The White House Looks at Big Data Discrimination

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1. The White House issued a report with the classic promise/peril framing about Big Data. One focus: discrimination by machine.

"The detailed personal profiles held about many consumers, combined with automated, algorithm-driven decision-making, could lead—intentionally or inadvertently—to discriminatory outcomes, or what some are already calling 'digital redlining.' The federal government's lead civil rights and consumer protection agencies should expand their technical expertise to be able to identify practices and outcomes facilitated by big data analytics that have a discriminatory impact on protected classes, and develop a plan for investigating and resolving violations of law."


2. Harry McCracken writes a love letter to BASIC, the programming language, and it's deep and relevant and sweet.

"I find the 'everybody should learn to code' movement laudable. And yet it also leaves me wistful, even melancholy. Once upon a time, knowing how to use a computer was virtually synonymous with knowing how to program one. And the thing that made it possible was a programming language called BASIC. Invented by John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, BASIC was first successfully used to run programs on the school’s General Electric computer system 50 years ago this week–at 4 a.m. on May 1, 1964, to be precise."


3. Facebook's fate, in temporal and spatial context.

"It was the day of the F8 conference, where developers and press got together to hear the new gospel according to Mark. I walked to the convention center, past the big Google bus stop on 8th street where tired techies lounged on their phones for the long ride to Mountain View. I stepped into the street to see if the city bus was approaching, and almost put my toe in a pile of human feces. There were homeless people and other desperate types all around, and remembering this I pocketed my phone, which I had been staring down at as I hoofed it. Whatever. It was a gorgeous day and I didn’t mind the walk."


4. It's possible "The Cloud" was a bad linguistic choice.

"Whether business-to-business or consumer-centered, however, the metaphor of the cloud obliterates not just the Internet’s physical structure but also sedimented meanings of the word cloudThose meanings include the haunting images and disastrous consequences of mushroom clouds since the United States detonated the first atomic bombs during World War II (a history that Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s essay shows persists into the present and with particular force in the Pacific Islands). They also include long-standing idiomatic uses that invoke storm clouds to convey experiences of fragility, impermanence, haziness, concealment, darkness, danger, gloom, and anxiety—connotations that take on profound weight in the era of climate change, with its attendant increase in volatile weather and severe storms."

+ "The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky."


5. What a photocopier is, by Samuel Beckett, basically. 

"Witness: When you say 'photocopying machine,' what do you mean?

Lawyer: Let me be — let me make sure I understand your question. You don't have an understanding of what a photocopying machine is?

Witness: No. I want to make sure that I answer your question correctly."


Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

belong. The sense 'have its own proper place' (The book is not where it belongs) was originally, and it is still chiefly, US.

Another meaning of belong that seems particularly well-suited for our times: "to be properly classified." We all just want to belong. 


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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