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  • feedwordpress 15:40:28 on 2020/06/24 Permalink  

    Beyond the Frontier 


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    Beyond the Frontier

    I almost can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the work the Electronic Frontier Foundation was doing on behalf of all of us who care about the impact technology has on society and culture. They describe their work as protecting digital privacy, free speech, and innovation, but I always saw EFF as an organization that existed because our laws, policies, and cultural practices were all created from a set of assumptions that were radically changed by the ubiquity of computing technology. They’re accelerating the rate at which our institutions adapt to the modern world while protecting our rights.

    So I’m really honored today to get the chance to join the board of the EFF, and I hope I can be of service to the organization, its members, its workers, and its mission. And I thought the best way to celebrate the spirit of how EFF protects free expression would be by talking about how one of their most famous efforts was incredibly fraught and contentious for me and the communities I’m part of.

    Naturally, this had to do with Prince.

    Let’s Go Crazy


    Back in 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted a short clip of her toddler dancing while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” played in the background. Not long before, Prince had begun pushing for Universal (which then represented Prince’s interests for the copyright of his song) to remove any use of his music in social media platforms, and so they issued a takedown request to YouTube. Hijinks ensued, and by a decade later, it had become a Supreme Court case.

    Now legally, the case seems pretty straightforward to me as a lay person; it’s clearly fair use to have a couple seconds of a song in the background of a video of your kid. But the conversation rapidly shifted into the context of when corporations can send takedown notices to each other and what constitutes legitimate action there.

    But truthfully? I don’t care about companies sending each other requests. I care about individual creators making culture and expressing themselves. I want Stephanie Lenz to be able to share a video of her kid.

    Just as importantly, as I watched Prince fight for ownership and control over his work for decades, I learned from him and so many others about the history of exploitation of artists, especially Black artists. It seems eminently reasonable that he should have had a mechanism for saying “I don’t want to do business with YouTube and Google in a manner where they can exploit my work unless o have a say in the terms.” Any relationship where a trillion dollar company can use a person’s creation without them having any ability to negotiate payment or decline to participate isn’t protecting expression either.

    That’s how we’ve ended up in a situation where copyright trolling seemed like the most effective way to shift the balance of power toward a creator who wanted control over their own work. And it’s a perfect example of how our intellectual property framework still needs to evolve much more.

    Thinking Bigger


    Debates over a song in a home video are small potatoes compared to what’s at stake today, though. Digital surveillance and data exploitation follow the same pattern as these behaviors in the physical world: they victimize the most vulnerable more profoundly. The very institutions of civil society and fundamental human rights are being threatened, in the United States and around the world. Though the stakes are much, much higher, the the reasons are similar to why we end up with absurd copyright cases: our systems aren’t designed toward accountability for institutions and empowerment for individuals. Our laws and regulations aren’t centered in the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable people.

    Few organizations have a long track record of fighting for these fundamental rights. And as I’ve made clear here, that hasn’t always meant I’ve agreed with EFF on every issue. But over decades of work, they’ve been a force for good, standing up when so few institutions do. Just yesterday, an effort they spearheaded made a tool we all use every day default to more secure, more trustworthy communications for everyone, by default.

    These are the efforts what will make our technology platforms accountable to the people they serve. These are the efforts that will rein in the worst abuses our governments try to inflict upon the vulnerable by exploiting technology. I’m excited to, in my own small way, help in that effort. And I hope you’ll join EFF as a member and help with this work, too.

     
  • feedwordpress 23:57:00 on 2020/05/13 Permalink  

    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream 


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    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to watch the most definitive record of Prince and the Revolution at their commercial peak, on one of the biggest musical tours ever mounted to that point.

    It's to raise funds for the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for WHO — and you can donate right here!

    The Syracuse concert was near the end of the tour, the 94th show of a run that had been scheduled for 99 shows, and that had already been sold 1.6 million tickets in 27 cities, and would go on to gross $72 million in today’s dollars — not counting merchandise or, you know, the twenty million movie tickets that had been sold for the Purple Rain film over the prior year, or the actual Purple Rain album, which had already sold over 9 million copies just in the United States on its way to eventually selling over 25 million around the world.

    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    (Image by Thomas de Bruin from unused-prince-tickets.com)

    There are so many more huge numbers associated with the Purple Rain tour: There were 40,000 people in the crowd in Syracuse! The crew consisted of 105 people who traveled on twelve buses! But at its heart, this was a Prince show, and so ultimately it was still all about the music.

    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    Prince's handwritten greeting from the Purple Rain tour book.


    Let’s Go Crazy

    The show starts as the album starts as the movie starts: With the inimitable organ chords that kick of Prince's sermon to open "Let's Go Crazy". As those chords begin, we see writing scrawled across the screen:

    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    It's Prince's handwriting. Though we've seen that his script was as elegant, loopy and sensuous as the man himself, Prince would occasionally drop into his messier printed handwriting when he was going for a fun and casual vibe, as on his hand-scrawled cover art for the surprise club single of "Gett Off" that he released on his birthday in 1991.

    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    But the music! This time, Prince starts "Let's Go Crazy" with, "Hello, Syracuse and the world. My name is Prince, and I have come 2 play with u." Prince gives a shout to "...and the world" here because this concert was broadcast all across the world, including a live simulcast in Germany — reflecting how he was now becoming a global superstar.

    The band rips through "Let's Go Crazy" in record time here, and we can see what a well-oiled machine the Revolution are by this point in the tour. Note how every single note and move includes full choreography for the entire band. This was a technique Prince had drilled into all his bands, including side projects like The Time. It's almost impossible to overstate the difficulty of pulling off complex choreography while singing and playing instruments at a level worthy of Prince's famous perfectionism.

    Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin summarized it in Rolling Stone's oral history of the Purple Rain tour:

    I had boots on, tons of jewelry, and my instrument and I had to sing and  do choreography. It was literally the Olympics. We were like  synchronized swimmers. If someone screwed up that thing, there’s not  even a bronze medal. You’re just off the team. This was high stakes.
    The COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund Livestream

    Finally, we come to Prince's scorching final guitar coda to "Let's Go Crazy" where he brings out his entire palette of Guitar Face expressions, from playful smirk to full Mustachioed Telecaster Orgasm. That final look may have been one of the inspirations for the creepy faces that Billy Crystal made in his impersonation of Prince that aired as the cold open for Saturday Night Live the same night as this concert. Riffing on Prince's decision to decline participating in the recording of "We Are The World" (then the number one song in the country), Crystal donned blackface, a not-infrequent trope in his career, and inflicted a cringe-inducing Prince parody on the world, complete with Julia-Louis Dreyfuss as The Revolution's Lisa Coleman. But I digress.


    Delirious

    The fiery finale to "Let's Go Crazy" leads with almost no break straight into "Delirious'. Though it gets overlooked in many later overviews of Prince's career, "Delirious" was a huge early hit for Prince during the 1999 era, bolstered by the fact that it was released as a single on the exact same day that Eddie Murphy's "Delirious" special debuted on HBO. Two of the biggest, and most culturally defining, artists of the 80s found a perfect synchronicity in their work despite there being, to my knowledge, no coordination between the two on the releases even though they were fans of each other's work.

    As we start the song, Prince tears his shirt open wide and unapologetically swivels his hips, instantly upgrading the world from using Elvis as the reference for how to drive a crowd into a sexual frenzy based on a classic rockabilly groove. The somewhat odd early-80s resurgence of rockabilly was a repeated inspiration for Prince in this era, as on 1981's "Jack U Off" (off of Controversy), and "Horny Toad", which was the b-side to the "Delirious" single.

    This arrangement of "Delirious" also shows how "Let's Go Crazy" had sections that evolved from earlier jams on "Delirious", including a surprising dissonant middle section that would eventually see release on the 12" extended version of "Let's Crazy", but that fits seamlessly into either song in a live context.

    Isolated drum machine, vocals and piano of "Let's Go Crazy" extended breakdown

    When Prince calls out "somebody call me a doctor!" as the song becomes a jam, it's a reference to keyboardist Matt Fink's stage name of "Dr. Fink", and here Fink ably takes over keyboard duties on the standout piano riff for the jazzy musical breakdown in the song.

    Prince's theatrics in the middle of the song feature a gag he'd use often on televised performances, speaking off-mic to the crowd (often with messages that were a little too risqué to say on broadcast), which increased the intimacy of the show for those present, and helped reinforce to the audience at home that no recording or simulcast could ever compare to an actual live Prince show.


    1999

    The single most iconic keyboard line of Prince's career brings a roar from the crowd: It's 1999! Donning a newly-shiny version of his signature purple trenchcoat, a fixture of the then-culturally-dominant MTV, Prince begins by sliding down a fireman's pole and the Revolution rips through a largely-faithful rendition of the hit. The Revolution's choreography here is even more athletic than the version they'd used on the 1999 tour just two years earlier.

    As the song breaks down into its jam section, take a moment to look back at Bobby Z (born Robert Rivkin) on the drums — he's often on his feet. Prince's intense focus on wanting to put on an extremely dynamic stage show had his drummer playing standing up so that he could do more dancing. (This was taking advantage of the fact that many foundational rhythms were played by the then-new technology of the drum machine in order to keep the rhythm going.)

    The breakdown section of 1999 here includes a bit of "Reveille" played on a synthesizer that sounds like a tinny trumpet. It's an odd refrain and perhaps something of a nod to the weirdly Americana-focused tropes that Prince played with at the time (most notably in "America" off of Around The World In A Day, released a short time later in 1985). But "Reveille" itself reappeared in Prince's work several times over the years, almost always played with that same weird synthesized trumpet, as on "Chaos and Disorder", the title track from one of his 1996 releases, and "Man In a Uniform", from 1998's The Truth. It's probaby one of the least likely (and most obscure) repeated motifs in Prince's music over the years.


    Little Red Corvette

    A little fist pumping and guitar wankery, and we're on to Little Red Corvette, following "1999" in sequence just as it does on the album of the same name. It's hard to overstate what a sonic and cultural breakthrough this song had been for Prince, and worth remembering how fresh that would have been in everyone's mind during this show, just two years after the song had come out as a single.

    The staging here again almost exactly mirrors the familiar music video, from lighting to the band's positions on the stage to even many of the smallest steps of Prince's choreography. Though the performance is undeniably charismatic (Prince's cute little breakdance move elicits screams as if it were his own moonwalk), it's easy to see why Prince would later characterize this tour as a bit too locked-down in format, not leaving much room for improvisation. This is an artist, after all, who would later do entire tours where he never played the same setlist twice, and even lengthy runs of shows where no individual songs were repeated.


    Take Me With U

    The Revolution has often said that "Take Me With U" was one of their favorite songs to play live on this tour, because it was a chance to turn up the house lights on the crowd and start a singalong, as the band does here. But almost as quickly as a groove gets going, Prince shows off his control of the band with an indulgent faux-nap in the middle of the song. It's a playful bit, but also seems to indicate just how much Prince had begun to focus on having fun with his role as a bandleader as opposed to the instrumental virtuosity he'd show off on other tours.

    Fortunately, the Revolution came to groove on the song, and they funk it up in a way that the album version's string-laden romance had never even hinted at. Prince hypes up the crowd and coaxes as much of a funky roar as one can get out of central new York. This version of "Take Me With U" is fun, and the crowd work is terrific, but the best live recording of the song from this tour was turned into its actual music video.

    As I'd said in Every Single Video Prince Ever Made,

    Another scorching live performance, Take Me With U finds Prince and  the Revolution at the height of their fame, during the Purple Rain tour,  when they broke records selling out every seat in The Summit in Houston  5 times in one week.
    In lieu of Apollonia's duet vocals as on the recorded song, the song  becomes a rocking jam session with Prince's searing guitar solo  rocketing into another gear with an interpolation of his own  "Controversy" at the 3-minute mark. Add in some weird but fun special  effects that make you feel like you're flying through the air while  Prince shreds on his guitar, and it's hard not to love this one.

    After this, it's finally time to slow things down a bit. And it's worth remembering — at this point we're more than 23 minutes into the show and every single song played has been a Top 10 pop hit. The sheer depth of Prince's catalog of hits is really overwhelming in a concert context.


    Interlude

    Prince brings back his weird nods to Americana with a synth-driven version of "Yankee Doodle", featuring synth textures that deeply evoke the sound of the Around The World in a Day album which would be released just a few weeks later. All this crypto-jingoism acts as something of a reminder that this is a tour which began the same week that Ronald Reagan was re-elected.

    We also see Prince and Wendy moving offstage to watch a laser light show, a move which seems to presage the central conceit of his 1987 Sign O' The Times tour, in which Prince and dancer Cat Glover repeatedly focus on watching a "crystal ball" (the plasma globe lights which were popular in the 80s). In retrospect, there's an odd aspect of straightwashing to Prince and Wendy's interactions here, but the digression passses quickly enough.

    Prince's monologue here would later become more obvious as a way of testing out lyrics and song concepts in front of a live crowd, and many were ideas that when fully fleshed-out on record were pretty exciting. But as spoken dialogue in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, the effect wasn't as compelling as Prince's stage shows would become in the years to follow.


    Do Me, Baby

    As we begin the first ballad of the show, we also hear the first non-single and the first track dating back to before Prince's pop breakout with 1999. Basically, this is a nod to fans who knew Prince before he crossed over to white audiences. The performance is srtong, but notably short, especially in comparison to how he'd stretch out with this song (and his other seduction ballads that followed) in concert.


    Irresistible Bitch

    At this point, we're fully into the part of the setlist that's clearly about Prince's tastes. This was the b-side to Let's Pretend We're Married, the least successful single off of 1999, and even the a-side was barely played on any radio stations. It's funky as hell, and the Revolution is in great form here, especially with Wendy Melvoin's work on rhythm guitar, but fully 39,000 people in this crowd had to have just been waiting for Prince to shake his ass at them.

    Which, fortunately, he does.


    Possessed

    This is a pure band workout. Prince is fully asking the Revolution to fill in as his erstwhile JBs while he does his best James Brown. Running through perfect "stop on the one!" vamps gives Prince the chance to do his splits, mic stand tricks, and every other move he's got. After 90+ shows on the tour, Prince was also relishing his ability to give the subtlest of cues to the band and get an incredible response.

    As Bobby Z says in that Rolling Stone history of the tour,

    At our Syracuse show, he called out “sway from side to side,” and the  entire Revolution moved like a piston in an engine back and forth.

    We also see our first real appearance of Eddie M., who had been Sheila E's saxophonist in her opening act set earlier in the evening, but is now playing the part of Maceo Parker to Prince's James Brown.

    And then to finish the song off with a bang, Prince cues the Revolution to play 25 hits — and they nail the count perfectly.


    How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore

    This is another song that would have been an incredible challenge for the audience at the time. Though it's a stone-cold classic now, it's worth remembering that this song was the b-side to 1999, meaning fans would have had to have bought the single of the song on a 45 or cassette in order to even know it. But it's no surprise why the song has become one of Prince's best-loved songs, it's an extraordinary bit of songcraft, and Prince alone on the piano onstage shows us why.

    If you've ever heard the song before, do yourself a favor and take a moment to hear this alternate take of the song, released for the first time recently as part of the Deluxe Edition re-release of 1999.

    Even though much of the crowd may not have known the song, Prince's performance is spellbinding, especially as he becomes the first male pop star to ever ask a crowd of tens of thousands to appreciate his lace-clad ass while cooing at them in a piercing falsetto.

    The length with which Prince extends some of these vignettes onstage (along with his earlier spoken asides) seems in retrospect to indicate that he was using these unstructured parts of the concert to express himself as the rest of the setlist and performances became bound by much more rote choreography. No surprise, then, that the song ends with Prince talking about "Temptation" — a standout track from the Around the World In a Day album that would be released just a few weeks later, and which clearly had already captured Prince's attention.


    Let's Pretend We're Married


    International Lover


    God


    Computer Blue


    Darling Nikki


    The Beautiful Ones


    When Doves Cry


    I Would Die 4 U


    Baby I'm A Star


    Purple Rain

     
  • feedwordpress 03:34:42 on 2020/05/07 Permalink  

    When Every App Crashes 


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    When Every App Crashes

    Today, for about half an hour in the afternoon, pretty much every app that you might try on your iPhone would likely have crashed upon opening it. It's probably worth understanding why, but more importantly, worth understanding what that reality means. And here, I'm addressing people who aren't coders, aren't engineers, aren't programmers — just regular users of apps.

    The flagship mobile apps from Google, Spotify, Apple, NYT, Venmo, Walmart and many other huge companies all broke for about 30 minutes. A simple explanation of the cause is pretty brief: they all use code from Facebook, so when that broke, they all started crashing.

    But let's take a deeper look. First, a little context: one surprising thing about programmers is they all regularly, routinely make use of code written by strangers on the internet, often even code written by people who work at competitors. This is the magic of “open source” and it’s kind of amazing. But there’s also a way that companies try to use open source to extend their influence or dominance in the market. In this case, Facebook absolutely wants every app on the internet to use Facebook for login, since that will make both the other companies & their users dependent on Facebook.

    For apps, or more specifically for the companies that create popular apps, using Facebook login is appealing — users already have an account. Easy! And Facebook made it even easier to take advantage of their billions of logged-in users by writing the code for you if you’re a programmer who wants that feature. You can just go get it for free, and plug it into your app pretty quickly and simply. The tricky part, though is that now your app is dependent on that code from Facebook. You have to trust that it works the way they say it will, or you have to read all the code and fully understand it. (That’s almost as much work as just writing the code yourself.)

    So, understandably, everybody just plugs in the Facebook code (often called a “library” or more formally, a Software Development Kit, “SDK”) and focuses on the more important features of their app. But while lots of open source code libraries that you might use just perform a certain function in your app, like displaying a picture or formatting some data, this Facebook code also relies on a service on Facebook’s site running properly, too.

    Today, that service got broken.

    The result of Facebook's breakdown today is kinda wild: a minor configuration change on a Facebook server that isn’t even visible to regular users made dozens of high-profile apps from some of the biggest companies in the world all start crashing when you open them — even if you weren’t using Facebook at all.


    Status: It's Complicated

    Done right, open source is magic. It gives coders super powers to build things they could never do alone. But it can also be a strategy that makes huge parts of our online experience dependent on a few companies, and vulnerable to their choices. The failure that millions of people experience today was just (“just”) some apps crashing for a little while. A few weeks ago, it was Zoom using a Facebook library that sent data in ways they didn’t disclose. We don’t have a cultural fluency in how to talk about the interconnectedness of all the tech around us.

    These issues matter a lot. Our kids are now spending all day connected to apps that use this code. We’ll need to have trusted apps for COVID tracing that don’t have these issues — but even if they are done right, many won’t trust them because they’ve learned to be skeptical.

    Simply put, we have to demand of our technology what we have of our food, clothing, medicine and other essential needs: visibility into how they’re supplied & sourced, understanding the workers & working conditions that shape them, and accountability when the system has failures. When the supply chain for Tylenol was vulnerable, the manufacturer addressed the issue directly. When consumers wanted to know their tuna was dolphin-safe, companies responded.

    That raises a few key questions: Who makes your apps? Where are they sourced? Which apps do you use that were made by people you trust?


    Needless to say, we think about this a lot at Glitch. Every one of the millions of apps on Glitch was made by a real, regular person. The overwhelming majority have their code clearly visible, and all can be traced to the source project they were remixed from. You can even inspect the history of what was added to the code by remixing an app yourself. And of course the creators are visible right where you see the app — you know everyone who helped make it.

    This is an architecture of accountability. It's just one part of a broader ecosystem where millions of creative people around the world are making a more person, more human internet. (In a tech context, we'd call it a "Yes Code" approach.) While I'm understandably proud of Glitch's role in this kind of work, it's going to take everyone making steps toward a world of accountable tech for us to really see wins here. I hope we can teach enough people about these ideas in order to make this a movement that becomes as inevitable as the similar pushes for accountability in other parts of our daily lives.


    virtual exhibition 004 by Naoto Hieda

     
  • feedwordpress 02:42:00 on 2020/04/22 Permalink  

    Questlove’s Prince Tribute 


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    Questlove's Prince Tribute

    There could be no more fitting remembrance of Prince than Questlove going deep into his catalog and spinning some of Prince's greatest works into a multi-hour DJ set. Unless Quest did that five nights in a row. Which he did! It was an absolutely monumental marathon of nightly live streams for the better part of a week, often ending in the wee hours of the morning.

    So, Miss TLC and I felt obligated to do justice to that herculean effort by documenting the sets as they happened, adding live liner notes covering everything from the song titles (responding to the incessant queries of "what song is this?" in the Instagram comments) to never-before-known bits of trivia shared by some of Prince's collaborators who dropped in to witness these already-legendary sets.

    I hope you'll take a moment to read our notes, to listen to Quest's sets as you're able, and to remember one of the bravest and most inspiring artists we've ever gotten to enjoy. And if the spirit moves you to explore Prince's catalog for yourself, here are a few great places to start, along with every single video Prince ever made.

    Oh, and if you're a geek? I wrote up a whole article on how I made the app to do all these live liner notes — in the 20 minutes before Quest started his set. Please do give it a look!

     
  • feedwordpress 09:59:00 on 2020/03/11 Permalink  

    My thinking on Covid-19 


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    (Warning: this will be upsetting; you will not want to read this if you are already stressed.)

    First, a disclaimer — I'm far from an expert, have no special knowledge, and only know the same things as everyone else reading the news. But I have to plan ahead and am decent at extrapolating from human nature, and try to anticipate problems. So this is the situation I am trying to plan for, in the U.S.

    It will be like 500 9/11s.

    This thing will be far worse than most people think. A few examples of what that means:

    • Over a million dead in the U.S. by July 4.
    • Every American will know someone who dies in the next three months, with the death rate rising to double baseline mortality by May, and possibly higher.
    • Entire swaths of the economy — hospitality, restaurants, education — will change as profoundly as air travel did post-9/11.
    • The most likely historical antecedents point to martial law in many places, and the possible complete suspension of the election and partial or total inoperation of major civil society institutions.
    • Every single person will be in a state of PTSD or trauma, except a few people who didn’t lose anyone, and the omnipresent friction of these states will leave everyone on edge.
    • Those who are ill from other causes will be deprioritized, leaving lingering or even chronic and life-threatening conditions for millions.
    • Those pushed into extreme duress by the denial of healthcare services to their loved ones or themselves will increasingly resort to violence.
    • Part of what will drive desperation will be the way that those who lose a loved one will have to witness it; they will be denied healthcare that is available but being triaged to others in front of them.
    • Misinformation and rumors will accelerate as institutions are weakened, and violence, bias and exclusion will ramp up greatly. Existing social schisms will deepen even as people forge survivor bonds across conventional social barriers.
    • We have no cure and no vaccine and do not know when or if we will, and do not know if we can be reinfected by the virus, especially as it already has at least two strains.
    • Our models of risk management are based on things like natural disasters, where even those displaced or those forced to be refugees can usually eventually reach a state of disengagement from the immediate threat. There will not be a place to disengage from this threat. The hopelessness of knowing there is no respite will overwhelm many.
    • While this is going on, we will still have ordinary natural disasters and climate change impacts that continue and demand lifesaving resources that will have been depleted.
    • Healthcare workers will be beyond exhausted and traumatized, and there is no way to know how long they’ll be needed to perform at unsustainable levels.

    Even ordinary, healthy, resilient people will struggle with this combination. Anyone who is more vulnerable in any way will be pushed to their breaking point.

     
  • feedwordpress 22:21:36 on 2019/12/23 Permalink  

    The People’s Web 


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    The People's Web

    Every day, millions of people rely on independent websites that are mostly created by regular people, weren't designed as mobile apps, connect deeply to culture, and aren't run by the giant tech companies. These are a vision of not just what the web once was, but what it can be again.


    Think of every time you've sent someone a Snopes link to debunk a spurious story that's been shared online. The casual way we might look up the credits for an album on Discogs, or for a movie on IMDB. The absurd details of popular culture captured on TV Tropes and Fandom, linguistic oddities documented on Urban Dictionary, technical questions answered on Stack Overflow, lyrics we quote from Genius, memes on Know Your Meme — all of these are a powerful and valuable record of the world around us, created and captured by millions of ordinary people. And there is, of course, Wikipedia standing astride them all, as perhaps the pinnacle of people-created web references.

    Now, these kinds of sites are far from perfect. Each ecosystem of information has too many barriers to creation. Their communities of moderators and contributors are often exclusionary, echoing the gatekeeping of the media and institutions that preceded them. Some of the information on the sites is inaccurate, or skewed.

    But even with all their flaws, the existence of dozens of massive, collectively-maintained, curated and organized libraries of communal culture are still something like a miracle of the web. Tellingly, these kinds of sites rarely get launched these days, and the ones that have survived all follow a fairly common set of patterns. They often start as a labor of love from one person, or one small, tightly-knit community. The knowledge or information set that they record is considered obscure or even worthless to outsiders, until it becomes so comprehensive that its collective worth is undeniable.

    Their business models have evolved as the internet has evolved, and they tend to start as pretty pure web experiences, that have then had to iterate, often with limited resources, to accommodate the dominance of search engines, the rise of the mobile web, the pervasiveness of social networks, and the societal challenges of organized harassment and targeted misinformation. Through it all, they've grown and adapted, and handled the inevitable community challenges. Many have diversified their business models with everything from memberships and subscriptions to merchandise and events.

    But here's the thing: Taken together, these sites are as valuable as any of the giant platforms run by the tech titans.

    For as much video as we see on YouTube, as many photos as we browse on Instagram, there is just as much time, attention and energy spent every day on exploring and referencing these deep databases. They don't have fancy filters or complex recommendation algorithms, but they meet a variety of deep human needs around creation and expression and often, they also help people simply do their jobs.

    A Web At Risk

    At Glitch, we find a tremendous amount of inspiration in the open-ended creativity of these communities, but I think everyone who loves the web finds joy from the seemingly-endless ideas captured on these sites. We just don't think of them as a cohesive whole like we do with the big apps that live behind a button on our phones. We urgently need to pay attention to this cohort of sites, though, because their position is precarious. Just as we've seen with Google introducing its algorithms and devastating the first generation of the social web, with the rise of native mobile apps and social networks like Facebook and Instagram limiting our links and locking us into their walled gardens, these people-made web communities are deeply vulnerable to the whims of the big players. We have to recognize their collective value before they're facing an existential threat.

    If we're going to build a new web, and a new internet, that respects our privacy and security, that doesn't amplify abuse and harassment and misinformation, we're going to need to imagine models of experiences and communities that could provide a better alternative. There's not going to be a "Facebook killer". But there could simply be lots of other sites, that focus on a different, more constructive and generative, set of goals.

    The good news is, we don't have to imagine what that more human, more expressive, more valuable web could look like. We just have to pay attention to the fact that we visit it every day.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:29:56 on 2019/12/10 Permalink  

    “Link In Bio” is a slow knife 


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    “Link In Bio” is a slow knife

    We don’t even notice it anymore — “link in bio”. It’s a pithy phrase, usually found on Instagram, which directs an audience to be aware that a pertinent web link can be found on that user’s profile. Its presence is so subtle, and so pervasive, that we barely even noticed it was an attempt to kill the web.


    Links on the web are incredibly powerful. There are decades of theory behind the role of hyperlinks in hypertext — did you know in most early versions, links were originally designed to be two-way?  You'd be able to see every page on the web that links to this one. But even in the very simple form that we've ended up with on the World Wide Web for the last 30 years, links are incredibly powerful, opening up valuable connections between unexpected things.

    For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.

    Precarity and Scarcity

    Here's the thing, though: people like links. So closed systems have to present a pressure release valve. Hashtags are a great way out. They use the semiotics of links (early versions of hashtags on social platforms were really barely more than automated links to a search for a particular term) but are also constrained by the platforms they live on. A hashtag is easier to gather into a database, to harvest, to monetize. It’s much easier, sure, but it also doesn’t have all the messiness of a real link. Instagram doesn’t have to worry that clicking on its hashtags will accidentally lead people to Twitter, or vice versa.

    And the ultimate triumph of being anti-web is to make links scarce. The smallest possible number of links a platform could allow is zero, so Instagram gets as close to that theoretical limit as possible, and gives you… one. You can have one link. Aren’t you grateful? One!

    There are some legitimate reasons platforms limit links. Spammers abuse links. Trust is hard to verify around links — too many scammers make links that look real, but lead to sketchy sites. Building a system to monitor all the links being posted on a big platform does take some cost. Maybe you can have a link again, if you are already in the 1% most influential users on the platform and put it in a story — the part of Instagram's experience that drives the engagement metrics they care about. Maybe you just give up, and pay for links, by buying advertising.

    But killing off links is a strategy. It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.

    Links take us to places where we can make choices that Instagram never would.

    Imagine Something New

    With billions of people using the major social platforms, and the people who remember a pre-social-media web increasing in age while decreasing as cultural force on the internet, we’re rapidly losing fluency in what the internet could look like. We’re almost forgotten that links are powerful, and that restraining links through artificial scarcity is an absurdly coercive behavior.

    I don’t care about the imagined “good old days” of the web, and I’m not a pollyanna about the wild, open web being some panacea for all the harms that technology and the internet can enable. But I do think coerce methods of controlling people are a danger, and some of the most insidious techniques are when a platform subtly erases empowering opportunities for its users. So let’s look at all the apps that live under our thumbs, and interrogate the choices they’re making, and then imagine what they would look like if we demanded that our tools don’t tie our hands.

    Flashback: From 2011, Facebook is gaslighting the web.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:30:28 on 2019/12/09 Permalink  

    Podcast of the Year: Function 


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    Podcast of the Year: Function

    Congratulations to Function with Anil Dash for being named podcast of the year! In a media landscape absolutely littered with sound-alike tech podcasts rehashing the same tedious iPhone rumors or parroting Facebook's latest defense of abusing your data, Function has stood out as the rare tech podcast that demonstrates a fluency, and even a comfort in discussing culture, race, policy, and numerous other areas that are too often glossed over in discussions of technology.

    Last year, the first year of Function was a credible, but fairly staid, look at the intersection of technology and culture. In the year since, there have probably been a dozen major tech podcasts that have launched purporting to cover the same ground, to varying degrees of success. So it's refreshing, then, that Function (and its producers, Bridget Armstrong and Keisha "TK" Dutes) has chosen to push far deeper into its more unique, and even controversial, perspective on tech.

    We don't often hear the CEO of a hot tech startup discuss their own struggles with mental health. But the opening episode of this season of Function features exactly that, with host Anil Dash being strikingly candid about his own experiences, as an entry point to a deeply critical and nuanced exploration of the impact that technology can have on our mental health — both for better and for worse. It's also worth flagging that this is one of many episodes that benefit from the team's diligence in providing full text transcripts for every episode; content that's potentially upsetting or that might require more time to process or digest is well-suited to having text to augment the audio.

    The complexity of that first episode typifies the show's attitude toward technology. There's none of the often-exhausting tech cheerleading that plagues so many other popular tech podcasts, nor the vacuousness of the "branded podcasts" that many companies put out as prestige projects. At the same time, there isn't a reflexive Luddite impulse here, either. This is, after all a show coproduced by a tech startup, Glitch, that is all about helping people make the web and write code, and an unusually sincere love for technology and an unabashed geekiness run through even the most tech-critical episodes of the season.


    Where No Other Show Goes

    When this season of Function hit its stride with an episode about how systematic racism gets baked into software like that used for making bail decisions in the criminal justice system, it was evident there's simply no other show that tells the story with a combination of genuine interest in vital civic issues, along with a deep fluency in the technology that often shapes them. There's no other podcast where you can listen to an interview about artificial intelligence impacting the justice system and get a sense that everyone in the conversation actually understands how machine learning works. And the even bigger surprise of that episode is hearing the host of a tech podcast actually learning from guests and reaching a conclusion that wasn't predetermined before they even started taping.

    No show is perfect, of course. There's a little indulgence in dedicating two full episodes of the show's short season to the host's fixation on the musician Prince, though it's a plus that those shows have a tech angle that's not contrived. However, whether it's being willing to take on the idea of GIFs as digital blackface, or a surprisingly insightful look at design bias through the lens of tech accessibility for the disabled community, this entire season of Function has shown a willingness to dig into tech with a passion and perspective that no other show can.

    Perhaps the best example was the final, two-part episode of the season, a look at how to save the 2020 election from the dangers of technology's influence. Just as season one of Function had a prescient look at the vulnerability of election technology, season two goes deep into the ways journalism needs to evolve, and even to the direct impact of activism in forcing the major tech platforms to be accountable.

    It's that specific, tech-fluent, focus that makes Function unique. Every tech show can say "Facebook bad!" but almost none have the chops to talk about what to do about it when the big tech companies are having negative impacts on the world. It's a bit absurd that these solutions are coming from a show that's co-produced by Glitch, a startup, and Vox Media, which has an entire stable of tech podcasts of its own. But ultimately, Function provides a unique and much-needed voice in the world of technology podcasts, and so it is our easy choice for Podcast of the Year.

     
  • feedwordpress 06:30:03 on 2019/11/21 Permalink  

    A primer on South Asians and Desis 


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    I often talk about South Asian people, or how I identify as being an American of South Asian descent. Many folks outside our communities don’t always know the details there, so I wanted to share some generally useful info, in hopes that it answers a bunch of questions that maybe people are uncomfortable asking, or don't quite know how to Google.

    Disclaimer: I'm far from an expert! This is just sharing my own understandings, and others may disagree with some of these interpretations.


    First, "South Asia" is different from Southeast Asia, a term which also commonly used in the U.S. Specifically, South Asia encompasses countries and cultures like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, The Maldives, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. (This isn't comprehensive — the boundaries can be fuzzy, and there are longstanding South Asian cultures in other countries like China.) By contrast, Southeast Asia typically refers to countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Laos. So, though both terms are imprecise, there's a distinct geographic separation, and an even more distinct cultural separation.

    We talk about South Asian cultures collectively because the political boundaries are relatively recent and were greatly influenced by violent colonialism. Events like Partition (one of the largest, most brutal forced migrations in human history) happened in living memory. More to the point, we often share culture and deeply personal aspects of identity like language, religion, cuisine, music and arts across these relatively young boundaries. This is notwithstanding the political tensions between some South Asian countries. Also, much of the desi diaspora lives outside of South Asia, and millions have never been to the subcontinent but have lived in parts of Africa, Asia or the Americas for generations.

    Sometimes I describe our people, including people in the South Asian diaspora as “desi”. This is essentially an in-group term meaning “a person of South Asian descent”. It’s not offensive if other people use it, though it may sound a bit affected. Do note, though, that some people don’t like using “desi” as a demonym, as it elides the history of marginalized cultures in the subcontinent, and perhaps perpetuates casteism in the diaspora. I didn’t grow up using the word, and don’t speak Hindi, so I’m still learning about this connotation!

    Many people I know in the diaspora identify first with the regional culture they’re from. For example, you may know people who are Punjabi; this can imply a connection to language, food, clothing, music, even faith in a way that crosses political boundaries. Even my view here is skewed; I’m by no means an expert, and I really grew up around very few other Indian people, including almost none from the region (meaning language & culture) that my family is from. One confounding thing to outsiders is that nearly every region has its own unique language, both written & spoken, and some languages (like Hindustani/Urdu) are similar when spoken but have wildly different written forms. It’s more analogous to countries in the E.U. than to states in the U.S.

    Also surprising to many outside the community is that nearly all South Asian countries (and thus South Asian diaspora communities) are very multi-religious. You know of Hinduism & Islam, but Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism & other faiths have more than 100 million collective followers in South Asia. This is true despite the sometimes severe political oppression that many groups face, especially in a time of rising religious fundamentalism from a lot of the people in power.


    This stuff can feel a little complicated, and that's made even more fraught because we’re so marginalized in countries like the U.S. There are  roughly 6 million South Asian Americans in the U.S. — nearly 2% of the population. That makes us collectively more populous than the 30 smallest U.S. states are. Despite this, we’re never even mentioned in political polls.

    That invisibility is particularly dramatic when you consider that there have been South Asian immigrants for > 200 years. Our first significant presence began in the 1800s, when we were welcomed into Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, Harlem & Baltimore. Later, South Asian workers came to the west coast to build rails & farms. At each new stage of South Asian immigration, we faced barriers both political & social. The Asian Exclusion Act barred our immigration & eventually led to revoking citizenship for desi immigrants. South Asians were also subject to violence, including lynchings and mass killings. We’ve also faced deep struggles within our community. Tensions often arise between immigrant & native-born desis, and we can carry forward animosities that are grounded in tensions between our countries of origin. Casteism and colorism plague our community, and anti-blackness often poisons our solidarity with those who welcomed us first. Domestic violence & misogyny are epidemic.

    Despite all these challenges, and the often-tenuous grasp we have on our identity in the U.S., the last few years have seen an unprecedented visibility & presence for South Asian Americans even in the face of white supremacy. We’ve got our first TV shows, first feature films, a real presidential candidate, and a number of prominent business leaders. We finally exist in culture.

    I'm optimistic that enough people are even curious about these topics and want to know more about us in a way that promises more acceptance and support in the years to come.

     
  • feedwordpress 21:39:42 on 2019/11/11 Permalink  

    The Sound Of Your Voice 


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    The Sound Of Your Voice

    Even though I watched the medium of podcasting being created since its inception, I'd always resisted a little bit participating myself. I think I just felt more at home in this format, blogging, as that's where I'd found my voice.

    Well, that might be a bit hard to believe now that I've been on lots of different podcasts. But it feels like I'm really finally getting the hang of it, and I hope you'll check out some of the recent conversations that I've been lucky enough to get to visit.


    The Weeds: The Internet We Lost

    This was a really great conversation with Matthew Yglesias — especially because we didn’t just  go into some old visions of "the good old days of the web" (which never actually existed), but because we got to talk about the evolution from those days — and how the independent web is  resurgent today. You’ll want to hear this!


    The New Rules of Work: Communities Are Diverse. Why Isn’t Tech Talent?

    This conversation with Kathryn Minshew started by talking about the structural barriers that keep tech from being inclusive, but we also offered some hope about people and companies that are doing the hard work today.


    Developer Tea

    This is one of the first times anyone's ever asked me about the deeper motivations for why I got into technology in the first place. For all the criticisms of tech that I often have, there's something really meaningful about why I've always loved coding and tech, and we got to dive into it in this two-part interview.


    Switched On Pop: Why U Love 2 Listen 2 Prince

    Oh, you can't miss this one. With the upcoming release of the Deluxe Edition of Prince's 1999, I went on Switched On Pop to let my funk freak flag fully fly, and we had a blast. You are gonna love this one.

    The Sound Of Your VoiceThe Sound Of Your Voice
    The Sound Of Your Voice
     
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