalgia

The mammoth’s extinction may have been our original ecological sin. When humans left Africa 70,000 years ago, the elephant family occupied a range that stretched from that continent’s southern tip to within 600 miles of the North Pole. Now elephants are holed up in a few final hiding places, such as Asia’s dense forests. Even in Africa, our shared ancestral home, their populations are shrinking, as poachers hunt them with helicopters, GPS, and night-vision goggles. If you were an anthropologist specializing in human ecological relationships, you may well conclude that one of our distinguishing features as a species is an inability to coexist peacefully with elephants.

But nature isn’t fixed, least of all human nature. We may yet learn to live alongside elephants, in all their spectacular variety. We may even become a friend to these magnificent animals. Already, we honor them as a symbol of memory, wisdom, and dignity. With luck, we will soon re-extend their range to the Arctic. […]

Nikita and Sergey seemed entirely unbothered by ethical considerations regarding mammoth cloning or geoengineering. They saw no contradiction between their veneration of “the wild” and their willingness to intervene, radically, in nature. At times they sounded like villains from a Michael Crichton novel. Nikita suggested that such concerns reeked of a particularly American piety. “I grew up in an atheist country,” he said. “Playing God doesn’t bother me in the least. We are already doing it. Why not do it better?”

–Ross Andersen, Welcome to Pleistocene Park

From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?

Patience is what it takes.

I know there comes a point in time when you say, okay, enough time, now things have got to change … if you need to legislate something or force something, then fine, you have those tools available. That’s why we have lawmakers. But the day the law changed to when black people could ride in the front of the bus, or not have to give up their seat, the day that law changed did not necessarily change the minds of the white riders. You can legislate behavior but you cannot legislate belief. Patience is what it takes. But patience doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt waiting for something to happen. Be proactive. And don’t just sit around and talk with your friends who believe the way you do. Invite other people who have differences of opinion.

–Daryl Davis

–Conor Friedersdorf, Every Racist I Know Voted for Donald Trump

Athens and Jerusalem

The true source of the current trouble reaches back to the foundations of Western civilization and democracy. Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, or “Athens and Jerusalem,” taught westerners to put their faith in God or reason, and often both, and to be wary of despots and demagogues. Although many have warned of the steady erosion of those traditions, the full consequences of their loss are not appreciated. For the first time, vast swaths of the West are living with the death not only of God but of reason as well. Such a vacuum makes ample room for opportunism and exploitation, while moral chaos invites tyranny.

–R. A. Brown, Illiberalism Rising

“I think people should feel reassured that the rules cannot be violated”

Look, I think it’s important to understand that these minimization procedures are taken very seriously, and all other agencies that are handling raw signals intelligence are essentially going to have to import these very complex oversight and compliance mechanisms that currently exist at the NSA.

Within the NSA, those are extremely strong and protective mechanisms. I think people should feel reassured that the rules cannot be violated—certainly not without it coming to the attention of oversight and compliance bodies. I am confident that all of the agencies in the U.S. intelligence community will discharge those very same obligations with the same level of diligence and rigor, adhering to both the spirit and the letter of the law.

–Susan Hennessey, interviewed by Kaveh Waddell for the Atlantic

Not my president, quoth the constitutional lawyer

Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.

Like an admissions officer at Trump University, he offered Americans a bag of magic beans and asked them in exchange to hand over their rights and their form of government.

Smiling, nearly 60 million complied.

I deny their right to give Trump my rights or those of others who cannot defend themselves. No result is legitimate that threatens the Constitution its very promise of the “blessings of liberty.” No transient plurality, no matter how angry, has the power to strip minorities of equal status and protection; no mass of voters, no matter how frightened, has the power to vote away the democratic future of their children and their children’s children. […]

The role of a professorial figure in crisis is to cluck reassuringly, note that something similar happened during the Taylor administration, and remind citizens that America is a favored nation and all will be well as we muddle through under God’s beneficent providence. But there is no evidence that any of that is true. The Constitution is broken, and I don’t know how, or whether, it will be fixed.

But I know this as well: Trump was elected President on November 8.

But he is not my president and he never will be.

–Garrett Epps, Donald Trump Has Broken the Constitution

So: the Constitution is broken and Donald Trump will never be the president and the 60 million American people who didn’t vote the way Epps wanted them to don’t actually have the right to vote. Glad we got that settled. Now that Epps has effectively liberated himself from the rules of law and social reality, he is (at last!) on the same ideological footing as Donald J. Trump. What wonders can such men achieve in dialectical tandem, free of such paltry constraints? We shall see, dear reader. We shall see…