Amplification seems like an obvious idea—all it says is that technology is a tool that augments human power. But, if it’s obvious, it nevertheless has profound consequences that are routinely overlooked. For example, amplification explains why large-scale roll-outs of educational technology rarely result in positive outcomes. In any representative set of schools, some are doing well and others poorly. Introducing computers may result in benefit for some (the ones highlighted in pilot studies), but it distracts the weaker schools from their core mission. On average, the outcome is a wash.
An even bigger problem is that administrators rarely allocate enough resources to adapt curricula or train teachers. Where teachers don’t know how to incorporate digital tools appropriately, there is little capacity for the technology to amplify.
If a private company is failing to make a profit, no one expects that state-of-the-art data centers, better productivity software, and new laptops for all of the employees will turn things around. Yet, that is exactly the logic of so many attempts to fix education with technology.
To wonder what ails American education is to open a Pandora’s box of wicked problems. It could be poverty in early childhood or school districts funded by inadequate property taxes. Maybe it’s poorly designed incentives for teachers or elite flight into the private school system. The truth likely lies in some combination of these factors and more, but the problem is definitely not a lack of computers. Even tech proponents don’t argue that U.S. educational decline was caused by a decline of technology.
And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.
Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes. In April, I went to St. Petersburg to learn more about the agency and its brand of information warfare, which it has aggressively deployed against political opponents at home, Russia’s perceived enemies abroad and, more recently, me.
Savchuk told me she shared an office with about a half-dozen teammates. It was smaller than most, because she worked in the elite Special Projects department. While other workers churned out blandly pro-Kremlin comments, her department created appealing online characters who were supposed to stand out from the horde. Savchuk posed as three of these creations, running a blog for each one on LiveJournal. One alter ego was a fortuneteller named Cantadora. The spirit world offered Cantadora insight into relationships, weight loss, feng shui — and, occasionally, geopolitics. Energies she discerned in the universe invariably showed that its arc bent toward Russia. She foretold glory for Vladimir Putin, defeat for Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko. The point was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.
In fact, she was a troll. The word “troll” was popularized in the early 1990s to denounce the people who derailed conversation on Usenet discussion lists with interminable flame wars, or spammed chat rooms with streams of disgusting photos, choking users with a cloud of filth. As the Internet has grown, the problem posed by trolls has grown more salient even as their tactics have remained remarkably constant. Today an ISIS supporter might adopt a pseudonym to harass a critical journalist on Twitter, or a right-wing agitator in the United States might smear demonstrations against police brutality by posing as a thieving, violent protester. Any major conflict is accompanied by a raging online battle between trolls on both sides.
HUMAN hands are extremely good at making clothes. While many manufacturing processes have been automated, stitching together garments remains a job for millions of people around the world. As with most labour-intensive tasks, much of the work has migrated to low-wage countries, especially in Asia. Factory conditions can be gruelling. As nations develop and wages rise, the trade moves on to the next cheapest location: from China, to Bangladesh and, now that it is opening up, Myanmar. Could that migration be about to end with the development of a robotic sewing machine?
There have been many attempts to automate sewing. Some processes can now be carried out autonomously: the cutting of fabric, for instance, and sometimes sewing buttons or pockets. But it is devilishly difficult to make a machine in which fabric goes in one end and finished garments, such as jeans and T-shirts, come out the other. The particularly tricky bit is stitching two pieces of material together. This involves aligning the material correctly to the sewing head, feeding it through and constantly adjusting the fabric to prevent it slipping and buckling, while all the time keeping the stitches neat and the thread at the right tension. Nimble fingers invariably prove better at this than cogs, wheels and servo motors.
“The distortion of the fabric is no longer an issue. That’s what prevented automatic sewing in the past,” says Steve Dickerson, the founder of SoftWear Automation, a textile-equipment manufacturer based in Atlanta, where Dr Dickerson was a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The real test of how successful robots will be at making clothing and shoes will depend on how efficient and reliable they will be, and how fully they can automate the process. If time-to-market and customisation are priorities, then the robots might win—even if some manual intervention in production is required. But for mass-produced lines, where every cent matters, any human involvement could keep manufacturing offshore. The lesson from industrial automation in other sorts of factories, though, shows that robots keep getting better and cheaper. It may be a while coming, but the writing seems to be on the wall for sweatshops.
Some athletes with TS attribute near-magical powers to their condition. Tim Howard, the goalkeeper of last year’s U.S. World Cup soccer team, says that TS has given him vision and reflexes that other players simply don’t have. Famed physician Oliver Sacks once wrote about a ping-pong player whose abnormal quickness and ability to knock back unreturnable shots, he believed, had to be connected to TS. One reason is that people with Tourette’s also tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Amaris included). They need to repeat behaviors—whether it’s preventing balls from going into the net or running improbably long distances—until they do it just right. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have,” Sacks told a reporter last year, “but if one has Tourette’s, there are advantages.” New research out of the University of Nottingham shows that the brains of TS patients are physically different from everyone else’s, transformed by years of operating under much greater than normal resistance and better at controlling the body.
Neurologists at the Tourette Syndrome Association aren’t quite ready to embrace a connection between TS and superior athleticism. They are more comfortable saying that people with TS often see their symptoms subside when they’re playing sports or otherwise engaged in something that focuses their attention away from the urge to tic.
Soccer quieted the noise in Amaris’ head. After taking up the game, she began to tic less off the field. She did better in school. She talked more. Actually, she talked a lot, like she does now. In her last game in England, she scored three goals and the other kids lifted her up on their shoulders and carried her around. She would have had a major problem with that just months before—too many germs—but she loved it. And then her family moed to Alabama.
Her tics intensified with the stress and anxiety of being relocated to a new base, a new house, a school with no friends. More than at any other time in her life, her tics wore her out. But England had taught her something. She decided to join two different soccer teams and a swim team.
Soon enough, Mike and Kristen began to hear tales of athletic feats that seemed impossible. Specifically, they were told that their sixth-grader had run a mile at school in well under six minutes.
“Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them.” -Chaim Weizmann
If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here: https://tinyletter.com/peopleinpassing
I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.