The Noisy Fallacies of Psychographic Targeting

At this point in the deafening media cycle around the story, it’s probably unnecessary to summarize the going Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, but briefly and just in case: Facebook recently announced the suspension of a marketing data company called Cambridge Analytica from its platform after a whistleblower confirmed it had misused ill-gotten Facebook data to construct so-called “psychographic” models and help Trump win the presidency.

For the impatient, my fundamental thesis is this: Cambridge Analytica’s data theft and targeting efforts probably didn’t even work, but Facebook should be embarrassed anyhow.

For the more patient: What on earth is the sinister-sound “psychographics” about, and how is your Facebook data involved?

Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. Before turning to writing, he dropped out of a doctoral program [...]  read more

Why Giving Billions in Subsidies to Big Telecom Won’t Get Us Better Service

In the American internet access world, public assets are privatized all the time. Sometimes this happens when private companies are handed direct payments in the form of subsidies: public money, amounting to at least $5 billion a year, which is showered on companies to incentivize them to provide access in places where they feel it is too expensive to build. Sometimes this happens when companies are handed low-cost or no-cost access rights to infrastructure by state legislatures. And sometimes it happens in the form of broad public/private partnerships for “smart city” services.

But the federal government doesn’t set high enough standards for the quality and price of the services the public subsidizes—and we’re certainly no good at requiring competition. (Federal government support for fiber running to schools and libraries was supposed to [...]  read more

How the Government Can Future-Proof Our Economy

Editor’s note: The following fireside chat, addressing the problem of jobs, was delivered by the President of the United States in 2021 and posted to YouTube and other channels.

My fellow Americans,

On a Sunday night a week after my inauguration, I spoke to you about what we share as citizens of our Republic. As head of a new political party and chief executive of a national coalition, I urged us to put aside the partisan rancor and cultural skirmishing of recent years. Tonight, eight weeks later, I come to you a second time in the same spirit and by the same means, to tell you what we have been doing about jobs and what we plan to do in the future.

Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, a firm in Boston that creates, builds, and funds companies that solve problems in health, food, and sustainability. [...]  read more

Scrolls, Trolls, and Rickrolls: The Crisis of Online Harassment

If you noodled around the internet long enough in the 1980s, sooner or later you’d get scrolled. It was a known hazard. You’d be innocently playing Colossal Cave Adventure, minding your own business, throwing axes at dwarfs, and someone on the network would flood your screen with ASCII.

Popular among scrollers was an ampersand-only rendering of the Old Man of the Mountain, the distinctive rock formation in northern New Hampshire. Maybe that was because our mainframe was also in New Hampshire, on the PDP-1-based Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, which had been implemented in 1963 by Basic authors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. I’m glad the Old Man of the Mountain was memorialized—even briefly—on the ancient internet. Fifteen years ago, the cliff face in Franconia Notch collapsed; centuries of freezing and thawing had cracked the Old Man’s brow. Granite into ampersands into dust.

Virginia Heffernan ( [...]  read more

How ISIS and Russia Manufactured Crowds on Social Media

Since November 2016, a national battle has raged about the role of social media in politics. People bemoaned the viciousness of trolls, the impact of incendiary fake news, the frog memes and Twitter bots and YouTube conspiracy videos. All the stories of manipulation and unintended consequences began igniting angry debates and prompted a long overdue conversation: what is the proper role of social networks in public discourse?

This important question stems from a new paradigm that started roughly a decade ago. That’s when social media turned everyone into a content creator, giving them the tools to not only say their piece but to amplify it, to grow an audience with little to no budget. Citizen journalists, bloggers, and grassroots activists bypassed the editorial old guard, gaining so much influence that they were elevated to an estate of the realm: The Fifth Estate.

Renee DiResta (@noUpside[...]  read more

The Improbable Rise of the Daily News Podcast

I used to think that podcasts were a nimble, cheap, democratic alternative to radio. And maybe, once upon a time, they were. But those days are over. Podcasting has become industrialized, in quite an exciting way. It’s shaping the future of audio-only storytelling, the future of radio—and, possibly, even the future of narrative nonfiction more broadly.

The story of how we got here could be told in an episode of This American Life, the radio show that in many ways started the whole ball rolling.

Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He hosts the Slate Money podcast and the Cause & Effect blog. Previously he was a finance blogger at Reuters and at Condé Nast Portfolio. His WIRED cover story on the Gaussian copula function was later turned into a tattoo.

Act 1, naturally, is Serial. When it was spun out of This American Life in 2014, it immediately [...]  read more

How Medicine’s Long, Thin Supply Chain Threatens Americans

On the website of the Food and Drug Administration, there’s a page where the agency lists drugs that are in short supply in the United States. Last week, there were 90 entries on the list: antibiotics, drugs for anesthesia, compounds to light up veins and organs for imaging, immunosuppressives to prevent organ rejection, tube-feeding solutions, sedatives. For every type of medical problem, an important drug is off the market or in short supply—and this is routine.

In the fall, after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, something new joined the list, not a drug but a category of medical equipment: bags of sterile salt water. When the territory’s electrical grid went down, it took out several plants that make bagged saline for US manufacturer Baxter International. Few noticed at first, until this winter’s flu season got bad[...]  read more

How Facebook Could Play By Advertising’s ‘Equal Time’ Rule

The spirit (if not the letter) of the law that now hovers over political advertising is the equal-time provision of the Communications Act of 1934. That law stipulates that any broadcaster using the communal airwaves must provide equal time—either free, or if paid at the same price—to all qualified candidates. Most recently, its specter surfaced after then-candidate Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live, raising the horrifying possibility that 13 other presidential candidates would seek to do so as well.

The equal-time rule doesn’t apply to the internet, but the recent hubbub over Facebook’s influence on the election—in which both Hillary Clinton and Trump’s 2016 campaign digital director, Brad Parscale, chimed in—illustrates that many feel it maybe should. The spat began with an explanatory piece about how Facebook’s ads auction, which determines who pays what to reach certain [...]  read more

How New York Got Screwed Out of the Internet of the Future

For the past six months, life has been miserable for my dry cleaner.

A small business in Greenwich Village, Jerri’s (“Cleaning the Village Since 1964!”) has relied on Verizon’s DSL internet access for years. DSL is our era’s version of dialup. It’s excruciatingly low-capacity: Dialup works by dividing frequencies over a copper phone line, making it slow to transmit information. Because of problems with the wiring running to the building, Jerri’s internet access has been sporadic—often making it impossible to access customer accounts.

New York was supposed to be a model for how the modern city could launch high-speed internet for its residents. When the Bloomberg mayoral administration re-signed an agreement with Verizon in 2008, it required that the company wire all residential buildings with its fiber service, FiOS. The agreement was heralded by the press as a way of triggering competition— the presence of Verizon’s fiber product [...]  read more

Anthony Levandowski Isn’t the First Tech Visionary to Worship AI

“Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.”

That was how Donald Knuth, author of The Art of Computer Programming (1968), expressed the difference between pristine mathematics and buggy reality. “When programming, you abstract away the entire physical world as much as possible, because it’s messy. But then it comes back and bites you,” Paul Ford, cofounder of the platform-builder Postlight, told me. “You end up in these situations where 80 percent works, 19.9 percent is hard but there’s an answer that makes sense, and the last 0.1 percent is absolutely insane.”

Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is an Ideas contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost [...]  read more