Sidewalk Toronto will let you kayak right up to your “smart” condo
Last week, I attended a public lecture given by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the U of T Faculty of Information, and longtime advocate for the public interest in the digital life. His subject was the Sidewalk Toronto project, known as Quayside — aimed at building an honest-to-goodness Smart City on a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s waterfront.
The project is controversial, not surprising since it’s the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs (SWL) — in turn the brainchild of Alphabet and “sibling” of Google. SWL isn’t an ISP and Google isn’t readying one of its Google Fiber deployments up here. Still, SWL is clearly emerging as the kind of gatekeeper that inspires mistrust and suspicion — just like the incumbents who control our Internet access.
Privacy, meet information asymmetry
Clement provided a balanced but highly critical account of how Google and Waterfront Toronto got us into what promises to be a hot public policy mess. He did so by presenting what is known about the project, then asking a lot of challenging questions. Many were related to the issues of jurisdiction, ownership, control and, most importantly, how the public will actually benefit from the deal while having their, our, welfare protected. Prof. Clement was particularly concerned about the delicate topic of the risks Quayside might unleash on privacy — already a lively part of the debate in the media. Continue reading →
The massive corporate hacks just keep coming. Let’s embrace the good news — they’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the real villains.
Facebook’s September data breach affecting 50 million users was child’s play compared to the 500 million accounts compromised by Marriott in November. Except Facebook has so many other things to apologize for this year — the latest phase in what Zeynep Tufekci refers to drily as Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour.”
Last week another screwup exposed photos stored by 7 million Facebook users in so-called “private” folders — Facebook’s answer to the wireless carrier’s “unlimited” data. Their PR lede: “We’re sorry this happened.”
Web destinations like to keep costs down, what business doesn’t. Unfortunately, that means cheaping out on security. American firms keep getting away with this outrageous corner-cutting since there are no serious, government-imposed consequences for lousy security, regardless of how many users have to suffer the inevitable result.
It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…
Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
Your smart-TV is spying on you
Teens are online constantly
Phones in class impair performance
1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. Continue reading →
The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.
Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?
In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading →
“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and we’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.” –Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology
Our culture’s dominant behavioral addiction has caught the attention of two types of experts: psychologists and engineers. The psychologists have been represented in book format by, among others, Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2016); Adam Alter (Irresistible, 2017); and Jean Twenge (iGen, 2017). The engineering camp has been slower off the mark and full of surprises — not the least being a backlash against addictive devices and services by some of the very guys who invented them.
Here’s a word from the turncoat technologists and four other parties determined to make your life a better place to be.
Eating their young. The Center for Humane Technology is a big deal for several reasons. First, it’s the brainchild of a group of Silicon Valley A-list technologists from the big firms being blamed for creating the addiction epidemic in the first place. They include the inventor of Facebook’s “like” button and a number of other engineers and VCs who played key roles at Apple and Google. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, is the director.
Second, they have serious funding, incuding $7 million from advocacy group Common Sense Media, plus another $50 million in air-time from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.
Third, the group is mounting a huge outreach campaign — The Truth About Tech — that will be rolled out to 55,000 public schools to raise consciousness among educators, parents and students.
Fourth, they’re going to Washington to lobby for legislation that aims to curtail the power of the biggest tech companies.
In the previous post, we discussed ways to mitigate the potential harms of digital life. In my responses to the Pew/Elon survey questions, I took two unvarnished truths for granted.
First, unless you’re shilling for Google or Facebook, the harms stemming from digital life are no longer “potential.” Second, we’ve barely begun to think seriously about mitigating any of the harms. That’s especially the case at the personal level: behavioral addiction is up there with cyber-terrorism when it comes to a long-term fix.
Below are some ideas mooted recently for stemming the towering tidal wave of compulsive and anti-social behaviors sweeping our society — what you might call the Smartphone Crisis.
I recently interviewed an undergrad from the University of Toronto who grew up in London but was educated in the French lycée system. She says phones were nowhere to be seen in any of her classes — part of the strict French approach to education.
So it was a little surprising to read that the French Minister of Education himself decreed recently that he’s banning phones from all primary and secondary school classrooms. That’s especially surprising since France passed such a law — seven years ago. As one high-ranking teachers’ union official put it, presumably speaking of their recalcitrant students, “It is extremely difficult to get respect.”
Part of the problem may be of the minister’s own making. He seems to be carving out exceptions before he even starts: “You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system. Among the biggest opponents to a ban are parents worried about being out of touch with their kids for a few hours. Continue reading →
Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.
This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?
The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list. Continue reading →