It’s been a trying week to keep a politically open mind

For years, one of the non-obvious pleasures of writing about tech policy has been knowing that the good and bad ideas don’t fall along the usual right/left lines.

I might not want to hear Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) say a single word about Benghazi, but they were right on a lot of intellectual-property issues. At the same time, I have not enjoyed seeing Democrats I otherwise find clueful like Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) repeat entertainment-industry talking points.

But as the past couple of years and these past few days in particular have reminded me, the GOP looks different these days. When a Supreme Court nominee can snarl about left-wing conspiracies in a way that invites the description “Justice Brett Kavanaugh (R)” as the White House rushes through an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against him, and then all but one Senate Republican approves… well, that didn’t happen under President George W. Bush, as awful as things got then.

As a voter, I find nothing to like about what’s now the party of Trump. I’m struggling to think when I might once again cast a contrarian vote for a Republican for Congress in my deep-blue district–especially since my current representative lacks his predecessor’s history of questionable financial transactions.

But at the same time, it’s not good for my health to turn into a ball of rage, and I don’t want to respond to a bout of tribalism on the Republican side by returning the favor. So I’ve been trying to keep a few thoughts in mind.

One is that coherent political philosophies can deserve respect, but blind loyalty, an unprincipled will to power or rank bigotry do not. I may not agree with your notions on government power or individual responsibility, but if I see you speaking and acting in accordance with them, I can at least try to understand where you’re coming from. If, however, you’ve abandoned past positions because they conflict with fact-starved Trump talking points, why should I take you seriously?

If the logic of your current policy positions boils down to “this will help my team,” the same response applies. And if you spout racist or misogynistic nonsense, crawl back under your rock.
A second is that today’s Republican Party and conservatism aren’t the same thing, as one of this year’s dumber tech-policy debates illustrates. It’s become fashionable to describe (groundless) GOP complaints over social-network bias in terms of unfairness to “conservatives,” but the people doing the whining are solidly in Trump’s corner and back such Trump moves as imposing a hidden tax through massive tariffs and propping up dying resource-extraction industries–neither the stuff of small-c conservatism.

A third is that Democrats left alone can still screw things up. Living in D.C. in the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of helping to pay Marion Barry’s salary with my taxes; I know the risks of unchecked one-party rule. We still need a party that can point out that market forces can solve some problems on their own and that abuse of power isn’t just a sport for big business.

I assume it will take at least one electoral wipeout to break Trump’s spell on the Republican Party and let it try to recover that role–as that bomb-throwing liberal George Will wrote in June. In the interest of not trying to pretend I have no opinion on things I see everyday, I will admit that seeing such a beatdown would not make me sad.

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Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.

 

Sparring with a 3-million-plus-follower Twitter account

I expected angry feedback to Wednesday’s post about WikiLeaks and its increasing recklessness, but I didn’t know how that would play out. The @WikiLeaks Twitter account has 3.33 million followers and a history of jabbing at critics, and the story of WikiLeaks posting a trove of Democratic National Committee e-mails–with zero attempt to blank out personal data like Social Security numbers–intersected with the angst of Bernie Sanders fans who are themselves not known for social-media silence.

WikiLeaks Twitter interactionThe WikiLeaks account quickly took exception to my post (and supportive tweets) in responses ranging from boastful–“The Hill, Gawker and others published alleged DNC docouments months ago. Only WikiLeaks had impact.”–to dorm-room BS–“Sure. Anyone who exposes the estabishment by telling you the truth is not your friend. We got it.”

Many of those three-million-plus followers then started liking and retweeting those tweets. I’m not used to seeing my notifications fill left-to-right from so many people clicking on the same tweet.

My new interlocutors came from different places. Some were hardcore WikiLeaks defenders. Some backed Donald Trump and so were in favor of anything making Democrats’ lives more difficult. Some were Bernie Sanders fans convinced that the DNC had stolen the election from him, despite the absence of proof.

(Sorry, Bernie fans: The Democratic Party–especially the woefully-mismanaged DNC–is nowhere near organized to pull that off. Also, you might want to think about where your militant confusion of a party bureaucracy’s dislike of your candidate with “rigging an election” might end up taking you.)

I tried to reply to the tweets directed at me but soon lost count, leading to me feeling I was reliving Seinfeld’s “jerk store” episode when I saw rebuttal-worthy material half a day too late.

But I did not have to answer any hateful crap attacking my gender, race, ethnicity or religion. Every time that happens, I think I’m playing this game with a WHT PRVLG cheat code.

After a day of this amusement, it was nice to see Edward Snowden come to the same basic conclusion as me and then get his own moralizing response.

Weekly output: Donald Trump’s e-mails, French startups, Hillary Clinton’s tech policy, Viva Technology Paris (x6), Spotify vs. Apple, wireless resellers

After going 25 years without setting foot in France, I returned to Paris barely a month after May’s horribly-overdue reunion to moderate a round of panels at Viva Technology Paris, a new conference put on by the French business-news group Les Echos and the Paris-based marketing firm Publicis Groupe. They covered my travel costs in return for my not zonking out from jet lag on stage, a commitment I did keep.

6/27/2016: Donald Trump has a big problem with email spam, Yahoo Finance

I filed this last Friday afternoon, but the crush of Brexit coverage at Yahoo left the post farther down the editing queue than normal.

6/27/2016: The thing that holds back French startups? Not the 35-hour work week, Yahoo Finance

I can’t make any jokes about the French work ethic after needing a good month to finish this report from May’s up-close look at the country’s attempts to make itself a tech destination. On the upside, it did inform the very next post I wrote for Yahoo.

6/28/2016: Here’s how Hillary Clinton plans to keep America the world’s tech leader, Yahoo Finance

I hustled to finish this Tuesday afternoon, then found myself with unexpected free time at National Airport as the weather made a mess of my initial itinerary. I wound up going to Paris by way of Frankfurt, but that’s another story in its own right.

Viva Tech panel intro6/30/2016: Building the digital state with data, Viva Technology Paris

I interviewed Rufus Pollock, president and founder of the U.K.-based Open Knowledge group, about how much data stays locked up in proprietary formats and behind paywalls.

6/30/2016: Electricity storage: a new frontier, Viva Technology Paris

Having whole-home batteries like Tesla’s forthcoming Powerwall won’t change how we use electricity as much as having battery-backed homes linked on a neighborhood level. At least, that’s what I learned from my talk with Engie innovation program director Mark Akehurst and Sonnen CEO Christoph Ostermann.

6/30/2016: Open partnerships to design new territories, Viva Technology Paris

The initial description of this smart-cities panel might have sounded a little vague, but I wound up having a good conversation with Vinci Energies innovation and development director Lydia Babaci-Victor and HAL24K founder Jérôme Mol about ways to make our cities and towns more self-aware and efficient.

6/30/2016: Will cellular agriculture help to feed us all?, Viva Technology Paris

Sadly, we had no samples of vat-grown food to share at the talk I had with Gilonne d’Origny of New Harvest and science journalist Marta Zaraska. I enjoyed the conversation anyway.

7/1/2016: How will online medicine change our relationships with doctors?, Viva Technology Paris

My other five (!) panels ran just 20 minutes, but this one featuring Doctolib CEO Stanislas Niox-Chateau, Omixy CEO Lavinia Ionita and Push Doctor CEO Eren Ozagir was booked for 30 minutes. Result: We all started to sweat under the lights in an already-toasty venue.

7/1/2016: 3D simulation and the cities of tomorrow, Viva Technology Paris

My other smart-cities panel of the week, featuring Engie’s Olivier Biancarelli and Siradel CEO Laurent Bouillot, was marred by some dead air when the one-minute videos each had brought to show their 3-D city modeling didn’t play promptly. I should have seen that coming and been prepared to talk through the holdup.

7/1/2016: Spotify just turned up the volume on its latest fight with Apple, Yahoo Finance

I wrote this between Friday afternoon’s panels, then had to revise it again after a letter from Apple’s general counsel to Spotify’s made its way to BuzzFeed’s site.

7/3/2016: Name that network: The carriers behind wireless resellers, USA Today

Not for the first time, a question from a friend led to a column that I hope will draw a good amount of search traffic over time.

Weekly output: Verizon e-mail, Verizon Wireless zero-rating, 2016 tech politics, Telecom Act, Twitter timeline, tech we love, cord cutting, Google Play Music, saving Web pages

A three-day weekend is much appreciated after this week.

2/8/2016: Verizon won’t shut off email as soon as you feared, USA Today

The column I filed late on the preceding Friday got lost in the excitement of a Super Bowl weekend and so ran on Monday instead of Sunday.

2/9/2016: Verizon’s Free Video Deal: Will It Cost Us in the Long Run?, Yahoo Tech

This was one of those times when I have to set aside other work to cover a topic that’s jumped into the news–in this case, how Verizon Wireless exempting its own video app from its own data cap backdoors VzW’s net-neutrality obligations.

CompTIA D.C. fly-in agenda2/9/2016: The 2016 Election and the Tech Agenda, CompTIA DC Fly-In

I talked about tech-policy issues we may hear about during the 2016 campaign with the Glover Park Group’s Jason Boxt, Politico’s David Perera, and this trade group’s Liz Hyman.

2/9/2016: The Telecommunications Act at 20: How Congress Almost Managed to Predict the Future of the Net, Yahoo Tech

It’s crazy how much this law has affected our use of technology over the last two decades; whatever coverage it got before its passage could not have been enough.

2/10/2016: Twitter’s new timeline, WTOP

Twitter’s introduction of an algorithmically-curated view of tweets you missed doesn’t mean it’s turned into Facebook. Well, not yet.

2/10/2016: Let Us Count the Ways: The Tech We Really Love, Yahoo Tech

My short contribution to this post was a paragraph about how much I’ve come to trust Google Maps since handing off a writeup of Google’s then-new navigation site to my friend Anthony Zurcher 11 years ago.

2/11/2016: T.V. Viewing Options, Maine Calling

I talked to Maine Public Broadcasting radio listeners about dropping cable or satellite TV in favor of broadcast and streaming video–both of which can be tricky in the rural reaches of that state.

2/12/2016: Tip: Upgrade Your Songs For Free with Google Play Music, Yahoo Tech

I’d mentioned this option in a USA Today column last January, but that piece glossed over some of the steps involved.

2/14/2016: To save a Web page, look past your hard drive, USA Today

As I was finishing up this column Friday, I realized that my advice to use the Internet Archive to save a copy of a page was somewhat undercut by USA Today’s blocking of that site. Awkward!

Weekly output: Trump closing parts of the Internet

As I type this, I have six pieces for various clients that I’ve completed but which have yet to be posted–three of which I filed this week. So, yes, I was more productive than this paltry list would suggest.

Yahoo Tech Trump close-the-Internet post12/17/2015: Dear Donald Trump: No, You Can’t Shut Down Parts of the Internet, Yahoo Tech

This post was slightly unpopular with Trump supporters, as I noted yesterday. Were I to write it again, I would have acknowledged upfront that countries like China and North Korea can and do wall off parts of the Internet–but that if we could exercise that level of control over Iraq and Syria, we most likely would have rounded up all of the current crop of terrorists.

Meanwhile, if you didn’t leave one of the first of the 1,928 comments the story has drawn to date–getting featured on the Yahoo home page yields results!–please accept my apology for not having read your feedback yet.