weber tedI’ve dedicated a few essays to interrogating encryption and automation as a replacement for human judgement, politics, and inter-personal trust. Central to that argument is the observation that the replacement of institutions with technologies like blockchains are a rehashing of the arguments that set up those failing institutions in the first place. (You can read the full argument here and here.)

This is important because the problems with have with our present institutions –how they are exploitable, alienating, or otherwise broken– may very well be exacerbated by these technologies, not solved by them. To drive this point home I have pulled a few excerpts from Max Weber’s writing on bureaucracy but I have replaced a few nouns (in bold) so that his references to human organizations are replaced by algorithms, blockchains, and other technologies. With just these few noun changes a 19th century German sociologist of modern statecraft turns into the next great TED talk:

An algorithm offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual tasks are allocated to heuristicfunctions who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point with blockchain technology.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain development communities follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the crowd–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.

And here are the originals:

Bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual performances are allocated to functionaries who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain administrative fields follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic expert–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.

ReactionsFacebook Reactions don’t grant expressive freedom, they tighten the platform’s affective control.

The range of human emotion is both vast and deep. We are tortured, elated, and ambivalent; we are bored and antsy and enthralled; we project and introspect and seek solace and seek solitude. Emotions are heavy, except when they’re light. So complex is human affect that artists and poets make careers attempting to capture the allusive sentiments that drive us, incapacitate us, bring us together, and tear us apart. Popular communication media are charged with the overwhelming task of facilitating the expression of human emotion, by humans who are so often unsure how they should—or even do—feel. For a long time, Facebook handled this with a “Like” button.

Last week, the Facebook team finally expanded the available emotional repertoire available to users. “Reactions,” as Facebook calls them, include not only “Like,” but also “Love,” “Haha,” “Wow,” “Sad,” and “Angry.” The “Like” option is still signified by a version of the iconic blue thumbs-up, while the other Reactions are signified by yellow emoji faces.

Ostensibly, Facebook’s Reactions give users the opportunity to more adequately respond to others, given the desire to do so with only the effort of a single click. The available Reaction categories are derived from the most common one-word comments people left on their friends’ posts, combined with sentiments users commonly expressed through “stickers.” At a glance, this looks like greater expressive capacity for users, rooted in the sentimental expressions of users themselves. And this is exactly how Facebook bills the change—it captures the range of users’ emotions and gives those emotions back to users as expressive tools.

However, the notion of greater expressive capacity through the Facebook platform is not only illusory, but masks the way that Reactions actually strengthen Facebook’s affective control. more...

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Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a huge part of his presidential campaign (Huge). The media quotes from it, his opponents try to score political points by making fun of it, and his fans / supporters constantly engage with its content. @realDonaldTrump is just that: a string of pronouncements that feel very (perhaps even a little too) real. As Britney Summit-Gil wrote back in December: “the beauty of Trump’s tweetability is that his fans don’t really care if he’s manicured or carefully crafted—it’s what they love about him. His tweets read just like his speeches sound. They’re off the cuff, natural, and engaging.”

I want to take a minute to dive into the powerful linguistic work that hides behind Trump’s natural and off the cuff style. Consider the following pair of tweets:

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Stephen Hull, editor of Huffington Post UK, created a bit of a stir a week ago when he admitted that the site does not pay its writers.

That statement alone would have raised eyebrows high enough. What made a lot of eyebrows especially frowny and angry is the way in which he then proudly defended this practice as something admirable, something the site’s unpaid writers should not only accept but be pleased about:

…we don’t pay them, but you know if I was paying someone to write something because I wanted it to get advertising pay, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. So when somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real. We know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.

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Lane's Telescopic View

A recent Atlantic article introduced readers to Emma, a 28 year old woman who lives in a Dallas suburb, wears brightly colored blouses, sports a ‘blinged out’ case for her iPhone 6, and even met her boyfriend on the dating website, Plenty of Fish.  She also grew up without light bulbs and by age 18 had, just an 8th grade education.  Emma, you see, grew up in an Amish community near Eagleville, Missouri and left her German-speaking religious community at the age when American youth acquire the right to vote, telling her parents in a note that she was “sorry to do this…but I need to try a different life.”  Her story is the topic of an interview conducted by Olga Khazan titled, Escaping the Amish for a Connected World, a piece that uses Emma’s status as an Amish outsider to offer “a fresh perspective on how our lives have changed since the digital revolution- for the better, and for the worse.” more...

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We should be nervous when the most profitable company in the world takes a principled stance against the most powerful government in the world. Apple released a statement today (they call it a “letter” to their customers) which states that the FBI has requested that they provide a backdoor to the iPhone’s operating system and they are refusing to give it to them. This is huge because If there is any sort of consistent observation across decades and genres of social theory it is that as organizations get bigger they tend to treat the rest of the world as a potential threat to their own interests. War criminal and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed it up nicely: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The same can be said for Apple, China, General Motors, Russia, and Amazon. As a company or empire grows its stability relies on more and more factors and so the tendency is to bring those things into the fold either by buying them, colonizing them, or some indiscernible combination of the two. If Apple and the United States federal government are at loggerheads about data privacy it means that something big and fairly stable has ended. When powerful actors disagree, it usually heralds a major shift in one party’s conception of what is politically viable. Is that what just happened? more...

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Image via TechCrunch

“How tall is Jeb Bush?” This was the question on (apparently) many people’s minds leading up to the February 13th CBSN GOP debate. Thanks to Google, in partnership with CBSN, we now know that Americans are asking the hard questions, like “What is Ted Cruz’s real name?” “Why did Ben Carson wait to go on stage?” and, of course, a real deal breaker for me as a voter, “How old is John Kasich’s wife?”  more...


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Getting my first Tamagotchi was a transformative moment in my life. I vividly remember standing in the Walmart aisle with my mom, painstakingly selecting the egg-shaped device that best represented my tastes. I was 9. I settled on the see-through purple plastic version—feminine and sophisticated, just like me. I was living in the golden age of Tamagotchis, when they were popular enough that all of my friends had one, but before teachers and schools started banning them in classrooms. Tamagotchis were, without a doubt, a status symbol. I can remember a friend of mine plopping down a key ring with SIX different devices, all the colors of the rainbow. I wondered how she could keep them all healthy. It seemed like a lot of responsibility for a single fourth grader. Not to mention that the net worth of this key ring was over $100, a fact that didn’t quite resonate with children whose allowance was around $10 a month. more...

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The last democratic debate was mostly good. Two people, who represent very different visions for the future and strategies for how to arrive at that future, had just about as fair and faithful of a debate as one could expect from a cable news-hosted event. Orbiting this central debate is a swirling mass of half-arguments that has more energy than thought-out direction, made up of a cadre of writers who are lining up against the most tattered and boring of banners: Brocialism versus Lean In Feminism. The corporatized feminism that advocates for equal terms in boardroom competition and the smarmy machismo of socialism made for mansplaining both come out of several bad ideological compromises. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not attempt to move beyond these camps into a more honest discussion. more...

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By now I think most people know what happened in Flint, Michigan. An unelected “emergency manager” –appointed and reporting directly to Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder– switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit municipal water to untreated Flint River water. The river water had a higher salinity than Detroit’s water which caused metalic pipes to corrode and leach toxic levels of lead into an entire city’s water supply. This happened back in 2013 and it is still an unresolved problem. The solution for Flint is straightforward: replace all the pipes and provide the kind of lifetime care needed for children and other vulnerable populations that have irreprable neurological damage from lead poisoning. What is less straightforward is how to prevent these kinds of problems from happening in the future. Because while this happened under a terrible governance structure, similar ongoing disasters are occurring in places that still have some form of elected, local governance still in tact. This is as much a problem of science and technology as it is an issue of governance and accountability. What is to be done? more...