Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
The next, next infrastructure debate
Plus the rise of the post-Silicon Valley Democrat, Ben Smith on covering tech, and honoring the inventor of blue LEDs
Welcome to Slow Build, a new newsletter on the intersections of tech and society written by Nancy Scola. We’re just getting started, but if you like thinking hard about all sorts of technologies and why they matter to humans, Slow Build is for you. More on what we’re up to here.
If you haven’t yet subscribed for Slow Build, please do, and I hope you might consider a paid subscription. (A big thank you to those of you who have already signed on.) Slow Build will arrive in your inbox once a week, Friday mornings ET. Reach out with your tips, leads, scoops, gossip, praise, critiques, and all manner of comments, via email or on Twitter at @nancyscola.
There’s a lot going on. Let’s dig in.
Making “digital poverty” happen
This being infrastructure week and with a $100 billion for broadband in President Joe Biden’s aspirational $2.3 trillion American Jobs Act, it’s the exact right time to talk about the idea of “digital poverty,” a concept that’s almost unheard of in the U.S. but that has traction in Europe and the UK. In Scotland, there’s a worry that it’s keeping people out of church. We’ve talked for 25 years now about the “digital divide,” but that’s something else. That’s binary — you have access to the Internet ™ or not.
“Digital poverty” is full of gradations and nuances.
Digital poverty’s the idea that you can have broadband in your building and be able to afford it some months but not others. Or that you have a data-capped family phone plan you now need to use to file term papers. Or that there’s a desktop available in places you stay weeknights, but not weekends. Like poverty poverty, digital poverty ebbs and flows, and manifests in different ways for different people in different places at different times.
Larry Irving popularized the term digital divide in the 1990s as a senior Clinton administration Commerce Department officialincluding through a series of reports called “Falling Through the Net.” Irving, who has worked as a telecom industry consultant, says the phrase is outdated, and is now trying to make digital poverty take hold in Washington — in part as a reset of what he sees as the Trump era shrinking of “digital divide” to only capture rural America.
“There are folks in our community who couldn’t get vaccinated early enough,” said Irving on a call. “There is somebody who died because they didn’t have Internet access to get a COVID shot. What a horrible thought that is, and it’s very real.”
Without the Internet, it’s hard to picture me, a resident of vaccine-strapped Washington, D.C., finding myself this week in a Walgreens in Ahoskie, North Carolina that had abundant supply, plenty of appointments, and no residency requirements. It took multiple devices, several pharmacy apps, and a lot of Google mapping.
“Digital divide,” “digital poverty,” who cares? It’s just words, but it could matter because it shifts the debate one level down to the root causes of why and how, exactly, some people in the U.S. aren’t getting the benefit of the Internet.
NOW, WHETHER BROADBAND even counts as infrastructure is a big debate right now. Democrats say of course it does, given its importance to connecting the country. Some Republicans argue that no it doesn’t, and we’re witnessing Washington’s long tradition of stuffing everything into the box of what’s currently getting funded.
But actual substance aside, perhaps nothing better captures how President Joe Biden tweets differently than the last @POTUS than the almost koanic way he dove into this back and forth this week:
WITH BIDEN’S INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN BEING SO VERY BIG, it’s in danger of corruption by consultants, warns Matt Stoller.
We’ve been here before, with the $804 billion Recovery Act in 2008. The Obama-era solution was to open up the data on Recovery.gov and do internal fraud detection powered by Peter Thiel’s Palantir. Then VP Biden: “No matter which way you cut it, the fraud so far has been remarkably low.” More than a dozen years later, partnering with Palantir is a trickier proposition, in part because of the whole Thiel-Trump thing. But Palantir hasn’t grown to a $42 billion business by not knowing how to make deals. It announced a $90 million deal with the National Nuclear Security Administration just this week.
“A SWEEPING INDICTMENT OF THE STATUS QUO”: In his column this week dissecting why — when it comes to the Americans Jobs Plan and more — Biden is a far more progressive and aggressive president than, come on, any of us expected, Ezra Klein hits on one reason I’m coming to suspect that Biden will actually move against the tech companies he criticized, like Facebook and Amazon. Biden’s drawing ideas and energy from those around him, and writes Klein, “the new generation of staff members see the world very differently.”
It’s a generation shaped by crisis, Klein says. And while he doesn’t go there, one of those “crises” includes tech’s recent history. Plenty of young and young-ish Democrats surrounding Biden — including those who blanched at Facebook’s role in the 2016 and 2020 elections — have come up through the ranks seeing Silicon Valley as a societal problem that demands a solution.
One possibility: we’re witnessing the rise of a post-Silicon Valley generation of Democrats.
This week’s guest on the Clubhouse Politics Club I’ve been co-hosting was New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, and I asked him what he makes of the move away from the often fawning coverage the tech industry once got to, well, the opposite.
Smith said he thought some of it might be a reaction against a sense of being played, typified by “Steve Jobs’ mastery of the legacy media.”
But that it’s maybe gone too far: “The sort of futurism that kind of inspired the old Wired — which I always loved, and still love — has kind of fallen out of fashion, maybe a little too much. And I think, like, the backlash itself has gotten kind of boring.” More Smith: “My own view is that you should sort of take it story by story… I think I find it most useful to not really think of tech as a discrete sort of beat.”
Smith, no dummy, declined to take my bait on what he made of the Times’ own tech coverage. But when asked about whether the situation’s complicated because there are many ways in which big publications and big tech companies are competitors, pointed instead to the Wall Street Journal’s fixation on Google. “That’s like a very straightforward industrial power play, where, in some sense, the pendulum swung really far toward the big platforms and away from the news businesses that have a lot of political power — and they’re using it. So I think that’s real, and the tech folks aren’t wrong to perceive that.”
On a separate topic, Smith isn’t immediately dismissive of the notion of the external Facebook Oversight Board, charged by the company with reviewing content decisions: “It’s not a kind of prima facie totally crazy idea.”
(So, a question of our time: what are the rules of reporting on conversations held on Clubhouse? I’m not sure!)
Biden’s nomination of Robin Carnahan to be administrator of GSA is a big deal in the civic tech world.
Carnahan, a former Missouri secretary of state, spent time at 18F, the branch of GSA created in 2014 to improve digital services inside the federal government. But more recently, Carnahan has been up to some interesting work as part of Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, co-leading something called the State Software Collaborative. It’s based on the idea of “intergovernmental software cooperatives,” or banding together local leaders to share what they know — in part as a way of not being held hostage to software vendors.
If Carnahan’s confirmed by the Senate, she’ll be able to shape how the federal government buys and builds technology, in the hopes that projects don’t go the way of Healthcare.gov or countless tortuous vaccine websites.
FURTHER READING: Carnahan just co-authored a 20-page report, with Beeck’s Waldo Jaquith, detailing the software co-op model.
With the debate over so-called vaccine passports blowing up — Texas governor Greg Abbott and Florida governor Ron DeSantis say they’re banning them, the White House says it won’t require them, Kevin McCarthy says they’re “something you’d expect in Communist China,”New York is experimenting with the “Excelsior Pass”— you start to think this really isn’t about the technology.
One piece of useful context here is researchers finding that that people reflexively reject things like masks and vaccines — and are willing to embrace off-the-wall theories about them — because it gives them a sense of control in time when the world seems random.
Of course, privacy advocates like the ACLU’s Jay Stanley warn that steps taken that seem reasonable in crisis are often the basis for overreach later. What’s more, one useful learning of the last decade is that the shareability, scale, and persistence that comes with turning old-school offline behavior — like paper vaccine cards — digital makes it different.
BONUS: You might need a vaccine passport to start going to weddings. Of course, bright side — it’s an easy out!
The idea that tech companies care about how employees see them is being put to the test right now.
Former Google software engineer Emi Nietfeld writes in the Times that while she “bought into the Google dream completely,” she later “learned that the workplace that I cherished considered me just an employee, one of many and disposable.” It’s an admission made all the more interesting because she wasn’t thinking this way about her giant corporate employer before. Nietfeld writes, “When people ask me how I feel about my new position, I shrug: It’s a job.”
Add into the mix that a major Google shareholder has started pushing for better employee whistleblower protections.
Then there’s the union organizing in the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where votes are being counted, which brings to mind the slogan union organizers at Harvard used decades ago: “You can’t eat prestige.”
This is something to keep an eye on in the next couple years: Is the spell broken, and if so, does it matter? Or have the companies grown so big, and their leaders so rich, that worker sentiment is irrelevant?
ONE PIECE OF GEORGIA’S NEW VOTING LAW that isn’t getting much attention – the part aimed right at Mark Zuckerberg. He and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated hundreds of millions of dollars towards improving elections this past cycle. The Georgia bill bans such third-party funding. And the Arizona legislature just sent a similar ban to Governor Doug Ducey. Said one Arizona Democrat, Sen. Juan Mendez, “It’s easy to make a boogeyman out of billionaires. I don’t like them either. But we put ourselves in this situation.”
The branding of Andrew Yang as a ‘tech entrepreneur’ and similar has always been a little questionable, but while it was a useful shorthand for an unconventional presidential candidate, it’s becoming something of a drag as a mayoral candidate in New York.
“This is not a startup,”said Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams, who’s also running. “This is a city where a leader must have been a worker. People like Andrew Yang never held a job in his entire life.”
Data point: Yang spent about three-and-a-half-minutes — okay, five months — at a corporate law firm, but told me he quit because he worried about becoming a “desiccated version” of himself.
RELATED: Annie Lowery writes that it’s not at all clear what kind of mayor Andrew Yang would be.
And Republicans fundraisers haven’t exactly been chastened by Shane Goldmacher’s reporting that the Trump campaign’s recurring donations led to a lot of empty bank accounts and charges of fraud. The NRSC is now telling people who are thinking about opting out of recurring donations, “We will have to tell Trump you’re a DEFECTOR.” Former Biden campaign digital director and current White House director of digital strategy Rob Flaherty has thoughts: “In short: don’t be a jerk.”
Speaking of fundraising tactics, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene has raised a ridiculous $3.2 million in her three months in office, taking some of the sting out of being stripped of her committee assignments. Members of Congress learn by watching what happens to other members, and one of the strongest lessons they’ve picked up over the last decade or so is that it pays — literally — to be outrageous.
Hillary Clinton seems to signal a preference in the ongoing contest to see who will head up to the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.
The whole NFT thing has gone horribly wrong, writes Anil Dash, who helped come up with the idea in the first place.
Turns out it was the Winklevoss brothers’ digital art auction platform Nifty Gateway that first hosted the NFT sales of the artist Beeple’s work — and their crypto company Gemini handled the payment on his landmark $69 million sale, per a new profile in Forbes.
“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” says Josh Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo.
Justice Clarence Thomas: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.
"The beauty filter...can fix certain parts of you." (By the way, this week I learned that some podcasts overlay voice filters so their hosts’ voices ‘match!’)
The case for secondary domestic outposts for premiere U.S. universities: “If Yale can open a campus in Singapore, why can’t it start one in Houston?”
Japanese physicist Isamu Akasaki, has died at 92. His experiments in the growing of crystals led him to co-invent blue LEDs, for which he received the Nobel Prize, with the academy saying, “They succeeded where everyone else had failed.”
Thanks for reading, and see you next week.
Irving was head of NTIA, if you’re into such things.
The interpretation’s fair game because Clinton’s bio doesn’t say anything whether we’re supposed to interpret retweets as endorsements.
Random fact: That Beeple NFT sale price just happens to be almost exactly the amount the Winklevoss brothers got from Zuckerberg in their Facebook dispute.