Despite what you might have read, Apple’s virtual assistant iPhone program, Siri, is not “pro-life”, and no one is accusing it of such.* Instead, Siri is simply obfuscatory, with apparent anti-choice biases.
The last couple of links address some of the gender- and reproductive freedom-based reasons that we should care about Siri’s poor response to abortion inquiries. Another angle, apparently lost on, for example, Ars Technica commenters, is the net neutrality angle. I was pleased to notice that Sen. Blumenthal, of my home state of Connecticut, has already addressed this.
Abortion is not the only controversial issue that Siri weighs in on. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my little cousin was trying out Siri and asked her where she could get a dog. Siri responded that she couldn’t find any dog breeders in the area, and didn’t even search for animals shelters or rescue groups! (Of course, I was quick to remind my cousin that dog breeders are not the only source for adopting a dog.)
Obviously, a perfectly neutral online information environment is probably impossible, and no one is saying that you should be free to leave your common sense at home when you have your iPhone in your pocket, but the specifically addressable issue here is that Siri is being bamboozled – like many women are – by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers.”
* It’s pretty disappointing to me that Ars Technica, usually a great source of tech news, not only wholly fabricated the act (of accusing) described in the headline and chose to characterize the abortion access issue as a matter of being “pro-life,” but even went so far as to put “pro-life” in quotes – suggesting that the groups named in the article (ACLU, NARAL) had been quoted as making the charge using the specific term “pro-life.” In fact, neither ACLU’s blog post or NARAL’s statement ever accuses Apple/Siri of being pro-life, or even uses the term. The Ars article links to this Abortioneers post, saying that “the paucity of responses in the area of pregnancy and birth control have raised concerns that Siri is programmed to be ‘pro-life.'” Of course, no such concern is expressed in that post, which describes the poor search results as “fishy.” It’s a bit of a stretch to say that calling something “fishy” is the same thing as raising concerns about being pro-life. In fact, the only major source I could find that used the phrase “pro-life” in discussing the issue was this Slate post. And although the Slate post doesn’t make any claims that Siri is, in fact, pro-life – it merely discusses that people are concerned – the AOL-owned blog TUAW triumphantly linked to Slate in its own post, called, inaccurately enough, “Debunked: Ridiculous claims of ‘pro-life’ bias in Siri.”
In conclusion to this footnote that has overwhelmed the blog post, words matter, and people who write for a living should be a little more careful when using them.
On his blog, Hendrik Hertzberg seconds the sensible call for a Alexander Hamilton biopic. I am likewise pretty amazed that this has never been done, as Hamilton is clearly a fascinating and dramatic character. Relatedly, I am a bit surprised at how many times J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed in the cinema. (In his New Yorker review, David Denby notes that in addition to Leonardo DiCaprio, “Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hoskins have played Hoover.”) He’s undisputedly an interesting character — it’s just that he’s such a relatively recent historical figure. You’d think we’d have long since exhausted the cinematic potential of the Founding Fathers’ stories, but Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested.
Although it’s not a film, HBO’s 2008 John Adams miniseries deserves a mention in this discussion. I missed it when it first came out because I’m not an HBO subscriber, but I recently watched it on DVD. I found it to be pretty poorly dramatized, but it did a decent job of narrating the politics of the revolution and the founding. By the end – or the middle, really – of the miniseries, I was pretty sick and tired of John Adams, and would have gladly welcomed a spinoff on Hamilton (or Jefferson!). I’d also be really interested to watch a movie about John Madison, who sounds like a delightful crank.
Anyways, the other reason for making this blog post was to share with the Internet this fabulous screencap I took while I was watching John Adams. In light of current events, it seems appropriate to put this out there. I think the supercommittee should have a giant still of this projected over them, so that they may better imagine how they’re making John Adams roll in his grave, or at least make this tragic face (in reaction to hearing Hamilton’s pitch to create a national debt):
I saved this image months ago, thinking that eventually I would come up with some brilliant image macro for it, but alas, image macros are not really my medium. I did make it a little more Internet-appropriate though:
Despite being somewhat dated already (having been published before the Arab Spring, the rise of Twitter and the demise of MySpace, and newer phenomena like Tumblr, FourSquare, and Google+), Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody is still, three years later, a remarkably smart and applicable analysis of the role of social networking and social media technology.
The collapse of transaction costs makes it easier for people to get together – so much easier, in fact, that it is changing the world. The lowering of these costs is the driving force underneath the current revolution and the common element to everything in this book. (p. 48)
The book’s analysis is couched in the Coase theorem and its intersection with the power law distribution that applies to social networks. The idea is that what makes social tech compelling and effective is that the cost of participating is so low, because of the minimization of transaction costs enabled by the Internet and social network technology. As a corollary, the cost of failure is trivial or at least deeply diminished. In the chapter called “Failure for Free,” Shirky highlights Meetup’s free-for-all approach to organizing groups and the open-source origins of Linux as examples of new communities that are thriving because the low cost of failure enables them to experiment widely. This made me think of Jane McGonigal’s point in Reality is Broken that nothing motivates people to rebound from failure and try again like games. Shirky focuses on this phenomenon in the context of communities of love (as opposed to communities of practice), but I think the take-home lesson is the same: using technology, we can harness motivators aside from traditional materialist, private property-based interests.
What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question “Do the people who like it take care of each other?” turns out to be a better predictor of success than “What’s the business model?” As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does. (p. 258-9)
Meanwhile, in real life and online, the Occupy Wall Street movement might very well be the latest and greatest sociopolitical phenomenon in distributed organizing. At The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, G.L. calls it “the world’s first genuine social-media uprising.” I’m not interested in disputing whether earlier social movements were, in fact, primarily driven by social media,* but it does certainly seem to be the case that (new or newish) social tech tools like Tumblr are making a significant impact in the rapidly-growing Occupy movement. As G.L. points out, the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is a critical part of the Occupy movement because it establishes a narrative clarifying what the movement wants and what it is about: ” jobs, cheaper health care, cheaper education, and relief from suffocating debt.” G.L. cites the number of blog posts and the frequency of posting over time, as evidence of the movement gaining traction, but I think better metrics would be citations/links, pageviews and shares over Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc. (For one thing, the frequency of posting is mediated by the human moderation of submissions by whoever it is that’s behind that Tumblr.) Of course, the tricky thing is the mismatch between the online ferment and the offline consequences, but I think the effectiveness of social movements in general is pretty outside the scope of this post. Even without access to these kinds of metrics, it’s indisputable that the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is making its mark: the right-wing We Are the 53 Percent “parody”/response is beginning to gain attention of its own.
In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky observes that:
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. (p. 107)
I think this applies pretty well to the Occupy movement, both in terms of online and offline social institutions.
*Although some might argue that the text message-organized Falun Gong sit-ins or the Belarus flash mob protests, which were publicized on Livejournal (and discussed by Shirky on pp. 167-8).