Each Saturday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Mike: Hello, Farhad! This week I spent writing a whole lot and not looking at Twitter until late into the evening. It was kind of nice, considering that most of what was being tweeted was the escalation of war in the Middle East.
How was your week?
Farhad: I also spent a lot of the week writing. I realized something about myself: Writing is the worst thing in the world and I was an idiot to choose it as a profession. Other than that I’m O.K.
Mike: Ah, great. Well, onto tech news!
So on Thursday, Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Customs and Border Protection agency, among others, which were seeking to unmask an anonymous Twitter account critical of the Trump administration. Twitter’s lawsuit argued that the government didn’t have a case. And that seemed to prove correct, as less than 24 hours later, the agency withdrew its summons. Talk about backing down.
Farhad: This was an odd request by the government. Other than it having no legal merit, did the customs agency think that Twitter would just hand over the info without making a fuss? Didn’t they know it would get a lot of attention, thus elevating the Twitter account that very few people are following anyway? Weird politics.
Mike: Right. Plus, Twitter has long argued in defense of its users’ First Amendment rights, so I don’t know why the federal government thought that the tech company would take this lying down. I also found it amazing that Twitter has a fax machine, which it used to receive the initial summons from the government. When was the last time you got a fax?
Farhad: Oh, actually, I do all my business by fax.
Mike: Yes, that makes sense.
We should also note that our trusty colleague Noam Scheiber, who writes on labor issues, published an extensive article this week on Uber’s expert psychological maneuvering to get drivers to work more hours. It’s a cool deep dive, and interesting.
Fun fact: A source told me that Uber calls its driver incentive platform “carrots.” Isn’t that fitting? It’s cute in a kind of “kid with a god complex playing with his ant farm” sort of way.
Farhad: I loved Noam’s piece, and I hope he widens this with a look to other employers. There are a number of software companies looking to “gamify” work — to use the psychological tricks of video games to surreptitiously push office workers to become more productive. As someone who spends his entire day typing 140-character missives in the hopes of getting a lot of red hearts, I suspect I’m quite vulnerable to this tactic.
Mike: Moving on, Facebook and Google — the kings of spreading fake news — are doing something to combat the spread of misinformation. Facebook is sticking a tool at the top of users’ News Feeds to give them tips on how to spot false stories, while Google is sticking small disclaimers that act as spot fact-check claims under search results.
It’s a reasonable effort, I guess? It seems difficult to shield people from fake facts if some desperately want to believe them, whether or not they’re actually true.
Farhad: I think we should watch this very closely. I’m as worried about the spread of misinformation as anyone. On the other hand I’m also worried about the ways that stopping misinformation can both open the door for censorship and perhaps give people a false sense that what they read on Google or Facebook is automatically “true.”
For instance: In 2014, John Kerry, then the secretary of state, said that the Obama administration’s diplomatic deal had been a success: “We got ’100 percent’ of chemical weapons out of Syria,” he said. PolitiFact, one of the fact-checking sites Google is relying on, rated that claim as Mostly True. This week, after the Syrian government gassed its own citizens, PolitiFact had to retract that article. Sometimes even fact-checkers get things wrong.
Mike: Indeed. Meanwhile, the never-ending dispute between Waymo and Uber continues, as Uber claimed in court that it had not specifically used any of Waymo’s self-driving technology designs in the cars it is currently testing on the road. I have a feeling this case is going to go on for-ev-er, and I’m already tired of reading legalese. Maybe that’s why lawyers get paid so much money to write this stuff.
Farhad: I went into the wrong profession.
Mike: I wanted to mention something a bit closer to my heart. Walt Mossberg, a veteran and pioneer of the technology journalism world, announced that he plans to retire in June after nearly five decades of writing.
I’m a bit biased here because I worked for Walt at AllThingsD and Recode, two tech-focused web publications that he co-founded after leaving a long career at The Wall Street Journal. He was a great boss and mentor, and very generous with his time, especially with young reporters.
But his coming retirement made me think of just how much has changed in the personal computing industry over the past 30 years. Walt’s first technology column, which was prescient for its time in 1991, was about how difficult it is for people to use personal computers. Walt was essentially a guide for normal people to understand a brave new world of computing that was upon us.
Eventually, the industry had to change to meet the future that he saw coming. Computers were indeed personal objects, as the cost came down and people brought more of them into their homes — desktops, laptops, set-top boxes and the like. Soon, computers would rest in the palm of our hands in the form of a phone, and now they’re basically extensions of our bodies.
Hey, since you’re a columnist too, what has it been like for you to watch the evolution of personal technology over the years?
Farhad: Wait a second, are you calling me old?
Farhad: I hate you. Anyway, Walt. Oh man, I’ll miss him.
To me the most amazing thing about Walt is how early he identified computers as a mainstream phenomenon. In the 1980s and 1990s lots of people were writing about tech, but Walt was among the first to understand that this strange new class of nerds would completely change the world, and that they would do so in a way that would affect ordinary people who did not consider themselves techies. In that way he was no less prescient than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — who, of course, both came to recognize Walt’s importance as a proponent of the industry’s possibilities.
So, my hat’s off to Walt. I hope to someday be half as interesting as he was. I hope you are, too.
Mike: Thanks, pal! See you next week.
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