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EDITORIAL: MEDIUM WELL

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Image by gfkDSGN. CC0 Creative Commons. Modified with permission by Jason Pramas.

 

Democracy requires public control of social media giants

 

May 16, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In this edition of DigBoston, our Editor-in-Chief Chris Faraone has already written at some length about how Medium—which is essentially a glorified blog farm with a puzzlingly opaque social media component—screwed our nonprofit, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), a few days back by precipitously terminating the paid subscriptions of dozens of our monthly supporters on the platform.


After we questioned the company’s action, a low-level flunky claimed we had been given a whole entire week’s advance notice in an email that we subsequently explained we never received. After we very publicly cried bloody murder, and got our plight written up in Nieman Lab and Columbia Journalism Review, Medium leadership offered us, and a number of other small publishers, four months of the income we would have made had they not kicked us to the digital curb.


There are many problems with the way events transpired, but the worst one is the fact that mere mortals such as ourselves do not control our presences on corporate social media bigs in any way, shape, or form. The billionaires that own them—that became rich by creating “walled gardens” under their micromanagement and have stubbornly resisted the creation of public and nonprofit social media alternatives—are the only people that could reasonably be said to control them. Even though many of them have built their fortunes on technology originally created by publicly funded basic scientific research that they were allowed to essentially steal. Not dissimilar from leaders of the former Soviet Union that were allowed to privatize once-public industries and become billionaires themselves. Distorting the politics of various successor states toward oligarchy in the process.


And, under today’s robber baron capitalism, billionaires of any provenance are extremely difficult to bring to heel with any kind of public regulation or taxation. Let alone criminal charges.

 

Medium is hardly the worst, or anywhere near the largest, of the social media scofflaws in question. Its founder, Ev Williams, seems to be a thoughtful and genial enough fellow for someone in his position. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. … Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”


Truer words were never spoken. Especially when it comes to a person who has used his power and privilege to change the business model of Medium—a corporation that’s been valued in the hundreds of millions—on more than one occasion.


So, BINJ and the other affected publishers are the latest victims of the caprices of a billionaire. Who ironically wants to help improve media with the selfsame company that just made life more difficult for a group of struggling media outlets.

 

It is precisely for this reason that both the nonprofit side (BINJ) and for-profit side (DigBoston) of this operation that I half-jokingly call the “Greater BINJ-DigBoston Mediaplex” are working to help build alternatives to corporate social media. As we announced in an editorial a couple months ago.

 

We believe that digital media can only move forward by returning to the most promising visionary thinking of the earliest internet pioneers. Including the idea that only a decentralized communication network can be truly democratic.  And that the ethos of democracy must be baked so deeply into its architecture that it can never be displaced.

 

Our enterprise can only play a small part in this “strategic retreat.” But we are pursuing that initiative with vigor. Both by moves we are making to change how BINJ and DigBoston use the internet and by trying to organize our peers in the news industry to change our collective digital lot for the better.

 

The former effort involves transitioning away from Facebook—which we adjudge to be the worst of the social media giants—and toward first Twitter then other more democratic social media as it emerges. The latter effort—to which we’re dedicating a small conference this weekend—involves helping construct the democratic social media alternatives we hope to ultimately focus on.

 

But even if such voluntarist endeavors succeed in scaling up to control some reasonable percentage of the relevant markets, they will not stop huge social media corporations and the billionaires that control them from continuing to have far more political, economic, and social power than is healthy for a democratic society.

 

So what will stop them? Not breaking them up into smaller companies. As economist Gar Alperovitz points out in his book, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, old-fashioned trust busting always ends up with the smaller companies reforming into new giants. Thanks largely to “regulatory capture”: Big corporations colonizing regulatory agencies with insiders and then doing what they want—as we’ve seen most clearly of late with former telecom exec Ajit Pai getting the top seat at the FCC, then killing net neutrality.

 

Which way forward then? Alperowitz says that even the libertarian economists of the Chicago school—most famously Milton Friedman—identified the futility of breaking up huge companies. Leading Friedman’s mentor Henry C. Simons to quip, “Every industry should be effectively competitive or socialized.” Failing to do so, he and other Chicago economists thought, would lead to an ongoing series of societal crises. Which would certainly include the new kinds of crises that corporate social media has sparked. Notably “surveillance capitalism” where consumers’ every move is being monitored and thought anticipated in the service of maximizing profit in ways never before seen. With all the resulting negative outcomes—like social media addiction and political chaos—externalized to a failing democratic system largely controlled by an ever-shrinking number of multinationals and financial concerns.

 

And how best to socialize corporate social media? Alperowitz suggests turning the companies controlling the commanding heights of any sector of the economy into public utilities. So it must go with major social media companies. They must be converted into a heavily regulated and government-managed utility in such a way as to maximize democratic decentralized digital communication and provide it as cheaply as possible for the good of all. While, I would add, activists on the ground continue to develop a constellation of independent social media projects run by nonprofits, cooperatives, and social benefit corporations around the new government-funded network to allow for maximum information and technological diversity—and keep a future public social media utility honest.

 

Some kind of national security state panopticon is not what we’re aiming for here. Rather, the new utility could be run by elected regional boards with mandated seats for key community constituencies and space for lots of meaningful grassroots input.

 

Doing all that—plus related work to socialize telecoms and cable companies—will take a massive protest movement. Like most everything that involves uprooting entrenched institutions and replacing them with new, more popular institutions. And that movement will have to be international. It’s the only way to go. Because social media corporations are multinational, and most governments—corporate-dominated as they are—won’t do the job on their own. Not without a protracted struggle.

 

Going forward, DigBoston (and BINJ) will be looking to ally with good organizations willing to fight hard on these issues. And we’ll be sure to let readers know which groups we think are doing the best work as they emerge on the political stage.

 

So, stay tuned to these pages. We’ll be doing our damnedest to guide you through what is sure to be a wild ride.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston, and the network director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

TERROR AT 50 FEET

Catapult on Summer Street

 

Acrimony over Seaport gondola plan speaks to need for expanded MBTA service

 

March 13, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Much ink has been spilled in the Boston press over a plan by luxury developer Millennium Partners and its subsidiary Cargo Ventures to spend $100 million to build an aerial gondola system from South Station up Summer Street across Fort Point Channel to the possible future site of what may one day be either its 2 million-square-foot (Boston Globe) or 2.7 million-square-foot (Boston Business Journal) “office campus.” Millennium and Cargo have development rights on “at least three major parcels in South Boston’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park and adjacent Massport Marine Park,” according to BBJ. All of which is public land.

 

According to the Globe, “The proposed gondola system on the South Boston Waterfront would include a hulking terminal across Summer Street near South Station, 13 large towers spanning the one-mile route to the marine industrial park, and about 70 cable cars that can fit 10 passengers each, running every 9 seconds.” The cable cars are currently slated to run from 30 to 50 feet above the street.

 

An early version of the plan would have had the gondola system traveling as high as 160 feet and traversing a Mass Pike interchange to go directly to the Millennium campus, according to BBJ, but the company just released a scaled-back version that terminates on its Summer Street side—after pushback from state port authority Massport over safety concerns and from the owners of the future $550 million Omni hotel.

 

News coverage of Millennium’s Seaport project has focused on the gondola itself over the last several months. Which is understandable because it’s an easy target. In fact, my first reaction to the plan was that a giant catapult would be a better idea—if the developer’s goal was simply to get buzz for its project. But it’s a rather specific solution to a real transit logjam that could help keep lots of cars off Seaport roads daily. And, as Boston.com pointed out, it has been proposed before—in 2016, by the office real estate quarterly Blue by Encompass. So I don’t think that it’s just a marketing scheme. And I don’t think the support it’s garnering from South Boston politicians Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Stephen Lynch, Rep. Nick Collins, and Councilor Michael Flaherty is necessarily ill-considered either. Especially since Millennium is already discussing a “second phase” for the gondola project that will go—surprise, surprise—across the Reserved Channel into the heart of South Boston proper.

 

Millennium has an agreement with the city to spend up to $100 million to mitigate the negative effects to Seaport transportation of dumping a big new job site on an already crowded neighborhood, according to Boston.com. The existing transportation options in that district currently being the MBTA Silver Line restricted access bus service, some regular MBTA bus lines, cars, walking, and bicycles.

 

My problem with the proposed gondola system, then, is not the idea itself. I don’t think it’s practical, but I do think that some kind of elevated mass transit system makes a hell of a lot of sense if you want to avoid existing vehicular traffic and prepare for future global warming-induced flooding.

 

If crosswinds and storms are a serious concern for gondolas—and, in a Twitter dustup with project boosters, critics like former Mass Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi have made clear they are—then perhaps a sturdier alternative like a monorail would fit the bill.

 

Sure, the idea would trigger mocking laughter even faster than a gondola system, given how much of the population has seen The Simpsons’ infamous monorail boondoggle episode. But the biggest issue with any private alternative transportation proposal for the Seaport is that it would be yet another example of major corporations having too much power to set public policy agendas. Developers like Millennium both dominate policy that applies to their core business and literally get to change the face of the city by completing their developments. With little or no meaningful input and control by the various communities affected by its several projects around Boston. From the completed Millennium Tower to the nearly greenlighted Winthrop Square Tower.

 

From that perspective, Millennium is cooking up a new way to privatize what should be part of improved and expanded MBTA service. Just like the MBTA’s On-Demand Paratransit Pilot Program—currently extended to April 1—is already doing by contracting some of its “The Ride” service to Uber and Lyft. Instead of developing a municipal ridesharing program that’s a more equitable deal for both drivers and riders like Austin, Texas, did.  

 

If more transportation options are required, then better to focus on ideas already under study by government planners and transit advocacy groups like Transportation for Massachusetts. Create more dedicated bus lanes throughout the Seaport, add more buses, and build separated bike lanes. Also, consider one active proposal that hasn’t been mentioned much in the feeding frenzy around the gondola idea—revive passenger service on the unused Track 61 that runs from Back Bay Station to the Seaport. The MBTA is already adding a third rail to part of that track and using it to test new Red Line subway cars between 2019 and 2023. So it should be possible to fund its reactivation all the way out to Marine Park, as Rep. Collins proposed to the Globe last summer.

 

However this particular fight plays out, local and state governments should never invest in expanded transit alternatives to serve the needs of one particular corporation or group of corporations. And they certainly shouldn’t allow companies like Millennium to create unfunded mandates like a private gondola system that could simply shut down the moment there’s a market downturn or the initial investment is spent. Rather, Boston and Massachusetts should carefully plan public transit expansion that best meets the needs of all the communities it would serve. And properly fund it by taking the Big Dig debt burden off the MBTA, and increasing taxes on corporations (again, like Millennium) and the rich (like its owners) to pay for the markedly improved service that the public at large deserves.

 

If, after a deliberative public process, it turns out that a gondola actually makes sense for parts of Boston like the Seaport, then let the MBTA build and maintain it out of government funds. In a MassLive article last August when the plan was first being floated, Rep. Lynch “said he would prefer the gondola system to be part of the MBTA, rather than a standalone system.


“‘If it goes to a private firm, they can pretty much charge whatever the market will bear, which might not accommodate everyone.’”

 

If, as is more likely the case, there are a number of other tried-and-true ways to reduce traffic congestion in the Seaport while increasing development, then do that instead.

 

Just remember that if the city doesn’t construct major defenses around the harbor soon, then ever fiercer and more frequent global warming-driven storms coupled with ongoing sea level rise induced by that same warming—like the three nor’easters we’ve now suffered in a mere 10-day span as of this writing—will wipe the floodplain that is the Seaport cleaner than the surface of the moon within a few decades.

 

Rendering the entire debate over the Millennium gondola even more pointless than it would otherwise be.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.      

SEA LEVEL RISE IS JUST ONE OF BOSTON’S WORRIES

Image via Environmental Defense Fund
Image via Environmental Defense Fund

As Earth approaches several catastrophic global warming “tipping points”

 

January 24, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Before writing more columns examining Boston city government’s emerging plans to cope with the effects of global warming, I think a quick review of what area residents are likely to face in the coming decades is in order. Because it’s important to disabuse people of the idea that we’re dealing with “just” a handful of significant problems over time—a rise in air temperature, an increase of extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level—that those problems are isolated to just Boston or the United States, that they are going to continue until the end of the century and then stop, and that there are some simple things we can do to prevent those problems from becoming unmanageable.

 

The reality is far more frightening. According to Mother Jones, “In 2004, John Schellnhuber, distinguished science adviser at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, identified 12 global-warming tipping points, any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, catastrophic changes across the planet.”  

 

There’s been much research and debate since that time about which systems can be considered tipping points and which ones need more research before we can be sure, but the Environmental Defense Fund has a page on its website with an overview of the latest science. It’s called “Everything you need to know about climate tipping points” and you should read it in full. But here’s a quick summary of the tipping points that the Earth is passing or on its way to passing. Largely due to humans continuing to burn CO2-producing oil, gas, and coal decades after it was known to be suicidal to do so.

 

1) Disappearance of Arctic Summer Sea Ice

The poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet. In the Arctic, sea ice has been melting much more quickly than it used to for much more of every year as the average global temperatures rise year after year. Scientists are now predicting ice-free Arctic summers by mid-century. The less of the year that ice covers the Arctic, the less sunlight is reflected back to space. Sunlight that is not reflected warms the Arctic Ocean, leading to other problems and more global warming overall.

 

2) Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

Of particular concern to Bostonians because of our relative proximity to Greenland, the melting of its ice cap may continue for the next few hundred years until there is none left. Unlike melting sea ice that doesn’t add water to the world’s oceans, melting ice from land does. This will ultimately result in global sea level rise of up to 20 feet, and the process is underway.

 

3) Disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

This tipping point may already have been passed—with the West Antarctic ice sheet already starting to collapse. Like the Greenland ice sheet, it too is expected to take hundreds of years to finish melting, but when it does it could raise the global sea level up to 16 feet.

 

4) Collapse of Coral Reefs

With oceans already warming and becoming more acidic, the algae eaten by the coral that make up the world’s often huge and spectacular reefs is being jettisoned, resulting in coral bleaching. This process weakens the coral and hastens its death. Which is accelerating the destruction of marine spawning and feeding grounds globally with dire consequences for many nations whose economies rely on them—and for biodiversity. Scientists now predict that the remaining coral reefs will collapse before there is rise in the global temperature of 2 degrees from the old normal average. Most climate models show the world reaching that threshold before the end of this century.

 

Beyond these, there are several other expected tipping points being studied: the disruption of ocean circulation patterns from the massive influx of fresh water from melting ice (especially in the North Atlantic, which would play havoc with Boston’s climate), the release of marine methane hydrates (which would accelerate the global warming already being caused by the CO2 emissions considered the main cause of climate change), ocean anoxia (a process creating growing oxygen-deprived “dead zones” in our oceans that can no longer support most life, aka “bye bye seafood”), the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (caused by human activity like cutting down huge numbers of trees with devastating consequences for biodiversity coupled with the loss of a major CO2 sink), the dieback of the boreal forests (still being studied, but means the death of more vast forests in and around our latitude of the planet), the weakening of the marine carbon pump (the Earth’s oceans have been absorbing much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere, but through this process will become less effective at it), the greening of the Sahara (some positive effects would come from this, but many basic ocean life forms rely on nutrients from the desert sand blowing into the ocean and will be negatively affected by losing it), and the increasingly chaotic Indian summer monsoons (could result in extensive drought in one of the Earth’s most populous regions).

 

Other processes underway may also be potential tipping points, including the collapse of deep Antarctic ocean circulation, the appearance of an Arctic ozone hole (joining the existing Antarctic ozone hole in causing rising UV levels in the Arctic with various negative effects), the aridification of the US Southwest (as moisture moves to the upper Great Plains), the slowdown of the jet stream (which could leave more weather systems stuck in place for weeks at a time, including extreme systems like our recent polar vortex-induced cold wave, among other negative effects), the melting of the Himalayan glaciers (which help provide fresh water for much of South Asia’s population), a more permanent El Niño state (which could result in more drought in Southeast Asia and elsewhere), permafrost melting (which results in more CO2 and methane being released, accelerating global warming further), and tundra transition to boreal forest (with uncertain effects).

 

Adding the above to the general effects of global warming that we’re already experiencing—areas that got lots of rain getting less and areas that got little rain getting more rain storms for more of the year, hotter temperatures overall leading to an array of bad effects like tropical diseases moving north, and the “sixth extinction” of large numbers of species of animals and plants—and keeping in mind that this is happening everywhere around the planet, readers should understand that we’re not facing a localized crisis.

 

And remember, all the processes mentioned above are interlinked in complex ways that are absolutely not fully understood by our current science.

 

So Boston is not just going to “trial balloon and town hall meeting” its way out of this array of existential crises. Surviving even one of the major problems caused by global warming—like the flooding from rising sea levels I wrote about last week—is going to be very difficult… and very expensive. And who’s going to pay for it? Well, going forward, in addition to pointing out that we’ll have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of public budgets to these problems, expect me to call for the corporations that started and continue to profit from global warming—the oil, gas, and coal companies—to pay for cleaning up the mess they created. To the degree possible. Which might not be sufficient to the monumental tasks at hand.

 

Still, it will be critical for Boston to join municipalities like New York City in suing the carbon multinationals Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and others for redress. While divesting the city from all investments in those companies’ stocks. And suing, and ultimately deposing, governments like the Trump administration that are aiding and abetting these corporations’ destruction of the planet.

 

Failing that, Boston and all of human civilization is literally sunk… burned… and perhaps ultimately suffocated. Dying not with the bang of nuclear war—itself a fate we also need to organize immediately to avoid given the federal government’s return to atomic sabre rattling—but with an extended agonizing whimper.

 

It’s up to all of us to stop that from happening.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

THE SEAPORT FLOOD IS JUST THE BEGINNING

THE SEAPORT FLOOD IS JUST THE BEGINNING

 

Unless Boston builds proper defenses against global warming-driven sea level rise

 

January 17, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

So, Boston’s Seaport District flooded early this month during a bad snowstorm in the midst of several days of arctic temperatures. And nobody could be less surprised than me. Because I’ve spent a lot of the last quarter century closely following developments in the science of climate change. And the “bomb cyclone” that caused the flooding, and the polar vortex that caused that, are both likely to have been caused by global warming. Yale University Climate Connections just produced a great video that features several luminary climate scientists explaining why at yaleclimateconnections.org. Definitely check it out.

 

No question, though, that it’s good to live in a region where local government at least recognizes that global warming is a scientific reality. The city of Boston is certainly ahead of most municipalities in the US in terms of laying plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to become “carbon neutral” and to deal with some of the anticipated effects of climate change. Particularly, flooding from inexorably rising sea levels and increasingly powerful and frequent storms. Which the more reactionary Boston TV newsreaders still insist on calling “wild weather.” But its plans are largely just that… plans. And they are still incomplete and, frankly, woefully inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing us all.

 

Boston city government has initiated an array of climate change initiatives, including Greenovate Boston, a section of the Imagine Boston 2030 process, and—most germane to this discussion—Climate Ready Boston. They are all producing very nice reports grappling with some of the challenges to humanity presented by global warming in the decades to come. But the reports are written by planners and experts who are clearly pulling their punches for reasons that remain somewhat opaque. And in doing so, any good that might come out of the reports and the policy actions that will result from them is essentially undone.

 

A look at metro planning on global warming-induced flooding is a good way to illuminate the problem in question. The Climate Ready Boston program released a 340-page report in December 2016 that was meant to be a comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to the city by global warming—with plans for possible correctives. It does mention the idea of building giant dikes, storm barriers, and retractable gates (which they call a “harbor-wide flood protection system”) across Boston Harbor as the method with the most potential to save much of the city from major flooding. Which makes sense since Mayor Marty Walsh signed a 2015 agreement with Dutch officials to work together to manage rising sea levels, according to Boston Magazine. And the Dutch are recognized world experts on giant storm barriers and hydroengineering in general, lo, these last few hundred years.

 

But there’s no firm commitment for harbor-wide defenses in the report. Yet it should be obvious that they are absolutely necessary if Boston is going to continue as a living city for even a few more decades. At least Amos Hostetter of the Barr Foundation—who is a major player in Boston’s climate efforts—put up $360,000 for the UMass Boston Center for the Environment to study their feasibility last year, according to the Boston Globe.

 

More concerning than its waffling on building big dikes, the big Climate Ready Boston report chooses to focus on the possibility of sea level rise of no more than 3 feet by 2070—although it allows that a rise of 7.4 feet is possible by 2100:

 

 

The highest sea level rise considered in this report, 36 inches, is highly probable toward the end of the century if emissions remain at the current level or even if there is a moderate reduction in emissions. … If emissions remain at current levels, there is an approximately 15 percent chance that sea levels will rise at least 7.4 feet by the end of century, a scenario far more dire than those considered here.

 

 

Similar caution is on display with an October 2017 Climate Ready Boston report called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for East Boston and Charlestown”—focusing on tactics to protect two Boston neighborhoods on Boston Harbor at high risk for flooding caused by global warming. Once again, the authors’ assumption is that global warming-related sea level rise in Boston will be no more than 3 feet higher than year 2000 figures by 2070. Even though such estimates—which we have already seen are conservative by Climate Ready Boston’s own admission—also indicate that we could face 7-plus feet of sea level rise or more by 2100. And even higher rises going forward from there. Because sea level rise is slated to continue for generations to come.

 

What’s weird about such methodological conservatism is that a 2016 paper in the prestigious science journal Nature co-authored by a Bay State geoscientist says the lower figures that all the city’s climate reports are using already look to be wildly optimistic.

 

According to the Boston Globe:

 

 

“Boston is a bull’s-eye for more sea level damage,” said Rob DeConto, a climate scientist at UMass Amherst who helped develop the new Antarctica research and who co-wrote the new Boston report. “We have a lot to fear from Antarctica.” … If high levels of greenhouse gases continue to be released into the atmosphere, the seas around Boston could rise as much as 10.5 feet by 2100 and 37 feet by 2200, according to the report.

 

What’s even weirder is that the same UMass scientist, Rob DeConto, co-authored a detailed June 2016 report for Climate Ready Boston called “Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Projections for Boston: The Boston Research Advisory Group Report” with 16 other climate scientists that look at an array of possible outcomes for the city—and include a discussion of the higher sea level rise figures mentioned in the Nature paper. The report concludes with an admission that current science doesn’t allow for accurate predictions of climate change in the second half of the century. All the more reason, one would think, that models predicting higher than anticipated sea level rise should not seemingly be dismissed out of hand in other Climate Ready Boston reports.

 

The Globe also reported that a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Boston can expect a sea level rise of 8.2 feet by 2100. Both 8.2 foot and 10.5 foot estimates are higher than the 7.4 foot estimate that Climate Ready Boston says is possible by 2100, and well above the 3 feet that it is actually planning for by 2070.

 

The same team that produced the larger Climate Ready Boston report authored the East Boston and Charlestown report; so they are doubtless quite well-aware of all this. Which is evident in this sentence about the (insufficient) extensibility of their proposed neighborhood-based flood defenses: “If sea levels rise by more than 36 inches, these measures could be elevated at least two feet higher by adding fill, integrating structural furniture that adds height and social capacity, or installing deployable flood walls. With this built-in adaptability, their effectiveness could be extended by an additional 20 years or more.”

 

The point here is not that the Boston city government is doing nothing about global warming-induced flooding. It’s that the city is potentially proposing to do too little, too late (given that most of the flood defenses it’s proposing will remain in the study phase for years, and many will protect specific neighborhoods but not the whole city when finally built), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Though it’s probable that those reasons are more political and economic than scientific. Avoiding scaring-off the real estate developers and major corporations that provide much of the current city tax base, for example. The kind of thing that will make life difficult for politicians who then make life difficult for staffers and consultants working on global warming response plans.

 

Regardless, if experts like the Dutch are basically saying, Boston really needs to build the biggest possible harbor-wide flood protection system to have any hope of surviving at least a few more decades, then we can’t afford to do one of the more half-assed versions of the big cross-harbor storm barrier plan mentioned in the original Climate Ready Boston report—or, worse still, fail to build major harbor-wide defenses at all. If major studies by climate experts are saying that 3 feet of sea level rise by 2070 and 7.4 feet by 2100 are overly optimistic figures, then we need to plan for at least the highest reasonable estimates: currently, the NOAA’s 8.5 feet or, better yet, the Nature paper’s 10.5 feet for the end of the century. It’s true that we could get smart or lucky and avoid those numbers by 2100. But what about 2110? Or 2150? Or 2200? Sea level rise is not just going to stop in 2070 or 2100.

 

Are city planners and researchers willing to gamble with the city’s fate to avoid sticky political and economic fights? Let’s hope not. For all our sakes. Or the recent Seaport District flood—and numerous other similar recent floods—will be just the start of a fairly short, ugly slide into a watery grave for the Hub.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

ON MAKERSPACES AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

 

Making can be cool, but conscious making is cooler

 

December 19, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

For many of us living in and around Boston in recent years, it has become common to see lots of communications from makerspaces around holiday time. Which is totally understandable. Such creative centers produce neat things year-round, so it’s only natural that their members would turn to producing gifts like busy elves (and holding workshops about how to produce gifts like… um… smart busy elves) as fall turns to winter.

 

However, if you’re someone who thinks critically about social institutions and their interaction with technology, then you might join me in feeling some concern about the trajectory of these spaces. Which boils down to this: Do makers and the makerspaces they found think about why they make, and for whom they make? Obviously, it varies from maker to maker and space to space, but my observation has been that the maker movement could do much better on that front. So I thought I would run through some of my apprehensions on that theme and make some suggestions for reform. In the spirit of holiday giving and all that.

 

There’s no question that makerspaces have been a boon to society in many different ways. Described by the Somerville nonprofit makerspace Artisan’s Asylum as “community centers with tools,” these logical outgrowths of the hacker and DIY cultures—and the older crafter culture, amateur radio culture, and cultures around magazines like Popular Electronics and Popular Mechanics—have grown to become a significant social force in the last decade. Particularly in places like the Boston area that have lots of colleges producing lots of engineers, scientists, and artists.

 

But it’s important to remember that—as with science, technology, and art in general—there is a problem with pushing “making” in the abstract without thinking about its social and political consequences. Because tools and techniques may be inherently neutral, but people and the institutions we create are not.

 

Including makerspaces. So it’s worth being aware that, according to PandoDaily, in early 2012 O’Reilly Media’s MAKE division —publisher of Make magazine, perhaps the best known popularizer of the maker movement—announced that it had won a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to participate in the agency’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (or MENTOR) program. The money was to be used to start 1,000 makerspaces in high schools around the country.

 

Now DARPA may be most famous as the super clever agency that brought us the Internet. But it worked on that project in part—protestations from its fans and allies taken as given—to help solve the insoluble problem of how to keep America’s military, research, and control centers in communication with each other after an all-out nuclear war. And somehow help our government survive the unsurvivable.

 

It is also the super clever agency that has brought us an array of very nasty war machines in the last six decades. Notably, according to Air & Space magazine, the Predator drones that have killed hundreds of innocent people around the world—including many children—in recent years at the behest of presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump. Because they’re just not as accurate as our military and political leaders would have us believe. And because those leaders don’t really care about what they call “collateral damage” when they’re prosecuting what human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim are extralegal assassination campaigns.

 

As it turned out, the DARPA MENTOR high school program never really got off the ground because it lost its budget in President Obama’s big “Sequestration” budget cut of March 2013. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that the program sparked protests from within the maker community.

 

But DARPA continues to participate in a variety of science and technology events aimed at high school kids—notably the young robotics crowd that overlaps with makerspaces.

 

And DARPA is also aiming events squarely at makerspaces… and some makerspaces are definitely participating. For example, according to the DARPA website, this November the agency held the DARPA Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest at NASA Ames Conference Center in Moffett Field, California. The relevant webpage explains that “Teams from across the country will come together to explore the cyber-physical interplay of SDR and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, during the Hackfest.”

 

“Unmanned aerial vehicles” is another term for drones. Two of the eight teams invited to participate along with teams from military contractors like Raytheon were the Fat Cat Flyers from Fat Cat Fab Lab, a volunteer-run makerspace in New York City, and Team Fly-by-SDR from Hacker DoJo, a nonprofit community of hackers and startups in Silicon Valley… which is also a makerspace.

 

Whatever you in the viewing audience think about the Pentagon in particular and the American military in general, we can all agree that there are moral, ethical, social, and political questions that must be asked in a democratic society about the intersection of maker culture and makerspaces with those institutions.

 

For that reason, I think it’s critical that makerspaces raise and address such questions on an ongoing basis. That they maintain a scrupulous policy of transparency regarding who they work with and why. And that they hold classes and public forums on the moral, ethical, social and political dimensions of why makers make and for whom they make. Something you really don’t see much of at makerspaces at present. But should.

 

Anyhow, I’m keen to engage with the maker community on this topic and flesh these ideas out more. Folks interested in discussing the issues I’m raising at more length can drop me a line at execeditor@digboston.com.

 

A shorter version of this column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show—co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

A NOTE OF APPRECIATION TO OUR GOOD FRIENDS AT THE NEW YORK TIMES…

“The New York Times” by aldwinumali is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0,
“The New York Times” by aldwinumali is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. 

 

November 28, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

The timing couldn’t have been better. No sooner did this publication release last week’s editorial announcing our “unnaming” policy of refusing to print the names of ultra-right wing leaders and organizations, than the Gray Lady provided the best possible example of the type of reporting we think American news organizations need to stop producing immediately.

 

The New York Times article in question offered a warm and fuzzy portrait of a midwestern nazi family. The reporter, Richard Fausset, didn’t press his subjects about their politics in any meaningful way and essentially humanized them for no good reason at all. The result of this misstep was a huge and immediate backlash from the public. And Atlantic magazine swiftly retorted with a devastating parody of the piece called “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They’re Nazis… despite what you may have read in The New York Times.” A must read, if ever there was one.

 

What Fausset and his editors did was valorize an ultra-right winger and his small but growing political party. They provided publicity where none was called for. In doing so, they violated their ethical mandate as journalists to “minimize harm” in their reporting. Since the article will doubtless help recruitment for its subject’s organization while making nazi ideology seem like a totally ok belief system that anyone might have.

 

So, for readers wondering why DigBoston has taken our stand of refusing to publicize the ultra right, this episode should provide clarity. Nothing good comes of news organizations helping nazis, fascists, and white supremacists spread their ideas. We’re not doing it going forward, and we continue to encourage our colleagues around the country to join us in our stand.

 

Jason Pramas is the executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

ANNOUNCING THE DIGBOSTON  ‘UNNAMING’ POLICY

Doing our part to shut down the ultra right

 

November 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

As journalists, my DigBoston colleagues and I have a responsibility to do our best to cover news of the day fairly and accurately. And that’s based on our abiding belief in practising ethical journalism. Even though we’re street reporters for an alternative urban news weekly—a bit rough around the edges…  and known for wearing our emotions on our collective sleeve from time to time in our pursuit of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

 

In 2002, Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute—an influential Florida journalism school—condensed journalistic ethics down to three principles that we strongly agree with:

 

  1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.
  2. Act independently.
  3. Minimize harm.

 

It’s that third admonition that comes into play when we consider how to approach covering events run by ultra-right wingers. Like last weekend’s rally at Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. Which is why this publication has decided to “unname” ultra right-wing individuals and organizations in our pages going forward.

 

The rally itself and the couple of similar small Boston rallies that preceded it are almost comic in their insignificance, but the ideas they represent are not. When put into practice, they do a great deal of harm. By helping spread them, then, we would too—violating our ethical mandate to minimize harm in the process.

 

Those ideas are many, varied, and extremely confused as it turns out. The expressed beliefs of people organizing recent hard-right events have been an ill-conceived mishmash of right-wing libertarian, right-wing nationalist, right-wing populist, and right-wing Christian evangelical thinking plus an assortment of random conspiracy theories.

 

To our point, however, DigBoston cannot ignore the fact that these organizers work with latter-day nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. Neither can we turn a blind eye to the toxic thread of misogynistic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant views present in their circles.

 

Nor can we go along with many other media outlets in pretending that rally organizers aren’t simply giving one version of their politics in the light of day, and another version in the relative privacy of their normal online forums.

 

As Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center said to the New Republic earlier this year, “The right says the left is violent and they need to be prepared for it, but when they turn their head they’re wishing for nothing but violence, death, and destruction, on anyone and anything that’s not white.”

 

It’s clear to us that the most reprehensible supporters of such rallies, from Boston to grim Charlottesville to San Francisco, do not believe in democracy and are interested in bathing the world in the blood of their perceived enemies. Who include all people of African descent, all Latinos, all Native Americans, all Asians, all Arabs, all Muslims, and all Jews.

 

Yes, we’re back to that insanity.

 

They also lump in all their political enemies for conversion or extirpation depending on their individual ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds: Democrats (who they consider to be socialists, communists, or whatever), socialists, communists, anarchists, Greens, and other parties and ideologies to the left of President Donald Trump. They further have a deep and abiding hatred for women and LGBTQ folks, and expect the former to submit to male domination—and the latter to at best run and hide, and at worst to go to the death camps they like to “joke” about in dank corners of the Internet.

 

They assign these people subhuman status and deem them unworthy of participation—or indeed existence—in the hateful society they want to create. They also ascribe magic powers to some groups like Jews. They believe said groups control the world with those imagined powers and must be destroyed because of them.

 

In addition, they believe that people of northern European descent—a group in which many of them claim or feign membership—have their own magic powers. And that they have been chosen by History or God or Wotan or Fate to rule the world and have a right to eliminate all opposition to that rule—which will make the planet “pure.”

 

For a long time since World War II, it’s been easy to dismiss such reactionaries as lunatics because the original nazis and fascists were crushed by force of arms at the cost of tens of millions of lives. And driven from public life the world over. But now they have returned in many countries including the US, their ideas being spread over the web along with a lot of much nicer ideas.

 

In working with today’s nazis, fascists, and white supremacists, we believe that the organizers of the recent ultra-right rallies are effectively joining forces with them and are therefore helping build their movements. As such, while we agree that all parties concerned have the right to free speech, we do not think that extends to the right to free publicity for any of them in our pages. Given the clear and present danger that genocidal malcontents in their ranks present.

 

Stopping ultra-right forces from becoming a real threat to humanity requires not playing their game. As journalists, the way we play their game is by drawing attention to their spokespeople and organizations, and helping them spread their toxic ideas to even more of the kind of confused, bitter, angry people they’re already recruiting on social media.

 

So, we’ll report on ultra-right events when we decide they’re newsworthy, but we refuse to give ultra-right leaders and organizations the publicity and media platform that they want most of all. Because more attention gets them more followers and thus more political power. And we think that other news media—network TV first and foremost—are being extremely irresponsible and unethical by continuing to create a press feeding frenzy around every ultra-right action or pronouncement they hear about.

 

We’ll cover the activities of ultra-right individuals and organizations from time to time in carefully considered ways. We’ll even quote them—either anonymously or using pseudonyms we make up for each occasion. But we will not print their names in DigBoston, and we won’t link to their websites or social media presences either. Except when they commit crimes. Or in rare situations where we will do greater harm by not printing their names. That’s our unnaming policy. And we’re sticking to it. We will also apply it to other individuals and organizations that call for —or work with those who call for—crimes against humanity. In the interest of minimizing harm in our reporting. And in the defense of democracy, social justice, and human rights—which is our core mission as a publication of record.

 

We invite fellow journalists and news outlets the world over to join us in adopting this policy.

 


 

The editors and staff of DigBoston encourage readers to share this editorial widely.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston