What can we do about society’s ‘information disorder’?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In January, the Aspen Institute set up a Commission on Information Disorder, and announced a star-studded group of participants — including co-chair Katie Couric, former global news anchor for Yahoo, as well as Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex — to look at solutions to the problem of rampant disinformation. Other not-so-famous members of the commission include Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute; Yasmin Green, director of research at Google’s Jigsaw project (who took part in CJR’s symposium on disinformation in 2019); Alex Stamos, founder of the Stanford Internet Observatory; and Dr. Safiya Noble, co-founder of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. The commission was funded by Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist (who is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers). On Sunday, the group released its final report, with 15 recommended steps that it says could be taken by governments, technology companies, and others to help address the problem of disinformation.

In their introduction to the report, the commission’s three co-chairs—Couric, along with Chris Krebs, co-founder of Aspen Digital, and Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change—say information disorder slows down our response time on issues such as climate change, and also “undermines democracy [and] creates a culture in which racist, ethnic, and gender attacks are seen as solutions, not problems.” They add that while in the past, there was a belief that in order to fight bad information, all we need is more good information, “in reality, merely elevating truthful content is not nearly enough to change our current course.” In some cases, if promoting more factual information involves debunking hoaxes and conspiracy theories, those practices can actually exacerbate the problem, as Data & Society researcher Whitney Phillips (now a professor of media studies at Syracuse University) pointed out in a 2019 report on “The Oxygen of Amplification.”

The Aspen report notes that “there is an incentive system in place that manufactures information disorder, and we will not address the problem if we do not take on that system.” Some of the major players in that incentive system, according to the group, are large tech platforms such as Facebook, which it says have “abused customers’ trust, obfuscated important data, and blocked research.” The commission mentions one example CJR has also highlighted: the fact that Facebook shut down a research project run by scientists from New York University by turning off their access to the social network. “Critical research on disinformation—whether it be the efficacy of digital ads or the various online content moderation policies—is undercut by a lack of access to data and processes,” the report states. Several of its recommendations are aimed at solving this problem, including one that asks the government to require platforms to “disclose certain categories of private data to qualified academic researchers, so long as that research respects user privacy, does not endanger platform integrity, and remains in the public interest.”

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A work of art you can live in? Welcome to Bioscleave House

Some houses look normal on the outside but are insane inside, but this one starts out crazy looking and gets even more bizarre as you go through — be sure to zoom in on the sunken green kitchen thing. Please note that this isn’t just run-of-the-mill crazy — it was designed by internationally famous avant-garde artists Madeline Gins and Arakawa. They called it “Bioscleave House  (Lifespan Extending Villa)” and said its design was designed to keep those who lived in it on edge, so that they had to “actively negotiate even the simplest tasks.” The couple insisted that constantly testing your senses and perception, and using every muscle in your body, would stimulate your immune system.

Axie Infinity, DAOs and the future of money

I’m as skeptical of cryptocurrency as the next guy — maybe even more so, since I keep reading about “rug pulls,” where the founder of a currency or a seller of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) disappears with the millions of dollars he has raised. You know it’s bad when this kind of thing is so common that people have already come up with a special term for it. There are a lot of scam artists out there attracted by the smell of easy money, and the whole idea of an NFT — a piece of code that exists on the blockchain, and in many cases simply points to a URL, which in turn points to an NFT gallery that basically hosts a JPEG of the image someone has paid hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for — is bizarre to me. But then, so is modern art in general.

Despite all this, there is something I find kind of fascinating about the whole idea of Axie Infinity. Not the crypto part — which, as an arts major, I admit I barely understand — but the move towards what some call DAOs or “distributed autonomous organizations,” which are powered by cryptocurrencies. These entities are like digital nation-states, with their own rules and currency, and one of the most interesting is called Axie Infinity (there’s also a DAO called Mirror that is devoted to crowdfunding writing and journalism, which I’m also kind of interested in, and I’ve published a version of this post there as well). What makes Axie Infinity especially interesting is that it’s really just a game — like an updated version of Neopets or Pokemon. And as Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz has said (paraphrasing author Clay Christensen), “the next big thing always starts out looking like a toy.”

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Yosemite Valley in the fall is spectacular

Yosemite Valley is the most beautiful 2.12 square miles on Earth. Everything about it is perfection. Elliot McGucken and Steve Arita visited this weekend and each said three words, “Peak, GO NOW!” Their words may remain good for another day or two, but not much. Beyond that, you’ll miss the “at peak” visceral context expressed within America the Beautiful. Steve noted that the bomb cyclone has “definitely brought back to life the famous waterfalls at Yosemite…the water was just thundering across the valley floor…and not obviously just the waterfalls, but the Merced river and all areas throughout the valley there was water, that combined with the gorgeous fall colors at peak…just made for a beautiful place to be.”

Source: America The Beautiful – California Fall Color

Facebook’s metaverse shift smacks of desperation

Note: This was originally published as the online newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, Alex Heath of The Verge reported that the company then known as Facebook was planning to rename itself. An anonymous source told Heath that the new name was intended to focus attention on the company’s embrace of “the metaverse,” and away from existing products such as Facebook itself, WhatsApp (its messaging service), and Instagram, its photo-sharing app. Ten days later, at Connect—an annual conference the company hosts for developers—Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said the company would henceforth be known as Meta. The change was necessary “to reflect who we are and what we hope to build,” Zuckerberg said, adding that eventually “I hope we are seen as a metaverse company.”

What isn’t clear, either from Zuckerberg’s comments at the conference or a “founder’s letter” he published announcing the name change, is exactly what it means to be “a metaverse company.” Zuckerberg says the metaverse is “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” In this fabricated world, as he describes it, users will be able to do “almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as completely new experiences.” A video presentation shows Zuckerberg walking through a virtual house with a fireplace and a view of the digital mountains, choosing what clothes his avatar should wear with a wave of his hand, fencing with a partner who is located elsewhere, and attending a virtual meeting that includes a large red robot.

In interviews, Zuckerberg elaborated by saying that he sees the metaverse as something like the next iteration of the internet, built by many companies working together. In this vision, Meta’s Oculus headset would be just one window into a virtual universe. One hurdle in achieving this future is that it would require Meta and other technology companies to not just co-operate but also inter-operate—that is, allow their products to work together. As critics have pointed out, the company formerly known as Facebook has a terrible track record when it comes to interoperability, and many other technology giants aren’t much better (I hosted a discussion on CJR’s Galley platform last year with author and free-speech activist Cory Doctorow about how interoperability can help dismantle “surveillance capitalism”).

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How Mel Blanc almost died, but recovered thanks to Bugs Bunny

Mel Blanc (the voice actor who voiced every male character on Looney Tunes, as well as characters like Barney Rubble on The Flintstones and Mr. Spacely on The Jetsons) was in a head-on collision driving his sports car in a dangerous intersection known as “Dead Man’s Curve” in Los Angeles in 1961 (the same “Dead Man’s Curve” from the Jan and Dean song). His legs and pelvis were fractured, and he was left in a coma.

For weeks, doctors tried everything to get Blanc to wake up. Eventually, when things were looking bleak, one of his neurologists decided to address one of Blanc’s characters instead of Blanc himself, asking him “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” After a slight pause, the previously-comatose Blanc answered, “Eh… just fine, Doc. How are you?” Mel Blanc made a full recovery. When he got out of the hospital, he sued the city of Los Angeles for $500,000, leading to the city reconstructing the curve.

The man who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs

During the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a man by the name of Tsutomu Yamaguchi managed, in a feat of massive misfortune (or good fortune), to be present at both atomic bomb detonations. He was working in Hiroshima for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries when the first atom bomb was dropped on August 6th. He dove into a ditch in the handful of seconds it took for the blast to reach him, which is probably what saved his life (although he was badly burned and his eardrums ruptured).

Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

He took a train to Nagasaki, woke up and went into work the morning of August 9th, where he reported to his boss, who didn’t believe him when he mentioned the strange new bomb that had evaporated parts of Hiroshima. “You’re an engineer,” he barked. “Calculate it. How could one bomb…destroy a whole city?” Famous last words. At that moment, the second atomic bomb hit the city. “I thought the mushroom cloud followed me from Hiroshima,” Yamaguchi later recalled. Despite everything, Yamaguchi would live to the ripe old age of 93 and have 9 children.