Future Tense Newsletter: Timeline Trouble and Competitive Complaints

Making the connections.

Greetings Future Tensers,

It hasn’t been the greatest week for social networks: When Twitter suggested it would be adopting an algorithmic alternative to its famous chronological timeline, users revolted. Those protests were probably premature, Slate’s Will Oremus reports, since the company is just adding a new feature, rather than removing an old one. Some of that user anger probably stemmed from confusion about the word algorithm itself, a term that we’ve been unpacking with this month’s Futurography course. Understanding how algorithms work may be the first step to ensuring that we employ them ethically. To help dispel that intellectual fog, read this Jennifer Golbeck article on algorithmic literacy.

A different kind of ethical problem—political rather than computational—arose for Facebook this week after India blocked the company’s Free Basics program. Emily Hong explains that Free Basics is an example of a zero-rating service, in which “an Internet provider, usually a mobile carrier, exempts certain types of Internet traffic from counting toward a subscriber’s data allotment.” It’s controversial in part because it seems to promote anti-competitive practices. Similar concerns came up from a very different angle last Friday for Apple when users discovered that the company was bricking some phones that had been repaired by third parties.

Here are some of the other articles that we read while contemplating the geography of genius:

  • Mental illness: Researchers have spent decades in search of a genetic explanation for schizophrenia. But whose interests does that largely futile search serve?
  • Food safety: Rachel E. Gross reported on a company that wants to help you determine the freshness of eggs you buy at the grocery store by engraving them with lasers.
  • The Anthropocene: Are we really living in a new geological era? Brad Allenby says that we’re probably not, but the concept may still serve an important purpose.
  • Digital medicine: A French company wants to create computer-modeled versions of our bodies to help doctors treat us with greater precision.


Refreshing my timeline,

Jacob Brogan

for Future Tense