Category Archives: Computer magic

6 productive responses to PRISM

new PRISM logocross-posted from Civic

Along with the other free peoples of the internet, we’ve been discussing our reactions to PRISM, and whether and how US (and global) citizens might be able to organize against this unprecedented domestic spying. There are more questions than answers at the moment, and the enormous challenge of confronting an extra-legal entity like the NSA with people-power is strongly felt. But here are 5 things you can do that could prove more productive than petitioning the White House to respond. Thanks primarily to Sasha Costanza-Chock for the roundup:

1. Encrypt yourself
See The Guardian Project’s Android apps, Security in a Box, and Tor. If you have the skills, go further: build tools / better UI / How To Guides / visibility to encourage more people to encrypt themselves, too.

2. Support calls for a Congressional committee to investigate
You and your organization can sign on at

3. Organize, or participate in, a protest.
People are starting to plan for these in various locations; July 4th is a good date. Here’s one in DC. Continue reading 6 productive responses to PRISM

Holmes Wilson, internet activism, and why we need you

(originally posted on Civic MIT)

Fight For the Future is known for its massive viral organizing campaigns that changed Internet history both nationally and globally. Faced with the passage of Stop Online Piracy Act/SOPA and the Protect-IP Act/PIPA — legislation that would have jeopardized the open Internet as we know it — Fight for the Future organized the largest and most visible online protest in history. Holmes Wilson has also co-founded Miro, OpenCongress, and Amara. He’s been at the forefront of a range of open internet and participatory culture projects and campaigns.

Holmes Wilson (foreground) and Dalek (background)

The internet delivers newfound powers of expression
The key thing about the internet that drives Holmes’s passion for it is that it gives us a new power, which ultimately translates to freedom of expression. But not in the conventional sense. The freedom of expression the internet enables isn’t just about speaking. It’s about making art, starting a business, overthrowing a government, building a new government, realizing dreams, and the ability to give your greatest gift to the world. When we think about expression this way, it’d be unthinkable to fail in preserving this medium. It would stifle human potential.

But that power is inherently fragile
The internet is fragile. The power that is being given to people is not necessarily stable and there are significant threats to it. The most present threat of the recent year is SOPA/PIPA. In some ways, these seemed like very small reasonable changes to the law. There’s a law that says sites aren’t responsible for content that users generate and this would make site owners responsible for users’ content. The consequence would have been that any copyright holder could have taken down any site where their content appeared and any site that is built with user generated content would have to aggressively police user behavior and contribution. Most of the harm would have been invisible. If SOPA was in effect when YouTube was first invented, we wouldn’t have YouTube.

Continue reading Holmes Wilson, internet activism, and why we need you

Encouraging Flexibility from Social Media Giants: How We Get Private Platforms to Support Public Speech

(originally posted on Civic MIT and PBS)

There are many problems with using commercial technology platforms to host democratic, social, or activist content and communications. These problems came up in multiple sessions at the National Conference on Media Reform last weekend. There are also obvious reasons to continue using these platforms (audience reach, most notably), and so we do. Some activist efforts that silo communications on more open, but relatively unknown platforms strike me as irresponsible, if the goal is to reach as many people as possible (but this is a fine line). The more I think about this issue, though, the more I see potential solutions and a future in working with the platform providers to build some degree of flexibility into their products and policies.

soapbox at #ncmr13
The spot on the carpet reserved for public ranting at #NCMR13

Social media giants do not have immediately obvious incentive to participate in such compromise. First of all, supporting individual humans doesn’t scale at anywhere near the order of magnitude they seek with their software. This model of customer support is perhaps best illustrated by Google, where serious and eminently solvable problems are routed through static FAQ pages, or, if you’re lucky, a forum page where a Google developer or superuser might stumble across your concern and provide some hint of illumination as to its origin or any hope of forthcoming resolution.

Continue reading Encouraging Flexibility from Social Media Giants: How We Get Private Platforms to Support Public Speech

Coping with Hyperconnectivity

Liveblog of the “Coping with hyperconnectivity” panel at NetExplo at UNESCO in Paris. The speaker is Delphine Ernotte Cunci, Deputy Chief Executive Office of France Telecom Group.

One argument about information in our times is that we are submerged by the sheer amount of digital information we receive — we are drowning in it. So we do our best to disconnect ourselves. Others argue that this intentional disconnection phenomenon hasn’t been studied enough to confirm. One thing is certain: technology influences our relationship with time. The internet changes our temporal space. Technology tends to promise to save us time, but it’s clear that the internet can also eat into the few spare minutes we once had.

Delphine uses Twitter, but not Facebook. She uses Twitter for her job.

Her company, Orange, sits on a lot of insightful data about this trend. It’s empirically true that we’re more hyperconnected these days. More than half of cellphones sold today are smartphones. They allow us to jump between tasks quickly. These tasks are oftne micro tasks, not long thought. We spend an average of 2 hours a day on our cellphones, and 2.5 hours watching TV (the two overlap). 80% of television viewers who have a tablet use the tablet simultaneously. 68% of smartphone owners use their phones while watching TV.

Is hyperconnection good or evil?
In the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society last year, Orange presented a survey called Time and Connection. It found that hyperconnection is compatible with well-being. 68% of French people think the more connected and active you are, the happier you’ll be. And 92% of internet users surveyed feel more relaxed when they’re connected than when they’re not connected.

People feel they’re able to do about 80% more at work with hyperconnectivity. We can multitask multiple tasks concurrently. But multiple screens produce a behavior of zapping between small tasks. You may have noticed this yourself when you finally do need to read a long file and find you no longer have the attention span for it.

Are we addicted, imprisoned by these habits? We don’t like to live in a vacuum, and we go to our phones and computers in spare moments. 39.5% of French people felt the lack of connection when you want it is a real concern that heightens anxiety. And people are suspicious of possible addictive qualities of technology. This impacts our relationship to time. Even if we can accomplish more things in a day with technology, we are left with the feeling that we do not have enough time to do all that we must do.

49% of French citizens slow down at some point in the day. Orange decided to launch a noncommercial project called the Time Project. They’re talking with philosophers and sociologists about the human perception of time. This will inform the mana of the project.

Then, Orange will provide customers with tools to better manage our connectivity. They’ve introduced a modem with sophisticated controls to allow parents (or ourselves) to black out internet use at certain hours of the day. Parents can remotely disable the connection during homework hours.

Companies also struggle with changes to our sense of time. People told Orange they were collectively overworked: too many emails, too many poorly organized meetings, too many important interactions. An initial proposal to forbid internal emails after 8pm backfired. It turned out that some women were using late night email to allow them to leave the office earlier to take care of their families. This experience taught Delphine that blanket policies would not work. Technology allows flexibility between our private and public lives, but it can also be abused. Employees can be left without time to rest if their overbearing bosses expect replies to emails at all hours of the day.

Younger generations are deeply connected to online social networking. Orange used to forbid employees to use Twitter and Facebook, even while recruiting 10,000 new employees. For a 25 year old employee, inability to access Twitter or Facebook at work was a completely unacceptable policy. Orange changed their policy this January, but internally, the social networks weren’t opened up for fear of the detritus effect on work. Orange finally convinced the managers to allow access, and the world did not end. Younger employees were happy, and older employees saw no change whatsoever.

But there’s a difference between an official email from your company and a tweet. Employees who tweet sensitive information are at risk, because they’re not necessarily authorized to disclose the information. Social networks make the barrier between companies and the public a far thinner membrane. There are slipups.

We cannot fight connection. It’s a sign of the times. But Delphine believes telecom operators have a responsibility to help customers control this hyperconnectivity. A balance of rules and flexibility could provide the netiquette we need to find balance. We can agree to rules, like no phones at restaurants, or no laptops in meetings.

Asked how she, manages connectivity, Delphine answers that she has begun to restrict how many emails she sends, and has to wait to tell people things in person. As a result, she says, she doesn’t fact email overload. She does send a lot of SMSes.

How to Find your Dream Job by Playing Games

(more NetExplo liveblogging from Paris)

Epistemic gaming is the emerging field of games for assessment. It’s an evolution from the immensely profitable field of psychometric testing, where Myers Briggs and StrengthsFinder tests promise to help us identify our individual personality traits and intelligence styles to create better harmony and results in the workplace (for a healthy per-employee fee).

connectcubedNetExplo luareate ConnectCubed is a meritocratic game-based approach to job recruiting. Founder Michael Tanenbaum found himself excluded from the banking recruiting process, which made him wonder how many other qualified employees were being missed. At its most basic layer, ConnectCubed is a platform of games to help job candidates identify the best fit.

In many cases, work doesn’t work. Gallup found that 72% of employees are disengaged. Michael calls this the pandemic of presenteeism. You show up to work but don’t care about the quality of the organization as a whole. Michael sees this problem’s root in two causes: our expectations of employees and how we found them to begin with. He’s focused on the latter.

How do we develop ourselves and specialize in a given career? As children, we learn about the realm of careers by proximity, not efficiency. [For example, children of teachers do well in schools, and it’s been posited that they are more comfortable with schools as institutions than other children].

We don’t have much guidance for our productive lives. How do we find the best career for our individual personality? Contrast this with the vast array of companies working to capture our expressed interests, like Netflix, Google, and Flipboard. All of these companies have one goal in common: get you to consume more. They collect tiny little breadcrumbs to get you to buy, search, read, and watch more. Yet, we spend so much more time at work producing than we do at home consuming. And there are no companies collecting this information to deliver us the job where we are naturally, intrinsically motivated.

ConnectCubed assembles a dataset about you to find you a job that will be meaningful to you day after day, year after year, regardless of compensation. Rather than be creeps observing your behavior, they ask people to come to their platform and help them create a multidimensional profile of you through games.

Michael points to the 150 million copies of The Sims, which he calls House Chores, the Game.

Released in 2011, ConnectCubed mimics specific jobs and determines if the people who show up to perform it are good at those tasks. They started with a stock-trading game, Ultratrader, developed in 2001. Gamers played for many hours, and follow-up research found that those who showed up and played the best were either already successful traders or were on their way to success in this career. The game positively identified those who would fit the job itself well.

Simulation gaming provides a very good sense for who you are and what you’ll be good at in under 20 minutes, far less time than psychometric tests. Michael believes the power of simulation gaming can solve the problem of job matching. A small library of simulations could demonstrate the various departments in your company, so that when people show up, you can place them properly.

Michael also sees an opportunity in the disconnect between high youth unemployment and survey results showing that companies are having trouble finding qualified candidates. We should develop games to better find candidates for professions with chronic shortages.

Two existing examples of this approach at work are Thinkful and Edelman. Thinkful, based in NYC, creates tailored academic programs to help anyone with drive learn new engineering. It’s paid for by students, but most of the funds come from the companies interested in hiring new engineers.

Edelman, on the larger end of the spectrum, began an internal learning and development program in 2006 to certify mastery in specific skills relevant to public relations. The company found that their various offices competed with one another to succeed int he program. This level of employee buy-in of an internal learning program is unheard of. Executives gain a huge level of insight of the distribution of their skills companywide.

[Yesterday, Jean-Marie DRU, President of TBWA\Chiat\Day, told us how they created skill-based hubs around the world. The company didn’t have critical mass of every skill (data visualization, graphic design, etc.) in every office worldwide. Their network allows them to fish for the skills and expertise they need for various client projects. This 12,000-person skills network is called the Digital Arts Network.]

Jobs can be expressions of what we love. Games give us the ability to be competitively nerdy about the thing which we love. And they attract a talented and enamored talent pool for recruiters to hire.

Remembering by living

Aaron has left us. Beautiful and honest eulogies pouring in from around the world make it clear how many people and ideas his short life touched. You should go read those. But for my own personal emotional processing, I’m going to borrow a mourning practice from my friend Sasha. When you lose someone important, you can personally honor their passing by incorporating some of their behaviors, values, and traits into your own life. Adopting a part of them keeps them alive in your own life, but also the lives of others.

From what I knew of Aaron and from what I’ve read this week, I’m going with these:

  • Liberally get in touch with people whose work you admire, even if you have no clear reason or zero ulterior motive, just to let them know it’s great.
  • Join the challenges that need champions. “That’s a problem I want to be a part of,” one post put it.
  • Practice that more natural method of self-education, that homeschool spirit of pursuing the things you’re excited by without regard for when the test will be, to learn in very great detail because of the natural interest inside you that must be quenched. Embrace the Wikipedia wormholes that transport you so quickly through time.
  • Accept people for their minds, not their appearance or position, and accept that many young people’s personalities are far more developed than we tend to give them credit for.
  • Double down on your natural enthusiasm for improving accessibility to human knowledge. The advancement of the human race depends on us learning more, but also, and probably in larger numbers, teaching and sharing more of what “we” already know.
  • And, of course, “Being a programmer is like finding out you have magic powers”:
AaronSW speaks at DC Week 2011
AaronSW speaks at DC Week 2011