“Virtual Unreality,” the latest book by the New York University journalism Professor Charles Seife, is certain of one thing: The Internet is filled with misinformation. It’s on rockier territory when it comes to the nature of this misinformation and the degree of the problem, much less what it all means. Early on, though, Seife comes out full of smoke: “Bad information is a disease that attacks the brain,” he warns. “It messes with your head, making you do things that you shouldn’t.”
I reviewed Charles Seife’s “Virtual Unreality” for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mariusz Zurawek had a problem. Two months ago, the 26-year-old Polish entrepreneur started seeing what he called “a large growth” of traffic to his website, JustPaste.It, from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. Consistent with its name, Zurawek’s site makes it easy to publish text, photos or PDFs, and at the beginning of this year rebels…
My latest for Politico Magazine. On the Islamic State’s media strategy — its strengths and weaknesses, and whether tech companies are obligated to do something about it.
For Politico Magazine, I wrote about the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications and how social media is seen as a new battleground between jihadist and western government propaganda.
In the latest issue of The Baffler, I wrote about Processed World, a now-defunct Bay Area magazine that responded to an earlier wave of tech-driven gentrification. PW had a lot of smart things to say about work and its discontents, the computerization of the workplace, and a host of issues — corporate power, income inequality, unacknowledged forms of labr — that still matter today. If you want to read back issues of PW, try the Internet Archive or Bad Attitude, an anthology of the mag’s early years.
To understand how much commerce has changed in recent years, consider a simple trip to the grocery store. When you drive to the store now, your movements are recorded by your cellphone provider, your car’s GPS, your smartphone apps and police license-plate scanners. At the store, a sensor system recognizes your phone and notes that this is your first visit in several weeks — which spurs a piece of software at the chain’s Midwestern headquarters to send you more coupons for your favorite items. CCTV cameras log your movements and may read your facial expressions so as to gauge your reactions to certain products. Your frequent-shopper card and credit card ensure that your purchase is recorded permanently. As you drive home, the store already may be selling your personal information to data brokers. From there it potentially goes anywhere.
I reviewed Julia Angwin’s book about surveillance for the LA Times.
A kid walked by and knocked over the walking stick of the man sitting next to me. I picked up the stick, returned it to his place, and the man thanked me. “I’m not totally blind,” he said, almost cheerfully, like it’s information he’s just happy to be able to convey. “Only legally blind.”
Okay, I said. When I sat down I had seen him hunched over, staring deep into an iPhone, the rectangle nearly touching his face.
He started working at a quart of ice cream he’d produced from a plastic bag. He fumbled with it a little but got on top of it, opened it up, and soon was digging at it with his spoon.
His right eye was closed, and around the eye, on his right temple and cheek, was discolored skin, looking like some liquid burned him, forming a puddle that wouldn’t wash off. But I don’t know about this sort of thing. I wondered if he’s a veteran — he might be 30 — and about IEDs. For some reason I thought of “splash damage,” a video game term.
After a few minutes he turned to me and asked, “If my grandmother has dementia, and my uncle has power of attorney” — a train started coming into the station, and suddenly he began to talk much louder — “and if he signs the deed over to someone else, is that legally binding?”
I told him yes, I think so. He nodded like he already knew that, and we stepped, almost in unison, onto the train.
There’s an emergent feeling, at least among the people I talk to, that Twitter has become too much of an ordeal, a Kabuki theater of outrage, radical posturing, and other well-worn, performative acts that we know all too well. Unlike Kabuki, there’s little pleasure in the costumes and gestures and pageantry. They’ve become too familiar, not to mention threadbare. The culture’s strictures have crowded out room for play, much less dissent or refusal to participate. (The journalist who isn’t on Twitter is either an elder statesman or playing some other kind of game.)
Perhaps you’re familiar with this argument — all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again, etc. But I do wonder if there’s some point at which Media Twitter will eat itself, when the gravity well turns into a black hole. It’ll be a time when we acknowledge that most of us are acting out the same bitter tropes, that we expend such intense, passionate focus on items that won’t be remembered in a day or two, and that, in the final analysis, it’s tiring. The jockeying for attention — a currency more valuable and ephemeral than peak-Bitcoin — is demeaning and can’t be rescued by meta humor or conventional irony.
You can still “do well” on Twitter if you want. Undoubtedly there are people who find voices or avenues of expression there who otherwise might struggle for a foothold or be shut out entirely. But it’s impossible to gain any security or to “win” at Twitter, despite the Internet parlance. Visibility requires constant maintenance, vigilance even. You can be more on point, funnier, more tied into the news cycle, a better curator, more radical, more aggrieved, but you will inevitably be usurped by someone who has judged you not angry/outraged/radical/sharp enough. They flank from the left, propelled by the confidence of youth.
In some circles now, the most effective rhetorical act is to accuse someone else of bad faith or hypocrisy (perhaps by digging up a year-old tweet and trying to re-contextualize it for the debate of the day). These are extraordinarily effective moves because they’re easy and cheap and difficult to counter. To reply that an accusation of bad faith is itself in bad faith — a disingenuous bit of sleight-of-hand designed to mask its own empty meaning — seems like a grown-up version of “I know what you are but what am I?” How can you debate someone like this? Why would you bother? And yet these petty skirmishes have been mistaken for sincere political engagement. They are how reputations are made.
The problem, at its root, might be that Twitter actually matters too much to journalists and media outlets right now, along with anyone who aspires to be part of this world (“community” is too kind a term). It’s too central to how news is crafted and distributed and, more personally and immediately, how we craft and distribute ourselves — our public identities, our relationships, our incessant-but-seemingly-essential attempts at self-promotion and advancement. We must insert ourselves into the morass, we must relentlessly personalize everything, or else we risk being overlooked. Particularly in a time of precarity, when if you aren’t one of the legions of poverty-wage freelancers then you are likely on the lookout for your next job (everyone wants to be poached!), you are always selling. You have to: the benefits are meager but they’re real. We’ve all watched the banal spectacle of a mediocre writer noisily tweeting his way into a staff job through a steady output of congratulatory messages, judicious retweets, unearned hyperbole (best lede ever! best correction ever!), and savvy cultivation of his betters. It’s a strange alchemy — the ingredients themselves are poisonous, they’ll hollow you out — but the recipe is known.
Attention and connections have always been powerful tools for a journalist; it’s just more enervating to see them collected in the always-on Twittersphere rather than at the occasional book or cocktail party. Sure, it’s never been only about the work. But I wonder if it’s ever been less about the work than it is now.
I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz about The Wherewithal, his new novel in verse. Topics discussed: the Shoah, Vietnam, being down and out in 1967 San Francisco, welfare, the poor as a minority, the specter of the Zodiac killer, failure, and using Wittgenstein as armor. Read it here.
For the latest issue of Pacific Standard, I wrote about big data, “culturomics,” Google Ngram Viewer, and the new book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture. The review is here and in the print edition of the mag.
Over at Al Jazeera America, I wrote about the data trade, how data brokers manipulate consumer information, corporate surveillance, and the need to regulate data brokers.
"Networking into the Abyss," my article about SXSW Interactive and Silicon Valley techno-utopianism, is now up at The Baffler (it came out in print in the magazine’s summer issue). In it, I try to go beyond the conventional complaints about commercialism and shameless networking to get at why SXSW is so pernicious, particularly in its fusion of masculinist corporatism and cyber-libertarianism. Besides being the tech industry’s preeminent festival of ideas, SXSW is in many ways a microcosm of Silicon Valley itself. Once a bastion of DIY, indie culture (it began as a small music festival), it’s since wholly given itself over to inflated myths of the glories of entrepreneurship, “disruption,” and the world-changing capabilities of the latest wearable gadget. Like Steve Jobs, it put away its drugs and learned how to marry corporate success and ruthless business acumen with vague nods towards the counterculture. (The recent influx of tech-industry moguls into Burning Man is the latest iteration of this phenomenon.)
And while the products and companies celebrated at SXSW often have important political and social consequences, the festival and its attendees present themselves as stylishly apolitical. That helps them to maintain a certain purity of purpose, an irrational self-belief, in the sense now common to Silicon Valley, that what they are doing is inherently important, that one can “save the world” by building a “great” company — even if it’s just a company that, like so many of its peers, collects user data en masse and sells it to advertisers. This is where libertarianism comes in, disguising itself as insouciant rebelliousness. “The traditional rules don’t apply to us,” these technological elites tell one another. Except they’re not doing graffiti or playing folk songs or marching in the streets; they’re ignoring workers’ rights and municipal regulations, because Uber is just that cool and the sharing economy should be brought to everyone.
SXSW has changed Austin, its longtime home, a great deal. It’s now by far the biggest event in the city and a year-round operation, with festivals about education, music, film, the environment, and venture capital (that one, naturally, held in Las Vegas). During April, when most of SXSW’s events take place, downtown Austin resembles a privatized company town, a series of fiefdoms apportioned between Pepsi, Google, Samsung, and Doritos.
After my article went to press, SXSW announced a new sports festival, SXsports, to be held next year. Its metastasis is nearing stage four. It’s become a perpetual motion machine, growing because it has to, because the money and celebrities and corporate sponsorships (which are truly as insane and lavish and tone-deaf as you have heard) have become their own self-sustaining machine. But when so many people are getting rich and there’s such good feeling in the air, who’s to tell them to stop?