Saturday, December 31, 2016

Media, Corporations and Democracy

Robert Reich has posted another excellent video, this one entitled "Trump and the Media." In it he outlines how Trump is using power, the law and public opinion to undermine the media and consolidate his own power. Many of my friends and colleagues have responded to this thoughtful analysis with a big "So what?!" They point out that the media has always been biased, that it's never been truly independent, that it's all owned by a couple of corporations and none of them can be trusted. So what's the big deal?

This is fallacious reasoning for three reasons.  First, no matter how bad the media gets, it doesn't make it any more or less important for our communities, our society and our Republic. And second, just because they are biased, not independent and privately owned, does not mean that they MUST be undeserving of our trust. And finally, by generalizing and giving up, we may actually be making matters worse for the few remaining journalists, editors and publishers out there who are still fulfilling their public mission. Cynicism about the media is not the same as skepticism.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Automation and the Future of Work

My mother sent me this TedX video of David Autor, an MIT Professor of Economics.  It's great.  I highly recommend it. Here is his paper on the subject offering even more detail.  

The impact of technology is all around us and just seems to accelerate leaving entire generations in lower-paid, less skilled jobs than they had only 30 years ago.  This chart clearly shows waves of losses and gains in US employment by sector between 1940 and 2010.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

More on the Facebook Fake News Story

Finally we have John Herrman's post from the Times that gets to the root of the "Fake News" story.   He gets it right and summarizes it better than I did in this previous post.  There are really three problems, the first of which is simply the nature of the World Wide Web and the Internet, which, like any truly global market, is practically unregulated in important ways.  Not much we can do about fake news here.  The second problem is user-generated content published on Facebook which are and will remain un-curated, the responsibility of Facebook users, much of it populated with ridiculous and unsubstantiated opinion and outright lies.  It'll be impossible for Facebook to be the arbiter of truth in this domain either.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Role of Facebook and Social Media in the Election of 2016 (edited)

This much is true:  "The post falsely claiming that the Pope endorsed Trump has more than 868,000 Facebook shares, while the story debunking it has 33,000.” And it may have had a significant effect in Trump's triumph, claims Cliff Kuang in this FastCoDesign post.  He's mistaken, however, when he asserts that this problem is a design flaw in Facebook specifically or social media in general.  Blaming Facebook for the impact of fake news on society is like blaming the effect of gossip transmitted via post or ATT on the post office or the phone company.  Unless, of course, we consider the scale of "sharing" afforded by social media...

Modern web and mobile experiences make it easier than ever to create and consume social content... but it makes it harder and harder to understand relationships between sources of information and virtually impossible to easily confirm the source and integrity of more and more content on the Internet.  While this is true in general, he's got it wrong in this case:  this is not really a Facebook or a Facebook design problem.  He's not thinking clearly about who actually creates social media and why.  If we understand more about what the web is, what Facebook is, who owns what and who pays for it all, it's pretty clear that everything functions rather well at least with respect to its design intent.  It's just that neither the web nor social media is actually DESIGNED to deliver reliable and verifiable content.  This is a publishing problem which happens to include design, not a design problem per se and certainly not a technology problem. (1)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reflections on the Passing of John Rassias

I got the email from Professor Nancy Vickers:  John was gone.  Deep breath…

So what was I to make of that, I wondered?  All that motion, but to what end?  Boundless passion, for sure.  So much heart.  Love.  But was there progress?  Or just a lot of heat?  The older I get the more I want to know: what was that all about?  What have we learned?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Race, Segregation, and Stories About Faceless Institutions, Families with Faces AND Evidence

I just finished reading this article in the Times today about a "broad yet little explored fact of American segregation.  I like that:  the FACT of segregation.  And the story of how even "affluent black families, freed from the restrictions of low income, often end up living in poor and segregated communities anyway."  I liked it a lot.  I learned something new about how laws and courts and the best of intentions of lots of people are simply not enough to change behaviors -- complex behaviors of almost ALL of us -- that perpetuate decades of segregation that disproportionately disadvantage another generation of Black Americans.  Sadly it IS still about race:  not class, not culture, not resources, but RACE.  The evidence is pretty clear.

I reflected for a minute and learned something else:  it is possible to tell a good story about complex systems and evidence that is also about individuals.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

On Generalizing and Stereotyping Illiberal Liberals

Of course the main point of this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is really about the illiberal intellectual climate in higher ed.  It's probably a pretty legitimate critique of the academy which, like everywhere else in our society, has been politicized and has become rather polarized.  In talking with our academic friends, it seems horribly stifling, actually, in dire need of reform.  It is really difficult to criticize many of the taboos, especially those which are racially charged, without being perceived as a bigot yourself, which is another legitimate point of the article.  

On the other hand, taking a broader view of history, we should probably admit that, while it might be hard to bring into question such taboos in academia at the moment, it is not impossible.  The cult of "political correctness" is not operating with equal force all disciplines and all schools.  But what really bothers me is that Boyers projects his complaints of American higher education to American society as a whole.  It seems to me a bit exaggerated to claim that "life of ideas is also increasingly compromised in precincts beyond the academy."  On the contrary, at the moment we're witnessing a very public moment where it's not only permissible to reject these taboos of political correctness, but it's also popular to deliberately single out and offend entire groups of people, even to the point of inciting violence, all in the name of being against "political correctness."  Isn't that evidence that the power of the so-called "liberal elite" -- which presumably controls American universities from coast to coast -- is not quite as absolute as Boyers claims?