How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972.

In that time, the General Social Survey has asked people questions such as: “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” It also collects data on each respondent’s age, level of education, socioeconomic group, and so on. And in the Internet era, it has asked how long each person spends online. The total data set that Downey used consists of responses from almost 9,000 people.

Downey’s approach is to determine how the drop in religious affiliation correlates with other elements of the survey such as religious upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, and so on.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor. However, it cannot account for all of the fall or anywhere near it. In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion.

Since the 1980s, the fraction of people receiving college level education has increased from 17.4 percent to 27.2 percent in the 2000s. So it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the drop in numbers claiming religious affiliation today. But although the correlation is statistically significant, it can only account for about 5 percent of the drop, so some other factor must also be involved.

That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

At this point, it’s worth spending a little time talking about the nature of these conclusions. What Downey has found is correlations and any statistician will tell you that correlations do not imply causation. If A is correlated with B, there can be several possible explanations. A might cause B, B might cause A, or some other factor might cause both A and B.

But that does not mean that it is impossible to draw conclusions from correlations, only that they must be properly guarded. “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely,” says Downey.

For example, it’s easy to imagine that a religious upbringing causes religious affiliation later in life. However, it’s impossible for the correlation to work the other way round. Religious affiliation later in life cannot cause a religious upbringing (although it may color a person’s view of their upbringing).

It’s also straightforward to imagine how spending time on the Internet can lead to religious disaffiliation. “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally,” says Downey. “Conversely, it is harder (but not impossible) to imagine plausible reasons why disaffiliation might cause increased Internet use.”

There is another possibility, of course: that a third unidentified factor causes both increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation. But Downey discounts this possibility. “We have controlled for most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments,” he says.

If this third factor exists, it must have specific characteristics. It would have to be something new that was increasing in prevalence during the 1990s and 2000s, just like the Internet. “It is hard to imagine what that factor might be,” says Downey.

That leaves him in little doubt that his conclusion is reasonable. “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation,” he says.

But there is something else going on here too. Downey has found three factors—the drop in religious upbringing, the increase in college-level education and the increase in Internet use—that together explain about 50 percent of the drop in religious affiliation.

But what of the other 50 percent? In the data, the only factor that correlates with this is date of birth—people born later are less likely to have a religious affiliation. But as Downey points out, year of birth cannot be a causal factor. “So about half of the observed change remains unexplained,” he says.

So that leaves us with a mystery. The drop in religious upbringing and the increase in Internet use seem to be causing people to lose their faith. But something else about modern life that is not captured in this data is having an even bigger impact.

What can that be? Answers please in the comments section.

Ref: Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use

Why No One Trusts Facebook To Power The Future

Facebook has a perception problem—consumers just don’t trust it.

April 03, 2014

In the coming years, one billion more people will gain access to the Internet thanks to drones and satellites hovering in the stratosphere.

And soon, we’ll be able to sit down with friends in foreign countries and immerse ourselves in experiences never previously thought possible, simply by slipping on a pair of virtual reality goggles.

These aren’t just gaseous hypotheticals touted by Silicon Valley startups, but efforts led by one company, whose mission is to make the world more open and connected. If one company actually pulled off all of these accomplishments, it might seem like people would fall in love with it—but once you know it’s Facebook, you might feel differently. And you’re not alone.

Facebook has a perception problem, which is largely driven by the fact it controls huge amounts of data and uses people as fodder for advertising. Facebook has been embroiled in numerous privacy controversies over the years, and was built from the ground up by a kid who basically double-crossed his Harvard colleagues to pull it off in the first place.

These days, Facebook appears to be growing up by taking billion-dollar bets on future technology hits like WhatsApp and Oculus in order to expedite its own puberty.

Its billion-dollar moves in recent weeks point to a new Facebook, one that takes risks investing in technologies that have not yet borne fruit, but could easily be the “next big thing” in tech. One such investment, the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, left many people scratching their heads as to why a social network would pick up a technology that arguably makes people less social, since Oculus is all about immersive gaming. At least the WhatsApp purchase makes a little more sense strategy-wise, even if the $19 billion deal was bad for users.

So begins Facebook’s transition from a simple social network to a full-fledged technology company that rivals Google, moonshot for moonshot.

Companies need to keep things fresh in order to make us want them, but Facebook, like Barney Stintson from How I Met Your Mother, just can’t shake its ultimately flawed nature and gain the trust of consumers.

The Ultimate Data Hoard

If you think you’re in control of your personal information, think again.

Perhaps the largest driver of skepticism towards Facebook is the level of control it gives users—which is arguably limited. Sure, you can edit your profile so other people can’t see your personal information, but Facebook can, and it uses your data to serve advertisers.

Keep in mind: This is information you provided just once in the last 10 years—for instance, when you first registered your account and offered up your favorite movies, TV shows and books—is now given tangentially to advertisers or companies wanting a piece of your pocketbook.

Not even your Likes can control what you see in your news feed anymore. Page updates from brands, celebrities, or small businesses that you subscribed to with a “Like” are omitted from your News Feed when page owners refuse to pay. Your Like was once good enough to keep an update on your News Feed, but now the company is cutting the flow of traffic and limiting status views by updating its algorithms—a move many people think is unfair, if not shiesty.

It’s not just Page posts taking a hit, audience-wise—even your own posts could be seen by fewer people if Facebook deems them “low-quality.”

To help eliminate links it doesn’t consider “news” like Upworthy or ViralNova, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to show fewer low-quality posts in favor of more newsworthy material, like stories from The New York Times. Of course, most people appreciate this move since click-bait links can get truly annoying, but it’s concerning that Facebook has so much control over the firehose of information you put in front of your eyes every single day.

Facebook owns virtually all the aspects of the social experience—photos (Instagram), status updates (Facebook), location services (Places)—but it has also become your social identity thanks to Facebook Login, which allows it to integrate with almost everything else on the Internet. This means if you’re not spending time on Facebook, you’re using Facebook to spend time online elsewhere.

It’s this corporate control of traffic that leads to frustration from those that believe Facebook owns too much, and that working with Facebook is like smacking the indie community hard across the face.

In a sense, people are stuck. They initially trusted a company with their data and information, and in return, those people feel—often justifiably—that they’re being taken advantage of. When the time comes for someone to abandon Facebook, whether over privacy concerns or frustration with the company, Facebook intentionally makes it hard to leave.

Even if you delete your account, your ghost remains. Your email address is still tied to a Facebook account and your face is still recognizably tagged as you, even if the account it’s associated with has vanished. In this way, Facebook is almost like any other cable company—even when you die, Facebook can still make money off you. And that’s not behavior fit for a company that’s poised to take over the future.

Leveling Up

Facebook missed the boat on mobile, and its much-maligned Android application interface Facebook Home was a major failure. Though Home was a small step into hardware, it was one users clearly didn’t want.

Now Facebook is dreaming bigger. With recent acquisitions like Oculus and drone maker Titan Aerospace, the company is looking to expand outside of its social shell and be taken seriously as a technology company and moonshot manufacturer.

Facebook’s well-known slogan “move fast and break things” is regularly applied to new products and features—undoubtedly a large part of Home’s initial failure. The company is ready to try again, this time with technologies and applications that consumers aren’t yet familiar with. But this has created more questions than answers in the eyes of users and investors. And that’s not good for a company with an existing perception problem like Facebook.

People see Facebook moving fast and breaking things to serve its own purposes, not for the benefit of the Internet, or in the case of Oculus, the benefit of dedicated fans.

Facebook isn’t leaving the social realm, at least not yet. It’s still relying on the flagship website to power its larger plans, particularly, which aims to bring the next billion people online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants a Facebook that connects the world, becoming a convenient way for people to find one another, and a gateway for Internet connectivity in developing countries.

Zuckerberg announced last week how he plans to bring the initiative into fruition—and it sounds like a plan straight out of a sci-fi novel. The company is putting its newly-acquired drones to work, powering the Internet in communities that don’t yet have it, which is being accompanied by other technologies like lasers and satellites to distribute the connectivity in largely-populated areas.

When Zuckerberg first announced, he initially threw shade at Google’s similar Project Loon, which attempts to connect the world via Wi-Fi balloons.

“Drones have more endurance than balloons while also being able to have their location precisely controlled,” he wrote in a white paper explaining the project. Of course regardless of the method, with more people online, Facebook will control more data and information, and have a larger pool of people to use for advertising.

To gain more users—and keep the ones it has—Facebook needs to change. But when Facebook’s CEO starts talking about drones and lasers powering the Internet, despite the company’s history of reckless privacy policies, it immediately sets off red flags for users.

Facebook Is Growing Up

Last October, when Facebook finally admitted teenagers were abandoning the network for other hot services like Snapchat and Tumblr, the Internet heaved a collective, “Told you so!” 

But teens aren’t the future for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s company has ambitions that go beyond selfies. It can’t remain the same forever, especially if it wants to stay relevant in the ever-changing technological landscape.

Facebook wants to build the Internet’s future infrastructure. It wants to be a part of the technology of that power the next billion people’s online experiences ten more years down the road. Zuckerberg has personally tried to bolster his raw perception with his $1 salary—a symbolic gesture, sure, but nothing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hadn’t done before.

To build and control the future it wants, it will have to “be more cool” and ease up on its control of users. Facebook has many exciting projects, but it won’t have an audience left unless it addresses its perception problem. Trust is paramount, especially on the Internet, and people need to know that Facebook is making things to improve the human experience, not just spending billions to make even more billions off our personal information.

Facebook has a great opportunity to improve its image with its exciting multi-billion dollar acquisitions. Prove to us you don’t just care about money, Facebook, and perhaps we’ll all realize how much you really have grown in the last 10 years.

Lead image by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite; Oculus Rift photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; drone photo courtesy of Titan Aerospace

Why the Internet Will Soon Be Two-Tiered


Low-income people of color stand to lose the most from the erosion of net neutrality.

BY Jay Cassano and Michael Brooks


Informational freedom advocates say the decline of net neutrality—and AT&T’s policy in particular—could, in effect, create yet another sector of American society where information and access to platforms of influence are boutique commodities.

Net neutrality—the principle that all content on the Internet must be treated equally by service providers and the government—may not be long for this world. After anemic attempts at preserving net neutrality by the Federal Communications Commission, a recent court ruling has opened the door for mobile network providers to get what they have long sought: namely, the ability to discriminate when it comes to websites’ loading speed and availability.

Though FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently stated the commission plans to write new net neutrality guidelines that will hopefully survive legal challenges, it remains to be seen how any of these will hold up in court. In the meantime, Americans’ access to a free, unfettered Internet will almost certainly continue to be tested.

Over the past few years, a great deal of attention has been paid in the press to net neutrality’s potential collapse. Much of the analysis, however, has focused on its importance for maintaining anticompetitive business practices and the need to create a level playing field online for small businesses and Silicon Valley “disrupters.” What has received far less attention are the ways in which the destruction of net neutrality will add to America’s inequality crisis.

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promised to tackle the vast social and economic disparity among Americans. But one of the Obama administration’s early policy disappointments—his FCC’s flawed approach to net neutrality—may soon lead to that same inequality gap being manifested online in the form of a two-tier Internet.

A 2010 FCC decision did appear to enshrine net neutrality as a fundamental principle of how the Internet operates: The government agency enacted a federal mandate that no Internet service providers could block or slow users’ connections to sites and apps.

But appearances can be misleading. That 2010 ruling allowed for major exceptions to net neutrality, particularly around mobile networks. And in January, at the D.C. Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Verizon exploited these loopholes to successfully challenge the legality of enforcing net neutrality for cell phone Internet. In theory, unless the FCC acts quickly, providers such as Verizon and other mobile carriers could conceivably decide to privilege the delivery of some sites over others—a devastating blow for people who rely on cell phones to get online.

When it comes to accessing the Internet, mobile-phone networks are of particular importance to marginalized communities, including people of color and those with lower incomes. A recent Pew survey found that a full 21 percent of cell phone owners in the United States mostly use their phones to access the Internet, as opposed to a desktop or a laptop. The elimination of net neutrality for cell phones could make conducting essential activities, such as applying for jobs or furthering one’s education, much harder if service providers chose to block access to those necessary sites.

The Pew study also found that “young adults, non-whites, and those with relatively low income and education levels are particularly likely to be cell-mostly Internet users”—and ­it’s people in those demographic groups who will therefore be stuck at the lowest tier of access. Advocacy groups also worry that ISPs will use their powers of prioritization to silence activists working toward social justice, particularly in communities of color.

One specific example of how this might play out is with AT&T’s soon-to-be-launched sponsored data plan. Currently, most customers must adhere to a data usage cap or risk paying overage fees. But under the “sponsored data plan,” rather than forcing an AT&T user to drain their monthly data allocation while they, say, scroll Facebook, the social media giant—or any company—could pay for that usage on their behalf to AT&T. In other words, as far as users are concerned, Internet access to certain sites would essentially be free.

In theory, this sounds great. More traffic for tech companies to their products and a lower phone bill for consumers. Win-win, right?

Perhaps, until one considers the fact that not all websites on the Internet are able to sponsor their data in this way. As a result, we will be creating an Internet in which users are motivated to peruse the sites of larger and wealthier companies compared to those with fewer resources.

According to Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, “AT&T’s data plan would create the incentive for websites to pay for the data usage customers rack up on their website in order to steer the customer towards sites that won’t use up their limited data plans.” As a result of this process, he says, the Internet will more closely resemble cable television, with independent voices and outlets pushed to the margins.

And that’s the best-case scenario. But what happens when a consumer isn’t able to pay for any data plan or can only afford a low cap? With AT&T’s “sponsored data,” this customer would still be able to use the Internet—but it could look very different from that of a user who has no such constraints.

This “commercial” Internet, which everyone would have access to, would be comprised solely of the companies that can afford to pay for all those users’ data. And based on the current practices of many web giants, the majority of those mega-corporations would likely be online retailers or sites that track (and monetize) users’ every interaction. The world of independent blogs, alternative media, job boards, and online courses would become an Internet luxury.

With cell phone Internet thus hampered by a lack of net neutrality, home broadband, with its flat-rate monthly bill, would be the only place to turn for an open Internet. The problem is that a home broadband connection is precisely what many in marginalized communities lack. According to Pew, 15 percent of black adults and 22 percent of Hispanic adults have smartphones but no home broadband Internet—compared to just 6 percent of white ones.

As a result, the universe of information and communities that many people are able to access or contribute to online would shrink. It would ensure, says Renderos, that “mobile Internet is purely a mechanism for consumption versus the creative platform the Internet represents to wired—cable, DSL, fiber—users.”

Informational freedom advocates say the decline of net neutrality—and AT&T’s policy in particular—could, in effect, create yet another sector of American society where information and access to platforms of influence are boutique commodities. The Internet would no longer be a place where a small voice has access to the same virtual megaphone as that of a large corporation or the government.

“It certainly is the ushering in of a ‘have and have-nots’ Internet,” says Renderos.

This process of creating a two-tier Internet will deepen the divisions of economic and racial inequality that drive American politics today. For all the talk of the Internet as an engine of democracy and growth, without a robust net neutrality principle, it will become nothing more than yet another pillar supporting a rigged economic game.

Jay Cassano is a technology reporter for Fast Company and previously worked as a foreign correspondent in Turkey for Inter Press Service. He has been published in The Nation, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere.


Michael Brooks is the host of INTERSECTION podcast on Aslan Media and a contributor and producer for the Majority Report. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post and Al Jazeera.

Without subculture appeal, tech loses its ‘cool’


Any change to the product's subculture appeal, attractiveness, or originality will affect the product's overall coolness, according to the researchers. If a product becomes more widely adopted by the mainstream, for example, it becomes less cool. (Credit: Ran Yaniv Hartstein/Flickr, font by Tyler Finck/FontSquirrel)





In the tech world, coolness takes more than just good looks. Technology users must consider a product attractive, original, and edgy before they label those products as cool, according to researchers.


That coolness can turn tepid if the product appears to be losing its edginess, they add.


“Everyone says they know what ‘cool’ is, but we wanted to get at the core of what ‘cool’ actually is, because there’s a different connotation to what cool actually means in the tech world,” says S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications at Penn State and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory.


(Credit: Desmond Talkington/Flickr)
(Credit: Desmond Talkington/Flickr)


The researchers found that a cool technology trend may move like a wave. First, people in groups—subcultures—outside the mainstream begin to use a device. The people in the subculture are typically identified as those who stand out from most of the people in the mainstream and have an ability to stay a step ahead of the crowd, according to the researchers.


Once a device gains coolness in the subculture, the product becomes adopted by the mainstream.


However, any change to the product’s subculture appeal, attractiveness, or originality will affect the product’s overall coolness, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. If a product becomes more widely adopted by the mainstream, for example, it becomes less cool.


The big challenge


“It appears to be a process,” Sundar says. “Once the product loses its subculture appeal, for example, it becomes less cool, and therein lies the challenge.”


The challenge is that most companies want their products to become cool and increase sales, Sundar says. However, after sales increase, the products become less cool and sales suffer. To succeed, companies must change with the times to stay cool.


“It underscores the need to develop an innovation culture in a company,” Sundar says. “For a company to make products that remain cool, they must continually innovate.”


However, products that have fallen out of favor can have coolness restored if the subculture adopts the technology again. For example, record players, which were replaced in coolness by digital files, are beginning to increase in popularity with the subculture, despite their limited usefulness. As a result, participants in a survey considered the record players as cool.


The researchers asked 315 college students to give their opinions on 14 different products based on the elements of coolness taken from current literature. Previously, researchers believed that coolness was largely related to a device’s design and originality.


“Historically, there’s a tendency to think that cool is some new technology that is thought of as attractive and novel,” says Sundar. “The idea is you create something innovative and there is hype—just as when Apple is releasing a new iPhone or iPad—and the consumers that are standing in line to buy the product say they are buying it because it’s cool.”


It’s not about utility


A follow-up study with 835 participants from the US and South Korea narrowed the list to four elements of coolness—subculture appeal, attractiveness, usefulness, and originality—that arose from the first study.


In a third study of 317 participants, the researchers found that usefulness was integrated with the other factors and did not stand on its own as a distinguishing trait of coolness.


“The utility of a product, or its usefulness, was not as much of a part of coolness as we initially thought,” says Sundar.


Such products as USB drives and GPS units, for example, were not considered cool even though they were rated high on utility. On the other hand, game consoles like Wii and Xbox Kinect were rated high on coolness, but low on utility. However, many products ranking high on coolness—Macbook Air, Prezi software, Instagram, and Pandora—were also seen as quite useful, but utility was not a determining factor.


“The bottom line is that a tech product will be considered cool if it is novel, attractive, and capable of building a subculture around it,” says Sundar.


Sundar worked with Daniel J. Tamul, assistant professor of communications at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and Mu Wu, a graduate student at Penn State.


Source: Penn State

Are Addictive Video Games Doing Damage to Us?







Games like Flappy Birds are fun, but do they take us away from engaging with life?

Photo Credit: Kneschke





Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Flappy Bird is definitely not just a game.

If you’ve been on an aboriginal walkabout, you may not know that, until yesterday, Flappy Bird was the most popular iPhone and Android app on the planet. Its appeal lies neither in its crappy graphics nor its nonexistent story, but in its addictive difficulty. You win by tapping on your screen to prevent birds from hitting pipes in their flight path. Or rather, you don’t win; innumerable social media posts confess to racking up humiliatingly low scores after embarrassingly time-eating attempts.

Downloading Flappy Bird is free, but the ads it delivers have reportedly been bringing in $50,000 a day to its Vietnamese developer, Nguyen Ha Dong. Yet on Sunday, Dong, tweeting “I cannot take this anymore,” pulled the game down. What he cannot take is unclear. What is clear is how vulnerable we humans are to having our attention hijacked.

I would not be surprised if, one fine day, functional magnetic resonance imaging were to show that the same regions of the brain that are activated by cocaine or heroin were also lit up by Flappy Bird. It would not be shocking to learn that all that tap-tap-tapping on cellphone screens causes squirts of dopamine or oxytocin to take us to our happy place. I can certainly imagine that the Flappy Bird high is physiologically indistinguishable from the pleasures provided by Vermeer, Jay Z or Louis C.K. What intrigues me isn’t that there are biochemical manifestations of the rapture that Flappy Bird induces, but that some kid in Hanoi with Pong-level coding chops can take down civilization’s grid.

Flappy Bird is not, of course, cyber-warfare. It’s a game, and game crazes, from mah-jongg to Sudoku, have often swept the world. Being digital doesn’t necessarily make Flappy Bird more neurologically insidious than other games; the Internet is just its distribution system. Dong isn’t a dark genius, and he hasn’t discovered some key to the human psyche. He’s just lucky, and if Flappy Bird hadn’t come along to distract us, some other dumb birdie would do. What matters — what makes it more than just a game — isn’t this particular cause of our distraction, but the chronic condition that makes us ache to be transported out of ourselves.

That condition is sleepwalking. We are blind to the richness of being. Every moment offers infinite opportunities to marvel at the sheer existence of anything, to be grateful not only for the things our senses perceive, but also for the miracle that we have senses through which to appreciate them. Yet instead of being attentive to the here and now, our monkey-minds replace that awareness with the incessant, yammering interior narrative that we mistake for insight. A tragedy, a health scare, a celebration: yes, there are occasions that do return our attention to what really matters. But they are, by definition, occasional. Our mindfulness is at best episodic; our usual baseline is mindlessness.

This is both universally true, and also specific to our time. Ancient texts attest to our species’ obliviousness, a malady that occurs across cultures and centuries. But there are also economic and political causes of our numbness; we experience a surplus alienation from our selves and from nature, an especially modern emptiness that springs from our reduction to cogs in a corporate consumer society. We misinterpret our anomie as boredom. It is not the cacophony of the commercial claims on our attention that has shortened our attention spans; it is the soullessness that the market economy demands that has sent us searching for self-medication.

Thirty years ago, in his jeremiad “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman predicted that entertainment would conquer all other social domains, from news and politics to religion and education. The root meaning of entertainment is “something that occupies our attention,” and Postman feared that the imperative to monetize attention — to assemble audiences, sell eyeballs, build brands — would privilege stimulation over reason and make us slaves to our appetites. It was not in the totalitarianism of George Orwell’s “1984″ that Postman saw the dystopia we’re on the brink of succumbing to, but rather in the society portrayed by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where distraction — fun — is the drug of choice.

But Huxley is also the author of a lesser-known work, “Island,” his last novel, which depicts not the narcotized terminus of humanity, but a utopia. Its most arresting feature: mynah birds that call out reminders to the island’s human inhabitants. “Attention,” they have been trained to parrot, attempting to wake people from their inveterate sleepwalking. “Here and now, boys,” the birds insist, “here and now!” Paradise is mindfulness.

You lose yourself in Flappy Bird. You find yourself in the birds of here and now. Flappy Bird takes our attention. Huxley’s birds give it back to us.

Game on.

This is a crosspost of my column in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, where you can email me if you’d like.


What Is Slopestyle?

snowboarder doing a jump
Tim-Kevin Ravnjak (Slovenia) places second in the men’s halfpipe event on January 14, 2012 in Kuehtai, Austria.
Credit: Herbert Kratky /

Slopestyle is a new event at the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. Snowboarders travel down a slope dotted with obstacles, including quarterpipes, rails and progressively higher jumps. On the way, they perform feats of aerial acrobatics, with tricks like the backside triple cork 1440 — three head-over-heels flips and four full revolutions.

Snowboarding has a short Olympic history; it became an official event in 1998. Since those Games, the sport has been steadily adding events, with the parallel giant slalom, a race event, beginning in 2002, and snowboard cross, an event that takes place on a course of moguls and jumps starting in 2006.

Competitive slopestyle is a staple at the Winter X Games, but will make its first debut in the Olympics without one of the biggest names in snowboarding. U.S. snowboarder Shaun White bowed out of the slopestyle competition Wednesday (Feb. 5), just days before the Olympics began, after hurting his wrist on one of the jumps. [Photos: 6 Failed Winter Olympic Sports]


The Sochi slopestyle course is just over 2,000 feet (635 meters) long, according to designs released by the International Ski Federation. The first feature is a rail that snowboarders launch onto from a jump and then board along like a tightrope before landing back on the snow. Another jump feature is topped with a statue of a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll, for local flavor.

Speed is key for pulling off snowboarding’s death-defying tricks. As a National Science Foundation video explains, snowboarders in another event, the halfpipe, are pulled down by gravity, but pushed against the side of the halfpipe by g-forces. Competitors pump their legs against these forces to build speed, which allows them to jump higher. More time in the air means more time for tricks like the Double McTwist, the Haakon flip and the Crippler.

The men’s slopestyle semifinals and finals will take place on Saturday, Feb. 8, and the women’s events will be the on Sunday, Feb. 9, Sochi time.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

The Internet is Broken–Act Accordingly


PUNTA CANACostin Raiu is a cautious man. He measures his words carefully and says exactly what he means, and is not given to hyperbole or exaggeration. Raiu is the driving force behind much of the intricate research into APTs and targeted attacks that Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team has been doing for the last few years, and he has first-hand knowledge of the depth and breadth of the tactics that top-tier attackers are using.

So when Raiu says he conducts his online activities under the assumption that his movements are being monitored by government hackers, it is not meant as a scare tactic. It is a simple statement of fact.

“I operate under the principle that my computer is owned by at least three governments,” Raiu said during a presentation he gave to industry analysts at the company’s analyst summit here on Thursday.

The comment drew some chuckles from the audience, but Raiu was not joking. Security experts for years have been telling users–especially enterprise users–to assume that their network or PC is compromised. The reasoning is that if you assume you’re owned then you’ll be more cautious about what you do. It’s the technical equivalent of telling a child to behave as if his mother is watching everything he does. It doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt.

Raiu and his fellow researchers around the world are obvious targets for highly skilled attackers of all stripes. They spend their days analyzing new attack techniques and working out methods for countering them. Intelligence agencies, APT groups and cybercrime gangs all would love to know what researchers know and how they get their information. Just about every researcher has a story about being attacked or compromised at some point. It’s an occupational hazard.

But one of the things that the events of the last year have made clear is that the kind of paranoia and caution that Raiu and others who draw the attention of attackers employ as a matter of course should now be the default setting for the rest of us, as well. As researcher Claudio Guarnieri recently detailed, the Internet itself is compromised. Not this bit or that bit. The entire network. We now know that intelligence agencies have spent the last decade systematically penetrating virtually every portion of the Internet and are conducting surveillance and exploitation on a scale that a year ago would have seemed inconceivable to all but the most paranoid among us.

Email? Broken. Mobile communications? Broken. Web traffic? Really broken. Crypto? So, so broken.

It would be understandable, even natural, for most casual observers to have grown so completely overwhelmed by the inundation of stories about government surveillance and exploitation techniques that they tuned it out months ago. Why get worked up about something you can’t change? It’s like getting mad at cake for being delicious.

And that’s exactly the attitude that attackers want. Indeed, they depend on it. Complacency and indifference to clear threats are their lifeblood. Attackers can’t operate effectively without them.

The best response, of course, isn’t panic or indulging the urge to throw your laptop out the window and drop off the grid, as tempting as that might be. Rather, the best course of action is to follow Raiu’s simple advice. You’re being watched at all times; act accordingly.

Image from Flickr photos of Lyudagreen.

10 Sports Stories To Watch At The Sochi Olympics




Women’s ski jumping, speed records falling, and the return of the Jamaican bobsled team.


The Sochi Winter Olympics officially open Friday, and while much of the focus before the Games has trained on the cost, corruption, an anti-gay law, safety issues, and Russia’s general unpreparedness, there will be plenty of stories to watch that involve actual Olympic sports too.

For American fans, the United States enters Sochi four years after winning 37 medals, including nine golds, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was the largest medal haul for the U.S. in Winter Olympics history, and the Americans are no doubt looking to repeat their success. Here are 10 stories American and international Olympic fans should find interesting over the next two weeks:

1. Front Runners: While some events are expected to come down to the wire, some athletes are widely expected to dominate their events. American skier Ted Ligety (giant slalom skiing) is already one of the faces of this Olympics thanks to a creative marketing video. Meryl Davis and Charlie White (ice dance), Shani Davis (long-track speed skating), and JR Celski (short-track speed skating) are all Americans widely expected to medal in their events. Other athletes, like Canada’s Patrick Chan (figure skating), Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal (alpine skiing), and South Korea’s Yuna Kim (ladies’ figure skating) enter Sochi as heavy medal favorites.

2. The Underdogs: The Olympics are famous for the underdogs who come through in the big moments. Skiers Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso are big American names and former Olympic medalists, but both will try to play the spoiler role in Sochi, and both have a good chance to reach the podium in multiple events. Another underdog to watch is figure skater Jeremy Abbott, who, if he skates two clean programs, has an outside shot at a medal (Abbott began the Olympics with a rough showing in the team figure skating event Thursday). In the biathlon, the only not-new sport in which the Americans have never won a single medal, the U.S. thinks it has a chance in Sochi. Tim Burke won the 2013 biathon world championship and is among the contenders to hit the podium in Russia.

3. Gender Parity: Women’s ski jumping, which finally made the cut after many years of lobbying by athletes and federations alike, is new to the Olympics in Sochi. One of the leaders of the fight for inclusion is American Lindsay Van, who along with teen phenom Sarah Hendrickson is expected to contend for gold. While the women will only compete in one event (the K-95, or “normal” hill) to the men’s three (K-95, K-125 or “large” hill, and team event), this groundbreaking inclusion paves the way for full ski jumping parity in the future.

4. World Records: Many of Sochi’s venues sit at sea level, so if you’re tuning into the Games to see speed-based world records broken in events like long- and short-track speed skating, you’re likely going to be disappointed. There are other records, however, that could fall. In figure skating’s men’s pairs and ice dance events, there’s a chance that athletes pushing themselves to gold could reach record high scores.

5. Two-Sport Athletes: You might recognize two names on the American women’s bobsled team from the Summer Olympics in London. Sprinter Lauryn Williams and hurdler Lolo Jones both made the American team in the two-person bobsled, albeit on separate teams. The inclusion of high-profile track athletes like Jones and Williams garnered more attention for women’s bobsled, but it also caused controversy, as several women who missed the team expressed displeasure at the track stars’ inclusion. Both Jones and Williams have medaled on the bobsled grand prix circuit in recent years. Williams won a team gold in London and an individual silver in Athens; Jones is looking for her first Olympic medal.

6. Two Tales of Davis and White: United States ice dance national champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White — who are also the defending world champs — will try to do what no other American ice dancers have done by winning Olympic gold. Their main rivals in this quest are Canadian defending Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, whom the American duo has defeated in their last three meetings. Davis and White are popular names among history-seeking American athletes: speed skater Shani Davis and snowboarder Shaun White both have a chance to become the first American athletes to win three consecutive gold medals in the same event — Davis in the 1000 meters and White in the snowboard half-pipe.

7. Hockey: Canada won gold in Vancouver on an overtime goal from Sidney Crosby that ended an amazing battle with the United States, and the two sides enter Sochi among the favorites to repeat their medal triumphs this year. That said, they’ll face a number of challenges, first in the rink itself. Sochi’s rink is wider and longer than those used in North America, which will make for prettier, cleaner hockey but could also put the Americans and Canadians at a slight disadvantage. Both sides will also have to get by other favorites like Sweden, the world’s top-ranked team, and Russia, which is led by superstars Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin and is determined to win gold on home soil. Olympic hockey provides something the NHL rarely does: the best players playing together against each other. But enjoy it now, because there’s a decent chance this could be the last Olympics for quite awhile in which NHL players compete. In women’s hockey, the United States and Canada are the favorites to battle for gold.

8. Jamaica’s Bobsled Team: Romanticized in the 1993 film “Cool Runnings” for their appearance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the Jamaican bobsled team is back in the Olympics for the fifth time and the first since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The Jamaicans qualified in January but financial difficulties made their trip to Sochi an uncertainty. The team already cut itself in half and will compete in the two-man bobsled instead of the four-man event “Cool Runnings” made famous, but they were able to secure enough money to make the trip — though their luggage and equipment was missing on arrival. The Jamaicans are hardly a favorite to medal, but their presence will make for a fun story nonetheless.

9. Sister, Sister, Sister: A Canadian trio of sisters — Maxime, Chloe and Justine Dufour-Lapointe — will compete together and against each other for medals in freestyle mogul skiing, an event in which the Canadians have found success in recent Olympics. 22-year-old Chloe, who finished fifth at the Vancouver Games, is ranked second in the world behind American Hannah Kearney. The Dufour-Lapointe sisters aren’t the only trio of siblings competing in Sochi: New Zealand’s Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells all made the Olympics as free-style skiers as well. Interestingly, three siblings making the Olympics isn’t as rare as you might think — it’s happened before at the 1960, 1976, and 1980 Games, and in 1988, Mexico sent four brothers to compete in the bobsled.

10. Norwegian Curling Uniforms: Because, well, they’re awesome:

Click to enlarge.

Billy Flanagan is a Winter Olympics guru and the Special Events Manager at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Why Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters


Why Dungeons & Dragons Still Matters


Dungeons and Dragons – arguably the single most revolutionary turn to the Action/Fantasy RPG genre – turned 40 last week. Here’s why it’s still relevant today.

In a must-read post over at Boing Boing, Ethan Gilsdorf – author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks – looks back on the last forty years of pen-and-paper role-playing tradition. It begins:

Dungeons & Dragons, that ground-breaking role-playing game, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Specifically, the game’s big “4-0″ comes this month. It was in January of 1974 when the game’s co-creator, Gary Gygax, officially announced in a newsletter that “the Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association has now released its set of fantasy campaign rules (Dungeons and Dragons).” In that announcement, Gygax invited folks to drop by his Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, home some Sunday afternoon to experience Dungeons & Dragons themselves.

But lo, those four decades ago, when D&D first debuted, no one knew what to make of it. D&D was intended to be a new twist on traditional war games. New, because “role-playing” games as a category did not exist. Newcomers found D&D to be weird and complex and confusing and trippy. You want me to “play” a dwarf fighter named Frowndorf? You want me to tell you how my hobbit thief is going to kill the gang of orcs? These dice have how many sides? WTF?

But to those who were intrigued, the “Huh?”s of doubt quickly turned to “Hey, this is fun.” No one guessed Dungeons & Dragons would be revolutionary.

Never before had a game asked players to assume roles of individual characters and jointly imagine the world where those adventures would take place. With D&D, you don’t beat your fellow players, you cooperate. Sure, there were war games with miniature figurines and maps. But here was a game that said that there’s no “win”—there’s just the ongoing story, and the next adventure.

I first played D&D back in the 1970s and 1980s. Like millions of mostly male and young American proto-geeks, I too got sucked into the game’s vicarious derring-do and heroics, playing wizards and warriors —idealized versions of myself — who wielded incredible power, acquired cool stuff, killed nasty monsters, cast spells, and inhabited fantastical places.

Today, deep in the digital age, I’m happy to report that the game still exists. In fact, the new edition of D&D‘s rules is slated for release this August. And only now, as a 47-year-old who still plays the game, can I appreciate why Dungeons & Dragons still matters in 2014.

Angry Birds developer denies colluding with the National Security Agency

Angry Birds developer denies colluding with the National Security Agency

Angry Birds in the latest game from Rovio.

I bet the Finnish developers responsible for Angry Birds are flinging more than birds at pictures of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden right now.

In his latest revelation, Snowden claimed that the NSA and other spy agencies collect data from smartphone and tablet apps like Angry Birds, according to the New York Times. Today, Rovio, the developer responsible for Angry Birds, is denying that it provides data to any U.S. government agency. Instead, the company is pointing a finger at third-party ad agencies used in apps and sites across the Internet.

“[Rovio] does not share data, collaborate, or collude with any government spy agencies, such as the NSA or [the United Kingdom's Government Communications Headquarters], anywhere in the world,” reads a blog post on the company’s website. “The alleged surveillance may be conducted through third-party advertising networks used by millions of commercial websites and mobile applications across all industries.”

The Snowden report claims that apps are easy targets to gather data. Spy agencies can get info like the phone model a person owns or the size of the screen. The whistleblower also claims that the NSA and GCHQ can also get personal information like age, gender, and location. Alarmingly, the data can sometimes indicate a person’s sexual orientation or proclivities. U.K. news site the Guardian gave the example of an app noting whether an individual engages, such as swinging.

“Our fans’ trust is the most important thing for us, and we take privacy extremely seriously,” Rovio chief executive Mikael Hed said in a statement. “As the alleged surveillance might be happening through third-party advertising networks, the most important conversation to be had is how to ensure user privacy is protected while preventing the negative impact on the whole advertising industry and the countless mobile apps that rely on ad networks.”

Hed said that Rovio will reevaluate its current relationships with its advertising partners to determine if they are the target of spying.

Online advertising networks, like the kind that app developers employ, use personal identifying data to better target commercials. Knowing an Angry Birds players’ age, gender, and location can help networks provide sponsored placements that are more likely to connect and generate revenue. That’s also the kind of information that spy agencies can use to fill out their databases.