Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 80s and 90s, I had a pretty strong sense of fear and hatred for cops. I got to witness corruption and intimidation first hand, and I despised the hypocritical nature of the “PoPo.” As a teen, I worked at Subway. Whenever I had a late shift, I could rely on cops coming by. About half of them were decent. They’d order politely and, as if recognizing the fear in my body, would try to make small talk to suggest that we were on even ground in this context. And they’d actually pay their bills. The other half were a different matter. Especially when they came in in pairs. They’d yell at me, demean me, sexualize me. More importantly, I could depend on the fact that they would not pay for their food and threaten me if I tried to get them to pony up. On the job, I got one free sandwich per shift. If I was lucky, and it was only one cop, I could cover it by not eating dinner. For each additional cop, I would be docked an hour’s pay. There were nights where I had to fork over my entire paycheck.
I had it easy. Around me, I saw much worse. A girl at a neighboring school was gang raped by a group of cops after her arrest for a crime it turned out she didn’t commit but which was committed by a friend of her first cop rapist. Men that I knew got beaten up when they had a run-in. The law wasn’t about justice; it was about power and I knew to stay clear. The funny thing is that I always assumed that this was because “old” people were messed up. And cops were old people. This notion got shattered when I went back for a friend’s high school reunion. Some of his classmates had become police officers and so they decided to do a series of busts that day to provide drugs to the revelers. Much to my horror, some of the very people that I grew up with became corrupt cops. I had to accept that it wasn’t just “old” people; it was “my” people.
I did not grow up poor, although we definitely struggled. We always had food on the table and the rent got paid, but my mother worked two jobs and was always exhausted to the bones. Of course, we were white and living in a nice part of town so I knew my experiences were pretty privileged from the getgo. Most of my close friends who got arrested were arrested for hacking and drug-related offenses. Only those of color were arrested for more serious crimes. I knew straight up that my white, blonde self wasn’t going to be targeted which meant that I just needed to keep my nose clean. But in practice, that meant dumping OD’ed friends off at the steps of the hospital and driving away rather than walking through the front door.
As I aged and began researching teens, my attitude towards law enforcement became more complex. I met police officers who were far more interested in making the world a better place than those who I encountered as a kid. At the same time, I met countless youth whose run-ins were far worse than anything that I ever experienced. I knew that certain aspects of policing were far darker than I got to see first hand, but I didn’t really have the right conceptual frame for understanding what was at play with many of the teens that I met.
And then I read Alice Goffman’s On the Run.
This book has forced to me to really contend with all of my mixed and complicated feelings towards law enforcement, while providing a deeper context for my own fieldwork with teens. More than anything, this book has shed a spotlight on exactly what’s at stake in our racist and classist policing practices. She brilliantly deciphers the cultural logic of black men’s relationship with law enforcement, allowing outsiders to better understand why black communities respond the way they do. In doing so, she challenges most people’s assumptions about policing and inequality in America.
Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’
For the better part of her undergraduate and graduate school years, Alice Goffman embedded herself in a poor black neighborhood of Philadelphia, in a community where young men are bound to run into the law and end up jailed. What began as fieldwork for a class paper turned into an undergraduate thesis and then grew into a dissertation which resulted in her first book, published by University of Chicago, called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. This book examines the dynamics of a group of boys — and the people around them — as they encounter law enforcement and become part of the system. She lived alongside them, participated in their community, and bore witness to their experiences. She lived through arrests, raids, and murders. She saw it all and the account she offers doesn’t pull punches.
While I’ve seen police intimidation and corruption, the detail with which Goffman documents the practices of policing in the community in which she studied is both eloquent and harrowing. Through her writing, you can see what she saw, offering insight into a dynamic that few privileged people can bear witness. What’s most striking about Goffman’s accounting is the empathy with which she approaches the community. It is a true ethnographic account, in every sense. But, at the same time, it is so accessible and delightful that I want the world to read it.
Although most Americans realize that black men are overrepresented in US jails, most people don’t realize just how bad it is. As Goffman notes in her prologue, 1 in every 107 people in the adult population is currently in jail while 3% of the adult population is under correctional supervision. Not only are 37% of those in prison black, but 60% of black men who didn’t finish high school will go to prison by their mid-30s. We’ve built a prison-industrial complex and most of our prison reform laws have only made life worse for poor blacks.
The incentive structures around policing are disgusting and, with the onset of predictive policing, getting worse. As Goffman shows, officers have to hit their numbers and they’re free to use many abusive practices to get there. Although some law enforcement officers have a strong moral compass, many have no qualms about asserting their authority in the most vicious and abusive ways imaginable. The fear that they produce in poor communities doesn’t increase lawful behavior; it undermines the very trust in authority that is necessary to a health democracy.
The most eye-opening chapter in Goffman’s book is her accounting of what women experience as they are forced into snitching on the men in their communities. All too often, their houses are raided and they are threatened with violence, arrest, eviction, and the loss of children. Their homes are torn apart, their money is taken, and they are constantly surveilled. Police use phone records to “prove” that their boyfriends are cheating on them or offer up witnesses who suggest that the men in their lives aren’t really looking out for them. While she describes how important loyalty is in these communities, she also details just how law enforcement actively destroys the fabric of these communities through intimidation and force. Under immense pressure, most everyone breaks. It’s a modern day instantiation ofantebellum slavery practices. If you tear apart a community, authority has power.
For all of the abuse and intimidation faced by those targeted by policing practices, it delights me to see the acts of creative resistance that many of Goffman’s informants undertake. Consider, for example, the realities of banking in poor communities. Most poor folks have no access to traditional banks to store their money and keeping cash on them is tricky. Not only might they be robbed by someone in the community, but they can rely on the fact that any police officer who frisks them will take whatever cash is found. So where should they store money for safe keeping?
When you bail someone out of jail and they show up for their court dates, you can get your bail money back. But why not just leave it at the court for safe keeping? You have up to six months to recover it and it’s often safer there than anywhere else. In her analysis, Goffman offers practices like these as well as other innovative ways poor people use the unjust system to their advantage.
Seeing Police Through the Eyes of Teens
Reading Goffman’s book also allowed me to better understand the teens that I encountered through my research. Doing fieldwork with working class and poor youth of color was both the highlight of my study and the hardest to fully grok. I have countless fieldnotes about teens’ recounted problems with cops, their struggles to stay out of trouble, and the violence that they witnessed all around them. I knew the stats. I knew that many of the teens that I met would probably end up in jail, if they hadn’t already had a run-in with the law. But I didn’t really get it.
Perhaps the hardest interview I had was with a young man who had just gotten out of jail and was in a halfway house. When he was a small boy, his mom got sick of his dad and so asked him to rat out his dad when the cops showed up. He obliged and his father was sent to jail. His mom then moved him and his younger brother across the country. By the time he was a teenager, his mom would call the cops on him and his brother whenever she wanted some peace and quiet. He’d eventually ran away and was always looking for a place to stay. His brother made a different decision — he found older white men who would “take care of him.” The teen I met was disgusted by his brother’s activities and thought that these men were gross so one day, he planted drugs on one of the guy’s cars and called the cops on him. And so the cycle continues.
In order to better understand human trafficking, I began talking to commercially exploited youth. Here, I also witnessed some pretty horrible dynamics. Teens who were arrested for prostitution “to keep them safe,” not to mention the threats and rapes that many young people engaged in sex work encountered from the very same law enforcement officers who were theoretically there to protect them. All too often, teens told me that their abusive “boyfriends” were much better than the abusive State apparatus (and their fathers). And based on what I saw, this was a fair assessment. And so I continue to struggle with policy discussions that center on empowering law enforcement. Sure, I had met some law enforcement folks in this work that were really working to end commercial sexual abuse of minors. And I want to see law enforcement serve a healthy enforcing role. But every youth I met feared the cops far more than they feared their abusers. And I still struggle to make sense of the right path forward.
Although the teens that I met often recounted their negative encounters with police, I never fully understood the underlying dynamics that shaped what they were telling me. What I was studying theoretically had nothing to do with teens’ relationship with the law and so this data was simply context. Context I was curious about, but not context that I got to observe properly. I knew that there was a lot more going on. A lot that I didn’t see. Enough to make me concerned about how law enforcement shapes the lives of working class and poor youth, but not enough to enable me to do anything about it.
What Goffman taught me was to appreciate the way in which the teens that I met were forced into a game of survival that was far more extreme than what I imagined. They are trying to game a system that is systematically unfair, that leaves them completely disempowered, and that teaches them to trust no one. For most poor populations, authority isn’t just corrupt — it’s outright abusive. Why then should we expect marginalized populations to play within a system that is out to get them?
As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently explained in “The Case for Reparations,” we may speak of a post-racial society where we no longer engage in racist activities, but the on-the-ground realities are much more systemically destructive. The costs of our historical racism and the damage done by slavery are woven into the fabric of our society. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
We cannot expect the most marginalized people in American society to simply start trusting authority when authority continues to actively fragment their communities in an abusive assertion of power. It is both unfair and unreasonable to expect poor folks to work within a system that was designed to oppress them. If we want change, we need to better understand what’s at stake.
Goffman’s On the Run offers a brilliant account of what poor black people who are targeted by policing face on a daily basis. And how they learn to live in a society where their every move is surveilled. It is a phenomenal and eye-opening book, full of beauty and sorrow. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It makes very clear just how much we need policing reform in this country.
Understanding the cultural logic underpinning poor black men’s relationship with the law is essential for all who care about equality in this country. Law enforcement has its role in society, but, as with any system of power, it must always be checked. This book is a significant check to power, making visible some of the most invisible mechanisms of racism and inequality that exist today.
(Photo by Pavel P.)
(This entry was first posted on June 9, 2014 at Medium under the title “The Cost of Contemporary Policing” as part of The Message.)
I’m intrigued by the reaction that has unfolded around the Facebook “emotion contagion” study. (If you aren’t familiar with this, read this primer.) As others have pointed out, the practice of A/B testing content is quite common. And Facebook has a long history of experimenting on how it can influence people’s attitudes and practices, even in the realm of research. An earlier study showed that Facebook decisions could shape voters’ practices. But why is it that *this* study has sparked a firestorm?
In asking people about this, I’ve been given two dominant reasons:
- People’s emotional well-being is sacred.
- Research is different than marketing practices.
I don’t find either of these responses satisfying.
The Consequences of Facebook’s Experiment
Facebook’s research team is not truly independent of product. They have a license to do research and publish it, provided that it contributes to the positive development of the company. If Facebook knew that this research would spark the negative PR backlash, they never would’ve allowed it to go forward or be published. I can only imagine the ugliness of the fight inside the company now, but I’m confident that PR is demanding silence from researchers.
I do believe that the research was intended to be helpful to Facebook. So what was the intended positive contribution of this study? I get the sense from Adam Kramer’s comments that the goal was to determine if content sentiment could affect people’s emotional response after being on Facebook. In other words, given that Facebook wants to keep people on Facebook, if people came away from Facebook feeling sadder, presumably they’d not want to come back to Facebook again. Thus, it’s in Facebook’s better interest to leave people feeling happier. And this study suggests that the sentiment of the content influences this. This suggests that one applied take-away for product is to downplay negative content. Presumably this is better for users and better for Facebook.
We can debate all day long as to whether or not this is what that study actually shows, but let’s work with this for a second. Let’s say that pre-study Facebook showed 1 negative post for every 3 positive and now, because of this study, Facebook shows 1 negative post for every 10 positive ones. If that’s the case, was the one week treatment worth the outcome for longer term content exposure? Who gets to make that decision?
Folks keep talking about all of the potential harm that could’ve happened by the study – the possibility of suicides, the mental health consequences. But what about the potential harm of negative content on Facebook more generally? Even if we believe that there were subtle negative costs to those who received the treatment, the ongoing costs of negative content on Facebook every week other than that 1 week experiment must be more costly. How then do we account for positive benefits to users if Facebook increased positive treatments en masse as a result of this study? Of course, the problem is that Facebook is a black box. We don’t know what they did with this study. The only thing we know is what is published in PNAS and that ain’t much.
Of course, if Facebook did make the content that users see more positive, should we simply be happy? What would it mean that you’re more likely to see announcements from your friends when they are celebrating a new child or a fun night on the town, but less likely to see their posts when they’re offering depressive missives or angsting over a relationship in shambles? If Alice is happier when she is oblivious to Bob’s pain because Facebook chooses to keep that from her, are we willing to sacrifice Bob’s need for support and validation? This is a hard ethical choice at the crux of any decision of what content to show when you’re making choices. And the reality is that Facebook is making these choices every day without oversight, transparency, or informed consent.
Algorithmic Manipulation of Attention and Emotions
Facebook actively alters the content you see. Most people focus on the practice of marketing, but most of what Facebook’s algorithms do involve curating content to provide you with what they think you want to see. Facebook algorithmically determines which of your friends’ posts you see. They don’t do this for marketing reasons. They do this because they want you to want to come back to the site day after day. They want you to be happy. They don’t want you to be overwhelmed. Their everyday algorithms are meant to manipulate your emotions. What factors go into this? We don’t know.
Facebook is not alone in algorithmically predicting what content you wish to see. Any recommendation system or curatorial system is prioritizing some content over others. But let’s compare what we glean from this study with standard practice. Most sites, from major news media to social media, have some algorithm that shows you the content that people click on the most. This is what drives media entities to produce listicals, flashy headlines, and car crash news stories. What do you think garners more traffic – a detailed analysis of what’s happening in Syria or 29 pictures of the cutest members of the animal kingdom? Part of what media learned long ago is that fear and salacious gossip sell papers. 4chan taught us that grotesque imagery and cute kittens work too. What this means online is that stories about child abductions, dangerous islands filled with snakes, and celebrity sex tape scandals are often the most clicked on, retweeted, favorited, etc. So an entire industry has emerged to produce crappy click bait content under the banner of “news.”
Guess what? When people are surrounded by fear-mongering news media, they get anxious. They fear the wrong things. Moral panics emerge. And yet, we as a society believe that it’s totally acceptable for news media – and its click bait brethren – to manipulate people’s emotions through the headlines they produce and the content they cover. And we generally accept that algorithmic curators are perfectly well within their right to prioritize that heavily clicked content over others, regardless of the psychological toll on individuals or the society. What makes their practice different? (Other than the fact that the media wouldn’t hold itself accountable for its own manipulative practices…)
Somehow, shrugging our shoulders and saying that we promoted content because it was popular is acceptable because those actors don’t voice that their intention is to manipulate your emotions so that you keep viewing their reporting and advertisements. And it’s also acceptable to manipulate people for advertising because that’s just business. But when researchers admit that they’re trying to learn if they can manipulate people’s emotions, they’re shunned. What this suggests is that the practice is acceptable, but admitting the intention and being transparent about the process is not.
But Research is Different!!
As this debate has unfolded, whenever people point out that these business practices are commonplace, folks respond by highlighting that research or science is different. What unfolds is a high-browed notion about the purity of research and its exclusive claims on ethical standards.
Do I think that we need to have a serious conversation about informed consent? Absolutely. Do I think that we need to have a serious conversation about the ethical decisions companies make with user data? Absolutely. But I do not believe that this conversation should ever apply just to that which is categorized under “research.” Nor do I believe that academe is necessarily providing a golden standard.
Academe has many problems that need to be accounted for. Researchers are incentivized to figure out how to get through IRBs rather than to think critically and collectively about the ethics of their research protocols. IRBs are incentivized to protect the university rather than truly work out an ethical framework for these issues. Journals relish corporate datasets even when replicability is impossible. And for that matter, even in a post-paper era, journals have ridiculous word count limits that demotivate researchers from spelling out all of the gory details of their methods. But there are also broader structural issues. Academe is so stupidly competitive and peer review is so much of a game that researchers have little incentive to share their studies-in-progress with their peers for true feedback and critique. And the status games of academe reward those who get access to private coffers of data while prompting those who don’t to chastise those who do. And there’s generally no incentive for corporates to play nice with researchers unless it helps their prestige, hiring opportunities, or product.
IRBs are an abysmal mechanism for actually accounting for ethics in research. By and large, they’re structured to make certain that the university will not be liable. Ethics aren’t a checklist. Nor are they a universal. Navigating ethics involves a process of working through the benefits and costs of a research act and making a conscientious decision about how to move forward. Reasonable people differ on what they think is ethical. And disciplines have different standards for how to navigate ethics. But we’ve trained an entire generation of scholars that ethics equals “that which gets past the IRB” which is a travesty. We need researchers to systematically think about how their practices alter the world in ways that benefit and harm people. We need ethics to not just be tacked on, but to be an integral part of how *everyone* thinks about what they study, build, and do.
There’s a lot of research that has serious consequences on the people who are part of the study. I think about the work that some of my colleagues do with child victims of sexual abuse. Getting children to talk about these awful experiences can be quite psychologically tolling. Yet, better understanding what they experienced has huge benefits for society. So we make our trade-offs and we do research that can have consequences. But what warms my heart is how my colleagues work hard to help those children by providing counseling immediately following the interview (and, in some cases, follow-up counseling). They think long and hard about each question they ask, and how they go about asking it. And yet most IRBs wouldn’t let them do this work because no university wants to touch anything that involves kids and sexual abuse. Doing research involves trade-offs and finding an ethical path forward requires effort and risk.
It’s far too easy to say “informed consent” and then not take responsibility for the costs of the research process, just as it’s far too easy to point to an IRB as proof of ethical thought. For any study that involves manipulation – common in economics, psychology, and other social science disciplines – people are only so informed about what they’re getting themselves into. You may think that you know what you’re consenting to, but do you? And then there are studies like discrimination audit studies in which we purposefully don’t inform people that they’re part of a study. So what are the right trade-offs? When is it OK to eschew consent altogether? What does it mean to truly be informed? When it being informed not enough? These aren’t easy questions and there aren’t easy answers.
I’m not necessarily saying that Facebook made the right trade-offs with this study, but I think that the scholarly reaction of research is only acceptable with IRB plus informed consent is disingenuous. Of course, a huge part of what’s at stake has to do with the fact that what counts as a contract legally is not the same as consent. Most people haven’t consented to all of Facebook’s terms of service. They’ve agreed to a contract because they feel as though they have no other choice. And this really upsets people.
A Different Theory
The more I read people’s reactions to this study, the more that I’ve started to think that the outrage has nothing to do with the study at all. There is a growing amount of negative sentiment towards Facebook and other companies that collect and use data about people. In short, there’s anger at the practice of big data. This paper provided ammunition for people’s anger because it’s so hard to talk about harm in the abstract.
For better or worse, people imagine that Facebook is offered by a benevolent dictator, that the site is there to enable people to better connect with others. In some senses, this is true. But Facebook is also a company. And a public company for that matter. It has to find ways to become more profitable with each passing quarter. This means that it designs its algorithms not just to market to you directly but to convince you to keep coming back over and over again. People have an abstract notion of how that operates, but they don’t really know, or even want to know. They just want the hot dog to taste good. Whether it’s couched as research or operations, people don’t want to think that they’re being manipulated. So when they find out what soylent green is made of, they’re outraged. This study isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the underlying dynamic of how Facebook runs its business, operates its system, and makes decisions that have nothing to do with how its users want Facebook to operate. It’s not about research. It’s a question of power.
I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see. I hate that I have no meaningful mechanism of control on the site. And I am painfully aware of how my sporadic use of the site has confused their algorithms so much that what I see in my newsfeed is complete garbage. And I resent the fact that because I barely use the site, the only way that I could actually get a message out to friends is to pay to have it posted. My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm. I also refuse to play the game to make myself look good before the altar of the algorithm. And every time I’m forced to deal with Facebook, I can’t help but resent its manipulations.
There’s also a lot that I dislike about the company and its practices. At the same time, I’m glad that they’ve started working with researchers and started publishing their findings. I think that we need more transparency in the algorithmic work done by these kinds of systems and their willingness to publish has been one of the few ways that we’ve gleaned insight into what’s going on. Of course, I also suspect that the angry reaction from this study will prompt them to clamp down on allowing researchers to be remotely public. My gut says that they will naively respond to this situation as though the practice of research is what makes them vulnerable rather than their practices as a company as a whole. Beyond what this means for researchers, I’m concerned about what increased silence will mean for a public who has no clue of what’s being done with their data, who will think that no new report of terrible misdeeds means that Facebook has stopped manipulating data.
Information companies aren’t the same as pharmaceuticals. They don’t need to do clinical trials before they put a product on the market. They can psychologically manipulate their users all they want without being remotely public about exactly what they’re doing. And as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing.
There’s a lot that needs reformed here. We need to figure out how to have a meaningful conversation about corporate ethics, regardless of whether it’s couched as research or not. But it’s not so simple as saying that a lack of a corporate IRB or a lack of a golden standard “informed consent” means that a practice is unethical. Almost all manipulations that take place by these companies occur without either one of these. And they go unchecked because they aren’t published or public.
Ethical oversight isn’t easy and I don’t have a quick and dirty solution to how it should be implemented. But I do have a few ideas. For starters, I’d like to see any company that manipulates user data create an ethics board. Not an IRB that approves research studies, but an ethics board that has visibility into all proprietary algorithms that could affect users. For public companies, this could be done through the ethics committee of the Board of Directors. But rather than simply consisting of board members, I think that it should consist of scholars and users. I also think that there needs to be a mechanism for whistleblowing regarding ethics from within companies because I’ve found that many employees of companies like Facebook are quite concerned by certain algorithmic decisions, but feel as though there’s no path to responsibly report concerns without going fully public. This wouldn’t solve all of the problems, nor am I convinced that most companies would do so voluntarily, but it is certainly something to consider. More than anything, I want to see users have the ability to meaningfully influence what’s being done with their data and I’d love to see a way for their voices to be represented in these processes.
I’m glad that this study has prompted an intense debate among scholars and the public, but I fear that it’s turned into a simplistic attack on Facebook over this particular study rather than a nuanced debate over how we create meaningful ethical oversight in research and practice. The lines between research and practice are always blurred and information companies like Facebook make this increasingly salient. No one benefits by drawing lines in the sand. We need to address the problem more holistically. And, in the meantime, we need to hold companies accountable for how they manipulate people across the board, regardless of whether or not it’s couched as research. If we focus too much on this study, we’ll lose track of the broader issues at stake.
In the recent Frontline documentary “Generation Like,” Doug Rushkoff lamented that today’s youth don’t even know what the term “sell-out” means. While this surprised Rushkoff and other fuddy duddies, it didn’t make me blink for a second. Of course this term means nothing to them. Why do we think it should?
The critique of today’s teens has two issues intertwined into one. First, there’s the issue of language — is this term the right term? Second, there’s the question of whether or not the underlying concept is meaningful in contemporary youth culture.
Slang Shifts Over Time
My cohort grew up with the term “dude” with zero recognition that the term was originally a slur for city slickers and dandies known for their fancy duds (a.k.a. clothing). And even as LGBT folks know that “gay” once meant happy, few realize that it once referred to hobos and drifters. Terms change over time.
Even the term “sell-out” has different connotations depending on who you ask… and when you ask. While it’s generally conceptualized as a corrupt bargain, it was originally of political origins, equivalent to traitor. For example, it was used to refer to those in the South who chose to leave the Confederacy for personal gain. Among the black community, it took a different turn, referring to those African-Americans who appeared to be too white. Of course, the version that Rushkoff is most familiar with stems from when musicians were being attacked for putting commercial interests above artistic vision. Needless to say, those who had the privilege to make these decisions were inevitably white men, so it’s not that surprising that the notion of selling out was particularly central to the punk and alternative music scenes from the 1960s-1990s, when white men played a defining role. For many other musicians, hustling was always part of the culture and you were darn lucky to be able to earn a living doing what you loved. This doesn’t mean that the music industry isn’t abusive or corrupt or corrupting. Personally, I’m glad that today’s music ecosystem isn’t as uniformly white or male as it once was.
All that said, why on earth should contemporary adults expect today’s teens to use the same terms that us old fogies have been using to refer to cultural dynamics? Their musical ecosystem is extraordinarily different than what I grew up with. RIAA types complain about how technology undercut their industry, but I would argue that the core industry got greedy and, then, abusive. Today’s teens are certainly living in a world with phenomenally famous pop stars, but they are also experiencing the greatest levels of fragmentation ever. Rather than relying on the radio for music recommendations, they turn to YouTube and share media content through existing networks, undermining industrial curatorial control. As a result, I constantly meet teens whose sense of the music industry is radically different than that of peers who live next in the next town over. The notion of selling out requires that there is one reigning empire. That really isn’t the case anymore.
Of course, the issue of slang is only the surface issue. Do teens recognize the commercial ecosystem that they live in? And how do they feel about it? What I found in my research was pretty consistent on this front.
Growing Up in a Commercial World
Today’s teens are desperate for any form of freedom. In a world where they have limited physical mobility and few places to go, they’re deeply appreciative of any space that will accept them. Because we’ve pretty much obliterated all public spaces for youth to gather in, they find their freedomin commercial spaces, especially online. This doesn’t mean teens like the advertisements that are all around them, but they’ll accept this nuisance for the freedom to socialize with their friends. They know it’s a dirty trade-off and they’re more than happy to mess with the data that the systems scrape, but they are growing up in a world where they don’t feel as though they have much agency or choice.
These teens are not going to critique their friends for being sell-outs because they’ve already been sold out by the adults in their world. These teens want freedom and it’s our fault that they don’t have it except in commercial spaces. These teens want opportunities and we do everything possible to restrict those that they have access to. Why should we expect them to stand up to commercial surveillance when every adult in their world surveils their every move “for their own good”? Why should these teens lament the commercialization of public spaces when these are the only spaces that they feel actually allow them to be authentic?
It makes me grouchy when adults gripe about teens’ practice without taking into account all of the ways in which we’ve forced them into the corners that they’re trying to navigate. There’s good reason to be critical of how commercialized American society has become, but I don’t think that we should place the blame on the backs of teenagers who are just trying to find their way. If we don’t like what we see when we watch teenagers, it’s time to look in the mirror. We’ve created this commercially oriented society. Teens are just trying to figure out how to live in it.
(Thanks to Tamara Kneese for helping track down some of the relevant history for this post.)
(This entry was first posted on May 27, 2014 at Medium under the title “‘Selling Out’ Is Meaningless” as part of The Message.)
In 2003, I was living in San Francisco and working at a startup when I overheard a colleague of mine — a self-identified libertarian — spout off about “the homeless problem.” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’m sure it fit into a well-trodden frame about no-good lazy leeches. I marched right over to him and asked if he’d ever talked to someone who was homeless. He looked at me with shock and his cheeks flushed, so I said, “Let’s go!” Unwilling to admit discomfort, he followed.
>We drove down to 6th Street, and I nodded to a group of men sitting on the sidewalk and told him to ask them about their lives. Then I watched as he nervously approached one guy and stumbled through a conversation. I was pleasantly surprised that he ended up talking for longer than I expected before coming back to me.
“He’s a vet.”
“And he said the government got him addicted and he can’t shake the habit.”
“And he doesn’t know what he should do to get a job because no one will ever talk to him.”
“I didn’t think…. He’s not doing so well…”
I let him trail off as we got back into the car and drove back to the office in silence.
San Francisco is in the middle of a class war. It’s not the first or last city to have heart-wrenching inequality tear at its fabric, challenge its values, test its support structures. But what’s jaw-dropping to me is how openly, defensively, and critically technology folks demean those who are struggling. The tech industry has a sickening obsession with meritocracy. Far too many geeks and entrepreneurs worship at the altar of zeros and ones, believing that outputs can be boiled down to a simple equation based on inputs. In a modern-day version of the Protestant ethic, there’s a sense that success is a guaranteed outcome of hard work, skills, and intelligence. Thus, anyone who is struggling can be blamed for their own circumstances.
This attitude is front and center when it comes to people who are visibly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, a mere fraction of the total homeless population in that city.
I wish that more people working in the tech sector would take a moment to talk to these men and women. Listening to their stories is humbling. Vets who fought for our country, under the banner of “freedom,” only to be cognitively imprisoned by addiction and mental illness. Abused runaways trying to find someone who will treat them with respect. People who were working hard and getting by until an accident struck and they lost their job and ended up in medical debt. Immigrants who came looking for the American Dream only to find themselves trapped. These aren’t no-good lazy leeches. They’re people. People whose lives have been a hell of a lot harder than most of us can even fathom. People who struggle on a daily basis to find food and shelter. People who we’ve systematically disenfranchised and failed to support. People who the bulk of tech workers ignore, shun, resent, and demonize.
A city without a safety net cannot be a healthy society. And nothing exacerbates this worse than condescension, resentment, and dismissal. We can talk about the tech buses and the lack of affordable housing, but it all starts with appreciating those who are struggling. Only a mere fraction of San Francisco’s homeless population are visible, but those who are reveal the starkness of what’s unfolding. And, as with many things, there’s more of a desire to make the visible invisible than there is to grapple with dynamics of poverty, mental illness, addiction, abuse, and misfortune. Too many people think that they’re invincible.
If you’re living in the Bay Area and working in tech, take a moment to do what I asked my colleague to do a decade ago. Walk around the Tenderloin and talk with someone whose poverty is written on their body. Respectfully ask about their life. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Where do they want to go? Ask about their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Get a sense for their story. Connect as people. Then think about what meritocracy in tech really means.
(Photo by Darryl Harris.)
Two great local organizations: Delancey Street Foundation and Homeless Children’s Network.
(This entry was first posted on May 13, 2014 at Medium under the title “San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War” as part of The Message.)
I rarely drive these days, and when I do, it’s bloody terrifying. Even though I grew up driving and drove every day for fifteen years, my lack of practice is palpable as I grip the steering wheel. Every time I get behind the wheel, in order to silence my own fears about all of the ways in which I might crash, I ruminate over the anxieties that people have about teenagers and driving. I try not to get distracted in my own driving by looking to see if other drivers are texting while driving, but I can’t help but muse about these things. And while I was driving down the 101 in California last week, it hit me: driving is about to become obsolete.
The history of cars in America is tied up with what it means to be American in the first place. American history —with its ups and downs — can be understood through the automobile industry. In fact, it can be summed up with one word: Detroit. Once a booming metropolis, this one-industry town iconically highlights the issues that surround globalization, class inequality, and labor identities. But entwined with the very real economic factors surrounding the automobile industry is an American obsession with freedom.
It used to be that getting access to a car was the ultimate marker of freedom. As a teenager in the nineties, I longed for my sixteenth birthday and all that was represented by a driver’s license. Today, this sentiment is not echoed by the teens that I meet. Some still desperately want a car, but it doesn’t have the same symbolic feeling that it once did. When I ask teens about driving, what they share with me reveals the burdens imposed by this supposed tool of freedom. They talk about the costs — especially the cost of gas. They talk about the rules — especially the rules that limit them from driving with other teens in the car. And they talk about the risks — regurgitating back countless PSAs on drinking or texting while driving. While plenty of teens still drive, the very notion of driving doesn’t prompt the twinkle in their eyes that I knew from my classmates.
Driving used to be hard work. Before there was power steering and automatic transmission, maneuvering a car took effort. Driving used to be a gateway for learning. Before there were computers in every part of a car, curious youth could easily tear apart their cars and tinker with their innards. Learning to drive and manipulate a car used to be admired. Driving also used to be fun. Although speed limits and safety belts have saved many lives, I still remember the ways in which we would experiment with the boundaries of a car by testing its limits in parking lots on winter days. And I will never forget my first cross-country road trip, when I embraced the openness of the road and pushed my car to the limits and felt the wind on my face. Freedom, I felt freedom.
Today, what I feel is boredom, if not misery. The actual mechanisms of driving are easy, fooling me into a lull when I get into a car. Even with stimuli all around me, all I get to do is pump the gas, hit the brakes, and steer the wheel no more than ten degrees. My body is bored and my brain turns off. By contrast, I totally get the allure of the phone—or anything that would be more interesting than trying to navigate the road while changing the radio station to avoid the incessant chatter from not-very-entertaining DJs.
It’s rare that I hear many adults talk about driving with much joy. Some still get giddy about their cars; I hear this most often from my privileged friends when they get access to a car that changes their relationship to driving, such as an electric car or a hybrid or a Tesla. But even in those cases, I hear enthusiasm for a month before people go back to moaning about traffic and parking and surveillance. Outside of my friends, I hear people lament gas prices and tolls and this, that, or the other regulation. And when I listen to parents, they’re always complaining about having to drive their kids here, there, and everywhere. Not surprisingly, the teens that I meet rarely hear people talk joyously about cars. They hear it as a hassle.
So where does this end up? Data from both the CDC and AAA suggests that fewer and fewer American teens are bothering to even get their driver’s license. There’s so much handwringing about driving dangers, so much effort towards passing new laws and restrictions targeting teens in particular, and so much anxiety about distracted driving. Not surprisingly, more and more teens are throwing their hands in the air and giving up, demanding their parents drive them because there’s no other way. This, in turn, means that parents hate driving even more. And since our government is incapable of working together to invest in infrastructural investments, thereby undermining any hopes of public transit in huge parts of the country, what we’re effectively doing is laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles. It’s been 75 years since General Motors exhibited an autonomous car at the 1939 World’s Fair, but we’ve now created the cultural conditions for this innovation to fit into American society.
We’re going to see a decade of people flipping out over fear that autonomous vehicles are dangerous, even though I expect them to be a lot less dangerous that sleepy drivers, drunken drivers, distracted drivers, and inexperienced drivers. Older populations that still associate driving with freedom are going to be resistant to the very idea of autonomous vehicles, but both parents and teenagers will start to see them as more freeing than driving. We’re still a long way from autonomous vehicles being meaningfully accessible to the general population. But we’re going to get there. We’ve spent the last thirty years ratcheting up fears and safety measures around cars, and we’ve successfully undermined the cultural appeal of driving. This is what will open the doors to a new form of transportation. And the opportunities for innovation here are only just beginning.
(This entry was first posted on May 5, 2014 at Medium under the title “Will my grandchildren learn to drive? I expect not” as part of The Message.)
Close your eyes and imagine what it was like to be a teenager in the 1920s. Perhaps you are out late dancing swing to jazz or dressed up as a flapper. Most likely, you don’t visualize yourself stuck at home unable to see your friends like today’s teenagers. And for good reason. In the 1920s, teenagers used to complain when their parents made them come home before 11pm. Many, in fact, earned their own money; compulsory high school wasn’t fully implemented until the 1930s when adult labor became anxious about the limited number of available jobs.
Although contemporary parents fret incessantly about teenagers, most people don’t realize that the very concept of a “teenager” is a 1940s marketing invention. And it didn’t arrive overnight. It started with a transformation in the 1890s when activists began to question child labor and the psychologist G. Stanley Hall identified a state of “adolescence” that was used to propel significant changes in labor laws. By the early 1900s, with youth out of the work force and having far too much free time, concerns about the safety and morality of the young emerged, prompting reformers to imagine ways to put youthful energy to good use. Up popped the Scouts, a social movement intended to help produce robust youth, fit in body, mind, and soul. This inadvertently became a training ground for World War I soldiers who, by the 1920s, were ready to let loose. And then along came the Great Depression, sending a generation into a tailspin and prompting government intervention. While the US turned to compulsory high school and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Germany saw the rise of Hitler Youth. And an entire cohort, passionate about being a part of a community with meaning, was mobilized on the march towards World War II.
All of this (and much more) is brilliantly documented in Jon Savage’s beautiful historical account Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. This book helped me rethink how teenagers are currently understood in light of how they were historically positioned. Adolescence is one of many psychological and physical transformations that people go through as they mature, but being a teenager is purely a social construct, laden with all sorts of political and economic interests.
When I heard that Savage’s book was being turned into a film, I was both ecstatic and doubtful. How could a filmmaker do justice to the 576 pages of historical documentation? To my surprise and delight, the answer was simple: make a film that brings to visual life the historical texts that Savage referenced.
In his new documentary, Teenage, Matt Wolf weaves together an unbelievable collection of archival footage to produce a breathless visual collage. Overlaid on top of this visual eye candy are historical notes and diary entries that bring to life the voices and experiences of teens in the first half of the 20th century. Although this film invites the viewer to reflect on the past, doing so forces a reflection on the present. I can’t help but wonder: what will historians think of our contemporary efforts to isolate young people “for their own good”?
This film is making its way through US independent theaters so it may take a while until you can see it, but to whet your appetite, watch the trailer:
(This entry was first posted on April 25, 2014 at Medium under the title “A Dazzling Film About Youth in the Early 20th Century” as part of The Message.)
(I wrote the following piece for Psychology Today under the title “Sexual Predators: The Imagined and the Real.”)
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen the creepy portraits of online sexual predators constructed by media: The twisted older man, lurking online, ready to abduct a naive and innocent child and do horrible things. If you’re like most parents, the mere mention of online sexual predators sends shivers down your spine. Perhaps it prompts you to hover over your child’s shoulder or rally your school to host online safety assemblies.
But what if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? And what if that inaccurate portrait is actually destructive?
When it comes to child safety, the real statistics don’t stop parental worry. Exceptions dominate the mind. The facts highlight how we fail to protect those teenagers who are most at-risk for sexual exploitation online.
If you poke around, you may learn that 1 in 7 children are sexually exploited online. This data comes from the very reputable Crimes Against Children Research Center, however, very few take the time to read the report carefully. Most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are. And most of these sexual solicitations don’t upset teens. Alarm bells should go off over the tiny percentage of youth who are upsettingly solicited by people who are much older than them. No victimization is acceptable, but we need to drill into understanding who is at risk and why if we want to intervene.
The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren’t random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won’t put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.
What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.
The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.
In a culture of abstinence-only education, schools don’t want to address any aspect of sexual and reproductive health for fear of upsetting parents. As a result, we fail to give young people the tools to handle sexual victimization. When the message is “just say no,” we shame young people who were sexually abused or violated.
It’s high time that we walk away from our nightmare scenarios and focus on addressing the serious injustices that exist. The world we live in isn’t fair and many youth who are most at-risk do not have concerned parents looking out for them. Because we have stopped raising children as a community, adults are often too afraid to step on other parents’ toes. Yet, we need adults who are looking out for more than just their children. Furthermore, our children need us to talk candidly about sexual victimization without resorting to boogeymen.
While it’s important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let’s instead talk about how we can help teenagers be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let’s understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.
(This piece was first published at Psychology Today.)
I’m delighted to see that the White House has just released its report on “big data” — “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” along with an amazing collection of supporting documents. This report is the culmination of a 90-day review by the Administration, spearheaded by Counselor John Podesta. I’ve had the fortune to be a part of this process and have worked hard to share what I know with Podesta and his team.
In January, shortly after the President announced his intention to reflect on the role of big data and privacy in society, I received a phone call from Nicole Wong at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, asking if I’d help run one of the three public conferences that the Administration hoped to co-host as part of this review. Although I was about to embark on a book tour, I enthusiastically agreed, both because the goal of the project aligned brilliantly with what I was hoping to achieve with my new Data & Society Research Institute and also because one does not say no when asked to help Nicole (or the President). We hadn’t intended to publicly launch Data & Society until June nor did we have all of the infrastructure necessary to run a large-scale event, but we had passion and gumption so we teamed up with the great folks at New York University’s Information Law Institute (directed by the amazing Helen Nissenbaum) and called on all sorts of friends and collaborators to help us out. It was a bit crazy at times, but we did it.
In under six weeks, our amazing team produced six guiding documents and crafted a phenomenal event called The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data.” On our conference page, you can find an event summary, videos of the sessions, copies of the workshop primers and discussion notes, a zip file of important references, and documents that list participants, the schedule, and production team. This amazing event was made possible through the generous gifts and institutional support of: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Microsoft Research, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (These funds were not solicited or collected on behalf of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), or the White House. Acknowledgment of a contributor by the Data & Society Research Institute does not constitute an endorsement by OSTP or the White House.) Outcomes from this event will help inform the National Science Foundation-supported Council on Social, Legal, and Ethical aspects of Big Data (spearheaded by the conference’s steering committee: danah boyd, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Kate Crawford, and Helen Nissenbaum). And, of course, the event we hosted help shape the report that was released today.
Words cannot express how grateful I am to see the Administration seriously reflect on the issues of discrimination and power asymmetries as they grapple with both the potential benefits and consequences of data-centric technological development. Discrimination is a tricky issue, both because of its implications on individuals and because of what it means for society as a whole. In teasing out the issues of discrimination and big data, my colleague Solon Barocas pointed me to this fantastic quote by Alistair Croll:
Perhaps the biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one. Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others.
Navigating the messiness of “big data” requires going beyond common frames of public vs. private, collection vs. usage. Much to my frustration, the conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized – it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple. The same tools that streamline certain practices and benefit certain individuals can have serious repercussions for other people and for our society as a whole. As the quote above hints at, what’s at stake is the very essence of our societal fabric. Building a healthy society in a data-centric world requires keeping one eye on the opportunities and one eye on the potential risks. While it’s not perfect, the report from the White House did a darn good job of striking this balance.
Not only did the White House team tease out many core issues for both public and private sector, but they helped scaffold a framework for policy makers. The recommendations they offer aren’t silver bullets, but they are reasonable first steps. Many will inevitably argue that they don’t go far enough (or, in some cases, go too far) – and I can definitely get nitpicky here – but that’s par for the course. This doesn’t damper my appreciation. I’m still uber grateful to see the Administration take the time to tease out the complexity of the issues and offer a path forward that is not simply polarizing.
Please take a moment to read this important report. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Data & Society would love to hear your thoughts. And if you’re curious to know more about what I’ll be doing next with this Research Institute, please join our newsletter.
Psst: Academics – check out the last line of the report ends on Page 68. Science and Technology Studies for teh win!
(Flickr credit: Stuart Richards)
Rule #2: Fear-mongering causes harm.
I believe in the enterprise of journalism, even when it lets me down in practice. The fourth estate is critically important for holding systems of power accountable. But what happens when journalists do harm?
On Sunday, a salacious article flew across numerous news channels. In print, it was given titles like “Teenagers can no longer tell the real world from the internet, study claims” (Daily Mail) and “Real world v online world: teens do not distinguish” (The Telegraph). This claim can’t even pass the basic sniff test, but it was picked up by news programs and reproduced on blogs.
The articles make reference to a “Digital Lives” study produced by Vodafone and Google, but there’s nothing in the articles themselves that even support the claims made by the headlines. No quotes from the authors, no explanation, no percentages (even though it’s supposedly a survey study). It’s not even remotely clear how the editors came up with that title because it’s 100% disconnected from the article itself.
So I decided to try to find the study. It’s not online. There’s a teaser page by the firm who appears to have run the study. Interestingly, they argue that the methodology was qualitative, not a survey. And it sounds like the study is about resilience and cyberbullying. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that teens don’t differentiate between bullying at school and cyberbullying? That would make sense.
Yesterday, I got a couple of pings about this study. Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about. This morning, I went to do some TV for my book. Even though I had told the production team that this headline made no sense and there was no evidence to even support it, they continued to run with the story because the producer had decided that it was an important study. And yet, the best they could tell me is that they had reached out to the original journalist who said that he had interviewed the people who ran the study.
Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?
I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived by the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?
As excited as I am to finally have my book out, it’s been painful to have to respond to some of the news coverage. I mean, it’s one thing to misunderstand cyberbullying but what reasonable person can possibly say with a straight face that today’s youth can no longer distinguish between the internet and everyday life!?!? Gaaaah.
(Image by Reuben Stanton)
When I started blogging in 1997, it was a social practice. It was something that my friend Andrew and I started doing connected to an independent study that we were taking at Brown. As a result, we read each other’s work and talked about it, online and off. My practice evolved over the years as I switched to LiveJournal and then forked my blogging into public and private practices. When blogging was “cool” in the mid-2000s, I was immersed in a blogging community where we were all reading and thinking about each other’s writing. As more and more people caught onto blogging, the practice became professionalized and my blog professionalized alongside that transformation. I still get angry and frustrated (“someone is wrong on the internet!!”) which prompts me to blog rants and essays, but blogging hasn’t really felt social in a long time. And I’ve been sad at how little I’ve written in recent years, especially as I reflect on all sorts of things happening around me.
A few weeks ago, the good folks at Medium came to me with an interesting proposal. They asked if I’d be willing to be a regular contributor to a collection they were putting together. Rather than simply offering me a platform with a large audience, they offered me something else: a small community to blog with. To my delight, that community included all sorts of old friends as well as folks who I don’t know but respect. Members of the group who are much funnier than I am concluded that the collection should be labeled: “The Message: A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection.”
This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it means to incentivize each other in our writing, to spark ideas for each other, and to give feedback to each other as we blog about all sorts of things. For me, this is an opportunity to step back and think about blogging whatever’s on my mind – not just research-driven essays or angry rants, but reflections and commentary and all sorts of other good stuff. Per my agreement with Medium, I will not be reposting here what I blog there until 30 days after the post originally goes up on Medium. But hopefully this arrangement will allow me to start really engaging with the practice of blogging again.
I have just posted my first post: A Dazzling Film About Youth in the Early 20th Century, which is a review of the beautiful and brilliant new film “Teenage” which is currently making its rounds in independent theaters in the United States.