It seems impossible that it’s been two weeks since last we wrote, but we can’t decide if it feels more like two days or two months since Election Day. Yet again, 2020 proves to be an exercise in time dilation. Anyway, we’re back to our usual tricks this week, thinking about why Sesame Street is so great, how privacy online can be a double-edged sword, and what we would do with a truly public space on the web.
1: The great distractor
One of our favorite techniques at the Ethical Futures Lab is, when confronted with an assertion that something is “better”, to ask “for whom”? Setting clear goals for the success of a project is critical, and the more we investigate recent innovations like social networks or viral media sites or smart home gadgets, increasingly we find that the answer to “better for whom” is “the company that made it”.
James Bridle, an artist and writer on the ethics of our futures, has written a thoughtful essay comparing the rise of Sesame Street with Teletubbies, and finally, YouTube. Whereas Sesame Street was a purposeful, research-driven collaboration to educate American schoolchildren, Teletubbies was a program aimed at toddlers and designed almost entirely by intuition. Despite their different origins, however, they tapped into the developmental psychology of their target audience, each with the goal of helping children develop into thoughtful adults.
Where Sesame Street was trying, in the words of New Yorker critic Renata Adler, “to sell, by means of television, the rational, the humane, and the linear to little children”, YouTube has been proven to engender irrational beliefs, radicalize viewers to inhumane ends, and challenge the linearity of rational thought. While this is not YouTube’s goal, the pursuit of its true goal — gathering attention — has led to these “optimizations.” What would a new Children’s Television Workshop-like organization look like in 2020? What would its goals be today? And, perhaps most importantly, could it compete?
2: Nothing & everything is a battery
A significant hurdle in the evolution of electric vehicles, large and small, is the evolution of battery technology. Hybrid cars are significantly heavier than their conventionally gas-powered counterparts, and often, have their shapes and performance characteristics defined by the lithium ion batteries that power them. A Toyota RAV4 LE Hybrid weighs about 320 pounds more than the comparable gas-powered model.
But what if the shell of the car—or the robot or the mobile phone—was the battery? Scientists in the UK have developed a carbon fiber-based material that can provide some of the electricity needed to power an electric car. Initial tests of these “structural batteries” turned an air vent into the battery that keeps the radio, A/C, and other systems on when the engine shuts off. Larger scale tests, including a full car shell, could lead to cars shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Separately, scientists at the University of Michigan developed a flexible skin for robots that provides their juice, letting the machines move and flex.
Form follows function, and often, follows payload as well. Cars are shaped the way they are primarily to house the large, heavy combustion engine up front. Battery-powered vehicles already had us rethinking these shapes, moving the bulk of the power to the floor in vast, dense packs of li-ion batteries. The flexibility and freedom to design a device that needs no source of power other than its own shell gives industrial designers new flexibility, while still developing sustainably.
There’s a renaissance underway in structural battery research, which aims to build energy storage into the very devices and vehicles they power.
3: Making virtual space for all
Another one of our favorite tenets to fall back on when imagining futures is to “challenge the built environment”. Said another way, we seek to question the parts of our surroundings that seem inevitable and immovable. We see a path, or a building, or a park that sits on $37 trillion worth of land, and wonder “how did this get here”?
Despite being surrounded by public parks in the real world, especially in cities like New York or London, we hardly ever question how they got there. In contrast, we never encounter a public space online that was set aside specifically for communal use. Eli Pariser writes in WIRED about this disparity, and argues that fixing the Internet will require us to create spaces where people can gather without ulterior motive on the part of the owner. Public spaces like parks encourage us to create a connection with others; I may be playing volleyball with friends and you may be walking your dog or reading poetry, and yet we both inhabit the same space, both together and apart. The park, in this case, wants nothing from us and extracts no value from our use of it, by design.
What we find striking about this argument is how difficult it is to imagine such a place online. Even in Pariser’s plea for smart, motivated people to create a communal space, no description of its capabilities or qualities is given, aside from “seamless, intuitive, and irresistible”. And even in this brief description he violates one of the core tenets he claims gives parks their value, namely the friction they cause of a person running into someone they wish to avoid, or encountering an unexpected gathering, or competing for space with others. Criticism aside, we broadly agree with Pariser’s arguments, as we did when we first encountered them back in 2012 in Anil Dash’s writing. In short, it’s well past time to imagine what a truly public space online could be, and start building as many of them as we can.
We need public spaces, built in the spirit of Walt Whitman, that allow us to gather, communicate, and share in something bigger than ourselves.
4: What we do in the shadows
Back in 2016, we wrote a piece for Nieman Lab’s Predictions series entitled “Behind closed doors: the new social media”. In it, we posited that public, “broadcast” social media was in the process of being supplanted by private and semi-private interactions, and that we would need to reckon with the implications of that shift. We have, in fact, been seeing the changes we predicted come to pass, and no place more so than on Facebook’s massive platforms. Last year, Mark Zuckerberg wrote what amounted to a manifesto about private social media, saying “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. “
Well, that sounds lovely. However (there’s always a “however”), as with everything Facebook touches, good intentions turn into massive disinformation and abuse without enough consideration. In this OneZero story, Damon Beres cites a statistic that only 2.5% of Facebook activity is visible on public Facebook. And as we’ve seen from examples like the “Stop the Steal” group (that Facebook thankfully did shut down), private spaces on Facebook are often rife with everything from viral misinformation to outright calls for violence. On the one hand, there is a legitimate need for safe, encrypted, private spaces: they enable people in fascist regimes to speak freely, they allow journalists to do their jobs, and more. But on the other hand, “The privacy Zuckerberg was referring to — ephemeral messages and end-to-end encryption — gives equal cloud cover to all actors. (Friends planning a surprise birthday party, friends planning a surprise terrorist attack, and so on.)”
There’s no easy answer to this quandary, but based on the last several years, one thing we can be sure of is that Facebook can’t be trusted to figure it out themselves. They’ve proven repeatedly that they will put Facebook’s own self-interest above any other concerns. Which is exactly Eli Pariser’s point about the need for publicly owned public spaces. We’ve been too long at the mercy of business interests to set the incentives and guardrails for our public discourse, and it’s time for some real governance.
On Tuesday, New York Times tech reporter Davey Alba wrote that private groups are driving the vast majority of interactions on a viral piece of pro-Trump misinformation on Facebook…
5: Ethical consumption vs. consumer activism
This piece by Elizabeth Cline is a blistering critique of ethical consumerism — the idea that social change can be effected by “voting with your wallet”. Ethical consumers eschew Amazon in favor of small businesses, buy fair trade goods, and so on. But Cline argues that the practice is delusional and that there is no evidence of its effectiveness. Furthermore, giant corporations have gotten savvy enough to build greenwashed brands that cater to these shoppers, so that so-called ethical purchases are often supporting the same companies one intends to boycott.
What’s interesting is that this essay devolve into nihilism, nor is it an argument to abolish capitalism altogether. Rather, it’s a call to real action — to the kind of strategies that have proven effective to making real change. Cline contrasts ethical consumption with the consumer activist movement of the past, led by folks like Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader: “The most striking difference between yesterday’s consumer activist and today’s ethical consumer is the matter of responsibility. Who or what is to blame for social problems, and who has the power to solve them?” We’ve put the blame and responsibility for solving ethical problems on the individual consumer, rather than using collective action to hold corporations accountable to society. Cline’s essay is a call to remember what democracy really looks like, to remember the power of organizing, regulation, and mass action to truly hold power to account.
We must not mistake Ethical Consumption—a private act—for political power or organized, collective social change that benefits everyone.
6: South Park deepfake (clap clap clapclapclap)
The creators of South Park have a new show called Sassy Justice, which features Donald Trump. Sort of. But not really. Its lead character is Fred Sassy, who happens to have Donald Trump’s face. Sassy Justice is the first show to feature deepfakes, or synthetic media. “The satirical twist is that all the footage shown as real is, of course, deepfaked, while all the footage labeled fake is either real or played by puppets. “
On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see synthetic media used in a playful and creative way, and not always framed as a disinformation bogeyman. It’s also being used in a way that trains viewers to have a more critical eye toward media and to question what’s real. On the other hand, the prevalent lies and fakes these past four years have led many people right past critical media literacy all the way to a nihilistic “nothing’s real or trustworthy” attitude. It’s unclear whether a show like Sassy Justice would help viewers be more skeptical or just continue to lose trust in any media.
It’s the first example of a recurring production that will rely on deepfakes as part of its core premise.
One quaint thing: telescription
Today in awesome retrofutures: The Telewriter! This short-lived invention of the early 1900s, also known as a pantograph, enabled people to hand-write messages that could be electronically translated by a robotic arm at a destination up to 50 miles away. It’s almost as cool as pneumatic tubes (except nothing is as cool as pneumatic tubes), and there’s video footage of the Telewriter in action in the 1930s.
Need to send a message to a friend 50 miles away?
Six Signals: Emerging futures, 6 links at a time.
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