Lone Tech Heroes, Chapter 512

From hackers supposedly building sites better than government, to politicians selling magic fairy tech dust, the lone hero trope never dies, does it?

Today’s edition of The Connector is shorter than usual, mainly because I’m taking a few hours out of the day to help my mom get her first COVID-19 vaccine. So, rather than an essay on a single topic, here are a couple of items that caught my attention in the last few days.

First, in the World of Civic Tech:

-That story in the New York Times by Sharon Otterman about an Airbnb software engineer, Huge Ma, who built a website for $50 that is better than the state’s appointment systems? Code for America’s Dan Hon went on a very useful tear about how this an absolutely unfair and inaccurate framing. As he points out, Ma’s time alone as a skilled engineer was worth $14,000. The site he built, TurboVax.info, doesn’t book appointments or capture all state information, and as a privately built site doesn’t have to meet any data sharing agreements that government sites are required to meet. Hon notes, “this idea of a lone tech hero or band of residents/citizens who will deliver radically better government services for trivial amounts of money is *toxic and harmful*.” And he’s right. (Sadly, if you read the comments on Otterman’s story, you’ll see that frustration with access to vaccine appointments is so high people generally bought that frame hook, line and sinker.)

-Ethan Zuckerman, the former director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, is now at the University of Amherst where he’s standing up The Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure. Don’t miss his recent chat (transcript) with Michael Wood-Lewis, the founder of Front Porch Forum, on the secrets of running a healthy online community of neighbors: solid moderation and non-surveillant advertising.

-Speaking of lone tech heroes, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is enjoying a moment as the tech industry’s new best friend, plugging his town as a hub for cryptocurrency start-ups and an escape from Bay Area high rents, promising to invest city funds in Bitcoin (and even paying city employees in same), hiring the city’s first CTO,  wooing Elon Musk to talk about building a tunnel under the Miami River for electric vehicles, and now raking in a cool $250,000 campaign contribution from Silicon Valley billionaire and wannabe governor Chamath Palihapitiya, according to the Miami Herald’s Joey Flechas.

-And as if on cue, last night Andrew Yang, who is running for Mayor of New York City, tweeted that “As mayor of NYC - the world’s financial capital - I would invest in making the city a hub for BTC and other cryptocurrencies.”

-From the Bitcoin bubble to the GameStop rebellion to the #YangGang, there’s a common thread: hucksters and true believers who have sold each other on a magical, tech-centric shortcut through the challenges of the present to a bright future. As a form of soft demagoguery, lone-tech-heroism feels benign compared to the hardcore stuff emanating from Trumpworld. But when you stop and listen to these techies-turned-pols stumble across the real landscape of race, class, gender and identity, you can see why they’d prefer to talk about cryptocurrency instead.

Facebookization, Continued

Meanwhile, in that parallel world we live in where Mark Zuckerberg is the president of a country of, I’ve lost count, two billion plus, here’s a fun new fact I just learned: The head of communications for Facebook’s new Supreme Court, I mean Oversight Board, which is ostensibly independent of the company, is Dex Hunter-Torricke, who was previously head of executive communications for Facebook. As Taylor Hatmaker reports for TechCrunch, Hunter-Torricke served as a speechwriter for both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Here’s an open letter from an eminent group of legal scholars led by Richard Hasen of UC Irvine (plus one tech security guru, Alex Stamos of Stanford) urging the Oversight Board to sustain Facebook’s suspension of former President Trump from Facebook and Instagram.

The letter argues that “political speech which raises a serious and imminent danger of undermining democratic governance should be removed from the platforms and serial offenders, even political leaders, should be deplatformed, at least on a temporary basis. Facebook should have clear rules embodying these principles,” it adds. Not only that, it should consider applying them beyond the borders of the US, rather than giving a platform to authoritarians and human rights abusers. The board has received 9,000 comments so far on the Trump suspension case.

As constitutional scholar Kate Klonick, who has closely monitored the development of the Oversight Board, tells Julia Angwin of The Markup, the board definitely has a “bias toward restoring content.” But it remains to be seen if that bias will extend to as dangerous a political figure as Trump. (And to my suggestion above that the board somehow push for the deplatforming of authoritarian leaders elsewhere, Klonick points out that it “is not allowed to take a case that would contradict local law.” So much for independence from Facebook’s business needs.)

Let’s give Klonick the last word: “It is a totally crazy thing to have an essentially private world court governing public rights for an independent private corporate platform.”


Privacy, Shmivacy

If you don’t want other people to know that you like to get takeout from the same place, or more seriously that you share the same shrink or dealer, read this piece by Will Oremus about how the audio hangout app Clubhouse taps its users’ social networks to grow faster—and crosses some privacy lines in the process.

Things That Make You Go, Hmmm

A group of 120 veterans of past Republican administrations held a call last week to discuss forming a new conservative third-party, Tim Reid reports for Reuters. The call was hosted by Evan McMullin, a former Republican House staffer who ran as an independent in 2016.

Things That Make You Go, WTF?!

This document from government prosecutors outlining why Jessica Watkins, a leader of the Oath Keepers militia movement who led a tightly organized squad into the Capitol on January 6th, should be held in detention pre-trial, makes chillingly clear that some part of the mob was not there by accident but prepared for serious violence.