New phone, who dis?

So I got a new phone. What makes the experience remarkable is that the old phone was a Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which, if Wikipedia is correct, was released in 2014. So the phone was at least eight, probably nine, years old. When you update incrementally, like a man who gets his hair cut once a week, it’s hard to see any difference. When you leapfrog numerous generations of updates, it’s seeing the man who’s had his first haircut in a year: it’s a shock.

The tl;dr: most of what I don’t like about the switch is because of Google.

There were several reasons why I waited so long. It was a good enough phone and it had a very good camera for its time; I finessed the lack of security updates by not using the phone for functions where it mattered. Also, I didn’t want to give up the disappearing headphone jack, home button, or, especially, user-replaceable battery. The last of those is why I could keep the phone for so long, and it was the biggest deal-breaker.

For that reason, I’ve known for years that the Note’s eventual replacement would likely be a Fairphone, a Dutch outfit that is doing its best to produce sustainable phones. It’s repairable and user-upgradable (it takes one screwdriver to replace a cracked screen or the camera), and changing the bettery takes a second. I had to compromise on the headphone jack, which requires a USB-C dongle. Not having the home button is hard to get used to; I used it constantly. It turns out, though, that it’s even harder to get used to not having the soft button on the bottom left that used to show me recently used apps so I could quickly switch back to the thing I was using a few minutes ago. But that….is software.

The biggest and most noticeable change between Android 6 (the Note 4 got its last software update in 2017) and Android 13 (last week) is the assumptions both Android chief Google and the providers of other apps make about what users want. On the Note 4, I had a quick-access button to turn the wifi on and off. Except for the occasional call over Signal, I saw no reason to keep it on to drain the battery unnecessarily. Today, that same switch is buried several layers deep in settings with apparently no way to move that into the list of quick-access functions. That’s just one example. But no acommodation for my personal quirks can change the sense of being bullied into giving away more data and control than I’d like.

Giving in to Google does, however, mean an easy transfer of your old phone’s contents to your new phone (if transferring the external SD card isn’t enough).

Too late I remembered the name Murena – a company that equips Fairphones with de-Googlified Android. As David Pierce writes at The Verge, that requires a huge effort. Murena has built replacements for the standard Google apps, a cloud system for email, calendars, and productivity software. Even so, Pierce writes, apps hit the limit: despite Murena’s effort to preserve user anonymity, it’s just not possible to download them without interacting with Google, especially when payment is required. And who wants to run their phone without third-party apps? Not even me (although I note that many of those I use can still be sideloaded).

The reality is I would have preferred to wait even longer to make the change. I was pushed by the fact that several times recently the Note has complained that it can’t download email because it was running out of storage space (which is why I would prefer to store everything on an external SD card, but: not an option for email and apps). And on a recent trip to the US, there were numerous occasions where the phone simply didn’t work, even though there shouldn’t be any black spots in places like Boston and San Francisco. A friend suggested that in all likelihood there were freuqency bands being turned off while other newer ones were probably ones the Note couldn’t use. I had forgotten that 5G, which I last thought about in 2018, had been arriving. So: new phone. Resentfully.

This kind of forced wastefulness is one of the things Donald Norman talks about in his new book, Design for a Better World. To some extent, the book is a mea culpa: after decades of writing about how to design things better to benefit us as individuals, Norman has recognized the necessity to rethink and replace human-centered design with humanity-centered design. Sustainability is part of that.

Everything around us is driven by design choices. Building unrepairable phones is a choice, and a destructive one, given the amount of rare materials used inside that wind up in landfills instead of, new phones or some other application. The Guardian’s review of the latest Fairphone asks, “Could this be the first phone to last ten years?” I certainly hope so, but if something takes it down before then it will be an externality like switched-off bands, the end of software updates, or a bank’s decision to require customers use an app for two-factor authentication and then update it so older phones can’t run it. These are, as Norman writes, complex systems in which the incentives are all misplaced. And so: new phone. Largely unnecessarily.

Illustrations: Personally owned 1970s AT&T phone.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Planned incompatibility

My first portable music player was a monoaural Sony cassette player a little bigger than a deck of cards. I think it was intended for office use as a dictation machine, but I hauled it to folk clubs and recorded the songs I liked, and used it to listen to music while in transit. Circa 1977, I was the only one on most planes.

At the time, each portable device had its own charger with its own electrical specification and plug type. Some manufacturers saw this as an opportunity, and released so-called “universal” chargers that came with an array of the most common plugs and user-adjustable settings so you could match the original amps and volts. Sony reacted by ensuring that each new generation had a new plug that wasn’t included on the universal chargers…which would then copy it….which would push Sony to come up with yet another new plug And so on. All in the name of consumer safety, of course.

Sony’s modern equivalent (which of course includes Sony itself) doesn’t need to invent new plugs because more sophisticated methods are available. They can instead insert a computer chip that the main device checks to ensure the part is “genuine”. If the check fails, as it might if you’ve bought your replacement part from a Chinese seller on eBay, the device refuses to let the new part function. This is how Hewlett-Packard has ensured that its inkjet printers won’t work with third-party cartridges, it’s one way that Apple has hobbled third-party repair services, and it’s how, as this week’s news tells us, the PS5 will check its optonal disc drives.

Except the PS5 has a twist: in order to authenticate the drive the PS5 has to use an Internet connection to contact Sony’s server. I suppose it’s better than John Deere farm equipment, which, Cory Doctorow writes in his new book, The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation, requires a technician to drive out to a remote farm and type in a code before the new part will work while the farmer waits impatiently. But not by much, if you’re stuck somewhere offline.

“It’s likely that this is a security measure in order to ensure that the disc drive is a legitimate one and not a third party,” Video Gamer speculates. Checking the “legitimacy” of an optional add-on is not what I’d call “security”; in general it’s purely for the purpose of making it hard for customers to buy third-party add-ons (a goal the article does nod at later). Like other forms of digital rights management, the nuisance all accrues to the customer and the benefits, such as they are, accrue only to the manufacturer.

As Doctorow writes, part-pairing, as this practice is known, originated with cars (for this reason, it’s also often known as “VIN” locking, from vehicle information number), brought in to reducee the motivation to steal cars in order to strip them and sell their parts (which *is* security). The technology sector has embraced and extended this to bolster the Gilette business model: sell inkjet printers cheap and charge higher-than-champagne prices for ink. Apple, Doctorow writes, has used this approach to block repairs in order to sustain new phone sales – good for Apple, but wasteful for the environment and expensive for us. The most appalling of his examples, though, is wheelchairs, which are “VIN-locked and can’t be serviced by a local repair shop”, and medical devices. Making on-location repairs impossible in these cases is evil.

The PS5, though, compounds part-pairing by requiring an Internet connection, a trend that really needs not to catch on. As hundreds of Tesla drivers discovered the hard way during an app server outage it’s risky to presume those connections will always be there when you need them. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve come to accept that software is not a purchase but a subscription service subject to license. Now, hardware is going the same way, as seemed logical from the late-1990s moment when MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld proposed Things That Think. Back then, I imagined the idea applying to everyday household items, not devices that keep our bodies functioning. This oncoming future is truly dangerous, as Andrea Matwyshyn has been pointing out..

For Doctorow, the solution is to mandate and enforce interoperability as well as other regulations such as antitrust law. The right to repair laws that are appearing inany jurisdictions (and which companies like Apple and John Deere have historically opposed). Requiring interoperability would force companies to enable – or at least not to hinder – third-party repairs.

But more than that is going to be needed if we are to avoid a future in which every piece of our personal infrastructures is turned into a subscription service. At The Register, Richard Speed reminds that Microsoft will end support for Windows 10 in 2025, potentially leaving 400 million PCs stranded. We have seen this before.

I’m not sure anyone in government circles is really thinking about the implications for an aging population. My generation still owns things; you can’t delete my library of paper books or charge me for each reread. But today’s younger generation, for whom everything is a rental…what will they do at retirement age, when income drops but nothing gets cheaper in a world where everything stops working the minute you stop paying? If we don’t force change now, this will be their future.

Illustrations: A John Deere tractor.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Review: The Other Pandemic

The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World
By James Ball
Bloomsbury Press
ISBN: 978-1-526-64255-4

One of the weirdest aspects of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol building was the mismatched variety of flags and causes represented: USA, Confederacy, Third Reich, Thin Blue Line, American Revolution, pirate, Trump. And in the midst: QAnon.

As journalist James Ball tells it in his new book, The Other Pandemic, QAnon is the perfect example of a modern, decentralized movement: it has no leader and no fixed ideology. Instead, it morphs to embrace the memes of the moment, drawing its force by renewing age-old conspiracy theories that never die. QAnon’s presence among all those flags – and popping up in demonstrations in many other countries – is a perfect example.

Charles Arthur’s 2021 book Social Warming used global warming as a metaphor for social media’s spread of anger and division. Ball prefers the metaphor of public health. The difference is subtle, but important: Arthur argued that social media became destabilizing because no one chose to stop it, where Ball’s characterization implies less agency. People have less choice about being infected with pathogens, no matter how careful they are.

Ball divides the book into four main sections reflecting the stages of a pandemic: emergence, infection, transmission, convalescence. He covers some of the same ground as Naomi Klein in her recent book Doppelganger. But Ball spent his adolescence goofing around on 4chan, where QAnon was later hatched, while Klein lets her personal story lead her into Internet fora. In other words, Klein writes about Internet culture from the outside in, while Ball writes from the inside out. Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords, on the other hand, focused exclusively on investigating online hate..

“Goofing around” and “4chan” may sound incompatible, but as Ball tells it, in the early days after its founding in 2003, 4chan was anarchic and fun, with roots in gaming culture. Every online service I’ve known back to 1990 has had a corner like this, where ordinary rules of polite society were suspended and transgression was largely ironic, even if also obnoxious. The difference: 4chan’s culture spread well beyond its borders, and its dark side fuelled a global threat. The original QAnon posting arrived on 4chan in 2017, followed quickly by others. Detailed, seemingly knowledgeable, and full of questions for readers to “research”, they quickly attracted backers who propagated them onto much bigger sites like YouTube, which turned a niche audience of thousands into a mass audience of millions.

A key element of Ball’s metaphor is Richard Dawkins’ 1976 concept of memes: scraps of ideas that use us to replicate themselves, as biological viruses do. To extend the analogy, Ball argues that we shouldn’t blame – or dismiss as stupid – the people who get “infected” by QAnon.

This book represents an evolution for Ball. In 2017’s Post-Truth, he advocated fact-checking and teaching media literacy as key elements of the solution to the spread of misinformation. Here, he acknowledges that this approach is only a small part of containing a social movement that feeds on emotional engagement and doesn’t care about facts. In his conclusion, where he advocates prevention rather than cure and the adoption of multi-pronged strategies analogous to those we use to fight diseases like malaria, however, there are echoes of that trust in authority. I continue to believe the essential approach will be nearer to that of modern cybersecurity, similarly decentralized and mixing economics, the social sciences, psychology, and technology, among others. But this challenge is so big that no one metaphor is enough to contain it.

Review: Data Driven

Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance
By Karen Levy
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 978-0-6911-7530-0

The strikes in Hollywood show actors and writers in an existential crisis: a highly lucrative industry used to pay them a good middle class living but now has the majority struggling just to survive. In her recent book, Data Driven, Cornell assistant professor Karen Levy finds America’s truckers in a similar plight.

Both groups have had their industries change around them because of new technology. In Hollywood, streaming came along to break the feedback loop that powered a highly successful business model for generations. In trucking, the culprit is electronic logging devices (ELDs), which are changing the profession entirely.

Levy has been studying truckers since 2011. At that point, ELDs were beginning to appear in truckers’ cabs but were purely voluntary. That changed in 2017, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s rule mandating their use came into force. The intention, as always, is reasonably benign: to improve safety by ensuring that truckers on the road remain alert and comply with the regulations governing the hours they’re allowed to work.

As part of this work, Levy has interviewed truckers, family members, and managers, and studied trucker-oriented media such as online forums, radio programs, and magazines. She was also able to examine auditing practices in both analog and digital formats.

Some of her conclusions are worrying. For example, she finds that taking truckers’ paper logs into an office away from the cab allowed auditors more time to study them and greater ability to ask questions about them. ELDs, by contrast, are often wired into the cab, and the auditor must inspect them in situ. Where the paper logs were simply understood, many inspectors struggle with the ELDs’ inconsistent interfaces, and being required to enter what is after all the trucker’s personal living space tends to limit the time they spend.

Truckers by and large experience the ELDs as intrusive. Those who have been at the wheel the longest most resent the devaluation of their experience the devices bring. Unlike the paper logs, which remained under the truckers’ control, ELDs often send the data they collect direct to management, who may respond by issuing instructions that override the trucker’s own decisions and on-site information.

Levy’s main point would resonate with those Hollywood strikers. ELDs are being used to correct the genuine problem of tired, and therefore unsafe, truckers. Yet the reason truckers are so tired and take the risk of overworking is the way the industry is structured. Changing how drivers are paid from purely by the mile to including the hours they spend moving their trucks around the yards waiting to unload and other periods of unavoidable delay would be far more effective. Worse, it’s the most experienced truckers who are most alienated by the ELDs’ surveillance. Replacing them with younger, less experienced drivers will not improve road safety for any of us.

The two of us

The-other-Wendy-Grossman-who-is-a-journalist came to my attention in the 1990s by writing a story about something Internettish while a student at Duke University who had written a story about something Internettish. Eventually, I got email for her (which I duly forwarded) and, once, a transatlantic phone call from a very excited but misinformed PR person. She got married, changed her name, and faded out of my view.

By contrast, Naomi Klein‘s problem has only inflated over time. The “doppelganger” in her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, is “Other Naomi” – that is, the American author Naomi Wolf, whose career launched in 1990 with The Beauty Myth . “Other Naomi” has spiraled into conspiracy theories, anti-government paranoia, and wild unscientific theories. Klein is Canadian; her books include No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). There is, as Klein acknowledges a lot of *seeming* overlap in that a keyword search might surface both.

I had them confused myself until Wolf’s 2019 appearance on BBC radio, when a historian dished out a live-on-air teardown of the basis of her latest book. This author’s nightmare is the inciting incident Klein believes turned Wolf from liberal feminist author into a right-wing media star. The publisher withdrew and pulped the book, and Wolf herself was globally mocked. What does a high-profile liberal who’s lost her platform do now?

When the covid pandemic came, Wolf embraced every available mad theory and her liberal past made her a darling of the extremist right wing media. Increasingly obsessed with following Wolf’s exploits, which often popped up in her online mentions, Klein discovered that social media algorithms were exacerbating the confusion. She began to silence herself, fearing that any response she made would increase the algorithms’ tendency to conflate Naomis. She also abandoned an article deploring Bill Gates’s stance protecting corporate patents instead of spreading vaccines as widely as possible (The Gates Foundation later changed its position.)

Klein tells this story honestly, admitting to becoming addictively obsessed, promising to stop, then “relapsing” the first time she was alone in her car.

The appearance of overlap through keyword similarities is not limited to the two Naomis, as Klein finds on further investigation. YouTube stars like Steve Bannon, who founded Breitbart and served as Donald Trump’s chief of strategist during his first months in the White House, wrote this playbook: seize on under-acknowledged legitimate grievances, turn them into right wing talking points, and recruit the previously-ignored victims as allies and supporters. The lab leak hypohesis, the advice being given by scientific authorities, why shopping malls were open when schools were closed, the profiteering (she correctly calls out the UK), the behavior of corporate pharma – all of these were and are valid topics for investigation, discussion, and debate. Their twisted adoption as right-wing causes made many on the side of public health harden their stance to avoid sounding like “one of them”. The result: words lost their meaning and their power.

These are problems no amount of content moderation or online safety can solve. And even if it could, is it right to ask underpaid workers in the what Klein terms the “Shadowlands” to clean up our society’s nasty side so we don’t have to see it?

Klein begins with a single doppelganger, then expands into psychology, movies, TV, and other fiction, and ends by navigating expanding circles; the extreme right-wing media’s “Mirror World” is our society’s Mr Hyde. As she warns, those who live in what a friend termed “my blue bubble” may never hear about the media and commentators she investigates. After Wolf’s disgrace on the BBC, she “disappeared”, in reality going on to develop a much bigger platform in the Mirror World. But “they” know and watch us, and use our blind spots to expand their reach and recruit new and unexpected sectors of the population. Klein writes that she encounters many people who’ve “lost” a family member to the Mirror World.

This was the ground explored in 2015 by the filmmaker Jen Senko, who found the smae thing when researching her documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad. Senko’s exploration leads from the 1960s John Birch Society through to Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes’s intentional formation of Fox News. Klein here is telling the next stage of that same story. Mirror World is not an accident of technology; it was a plan, then technology came along and helped build it further in new directions.

As Klein searches for an explanation for what she calls “diagnonalism” – the phenomenon that sees a former Obama voter now vote for Trump, or a former liberal feminist shrug at the Dobbs decision – she finds it possible to admire the Mirror World’s inhabitants for one characteristic: “they still believe in the idea of changing reality”.

This is the heart of much of the alienation I see in some friends: those who want structural change say today’s centrist left wing favors the status quo, while those who are more profoundly disaffected dismiss the Bidens and Clintons as almost as corrupt as Trump. The pandemic increased their discontent; it did not take long for early optimistic hopes of “build back better” to fade into “I want my normal”.

Klein ends with hope. As both the US and UK wind toward the next presidential/general election, it’s in scarce supply.

Illustrations: Charlie Chaplin as one of his doppelgangers in The Great Dictator (1940).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon

Review: The Gutenberg Parenthesis

The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet
By Jeff Jarvis
Bloomsbury Academic
ISBN: 978-1-5013-9482-9

There’s a great quote I can’t trace in which a source singer from whom Sir Walter Scott collected folk songs told him he’d killed their songs by printing them. Printing had, that is, removed the song from the oral culture of repeated transmission, often with alterations, from singer to singer. Like pinning down a butterfly.

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, Jeff Jarvis argues that modern digital culture offers the chance of a return to the collaborative culture that dominated most of human history. Jarvis is not the first to suggest that our legacy media are an anomaly. In his 2013 book Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage calls out the last 150 years of corporate-owned for-profit media as an anomaly in the 2,000-year sweep of social media. In his analogy, the earliest form was “Roman broadband” (slaves) carrying messages back and forth. Standage finds other historical social media analogues in the coffeehouses that hatched the scientific revolution. Machines, both print and broadcast, made us consumers instead of participants. In Jarvis’s account, printing made institutions and nation-states, the same ones that now are failing to control the new paradigm.

The “Gutenberg parenthesis” of Jarvis’s title was coined by Lars Ore Sauerberg, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, who argues (in, for example, a 2009 paper for the journal Orbis Literarum) that the arrival of the printing press changed the nature of cognition. Jarvis takes this idea and runs with it: if we are, as he believes, now somewhere in a decades- or perhaps centuries-long process of closing the parenthesis – that is, exiting the era of print bracketed by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the arrival of digital media – what comes next?

To answer this question, Jarvis begins by examining the transition *into* the era of printing. The invention of movable type and printing presses by themselves brought a step down in price and a step up in scale – what had once been single copies available only to people rich enough to pay a scribe suddenly became hundreds of copies that were still expensive. It took two centuries to arrive at the beginnings of copyright law, and then the industrial revolution to bring printing and corporate ownership at today’s scale.

Jarvis goes on to review the last two centuries of increasingly centralized and commercialized publishing. The institutions print brought provided authority that enabled them to counter misinformation effectively. In our new world, where these institutions are being challenged, many more voices can be heard – good, for obvious reasons of social justice and fairness, but unfortunate in terms of the spread of misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation. Jarvis believes we need to build new institutions that can enable the former and inhibit the latter. Exactly what those will look like is left as an exercise for the reader in the times to come. Could Gutenberg have predicted Entertainment Weekly?

Review: Sorry, Sorry, Sorry

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies
By Marjorie Ingalls and Susan McCarthy
Gallery Books
ISBN: 978-1-9821-6349-5

Years ago, a friend of mine deplored apologies: “People just apologize because they want you to like them,” he observed.

That’s certainly true at least some of the time, but as Marjorie Ingalls and Susan McCarthy argue at length in their book Sorry, Sorry, Sorry, well-constructed and presented apologies can make the world a better place. For the recipient, they can remove the sting of old wrongs; for the giver, they can ease the burden of old shames.

What you shouldn’t do, when apologizing, is what self-help groups sometimes describe as “plan the outcome”. That is, you present your apology and you take your chances. Follow Ingalls’ and McCarthy’s six steps to construct your apology, then hope for, but do not demand, forgiveness, and don’t mess the whole thing up by concluding with, “So, we’re good?”

Their six steps to a good apology:
1. Say you’re sorry.
2. For what you did.
3. Show you understand why it was bad.
4. Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses.
5. Say why it won’t happen again.
6. Offer to make up for it.
Six and a half. Listen.

It’s certainly true that many apologies don’t have the desired effect. Often, it’s because the apology itself is terrible. Through their Sorry Watch blog, Ingalls and McCarthy have been collecting and analyzing bad public apologies for years (obDisclosure: I send in tips on apologies in tennis and British politics). Many of these appear in the book, organized into chapters on apologies from doctors and medical establishments, large corporations, and governments and nation-states. Alongside these are chapters on the psychology of apologies, teaching children to apologize, practical realities relating to gender, race, and other disparities. Women, for example, are more likely to apologize well, but take greater risk when they do – and are less likely to be forgiven.

Some templates for *bad* apologies when you’ve done something hurtful (do not try this at home!): “I’m sorry if…”, “I’m sorry that you felt…”, “I regret…”, and, of course, the often-used classic, “This is not who we are.”

These latter are, in Ingalls’ and McCarthy’s parlance “apology-shaped objects”, but not actually apologies. They explain this in detail with plenty of wit – and no less than five Bad Apology bingo cards.

Even for readers of the blog, there’s new information. I was particularly interested to learn that malpractice lawyers are likely wrong in telling doctors not to apologize because admitting fault invites a lawsuit. A 2006 Harvard hospital system report found little evidence for this contention – as long as the apologies are good ones. It’s the failure to communicate and the refusal to take responsibility that are much more anger-provoking. In other words, the problem there, as everywhere else, is *bad* apologies.

A lot of this ought to be common sense. But as Ingalls and McCarthy make plain, it may be sense but it’s not as common as any of us would like.

Review: Should You Believe Wikipedia?

Should You Believe Wikipedia? Online Communities and the Construction of Knowledge
By Amy S. Bruckman
Publisher: Cambridge
Print publication year: 2022
ISBN: 978-1-108780-704

Every Internet era has had its new-thing obsession. For a time in the mid-1990s, it was “community”. Every business, some industry thinkers insisted, would need to build a community of customers, suppliers, and partners. Many tried, and the next decade saw the proliferation of blogs, web boards, and, soon, multi-player online games. We learned that every such venture of any size attracts abuse that requires human moderators to solve. We learned that community does not scale. Then came Facebook and other modern social media, fueled by mobile phones, and the business model became data collection to support advertising.

Back at the beginning, Amy S. Bruckman, now a professor at Georgia Tech but then a student at MIT, set up the education-oriented MOO Crossing, in which children could collaborate on building objects as a way of learning to code. For 20 years, she has taught a course on designing communities. In Should You Believe Wikipedia?, Bruckman distills the lessons she’s learned over all that time, combining years of practical online experience with readable theoretical analysis based on sociology, psychology, and epistemology. Whether or not to trust Wikipedia is just one chapter in her study of online communities and the issues they pose.

Like pubs, cafes, and town squares, online communities are third spaces – that is, neutral ground where people can meet on equal terms. Clearly not neutral: many popular blogs, which tend to be personal or promotional, or the X formerly known as Twitter. Third places also need to be enclosed but inviting, visible from surrounding areas, and offering affordances for activity. In that sense, two of the most successful online communities are Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, both of which pursue a common enterprise that contributors can feel is of global value. Facebook is home to probably hundreds of thousands of communities – families, activists, support groups, and so on – but itself is too big, too diffuse, and too lacking in shared purpose to be a community. Bruckman also cites as examples of productive communities open source software projects and citizen science.

Bruckman’s book has arrived at a moment that we may someday see as a watershed. Numerous factors – Elon Musk’s takeover and remaking of Twitter, debates about regulation and antitrust, increased privacy awareness – are making many people reevaluate what they want from online social spaces. It is a moment when new experiments might thrive.

Something like that is needed, Bruckman concludes: people are not being well served by the free market’s profit motives and current business models. She would like to see more of the Internet populated by non-profits, but elides the key hard question: what are the sustainable models for supporting such endeavors? Mozilla, one of the open source software-building communities she praises, is sustained by payments from Google, making it still vulnerable to the dictates of shareholders, albeit at one remove. It remains an open question if the Fediverse, currently chiefly represented by Mastodon, can grow and prosper in the long term under its present structure of volunteer administrators running their own servers and relying on users’ donations to pay expenses. Other established commercial community hosts, such as Reddit, where Bruckman is a moderator, have long failed to find financial sustainability.

Bruckman never quite answers the question in the title. It reflects the skepticism at Wikipedia’s founding that an encyclopedia edited by anyone who wanted to participate could be any good. As she explains, however, the fact that every page has its Talk page that details disputes and exposes prior versions provides transparency the search engines don’t offer. It may not be clear if we *should* believe Wikipedia, whose quality varies depending on the subject, but she does make clear why we *can* when we do.

Review: Making a Metaverse That Matters

Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash and Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For
By Wagner James Au
Publisher: Wiley
ISBN: 978-1-394-15581-1

A couple of years ago, when “the metaverse” was the hype-of-the-month, I kept wondering why people didn’t just join 20-year-old Second Life, or a game world. Even then the idea wasn’t new: the first graphical virtual world, Habitat, launched in 1988. And even *that* was preceded by text-based MUDs that despite their limitations afforded their users the chance to explore a virtual world and experiment with personal identity.

I never really took to Second Life. The initial steps – download the software, install it, choose a user name and password, and then an avatar – aren’t difficult. The trouble begins after that: what do I do now? Fly to an island, and then…what?

I *did*, once, have a commission to interview a technology company executive, who dressed his avatar in a suit and tie to give a lecture in a virtual auditorium and then joined me in the now-empty auditorium to talk, now changedinto jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap.

In his new book, Making a Metaverse That Matters, the freelance journalist Wagner James Au argues that this sort of image consciousness derives from allowing humanoid avatars; they lead us to bring the constraints of our human societies into the virtual world, where instead we could free our selves. Humanoid form leads people to observe the personal space common in their culture, apply existing prejudices, and so on. Au favors blocking markers such as gender and skin color that are the subject of prejudice offline. I’m not convinced this will make much difference; even on text-based systems with numbers instead of names disguising your real-life physical characteristics takes work.

Au spent Second Life’s heyday as its embedded reporter; his news and cultural reports eventually became his 1999 book, The Making of Second Life: Notes from a New World. Part of his new book reassesses that work and reports regrets. He wishes he had been a stronger critic back then instead of being swayed by his own love for the service. Second Life’s biggest mistake, he thinks, was persistently refusing to call itself a game or add game features. The result was a dedicated user base that stubbornly failed to grow beyond about 600,000 as most people joined and reacted the way I did: what now? But some of those 600,000 benefited handsomely, as Au documents: some remade their lives, and a few continue to operate million-dollar businesses built inside the service.

Au returns repeatedly to Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson‘s original conception of the metaverse, a single pervasive platform. The metaverse of Au’s dreams has community as its core value, is accessible to all, is a game (because non-game virtual worlds have generally failed), and collaborative for creators. In other words, pretty much the opposite of anything Meta is likely to build.

Book review: Beyond Measure

Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement
Author: James Vincent
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0-571-35421-4

In 2022, then-government minister Jacob Rees-Mogg proposed that Britain should return to imperial measurements – pounds, ounces, yay Brexit! This was a ship that had long since sailed; 40-something friends learned only the metric system at school. Even those old enough to remember imperial measures had little nostalgia for them.

As James Vincent explains in Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement, and as most of us assume instinctively, measuring physical objects began with comparisons to pieces of the human body: feet, hands, cubits (elbow to fingertip), fathoms (the span of outstretched arms). Other forms of measurement were functional, such as the Irish collop, the amount of land needed to graze one cow. Such imprecise measurements had their benefits, such as convenient availability and immediately understandable context-based value.

Quickly, though, the desire to trade led to the need for consistency, which in turn fed the emergence of centralized state power. The growth of science increased the pressure for more and more consistent and precise measurements – Vincent spends a chapter on the surprisingly difficult quest to pin down a number we now learn as children: the temperature at which water boils. Perversely, though, each new generation of more precise measurement reveals new errors that require even more precise measurement to correct.

The history of measurement is also the history of power. Surveying the land enabled governments to decide its ownership; the world-changing discovery of statistics and the understanding they brought of social trends, and the resulting empowerment of governments, which could afford to amass the biggest avalanches of numbers.

Perhaps the quirkiest and most unexpected material is Vincent’s chapter on Standard Reference Materials. At the US National Institute for Standards and Measurement, Vincent finds carefully studied jars of peanut butter and powdered radioactive human lung. These, it turns out, provide standards against which manufacturers can check their products.

Often, Vincent observes, changes in measurement systems accompany moments of social disruption. The metric system, for example, was born in France at the time of the revolution. Defining units of measurement in terms of official weights and measures made standards egalitarian rather than dependent on one man’s body parts. By 2018, when Vincent visits the official kilo weight and meter stick in Paris, however, even that seemed too elite. Today, both kilogram and meter are defined in terms of constants of nature – the meter, for example, is defined as the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458th of a second (itself now defined in terms of the decay of caesium-133). These are units that anyone with appropriate equipment can derive at any time without needing to check it against a single stick in a vault. Still elite, but a much larger elite.

But still French, which may form part of Rees-Mogg’s objection to it. And, possibly, as Vincent finds some US Republicans have complained, *communist* because of its global adoption. Nonetheless, and despite anti-metric sentiments expressed even by futurists like Stewart Brand, the US is still more metric than most people think. The road system’s miles and retail stores’ pounds and ounces are mostly a veneer; underneath, industry and science have voted for global compatibility – and the federal government has, since 1893, defined feet and inches by metric units.