20 January 2023

Repair, or replace? It may not be your choice.

If you’ve bought a new electronic device – phone, laptop, and so on – in the last several years, you might have noticed a few changes from older devices. Yes, of course the software looks newer and the device is probably smaller, but there’s another change too: it resists being taken apart or repaired. Maybe the screws are a weirder shape, or you can’t take the battery out. Or, maybe you’ve tried and after turning the device back on it refuses to work or gives you error messages that make it hard to use. Instead, you might have had to take it back to the company or simply buy a new one, probably costing more money.

That’s not an accident – companies would prefer that you pay them, instead of letting you pop in a new battery yourself to get a few more years out of a device that otherwise works fine. And, it’s not out of a concern for safety because products can be designed to be easy and safe to repair. Take, for example, Framework, which ...

02 April 2022

Digital Native Does Not Mean Digitally Literate

For many, there is a difference between being able to drive a car and being able to repair a car. Just because you can drive, doesn’t mean you know how (or maybe just don’t want) to work on your car yourself. The digital world is the same way–by design, our devices are generally easy to use but less easy to deeply understand. Just because you can use a device, doesn’t mean you’re proficient in digital literacy. Digital literacy extends beyond the ability to use a device to a much wider array of skills including evaluating the trustworthiness of information. It encompasses such a broad range of skills that some experts prefer to list specific skills rather than use the term “digital literacy.”

There’s a common assumption that a lack of digital literacy skills is more likely in people who are older, who may have adopted tech later in life. In some regards this can be true because there is a set of basel...

07 January 2021

Can the President of the United States be Deplatformed?

Deplatforming, or taking away the online platform by which someone presents themselves or their brand, is an odd phenomenon on the Internet. It centers around the power of big platforms to kick people off their services, temporarily or permanently, which can cause massive damage to the person or brand being deplatformed. One can find themselves very suddenly losing thousands of fans, followers, or customers with very little recourse. Although deplatforming usually comes up in conversation about big tech like social media services suspending accounts, other types of companies with a huge reach can do it too–such as payment processors blocking their cards from being used at particular places. A company might choose to deplatform something for any reason–it’s too controversial, it’s too offensive, illegal, or just against the company’s values.

Whatever the reason for a company choosing...

30 May 2020

No Justice, No Peace

This month we’ve had four instances of violence against Black people go viral or almost viral. We saw Amy Cooper appear to pretend to be under attack because an unarmed person of color politely asked her to follow the law and leash her dog. We saw George Floyd die under the knee of an officer who violently arrested him because a store thought a $20 bill looked suspicious. We found out about Ahmaud Arbery who was fatally shot in the back while he was out for a run in February, for no other reason than the color of his skin. And, we heard about continue reading

15 March 2020

The EARN IT Bill Puts All Of Us In Danger

Technologies such as encryption and common-sense laws such as Section 230 in the U.S. are a strong foundation for our safety and freedom of speech on the web. If you exist in the modern world, these affect you–using this website, online banking, social media, credit cards, medical care, and so on–these protect you. Strong, proven, and non-backdoored encryption is the only way to keep your electronic data safe (because it is going online, even if you aren’t the one putting it there). Section 230 is a law that says we’re responsible for what we post online, rather than the site we posted it to (with a few exceptions) so sites will be less inclined to censor us. Encryption and Section 230 are why social media as we know it exists today, why we can forward a personal email without legal repercussion, and why many sites we rely on, such as Wikipedia, can operate.

But, global free speech and safety a...

26 July 2019

Announcing The Thought Trap (book preorder)

We have nearly unlimited information, social connections, and entertainment at our fingertips almost everywhere via the Internet. The scale of the services that bring that web to us are mind boggling. Over 68% of adults in the U.S. are on Facebook. Google alone saw at least 5.5 billion daily searches in 2016 and holds over two-thirds of the United States search market. Amazon Web Services hosted over 148,000 websites as of 2017.

But, how often do we think about those services’ stewardship of the Internet? They curate the content we see, make decisions about who gets to speak on their platforms, and sometimes take down whole websites. And, they’re within their rights to d...

06 September 2018

Search Neutrality

We rely on search engines to navigate the world on a daily basis and in a variety of forms. Google alone saw at least 5.5 billion daily searches in 2016 and holds over two-thirds of the United States search market. Whatever it is we search for and on whatever search engine we choose, we expect the results we get to be relatively unbiased, ordered by their relevance to the search. Each search engine chooses and orders its results differently based on algorithms most hide from the public. A search engine, especially one the size of Google, has the power to make sites disappear into relative obscurity by listing them lower or not at all.

Although we might expect our search results to be relatively unbiased, there isn’t a guarantee that they will be. In 2014, a Sa...

12 July 2018

#WalkAway and Russian Ops

Bot activity across the political spectrum is nothing new. In a University of Southern California (USC) study, bots accounted for a fifth of political activity on Twitter in the 2016 election. Bots also accounted for 400,000 of the 2.8 million Twitter users tweeting about the election, or about 15% of the users the USC study looked at. While bots supported campaigns from all political leanings, research has shown that Trump had and continues to have a significantly higher number of supporters that are bots rather than real people.

Social media has been actively fighting the invasion of bots. Takedowns of bot accounts are ongoing and happen at such a magnitude that some sites, such as Twitter, have found the growth of their user base growing much more slowly than expected. The bot scourge appears unlikely to stop anytime soon. Spurred by a possibility of a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm elections...

21 June 2018

Bet You Won't Click Right Here

It’s no secret that advertising revenue drives the Internet. Online advertising has surpassed 200 billion dollars and reaches nearly every corner of the Internet. Online ads make up the majority of the revenue of Internet giants including Facebook and Google and pay for many other free-to-use services and account for an estimated 25% to 40% of Internet traffic on some networks, in one study. To convince us to click, ads have evolved to be increasingly intrusive and targeted. Some sites even run ads that look like normal news articles.

The actual ads are only part of the story. Without people to see them and, sites hope, to click on them, ads don’t make money. As soon as someone leaves or decides not to visit in the first place, a site is losing money. This is part of the reason that sites add ...

30 May 2018

Social Media Empowers Democracy and Oppression

If you listen to the ways social media sites describe themselves, it’s usually a description of connecting and empowering people. If you haven’t recently read the mission statements of social media sites, Twitter’s published mission statement focuses on “giv[ing] everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” and Facebook’s is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” While those statements aren’t false, at least at face value, operating at a global scale means that the reality isn’t quite as romantic.

Social media has indeed empowered all kinds of movements. Most users of large social networks connect with others freely without a lot of thought to the network behind them, or its rules. In some ways, social media may be a more approachable version of the largely uncensored IRC ...

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