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Has Our Delivery Culture Gotten Out of Hand?

I’ve always maintained that a great thing about New York is that, theoretically, you can get anything you want whenever you want it. Need milk at 2 a.m.? Pad thai and BBQ on the same block? Weed brought to you by models? The city provides.

New York’s delivery culture is something the tech industry has been capitalizing on for some time now. Most recently and topically, it’s resulted in the British sex toy company MysteryVibe launching an “on-demand vibrator delivery service” in New York for Valentine’s Day. That’s right: Today and tomorrow, the company is delivering vibrators in under an hour, complete with chocolates and a “tech-savvy Kama Sutra,” whatever that means.

The service certainly raises more questions than it answers. Are the delivery people being trained in discretion, or will they be like your weed hookup who sort of lingers until you relent and offer him some of the product? Who has a vibrator emergency so bad that they need one brought by in less than an hour? Who can’t just use their hand for a day?

“These days in New York City you can pretty much get anything delivered same-day … except pleasure. Which is a real shame, as when you order pleasure products online you’re really excited to try them!” says Stephanie Alys, co-founder of MysteryVibe. Apparently, it’s a growing concern: “We know from customer feedback that while people do a lot of research before ordering, they often order when they need it the most.”

MysteryVibe is hoping to expand to other cities, as well as making this a more permanent option in New York. It’s a PR gimmick, for sure, another example of the tech industry’s incredible ability to solve problems nobody actually had. But by launching it in New York City, they’re also capitalizing on our culture of delivery. New Yorkers thrive on delivery. We define ourselves by it. But it’s turning into a classic horror tale: What if we had delivery, but too much?

***

A friend who moved to Seattle from New York recently told me a horror story. She was home alone one night, and desired dinner. Not having many groceries, and not wanting to drive to the store after a long day at work, she tried to get delivery. But (shines flashlight under my face) nobody would come to her house. Instead, she could drive to a restaurant to pick up her order. The one place that would deliver was a pizzeria, which would charge her a $15 minimum and a $10 delivery fee.

A hallmark of my childhood was the folder of delivery menus by the phone. When my mom worked late, when my dad’s mini-fridge was too small for groceries, there was still dinner to be had. New Yorkers work hard, have small kitchens, and don’t own cars. Many of us also have a hard time carrying bags up and down stairs, or using stairs at all. That we can get full meals, groceries, and anything else you can get at the bodega delivered to our doors for little to no fee isn’t just a convenience. It’s a necessity.

Most New Yorkers tend to understand this, and act out of kindness accordingly. Certainly some of the kindness is out of self-preservation — there were longstanding myths of favorite takeout places that refused to deliver to demonstrated assholes — but also out of a sense of appreciation. What luck that we got to partake of this piece of New York, this thing that we couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m romanticizing a bit: New Yorkers have stiffed delivery guys and harassed service workers, too. But for a long time, you at least had to look them in the eye while you did it.

Apps like Seamless were originally the next logical step in delivery innovation. Instead of having to yell your credit card number over the phone, or make sure you had enough cash for delivery, you just fill out a form online and get the same service you’ve always gotten. New Yorkers were quick to adapt. After all, this is what we had always done.

But most New Yorkers also sensed the stakes had been raised, especially with the boom and bust of the first dot-com bubble. In 2011, Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show about an early iteration of the delivery tech boom — UrbanFetch, a company that would bring you literally anything in about half an hour, with a T-shirt and free cookies. He told a hypothetical story of two stoned roommates ordering, separately, Scarface and two pints of cookie dough ice cream, and “Goodfellas, two pints of Cherry Garcia, and a dildo that glows in the dark.” UrbanFetch, as you may have guessed, was not a sustainable operation. “My point is this,” said Stewart. “I miss these fucking guys. But we all knew this thing was not going to last.”

But the bubble grew again, and now, among Amazon Prime, Seamless, Postmates, and now MysteryVibe, it’s hard to imagine anything you can’t get delivered. And that’s wreaking havoc on businesses. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Dunn outlined how delivery apps are killing restaurants, with one restaurateur describing them as “an income stream that his business had become dependent upon but that might ultimately be running them into the ground.” Amazon Prime deliveries are made possible by atrocious working conditions. It’s not sustainable, and if it is, it’s because we’re sacrificing too much and too many.

Alys argues that, instead of things like pints of ice cream, instant delivery is actually better suited for luxury products. “There are a lot of hidden fees, especially at the lower end of the market,” she says, “So the economics might not work for a pack of condoms or an energy bar, but they can for a luxury product like a Crescendo.” So sure, it might work. It doesn’t seem like mom-and-pop sex toy shops will be put out by this innovation, cajoled into providing a service they can’t maintain.

Unfortunately, most of New York relies on delivery of that small, nonluxury stuff, and it’s become a problem. It’s too easy to just blame greedy corporate overlords or lazy millennials who don’t like making phone calls. As with most significant cultural shifts, it’s everything’s fault. A desire for convenience based on existing cultural norms, plus an increasing acceptance of doing business through middleman-run apps, multiplied by how much harder it is for most restaurants and stores to build their own online order forms instead of just signing up for Seamless or Postmates, equals a current reality in which convenience is king, and can often be instantaneous. And once that dam has been broken, who wants to go back?

A New York without delivery would look completely alien to me. But I’m starting to see a future in which something has to give, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe the only restaurants that’ll deliver will be the ones that already have the capital to pay Seamless fines, perpetuating the suburbanization of the city. Maybe we’ll all be paying $10 delivery fees like a bunch of Seattleites. Maybe that was what we should have been doing this whole time. But, you know, tip your delivery guy. And maybe remember that waiting two days for a vibrator isn’t the end of the world.

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Astro Poets Find Meaning in the Stars, One Tweet at a Time

Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov only fight about one topic: the moon landing. Whether it actually happened is a topic of frequent debate among the New York poets, also known as the Astro Poets, the duo behind the popular, cult-favorite Twitter account @PoetAstrologers.

“As poets, the moon is always this really important thing,” says Lasky, an Aries, author of five books, and assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. “It’s always this funny thing where using the moon in your poem is a no-no. It’s a cliché. For poets, the moon does become this big argument.”

Since creating their shared account just over a year ago, the Astro Poets have attracted more than 262,000 followers. Together, the pair mix snarky humor and pop culture references with moments of sincerity about the sun and the stars. They are known for their horoscopes, posted every Sunday, as well as their recurring “series” features.

One week they might be tweeting the signs as Walt Whitman lines (Sag: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean”), next they might be tweeting the signs as passive-aggressive email sign-offs (Capricorn: Cheers!) or pieces of living room decor (Aries: Overhead lighting). This month, they have already featured some gems: the signs as poetic forms (Aquarius: limerick) and the signs as Frank Ocean songs (Cancer: “Thinkin’ Bout You”).

Sometimes the proclamations come as bigger-picture statements. “The moon is a gay icon,” they tweeted in December. (It was retweeted more than 5,000 times.)

Dimitrov—who is a Sagittarius—says the power of astrology lies within its ability to bring people together: “It’s really all about realizing people are so connected to one another.” As an only child growing up in Detroit, he found a Sag pendant around the house that fascinated him (his parents are also Sagittarians). He wore it frequently, and grew fascinated with astrology even though he didn’t totally understand it.

“And then of course the internet happened,” he laughs. In the sixth grade, he’d frequent AOL astrology chat rooms to learn more. “I kept it hidden. … It felt like this thing I had to keep to myself because people just didn’t really understand.”

Dimitrov, 33, has written three books since 2013 and has taught creative writing at several colleges, including Columbia University, Rutgers, and Marymount Manhattan. Dimitrov previously worked as the senior content editor at the Academy of American Poets, where he edited the popular Poem-a-Day series, dedicated to publishing more than 200 new poems every year.

Though his past books haven’t explicitly dealt with astrology, he considers them steeped in his astrological identity: “I really identify with the idea of of Sagittarius as a wanderer, a traveler, an adventurer,” he says. “In my first book, there was a lot of imagery that had to do with this kind of person who is always in flux [and] completely preoccupied with freedom.”

For Lasky, 39, astrology didn’t enter her life until graduate school, when a friend used it to help her better understand the elusive Gemini she had a crush on. “It opened up a world of understanding people that I had never had access to before,” she says. “I always had a deep interest in psychology. So to me, astrology was like a type of psychology. … Thus began a long road of love, obsession and study of astrology.” Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Lasky has published five full-length collections of poetry along with chapbooks and literary journal entries.

The duo met at a party one night after one of Lasky’s readings. She immediately asked his sign; they entered a long chat about what it means to be a Sagittarius and an Aries, and the friendship compatibility of the two signs.

Before they met, Dimitrov had read a piece of Lasky’s writing where she declared that anyone who doesn’t believe in magic is boring. “I thought, I really have to meet this person,” Dimitrov says. “We just laughed so much the whole night. I felt like I just met someone really important.”

Lasky, who is passionate about poetry education, feels having this expansive social media presence has created a useful way to advocate for everyday poetry reading and writing; to help her “bring poetry to as many people as possible” and “bring people poetry they can relate to.”

“I’m a strong proponent that our educational system needs major reform,” she says, adding that schools tend to treat poetry as overly precious. “For a lot of people, poetry remains this sort of untouchable thing. You’re told it’s difficult, or you have to be really smart, or in AP English. … I really believe most people are poets. I think it’s something that everybody can love.”

Last fall, reading and talking astrology before a sold-out crowd at the New York Public Library, the pair celebrated their Twitter account’s first anniversary. Though they take poetry and astrology seriously, if there’s anything the NYPL event reminded fans, it’s that the Astro Poets are also very funny. “Humor has been part of my life always, as a queer person,” says Dimitrov. “There’s a certain type of queer survival through humor. Really early on as a queer person you realize that you have to create a way for yourself to exist in this world. There are many ways to do that, and humor is really one of them.”

Of course, there are limits to an entirely Twitter-based project. To Lasky, it’s basically a form of performance art.  “I love and hate social media,” she says, though as someone who often feels like a frustrated actress, she appreciates the performance space. She sees the Twitter personality as a way to act out a persona that’s partially real, but partially not. “Don’t you think that’s what everyone is doing on social media?” she asks.

Lasky points out that social media does help combat some of the solitude inherent to the solitary act of writing. “You just get this immediate reaction … feeling like you’re not just writing something into outer space,” she says. “I first started writing poems when I was a little girl alone in my room and just wanted to have something to do, because I was thinking and I didn’t want to go to sleep. I wasn’t sure who I was writing to, but I knew they were people who felt like me. … There’s a comfort to that. But ultimately there’s a loneliness.”

Though the Astro Poets tweets have been known to give every astrological sign a hard time, that’s part of the beauty of astrology: being able to look at those stereotypical personality traits, laugh about them, and face them head-on. “It’s really how life works, too,” Dimitrov says. “You have to be able to look at things that are pretty frightening. … All of us are equally struggling and making mistakes and have parts of our personalities that are really ugly, or parts of our personalities that are really tremendous. … For me, it’s about accepting.”

Dimitrov and Lasky are working on a book for Flatiron Books, which will continue expanding their project beyond the confines of Twitter. (They also pen columns and horoscopes for W.) There are elements of the Twitter account in the book, but they confirm it will be very different. Each sign will get a chapter, functioning as an “astrological bible” of sorts, one that “people can lose themselves in and go to when they are thinking about dating someone, or a certain friend, or if they have a really difficult relationship with their Cancer mom,” says Dimitrov. Linda Goodman’s Love Signs and Sun Signs are a big inspiration.

Some might call Astro Poets a phenomenon, one that speaks to a more general contemporary cultural obsession with astrology, and to how great poets are at Twitter. What does it all mean? “People are in need of love,” says Lasky, noting that a feeling of nothingness, purposelessness, and distrust in systems have come to define existence. “This hopeless feeling has been percolating for a really long time in the last century.”

The PoetAstrologers first tweeted on November 26, 2016, just a few weeks after the election. “I think there was something that happened potentially with the election that maybe made that rise completely to a boiling point where people needed to feel connected,” Lasky says. “And to feel like there is some larger structure that’s based in acceptance and tolerance of who you are. Astrology is a belief system that can do that.”

“Astrology has an element of mystique and mystery that poetry has always had,” Dimitrov says. “And poetry has always been interested in the occult. … Poets always believe that there is something else. That the nature of reality as we see it is really one way of being in the world.” He notes examples like poets James Merrill and W.B. Yeats, who were fascinated by the occult.

To Dimitrov, the universe is abstract, but that open-endedness is exactly what poets obsess over, and investigate through imagination: “It just makes a lot of sense to me why creative people are really drawn to astrology.”

“Here is Earth from 3.7 billion miles away, a pale blue dot, as photographed by Voyager 1,” @PoetAstrologers tweeted last month, with a fuzzy, impressionistic photo. “The rest of it too is very beautiful.”

The Astro Poets are hesitant to reveal which is the moon landing skeptic. They’d rather we use our imaginations. “One of us believes and one of us doesn’t,” Lasky says slowly. “Maybe it’s better we leave it a mystery.”

 

On Thursday, February 22, Alex Dimitrov of Astro Poets will consult with guests as a “future-forecaster” at “The Future Is Fluid Fete” at the Rubin. Buy Dorothea Lasky’s “Milk” here, and Alex Dimitrov’s “Together and By Ourselves” here.

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NYC’s Subway Commute To Get Worse Until At Least 2045

The howling you’ve been hearing from deep beneath city streets over the past few weeks isn’t the sound of steam escaping, or our overstuffed sewage system nearing capacity, but rather thousands of exasperated subway commuters experiencing yet another catastrophic delay. Take last Wednesday morning for instance by 9:30, the 1/2/3, A/C/E, B/D/F/M, and (don’t forget) G lines were not running their normal routes, while the 4/5/6 and 7 were running with delays.

This was separate from a meltdown on the D and N/Q/R trains the prior Sunday, which was caused by a Con Edison transformer failure (which, in turn, leaked toxic oil into the East Riverwhich, later in the week, caused delays on the ferries), and wholly separate from a (bigger) Con Ed failure the following Tuesday (the day the Sunday spill was announced in the press) that caused massive delays on the C, F, N, R, Q, and W, which were compounded by signal problems along the E, G, L, 7, 1, and 3. Wednesday’s headache was due to a fun collision of signal malfunctions, injured passengers, and “rail conditions,” which paralyzed much of the system.

Last week might have been particularly wretched for commuters, but it does lead one to ask does it seem like these day-ruining, job-losing, money-wasting delays have been happening far more often than they used to? They have.

According to the MTA’s own data, subway delays were up some 332 percent between November 2012 and November 2016, a staggering breakdown in reliability. At the same time, the man responsible for funding the MTA, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been playing games with the agency’s funding, reducing the total amount of money committed to the subways while also withholding large amounts promised to the MTA’s capital plan.

“People are mad,” said Nick Sifuentes, deputy director of the Riders Alliance, which issued a fiery statement on Tuesday calling for immediate action from the governor to help fund and fix the subway system. “There’s been a pattern of disinvestment to the system. Governor Cuomo has raided the transit budget in prior years, and the obvious result of that is that the system is going to fail.”

This year, Cuomo shifted $65 million from the agency’s operating budget the day-to-day costs of running the system to its capital plan, making it harder for the MTA to fix worn-down tracks and signals. Even with that $65 million, the state doesn’t contribute much money to the $29.5 billion capital plan, with the majority of funds coming from federal grants and fare-backed debt (whereby fares and tolls would be increased to help pay down the debt). If Cuomo were to get state money back into the picture, the MTA could begin to think bigger about confronting its most dire crisis since the 1970s.

Sifuentes said that even if the capital plan were fully funded at this moment, it would just be enough to maintain the status quo, not to pursue projects that will help cut down on delays, like a system-wide revamp of a century-old signal system that sorely needs to be updated and computerized. At the moment, the MTA is predicting that it will be able to roll out the new technology on all lines by, at the very earliest, 2045. Given the agita of the daily commute until then, most New Yorkers’ hearts will simply give out, or they’ll run off screaming into the woods, or even worse, move to the suburbs.

For years, transit advocates have warned of what would happen to New York City’s subway system if ridership continued to surge while the existing infrastructure were allowed to deteriorate. Much of what the governor has offered by way of signature subway-related projects has been cosmetic, not infrastructural. Cuomo announced last January the refurbishing of more than thirty subway stations, which wouldn’t do much to help the trains run on time (but would give riders access to Wi-Fi, countdown clocks, and charging stations as they waited). New Yorkers need only look across the river at the disaster that is New Jersey Transit to see what can quickly happen to a transit system when its funding no longer matches its popularity.

Signal replacement would be the most obvious answer for what ails the subway system, but given that work on installing the computer-based signals on the 7 train has already taken seven years and is still not complete (the L train got the computer system after ten years of work), the MTA needs to either rethink its approach to the new signals or consider options like shutting down entire lines for months at a time to do the job quicker.

Sifuentes believes, given the speedy and exhaustive deterioration of the entire system, that people understand that something needs to be done to make the system reliable once again. At its current pace of installation, the MTA would blow well past its 2045 prediction, and instead need 175 years to update all the subway lines. “It’s going to be complicated and expensive, but it’s not something we can run away from,” he said.

Kate Slevin, the vice president of state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, sees the crisis of the city’s subway system in the larger context of interconnected systems like NJ Transit, which, along with the MTA, leases a dilapidated Penn Station from the equally deteriorated Amtrak.

“It points to how undervalued our infrastructure is from a broader perspective, and commuters in New York City are now feeling that daily as they see increasing delays and service changes,” Slevin told the Voice. She remains hopeful that Cuomo will come through with funding adequate to make the drastic improvements the system needs. “The governor is interested in infrastructure. He’s brought some new energy to some projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge, cashless tolling, redoing the airports. There’s a lot of potential there for him to show interest in improving the existing subway network.”

In response to questions about the subway’s chronic delays, Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein gave us this statement: “Governor Cuomo is leading the way with unprecedented investment to improve our subways and all of our infrastructure after decades and generations of neglect. These problems were not created overnight but there is no one more dedicated to fixing them than Governor Cuomo.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has no real power over the MTA aside from contributing a handful of its board members and almost 70 percent of its operating budget, has been touting his brand-new ferry system this month, which will do almost nothing to alleviate subway overcrowding, as it will mostly serve residents who currently lack easy access to the subway system.

“How many people think more New Yorkers need to get out of their cars?” asked the mayor at an urban planning conference last week this from a man who gets driven halfway across the city and back when the MTA literally just built a subway line that would take him directly from his home to his office.

Even as you read this article, somewhere deep beneath the streets of New York, a century-old machine is about to malfunction, and thousands of people will suffer delays because of it, missing work, leaving their kids stranded at school, or just generally driving them insane. Is New York a city with a bright future? Not if its most important asset remains stuck hopelessly in the past.

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From Instagram Ads to Livestreams, Brooklyn Restaurants Get Creative with Video

Whether or not you view food as an art form and chefs as knife-wielding virtuosos, there’s no question that restaurants place a heavy emphasis on aesthetic expression. From dish plating, to interior design, to waitstaff uniforms, and even the menu fonts, everything at your favorite spot is tailored to convey a specific spirit that they hope you’ll find appealing. The same is true on social media, where they pepper our feeds with lusty shots of new dishes and prized ingredients. But photographic food porn can only get you so far these days, and a number of Brooklyn restaurants have taken to experimenting creatively with video and multimedia in an effort to strengthen their public identities and draw in customers.

Local restaurant commercials have been around for ages (south Brooklyn’s classic roast beefery Roll-n-Roaster has done some particularly fine work), and there’s no shortage of quirky viral content out there, like the Dos Toros team’s cheeky music videos. But with social media as important as it’s ever been, restaurateurs like Josh Ku and chef Trigg Brown of boisterous modern Taiwanese canteen Win Son have joined other enterprising business owners in debuting content directly on these platforms. Last summer, they recruited their friend Robin Comisar, a director at content studio Ghost Robot, who they tell the Voice is “a huge fan of Tim and Eric and the like.” The resulting #ad — a cringingly funny lo-fi commercial made of fake test footage — features a magic trick gone wrong and Ku acting his normcore best. The whole thing is fifteen seconds long and ends on a lingering closeup of Brown’s much-discussed fried chicken bun. It’s racked up nearly 2,000 views on Instagram.

A video posted by Max and eli (@thesussmans) on

In December, brothers, chefs, and cookbook authors Max and Eli Sussman turned a running inside joke about 80s sitcom Perfect Strangers into a promotional video for the flagship location of their first joint project, Samesa. The small but plentiful market and restaurant, an ode to the Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese food they grew up eating in Detroit, already had its share of fans, but the Sussmans wanted to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Without their beards, “I think Max looks like cousin Larry, and I think I sort of look like Balki Bartokomous,” Eli tells the Voice. So with the help of friend, director and editor Whit Conway, they filmed (and Conway lent his vocal talents to) an extra-cheesy spoof of the show’s opening credits that explains what Samesa and the Sussmans are all about in charmingly retro fashion. The entrepreneurial duo even got some family members in on the fun. To date, nearly 3,000 friends and (perfect) strangers on Instagram have also watched it.

Olmsted's livestream
Olmsted’s livestream

Live-streaming is the next frontier for video, so it’s no surprise that Olmsted, the ambitious Prospect Heights restaurant that melds chef-owner Greg Baxtrom’s experimental yet approachable and affordable cooking with farmer-owner Ian Rothman’s idyllic vegetable-and-livestock-filled back garden, would be leading the charge. “It seemed cool that a guest could be sitting in the dining room watching Greg plate their dish on their phone or be at home and have a viewing glass into what is going on,” says general manager Max Katzenberg, referring to the camera Baxtrom had installed. The tiny Raspberry Pi-connected setup is positioned over the restaurant’s kitchen pass, providing an aerial view of the back-of-house action. Tune in after 6pm on any given night and you might find the countertop cluttered with colorful dishes as the tickets pile up, a flurry of hands darting back and forth while the chefs add their finishing touches. Better still is Olmsted’s YouTube channel of archived broadcasts, most of which run for the entirety of dinner service, making them roughly four hours long — well within Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition, and Andy Warhol territory. While I haven’t watched one all the way through, there’s a definite arthouse quality to viewing the uninterrupted transmissions, whether they’re of the balletic choreography and numbing repetition of the plating process from a fixed angle, or just 40 minutes of a gatorade bottle and a dish towel at the end of the night.

Pushing this streaming premise to its quirky, albeit logical conclusion is Live On Air, a decades-long dream realized by restaurateur Joe Barbour. The Brooklyn native took inspiration from 1998’s psychologically biting Jim Carrey drama the Truman Show, in which the actor plays a man who discovers that his whole life has been a semi-scripted TV show. Barbour’s Louisiana-inspired cafe and performance space features a small soundstage in one corner and cameras set up in the dining room and kitchen. While you won’t necessarily have your reality shattered digging into kale salads and fried chicken and waffles at the Park Slope spot, eating here does come with a very specific disclaimer at the bottom of the menu that gives the restaurant permission to photograph, broadcast, and use your “likeness, mannerism, and voice without compensation or credit.” Feeling camera shy? The note implores you to “inform a member of our staff immediately.”

One thing Barbour got exactly right was the timing. This is a restaurant that could only exist today, in a climate born from our constant collective selfies, snaps, and periscopes. Live On Air amounts to something akin to a safe space for extroverts, where local artists perform as part of an ongoing collective series and diners are encouraged to join in the fun with a 10% discount offered to those who livestream their dinners. Waitstaff are part of the action too, settling into the corner studio’s directors’ chairs to host impromptu discussions or sit for interviews with Barbour, who posts all of these interactions and more on the restaurant’s social media pages. There’s less of a voyeuristic quality than that of Olmsted’s uninterrupted stream, but though Barbour’s yet to launch any careers, the next viral hit could be right around the corner.

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Mark Zuckerberg Doesn’t Understand Diversity

On Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black school, as part of his 50-state tour. Zuckerberg responded to students’ questions on technology, politics, and every Silicon Valley company’s most glaring liability: diversity.

For college students, getting a whiff of Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial spirit must be inspiring; he’s a 32-year-old billionaire who sprung to success during those same formative years (full disclosure: I worked for Facebook’s editorial department for several months in 2015 and 2016). Yet the image of Zuckerberg in his plain grey t-shirt centered in a room full of Black students is more risible than riveting.

At Apple, 7 percent of its tech workers are Black. That’s an abysmally low number, yet compared to Microsoft’s 2.4 percent, it seems progressive. But Facebook’s staff diversity pales in comparison (pun intended) to its tech peers.

At Facebook, white employees comprise 51 percent of Facebook’s tech workers, while 43 percent are Asian, and about 1 percent are Black.

These figures have for the most part remained stagnant since the companies began releasing diversity reports semi-annually since 2014. Progress has been slow and Facebook is lagging.

Zuckerberg mentioned he’s implemented new training techniques to quell biases in his hiring processes. Still, there are absolutely no people of color holding a management position or seat on the board at Facebook. So how does an all-white board of directors solve a diversity problem?

“We do this really rigorous training for every manager at Facebook where you have to go through and understand what your unconscious biases are,” Zuckerberg explained.

That’s a start, but it takes more than few training sessions to unlearn centuries-long lessons of heavily engrained systematic oppression.

“There’s way more demand for engineers than there are engineers,” Zuckerberg told the students, adding that there were more than enough jobs in tech for underrepresented groups. That’s not entirely true. Research suggests that there actually isn’t a shortage of engineers, and when it comes to Black college graduates specifically, they make up for only 2 percent of the Silicon Valley workforce.

There’s privilege in Zuckerberg’s power; his whiteness, his maleness, and his not-so-humble upbringing that positioned him amongst the majority who look just like him and go on to rise to the ranks in tech at exceedingly higher rates.

When delving into these kinds of unconscious biases managers at Facebook may have during the hiring process, Zuckerberg said, “a lot of people who think they care about diversity actually still have a lot of these biases…it’s often people who think they’re doing the best who are doing the worst.”

Zuckerberg went on to use Facebook board member Peter Thiel as an example of how to diversify viewpoints.

This is the same Peter Thiel who co-wrote The Diversity Myth: Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus, an attack on affirmative action, and who pledged to contribute $1.25 million to Trump’s xenophobic, sexist, anti-immigration presidential campaign.

“I personally believe that if you want to have a company that is committed to diversity, you need to be committed to all kinds of diversity, including ideological diversity,” he said. “I think the folks who are saying we shouldn’t have someone on our board because they’re a Republican, I think that’s crazy.”

Zuckerberg also seems to be conflating ideological political differences with actually hiring skilled, underrepresented peoples. The lecture presented the task of solving corporate diversity issues as this complex riddle when the answer is clear: hire people who aren’t white men and cultivate spaces for them to rise in ranks. Then, hire more people who aren’t white men.

Having Zuckerberg act as an authority figure on diversity in front of a room full of people who are affronted with the reality of these issues is the antithesis of what pushing for diversity should mean. Whether Zuckerberg’s lecture was well-intentioned or not doesn’t matter. If he’s amplifying his own voice over that of the very marginalized people he seeks to be more inclusive of, then something’s wrong. When diversity calls, let the silenced speak. Know when to pass the mic.

One student asked Zuckerberg, “What advice would you give to us as minorities to strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world so that we can be included?”

His response: “Frankly, I think that that’s our problem to figure out.”

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Tribes of New York: Internet Yami-Ichi

11/6/2016 Noon. Knockdown Center, Maspeth, Queens.
‘We need an escape from the internet to meet people in a real space,’ said Kensuke Sembo, the event’s co-founder. ‘It’s kind of a break.’
Some of the web-savviest among us descended on a repurposed warehouse in Maspeth on Sunday to take a sideways look at our collective internet obsessions. Internet Yami-ichi — which translates literally to “black market” but also refers to an addiction in Japanese — was held in New York City for just the second time. Founders Kensuke Sembo and Yae Akaiwa started the flea market in Tokyo in 2012 after Apple rejected their app, which temporarily turned iPhone screens black in an effort to discourage obsessive use. The New York installment of the event, which has also been held in ten other cities worldwide, attracted about 120 vendors selling knickknacks and artifacts, from tiny computer chips loaded with vintage Nineties malware and sealed in airtight test tubes to 24-karat gold floppy disk pendants. “Human 3-D printers” folded tiny origami figures, and attendees recorded messages into a microphone for a dual digital and analog time capsule — one headed for the ocean and the other to stay online, locked behind a password for the next ten years. If there had to be a theme, it was: Surprise yourself, IRL.
Text by Alexandria Neason; Photos by Sean Pressley for the Village Voice

 

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Can Virtual Meditation Help You Hack Your Consciousness?

The flotation pod is smaller than I’d expected. It’s white and round like an egg and, at first glance, seems like it couldn’t be any longer than I am tall. Sitting in a tiled treatment room at a day spa in Carroll Gardens, the pod looks incongruous, like someone left an oversize computer mouse in a bathroom.

I’m here, at a place called Lift Floats, to try sensory-deprivation flotation — a Sixties throwback technology, invented by the neuroscientist John C. Lilly (best remembered today as the guy who came up with oddball experiments to study human-dolphin communication), that has lately regained popularity, particularly among athletes and Silicon Valley types. After being shown to the room, I shower, enter the pod naked, and close the lid. I lie back as the pod starts to play gentle music and the faint LED lights bathe the water in colors. It’s a relief that the pod seems to be bigger on the inside, like Doctor Who‘s TARDIS.

These days, my body often seems to announce itself to me through pain: the old metatarsal fracture that didn’t heal right, the lower back I take ibuprofen for most days, the trapezius that can tip into spasm if I forget myself and reach for something up high too suddenly. But in this blood-temperature water, where I float thanks to copious amounts of dissolved Epsom salt, I feel none of the familiar pressures, or twinges, or aches. I feel nothing.

If my body in the world is noise, in the tank it’s silence. There’s not a single muscle I’m conscious of tensing to keep myself upright and my face above water — the salt is supporting all of me. After a couple minutes of goofing off, propelling myself back and forth inside the pod and trying to make waves, I relax and don’t move at all. I have an hour in here. As I ease into the buoyancy, I start to lose my sense of my body’s relative position and weight — what a neuroscientist would call proprioception. Forgetting my body feels great.

I switch off the music and the light, plunging the pod into darkness. Almost immediately, despite having ingested, prior to my float, nothing stronger than a cup of Earl Grey tea, I start to hallucinate. Vivid colors and patterns, then a series of purple and orange faces, flicker before me.

In this pod, I’m trying to “hack” my consciousness. I’m motivated by a group of people I’ve been reporting on, who call themselves consciousness hackers. They are, variously, engineers, entrepreneurs, developers, Buddhists, start-up employees, micro-dosers of LSD, graduate students of computer science, and people who speak highly of silent meditation retreats. (“Silence made it easier because there were no personalities.”) Almost all associated with the tech industry, and mostly men, consciousness hackers are united by an interest in areas such as affective computing, artificial intelligence, biohacking, the autonomic nervous system, cognitive science, and pharmaceutical research into psychedelic drugs.

If biohacking concerns the relationship between technology and the body, and imagines a future where people use tech and wearables to transform their bodies, consciousness hacking concerns the relationship between technology and the mind. Anyone who has ever gone online or pawed at a smartphone like a lab rat drinking from a cocaine-laced water bottle knows that it can deplete us emotionally, constrict our attention, and enable our worst selves.

“I think the way technology is designed right now, in a lot of ways it works against us,” says Mikey Siegel, the San Francisco–based engineer who coined the term consciousness hacking, when we meet at a café a few days after my float. “Technology designers simply are not optimizing for this depth of human need. They’re working at a very superficial level. They’re focusing on things like productivity and information consumption and entertainment.” Siegel takes a sip of his blueberry-cayenne smoothie. “You can spend hundreds of hours on Facebook and feel emptier afterwards than when you started.”

When I met Siegel, he was in New York to speak at the opening night of a new consciousness hacking film series at the Rubin Museum, which drew a sold-out crowd. Siegel is the bushy-haired emissary of a movement that first took root in San Francisco’s tech community and is sending out tendrils into the wider world. The Bay Area consciousness hacking group Siegel founded in 2014 now boasts more than 3,000 members. New York’s has 1,700, and there are now over twenty such groups around the world. There are consciousness hacking panel discussions, participatory workshops, even dating meetups, and some members have taken to calling each other “conscies.”

The consciousness hackers are the latest evolution of a strain of California utopianism, part ashram and part Hewlett-Packard. Much as engineers who worked with transistors and circuit boards once trooped out to Werner Erhard’s seminars, today’s corps of technologists is out finding themselves at meetups, meditation retreats, and (not least of all) on corporate campuses. At Google, the search for oneself and the accoutrements of meditation and “mindfulness” are such a part of the culture that they have birthed a meditation-focused think tank, Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

Siegel is the leading evangelist of the consciousness hacking movement. Short of stature, with intense brown eyes and curly hair, Siegel wears a T-shirt with a quote from Rumi (“You are the universe in ecstatic motion”) and a slight beard, as if he’s recently found himself too busy to shave. The 34-year-old was raised in the plush Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, the child of parents he describes as “science-secular.” “They were good people,” he says. “They followed the rules, they were caring. We grew up secular Jewish — we would go to temple on the High Holidays, but I didn’t know who God was.”

The technologically adept Siegel bounded through UC Santa Cruz, did a stint as an engineer at NASA, and went on to graduate work in robotics at M.I.T.’s Media Lab. At M.I.T., Siegel bought a book on meditation.

It sat on his shelf, barely opened. “I read about two chapters,” he says — but upon graduating he went off to live for two months in an ashram in Virginia.

Siegel eventually took a job at Theranos, the now-disgraced start-up that attempted to “innovate” on the blood-testing industry. The company was a chrysalis from which Siegel emerged, after ten months, as a full-time evangelist for the examined life. He quit and embarked on two years of full-time independent research, tracking down anyone he could who had done any work related to consciousness and technology since the 1960s. Then he went back to Silicon Valley to take the natural next step in the karmic progression: making products that will turn ancient practices into wearable tech.

What makes the consciousness hackers different from earlier generations of seekers is that they are the children of a technological age. Much as my float in the isolation tank makes my mind feel clear and my body relaxed, I am distressed to find that the object I reach for first upon getting out is my phone, and the thing I most yearn to do with my phone is to take a selfie to document the state of deep relaxation, to see if it shows somehow in my face. My fingers leave Epsom salt residue on my iPhone.

At one time the solution to this state of mixed distraction and compulsion that may be the default mode of the technological age might have been to unplug. But to a generation that has seen the world change tremendously, and mostly for the better, with the Web, that feels a little like trading in a car because you don’t like the color of the taillight.

The solution of the conscies and their fellow travelers, instead, is to plug in. If once meditation and “mindfulness” were viewed in the West as squishy ideas, current research has allowed the modern meditation technologist to quantify their benefits. Over the past two decades, studies have found that mindfulness meditation can have positive impacts on blood pressure, anxiety, mild depression, hot flashes, pre-menstrual symptoms, and markers, such as cortisol, of stress and inflammation.

This means that, from a certain angle, these ancient practices now appear ripe for appification. With varying levels of ambition, Silicon Valley is picking the fruits of the tree of mindfulness.

 

At its simplest, this includes a raft of meditation-friendly apps and devices. “Can we understand just enough to design a device that will help someone develop the habit of self-awareness and self-care,” asks Siegel, “and learn to calm themselves when they’re stressed?” Basic products along these lines are already on the market, such as Spire, the wearable device that tracks a user’s breathing to reduce stress and improve focus (retail cost: $129.95). For $249, the Muse meditation headset — a model sits under Plexiglas on the counter at Lift Floats — promises to assist users in their meditation. Using the principle of biofeedback, Muse tracks the brain’s electrical activity and transforms it into sound. When you are calm, calm music plays. When your mind wanders, the sound of blowing winds starts to creep in, reminding you to focus.

Siegel’s own company, Biofluent, has several products in development that work with the body’s signals — brain waves, heart rate, respiration, electrical activity in the muscles — to encourage calm and focus. One, HeartSync, can be used by a group. It generates visuals and sounds based on the accordance (or discordance) between each group member’s vital signs. As the group syncs up their heartbeats and breathing, the visuals grow more harmonious and complex.

HeartSync, as a shared immersive experience, brings us to another technological frontier that comes up often when talking to people in the consciousness hacking movement: virtual reality. “Virtual reality could supercharge meditation,” says Christopher Kelley, a Buddhist scholar and one of the founders of the New York consciousness hacking group. “One of my goals is to design a virtual-reality program for a Buddhist tantra meditation.” For thousands of years, monks have used painted mandalas and statues as visualization tools while meditating. “My vision,” says Kelley, “is to have a virtual-reality program where you’re sitting in a zendo, or a Buddhist temple, and then everyone puts their Oculus Rift on, and we’re meditating together and we can create those visualizations together, in three dimensions.”

One of those terrific late-summer thunderstorms is raging as I make my way from the subway to NYU on a Monday night. The storm drains are overflowing onto the sidewalks, and despite my umbrella I’m soaked when I reach the Interactive Technology Program, where a consciousness hacking meetup is set to begin. I have come to NYU to see for myself just how sharp the cutting edge of person-machine interaction is. Dan O’Sullivan, the head of the ITP, is one of the leading theoreticians of how people interact with computers. He is not impressed.

“Have you ever asked yourself, what does the computer see when it looks back at you?” O’Sullivan asks later, when we meet in his office. O’Sullivan’s space is narrow but full of natural light, thanks to tall windows that give a view of Broadway below. A broken lamp sits on his bookshelf, atop a row of fat books with titles like Physical Computing and Don’t Go Back to School. “It sees one eye, one finger. Just recently, with the iPhone, it came to see two fingers.” How, then, is a computer or a program supposed to perceive our deeper motivations, our innermost feelings?

At the consciousness hacking meetup at ITP, about forty attendees settle into chairs in an open-plan space also filled with dressmaker’s mannequins, drafting tables, and computer monitors. Signs admonish students not to leave the 3-D printer unattended until their job is complete. Ostensibly the evening is devoted to “positive computing,” but the main event is really a demonstration by a roboticist and artificial-intelligence researcher named Ben Goertzel, of an “entity” called Sophia.

Sophia is the newest robot made by Goertzel’s employer, Hanson Robotics. Her face is covered with “Frubber,” a patented, flexible, skinlike silicone the color of a peach. The crown of her head, where a person’s hair would be, is a network of wires and sensors. A black Intel RealSense camera protrudes from her torso — where her collarbone would be, if she were a person. Motors under her Frubber are controlled by the computer’s artificial-intelligence software; Sophia can make 62 facial expressions, and she chooses which to deploy based on conversational cues. She can identify the people she interacts with thanks to face-recognition software. Her programming gives her the ability to remember everything she has seen and heard, meaning she “learns” from every interaction. Goertzel calls this a personality.

Goertzel plays several videos of himself interacting with Sophia in a laboratory. Sophia’s camera eyes appears to register Goertzel as he moves, and she seems to be listening to him as he speaks, but the robot is slow to react and form words, because before responding she has to search the internet for relevant information.

Long pauses elapse between Goertzel talking and Sophia coming up with a response. To a human, the pattern of interaction is unnerving, like someone who waits a beat too long before laughing at a joke. Goertzel asks Sophia a series of questions about the possibility of robot-human telepathy; it’s as if he’s trying to stump her. Eventually he succeeds and her face goes still. “Reality cannot be detected,” she says, in her flat, affectless voice. “Reality cannot be detected.”

In a way, it is the robot’s most human moment. What can be more human than trying so hard to communicate, and failing at it?

 

It’s easy to look down on the search for shortcuts to mindfulness. (Or “McMindfulness,” as Dr. Miles Neale, a Buddhist psychologist and past speaker at a consciousness hacking event, calls it.) The ambitions of the consciousness hacking movement so far may be grandiose, and its achievements underwhelming. But what if the movement is not about a shortcut to the inner truths of meditation so much as a long way around to the truths of community? The virtual-reality meditative space that Kelley envisions may be far, far away — and true artificial intelligence even farther. But the communitarian ethos that once motivated the hippie start-ups of the tech world is much closer.

The tech world has deep links with the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s Bay Area, where both movements originated. Very little of that radical, antiauthoritarian sense of wide-open possibility persists today. Where vestiges of tech’s weird, hippie roots do persist is in those fringe domains that are, perhaps deservedly, lampooned by the press: Seasteading, life extension, cryptocurrencies, Burning Man. There is no whiff of the counterculture in the Facebook algorithm. The more time I spent with the consciousness hackers, the more I started to feel that their particular ways of understanding and imagining life through technology represented a return to that older, countercultural ethos.

At NYU, Goertzel was introduced by Todd Gailun, who, with Kelley, leads the New York consciousness hacking group. “Engineers need to take more responsibility for their products’ impacts on wellbeing,” Gailun said. “Tim Cook says at Apple their product test is, ‘Will this product make life better? Does it deserve to exist?’ ”

At the conscies’ meetups I saw people hoping to make products that deserved to exist — and in so doing, it seemed, to prove that their makers deserved to exist too. As I talk to consciousness hackers about wearables and sensors that harvest data from the autonomous nervous system and virtual-reality storytelling, it strikes me that while the tools have changed, human beings and their needs have not. The ethos of the consciousness hacking movement, and the talk of “connection” that responds to our “deepest selves,” reflects real problems of community and its absence in our digital world. In these attempts they seemed to find some of the community that I, too, find myself yearning for. And that, too, deserves to exist.

 

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A Summer Camp for LGBTQ Young Adults Hopes to Debug the Industry’s Diversity Problem

On a sweltering July Monday at Google’s New York headquarters, in a conference room four floors above Chelsea Market, a dozen queer teenagers were introducing themselves to one another. “Danny, he/him pronouns,” said a seventeen-year-old from Queens with long hair and fingerless gloves. He’d been writing video game storylines since he was eight; this was his second time at Maven, a week-long free summer camp held in San Francisco, Boulder, Austin, and New York for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults interested in tech. As an icebreaker, the teens had been told to name a genderless green fuzzball with eyes — and to give it a backstory. The fuzzball had to have a weakness, and Danny decided that it was compulsive reblogging. The team named it “dat boi” after a viral image of a cartoon frog riding a unicycle; it was their homage to a “dank meme.” The rest of the room fluttered in approval.

These are kids of the internet: They grew up on YouTube and Wi-Fi-connected multiplayer games and most of them have Tumblrs and think Facebook is for old people. In other words, your average crew of teens in 2016. But in the offices of the tech elite where the campers would spend the next week learning how to build a video game, they were not exactly the typical constituency. Both Silicons — Valley and Alley — are notorious for hiring a miniscule number of people of color or from low-income backgrounds, let alone gender-nonconforming and queer people; each young person selected for Maven is a member of at least one of those communities. Most are all three.

At the front of the conference room, a camp leader was going over a poster of camp rules; “check your privilege” was near the top. In red lipstick and a backwards baseball cap, Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels, a twenty-year-old Hunter College student who hopes for a career in media and marketing and uses they/them pronouns, smoothed their dashiki and began to describe the term: “There’s cis privilege, male privilege, white privilege,” they explained. “The list goes on and on.”

Having a bunch of queer teens talking about privilege in the middle of Google’s offices — blocks from the piers where queer people of color used to gather and socialize before the average neighborhood rent was $3,800 — is exactly the kind of incursion activist Monica Ann Arrambide had in mind when she started Maven four years ago. She’d worked for years in LGBT youth centers; over time she grew frustrated as the centers, which are often the only places queer kids can access healthcare or social services in their communities, botched their attempts to reach kids online. “This is what young people live and breathe,” she said, and the centers just weren’t getting it. “At the end of the day, youth need to be served. They’re committing suicide.”

Despite having no background in tech herself, Arrambide started Maven not only to teach the kind of basic digital literacy those youth centers sorely lacked, but also to show kids who go through the program just what it would be like to become tech workers themselves. Throughout the week, different tech companies host participants at their offices: Besides Google, the New York campers had stops at Pandora and Tumblr before spending the last two days at Microsoft. At each office, employees mingled with the campers, offering technical instruction and career advice. By the end of the week, campers learn how to build video games on open-source software they can use at home.

Participants have to apply for the limited number of slots, which Arrambide prefers to fill with applicants who would likely never have otherwise gotten close to tech’s centers of power. You can tell when a kid has practice filing applications, she said. (“They write a lot; they say all the right things.”) Arrambide sifts the applicant pool for students like Je’Jae, who had been thrown out of their home the month before, during NYC Pride. Their mother, a Yemenite Orthodox Jewish wigmaker living in a predominantly white, Ashkenazi-Jewish community on the Lower East Side, had previously been supportive of Je’Jae’s incremental steps in recent years to live as a gender-nonconforming person — even tolerating Je’Jae’s break from the tight-knit, religious community. But one night, Je’Jae said, “She made a U-turn” and kicked them out. They applied for and got into a “transitional housing” shelter program at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a center for at-risk LGBT youth in Astor Place. If all goes well, Je’Jae will graduate in the fall into a public housing program that’ll only cost $200 or $300, which they’ll scrape together somehow.

Je’Jae was the oldest person at camp; they didn’t get in on the first try. Once accepted, the program tries to eliminate as many of the burdens of participating as possible. In addition to declining to charge the kids a fee, Arrambide asks tech companies for their old laptops, to give to those she figures probably don’t have one at home. “I’m sure if there were costs to Maven, the demographic would be totally different,” Je’Jae explained. “It’d be all cis white gay boys, like everywhere else in tech.”

 

No good industry-wide data exist that count LGBTQ people in the tech workforce, but the indications aren’t promising: Apple CEO Tim Cook and PayPal founder and Silicon Valley shogun Peter Thiel, both only recently openly gay (and both cis and white), are virtually alone in the highest tiers of the industry. Maven hopes to see that number grow: The organization is just one of a expanding cohort of programs that have decided that increasing diversity in the tech sector can only happen if typically excluded young people are granted the means to break into it. Similar programs like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and Code2040, named for the year minorities will overtake whites as America’s majority demographic, have risen up to puncture the rhetoric of meritocracy that dominates what is a starkly homogeneous profession: Black people and Latinos make up fully 28 percent of the American workforce but just 6 percent of Twitter’s U.S.-based employees, for example; that share diminishes to just 5 percent at Google, where 70 percent of workers are men. The Obama administration has even identified lack of diversity in tech as a problem robbing the U.S. of potential innovation, which translates to a significant chunk of missed economic growth: In June, the White House announced it would back new initiatives to promote tech diversity, citing a report released that month by Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors that estimated “an additional $470 to $570 billion in new value for the U.S. technology industry” if it diversified its workforce.

Not all of Arrambide’s fellow activists understand why she works with tech companies. “In my personal circle,” she said, “there’s a judgment of it.” To some, tech companies’ drastic diversity problems suggest the issue may be long past fixing: As Mitch Kapor, a startup investor, put it in a post on Medium last year, in a lineup of startups worth more than $1 billion, “you won’t see any African American or Latino/a faces, and you will see hardly any women.” Some feel the tech industry, as it eats up whole cities and spits out the queer and low-income people who can no longer afford to live there, must be overtly opposed. As Isa Noyola, a transgender Latina activist in San Francisco, told the Guardian earlier this summer about why she wouldn’t walk in the city’s Pride parade, which was filled with floats from Google and Facebook: “It’s ironic to walk alongside tech companies that have displaced us.”

But Arrambide is more optimistic. Maven operates on the belief that it’s possible to transform tech from within, placing the onus of change on the companies themselves instead of forcing the kids to adapt to business as usual. The camp is entirely funded by gifts from the tech companies, and during the tours of various headquarters, employee volunteers teach computer science skills. Before any of them interact with campers, Arrambide sends out a sheet with best practices that’s similar to the information she gives all the kids at the start of camp: For example, pronouns are important and misgendering hurts, so if you don’t know a person’s preferred gender pronouns, default to their name, or just use the neutral “they.”

Some companies rise to the challenge — Tumblr, for instance, volunteered its space for one day of the camp and bought rainbow bagels for the kids for breakfast. But others, predictably, flounder: One of the tech companies Arrambide had scheduled for the camp one year (she won’t say which) got cold feet after reading the sheet, worried that its employees might “mess up.” “If they mess up, they’ll get called out on it,” Arrambide said. “That’s good for them — it’s how growth happens.” From what she can tell, Maven has forced at least a few places to acknowledge and fix the problems that create obstacles for LGBTQ workers. One tech company, which she also declined to name, eliminated gender from its job application forms after Maven’s office visit. Another, indeed.com, said it would add a gender-neutral bathroom to its offices in Austin after holding camp there.

But the program works just as hard to get these kids into tech careers as it does to remind them that they form a community of their own. In a post-Orlando world, more people are beginning to realize that being queer means you aren’t really safe anywhere — but being visibly genderqueer or trans every day as a teenager is an especially courageous shade of lipstick to wear. Just being in a room together is like breathing fresh air. “Everyone came here with their own emotional package,” Je’Jae said. “But people really help each other here. There’s a feeling that we should be here. How often does someone my age get to hear that from the world?”

The kids are all right: Young participants, with host Evan Palmer (in pink shirt, at right), kick off the morning of social-media tech workshops on the rooftop at Tumblr.
The kids are all right: Young participants, with host Evan Palmer (in pink shirt, at right), kick off the morning of social-media tech workshops on the rooftop at Tumblr.

On the last day of camp, the campers were sprawled out in a conference room at Microsoft’s Times Square offices, on the same floor as a gender-neutral restroom. As the clock wound down to demo time, the soundtrack to the video game Undertail was piped in through the room’s speakers and, at each crescendo, the whole room would start humming along. Arrambide had ordered extra pizza for lunch, anticipating that it might be the only food some of the attendees would have access to that day. “Some of these kids might take a whole pie when they leave,” she explained. Je’Jae came in late: They’d had an appointment that morning they had to attend in order to get public assistance. They’d wanted to make a Sims-like game where people could play as gender-nonconforming characters and be faced with situations like the ones they face every day — finding a gender-neutral bathroom, being misgendered — but there hadn’t been time. They finally rushed in and grabbed a few slices.

By the afternoon, most of the other students were finishing up. Across the room, three teens were hunched over laptops. “I made my character trans, because I’m trans,” Sam Gonzalez, a high school junior from Brooklyn, said giddily, pulling up a rendering of the character he’d drawn on his laptop. Sam likes anime best — he’s been drawing in the style since he was eight — and, after five days at Maven, he now knows how to use an illustration pad and to use a program called FireAlpaca to integrate his creations into a game. Sam did all the drawing; Kyle Figueroa, fourteen, did the coding; and Danny Geraldi, seventeen, wrote the dialogue and storyline.

Final Night features six gender-ambiguous anime figures in futuristic clothing. Each character is accused of a crime they didn’t commit — so while they try to stop villains, they must also avoid being detained. Players trying to save the world must contemplate whether that world is really worth saving after all.

“The characters don’t have any gender,” Kyle, who is also trans, said. The team wanted to make them relatable, so that people like them could see themselves reflected in the game’s heroes: the main character dressed in knee-high white boots, a magenta-and-white cloak; the tuft of magenta in his hair a perfect match for Sam’s.

 

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Google Is Transforming NYC’s Payphones Into a ‘Personalized Propaganda Engine’

At six-five, Bill de Blasio is usually considerably taller than his conversation partners. But on a cold day in February, the mayor of New York City was on the corner of Third Avenue and 16th Street, interfacing with a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall slab, all sleek curves of metal and glass, that had recently appeared on the sidewalk outside the Mariella Pizza shop. The mayor was testing the monolith’s local expertise — did it know the location of the pre-kindergarten program nearest to his Park Slope home? The machine passed the quiz, and, the mayoral mugging concluded, de Blasio turned to the microphone.

“You just witnessed some live history in the making,” he told reporters assembled for the occasion. “That was the first official call from one of our state-of-the-art LinkNYC kiosks.”

De Blasio’s eagerness to label just about any accomplishment of his administration as historic is well-known, but he may have had a point in this case: The narrow, gleaming tower looming over him was the forerunner of a full-scale invasion. By the end of July, there will be 500 of them throughout the city. Initially they will replace what remain of the city’s antique pay phones, but when all is said and done, the links, as they’re being called, will number at least 7,500, a standing army of supersized digital foot soldiers blanketing streets throughout the five boroughs.

Within their imposing sci-fi form-factor, the links house an array of capabilities their puny analog forebears could only dream of: free national VOIP calling; USB charging stations; and, thanks to a brand-new network of high-speed fiber being laid under the streets for this purpose, free gigabit-speed internet, accessible either through a Chrome-powered tablet embedded in the face of the kiosk or via Wi-Fi on users’ mobile devices. Sign up for the service once and your phone will automatically connect to the network whenever you’re in range and your Wi-Fi is enabled, with one kiosk seamlessly handing you off to the next as you walk down the block. “It will be the biggest and fastest network in the world — and completely free of charge,” de Blasio boasted. “One thing I know about my fellow New Yorkers, they like things that are completely free of charge.”

Next to the mayor, the words “Hello World” shone out from the huge glass screens that take up most of the towers’ flanks. As he spoke, the screens shifted and a new message appeared: “If You See Something, Say Something. Be Suspicious of Anything Unattended.”

When de Blasio says that the LinkNYC network will be free, he doesn’t just mean that New Yorkers will be able to log on without shelling out extortionate airport-Wi-Fi fees. He means the city and its taxpayers aren’t paying a red cent for this historic leap forward in networked infrastructure. No public authority was constituted to build it. No bonds were issued, no fees levied, no taxes imposed, no rainy-day funds raided.

But maybe the kiosk warning should read, Be Suspicious of Anything Free in New York City. The city isn’t building the network at all. It will be built, owned, and operated by a consortium of private companies calling itself CityBridge. The history and structure of CityBridge is tangled. When it was awarded the city franchise in 2014, the consortium included some of the biggest companies in their respective fields: Qualcomm, the telecom manufacturer; Civiq Smartscapes, a Comark Corporation company working on technologies for wired smart-cities; Control Group, the technology and design consultants; and the outdoor-advertising company Titan. Last summer, two of the core partners, Titan and Control Group, were bought up and merged into a new company, Intersection. Intersection, in turn, is owned by Sidewalk Labs. And Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation company,” is owned by Alphabet, the renamed umbrella corporation most people still know as Google.

That LinkNYC is, ultimately, underwritten by Google should tell you a lot about why New York got so very lucky as to receive an unprecedentedly fast network of citywide public Wi-Fi — for “free.” Not only is CityBridge going to lay miles of new fiber and operate, maintain, and upgrade the network at no cost to you the consumer, it’s going to kick the city at least half a billion dollars over the next twelve years to boot.

The whole thing is financed by advertising. Each kiosk’s twin 55-inch displays will carry targeted ads based on an audience profile algorithmically derived from the information the kiosks collect from their users. But as the old internet saw goes: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. And that should give New Yorkers pause, says Lee Tien, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“If CityBridge is using a business model that is not charging, and they are spending a bunch of money putting these things in, they are going to be monetizing the data hard,” Tien says. “That means that they are always thinking about how to collect your data and how to profit off of it.”

We’re often told that people no longer care about privacy, that we are willing to trade the most intimate details of our lives for cool free stuff — a search engine, travel directions, email. “People don’t think about the sort of hazards created when their information is collected and put into a black box,” says Linda Holliday, the CEO of Citia and an angel investor with a long career in the digital economy and marketing. “Companies are using our information to know us better than we know ourselves. They can predict that you’re going to get divorced even before you know it. They know that you’ll pay for business class even if you’re asking for coach. And they’re using that knowledge to make decisions about us without our even being aware of it.”

But there is a different issue in play here: the right of the City of New York to surrender that data for us; the right of our elected officials — over the objections of some of the city’s own watchdogs and in exchange for what is, viewed in the light of the city’s $78 billion annual budget, chump change — to sell citizens’ privacy off the back of a truck to a for-profit company.

Google, after all, is the company that made $75 billion in revenue last year by hoarding users’ behavioral data to target advertising at them; that has been repeatedly fined for violating privacy standards in the United States and Europe; that actually went so far last year as to shit-can its own “Don’t be evil” admonition to its employees in favor of “Obey the law” — presumably out of sheer exhaustion at being mocked about the gulf between that slogan and its own business model. Google is in the business of taking as much information as it can get away with, from as many sources as possible, until someone steps in to stop it. And user apathy, or inertia, or obliviousness — or all of the above — is one of Google’s most valuable assets.

But LinkNYC marks a radical step even for Google. It is an effort to establish a permanent presence across our city, block by block, and to extend its online model to the physical landscape we humans occupy on a daily basis. The company then intends to clone that system and start selling it around the world, government by government, to as many as will buy. And every place that signs on will become another profit center in Google’s advertising business, even as it extends its near-monopoly on information about our online behavior to include our behavior in physical space as well.

“It’s a real-time, personalized propaganda engine,” Douglas Rushkoff, a New York–based media theorist and author of the bestselling Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, told the Voice, “a multibillion-dollar manipulation apparatus, customized not to meet our consumer desires, but to overcome our psychic defense mechanisms. And now you want to unleash that on the entire city of New York as a public service? I’m sorry, that’s a deal with the devil we really don’t need.”

The prospect of rolling out data-hoovering sentinels across the city and the globe is making people uneasy even in some surprising places — including inside Sidewalk Labs: As one urban-planning expert, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of bringing down Google’s wrath on his sources, explained, at least some of the engineers involved are “smart enough to be scared of the implications of what they’re building.”

 

“A curated group of leaders in tech, media, and finance” gathered on April 5 in the hulking neoclassical building of Manhattan’s Yale Club. One of the main draws of the Information Subscriber Summit was a talk entitled “Google City: How the tech juggernaut is reimagining cities — faster than you realize.” The speaker was Dan Doctoroff, the founder and CEO of Sidewalk Labs and former CEO of finance-media giant Bloomberg LP, who served for six years as deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg.

As deputy mayor, Doctoroff styled himself a sort of modern-day Robert Moses, an abrasive, elbow-throwing operative who presided over the glittery mega-projects — the Atlantic Yards, the High Line, the new World Trade Center, the West Side redevelopment — that helped define the city’s transformation under Bloomberg into a playground for the wealthy and powerful.

Sidewalk Labs’ overall mission is to “build products addressing big urban problems.” At the April 5 talk, Doctoroff cast Sidewalk’s data-driven innovations as only the latest in a string of world-historical technological revolutions — the steam engine, the electrical grid, the automobile — that have transformed the metropolis, forever disrupting the old order. “Cities are hard — you have people who have vested interests,” Doctoroff mused to his interviewer, The Information editor Jessica Lessin. “You had to overcome big obstacles. But the technology ultimately cannot be stopped. And we think we’re at that position now.”

Doctoroff touted LinkNYC, the only project Sidewalk Labs was discussing publicly at the time, as a solution to New York’s long-festering digital divide that has left the poor — often minorities — without adequate access to the internet. But he also made clear that his ultimate vision was far bigger. “We actually see LinkNYC as now beginning the process of expanding to other cities,” Doctoroff said. With the network providing an enormous flow of data about city conditions, it could also serve as the backbone to all sorts of new smart-city applications. “We see it as a utility and so we’re beginning to now apply it to other products and services.”

Since the interview, the full scope of Sidewalk Labs’ ambitions has become clearer. The company has offered to build Columbus, Ohio, a computerized traffic management system that experts fear might gut public bussing and drive the city into a state of dependence on Google technologies. Even more ambitious are Sidewalk Labs’ plans for the creation of a “digital district,” perhaps built on land owned by Google or some other company or ceded to the purpose by an existing government.

The idea of a city built de novo on the principles and values of technologists, unfettered by the inertia, red tape, and turf squabbles that burden actual cities where human beings already live, represents the apogee of messianic Silicon Valley thinking. The so-called “smart city,” the one so wired with sensors and data-collection devices that its residents and operations move with the finely calibrated efficiency of clockwork or computer code, is a mirage techno-utopians have seen shimmering on the horizon for over a decade. Around the world, projects in various states of realization — South Korea’s New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and PlanIT Valley in Portugal — all promise a vision of data-enriched urban living that looks like something out of a high-modernist fever dream.

Adam Greenfield, an urban-design professor at University College, London, is perhaps the most vocal skeptic of the smart-city gospel, which he regards as a dangerous gobbledygook of capitalist logical positivism. “It’s as if someone took Minority Report as a shopping catalogue or a punch list rather than a vision of dystopia,” he writes in his pamphlet Against the Smart City. Greenfield is hardly gentler in his assessment of New York’s project: “LinkNYC is insulting crap,” he told the Voice.

Greenfield’s disdain is swamped by the tech-fueled boosterism that drives the smart-city movement and its media cheerleaders. And the movement finds a perfect champion in Doctoroff, who spent his time in city government positioning himself as the technocratic urbanist par excellence, shepherding the visionary will of developers through the thorny maze of government bureaucracy. And at Sidewalk Labs, Doctoroff’s expertise in public-private facilitation has been married to a patron worthy of his ambition. “Alphabet/Google may be the single most ambitious company that has ever existed,” Doctoroff told his fans at the Yale Club. “You have to go back to, like, the seventeenth century, or maybe before that, with the Dutch East India Company, that actually had the power to wage war.”

 

Sidewalk Labs and LinkNYC declined, through their PR firm, to make Doctoroff or anyone else from their companies available for an interview. But a CityBridge spokesperson told the Voice that the consortium will spend roughly $300 million building and installing the LinkNYC kiosks and laying the fiber for the city’s network. That may sound expensive, but Doctoroff made clear to Lessin that he still expects to “make a lot of money from this.”

Larry Page recently weighed in on Sidewalk Labs, writing that it is “very different from Google’s core business.” It’s actually very much the same; as Doctoroff explained at the Yale Club, LinkNYC makes money the same way Google does — collecting people’s information and using it to sell ads: “By having access to the browsing activity of people using the Wi-Fi — all anonymized and aggregated — we can actually then target ads to people in proximity and then obviously over time track them through lots of different things, like beacons and location services, as well as their browsing activity. So in effect what we’re doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space.”

It’s worth noting that Google’s earlier forays into physical space aren’t particularly reassuring. From 2008 to 2010 the company sent cars bristling with cameras all over the world to create Google Street View; it was later revealed that the cars were also equipped with Wi-Fi-sniffers, which sucked data from any open Wi-Fi signals they happened to pass and then stored that data at an Oregon facility. When Google was busted, it tried to pass the snooping off as an honest mistake, but an FCC report later determined not only that Google engineers had expressly wanted to collect that data, but that project leaders were well aware of what was going on. In 2013 the company ended up paying $7 million to settle lawsuits from 38 states’ attorneys general over the episode. That figure was dwarfed by a settlement from the year before, when Google paid out $22.5 million over the revelation from Wall Street Journal reporters that the company was using a coding trick to get around the anti-tracking protections built into iPhones. In Europe over recent years, Google has been accused by regulators of everything from monopolistic behavior to repeated violation of EU privacy policies. With all that in mind, it’s perhaps understandable that Google and its partners are eager to reassure the public that LinkNYC is not some sort of monstrous surveillance machine.

At every stage of the project’s development, CityBridge, Sidewalk Labs, and city officials have dismissed concerns regarding privacy implications with the same reassurances: The only personal data the system asks users for is an email address, which, as far as they’re concerned, can be a throwaway account; LinkNYC isn’t going to be tracking users as individuals, it will only analyze user data that’s been “anonymized and aggregated”; and lastly, CityBridge is bound in its behavior by a privacy policy that lays out these and other terms restricting its use of LinkNYC data.

But the thing about storing anonymized information is that it often isn’t so hard to de-anonymize it. How many people share your digital signature, running a given app on a given type of phone with a given version of an operating system? How many of those people’s phones are always pinging out the name of your home Wi-Fi network? How many of those people’s phones commute to your office every day? “In study after study after study, aggregation techniques that we thought were really robust turn out to be really weak,” says Paul Ohm, a Georgetown Law professor who focuses on internet privacy. “This has been happening for seven years, and there’s a dozen of these studies every year. It’s a really risky business to promise anonymization and aggregation at this moment in time.”

What’s more, LinkNYC’s privacy statement isn’t worth as much as you might think. “This privacy statement is like most privacy statements,” says Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who works on internet privacy. “Its job is to make you believe that something is being promised, when actually it lets them do anything they want.”

For one thing, the privacy policy authorizes CityBridge to collect an enormous range of information about users, including unique identifiers like MAC and IP addresses, information about which websites users visit, where they scroll and click on those websites, how long they stay on them, and what they search for. The privacy policy classifies all of this as “Technical Information,” a category that CityBridge lists separately from “Personally Identifiable Information,” which, according to the privacy policy, includes “your name or email address.”

But pretending that MAC and IP addresses don’t qualify as personally identifying information because they ID hardware rather than people is disingenuous at best, says Ohm, the Georgetown professor. “We don’t share our smartphones with anyone, so IP addresses and MAC addresses now are a one-to-one relationship with people,” he says. So with CityBridge’s privacy policy, “They’re telling you that they can use your IP address, which is essentially you, and all of the pages you’ve viewed or searched for, including how long you visited them, to serve ads. This is really specific and personalized information that they’re sharing with advertisers and using to show you advertisements. That worries me.”

The assurance that user data will be anonymized and aggregated is also a canard, Ohm says, based on his reading of the privacy policy. “They could have said, ‘We’re going to delete sensitive stuff as soon as we get it.’ They’re not making that promise. Instead what they’re saying is: ‘We need to keep the good data, the fully identified data.’… It’s absolutely a misreading of this privacy statement to say that all of the data is aggregated. I can tell you that’s not what they’re promising. They’re going to keep all this stuff somewhere in a database.”

City watchdogs see privacy concerns as well. In 2014, when the CityBridge proposal was considered at a meeting of the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee, a representative of Public Advocate Letitia James urged that the proposal be rejected, questioning whether the city was creating a dangerous and illegal monopoly with inadequate protection of users’ civil liberties. The committee approved the contract anyway, but James still has concerns. “In this era of Big Data, both corporations and our governments have a greater responsibility to protect the privacy of all New Yorkers,” James said in a statement to the Voice. “We need greater clarity about the franchise agreement.”

In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the mayor’s lawyer, raising multiple serious concerns about LinkNYC’s policies on data retention and the circumstances under which it will share information with law enforcement. Months later, the NYCLU has not received a response, and a spokesperson for City Hall, speaking on background, said there would never be one. LinkNYC responded to a request for comment from the Voice with a statement from its general manager, Jen Hensley: “New York City and CityBridge have created a customer-first privacy policy, and will never sell any user’s personal information. LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users’ personal web browsing on their own devices. CityBridge would require a subpoena or similar lawful request before sharing any data with the NYPD or law enforcement, and we will make every effort to communicate government requests to impacted users.”

Hensley’s statement is less than comforting. The commitment never to sell personal information is easy to make when personal information is defined as narrowly as CityBridge does. The assertion that LinkNYC doesn’t collect Web-browsing data from users on mobile devices, narrowly phrased in the present tense, feels weak in the face of a privacy policy that explicitly allows just that. Saying that CityBridge would require a lawful request before turning over data means little in an environment in which law enforcement agencies make those requests, and have them granted, every day.

When the Voice continued asking questions about the gaping holes in LinkNYC’s privacy statement, spokespeople for the city and CityBridge began backpedaling: The policy language might permit LinkNYC to collect, share, and retain all sorts of data about its users, they said, but LinkNYC wasn’t actually doing any of those scary things. But if CityBridge wants us to believe it’s holding itself to such strict standards, why weren’t those standards reflected in the privacy policy — the legal promise it makes to users? The answer came back: “Because LinkNYC is a first-of-its-kind system, the privacy policy was written before we knew exactly how the network would operate,” a CityBridge spokesperson wrote. “CityBridge and [the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications] are currently reviewing the privacy policy with an eye to updating the terms to better reflect actual practices.” In other words, CityBridge and the city are making this up as they go along, and maybe they’ll update the privacy policy someday. In the meantime, trust them.

 

Google may be the great white shark in the sea of user data, but it’s not the only creature chewing up data and metabolizing it into ad revenue. Clinging like a remora to the LinkNYC project is Gimbal, a company that makes little chips called Bluetooth beacons. Though not yet activated, a Gimbal beacon sits dormant inside each LinkNYC kiosk. Why are they there? “From a user perspective, there isn’t really added functionality to having Bluetooth on top of Wi-Fi,” says Surya Mattu, a journalist, engineer, and fellow at the Data and Society Institute who studies wireless technology. “They’re just different radio frequencies. It seems like a way to capture more people’s information.”

Gimbal manufactures the beacons, but its real business is supplying the systems that ride on top of them. In convention centers and stadiums, Gimbal systems push event-specific information and notices to attendees. In retail stores, Gimbal systems notify shoppers of nearby bargains. It’s a handy technology, but its real application to advertisers is in “location-based mobile advertising,” pushing ads to people’s devices as they move around the city. In October of 2014, BuzzFeed broke the story that, unbeknownst to New Yorkers, the company that had the concession to run advertising on the battered remains of the city’s public phone booths had quietly installed hundreds of Gimbal beacons in them. The advertising company was Titan, one of the original partners in CityBridge that has since been swallowed up by Sidewalk Labs. Busted, Titan and Gimbal complied with a city request to immediately remove the chips. The dream of getting beacons into the city’s sidewalk furniture would have to be deferred to another day.

In its corner of the location-information market, Gimbal acts as a middleman, introducing partners who might want to share resources. An app publisher like Shazam boasts well over 100 million active monthly users, all of whom have consented (when they swiped past the terms-of-service page) to share their location with the company at all times, and to share that data (aggregated and anonymized, of course) with any of Shazam’s partners. Pair that reach with a company or set of companies with networks of beacons, and you can start to get some fairly detailed information about people’s movements. Are you an advertiser who wants to know how many Shazam users have passed by an advertising kiosk? Gimbal can make an introduction, and maybe, for a price, Shazam will cut you in on that information.

Most Shazam users probably didn’t think, when they agreed to the terms of service, that they were saying yes to anything more than using a cool app that would let them identify the songs they hear. They almost certainly didn’t clock that they’d just agreed to let a whole other set of companies log their location with beacon networks in order to bombard them with advertisements from yet another set of companies. It’s a marketplace that’s largely outside of public awareness, thriving precisely because most people don’t know it exists.

Earlier this year, when the Voice‘s business department was considering whether Bluetooth beacons could help it keep track of the paper’s red sidewalk distribution boxes, the conversation with Gimbal got weird very quickly. Gimbal told the Voice it was prepared to offer a substantial discount if the paper allowed it to share information from the beacons with third-party apps and brands. “We will lose money on this deal (from a data storage and hardware perspective),” Arjun Reddy, Gimbal’s head of publisher development, wrote in an email. “The only way I can justify it to our CRO/CEO is if we are allowed to sell campaigns against your beacons. An example would be Shazam doing a campaign with Miller-Coors that triggers a NYC-based experience for Shazam users walking by your beacons. To clarify, no one will know that these are your beacons or that they are triggered by beacons in your boxes. There will be zero tie-back to the Village Voice brand whatsoever.”

The shadiness of that last promise made the Voice‘s business representative uneasy. Wouldn’t using the boxes to push ads to unsuspecting passersby violate the city ordinance forbidding the use of the boxes as a platform for advertising? “I believe we can work within/around this restriction,” Clay Elliot, Gimbal’s director of enterprise sales, assured the Voice. This deal was starting to smell wrong. A huge discount to surreptitiously use Voice property to push location-specific ads to passing New Yorkers? Maybe there was a story here. The business team walked it down the hall to the editorial staff.

Gimbal and its network of data-sharing partners are small-time compared to the really big players like Facebook and Google. But their existence speaks to the increasing commercial value placed on knowing not just how you behave online, but where you go and what you do in real life. “We’re talking about a level of surveillance that used to be so expensive that it was really just nation-states doing it,” says the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Tien. “Now it’s something that any company can do to anyone.”

Gimbal’s beacons won’t be going into Village Voice distribution boxes. But they are built into the LinkNYC kiosks. A spokesperson for CityBridge said that if and when the beacons are activated, they will create new revenue opportunities for the project.

 

Last fall, Facebook, Google’s chief rival in the quest to own everyone’s personal data, unveiled Internet.org, a proposal to provide thousands of isolated villages in India with internet access. Mark Zuckerberg was initially showered with plaudits for his selfless effort to bridge the global digital divide, but as details emerged, reaction to the plan soured. Internet.org would only provide free access to certain sites (among them Facebook), tossing the principle of net neutrality out the window. Perhaps even more importantly, the service routed all user traffic through Facebook’s servers and disabled the HTTPS protocol that provides Web surfers protection from surveillance of their traffic. In effect, Facebook was offering a hobbled free service as the bait for a potentially massive haul of user data. As the outrage over the plan crested, Indian regulators ultimately rejected it.

LinkNYC represents a sort of first-world analogue for Facebook’s doomed India plan, says Moglen, the Columbia Law professor. “Mr. Zuckerberg failed with Internet.org in India because we were able to show that it broke the net,” Moglen says. “The better way to go, as Google sees it with respect to its long-term competition with Facebook, is to bury yourself deeper in the wire. Once you can show the regulators that something is a poor internet for poor people, it becomes easy for the regulators to see why it is not a good national strategy. But in the developed world, you have a rich net for rich people, which gives them the impression you’re just a clear glass window through which they can see each other. That transparency, or pseudo-transparency, makes you forget that the network in between is untrustworthy. It isn’t pure flat glass — it’s a magnifying lens aimed at you.”

The ability to target people based on their location is prompting a gold rush for advertisers. “The medium has the reach and scale that brands are looking for,” according to one 2014 industry report, Why Location Is the New Currency of Marketing. “And unlike television, it can’t be switched off or Tivo-ed.” What brands are looking for, though, is not the same thing as what people are looking for. Targeted advertising of the sort that underwrites LinkNYC isn’t about getting consumers information about goods and services they want, says Rushkoff, the media theorist. Rather, data collection is about producing profiles of consumers likely to engage in a particular form of consumer behavior, and then bombarding them with ads or search results or tailored Facebook feeds to tip them over into that behavior. “They are working hard to get you to behave true to your statistical profile,” Rushkoff says, “and in doing so they reduce your spontaneity, your anomalous behavior, your human agency, as they try to get you to conform to the most marketable probable outcome. When we’re doing that en masse, to an entire city — that kind of long-term manipulation is just astounding.”

This isn’t the Stasi bugging our phones for the state, though — it’s the market, finding ever more frictionless ways to induce us into behaving how the advertisers want us to. “The importance of the commercial motive is that it provides a thin justification, so people can convince themselves this is not really very malign,” says Moglen. “They’re just trying to make money by advertising to me things I want! And these friendly kiosks on the street, we’re supposed to think of them as just wonderful curvy street furniture that improve our world. They’re not social control; they’re not tools for studying and interrogating human behavior. It’s a smart city! Don’t you love being a smart young person living in a smart city? But there’s more to it than you can see above the waterline. It’s such a simple, cool design, you’re not supposed to notice there’s a back end, or who has it.”

 

In some sense, it’s good news that New York’s franchisees aren’t shady unknown quantities. Using LinkNYC isn’t like walking into a dodgy internet café that doesn’t run anti-virus software. Google, Qualcomm — these are established names. “With really smart companies, I feel a lot better about their ability to do this well,” says Georgetown’s Ohm. “But that confidence is undercut if they have a business model that continuously gives them a reason not to do such a good job aggregating. The more private they make your information, the less money they’re going to make off your information. Which of those two competing things do you think is going to win the day?”

That a bunch of public, for-profit companies will do all they can to make money isn’t all that shocking. More troublesome is the role of the city government in granting CityBridge its franchise without assuring greater protection for the citizens of New York. As Doctoroff stressed at the Yale Club when discussing his project to bless New Yorkers with the physical-space equivalent of internet ads, “This is a complete partnership with New York City.”

The last time the city government entered a “complete partnership” with a corporation to trade its citizens’ privacy for cash, at least the city got a better piece of the action. Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York worked with Microsoft to build the Domain Awareness System, a collection of some six thousand cameras, hundreds of license plate readers, and other sensors, all tightly networked to an NYPD command center. In that case, though, the city negotiated for a 30 percent cut of Microsoft’s future sales of the D.A.S. to other cities. With LinkNYC, when Sidewalk Labs sells the model elsewhere, as Doctoroff has said he intends to do, the city won’t see a cent.

It wasn’t so long ago that when New York wanted to build something important for its citizens, it did so itself, or formed a public authority to do so, but nowadays the fashion is to contract out for expertise on complicated projects. “It’s hard to fault New York for saying, ‘We know what we’re good at and we know what we’re not good at’ and making the decision to outsource this,” Ohm says. “But on the other hand, we’re talking about extremely valuable real estate that New York possesses here. They have a ton of leverage to negotiate really, really good terms, and I would have hoped that privacy would be one of the things they were negotiating about.”

Rushkoff, characteristically, is less diplomatic. “What we have here is our public officials serving up the public to corporations,” he says. “It’s like New York doesn’t realize that it has the power of place against these extractive corporations. The city is looking at its population not as a power base, but as an offering, as the thing to sell.”

Without rigorous government protections, individual users are left vulnerable. A senior executive specializing in cybersecurity and privacy at a major international corporation told the Voice that when it comes to protecting user data, the United States falls far behind other developed nations. “If we care about the privacy of our citizens, we should be tightening our privacy protections to be more like countries in the EU and Israel,” she said. “Information like my political party is protected overseas; it isn’t here. My choice of a male or female life partner, or both, that’s protected overseas; it isn’t here. My involvement in a union is private information overseas; it isn’t over here. It can be taken at will.” As a result, the security executive said, she’s extremely cautious with her digital interactions. “I have very few apps on my phone,” she says. “When I walk down the street, I have wireless service turned off because there’s so much information that can be leaking out of your phone that way. Most people don’t understand that when they have Wi-Fi turned on, they’re announcing their location to the entire city. I have a problem with that.”

This freedom to opt out entirely is also the last argument that spokespeople for LinkNYC and the city itself fall back upon when challenged with privacy concerns: If you don’t like it, you’re welcome not to use it. It’s a disheartening place to land, especially when discussing infrastructure that’s supposed to be serving people who aren’t served otherwise. To Moglen, it’s simply an unacceptable conclusion. “That’s what they want us to believe, that we have a choice between isolation and monitored connecting,” he says. “Those are not adequate choices in a 21st-century world: We are designing the net to track you — if you don’t like it, don’t use it. The human race is shifting to a fully surveilled and monitored superorganism — if you don’t like that, stop being human. That’s a poor outcome. The United States is a society that was based around the idea that human beings can have liberty. So give us liberty! And don’t tell us that otherwise we can have the death of the net.”

 

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES Technology THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Cuomo Spent $45 Million in Ads to Create 408 Jobs

When you have bad news to dump — say, about a poorly conceived giveaway to corporate interests that has cost tens of millions of dollars and produced virtually nothing in return — take a cue from Governor Andrew Cuomo; dump it on a Friday, before a holiday weekend, in a footnote halfway through an annual report.

That was the approach Cuomo adopted this past weekend, when the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) revealed that the multimillion-dollar Start-Up NY program had created a grand total of 408 new jobs in its two-year history.

Designed to spur investment in high-tech businesses that orbit college campuses, Start-Up was framed as a way to entice the state’s newest flock of corporate darlings. The Cuomo administration has dumped at least $45.1 million in taxpayer money into an ad campaign promoting the program, which offers a ten-year tax holiday to new businesses in certain parts of the state.

Based on the numbers released Friday, the cost of promoting the plan works out to about $110,539 per job created, even before accounting for lost tax revenue.

The businesses participating in the program span a significant range of plausibility. There are developers of efficiency software designed to help businesses wring every drop of shareholder value out of their lazy-ass workers; breweries like the Royal Meadery, which makes a wine from honey called mead, the drink of choice of medieval serfs; and of course Dog Ways, a software platform that helps you find social events for your dog.

Start-Up NY is just one of dozens of  incentive programs the Cuomo administration has touted to lure businesses to the state and supposedly keep them from fleeing to libertarian utopias like Texas, where businesses needn’t contend with bothersome regulations, environmental or otherwise. Collectively they offer billions in tax breaks, subsidies, and other perks, all at taxpayer expense.

In a report issued last year by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, those programs, which are administered by more than two hundred different subagencies, were found to be strikingly opaque and too diffuse to accurately track.

The authors of the report go to pains to point out that things may well get better for Start-Up NY. “Like other tax incentive programs,” reads the footnote on the report that contains the numbers the state would rather you didn’t focus on, “START-UP NY is expected to grow exponentially as the program continues to move forward.” According to ESDC, 4,100 jobs have been pledged by 2020. So depending on how much the state pays to promote the program in the meantime, maybe it’ll all be worth it in the end.

As DiNapoli’s office wrote last year of programs like Start-Up NY, “ESDC’s efforts to publicly assess the effects of its programs appear limited.” This most recent report was released three months late, on a Friday afternoon, without so much as a press release accompanying it — at least they’re consistent!