Archive for September 7, 2021

An Ugly Truth

Posted in uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2021 by andelino

What’s actually the problem with the world’s biggest social media platform Facebook? Is it misinformation? Lack of regulation? That it rots the brains of adults and children? Or that it makes us shrill, annoying caricatures of ourselves?

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, pins all these problems and more on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

The authors don’t hold back: Before even opening the book, one encounters remarkably unflattering images of Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s faces on the cover. As the authors explore the rise of Facebook, they maintain this tenor: The two executives are the twin poles of power at Facebook, and together are responsible for a vast set of the world’s problems.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg certainly come off as unsavory characters—the CEO calls early Facebook users “dumb fucks” for blithely giving away their personal information. Sandberg screams at employees in public. Despite her heralded “lean-in” feminism, the COO picks favorites among women at the company.

But An Ugly Truth packs so many separate lines of attack into one narrative that even the biggest Facebook critic will be left wondering what the coherent critique here is. Is Facebook bad because its News Feed flattens the world and amplifies toxic partisanship and misinformation? Perhaps, but then the authors attack Facebook’s decision to prioritize Groups, a tool for connecting like-minded people and escaping the News Feed.

The authors are quick to defend Facebook from charges of left-leaning bias. On the revelation that Facebook engineers actively tried to stop Republicans from trending in the Trending Topics, they tell us, the engineers “were not pushing a liberal or conservative agenda.” The fact that Sandberg was a top donor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign is a PR problem, but when another Facebook exec sits behind Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearing, it’s a company-wide crisis.

If there is a single through-line in An Ugly Truth, it’s this: Believing false things is one of the worst things that can happen to an individual, and Facebook inaugurated a new era of widespread misinformation. The First Amendment right to free speech isn’t absolute, and no one has a right to “algorithmic amplification.” In a better world, platforms would work hand in hand with “disinformation experts,” left-wing civil rights groups, and “trusted organizations” like the CDC to ceaselessly protect users from believing false things. They would prioritize news from “respectable” sources and downplay questionable conservative partisans.

The problem with this framing, of course, is that we already live in the world Frenkel and Kang dream of. Facebook does coordinate with the federal government, it does censor theories the World Health Organization and CDC consider objectionable, and it does tag posts about COVID with an informational bar urging you to listen to the experts. It does shadow ban” content it thinks is misleading, and it purges the accounts of individuals who express political beliefs beyond the pale.

Those actions haven’t fixed the problem Frenkel and Kang identify, because they can’t: There’s never been a time when misinformation wasn’t an endemic part of human life, or when the line between safe truths and dangerous lies was settled and accepted by all. Facebook centralizes many of our disputes and may be responsible for a crappier public discourse. But the authors yearn for a solution to basic human foibles, crafted by our bien pensant elites. It’s not clear that such a solution could exist, and it’s certainly not clear that Frenkel and Kang’s preferred authorities have the wisdom to carry them out.

The punch that lands cleanest from Frenkel and Kang is the critique of Zuckerberg’s worldview—that “connection” is the great good Facebook can provide. Over and over, Zuckerberg tells us Facebook is in the business of “connecting the world,” but rarely can he articulate reasons that connection is good for us on a social or personal level.

The authors highlight a particularly damning internal memo by exec and Zuckerberg ally Andrew Bosworth. “We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. The work we will likely have to do in China someday. All of it.” Bosworth later claimed the memo was meant to inspire debate, but it reads as an accurate mission statement.

There’s a book to be written about Facebook’s vision of connection—a world where users are fed the content and connections the algorithm thinks they want, with little regard for their edification or real-world effects.

Unfortunately, An Ugly Truth isn’t that book.

The Wealthy Class

Posted in uncategorized with tags , , , on September 7, 2021 by andelino

They’ve become familiar stories: Schools with the demographics of a New England beach club draft “anti-racist” screeds. Ivy university coaches accept bribes from movie executives, then admit their anemic offspring as scholarship athletes. Parents surreptitiously record admissions meetings for collateral. Students, who are taught that liberalism is a vestige of “white privilege,” walk on eggshells around classmates and their preferred pronouns.

This is what we talk about when we talk about elite private education—the virtue-signaling, the power, and the vainglory. We’re overdue for an appraisal and, as such, the timing could not be better for Blythe Grossberg’s “I Left My Homework in the Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching the Children of the One Percent.”

Alas, the book does not lampoon the excesses of a high-priced American education. Instead, it shifts between envy and sympathy for the author’s “überrich” students. It vaguely gestures at the entitlement, the snobbish attitudes, the decadence—and shrugs. If elite private education is now “obscene,” as the Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan has written, Grossberg says nothing to disabuse readers of the notion. But neither does she further the charges against it.

The memoir follows Grossberg’s foray into tutoring as she ingratiates herself with the children of Manhattan’s elite. The author imposes her story over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, likening herself to a trustworthy Nick Carraway and her tutees to a cast of Tom Buchanans, Jordan Bakers, and Jay Gatsbys. She even loosely patterns the narrative after the plot, complete with romance, lavish parties, and a climactic death.

The grandiose allusions flatter no one. The kids resemble more the superficial Park Avenue 20-somethings of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan than Fitzgerald’s boozy yet bold Lost Generation. Their parents are wealthy, and they are bored. They turn to drink or drugs or Instagram. They don’t have time for schoolwork because they have squash lessons. So post grads from Columbia write their essays for them.

And if they fail, they can always pressure someone to fudge the grade, give them a do-over, diagnose a bogus learning disability for extra time on tests, or else pump them full of performance-enhancing schedule II amphetamines (Adderall). As one of Grossberg’s students explains: “There were always tutors. And my school allowed me to hand in papers late. It was kind of like ‘three strikes and you’re still not out.'”

Diplomas and acceptance letters are no longer earned. They’re bought. The students’ enablers—teachers, doctors, administrators, and admissions counselors—all have a price. And the parents are more than willing to pay.

Even for those who play by the rules, the process is dizzying and can lead to burnout. The “meritocracy trap,” as it’s been termed by Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, every year ensnares a burgeoning class of elite students pursuing only a handful of openings at the Ivy League and jobs on Wall Street, in management consulting, and law. The relentless need to achieve for them is counted more of an accomplishment than good character.

The pursuit isolates parents from their children and children from their peers, leading to anxiety and depression. Grossberg sympathizes with these “risks of affluence,” which she says make it harder to be a rich student than a poor student. “Experts believe that the children of the affluent suffer twice as much depression as the kids in the South Bronx or East New York who are struggling just to get to school safely and help their parents keep a roof over their heads,” she writes.

As elite institutions have increasingly become a lucrative commodity that the upper class buys and sells, those institutions have even lobbied for subsidies. In doing so, they have come to resemble the federal government—an ever-expanding administrative entity, perfectly willing to do the bidding of a small group of connected people. Another year, another crop of dull but politically savvy high schoolers, creeping like snails unwillingly toward higher education.

Which is why it is odd to see people like Grossberg dismiss one of the few truly meritocratic devices left in education: standardized tests. She dismisses the SAT as a useless measure of academic performance in college, then a few pages later points out how minority students are only given a leg up by aptitude tests. The cognitive dissonance can be unnerving. “To reconcile being liberal with sending their children to private rather than public school, many parents are extremely generous to the school,” Grossberg writes.

The book does not comment on the rise of “woke” education. Nor does it touch on recent efforts to mandate (or outlaw) critical race theory curricula nationwide. But it does, through its description of the lives of truly privileged students, hint at a growing racial divide, one hidden behind glowing statements about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Having taught at an inner-city, predominantly black school for a few years, I can say this was maybe the most surprising omission of all. Wealthy, white schools are the fathers of these curricula, often written by wealthy, white educational consultants who are their graduates. The curricula then trickle down to the rest of the nation’s schools. And children, regardless of their race or class, learn to distrust the whole inheritance of Western civilization, referring to it largely as a disgruntled group of old, white, dead men.

In Joe Biden’s America, “poor kids” are supposed to be seen as “just as bright and just as talented as white kids—wealthy kids.” The president’s accidental conflation of the two —“white” and “wealthy”— was telling. As elite schools move further away from merit-based assessments, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for social mobility, and existing inequalities will perpetuate.

The stories we hear from the schools of the One Percent may be discouraging, but they at least make one thing clear: Without an education, what’s left to people is the language of power—one’s race and one’s class.

The Lucrative Business of Woke Education

Why Private Schools Have Gone Woke

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