Unfriending Facebook, Unblocking Bannon, Unlocking Somerville

This Week — Fakebook— with Moira Weigel, Fred Turner, Siva Vaidyanathan, and Paul Budnitz. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Mary McGrath: This week’s show is fitting into a series re-thinking the promise of high tech (previous shows have covered the Amazon #HQ2 competition, the rise of AI and machine learning, and the political influence of tech companies in China). Each of our guests had important things to say about the ways our ideas and assumptions about digital utopianism are starting to unravel, beginning with Fred Turner. Turner’s a new star in our world, and not just because he was a superfan of “The Connection” when he was a freelance journalist at the Phoenix (RIP) and the Globe. Now based at Stanford, his work studying the ideological origins of Silicon Valley culture is cutting edge. Others have commented on the ties between Silicon Valley and the 60’s counterculture, but many are cribbing from Fred’s deep research. And he’s the only one we know of who makes the Burning Man connection (“Burning Man is to the tech world what the nineteenth century Protestant Church was to the factory.”).

Moira Weigel is also onto the unravelling. She and her husband Ben Tarnoff (who also appeared on our Amazon program) are covering it in an important way through their new journal, Logic. From the latest issue, “Justice:”

The internet was supposed to save the world. What happened? The time is out of joint. The president is unhinged. Misaligned, our civilization approaches its breaking point. Crises of all kinds — ecological, nuclear, social — threaten the final crack-up. And the internet, once seen as our savior, looks more and more like a destroyer, deranging the structures that keep our society intact. Since the internet became mainstream in the 1990’s, we’ve been told it will take us to utopia. The digital economy would transcend analog laws and limits, and grow forever on the fuel of pure thought. The digital policy would make us more engaged, and produce more transparent and responsive governments. As individuals, we could expect our digital devices and platforms to make us happier and healthier, more open and connected. For decades, these promises seemed plausible. At least most of the media thought so, as did most of our political class and the general public. In the past year, however, the consensus has shifted. Digital utopianism suddenly looks ridiculous. The old dotcom evangelists have begun to lose their flock. The mood has darkened. Nazis, bots, trolls, fake news, data mining — this is what we talk about when we talk about the internet now…Utopia may never arrive. But technology can make the world more just — if we find the right ways to organize and operate it.

The case study for the hour was Facebook, and our friend Siva Vaidhyanathan who’s writing a book about Facebook called Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Has Disconnected Citizens and Undermined Democracy was our guide. Mark Zuckerberg’s promises of connecting the world (and no question he has with 2.1 billion users) is directly at odds with what the platform does, says Siva. It’s engineered to do just the opposite. It polarizes, it divides. “Engagement” is key, and what triggers that the most? Puppies, babies and hate speech.

Watching Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard commencement speech last spring, you see a boyish, innocent, nervous- looking guy with an incredibly idealistic, almost religious vision (some say it sounds more like a stump speech), but it doesn’t square with the system he’s designed which is also designed to maximize profits. Moira says this is where she’s seeing the cracks, not among consumers yet, but in the media and among some of the younger engineers in Silicon Valley who are beginning to see that the interests of the platform and business owners are starting to conflict with the interests of democracy. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake in the movie Social Network), Facebook’s first president, called out the whole project this week. And Maureen Dowd wrote in the Times this week about the techno philosopher Jaron Lanier’s recent rethink. Time will tell, as we say in the news business.

Extra, Extra: here’s longer excerpt from artist, entrepreneur and Ello founder, Paul Budnitz. Becca had the great idea to include Paul who started Ello as a social media platform for artists. No ads and no data collection. No scale either, Paul says, but it’s a growing community of artists nonetheless.

The facts and figures are astonishing. Frank put together this terrific short animation. Check it out:

And here’s some of our show links collected and curated by the crack OS researchers. “You Are the Product” by John Lanchester in the LRB. “The Fakebook Inside Facebook” by Todd Gitlin. 100 Things Facebook Knows about You. How Facebook Figures Out Everyone You’ve Ever Met. Moira Weigel on the Tech Left. Three good ones from The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal: “What Facebook Did To American Democracy,” “Fifteen Things We Learned From the Senate Hearings,” and “Does Facebook Even Know How to Control Facebook?”

If you want a slightly goofier take, check out what Facebook thinks of itself in this ad:

Watch: Lady Bird

Up with women. All of them. Hats off to Saorise Ronan and Greta Gerwig for this splendid movie. Mothers, bring your daughters (I did!); daughters, call a truce and invite your moms! Life, life, life, as we say at OS, quoting the amazing daughter of a certain radio father. This is a terrific profile of Gerwig from the Times Mag last weekend.

Watch: Putin’s Revenge

Ace documentary maker Mike Kirk did a two part series on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections for PBS’s Frontline. At times it feels a little heavy-handed, but it’s well reported and the context and background for Putin’s resentments and paranoia is all there. So is the video of U.S. NATO Ambassador Victoria Nuland handing out sandwiches to Ukrainian dissidents during the anti-government protests, which really frosted the Pute.

James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence and James Brennan, former CIA Director deliver the slam dunk — they had evidence that the Russians were interfering, yet they couldn’t convince Obama or the Congress to do anything about it. John Podesta’s email got hacked, by the way, because he clicked on one of those links that most of us nowadays know are fishy.

Listen: Steve Bannon’s War

The Daily got an exclusive this week. Steve Bannon went behind enemy lines to talk with the failing New York Times about his war on the Republican party.

Listen: The Gospel of Ndegeocello

Zach Goldahammer: Original neo-soul queen Meshell Ndegeocello debuted her theatrical piece Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin last year, earning critical attention from the New Yorker’s Hilton Als, among others. This week, KCRW’s excellent, experimental arts podcast The Organist, decided to revisit the work with Ndegeocello; exploring her complicated relationship to religion, black music history, and Baldwin’s writing. It’s a must listen for our staff this week as we prep for our own show on soul music and the religious roots of Otis Redding.

Updates from the Somerville Bureau

In local news, congrats to the local Our Revolution slate in Somerville! The Bernie-backed organization just won a clean sweep of seven aldermanic seats in the most recent Somerville local elections. Among what the Globe describes as a “heptad of Bernie-inspired” candidates are the two DSA-endorsed candidates who I volunteered for: Ben Ewen-Campen and JT Scott.

The big question now is how will this new political energy and muscle in Somerville deal with the city’s spiraling housing crisis. As we discussed on our recent education show, we love the Somerville schools—but those diverse classrooms just won’t look the same if rent in Somerville continues to skyrocket.

The challenge for the new aldermen, along with the recently formed Union Square Neighborhood Council, will be to come up with new models for keeping Somerville affordable. Anyone who’s interested in finding new solutions to this crisis—policies which don’t fall neatly into the old YIMBY/NIMBY divide—should watch Somerville carefully.

Susan Coyne’s Artist Corner

Susan Coyne: After accidentally covering a panel of libertarians in thrall to their own edginess (read: absolute lack of societal awareness) at Harvard early in the week, I was in bad spirits. My week turned around after I saw Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri AND cartoonist Lynda Barry in the following couple of days. Petri spoke with the Shorenstein Center’s Nicco Mele about how she manages to write satire in the age of Trump (“I just describe exactly what’s happening”) and her love for the now-defunct The Toast, a love which I share. (They were the first outlet to publish my work just before folding). Petri’s audience overflowed out into the hallways and she kept us all laughing with her speed-talking wit.

Lynda Barry, an illustrator, writer and professor, gave an artist’s talk at Boston University that began with her singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with new autobiographical lyrics, and ended with a video of a Filipino boy singing a cover of the BeeGees that I can’t get out of my head. For the hour in between, she talked about the nature of memory, the need for play — she pairs her graduate students with four-year-old thesis advisors — and how to wring joy out of a difficult childhood. Readers of her books will know what I’m talking about.

I also asked about a certain well-known ex-boyfriend of hers (cartoon included) and I would recommend not asking about him if you do have the great luck to one day meet Lynda Barry yourself. Overall, she was transcendent.

More Links:

MM: Zadie Smith on “Under The Banner of New York.” Pretend you’re Wes Anderson on instagram. Wise Jia Tolentino. Brave Diana Nyad. Luc Sante’s love letter to the magical music scene of 1970’s New York City. Julia Child in a halter top. A Year in Trump Cartoons.

There’s a great China discussion happening in the thread from last week’s show; jump in!

And a last word on this week’s Facebook show comes from a listener, MB, who left us with a quote from Emerson:

The key to the age may be this, or that, or the other, as the young orators describe; — the key to all ages is — Imbecility; imbecility in the vast majority of men, at all time…and, even in heroes, in all but certain eminent moments.

We love our listeners and fans. Please remember to support our work. And if you’re anywhere near Boston come to our event with Amanda Palmer in Harvard Square on November 27th. Tickets at radioopensource.org

Til next week,

The Open Source Network



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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org