It is safe to say that listening to “Breaking News” is when I decided on my Watson project. I was listening on a long, solo drive, somewhere between Birmingham, AL and Asheville, NC. The episode centers on what are now colloquially known as “Deep Fakes,” or digitally altered videos convincing enough that they seem real. The entire episode is worth listening to, but the following exchange is what has stuck with me two years later. The interchange happens between the episode’s reporter, Simon Adler, and Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman a professor of computer science at The University of Washington. For context, Kemelmacher-Shlizerman develops programs that animates individual’s faces to speak any text fed into the machine.
This wonderful and acerbic criticism by Rose Eveleth in Vox came out in October, and actually prompted some much needed conversation online, albeit not enough in my opinion. My favorite aspect of the piece was her implicit criticism of "the progress narrative," the idea that all history moves in a straight line which invariably points up. In such a world such as this, all change is good change–any change necessarily has to be a good change. It's a convenient framework for Silicon Valley because it excuses both pollyannaish predictions of the future and willful misinterpretation of the past.
This piece from September continues to remain relevant as India–the country who has shut off the internet more than any other in history–did it again in the wake protest against its new discriminatory citizenship laws. I'll admit, I'm kicking myself for leaving India right as this long-simmering tension came to a head. I remember speaking to Jean Dréze, a well-regarded economist and activist within the country, at a conference in Raipur in September. He suggested I look at all the ways technology would be wielded to coerce India from a secular nation to one of religiously and ethnically tiered citizenship. I didn't have the time to flesh out the idea into a full-blown investigation, but internet shutdowns will invariably remain a key tool for despotically-inclined governments around the world (the US and UK should perhaps pay attention before the issue gets more personal).
Jenny Odell became very famous this year for publishing her first book How To Do Nothing. I have not read it, but just her brief distillation in this Times piece left me feeling quietly optimistic that today's attention-terrorized society can still be remedied. For anyone between the ages of 15 and 30, this article will be unnerving. It's just far too accurate. Odell captures the way constant connectivity morphs both our intake of the world and the way we project ourselves back into it. Even more on point than her problem description, however, is her solution. An artist and art historian, Odell offers sense of history as a remedy. I've found myself increasingly persuaded by such historical argument over the past few years–especially Jill Lepore's work on history of evidence–and I am glad more people are contending with idea.
This strange, meandering piece by Jim Goldberg won’t teach you much about Neil Young, barring fun examples of his eccentricity and irritability. It does, however, put Young’s recent escapades in the context of a larger narrative: voicing concern with the modern condition.
I don't think I should try to introduce danah boyd (lowercase stylization on purpose, much in the mold of bell hooks) in a single paragraph. The internet scholar is one whose work I've been increasingly coming across as I've begun peeling the onion that is "data & society" scholarship. boyd does run a think-tank called Data & Society, however, and everything I've ever read by them is crack smart. This speech was one she gave at the Digital Public Library of America conference. I love that there are still public library conferences, and I love that boyd honored the knowledge work of librarians by using her speech to inject new and profound arguments about how digital media changes how we know what we know. In this speech, she explains agnotology and epistemology in an approachable way, and even more importantly, shows why they are not just arcane academic buzz words, but urgent ideas for affecting positive changes in the 21st century.