‘The Bot Politic,’ and 4 Other Stories You Should Read

Here’s what you missed while deciding never to wear a backpack skiing again

Recode: Mark Zuckerberg shares Facebook’s secrets with all his employees, and almost none of it leaks

Selected by Brian Maehl, talent development manager

Every week, Mark Zuckerberg hosts a Q&A for the 16,000 Facebook employees around the globe. It sounds like familiar territory for the CEO of a growing company—to address any concerns or discuss a product roadmap—but the level of candor apparently on display makes it unprecedented. As Recode writes, “Zuckerberg will also share his personal opinions on competitors like Snapchat and Twitter, and even Facebook’s board members.”

It’s quite the feat for the company that practically owns the web to be this candid, but what’s more impressive is the public never hears what’s discussed. (Imagine how fascinating the weekly “What Mark Zuckerberg REALLY thinks about Evan Spiegel” story could be.)

This system is possible because if anyone at Facebook leaked information, they’d be canned. While employees seem to appreciate seeing this side of their CEO, it still feels ironic that such a refreshing concept is possible due to the threat of unemployment.

The Intercept: WashPost Is Richly Rewarded for False News About Russia Threat While Public Is Deceived

Selected by Dillon Baker, tech editor

Since Donald Trump’s election victory, The Washington Post has run two stories on Russian hacking that turned out to be based on false premises. One was on the Russian government’s influence on “fake news” (which blamed many innocent, non-Russian websites and was based on flimsy, anonymous sources), and the other on a Russian hack of the electric grid, which never happened.

It’s a bad look for the paper, which, in its opinion pages and its news pages, has given off the impression of hysteria. The result is a strategy that more closely resembles the cable news playbook—sensationalism, partisanship, and bunk sources—than the storied newspaper’s traditionally sober approach.

As Glenn Greenwald explains in this thoughtful article, that approach also points to why “fake news” has made such a foothold in the American media landscape. News and fake news are both shaped by the exact same business model—impression-based ad revenue. The Washington Post made thousands of dollars from these articles, despite both being proven false, simply because they were fantastical and confirmed what people wanted to hear.

The line between “fake” and “real” news is thin and needs to be protected by those who claim to represent the truth.

Deadspin: You Don’t Have To Write This Shit If They’re Not Paying You To

Selected by Craig Davis, editorial intern

If I could switch lives with anyone on Earth, I’d choose Tom Brady. That would let me live out my sports fantasies, come home to Gisele, and crack the funniest dad jokes.

For now, I get to sleep like Tom Brady, thanks to his new “bioceramic-printed” pajamas that may or may not turn me into The Terminator. Sports Illustrated wrote a full-length feature on the sleepwear, which reads very much like a branded content story. The thing is, it wasn’t branded.

Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky took SI to task for creating a glorified press release (and doing so free of charge). It’s an advertisement in every sense of the word, and considering “advertiser support is the only truly sustainable model for mass media,” Petchesky is astounded that Sports Illustrated would readily produce this content without any financial benefit.

“No publication should do a brand’s advertising for them for free,” Petchesky writes. “They will pay you! Don’t be dumb.”

The Ringer: The End of Tech Optimism

Selected by Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief

If you’re going to spend five minutes reading an article this week, this is it.

The Ringer’s Victor Luckerson perfectly captures something I’ve been feeling for the past year: The sense that technology is an intrinsically positive force for good—a notion that was likely always a fallacy—is now completely dead. Increasingly, innovations aren’t about making the world better. They’re just about acquiring more—more attention, more users, more market share—without any real sense of the consequences. As Luckerson writes:

All of these companies rode to power on a wave of optimism that argued again and again that convenience, efficiency, and unfettered freedom for the consumer are more important than workers’ rights, public safety, or responsible public discourse. The nitty-gritty details of building a functioning society around tech innovations would work themselves out, just so long as everyone could download the latest app and use it without restrictions.

Compounding these problems is the fact that we’re entering an era of tech monopolies. Facebook isn’t going the way of Myspace; in fact, Facebook and Google are likely a few months away from controlling 90 percent of all online ad revenue. Their advantage in AI—the tech everyone calls “the new mobile”—will only help them pad their lead. It’s time we start treating tech companies with the same level of skepticism that we treat everyone else.

The New Yorker: The Bot Politic

Selected by Erin Nelson, marketing editor

In the HBO series Westworld, robots (called “hosts”) are victims turned heroes when we learn their programmatic code leaves room for memory and agency. In this article, we encounter the creation of a real-life bot’s script.

Kai, a gender-neutral banking bot, is meant to reflect its “personality” without imprinting specific features that would define its personhood. Unlike Dolores or Maeve in Westworld, Kai responds as a genderless individual but is also amorphous. For Jacqueline Feldman, Kai’s ghostwriter, this writing process has forced her to consider the way a bot’s language reflects societal stereotypes (since it is developed—and consumed by—people who hold these biases).

Female bots, for example, are perceived as “sassy,” not snarky or sarcastic (which would require authority), and are meant to exude subservience. While Feldman believes “we don’t need to make our technologies conform to the gender binary of human societies in order to like them,” she is still cognizant of the power bot creators have to impact these norms.

While it’s fantastical and a bit frightening to imagine the capabilities of AI, Feldman reminds us that conversations with bots like Siri and Kai often reveal more about where we are as humans than where AI can take us.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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