No Easy Silver Bullets

Welcome back to Digitally Literate. This is issue #305. I hope you’re all hydrating and taking time to make yourself smile.

I worked on a bunch of things in the back room. One of which is a revamp for one of the larger literacy research organizations that I serve. We’re busy revamping the website, and as part of this, I’m trying to have us bake in a blogging feed. 🙂

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Can YOU Fix Climate Change?

Never before in human history have we been richer, more advanced, or powerful. And yet we feel overwhelmed in the face of rapid climate change. It seems simple on the surface. So why don’t we just like…do it? Well, it’s complicated.

This video was supported by Gates Notes, the personal blog of Bill Gates, where he writes about global health, climate change, and more.

For more on climate change, these five climate scenarios show us what the future of the planet could look like.

File Not Found

The concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

For people that grew up and remember the floppy disk, we think about the directory structure or the hierarchical system of folders that modern computer operating systems use to arrange files. We know that we have the “Downloads” folder or the “Desktop” folder, or the “Documents” folder. These are not an infinite expanse, these are all nested within “This PC” which also has many other folders nested within that.

Mental models have changed as people get accustomed to limitless data and content streams in social media and document storage systems (DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive). Ultimately, the physical placement of content doesn’t matter, that is to say, that it is stored on a computer somewhere. What matters is that it is accessible in a certain basket.

People now view their documents and any organizational system as a laundry basket full of laundry, and they have a robot who will fetch them every piece of clothing they want on demand.

Everything is in the laundry basket.

Facebook Tried to Make Its Platform a Healthier Place. It Got Angrier Instead.

I’m slowly unpacking the Facebook Files, A Wall Street Journal investigation. This week we’ll focus on internal memos showing how a big 2018 change rewarded outrage and that CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted proposed fixes.

In an attempt to boost “meaningful social interactions”, or MSI, Facebook tweaked the algorithm to strengthen bonds between users and improve their well-being. Across the industry, we saw groups like Google and Apple focus more on screentime in an attempt to help users think about their interactions with these devices.

This was motivated by the work of Tristan Harris and ultimately the Center for Humane Technology.

For Facebook, the logic was that MSI would encourage people to interact more with friends and family and spend less time passively consuming professionally produced content, which research suggested was harmful to their mental health. Publically, Facebook indicated it was making these changes for user wellbeing. These latest reports from the Facebook Files suggest it was really because users started to interact less with the platform, a worrisome trend to say the least.

Ultimately, what happened is that the most divisive, most incendiary content went viral. Publishers were incentivized to produce content that was divisive. Salacious content sells. Safe content is boring.

These latest documents show that Facebook’s research team showed that the MSI changes were not driving meaningful social interactions, instead they were fostering racial divisions, beliefs in fads, junk science, and extremely disturbing news. When Facebook learned this, they were dealing with the fallout from the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections and its supposed role in shaping public discourse. Facebook leadership decided to ignore the research and do nothing to address the situation. They didn’t want to harm growth…and didn’t want to appear political and lean to one side or the other.

In an internal training video, one Facebook employee said that in addition to the company’s “ethical duty” not to turn users into zombies with too much video, it had business reasons for intervening.

“People will probably leave the app if it’s bad for them,” the employee said.

An Experiment to Stop Online Abuse Falls Short in Germany

Harassment and abuse are all too common on the modern internet. But it was supposed to be different in Germany. In 2017, the country enacted one of the world’s toughest laws against online hate speech.

It required Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to remove illegal comments, pictures, or videos within 24 hours of being notified about them or risk fines of up to 50 million euros, or $59 million. Supporters hailed it as a watershed moment for internet regulation and a model for other countries.

With its history of Nazism, Germany has long tried to balance free speech rights against a commitment to combat hate speech. Among Western democracies, the country has some of the world’s toughest laws against incitement to violence and hate speech. Targeting religious, ethnic, and racial groups is illegal, as are Holocaust denial and displaying Nazi symbols in public.

Despite having one of the world’s toughest laws against online hate speech and harassment, Germany has struggled to contain toxic content ahead of its Sept. 26 election.

The Educational Power—and the Limits—of Personalized Children’s Books

A great piece in Scientific American by the brilliant Natalia Kucirkova.

The pandemic saw an increased demand for stories that excite children in new ways as well as support them in processing difficult emotions. Personalized books, or print or digital books that have been tailored to a specific child, fit this need well. They come with adjustment options and interactivity and allow parents to populate the text with children’s data.

Reading materials individually tailored to young people can boost engagement and learning, but discerning what works is an ongoing challenge. The focus should be on the interaction between child and care-giver. Talk to your children about all media they consume.

How these US schools reopened without sparking a covid outbreak

Despite the headlines, many school districts managed to bring most students back to classrooms last year without sparking a dreaded covid outbreak. How did they do it?

betsy ladyzhets researched five of these communities, and shared 11 lessons learned on the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.

  • Collaboration with the public health department is key
  • Community partnerships can fill gaps in school services
  • Communication with parents should be preemptive and constant
  • Require masks, and model good masking for kids
  • Regular testing can prevent cases from turning into outbreaks
  • Improve ventilation and hold classes outside where possible
  • Schools may still be focusing too much on cleaning
  • Give agency to parents and teachers in protecting their kids
  • We need more granular data to drive school policies
  • Invest in school staff and invite their contributions to safety strategies
  • Allow students and staff the space to process pandemic hardship

Strategic Starfish

Some great guidance from Laura Hilliger and the team at We Are Open Co-op.

The Strategic Starfish is an exercise to think about the little to-dos but also bigger goals as you complete MOAR work.

Every new technology goes through a phase of euphoria, followed by a phase of retrenchment. Automobiles were a fantastic replacement for horses, but as their numbers increased it became clear that they had their own health and cleanliness issues. The same is true of the internet.

Hal Varian

In an attempt to make sense of digital wellbeing for this issue, I fell down into a rabbit hole trying to understand this state of personal wellbeing experienced through the healthy use of digital technology. This resource from Paul Marsden helped.

I also listened to almost everything I could from HEALTH after this post popped up in my reading feed. Experimental noise rock with Trent Reznor and NIN in their origin story? Yes please.

Cyberpunk is haunting, ethereal, grainy, & dystopic. A perfect way to close this issue. 🙂

If you get reading in these areas, let me know at or on the social network of your choice.

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