October 12, 2018 in 2,555 words

A Unified Theory of Everything Wrong with the Internet

Fake news, trolling, echo chambers, filter bubbles, cyberbullying, and tech addiction — what if it all came down to one thing?

The veil of wonder that once gleamed around the internet has been lifted. Behind it, we’ve located the inconvenient truth about life online — it’s filled with fake news, trolling, cyberbullying, filter bubbles, echo chambers, and addictive technology. The honeymoon is over, as they say.

The ills of the web are the ills of society. They have existed, well, probably forever. Bullying, marginalization, violence, propaganda, misinformation — none of it is new. What is new is the scale and frequency enabled by the internet. The way the web works and, more importantly, the way we engage with it, has taken these issues and amplified them to 11.

Our public debate takes each issue separately, attempting to understand the root cause, mechanics, and solutions. We tweak algorithms in order to pop the filter bubble. We build features and ban accounts to curtail fake news. We ban instigators and require the use of real names to snuff out bullying. What is this approach missing? These problems are not actually separate. They are all symptoms of a deeper psychological phenomenon. One that lives at the core of human interaction with the web.

The Anonymity Paradox

The internet lives in a paradox of anonymity. It is at once the most public place we’ve ever created, but also one of our most private experiences.

We engage in the digital commons through glowing, personal portals, shut off from the physical world around us. When we engage with our devices, our brain creates a psychological gap between the online world and the physical world. We shift into a state of perceived anonymity. Though our actions are visible to almost everyone online, in our primitive monkey brains, when we log in, we are all alone.

This isn’t anonymity in the sense of real names versus fake names. The names we use are irrelevant. This is about a mental detachment from physical reality. The design of our devices acts to transport us into an alternate universe. One where we are mentally, physically, and emotionally disengaged from the real-world impacts of our digital interactions.

Ancestry Sites Could Soon Expose Nearly Anyone’s Identity, Researchers Say

Genetic testing has helped plenty of people gain insight into their ancestry, and some services even help users find their long-lost relatives. But a new study published this week in Science suggests that the information uploaded to these services can be used to figure out your identity, regardless of whether you volunteered your DNA in the first place.

The researchers behind the study were inspired by the recent case of the alleged Golden State Killer.

Earlier this year, Sacramento police arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo for a wave of rapes and murders allegedly committed by DeAngelo in the 1970s and 1980s. And they claimed to have identified DeAngelo with the help of genealogy databases.

Traditional forensic investigation relies on matching certain snippets of DNA, called short tandem repeats, to a potential suspect. But these snippets only allow police to identify a person or their close relatives in a heavily regulated database. Thanks to new technology, the investigators in the Golden State Killer case isolated the genetic material that’s now collected by consumer genetic testing companies from the suspected killer’s DNA left behind at a crime scene. Then they searched for DNA matches within these public databases.

This information, coupled with other historical records, such as newspaper obituaries, helped investigators create a family tree of the suspect’s ancestors and other relatives. After zeroing in on potential suspects, including DeAngelo, the investigators collected a fresh DNA sample from DeAngelo—one that matched the crime scene DNA perfectly.

Easy DNA Identifications With Genealogy Databases Raise Privacy Concerns

DNA sleuthing helped identify Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected East Area Rapist, who was arraigned in a Sacramento, Calif., courtroom in April.

Police in California made headlines this spring when they charged a former police officer with being the Golden State Killer, a man who allegedly committed a series of notorious rapes and murders in the 1970s and ’80s.

Authorities revealed they used DNA from a publicly available genealogy website to crack the case.

Since then, police around the country have started doing the same sort of thing to solve other cold cases.

That prompted Yaniv Erlich, the chief science officer at the Israeli company MyHeritage, to investigate just how easy it is to use public genealogy databases to track down people.

“We wanted to quantify how powerful this technique is to identify individuals,” Erlich says. So he and his colleagues analyzed the genomes of 1.28 million people in the company’s database.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers projected that they could identify third cousins and more closely related relatives in more than 60 percent of people of European descent. (They chose this group because most people in their database have that ancestry.)

“It’s kind of like each person in this database is a beacon that illuminates hundreds of distant relatives,” Erlich says. “So it’s enough to have your third cousin or your second cousin once-removed in these databases to actually identify you.”

4 Ways Your Body Betrays You In Crisis Situations

Deep down, you probably assume that you’d be a badass during a crisis. Or at the very least, a competent and supportive bystander who isn’t frantically shoving babies out of their way in an attempt to get to the to the nearest exit. But you know what? You’d be wrong, for reasons that aren’t really your fault. It all comes down to how your brain and body react to danger. You see …

4. Freezing Isn’t A Choice

When it comes to “F” words in a crisis, Fight and Flight are the big two, though I’m sure “Freak The Fuck Out” would earn the bronze. Fight is the one that people usually aspire to, while Flight is treated with disdain. Who imagines themselves running away from a crisis? But there’s actually one that’s even worse: “Freeze.”

When playing out a scenario in your imagination, this doesn’t even come up as one of the options. Who in their right mind would freeze in the face of a threat? Definitely not me. And probably not you, either. At worst we’ll run — but, like, strategically. You know, so that we can be heroes from a more advantageous position.

So when veteran police officer Cordell Hendrex froze in the hallway of the Mandalay Bay Hotel during the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting while “terrified with fear,” it’s sure tempting to make like the media and slam him as a “coward.” And don’t even get me started on how sexual assault victims are treated; anyone who didn’t immediately transform into a scratching, biting badger in their story is assumed to be a liar, despite the fact that 70 percent of sexual assault victims are hit with a thing called “tonic immobility,” with 48 percent experiencing extreme symptoms like going numb and mute.

It’s not a moral failing; it’s a physiological response. Like 22-year-old Sam, who went out drinking with his girlfriend and best mate in Manchester. A lost phone and a few too many drinks later, and Sam was raped by two men: “When you’re being attacked, your body makes the decision between fight, flight or freeze. I froze.”

Like all victims everywhere, Sam didn’t want to go catatonic. It’s not about courage. Whether you freeze for a few seconds or a few hours, it’s not a choice. We think it is because it never happens to characters in movies, and it sure as hell never happens in our fantasies. But judging real survivors’ performance against a fictional scenario is an objectively shitty thing to do.

Alexa, Should We Trust You?

The voice revolution has only just begun. Today, Alexa is a humble servant. Very soon, she could be much more—a teacher, a therapist, a confidant, an informant.

For a few days this summer, Alexa, the voice assistant who speaks to me through my Amazon Echo Dot, took to ending our interactions with a whisper: Sweet dreams. Every time it happened, I was startled, although I thought I understood why she was doing it, insofar as I understand anything that goes on inside that squat slice of black tube. I had gone onto Amazon.com and activated a third-party “skill”—an applike program that enables Alexa to perform a service or do a trick—called “Baby Lullaby.” It plays an instrumental version of a nursery song (yes, I still listen to lullabies to get to sleep), then signs off softly with the nighttime benediction. My conjecture is that the last string of code somehow went astray and attached itself to other “skills.” But even though my adult self knew perfectly well that Sweet dreams was a glitch, a part of me wanted to believe that Alexa meant it. Who doesn’t crave a motherly goodnight, even in mid-afternoon? Proust would have understood.

We’re all falling for Alexa, unless we’re falling for Google Assistant, or Siri, or some other genie in a smart speaker. When I say “smart,” I mean the speakers possess artificial intelligence, can conduct basic conversations, and are hooked up to the internet, which allows them to look stuff up and do things for you. And when I say “all,” I know some readers will think, Speak for yourself! Friends my age—we’re the last of the Baby Boomers—tell me they have no desire to talk to a computer or have a computer talk to them. Cynics of every age suspect their virtual assistants of eavesdropping, and not without reason. Smart speakers are yet another way for companies to keep tabs on our searches and purchases. Their microphones listen even when you’re not interacting with them, because they have to be able to hear their “wake word,” the command that snaps them to attention and puts them at your service.

The speakers’ manufacturers promise that only speech that follows the wake word is archived in the cloud, and Amazon and Google, at least, make deleting those exchanges easy enough. Nonetheless, every so often weird glitches occur, like the time Alexa recorded a family’s private conversation without their having said the wake word and emailed the recording to an acquaintance on their contacts list. Amazon explained that Alexa must have been awakened by a word that sounded like Alexa (Texas? A Lexus? Praxis?), then misconstrued elements of the ensuing conversation as a series of commands. The explanation did not make me feel much better.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: By 2021, there will be almost as many personal-assistant bots on the planet as people.

This crowdsourced map helps people find the kind of bathroom they need

Knowing that bathrooms are gender-neutral or have space to help a family member who is disabled can help people better plan trips. Now there’s a national map to help.

Almost four years ago, Christina Ingoglia and her husband David Nykodym had a daughter named Lilly, who was diagnosed with Mowat-Wilson Syndrome. The condition causes delayed development, so Lilly is nonverbal and has yet to learn to walk. That makes potty training difficult and diapers necessary.

Lilly now weighs 30 pounds and has also outgrown baby changing tables. For her parents, that makes traveling especially difficult. “We just found it brutal to find a place where she had some privacy and we had room to do what we needed to do to help her bathroom,” Ingoglia says. “A wide stall in a restroom that’s gender specific is just not going to help us anymore.”

Then one day the couple was driving around and following directions on navigation app Waze when inspiration struck: “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could crowdsource information to make a map that says where there are restrooms for people like us?’” recalls Ingoglia, who is an English professor.

Nykodym, who is a GIS analyst for the state of Missouri, agreed and decided to build it. The result is called MoDE’s Restroom Map, a web-based app that that allows people to plot the addresses of gender-neutral or single occupancy public restrooms on a map so that others can plan trips around them. Missouri Disability Empowerment (MoDE), a nonprofit organization that was formalized this June and is classified a 501c4 so that it can engage in campaign-related advocacy work, has supported the effort. Ingoglia is MoDE’s vice president.

The app went live with Missouri-specific destinations in August and expanded nationally in September. It is designed on Esri’s Crowdsource Reporter, a mapping platform hosted on ArcGIS, and allows users to add geographic markers that appear in different shapes and colors depending on the type of facility. There’s Unisex (orange dot), Family (blue diamond), Family with Adult Sized Changing Table (green star), and Other (yellow dot) for some spot that might have equally important but non-standard benefits.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Jaboukie Young-White, The Daily Show’s newest correspondent and actual young person, breaks down what’s keeping young people away from the voting booth.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Here’s me commentary on the Queen’s Guard standing their ground up in England.

今までは爪切りでカットしていましたが、やりにくかったので、初めてバリカンを使ってみました。I used the nail clippers for the cut of the fur. However, it was difficult to do. Therefore I bought the fur clipper for the first time.


Exploitation on the internet? The morality of watching death online

Reddit’s r/WatchPeopleDie sees 425,000 subscribers share clips of horrific and tragic deaths. Since when did so many of us like watching death?

Warning: sensitive content

Is it disingenuous that the name of the Reddit community r/WatchPeopleDie uses the word die?

Put it this way: the people in the videos and GIFs shared on Watch People Die do not merely die. Neither do they pass away (too polite), nor go to a better place (too peaceful). They are beheaded, incinerated, exploded, crushed, electrocuted, drowned, mangled, stoned and disemboweled. And their deaths, horrific and tragic as they are, can be watched by anyone with internet access, over and over again.

The number of people who have watched these death videos without signing in to a Reddit account is unknowable. But the number of subscribers to Watch People Die – the number of Reddit users interested enough in seeing strangers get killed to have clicked SUBSCRIBE – exceeds 425,000. That’s nearly the population of Miami.

By another way of comparison, Watch People Die is as big as the Reddit forums r/FinancialIndependence and r/Ass (NSFW, of course). So many of us would like to retire early. So many of us watch porn. But since when did so many of us like watching death?

Since forever, it turns out. “All humans have sadistic urges, masochistic urges, voyeuristic urges,” said Dr Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill–Cornell School of Medicine. But if our obsession with death has been around as long as us, it’s only in the past few decades that spectatorship of death has grown widespread.

As is the case of so many things – our inability to focus, our loss of face-to-face intimacy – technology is to blame.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?