May 16th: How our Tech Companies Rule Our Lives, and Why We Let Them

Apple logoIn a New York Times article last week, Farhad Manjoo posed the question: which of the five biggest tech companies do we depend on most?

We all can agree that technology plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives. But, as Manjoo points out, five companies have a stranglehold on the market for personal computing and information access. Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft each hold a massive slice of the pie, and while others may fit particular niches, those five are responsible for the bulk of our digital experience.

amazon logoIn a fantasy land, constructed by Majoo, a dictator forces you to relinquish all connection to one of those power-five companies at a time. Which ones would you give up first? What order would they fall, leaving you with only one that absolutely can’t live without?

When I first took the “quiz,” I thought Apple would be the one that I couldn’t live without. Apple is responsible for the hardware that I use: I have an iPhone, Macbook, and iPad, so my access to information is wrapped up entirely in the Apple world. Yet, the further I thought about it, nearly all services I use on those devices related back to Google: Google docs, Gmail, Chrome, etc.

FB logoThe answers may differ for each individual, based on the hardware and services used by any of these companies. But the greater value of the article was the subsequent conversation: how can we better understand the influence of these five specific companies on our lives, and how do we better acknowledge how they influence our decisions, both our behavior and our purchases.

What makes these five companies particularly powerful and fascinating is exactly the convergence that I struggled with. We use our Apple phones to buy Amazon products, sending confirmation emails to our Gmail accounts. We post reviews of those products on Facebook, and interact with other users. Maybe we use our Windows computer to accomplish all of this instead.

Microsoft logoTwo-day shipping has become an expectation, not a luxury. The fact that I can send a text on my phone and have it appear also on my computer isn’t magic, it’s synchronization. We expect everyone to be on Facebook, and learn a great deal about the people around us without ever having to meet. We trust Google more than anyone else in our lives.

All of this is said with a morally neutral stance. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad about all five companies: we use them as tools to make our lives easier, and they also own us in ways that can damage our relationship with the “real” world. The more important thing is that we have to be aware of the influence they have on our lives, and to understand what they contribute to our ability to live our lives, and how we can take ownership of our experience of their products to make sure that we are thoughtful, knowledgeable consumers.

Alphabet

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May 4th: An Incomplete Circle

CircleSeveral months ago, I read a book, The Circle, by Dave Eggers. In it, a young woman begins to work for a social media technology company, and she begins to see the extent to which our devices and our profiles can take over our lives. While I didn’t particularly like the book, I appreciated the fact that it asked a pair of essential questions that my generation is going to have to confront: when do our connections on social media cross the line from beneficial to dangerous and when does transparency on social media become a violation of privacy?

A cinematic adaptation of the book recently came out, and I saw it this evening. Without spoiling anything, the ending in the movie is dramatically different from the one in the book. Unfortunately, the world of movies is far less comfortable with indeterminacy, something that literature has come to terms with far more maturely. While the book ended without answering the questions posed about society, the book does even worse: it gives the kind of resolution that rounds out a happy ending, without actually getting to the answers that the central theme demands.

CircThe Circle is an attempt to answer the questions that we are going to have to engage with if we are going to continue to learn how to develop relationships via the internet. They can be uncomfortable questions, and they can force us to find the answers that might be right, but we may not like. Ironically, neither the book nor the movie did enough to come to any kind of conclusion. But, it was the inspiration to start the conversation, and hopefully readers and viewers will take the opportunity to talk offline to discuss how we can ensure that we remain in control of our social media, rather than consumed by it.

March 15th: Distrust of “the Media” Misguided Attempt to Find Truth

“The Media” is under attack, seemingly from all angles. The one thing most Americans can generally agree on is a distrust of the media. But, are we even sure what we mean when we say media?

Media is a general term for the ways in which people communicate to a wide range of audience. What most people mean, though, when they say they distrust the media is the news media, primarily print and TV news, although the internet has certainly complicated things in the past decade and a half.

Texting, when done between two people, is not generally considered media. That is two-way communication. But, as soon as it becomes sent to a wider spectrum of audience, the lines between communication and media becomes far more blurred.

Now, most people can identify the difference between the New York Times and a mass text. Things get more complicated when we enter the world of the internet.

During the most recent election cycle, we saw the rise of “fake news,” which is at the heart of much of the newest wave of distrust for all media producers. While President Trump often accuses CNN or NBC of being fake news, that isn’t generally the origins of the term. A fake news site was meant to indicate a piece of text on the internet that was done in the style of news, meant to “dress up” as a real piece of news, and yet was based in no element of truth. A story with the headline “Donald Trump wears a toupee made from tiger fur” is an example of fake news, in that there is no basis in fact, no screening process, nor an editorial board putting it together. I can’t prove it, but the beauty (and danger) of the internet is that there is nothing to prevent me from saying it anyway.

Yesterday, as his tax returns were revealed on NBC News, Trump tweeted “Does anyone really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of,’went to his mailbox’ and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!” This isn’t an example of fake news, though. There is a reporter, who we can verify, who says he received the tax returns in his mailbox. The fact that it is being said IS a fact, and it isn’t wrong for NBC to report on it, as a form of sharing the sources they used to produce their content. Whether or not the information is NEWSWORTHY is a totally other issue. Whether or not it is profound journalism isn’t even the point, either. A better example of political fake news may be the wire tap on Trump Tower. This is an unverifiable claim, with no evidence to back it up, put forward in a way that was meant to be news. 

But the real question at hand in this conversation is the media, and where the boundaries lie in determining where we take out our frustration. Buzzfeed is a perfect example of the kind of website that obscures whether or not it belongs to the amorphous fraternity of “the media”, or whether or not it is a medium of a different kind.

On the whole, Buzzfeed content is a combination of humor, personal interest, and click-bait. Entertaining? Yes. A member of “the media?” Probably not. Sure, there are some articles that attempt to share some version of the truth, but if Buzzfeed is your primary source for deciding how to vote or determining your stance on major policy decisions, you are profoundly misguided. The same issues could be levied against Facebook, where much of the content comes from such a wide spectrum of sources, that it is nearly impossible to determine the credibility or journalistic integrity of the source.

In attempting to keep up with the places where viewers “hang out” virtually, news media have tried to find a home on social media feeds. In so doing, they have put themselves into position to be judged just like anything else you can find on the internet, which has compromised their credibility and our ability to decide what is legitimate news and information, and what is opinion, what is conflated, and what is just downright fake. Not all URLs are created equal, but when we judge them all as having the same validity, it doesn’t come out well for the journalistic community.

It is fair to be very critical of the information we find online, and the way we consume news and data. But, when we are willing to throw away the credibility of anything we consider to be “the media,” we run the risk of destabilizing the world of journalism, a central component of the rights of a free society, and the destabilizing of truth as a whole.

February 13th: No Tweets for the Wicked

I love Twitter. It is one of my favorite sources for news and commentary. Sports, politics, pop culture, and beyond are all discussed and reported by anyone with an email address, one of the only places the public and the professional get the same freedoms to put something out there and be read and judged by the world.

That being said, I unfollowed @POTUS on January 20th. When the password was passed to the next user, I took my name off the list. I also don’t follow @realDonaldTrump.

When I tell people this, almost everyone doesn’t agree right away. Almost everyone, on the left or the right, tells me that the only way to be informed is to keep track of what everyone is saying, even someone with whom I may not agree. On that front I absolutely agree.

You see, both @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump are public accounts. I can go on and read whatever I want whenever I want. I don’t need to be a follower to get the information. Which means, by not following the accounts, I get to accomplish something that drives directly at the heart of the president: I dent his ego.

Donald Trump has demonstrated that he wants his presidency to be treated like a historic event. He wants the highest approval rating ever (he doesn’t), the biggest Inauguration of all time (it wasn’t), and the strongest presidency (history will tell that tale). To ensure that Donald Trump feels what it’s like not to have the largest Twitter following, I’m not willing to give him my follows, to make him feel like he has more influence than he has.

Taylor Swift has more followers. Instagram has more twitter followers. Barack Obama has over 3 times as many followers.

Donald Trump continues to behave as though his twitter account is the public’s window into his administration and his life. We have seen numerous examples of Trump using his influence and exposure to discuss himself, rather than the issues at hand. How much fun would it be to make him feel as though nobody cares to see? How much better off will we be if we take away his Twitter influence and force him to behave like a President? The answer to our world’s problems are probably going to take more than 140 characters.

October 27th: Apple’s Diverse Convergence

A little over a week ago, Apple sent out invitations for their latest tech launch. CEO Tim Cook took the stage today and announced exactly what most had speculated for the past several months: the newest edition of the MacBook Pro.

As predicted, the new Pro device is not only thinner, lighter, and brighter than its predecessor, but also features an LED command strip, which allows app-specific commands and navigation. (Did I mention that it comes in Space Gray?)

There had also been some conversation about an update to the MacBook Air, which hadn’t received any attention in the past several years. That foot didn’t drop, but one Apple representative put it fairly clearly: between the 12-inch MacBok and the 13- or 15-inch MacBook Pro options, everything you needed from an Air had been swept up into the new line.

This might displease some Apple fans, but it shouldn’t. The brilliance of Apple’s reach is becoming more and more clear with every product they release.

Our media use is more diverse than it has ever been. We are consuming and creating in ways that are not only new, but ever-changing. As a result, Apple has made a committed effort to ensure that each user gets a device that caters specifically to their needs.

From Apple’s smallest screen on the Apple Watch to the mid-sized tablets of the iPad to the maximum productivity notebook of a MacBook, consumers see a solid line from each size and style, flowing one to the next. By removing the Air from their line in favor of simply the MacBook, they are able to maintain the linear nature of their products and eliminate the redundancy of two different 13-inch laptops.

Those that want a touch-screen have the iPad Pro in both larger and smaller sizes. Those that want a classic clamshell laptop have the traditional and bonafide versions. The goal becomes that an individual is able to walk into an Apple store and tell an employee exactly what they are trying to do to be matched up with the perfect device for them. Most importantly, they will not only receive a device that matches their needs, but receive one that is the top of its class, the absolute best phone, tablet, computer money can buy.

Apple has, over the last year, been working to bring all of their branches together to form a single line of products, flowing one into the next. Today, they took a big step forward to trim the fat where it needed to be trimmed, and beef up the last area that was lacking. The convergence of their personal technological products have made them the perfect fit for any consumer. Apple is attempting to prove that, while you can’t be everything to everybody, you can be each thing to anybody.