As various “Best of 2016” lists begin to roll in from around the web, we at Culture Briefing are joining in with two weeks of lists of our own. This week, we bring you our second set of “stories that stuck” in 2016, curated by various members of the New City Commons staff. We hope you’ll enjoy reading (or re-reading) these important pieces.
From Clay Cooke, Research Fellow and Assistant Content Manager
The story that stuck with me this year was Andrew Sullivan’s personal testimony on digital technology, entitled “I Used to Be a Human Being” (featured in Vol. 64). As the title suggests, Sullivan is explicit in his position that digital technology is a threat to human thriving. In order to justify this position, he draws on many of the same—and in my view, convincing—points that are typically present in such pieces: the disappearance of screen-free spaces, the clickbait tailored specifically for our predetermined preferences, the atrophy of basic human skills, the schizophrenic checking and updating, the impact of social media on personal and civic virtue, and the depletion of sustained attention, presence, and stillness in our age.
What makes Sullivan’s piece stand out, however, is that these points are grounded in his own experience. They are not the arguments of a distant onlooker who, because of some intrinsic pessimism toward technology, nostalgically longs for the Internet-free days of yore. Rather, Sullivan speaks as a confessed tech “addict.” He is a man in crisis. And he invites us into this crisis, to ponder our own experience of “constant connectivity” in light of his tenure as a successful and widely admired blogger and writer. He gives us no answers, though. Yes, he shares what genuine humanity feels like through his description of the meditation retreat center—a space that he has found “lets your life breathe.” But by the end of his testimony, it is clear that Sullivan still doesn’t know precisely how to be a human being in this age. The demands of the never-stopping digital world are once again trampling his personal disciplines and meditations. He is alone, trying to swim in a current that is much too strong for him. We at New City Commons want to participate in, and contribute to, Sullivan’s quest. Instead of taking a side either for or against digital technology, we want to explore and embody what it means to be a human being in our time.
From Sam Speers, Executive Assistant
Predictive software is increasingly permeating every area of our lives, mediating and shaping our experience of the world. The same technology used to tailor the ads in our newsfeeds is now being used to tailor the news itself—an oft-cited reason for the widening ideological gulf on display in our recent election. The picture of reality we encounter on the internet is, in fact, finely attuned to our preferences. And, as we wrote in Vol. 66, “algorithms are being used not only to predict our preferences, but also to predict our behavior; and these predictions are being used to make decisions about credit scores, housing policy, job applications—even criminal sentencing.”
The story that stuck with me in 2016 was ProPublica’s reporting on “risk scores”—algorithmically generated predictions about criminal defendants’ likelihood to commit future crimes. This piece highlights one of the most high-stakes applications of predictive software currently in use. Algorithms, while always improving, aren’t perfect. And unlike in an algorithmically generated Facebook ad or Spotify playlist, the consequences of imperfections in an algorithmically generated “risk score” can be life-altering. The use of predictive software to help make decisions that restrict a person’s basic liberties raises important ethical questions: When is it acceptable to predict someone’s future behavior based on their past behavior? What level of transparency should we require when privately-owned software is used in public sentencing? And, as a major study by The Marshall Project puts it: “Is it fair to look at the behavior of a group when deciding the fate of an individual?”
From Justin Straight, Director of Product
I’m often drawn to stories at the intersection of technology and economic development. What caught my eye in 2016 was the ways economists, businesspeople, and entrepreneurs are pursuing new ways of talking about the social responsibilities of business. Whether it be the expansion from a narrow focus on shareholders to a broader interest in stakeholders, the turn to “conscious capitalism” among some large corporations, or the proliferation of “third way” business models in business schools and journals, there is, it seems, a fairly widespread cultural trend toward recasting economic practices as more than mere transaction for profit’s sake.
One of the most intriguing reform efforts has been Eric Ries’ effort to create a “Long-Term Stock Exchange” (LTSE) as a rival to the traditional Wall Street exchanges. Part of the intrigue around the idea of an alternative exchange that would value long-term investment rather than short-term gains lies in the fact that Ries is best known for his wildly popular 2011 book, Lean Start-Up, the purpose of which is to help founders increase their speed rather than slow them down. But, as this brief piece for Bloomberg shows, the objective of the LTSE (an objective shared by Brad Katsuyama and his Investors Exchange) is to be truly public by prioritizing transparency and long-term health. While the idea of a long-term exchange is not yet proven and may well never be, I find the growing interest in alternative models of economic life both welcome and intriguing.
From Philip Lorish, Director of Research
In May the Atlantic ran a cover story from Neal Gabler titled "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans" (featured in Vol. 46). Part first-person testimonial, part big-picture account of the spending and saving habits of Americans, Gabler's narrative centers on a singular statistic: if faced with an unforeseen necessary expense of $400, nearly half of all Americans would be incapable of meeting that expense without borrowing the money or selling something. Gabler's account of American decadence is revealing for a number of reasons, but the aspect of the story that stuck with me was his characterization of the problem as a form of secret shame. If, in fact, this form of economic insecurity is as pervasive as Gabler suggests, shouldn’t it be a topic of public conversation? And shouldn’t that conversation focus not only on the source of our shame but what we, both individually and collectively, can do to make some amends and move forward? But sadly, just as quickly as the article appeared, it seems to have faded from view.