Tech Literacy: One more of my end of year, bookmarked to share posts

A few weeks back Juliet Walters wrote an op-ed called the The Code Life. I had read the Eggers excerpt of The Circle and thought it was odd; odd because having worked at Google and been in the Valley, his portrayal was not that creepy. It was just corporate America. Office Space alone captures the be all you can as part of a team which may not value you (cue Lorde to contrast and for irony). Walters goes further. She has tried coding as a way to understand and take some control over her life. She used Code Academy to learn coding and found

Yes, programming is challenging, frustrating and often tedious. But it offers satisfactions that are not unlike those of writing. The elegant loops of logic, the attention to detail, the mission of getting the maximum amount of impact from the fewest possible lines, the feeling of making something engaging from a few wispy, abstract ideas — these challenges were familiar to me as a critic. By my third month, I had internalized a new logic, a different way of looking at information. By the time summer came around, I was learning about good web design by constructing web applications, taking them from simple prototypes to something sophisticated enough to test with users. And by the end of the course, I knew the basic structure of computer operating systems.

For me, even reading computer science papers and theory has given me a better, deeper appreciation for the tech world, how it works, and policy debates (both worthwhile and frivolous). And I was happy to read Walters re-calibrated her life:

The biggest surprise has been the recovery of the feeling that my mind is once again my own. The “always-on” agenda of mobile technology, now visible to me in the very design of the devices, could not manipulate me as easily. Where my devices were interrupting my work or my life in these ways, I’ve had an easier time filtering and controlling them.

It’s also become more obvious to me how to use social media to enrich my life, not unravel it. For one, I don’t waste time trying to “catch up” on a Twitter or Facebook feed, any more than I would waste time ringing the doorbell of every person in my neighborhood every day.

With understanding comes more reasoned responses to technology and how it fits into our life. When Walters write she sympathizes with Eggers and Franzen (another tech critic) but rejected their tribalism and embrace of “techno-illiteracy.” Her example is a call for STEM without being explicit. I hope to add some Code Academy to my learning list this year. I don’t always get to such goals, but Walters, a humanities type, like me, found a world I like too. Coding may not set us free, but it may open the door to new freedoms. Tech literacy should at least help stop the real threat of those who misuse technology by allowing us to offer other options and to call B.S. on tech utopianism, and thus counter the downside of technology more than we suspect.

The Team Who Will Not Be Named: The Redskins and Slate

This week, Slate announced that it would stop referring to the NFL team from Washington, DC, as the Redskins.  With this decision, Slate joins Washington’s City Paper, as well as the Buffalo News and the Philadelphia Daily News, in their refusal to use the Redskins moniker.

Litigation over the Redskins trademark has been protracted and convoluted.  Substantively speaking, the litigation has focused on disparagement, which allows a trademark registration to be cancelled if it is disparaging to a substantial composite of a referenced group.  Pro Football, Inc. v. Harjo was, however, decided on laches, which is a particular vulnerability for plaintiffs claiming disparagement.  (In this particular case, it  has also resulted in an odd situation whereby a new case has been filed in the TTAB over the same issue but with younger plaintiffs.)

The standard for disparagement is less than clear.  Many TTAB decisions and court opinions have found that a mark just is disparaging with little supporting analysis.  What is enough to be “substantial”, and what the parameters of a “referenced group” are, are often problematic (and have both been particularly problematic in the context of the Redskins litigation).  Another problem with the standard is that it requires a mark to be disparaging at the time of registration.  Thus, if a trademark was registered at a time when racism was socially acceptable, it might be more difficult for plaintiffs to petition for cancellation either because members of the group internalize that racism, or because the groups are not empowered enough to bring an action for disparagement in a timely fashion.

Extra-legal solutions, such as the decision by Slate and other media outlets, can be more effective than courts at addressing these issues.  It’s not because of litigation, but because of market forces (including an evolving social and cultural climate), that a trend has developed toward elimination of American Indian school mascots at both collegiate and high school levels. The NCAA has banned conference play for teams with American Indian mascots, resulting in changes to more than a dozen teams.  Other Universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Iowa, have refused to schedule non-conference games against teams with American Indian mascots.  Outside the courtroom setting, increased pressure has resulted in a steady decline of use of American Indian references in sports teams across the US.  Whether or not these pressures reach the NFL team from Washington DC, however, remains to be seen.

MOOCs, costs, and Dan Ariely

MOOCs will solve our education problems. No one wants to pay for education. Everyone wants education to be free. MOOCs will at least bring down the costs and bring the best lecturers to all the world. I own some land in Florida, the Glengary project. Perhaps you’d like to buy a tract? I am fascinated by MOOCs but reject the claims being made about them as demonstrating some sort of magical new education system.

Yet, when I think about taking a great class with a master teacher, I get excited. Heck, I already listen to lectures from iTunes U and MIT’s Open Course Ware when I work out. MOOCs seem like a step up. And the reality of the cost problem means that they will likely play a role. Then I saw that Dan Ariely is offering a MOOC. And he wrote about the experience. His thoughts track much of what I think. On costs he says, “I have learned that some students feel that it is their basic human right to get free education (they call it free but of course free in this case is a shorthand for “someone else should pay for it,”) while the majority feels privileged to live in a time when such adventures are possible.” But more important are his ideas about where MOOCs may fit and why live learning has a place. I think he is correct, but he may miss a deeper problem.

On MOOCs’ place in the future, Ariely offers:

I don’t think that the future of the university is doomed for a few reasons. First, having a scheduled class with obligations, deadlines, exams, real consequences and real rewards is incredibly important for human motivation and getting people to spend the necessary time and effort to really understand the material. The second reason is that the model of many universities, in which students study and live together, is a particularly helpful model for creating the environment that people need to take their education seriously. It is not just about the particular classes, but about being immersed in an academic environment for a substantial period of time.

The latent problems of MOOCs flow from the benefits of physical place-based teaching; they are expensive and will be for the few; not the many. Assume Ariely is correct. The advantages of the scheduled classes etc. matters. That can be mimicked online. That kills the claim that schedules will require the university. Studying and living together is important. Think of The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Drawing on Xerox PARC, (and the California “Virtual University”) they show that social context is vital for technology and information to help society going forward. But again that physical structure costs money. My concern then is how do we leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world, one that may lack social context, to the poorer parts of society.

If we run to replace classrooms at state schools, only the rich will have the benefits I had. That is a mistake. I was lucky. I went to private schools, UC Berkeley, and Yale Law. I have gained social capital. I know some of the language, manners, styles, and more that are part of getting into the game and playing it. That aspect of life is possibly undercut unless everyone in the future works only on social networks and online culture. To date, it still matters to be in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, etc. so that one can have the day-to-day chance to leverage connections and be part of the so-called conversation. Put differently, back room deals are about who you know. Interviews, for now, may be on videochat, but they still reveal diction, ideas, and manners that influence hiring. Plus, I prefer to read, explore, and solve things on my own. Those who may not be so motivated are precisely those for whom a more disconnected teaching system will not work. So far the drop-out rate for online courses is high. Now, I think there are ways to address these issues. I have believed and continue to believe that technology coupled with social reality can be powerful and beneficial. I stand by that belief.

The danger is to think that because certain facets of universities cannot be duplicated, universities will survive and all is well. Only certain versions of the university will survive. Duke and other elite schools will survive. At those schools students will be part of all the benefits, on and offline, education can offer. For others, access to the benefits Ariely sets out will be even less than today.

Education is a public good with many dimensions beyond the obvious mastery of a subject. It is better thought of as liberal, as in freeing, one to address the myriad problems and changes one encounters in work and life. MOOCs and other advances in technology can and should help that process. Relying on them alone may increase the problems of an education system that delivers a meal, proves that person ate the meal, but the customer has no idea how to fish for herself when on her own.

Can a Website Operator Disclose Identifying Information About Blog Commenters?

groundhog-smOver on The Faculty Lounge and Prawfsblawg there is an emerging kerfuffle over whether it breaks any laws, or leads to any liability, for a blog operator to disclose the email addresses or IP address of people that post comments there. The whole debate is somewhat ridiculously wrapped up in a brouhaha that it’s not worth going into, and involves Paul Campos, Brian Leiter, Leiter’s co-blogger Dan Filler, The Faculty Lounge (where Filler also posts), the whole Law-School-Is-a-Scam movement, anonymous trolls, and who knows what else. Suffice it to say it is reaching kerfuffled heights of kerfuffledness. I’m just interested in the legal question as an Internet Law issue. If you really must know more, you can follow the links in wrap-up posts on Volokh Conspiracy and Above the Law.

(Aside: The whole thing reminds me of a lawsuit between neighbors. Some dispute arises between the two — maybe one doesn’t keep his or her grass cut short enough. Pretty soon the neighbors come to hate each other, and seek to express that hate in legal claims over every perceived infraction dating years back, no matter how tenuous the relation of those claims is to any facts. Before you know it, they’ve got dueling civil RICO lawsuits against each other, and they are telling their lawyers, “it’s the principle of the matter!” I tell my students they should see dollar signs when they hear that phrase, at least if they are billing by the hour, but other attorneys have told me what they hear is, “Run away!“)

Let’s start with a hypothetical, in order to avoid the need for any hyper-ventilated speculation. A runs a blog on which B comments, providing an email address that is not displayed with the comment, which A then provides to third party C. Is A liable for anything?

One point worth noting right away is that, unless you add more facts to the hypo, there’s nothing in it that would hinge liability on whether the disclosure is to one person or 1,000 people. So what people are suggesting is some legal provision that would prohibit a blog operator from posting on the site, “Dear ObstreperousMan, using email address and posting from IP address, I’m sick of your rude and abusive comments, and you are not welcome here any more.” Is there something in the law that would prohibit such behavior or subject the blog operator to liability?

The short answer is no, I can’t think of any basis on which the blog operator would be liable for such conduct. It seems clear that the actual law is only a small and perhaps relatively insignificant part of the furor, but I still found it to be an interesting intellectual exercise, so let me walk through what people have suggested. Continue reading

Facebook Links Online with Offline

The Atlantic runs a story (citing the Financial Times) about how Facebook is working with Datalogix to link online advertising on Facebook with offline purchases by consumers:

Advertisers have complained that Facebook doesn’t give them any way to see if ads lead to buying. This new partnership is their response, as it connects real-life buying with ads seen on the site. Specifically, the service links up the 70 million households worth of purchasing information that Datalogix has with these buyers’ Facebook profiles. Using that, they can compare the ads you see with the stuff you buy and tell advertisers whether their ads are working.

That is, using your Facebook E-mail address and connecting that with your store loyalty card e-mail address, Datalogix will be able to say to (for example, CVS): “Yes, X saw an ad for CVS on Facebook and then showed up at your store and bought it.” The Atlantic article hints at the ramifications, especially given the types of stores that we can guess are participants in the program, and also notes that opt-out is a particularly insidious way to begin to tie our online lives to our offline lives.

The Atlantic helpfully provides a link to the Datalogix site to opt-out of the “service” (links included below) and notes that even finding the link on Facebook is like a treasure hunt. While on that site, I noticed that Datalogix also provides a link to opt-out of all Datalogix related tracking. The main “informational” Datalogix link (with the sublinks to opt-out) is here. To log out of the new Facebook program, use this link (it is a cookie based system, which means if you regularly clear your cookies, you may want to “protect” these opt-out cookies so that they’re maintained over time). But instead of using that direct link, try going to this page to see who else is part of Datalogix tracking, and decide who if anyone you really want to allow to continue to do that (they also offer a form-based link to opt-out of all Datalogix advertising, though that link requires you to enter your real name and home address).

The Atlantic story ends with a gentle attack on opt-out schemes, emphasizing that Facebook should at least make the opt-out option easy to find (something it has not done).

There is nothing surprising about this development. Facebook has been at the forefront of trying to eek more information out of its users and then seeking to commodify that information in as quiet a way as possible. In the past these kinds of changes have received significant pushback from users. While user outrage may also arise here, it may also be useful for users to go to the Datalogix site and opt-out of all Datalogix targeted advertising (not just that related to Facebook). If advertising service providers see that joining up with Facebook in one of Facebook’s now infamous submarine “opt-out” changes results not only in bad press about that particular pairing, but also brings them to the attention of users who then opt-out of all of that provider’s services, maybe the providers themselves will drive Facebook to use opt-in rather than opt-out as the presumptive choice when partnerships develop in the future.