Apple’s Unsocial Network

Apple skepticism is de rigueur these days, as stumbles in hardware and software (particularly MacOS software) leave observers wondering if the company has lost a step, or lost the plot entirely. Yet quietly, in areas that tend to be overlooked by technology enthusiasts, Apple has put together a compelling suite of services that appeal to the non hobbyist end user. In this environment of growing suspicion and hostility to social media monopolists, Apple’s unsocial offerings make a compelling case for a connection in which the user is not being exploited. I wonder if Apple is not poised to capture some more attention from people disillusioned and embittered by social media.

Apple’s iCloud services are social adjacent; they’re social, but not in the same avaricious and toxic way that characterizes social media today. iMessage is obviously social, in that it’s a messaging service, and probably the tip of the spear that could pry people away form other messaging services. But it is a private mail system, one in which Apple plays the simple role of courier. This is in marked contrast to Facebook and Twitter, who are mining and parsing your communications looking for angles and hooks their advertisers can use to sell things to you.

iCloud Photo Library, particularly iCloud photo sharing, represent a really excellent replacement for Facebook. The walled garden approach to shared media, which once seemed a drawback to Photos, now seems like a value proposition. “No one outside your circle can see these photos” seemed like a criticism in 2015, but sounds like a marketing tag line today. Additionally, features like comments and likes allow Photos to behave like a mini Facebook, but one without news, people you barely know fighting in your comments, or a malevolent corporation selling your data to foreign adversaries looking to break your political system. Instead, it’s made up of your friends and family only, it’s just pictures, and it’s nice. I really encourage anyone who uses Apple Photos to try using it in place of Facebook. It’s a lot better.

Apple News is not bad, either. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, “Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.”1

It’s interesting, as Apple’s unwillingness to mine every scrap of data they have on their users has been portrayed by tech commentators as a weakness. We may now be seeing, as we re-evaluate of the costs of social media, to be an argument in Apple’s favor.

1 Admittedly, the NYT, home of “but her emails” coverage and promoter of the neo-fascist “intellectual dark web” is a bit rich, but Manjoo has diagnosed the problems with social media news correctly. Would that the NYT would apply the same amount of analytical rigor to themselves.

Don’t Feed the Trolls, and Other Hideous Lies

The pseudonymous Film Crit Hulk writes in the Verge today about the ways we have accepted troll behavior as kind of a given on the Internet, and the way that social media companies in particular have abdicated any responsibility for policing themselves: “the large-scale internet needs the figure out the way to guarantee the same protections as smaller communities by moderating with a sense of decency and displaying the same basic sense of judgment as a damn open mic night.”

“Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now so large that they are considered “unmoderatable” communities. We like to pretend this was a pure facet of their size, but it is inescapably a part of their ethos. They are platforms forged in the fires of troll culture, founded and operated by techno-libertarians who didn’t understand why they had to care about any of this. They set out with no intention to moderate at all. Zuckerberg just wanted to rate hot girls, after all. But in 2018, the staggering effects of non-moderation are just starting to hit them, and they have little idea how to address or even intellectually engage with the idea.”

“It’s no accident that the corners of the internet that subscribe most deeply to this idea are also the most openly miserable. While some clearly use “joking” as a justification for abuse or even violent threats, there’s little larger comprehension or interest among huge swathes of internet culture about how satire, irony, or intent actually function, much less in the distinction between what they consider “trolling” and actual abuse. Drawing such lines would be against both the protocol and intent behind the creation of internet culture at large — a culture that was designed to escape the responsibilities of the social order. In that pursuit, internet culture subconsciously turned itself into a calloused nub, a place where so many “jokes” are the equivalent of running and shouting “fire!” in a movie theater, and a place where the biggest joke of all is the idea of caring about anything in the first place.”

As they say, read the whole thing.

“Celebrating” Steve Ditko

Kim O’Connor is the author of one of my favorite comics blogs on the internet, and she is on fire with her latest post. She writes “Since his death was announced on Friday there’s been an outpouring of intensely sociopathic stories from the people men who stalked him, pestered him, or asked him for favors, presented as though they’re some sort of celebration of his life and work.” I have to admit I hadn’t really considered it in this way, even though I had read a couple of these stories, but once she points it out, it’s pretty obvious and I feel a bit embarrassed for not figuring it out on my own. Still, that’s the sign of a good writer.

This is also extremely relatable: “To feel compelled to participate in comics, yet want to keep its culture at arm’s length…well, I guess you’re either the kind of person who finds that incomprehensible, or someone who thinks that sounds relatively normal and sane.”

Her blog, The Shallow Brigade, is an awesome throwback to the pre-social media blogosphere, with the kind of bomb-throwing and holding forth that most people fritter away in Twitter these days; go forth and put it in your RSS reader.

I’m really excited about this planned new design for Boston City Hall Plaza. The problem with the plaza as it is today is that its scale is too huge; it’s a vast and forbidding desert of brick. These trees, while providing a nice contrast to City hall itself, break the space into much more congenial human-scale spaces. They also nicely complement the daring Brutalist architecture of the building. It’s a nice effect.

On Chernow’s Grant

I recently read Chernow’s Grant. It is magnificent, and continues the important work of refuting the denigration of Grant and Reconstruction by racist Twentieth Century historians of the Dunning School and politicians like Woodrow Wilson who catered and truckled to white supremacy.

Grant was right on the big issues of his day: Reconstruction, the 14th and 15th Amendments, and white supremacy. He crushed the original Klan and opposed the first stirrings of segregation and anti-black terrorism. Not to mention having won the Civil War, destroying a would-be slave state bent on expansion. His errors came in staffing his administration poorly, and he was an easy mark for confidence men in public and private life.

Racist revisionists of the 20th Century would view his presidential achievements in Reconstruction as at best misguided or failed, and the pursuit of equality not even an accomplishment at all, leaving only his cabinet’s corruption scandals of his second term to judge him by.

Nick Carr on the Problem with Social Media

Nick Carr, author of The Shallows, reviews Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy and Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. I haven’t read either, but given the way my thinking has been going of late, I’ll probably be reading one or both soon. He writes:

Social media’s problems stem not just from Internet companies’ business strategies but from the technologies the companies use and venerate. By turning all types of information into the digits of binary code, computer networks encourage the consolidation of once-diverse media into data empires of unprecedented scope and power. And the very design of smartphones and apps, research shows, saps us of the patience and attentiveness we need to evaluate the meaning and worth of the information pulsing through our screens.

Read the rest in the Washington Post.

The World According to Twitter

Fury Road

I’ve written recently about what I consider to be an emerging consensus, or if not quite rising to the status of consensus, a recognition that we have not reckoned with the societal costs of social media and are finally starting to do so seriously in 2018.

In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer recounts his experience of being on the receiving end of a social media firestorm after an ill-considered post. It’s worth pausing for a moment, before the laminations about the coarsening of discourse, to look at Oppenheimer’s motivation for writing this original post. He writes, “there was a lot wrong with the piece, which I wrote in about twenty minutes in the hour after I read the Weinstein story.” Oppenheimer is focused more on the fallout from his poor post, but it’s worth considering why exactly, a hot take needed to be pushed out twenty minutes into a breaking story.

The urge to post an ill-informed opinion like this must be viewed in the context of the sharing economy and the enormous pressure journalists are under to have a story go viral. All in the name of engagement, the coin of the realm of the social networks. The drive for engagement, for sharing, for virality here causes both the publication of a poor piece, but also the backlash to the piece as well. What better thing to share than an extremely bad Weinstein take! How simple to hit retweet, along with some choice words of condemnation!

And so, to escape the deluge of approbation, Oppenheimer turns away from social media. He realizes that the world outside his door does not resemble the world he has been marinating in for so long. “People continue to be overwhelmingly decent when communicating in the old ways. But that is not true of newer media. The web is thus doing something even more dispiriting than turning us into bad people: It’s giving us amnesia about how fundamentally good we are.” But Oppenheimer misses the point somewhat, describing a “coarsening” as if it’s just a thing that happens, like bad weather, rather than the result of corporate policy.

On Twitter, writer David Klion criticizes him for turning his back on humanity: “And yet they were still there, and so were the people on them, who are people, and the conversations they had, which are conversations. As a writer, how can you describe the world when you refuse to observe it?” But he’s not turning away from the world…he’s turning away from the world according to Twitter. Klion goes on to point out how “in the era when Mark Oppenheimer, straight/cis/white/male/lawyer’s son … endured less abuse, the communities he’s describing endured more, legally as well as verbally.” Again, it is the social platforms who have, in the name of engagement, in the name of active users, enabled this very abuse.

This is not the result of natural causes, but policies and preferences made by Twitter and Facebook which prioritize engagement, whatever the form it may take, over social harms, from the coarse and profane insults directed at Oppenheimer, to the threats and abuse that women and those from more vulnerable communities experience on these platforms. Twitter is not humanity, it is an environment is which humans have been given the opportunity and the incentive to behave badly. Perhaps Oppenheimer would have received similar treatment in a more humane Twitter, one with better priorities. But he’s not wrong to differentiate between the world as it is and the world according to Twitter.

Tales from the Crypt: the Original Machiavelli Pages from 2002

The very origin of the Machiavelli graphic novel started out in a competition for the SPX 2002 anthology. The theme was historical biography, so I was primed and ready to go with this idea I had to do a comic about Niccolò. I created six pages of art which were accepted and appeared in SPX 2002. I also created my first minicomics to bring to the expo. Here I am showing one to guest of honor Eddie Campbell.

Here are the original pages. If you’ve read the book, you will recognize it as the six page prologue, which I redid completely when I started the book in earnest. I still like the hand lettering, even though it is basically illegible, especially on the second page. But it still looks very nice, kind of like an illuminated manuscript you can’t read. (click on images to enlarge)