Category: Non-Fiction

Upstream

Cover image for Upstream by Dan Heath by Dan Heath

ISBN 978-1-9821-3472-3

“So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We handle one problem after another, but we never get around to fixing the systems that caused the problems.”

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but in the day-to-day busyness of life, it can be easy to overlook systemic problems, focusing instead on quick fixes and immediate solutions. With our natural human bias towards reaction and visible results, it requires deliberation to step away from the urgent and immediate, and turn our attention towards long-term interventions that may not pay dividends for months or perhaps years, even in cases where the rewards are exponential. Often these deeper problems are invisible, but even when they are known, they may be ignored or deferred when no one wants to take responsibility for solving them. In Upstream, Dan Heath examines the reasons why preventative thinking is so difficult, how we can do it better, and the invisible pitfalls that plague such efforts, using examples from business, education, and healthcare to illustrate the broad nature of his point.

I appreciated that a lot of this book was not just about the benefits of upstream thinking, but also focused on why it is difficult, and anticipating the ways that it can go wrong. Heath, who teaches social entrepreneurship at Duke University, provides examples of times that upstream thinking succeeded, such as improving the graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools, but also points to dismal failures, such as the abuses of CompStat policing software to artificially lower crime rates. Heath also acknowledged the complex and interconnected nature of the problems upstream thinking might be applied to, and spends time delving into unexpected consequences of well-intentioned interventions. This is far from being a simplistic paean to the benefits of thinking ahead.

Data is the key to upstream interventions, as measurement is essential to evaluating long-term efforts. But even there Heath points to the pitfalls, and the ways in which metrics can be poorly chosen or gamed. If quantity and quality are not tracked in tandem, one will usually pay the price for the other. One such example is Expedia, which for a long time was only measuring how quickly their call centers resolved customer issues, without pausing to consider why there were so many calls in the first place. Heath also cites the egregious example of police officers failing to record reported crimes, or downgrading a rape to “theft of services” because the victim was a sex worker, in order to keep the crime rate artificially low.

Heath tells the same story two different ways to show how even perceived strengths of human behaviour can have negative consequences for upstream thinking. Our pride in being creative, persistent, and resourceful can trap us inside a system that never learns from its mistakes. By overvaluing adaptability in the moment, we abdicate the responsibility for spotting repeated problems, and fixing them before they happen again. But this requires systems thinking, and for someone to take ownership of the problem even if it might not seem to properly belong to them. This can be especially difficult in cases where the group that has the power or ability to fix the problem is not the same as the group that will directly benefit from fixing it. Through these carefully parsed nuances, Heath makes it clear why upstream interventions are anything but easy.

It was very interesting to be reading this book during the COVID-19 outbreak, as a lot of the examples Heath uses come from the realm of public health, which is ripe for preventative care initiatives. Here Heath discusses problem blindness, or the idea that “negative outcomes are natural or inevitable.” Early discourse around COVID-19 dismissed the outbreak as “just the flu” and many people expressed fatalism about the possibility of becoming infected, with little regard for the collective consequences. Many of the interventions we are currently being asked to participate in, from hand washing to social distancing, are aimed not at treating currently infected people, but at the much more abstract idea of preventing the cases that will otherwise be diagnosed ten to fourteen days from now. If these cases do not materialize, then that is “the world avoided” by the intervention. COVID-19 is practically a case study in the difficulties of upstream thinking; if we succeed in slowing the spread, flattening the curve, and preventing the health care system from being overwhelmed, then we will have seemed to have cried wolf. Meanwhile, the economic harms are immediate, and evident, but are being attributed to COVID-19 hysteria, rather than seen as evidence of problems and weaknesses in the systems of our daily lives. It is easier to blame social distancing for economic hardship than it is to look upstream to wealth disparity, a weak social safety net, insufficient unemployment benefits, deficient sick leave policies, and so many more social issues that go well beyond one pandemic. In short, this was an extremely timely read, but the concepts found here apply to much more than our current situation.

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

ISBN 978-0-385-69238-0

Content Warnings: Racism, sexual violence, domestic violence, mental illness, and suicide.

 “Our parents were far from perfect, but their main barriers to being better parents were poverty, intergenerational trauma and mental illness—things neither social workers nor police officers have ever been equipped to address, yet are both allowed, even encouraged, to patrol.”

Alicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. Her debut collection has amassed an impressive array of blurbs, including Eden Robinson and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and the acknowledgements include thanks to the likes of Roxane Gay, Waubgeshig Rice, Cherie Dimaline, and Tanya Talaga.

The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. The essay “Crude Collages of My Mother” fruitlessly attempts to piece together the divide she created in her mind between her mother when she was well, and when she was sick, and the fundamental unity and yet irreconcilability of the two halves. It also means eventually confronting her own depression and anxiety, and the fact that suicide rates among her people are twice the national average thanks to a complicated history of colonialism and genocide.

A significant part of Elliott’s collection also deals with perceptions of Indigineity. For her parents, this is the push-pull between her mother’s white Catholic identity, and her father’s desire to more deeply connect with his Indigenous heritage. For her it means confronting the perceptions and misconceptions of being half-white, and the choice to pass, or not, in various contexts. When she becomes a mother at eighteen, it means grappling with the fact that her child, who has a white father, does not have status, and the simultaneous guilt and gratitude for the fact that the child is white-passing. She calls out the internalized racism. “No one should have to feel thankful that their child is not dark-skinned,” she laments.

Another theme that runs through the essays is the power of seeing your reflection in literature, and how that impacts a young writer’s ability to create the kind of work they need to make. However, Elliott is equally critical of how the concept of diversity has been positioned in the literary sphere, arguing that it is the publishing world’s equivalent of the “ethnic” restaurant, fundamentally designed to cater to the white palate rather than reflect the tastes or concerns of the community from which it springs. While proud to be labelled a “Native writer” by other Native people, Elliott notes that being labelled a “Native writer” by non-Native people “is more often than not an act of literary colonialism, showing paternalism, ownership and a desire to keep us inside a neatly labelled box where they deem us a non-threat.” Outside their own communities, it is a label that calls even their accolades into question, as Elliott cites from a thesis in which the work of Thomson Highway is deemed to have been “canonized” simply because it came along just at the time when concerns were being raised about the pervasive whiteness of Canadian literature.

Elliott’s essays range from highly personal, to more academic, though they all incorporate a personal component. Some essays, such as “Dark Matters,” use poetic license on a scholarly concept, such as dark matter in physics, to draw a parallel: “Racism for many people seems to occupy space in very much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable,” Elliott analogizes. The most academic of these is “Sontag, in Snapshots” which begins with her reflections on why she hates having her photograph taken, and how her friends have often refused to respect this boundary. However, it quickly expands into a more wide-sweeping critical examination of how white artists and photographers like George Catlin and Edward Curtis co-opted the public depiction of Native people, so that they were seen as “frozen in time, relics of the past, beautifully tragic vanishing Indians.” Building on the Sontag essay on which she is reflecting, Elliott critiques how the agency of white photographers has been given priority over the agency of their non-white subjects, cementing the photos as facts, even when the situation has been highly manipulated, or the image is taken out of context.

Across these many themes, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

She-Wolves

Cover image for She-Wolves by Helen Castorby Helen Castor

ISBN 9780571237050

“Amid the chaos and confusion, one thing alone was certain: for the first time, a woman would sit upon the throne of England.”

When King Edward VI died in July 1553, the Tudor line of succession was in a peculiar position. Henry VIII had left behind one son—now dead—and two supposedly illegitimate daughters from earlier marriages. Henry VIII also had two sisters, Mary and Margaret, whose living descendants were all daughters. Thus, all the potential claimants to the throne were women, and while the identity of the next occupant of the English throne was by no means certain, the fact that England would have its first reigning Queen seemed indisputable. In order to contextualize the succession crises that followed Edward VI’s death, historian Helen Castor examines four precedents for female power in England, from the Empress Matilda in the 12th century, to Margaret of Anjou in the 15th.

Of the four women Castor profiles in She-Wolves, only one was an English-born princess who aimed to rule the country in her own right. She was also the earliest. When her father Henry I died without any living legitimate sons in 1135, his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, was named as his heir and sought to claim his throne, but was usurped by her cousin, Stephen, who moved decisively to claim the crown. With her illegitimate half-brother at the head of her armies, Matilda fought for her rights, but the fact the she was unable to lead troops herself is one of the many factors Castor cites in her inability to gain a decisive advantage. The result was a civil war that tore the country apart for a generation, and ended only with a compromise; Matilda would never rule in her own right, but her son, Henry II would be Stephen’s heir. It would be another four hundred years before the country was faced with the prospect of being ruled by a woman outright.

The remaining three women were not English by birth, but French-born princesses and duchesses who married into the English royal family, the first being Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Here were three more typical examples of the means by which women could expect to wield power, in the names of their husbands and sons. From crusades to foreign wars to mental incapacity and long minorities, there were a variety of extenuating circumstances in which English Queens Consort or Queen Mothers might temporarily take hold of the reins of power. But as Castor’s account makes clear, the prospect of being reigned by a woman rarely sat easily, or lasted long, save in the hands of the cleverest politicians. Isabella of France would seize power from her inept husband, Edward II, in the name of their young son, only to succumb to the same excesses that had made her husband so deeply unpopular, and live to see that power seized back by the teenage son for whom she claimed to rule.

Castor acknowledges the difficulties inherent in writing about these four women particularly that, despite being Queens, the records of their lives are shockingly spotty. In many places, it is necessary to infer what their actions or motives might have been based on the surrounding context of documented English politics and history of the period. Castor relies on contemporary chroniclers, but duly notes their sympathies and prejudices, mindful of the fact that their accounts are often coloured by their own loyalties and preferences. In many places there are long gaps, such as the fifteen year period when Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept under house arrest after leading her sons into rebellion against their father. If it is not quite possible to know the personalities of these women, however, their strengths and weaknesses as politicians at least come into focus.

Overall, She-Wolves stands out due to the unique structure Castor employs, in which she opens with Edward VI’s death, turns back the clock to profile the four Queens, and then returns to the Tudor succession crisis to view it in light of what we have learned. The result is a unique take on a period of history that is already well-covered. Fans of the Tudors should note that while they frame this story, they are not the primary focus, and that the bulk of the text is dedicated to the women who preceded them.

You might also like:

How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Faith and Treason by Antonia Fraser

Because Internet

Cover image for Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochby Gretchen McCulloch

ISBN 978-0-7352-1093-6

“Whatever else is changing for good or bad in the world, the continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems, nor the cause of them. It simply is. You never truly step in the same English twice.”

Canadian internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch studies the informal written English that has grown up around our use of the internet, as well as text messaging and chat services. Because Internet covers a lot of ground, from typographical methods of conveying tone of voice, to emoji as gesture, to the evolution of memes, and the centuries-long quest for sarcasm punctuation. Her study focuses predominantly on English, with occasional examples from other languages and cultures. Taking a broad view, McCulloch surveys the origins and precursors of how informal written language has evolved since took to the web, and will continue to develop as new generations make their own changes and additions to the lexicon.

Because Internet is a prescriptivist’s nightmare; McCulloch is less interested in how we should use language, than in describing how our use of the written word has evolved to help us communicate over the internet, and through other forms of technological mediation. As she points out, “standard language and correct spelling are collective agreements, not eternal truths.” She notes that the fact that young women lead linguistic change is so well established as to be an unremarkable state of affairs in linguistic circles. But it also likely helps explain why such changes are so heavily derided; young women are rarely taken seriously. However, McCulloch approaches her study with the same attention and rigour usually devoted to more formalized texts.

One of the most interesting sections of the book covers the evolution of emoticons and emoji to facilitate text-based communication. McCulloch contends that they serve the purpose of mitigating a feature that is both a strength and weakness of writing—it is disembodied. The disadvantage becomes evident “when it comes to representing emotions and other mental states.” What is stunning is that over time, “a couple billion internet users had subconsciously, collectively, and spontaneously” mapped the functions of embodied gestures and facial expressions on the capacity for text or image-based icons to convey those missing nuances.

McCulloch also maps some subtle changes in the way we use punctuation. In informal writing, terminal periods have begun to disappear, to the point that younger people will sometimes read a period as passive aggressive. Falling somewhere in between the two age groups, I looked at my own text messaging history and realized that, indeed, my terminal periods had largely disappeared. I would end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation point, but if the final punctuation mark would have been a period, I generally left it off and simply sent the message. Similarly, different generations use ellipses in different ways. While older people will use the … as a connector between thoughts, younger people will tend to read in hesitance, or omission, and wonder what isn’t being said.

In a guest post on Whatever, McCulloch explains that she decided to write to the reader of the future. So if you are what McCulloch calls a current “Full Internet Person,” certain explanations will probably feel unnecessary, but as time passes this context will become more important for everyone, just as it is currently useful for “Semi Internet People” who don’t live and breathe memes, and aren’t on the cutting edge of every social media trend. This approach does make for some sections that feel a bit overwritten for the current reader, but the current reader is only current for this fleeting moment in time. Because Internet captures the early linguistic evolution of informal writing on the internet.

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The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji Yoshinoby Kenji Yoshino

ISBN 978-0-375-76021-1

 “In the new generation, discrimination directs itself not against the entire group, but against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms.”

Kenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on gay rights and marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Yoshino attributes the term “covering” to Erving Goffman’s 1963 book, Stigma, from which he quotes, “passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness.” Despite the significant progress made for civil rights in general, and gay rights in particular, Yoshino was left feeling that the transformation was incomplete, and that there were gaps yet to bridge to achieve true acceptance. American culture has largely moved past the demand that gay people convert to being straight (conversation therapy) and even somewhat past the demand that gay people pass for straight within society (don’t ask, don’t tell). Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs.

Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. He identifies four areas where covering takes place, including appearance, affiliation, activism, and association. He also delves deep into the possible problems and potential pitfalls of protecting behaviour as well as identity. First, he acknowledges the complexity of identifying what counts as covering. For example, for some members of the gay community, gay marriage might be considered a form of covering because it asks them to assimilate to straight cultural norms by adopting a straight cultural institution that is not compatible with their values or preferences. Yoshino also stresses that rejecting covering cannot come with an inverse demand that minorities act “gay enough” or “black enough,” thus inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. “My ultimate commitment is to autonomy as a means of achieving authenticity, rather than to a fixed conception of what authenticity must be,” he concludes.

As a gay Japanese American, Yoshino is able to personally touch on covering as it pertains to both race and sexual identity, and he weaves his personal experiences into these discussions, sharing how he continued to cover aspects of his identity long after he came out to his parents. However, he also addresses gender and disability, even though he does not personally experience these covering demands. He identifies a unique double-bind experienced by women in the workplace, where they are “pressured to be “masculine” enough to be respected as workers, but “feminine” enough to be respected as women.” Motherhood also offers a unique example of contextual covering. Outside of work, “mothers seems like paragons of normalcy,” but on the job they are “the queers of the workplace,” forced to downplay this aspect of their identity in order to avoid the mommy track.

Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. But he chose the law, because “a gay poet is vulnerable in profession as well as person. Law school promised to arm me with a new language, a language I did not expect to be elegant or moving, but I expected to be more potent, more able to protect me.” However, his command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

You might also like Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino

Range

Cover image for Range by David Epsteinby David Epstein

ISBN 978-0-7352-1448-4        

“Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”

Most people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule, as studied by Anders Ericsson, and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength.

It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, he is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving. He specifically identifies “kind” domains in which the rules are relatively fixed, and feedback is immediate, and more “wicked” domains where results take longer to reveal themselves, and the rules are subject to change at any moment, if any patterns can be discerned at all.

Epstein has a great eye for stories, and a knack for telling them well. He opens each chapter with a case that illustrates the point, before he lays out the somewhat drier data that buttresses his argument. One of the most fascinating of these is the story of the figlie del coro, female orphans and foundlings from the Venetian ospedali. Given over to the orphanage by their mothers—who were probably sex workers—the girls were raised to music from an early age, taught to sing and play a variety of instruments. Although these women were hailed as among the best musicians of the period, and had the vaunted early start, they spent much less time per day practicing than today’s classically trained musicians, and they switched and sampled instruments often. In fact, they were known to switch places mid-performance. Their story illustrates that even in “kind” domains like classical music, there are paths to outrageous success that do not follow what we think of as the typical path. And the examples provided are not just historical; in the world of modern music, Yo-Yo Ma tried violin and piano before settling on the cello.

Yet another of Epstein’s gripping stories comes from endeavours like InnoCentive, a company founded to search for unusual solutions to sophisticated problems that have stumped experts in the fields from which the problems arose. Thus, a man with experience working with concrete solved the problem of how to remove congealed oil from an environmental recovery barge, and the dean of a library school who had no library science background discovered a potential link between migraines and magnesium deficiency, which was documented in the available literature, but which no researcher or neurologist had ever connected before. These cases make for a compelling argument not only for individual range, but for diversity within teams that are solving problems, so that not everyone is working out of the same toolbox.

Given the early pressure for students to specialize, and the popularity of books such as Grit, which valourize persistence to a fault, Range offers an interesting counterpoint to this tendency to try to get ahead. Yet Epstein points out that students who chose to specialize early were more likely to switch fields later. Education doesn’t just provide work skills, it also helps students identify the areas that are a good match for their strengths and preferences. Experience is never wasted, and exploration is part of the point of education. We cannot know in advance how seemingly unrelated skills may help us down the road.

You might also like Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Custodians of the Internet

Cover image for Custodians of the Internet by Tarleton Gillespieby Tarleton Gillespie

ISBN 978-0-300-17313-0

“The fantasy of a truly ‘open’ platform is powerful, resonating with deep, utopian notions of community and democracy—but it is just that, a fantasy. There is no platform that does not impose rules, to some degree. Not to do so would be simply untenable.”

No matter what web platforms you use, the contents presented to you inside that software shell are shaped by a series of policies and decisions which are probably largely invisible to you as the end user. Focusing on the major English language platforms, Custodians of the Internet analyzes the myth of the neutral platform, introduces the US regulatory scheme that gave rise to the current state of affairs, and examines the strengths and weaknesses of the different moderation methods currently in use, as well as making some modest proposals for how adjust the situation going forward. Tarleton Gillespie is both an academic and a tech industry insider, employed by Microsoft Research New England, as well as Cornell University. The book is published by Yale University Press.

Custodians of the Internet aims to focus our attention on the hidden work that the social media platforms would rather have remain invisible. Content moderation functions silently behind the scenes, and the end user never knows what it is they do not see. Moreover, thanks to personalization algorithms, they do not know what they see that others do not, and vice-versa. The content is not only moderated, it is also curated, often to maximize engagement and time on screen. Platforms have worked very hard to preserve this illusion of smooth operation, requiring their third-party moderators to sign non-disclosure agreements, and remaining tight-lipped about how they decide what to allow on their sites, and how their algorithms function. Most people spend little or no time thinking about what isn’t on the platforms they use, or why they see what they do see, but these invisible boundaries are what shape and distinguish these spaces, and constitute them into usable, monetizable products.

Gillespie also attempts to encompass the inherent and irreconcilable complexity of the moderation endeavour, and the broad range of unseen work it entails, from policy teams, to crowd workers, to individual users who are deputized rate or report content. He includes analysis of three main moderation strategies, which are editorial review, user flagging, and automatic detection. Each strategy has constrains and weaknesses. For example, editorial review is hugely labour intensive, flagging mechanisms can be abused for social or political purposes, and even potential violations automatically detected by a computer often need to be verified by human eyes. While it is easy for users or the media to criticize a particular moderation decision or policy, Gillespie is determined to highlight the broader context and framework inside which each individual decision is ultimately made and disputed.

Gillespie identifies two categories that platforms tend to fall into when it comes to moderation; they position themselves either as “speech machines” or “community keepers,” and build their policies around those stances. However, he does not oversimplify, noting the tension and interplay between the two camps, and how platforms ricochet between these justifications when trying to position themselves in the best possible light, often after an individual decision comes under scrutiny. As Gillespie puts it, “If social media platforms were ever intended to embody the freedom of the web, then constraints of any kind run counter to these ideals, and moderation must be constantly disavowed. Yet if platforms are supposed to offer anything better than the chaos of the open web, then oversight is central to that offer—moderation is the key commodity, and must be advertised in the most appealing possible terms.” It is a contradiction that can never be fully reconciled, and one that is inevitably shaped by the economic imperatives of making a platform profitable as well as functional.

For those unfamiliar with American law, Gillespie includes an introduction to Section 230, the provision of telecommunications regulation better known as “safe harbor” that holds intermediaries or conduits innocent of any responsibility for the speech or content of their users. It further stipulates that moderation in good faith does not change this provision. This regime was designed for the telephone era, and Gillespie convincingly argues that social media platforms, which the law could not have foreseen, “violate the century-old distinction between deeply embedded in how we think about media and communication,” and further that they constitute “a hybrid that has not been anticipated by information law or public debate.” The book is not largely focused on solutions, but Gillespie does propose that safe harbour need not be unconditional. Rather, platforms could be asked to meet certain requirements in order to maintain that status, whether that means greater transparency or improved appeal structures. However it seems likely that the platforms would vociferously oppose any change to this generous provision, which grants them the best of both worlds—the right to remove any content they please, but responsibility for none of it.

Gillespie is largely interested in looking at the big picture, and at the breadth of content which platforms host and police. Policies must be designed to cover a wide range of content, and Gillespie seems less interested in specific case studies, except in so far as they show how a broad dictate such as “no nudity” can come into conflict with a more specific situation, such as breastfeeding, to which he dedicates a chapter. Gillespie is also interested in problems of scale, and the issues that arise when a platform is home to multiple communities of people with conflicting values, and differing ideas about where lines should be drawn. Small, homogeneous online communities that believe they do not require moderation often get a rude awakening when they receive a large influx of new users who do not share their presumed values.

In this broad discussion, Custodians of the Internet is laying the groundwork for our emerging conversation about the role the platforms have played during the growth of the web as our dominant form of media, and the role we want these platforms to play in public discourse going forward. This is part of a larger discussion about not only moderation, harassment and free speech, but also data privacy, the gig economy, microtargeting, algorithmic bias, and more. The distribution of power and responsibility will shape our future in ways we have only begun to comprehend.