My podcast is alive to the entire prospect. I focus on the ephemeral and the perishable, and the immemorial. I’m in the show-business of negative capability. I cover things that are about to occur without warning, as well as things that are subtly absent, and things that are silently waving goodbye.
In Spring 2014 I was driving through Boston on my way to visit family in New Hampshire. I started researching what some good lunch options might be along the route we were taking and decided to try out a new app I’d just installed called Jelly. It’s kind of like an instant, mobile app version of Quora: you can ask the app a question that gets broadcast out to your friends and friends-of-friends. Then, within a few minutes, answers are beamed back to your phone. Presto, I can get local recommendations for a lunch spot!
I’d recently finished reading Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire. The book discusses how the scope of information we encounter—what ideas we’re exposed to—is limited by the boundaries of our pre-established social networks, an important aspect of the filter bubble phenomenon. I was thinking about how my lunch scenario fit into what I’d just been reading, me leveraging my social connections to solve the most first world of problems. And then this notification unexpectedly pops up on my phone, instead of the lunch tip I was waiting for.
This was a notification from Josh Begley’s Metadata+, another app I’d recently installed. The app has a vague name, but its purpose is very particular. Whenever details emerge about a U.S. drone strike, it broadcasts a notification (also available via the Twitter handle @dronestream). It’s an invited interruption, a gentle reminder about how interconnectedness also includes 67-year-old midwives from North Waziristan.
Begley’s app is a great example of critical design. The first, and most obvious critique, is of the U.S. Government’s reliance on drone strikes abroad. The experience of living with this app shows just how infrequently we’re reminded that we are still at war, going on 14 years as of next Wednesday.
The other critique is about the capricious power Apple wields over digital culture. The name Metadata+ was chosen to obfuscate its purpose from app store reviewers, who rejected it repeatedly saying it was “not useful or entertaining enough.” Both Apple and Google have the last word on what software is deemed legitimate enough to install on a mobile phone. And as mobile phones increasingly become a default computing platform, it’s not hard to see the danger involved with censoring apps on the basis of political sensitivity. We’ve ceded control over the boundaries of permissible thought to corporate entities.
Which brings us to this past Sunday, when Apple decided to remove Metadata+ from the app store because of “excessively crude or objectionable content.”
Apple has a long and storied history of arbitrarily applying its decency policies to reject apps. As Sam Biddle has pointed out in Gawker, there are many, many other apps of questionable value that get approved all the time. It’s both a matter of inconsistency, and that political speech is being confined to those computers that happen to have keyboards and file systems.
But the larger issue, as pointed out by Zuckerman in his book, isn’t necessarily about what information is available to us, but rather that we care enough to seek it out. The removal of Metadata+ is about not being able to imagine why you’d want such a thing. And the extent that companies cater to our desires to be endlessly amused by safe and familiar material. We need these gatekeeper corporations to treat us more like digital cosmopolitans, to use Zuckerman’s phrase.
I was glad to learn from the Gawker piece that Begley is one step ahead of Apple on this one. He’s already released an identical version of the app, just with a different name: Ephemeral+.
Also, I highly recommend Life Alive for lunch, it’s a lovely vegetarian place in Salem, MA.
As you might expect, New York and California have the highest number of total Cartoon Caption Contest wins with 87 and 76, respectively. But they also have the most losing entries.
This map shows that Alaska is actually the most successful state in terms of wins per ten thousand submissions! Though Alaska has only won the contest twice, the fact that it had a mere 2,102 documented contest entries renders its rate of approximately 9.5 wins per ten thousand submissions the highest in the country. Mississippi, another state not commonly associated with the New Yorker crowd, comes in at a close second, with 8.14 wins per ten thousand submissions.
I’m just getting back into listening to podcasts again, and noticed that the New Yorker Fiction podcast hit episode number 100. Congratulations to Deborah Treisman! If you’re not a subscriber already, definitely listen to some of the old episodes, there’s a lot of great stuff in there. This T.C. Boyle story is up there with the best of them.
Facebook recently filed a rather unsettling patent application describing (among other things) a hypothetical social-graph-based credit scoring system. What level of freaked out would be an appropriate response?
Facebook makes its money by encouraging people to have large friend networks and create lots of content for it to show ads against. And given that that’s the primary profit driver for Facebook, as a practical manner, it would really surprise me if they decided to get into the credit-scoring business, just because I think that’s going to make people feel panicked and uncomfortable. If I were them, I would not be in a giant rush to do that.
This makes me wonder if a lot of people suddenly started blocking ads, would companies like Facebook move quickly to adopt more dystopian business models? Or would they be more likely to start embracing those business models much earlier—quietly, secretly, mischievously—in anticipation?
Maciej Cegłowski on the perilous surveillance of online advertising:
Ad fraud works because the market for ads is so highly automated. Like algorithmic trading, decisions happen in fractions of a second, and matchmaking between publishers and advertisers is outside human control. It’s a confusing world of demand side platforms, supply-side platforms, retargeting, pre-targeting, behavioral modeling, real-time bidding, ad exchanges, ad agency trading desks and a thousand other bits of jargon.
The winners in this game are the ones running the casino: big advertising networks, surveillance companies, and the whole brand-new industry known as “adtech”.
The losers are small publishers and small advertisers. Universal click fraud drives down the value of all advertising, making it harder for niche publishers to make ends meet.
Robert Lewandowski, a striker for Bayern Munich, scored a bunch of goals and sportsed quite successfully.
Robert Lewandowski came on for Bayern Munich at halftime in a match they were losing 1-0 to Wolfsburg. Five minutes and 40 seconds into his appearance, his first goal hit the back of the net. Almost exactly nine minutes later, his fifth goal did the same. This man is on fire.
It is starting to feel like Fall here in New York, and I am up to some new things since the last time I wrote here in January (!). By the way, those New Years resolutions? They are going terribly! So it goes.
The big news, if you hadn’t heard, is that I’ve left my job at the New Yorker magazine. I am still very proud of how the redesign turned out, and I learned a ton from my many amazing colleagues there, but after two years it just felt like time for me to move on. So I am back to freelancing, and feeling excited to work on some new things. And yes, I am looking for new clients, you should hire me!
In addition to freelancing, I’ve also started a fellowship at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. I’m working with an awesome group of collaborators using telephony and wifi darknets as tools for gathering stories. I’ll be posting more about that here in the coming weeks.
Also, if you look around, you may notice I’ve updated my WordPress theme a bit. The underlying structure is very similar to what I had before, but I focused on a few key improvements:
- The page layout is now responsive, so it works better on very small and very large screens.
- Whenever possible, I’ve minimized my reliance on third-party tools (for example, I no longer use TypeKit for my header fonts).
- So long green and red, hello pink! I’ve also made it easy to change the color scheme in the future through the magic of Sass variables.
- Comments are gone! At least for now, maybe I’ll change my mind about that. I do love getting feedback about stuff I post on here, so drop me a line if you might have otherwise left a comment.
Of all the changes in this website update, the one I feel best about is cutting out the third-party tracking. I’ve noticed that YouTube embeds serve up a DoubleClick advertising tracker, just by loading a page with a video, which isn’t cool. Now video embeds only load on demand, after you’ve hit the play button (mobile visitors may need to tap two times). Naturally, you’ll still be tracked by Google if you play an embedded YouTube video, but otherwise the page shouldn’t leak data to any off-site parties.
The bottom line is I am in control of what goes up on phiffer.org, which includes things like hidden advertising trackers. Now there is slightly less ambient surveillance around here. Plus the pages should load marginally faster!