Tracy Mitrano's blog

Connecting the Dots

Economic development is one of the top issues for our country. Just because the markets are strong does not mean that the wealth trickles down to workers. There are two excellent articles in The New York Times that speak to these points. The first is from the seasoned journalist Steven Greenhouse about what labor needs going forward and the second from the columnist David Leonhardt about how tax laws have skewed wealth. I have been trying to make the case it rests fundamentally on internet deployment and goes up the stack to education, commerce, and e-health.  More important, how it can help the interior of the United States, not just the coasts or metro U.S. Readers have been helping me think through this perspective for ten years now. I could still use your help.
 
As of 2015, the United States is listed as 35th in the world for broadband deployment.  Granted, we have a diverse and expansive physical terrain to transverse but terrain alone is not what keeps us from a broader deployment. That challenge rests almost exclusively on policy — or the absence of it — the current administration’s fever for deregulation across the board of federal agencies, and, I believe, a failure to connect the dots between the internet and economic development.
 
Much of our country is agricultural.  People often ask me, what can the internet do for them?  A lot. Every cow that goes through the barn is tagged. Their milk output monitored. In order to remain competitive state-wide, as well as nationally and even globally (yes, milk is a global product), analytics about that output are necessary.  Same with crops from corn to soybean to grapes. Try doing that without available, affordable and robust internet. 
 
Internal tourism supported by the natural beauty, small business owners in restaurants, hotels and stores, and a fabulous wine industry in 49 of the 50 states is the area’s most emergent industry. In short, it is not possible for businesses that operate outside of the metropolitan areas to host, run, or accommodate guests until there is available, affordable and robust internet. You can’t draw people into the interior of our country from outside without it.
 
What about making the interior a destination for new businesses, either, or both, in manufacturing or in tech (since A.I. joins them)?  The land is plentiful, the rents low outside of the coasts and metro areas, the natural terrain gorgeous. So many excellent colleges and universities, and 50 agricultural schools as a part of the great land grant missions sport smart, ambitious students who would love to stay in more rural areas and make a life in this abundance.  Can’t, won’t happen without available, affordable and robust internet.
 
Applications in education, commerce, health care, government and culture move “up the stack” of the foundational internet.  Readers of this blog know that technology has been disruptive because it affects the market, law and social norms across the board, troubling incumbents but also creating opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs and people who benefit from that development.  What dots can you draw? Maybe we could come up with the ideas that, instead of facing off against each other, we can translate into something productive that would work for all of us. 

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017
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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Deception and Fraud on the Internet

A few years ago, I wrote about fraud on Craigslist. What I could not accomplish in many attempts – to get Craigslist to take down a fraudulent advertising for a house I rent – a post about that problem almost instantly cleared the matter up. Sunlight in the form of the press is now required to address two new matters. The first concerns the sale of performance tickets by a vendor in the Northeast, Vivid Seats. The second is fake puppy sales sites.
 
Vivid Seats popped up as a vendor of tickets for two performances I sought: James Taylor and Sting. The latter I bought for Tanglewood, asked and received two tickets. I paid way, way too much using this vendor, but that’s on me; I should have done more research. The tickets I bought for James Taylor were also grossly overpriced, but there was one fundamental difference. Vivid Seats used a tricky functionality of the transaction site to sell an extra ticket.

Just as I did with Sting, I used their site to find the performance, in this case Fenway Park, and then entered the quantity I wanted, two tickets. When I hit the complete transaction button, suddenly a very surprising sum showed up – a total that reflected the purchase of three.  I immediately went to their service and chat and round and round we went until staff, or a machine, who knows who or what is on the other side, announced that in the section I bought it was “policy” to sell a minimum of three seats. But where was my notice of that policy I asked? They changed the quantity from two to three without notice, and therefore without my consent. Person or machine was silent.

I created enough of a stir in their customer service chat that the next morning, at my invitation, a representative from Vivid Seats called me. Where was the notice? Had they ever heard of informed consent?  Not only were those notions too academic, it went against their deceptive business practice.  She expressed (fake) sympathy for the situation and offered to take $100 off my next purchase. The offer was tempting; I was also in the market for the Red Sox. But I stuck to my guns and recognized the ruse: she wanted to keep me buying tickets. I simply wanted to have Vivid Seats reverse the charges on that one ticket. No dice.

Next step, I brought a consumer fraud action through the State of Massachusetts against Vivid Seats. That was three months ago. Vivid Seats did not respond to it. The Bureau sent me information for filing in Small Claims Court. I’ll do it, but I thought I would throw in a dose of sunlight.

Now to fake puppy sale sites. Apart from hopeful parents of human adoptions, who is more of a potential sucker for fraud than someone looking for a puppy? For almost a year now, I have craved a dog. I never had one growing up, only turtles and fish. Now, two boys out of the house and our family cat having gone to her reward, I scan every dog that passes, ask my friends for suggestions, and learn about this breed and that. Last Friday, when my neighbor and I waved hello and she came by to chat, I immediately went to “what kind of dog is that?”  [Fill in the blank]!  That’s it, I thought, I’ll get that.

 Once back in the house, I immediately turned to the internet. A site popped up and the cutest pictures you ever did see stole my heart. Go to contacts. Within five minutes, someone writes back. Oh yes, Charlies was 10 weeks, house trained, with all shots, available, in fact on sale, and could be sent from Texas to my house for half of what this breed usually costs. 

Within minutes, I prepared to change my life!  I would get the puppy and devote myself to his training! Maybe I could get a therapist to write me a “therapy dog” script and bring Charlie to work?  Would I need a new car, something more dog friendly?  Yes, I could do that too!  I texted my son who is not emancipated yet (read: he would be in the house with the doggie), and who was on his way back to college. I sent him the pics. Not his choice for a dog – he wants a lab, he nonetheless thought Charlie would be a very good boy. Okay, back to the email thread with my response, YES, YES, YES, what do I do next?

A money order or telegram sent to your address?  Wait a minute … Suddenly I began to look more closely.  No proper contact information. No physical address. Photoshopped photographs. Was Charlie even still a puppy? Alive? Anywhere on this earth?  I looked at Joey and Suzie and Ralph – all too cute with that photoshop look. And the whole thing about the shots and house broken and the discount.  A deal too good to be true, and of course it was not.  Just for the experience, I wrote back saying I had concerns. Was there someone with whom I could speak?  Where were they exactly in Texas? Why don’t they use credit cards.  Silence.
 
Distinctions can be made between these cases. With an extra seat on the field about which I will soon file a claim, we saw James Taylor – he, with Bonnie Raitt – were, as always, great.  Money order or not, I would never see Charlie.  But silence connects these two moments. That final second when after all the exciting connection of 10,000 wires and code and currents and all that human emotion – desire, anticipation, nostalgia, the urge to fill in the gap from one’s childhood past -- and then the internet goes quiet.
 

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017
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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Resign, Mr. President

 

In my first post after the fateful election of 2016, I wrote you a deeply considered letter grounded in my respect for the law and hopeful that you would pursue a presidential path of comity. I followed that letter with another one some months after to express my profound disappointment in your leadership, although in a post script I left a little door open for the future prospects. I am writing this final letter to you as president to let you know that I have closed that door. Your remarks in the aftermath of Charlottesville, combined with so many other demonstrations of inadequacy and failed leadership, reflect the absence of that most fundamental traits required of a president: a moral compass. 

 Is the nostalgia you feel about “heritage” a vestige of what must be very complicated feelings about your father, a man who marched with white supremacists and who unabashedly discriminated against Blacks? It seems to me you have an unreflective affection for him, one that does not take into account from where your own blind ambition starts. That perpetual sense of being wronged, your emotional trademark, bespeaks of truth you see not. The anger, the drive, the projection. And then, of course, the narcissism. That hurt came from a mother who favored a brother, doesn’t it?  You needed your father’s approval to compensate for what your mom failed to give. And now you have attempted to subject this country to consequences of your own wounded past.

I have nothing but compassion for every person’s story, but not for when people act out their hurt. An explanation is not an excuse. As I write today, you sent out tepid support for the protesters yesterday who came out in support of equality and civil rights. Maybe it’s P.R., maybe your new chief of staff composed that message and made you do it.  Maybe it is from your heart.  It doesn’t matter anymore, Mr. Trump. Your failure to stand for what this country has historically fought for so valiantly in the past -- the end of slavery, the overthrowing of legal segregation, democracy over fascism, equality and civil rights -- in the moment when this country needed it most tells us you failed the test. Although I would rather you support those positive qualities than not, your path to understanding is best conducted on your time, not ours, as this country goes forward. 

Resign. The presidency is bad for your business. It will never provide you with the emotional balm that you seek. That goal is not one that can ever be achieved by external accomplishment. Show us you have, in the final analysis, the courage to go home, and for once, be quiet.  In that solitude, you may actually come to find the release you want. And give the rest of this country the opportunity to heal itself. 
 

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Sunday, August 20, 2017
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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Now Is the Time ...

I concluded my last post with the plea that associations and campus leaders stand up collectively for the underlying values of American higher education of free speech and civil rights. Written on Sunday, that post now has had the poignant events of this week to reinforce the point. 
 
Freedom of speech and religious expression provide for people to say or believe whatever they like. Those beliefs do not allow for the violation of law, however. There are exceptions to the freedom of expression and belief such as incitement of violence; time, place and manner restrictions; disturbance of the peace; state gun control laws etc. Moreover, other criminal acts are not excused by a claim of free speech or religious belief, such as the famous “crying fire in a crowded theater” concept or the recent actual example of driving of a car into a crowd of people.

Civil rights are the law of the land. Constitutional protections exist for protected categories of people in terms such as race, national origin, and sex. In other words, governmental entities cannot discriminate against those groups. Civil law establishes those protections in public spaces operated by private entities such as restaurants, hotels, schools and workplaces; these laws further extend protection against discrimination to those with disabilities or, for age, to those private entities that receive federal funds. 
 
Higher education embraces those positions by virtue of its missions.  In contemporary American society, teaching, research and outreach function on the foundation of free inquiry and equal access. Institutional autonomy allows for the creation of inclusive representations of people from various social classes, racial backgrounds, national and ethnic groups in admissions.  Our colleges and universities are better at doing our jobs as public servants and for the betterment of American society because we uphold free speech and civil rights.
 
It is time for association and campus leaders to say that publicly. Most do, honorably and eloquently, to their campuses, but this plea goes to a hope that they extend their voice to a wider audience that reaches the American people and international community at large. Many people may be very confused by contemporary events and look for inspired leadership at times like this. What are our institutions for if not to help educate in the name of citizenship in a democratic republic?  In reaction to the support that President Trump has given to white supremacists, neo-Nazi and other like groups, many of the country’s top business and corporate leaders are leaving presidential advisory groups and/or speaking out on these issues. Together and with a clear voice, higher education leaders should take a cue from them and join in a chorus that speaks for the principles of the American higher education landscape.  

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017
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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Charlottesville

When I wrote last week’s post regarding the Trump assault on higher education, I was not aware of the pending crisis in Charlottesville. The Federal Register note that administrative action has ceased on disability standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act is what prompted me. My intention was to place that action in context of a number of other efforts that threaten higher education such as the re-emergence of predatory for-profit businesses, over-correction on Title IX, and the stalling of the Higher Education Act reauthorization.

Were I to rewrite that post, I would make two changes. One, I would remove the clause “Notwithstanding all kinds of data to the contrary,” from the sentence that continued with, “the Brietbart stereotype of colleges and universities is that they are bastions of liberalism, devoid of free speech, replete with hippy faculty who suck on the public teat while brainwashing spoiled brats.”  Not because I don’t believe in the statement, but because it is a complex concept boiled down to too simple a statement. When I wrote the clause, I was aware of surveys and books that show a liberal bias among college and university faculty, a point that one commenter attempted to make, I think, in directing me to Wikipedia. Point taken, although a few surveys and books do not all of higher education make. But what about the remainder of the straw dog stereotype?  I stand by that description of what Brietbart peddles as rank prejudice designed to excite an emotionally wrought Trump base. 

The second is the paragraph describing an immigration case. In my mind, it is relevant. A thoughtless, heartless immigration policy undermines the dedication of entire families to the success of Dreamer students. I stand by that critique and its associations with higher education. Unfortunately, it gave commenters a tangent upon which to discuss immigration rather than the focus of the post. And as a final retort to last week’s commenters, let me be clear: I, too, believe in critical inquiry. I am no more enamored of extremists on the left than I am on the right. Second only to public service, higher education’s great asset is its pursuit knowledge which always places bias under a microscope.

To the assault on higher education I now return. Under the circumstances of Berkeley, Middlebury and now Charlottesville, assault is precisely the correct term. Used mostly in its metaphorical sense, that term now takes on a deadly meaning given yesterday's August 12, events. About it, I will make three points.

First, free speech. The jurisprudential scope of free speech does not include violence. In fact, even the utterance of such words intended to incite violence is an exception to it. Moreover, violence is an equal opportunity offender. If Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter believe that Berkeley infringed on their free speech rights, then the same could now be said of the White Nativist Rally in Virginia’s effect on the faculty and students of UVA. In this limited sense, I get Melania’s and Trump’s and Sessions’ statements on the event: violence impedes speech. (I do not get Trump’s failure to disavow a political connection with white supremacists, however, except that, well … it points to the obvious.)

Second, President Sullivan. I agree with her decision to cancel the campus events in response to the Nativists. As a student protester when I was in college, I empathize with the disappointment that students and faculty experienced and the frustration that they must feel wanting earnestly to express themselves and their beliefs. But as an administrator I also deeply understand the responsibility of a president to make health and safety a  consideration before anything else. This stance explains in large part why the University of Oklahoma President, who expelled two students after the “racist song” incident, went unchallenged in the courts. It goes to a further exception in free speech jurisprudence that the courts give to educational institutions to consider the pedagogical environment in making a decision about speech.  And at some point, it is basic common sense. A concern about potential violence, which in this case became a reality, supersedes speech. (Given all that President Sullivan represents in her tenure, I hope someday she is awarded the Medal of Honor.)

Third, the assault on higher education. It is real. Moreover, it serves both a symbolic and tangible purpose for those who support it.  If I understand the principal propagator of this assault, Stephen Bannon, higher education must be brought down from its authoritative stance not just because it houses “elites,” or toleratesa “liberal bias,” but because it represents stability over chaos and reason over unbridled passions.  For those unfamiliar with his work, Mr. Bannon believes, or wants – the two are bound together – a climactic struggle between Islam and “the West.” Alleged by a former wife to be anti-Semitic, and unapologetic about the white supremacist connections between the him and the alt-right that he rallied to form Trump’s “base,” he can only prove his theory correct if, in fact, chaos and unbridled passions triumph.

Take note: he is not simply a “conservative,” who would otherwise hold that the “marketplace of ideas” is what will prevail in a debate. He is not a traditional Republican who seeks deregulation on the economic front and pro-life social politics. He craves the kind of violence and destruction depicted in his films.  What it satisfies in him at a deeper psychological level, I do not know, but I imagine it is something akin to an adolescent sense of inadequacy that even his professional success as an elite has never vanquished. What I do know is that in the political realm those tendencies are associated with fascists.  In recent American history, he resurrects a Joseph McCarthy paranoid and prejudicial quality of politics. Time and time again, history has demonstrated that those qualities are neither healthy nor appropriate for a democratic republic.

It is in this context that the assault on higher education is taking place. If the evidence of that metaphorical assault rests on the appointment of a secretary of education who knows almost nothing about it, the rug being pulled out from under civil rights, and yet another strike against “affirmative action,” which already does not exist but is about the autonomy of institutions to create a diverse and inclusive body of students, faculty and staff, then the actual assault is now before us in Charlottesville, Virginia. Failing to appreciate this broader context, treating each issue as separate and distinct instead of a part of the larger Trump/Bannon political fabric leaves higher education as I know it on the ropes and not, as I have always hoped, in a position of leadership.  Stand up, association and campus leaders -- and not just in individual statements to your campuses but together to American society -- while you still have a choice or you will be made to sit down. By then, it will be too late.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017
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Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Convenient Target

Higher education is under attack from the Trump Administration. An agenda to afflict “elites” goes straight to the heart of this effort. Notwithstanding all kinds of data to the contrary, the Brietbart stereotype of colleges and universities is that they are bastions of liberalism, devoid of free speech, replete with hippy faculty who suck on the public teat while brainwashing spoiled brats. 

The assault began long before January 20. Demonization of faculty goes hand in hand with claims of restricted speech that stretch from Evergreen to Berkeley on the west straight to Middlebury on the east. It has long been a part of Bannon’s playbook. Donald Trump not only has forsaken the academic vote but now uses his post to punish those whom he and Bannon believe lie outside his base. Let’s look at some of these efforts, and they don’t even include the attacks on the National Endowment for the Humanities or other sources of research funding that is also at stake.

The selection of Betsy DeVos set the tone from the start. Unknowledgeable about higher education for the most part, she has taken privatization of K-12 public education as her main focus. This plan blurs into higher ed at a most unfortunate edge: reviving predatory private endeavors (such as Trump University, which settled just such a case for 25 million) in the college space. Facts be damned. The damage that these companies have wrought onto the most vulnerable of students are of no account. The principle of maintaining a free market – and garnering profits no matter what the social cost -- outweighs that expense.
 
At the same time, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act hangs in the balance. Because its central tenet is financial aid, that issue alone probably counts more towards access than any other. Reform of student loans is a critical step that American society must make if it wants to support the college path not only for youth but for those who have been marginalized by the loss of jobs in manufacturing or other sectors. But don’t count on it, because giving access to those who most need it is inherently not what the White House wants. 

The one proactive salvo DeVos made in higher ed is a re-examination of Title IX on sexual assault. Her staff have already had to apologize for hyperbole about how men have suffered in the pendulum swing of concern between victims and abusers. The good will of judicial administrators to address both with due process is lost in the sway of politics. Woe to anyone who enters this path, by choice or not, you are caught in the vortex. It is not about you, after all, it is about perception and votes.

Next let’s look at immigration under Trump. Visiting scholars have been harassed at our borders with the message “don’t come back” conveyed to its fullest. Students attempting to get to American universities are thwarted at the gate; it is no wonder that European, Canadian, and Australian institutions are experiencing a surge of foreign applicants. Dreamers have not had the shoe drop … just yet. There is no affirmation of their status, just the pending, unresolved threat. 

Furthermore, forget it if you are undocumented from way back. I know of a Mexican father of three children, all either college grads or on that path, who languishes in an immigration detention center in Western, New York because the (white, citizen) guy driving a work truck in which he was a passenger did not use his seatbelt.  He and his wife have been here for almost twenty years, paying taxes, working hard at jobs many (native white) people will not do, sending their children to college, but never mind those facts: he has no path to citizenship.  He is useful to Trump for only one purpose: as a scapegoat to whip up anger, fear and resentment amidst his base.

Civil rights and higher education have the quality of access in common. It comes as no surprise, then, to observe that civil rights are also under attack.  Trump promised historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) support as a way to garner votes.  Of course, he has failed to make good on those promises. (In that regard, at least he is an equal opportunity offender.) He sent DeVos to the graduation ceremonies of one of the HBCU schools, Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, (where the population of that state is 14% black and has 4% college enrollment) to make nice. Students protested when she spoke. Spoiled brats? Depends on whom you ask …

The new (tweeted) policy against transgendered persons in the military joins hands with potty talk in North Carolina and Texas. Remember when Trump said that he would support those rights? Forget about it. Transgendered persons, again some of the most vulnerable people in our society – and, in the military, some of the most loyal – also make terrific scapegoats. How about people in same sex relationships?  With a Republican Congress, don’t count on an amendment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include either sexual orientation or gender identity. Just leave it to the Department of Justice interpretation. If you want to live to the next election, don’t hold your breath.

Speaking of the Department of Justice, how about the announcement to cease rule-making on web accessibility? The Americans With Disabilities Act and/or the Rehabilitation Act lack clout without standards such as WC3 2.0 or a 508 refresh. Sure, colleges and universities can continue to “do the right thing,” on their own, but in the 15 years I have taken note, for the most part (or unless they are in a state that adopts a standard such as CA did with 508), they don’t.  My own attempts to create a web accessibility policy at Cornell foundered on the shoals of legal counsel’s advice that the institution was not required to do it.  The Obama Administration put state institutions feet to the fire which resulted in settlements at Montana, Louisiana and Penn State.  If you are strapped for money, have faculty resistance, or the tin ear of administrators who entertain hyperbolic notions of costs, Trump just signaled that you can take a pass.

Sessions also issued policy to prosecutors to double down on drug punishments, which disproportionally affects African and Latino Americans, making it almost impossible for young people to get out of harm’s way that but for the grace of God could have become the fate of so many of us.  They will almost certainly never get to college or vote.  And that, my friends, is the point.

My many posts about the threats in internet space will not be repeated here at length.  Suffice it say that use of the internet is integral to higher education, whether the learning is distant, hybrid, or face-to-face.  Privacy, security and net neutrality principles and practices form the foundation of a stable platform upon which we can built solid academic performance.  If you have been watching developments in this area, then you know already that they are akin to having the rug pulled out. 

 Finally, to affirmative action, or, as it has taken shape in its long judicial path, diversity admissions. What a beleaguered path that subject has had, having come to rest on a principle that, at its core, is not so much about race per se, but, at least to me, institutional autonomy.  And that, my friends, is also the point.  Like I said, higher education is under assault.
 

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Monday, August 7, 2017
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Monday, August 7, 2017

Education for a New Economy

On vacation this week but could not hep but post a little something about the importance of this article, How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy. The story piece talks about how the children choose blocks from a table with the goal of building a robot. Code is not paramount but the process is replete with computation thinking.  But wait, wait, there’s more: time honored behaviors of sharing, creativity, learning from mistakes and perseverance. “'That’s key for programming, and it’s key for life,” she said. Her curriculum, used in schools nationwide and abroad, teaches skills like sharing and perseverance, and is woven into all subjects in the school day: Children program robots to act out a story they’re reading, for example.”
 
As I contemplate rejuvenating our national economy, one of the cornerstones is not only how to teach our young but how to retool adults. Seems as if this kind of education works for both. Let’s encourage our legislators to accept global trade.  In an information economy, it is critical that the United States take part, not hide, from it, especially since it is a leader in its development.  But we must pay attention to those workers displaced by historical shifts. Getting back to the basics is a path.  Let’s use it for adults as well as our youth!
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Tuesday, August 1, 2017
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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Where Have All the Technologies Gone?

I am an inveterate news/journal reader. Depending on one’s aspirations that may or may not be a good thing. I did not, for example, turn my doctoral dissertation on a worthy topic of Catholic women’s higher education into a monograph or the recent manuscript I drafted on information technology in higher education into books. Many a productive morning when I might have been working on those projects I could not pull myself away from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, The Guardian or The New Republic and a smattering of other reports found on the internet.

By the same token, that ingrained habit has been a boon. When I applied to be the director of IT Policy, without the word “technology” anywhere in my curriculum vitae, I nevertheless honestly knew a great deal because I had kept my nose to the grindstone of emerging technology news and how it was shaping the economy, society, culture and politics. More than 15 years out from that moment, I have still not shaken the habit. Hence my many posts on contemporary political issues that may, or in some cases may not, directly affect matters related to the internet.

Today’s observation relies not on digital journalistic analysis or any form of science but on a life-long history of that habit. Where is technology in the news? It has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.  Instead of reports on Google’s rise, or Facebook’s recalculated steps, Amazon’s expanding markets, Microsoft’s remaking of itself in the imagine of privacy and security, or Apple being supremely capitalized and fighting the F.B.I., we have but one focus: Donald Trump.

In all my years, I have never known a public figure for being more successful at capturing almost every headline. Not Kennedy or Nixon, Reagan or Clinton (almost …). Trump beats them all, and, like my reading habit, it may, or may not, be a good thing. For the man, with insatiable, addictive needs for attention, it must surely be a constant rush. But just as the narcissist in the family who sucks all the oxygen out of the room of every family gathering, it comes at a cost to the rest of us. No one has time to hear about Aunt Sally’s tumble down the cellar stairs or Cousin Jim’s new girlfriend because all attention goes to the antics of the good, the bad, and the ugly of only one guest.   

In public life, more is at stake than not knowing your cousin’s daughter just got into medical school or how, for the tenth time, Uncle Frank fought at the Battle of the Bulge. If we still believe that technology is “disrupting” the law, social norms, and the market, I will report that I know less now about all of that than I have in the last fifteen years reading about it. Not that those companies have ceased operations.  Microsoft responded to WannaCry. Facebook just reached another milestone of users. Amazon notably purchased Whole Foods (so it can have an automatic physical outlet). Google, notwithstanding getting hammered by the EU, continues to dominate the search (and advertising) market. But most of those reports are either predictable (Amazon and Google) or expected (Facebook and all the rest, including Apple, still raking it in). Where is the excitement?

We are so distracted by the antics of our president that we have lost our focus on the entities that have so much influence over our lives: the corporations and banking and health care and pharmaceutical, insurance, and not least, technology industries. What used to be front page news now is at the back. That is, if it is reported at all. Political reporters at the NYT, for example, are now not only getting all of the front page, above-the-fold reports, but seasoned tech writers are scattered to the back pages if even still in the pool. Claire Cain Miller used to be one of my favorite NYT tech reporters. Lately she jumped ship for The Upshot. When was the last time that the opinion or reporting elite of the above-named journals wrote a searing, critical account of technology developments? I read them every day and couldn’t give you an answer without looking it up.

Maybe technology, notwithstanding its own proud P.R. for being a young Turk, is reaching a plateau, a young adult stabilizing point.  Maybe it is not the big disruptive new kid on the block anymore. But even if that is the case, the tech industry is still of great significance in all of our lives. Together with the telecoms, the tech industry manages and mediates so much of what we think and like, how we shop, learn, and relax, who we are “friends” with, and — with last election history in mind — how we vote. These companies may be taking advantage of the fact that for the moment, with the public distracted, public pressure is off.  That, of course, would be a mistake. These circumstances are a case of not one or the other, but both require our focus. As citizens, we need to right our republic.  As consumers, we should not accept the data/technological transformations that disadvantage us. And as members of the higher education community, we must preference our missions in a comprehensive approach to public life. 

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Sunday, July 23, 2017
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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Faux Protest

Remember when Wikipedia went black over SOPA and PIPA (thank you Aaron Swartz)? Now that was a protest that got people’s attention and contributed mightily to the legislation being overthrown. Yesterday’s coordinated internet industry protest against the Trump Administration’s efforts to end net neutrality rules paled by comparison. Me thinks it was good enough publicity so as not to look turncoat on the 2014 push that the tech industry made to get the F.C.C. to reclassify the internet as a utility.  Me also thinks that there is more to the story.

Very suspicious was the internet industry’s silence prior to the fateful May 18 F.C.C. vote. Does it really take some of the most wealthy and powerful industries that practice and preach nimbleness two months to respond? And what a paltry response it was. Predictably, the most powerful among them, Google, issued a meager blog post with a link to the Internet Association’s action page. While I can appreciate the graphic novel form, it is but one among what should be many approaches – including ones that don’t lean so heavily on the Three Stooges theme for gifs – to explain the significance of this matter.  Google outsourced the issue. Smaller sites, ones that genuinely need these rules to compete such as Etsy, were more forward.  Facebook fell somewhere in the middle with a few sober words from Sheryl Sandberg. 

I am disappointed, but not surprised.  In the weeks leading up to the May 18 vote, the silence from the internet industry was deafening. I watched with dark interest when Chairman Pai went out to Silicon Valley prior to the vote; it seemed to me that a quiet agreement might have been made.  Let the telecoms have their way, you won’t be adversely affected, the telecoms will push the money-making aspect of this shift onto consumer, and you get to consolidate your position on the internet against existing and future competitors. After all, this visit was in the aftermath of Congress’s vote to allow telecoms to scrape personally identifiable information from transmissions.  Internet industries were strangely silent then too, perhaps because they did not want to bring attention onto their own grabby practices.  Indeed, between telecoms and internet industries, this vote “leveled the playing field” on collection of personally identifiable information. At guess whose expense?

Gone are the days when there was creative tension among content owners, telecoms and tech industries. Apple cozied up to the content owners with iTunes and encryption technologies that block “unapproved” content. Thanks to the Trump Administration deregulation push, telecoms and tech industries now have more in common than that which divides them. Vertical integration of telecoms and content closes the loop. Once again, let us ask: at whose expense? You and me as consumers, and high ed, which, from research to outreach, still requires neutral pipes. 

 Remember duck and cover?  It was what we were taught back in the 50’s and early 60’s to do at school, under our desks, in the event of a nuclear attack. Against immediate debris, that approach made some sense; against radiation obviously not.  That approach is what comes to mind when I think of higher education’s D.C. politics. Get the higher ed lobby in there when it wants something, more money for grants or to reauthorized the Higher Education Act.  In the twentieth-century, when the issues were as apparent as falling debris, that approach worked.  We are in the radiation phase now, and it does not. It should be time to change tactics up. With headlines about Republicans devaluing higher education and the pendulum swings on Title IX, higher education associations and institutional leaders cannot seem to get off the ropes. For the millions of dollars that higher education spends on leadership training and consultants, it would seem to me that now is the time that it should spend some money on a good coach.   

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Thursday, July 13, 2017
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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Sex and IT

From the Ellen Pao’s sexual harassment case to Susan Fowler’s expose of Uber, the press is suddenly paying a lot of attention to the issue of women’s experience in technology. I thought I would add mine. To protect the guilty, I will not be using names of institutions or individuals, but sharing my experience both as a woman in technology – albeit from the angle of law and policy – as well as a consultant, and, finally, friend and confident to the many women who over the years who have reached out to me.

First things first. Without the financial and emotional support of my father, who was at first reluctant to let me go, I would not have been able to attend college. (Mom, too, but the focus here is on sex and gender played out in terms of power …) Read this next sentence with deserved emphasis: Without the support of my ex-husband, I would not be haunting these pages or anywhere near technology. An electrical engineer, he generously introduced me to the internet at its public dawning and opened a door for which I remain forever grateful. My sons, furthermore, are good boys to women, allow me to say, and continue to teach me about everything from machine learning to information security coursework. In my technology career, I have had the tremendous fortune to be in the company of and influenced by many, many wonderful men: Brian Hawkins, Mark Luker, Jerry Campbell, David Smallen, Marty Ringle, Steve Worona, Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik jump quickly to mind, but I could fill the page with the names of many other leaders as well as colleagues. 

 Furthermore, I would like to make an observation that praises the vast majority of people, both men and women, in IT.  By comparison to the other professional worlds that I have occupied, IT people as a rule do not “swing,” cheat on their partners, or indulge routinely in workplace dalliances. That was a great relief to me when I started work in IT. Maybe it was just good fortune, maybe I just got older or developed tunnel vision, I don’t know, it is not a scientific observation, but it is a positive for individuals and in support of children and families. Take a bow, good people. 

 That said, power differences played out in status, money, position, and personality between men and women exists in it. I joined an IT team when I was 42, previously married to a man, with two young children, and self-identified as being in a relationship with a woman. In other words, not young, pretty and available as are most of the women who are reporting out now about detrimental experiences (in the marketplace and not higher ed, it should be noted), mostly of the sexual harassment kind.  I therefore did not experience anything like what they report (although I did as a student twenty years earlier, including, when I was an undergraduate, inappropriate behavior by a distinguished male English literature professor more than forty years my age and being felt up on a dance floor by a married young history professor from a nearby college when I was a graduate student at a conference party.) 

As a middle-aged woman, my observation is how some blindly ambitious men would try to kill me with fake-kindness as they stepped on my face on their way up the ladder. Surprise tactics were the modus operandi. For example, we would be going into a meeting, chit chatting away, only to have the same male colleague attack frontally a policy upon which we had been working together for years (but for which I was ultimately responsible) or learn of a predetermined, sabotaged vote after the damage was done or pulled out of a meeting and told to do this or that just because ... in other words, anything for which the desired result would be to lower my position and raise theirs.  I have lived and observed obscene compensation differentials predominantly, but not exclusively, between men and women.  I have known, to say the least, of many forced retirements executed against women in manner that would make an ancient Roman proud (that is to say, with only mildly suppressed violence and glee). Allow me to add, women can play supporting roles to such abject discrimination in a manner that should (but often do not) make them ashamed. 
 
Then there are the small things. Systematically interrupting or talking over women. (Not that some women don’t do that too, but we are talking about predominant patterns. Still, I gotta say: I have male colleagues who never do that to me; rather, on too many occasions, I am the guilty party.) Here is one that makes me laugh: certain body postures designed consciously or unconsciously to suggest sex and power. The one for which I have had to restrain myself from bursting out loud is the lean-back-in-the-chair-tilted-on-two-legs raising the crotch to table level as introduction to a long dissertation on something or another opined with long, drawn-out, arrogance.  Why didn’t I fire up the video on my phone? I could have retired on the YouTube proceeds! 
 
Because apart from the absurdity of it all, it is not funny. Women play that sex thing with the excessive cleavage, hiked up skirts and stiletto heels. What those extreme examples do not seem to get is how much they are playing into the sex and power game. Moreover, it is much more prevalent in the market than in higher ed. My guess is that the high-stakes, market-tech culture plays these scenarios out on many higher doses of steroids. The obvious legal liabilities such as sexual harassment or reputation pale when the whole world appears to be an oyster.

We are in a moment of sex/gender correction. How much correction is the real question. Do blindly ambitious men really care about women who are not their mothers, wives, or daughters?  Do they really care about gross gender inequities in society? Why do we allow them to succeed? How much do we all – men and women – get sucked into the game?  (Net/Net Personal Opinion: I am truly blessed to have many good, if not great, men in my life, personally and professionally. On the specific topic of sex/gender workplace discrimination, I have been more sinned against than sinned, but I would be less than honest if I did not also intone a “bless me father …” for some of my behaviors, gender related or otherwise.)

American law and history bequeaths a categorical analysis to social policy.  We think of civil rights in categories: race, class, sex, gender, disability, etc. While useful in some moments when, like scientists, we try to control the experiment of our society, this kind of categorical thinking is ultimately a detriment to seeing what is imperative to see:  the whole greater than the parts, the forest for the trees.  Abject discriminatory behaviors must be addressed not merely for the injustice suffered by individuals but because those behaviors speak to the overall health of society. For the second week running, I will therefore conclude on a dogfood theme. The least we can do in higher ed is to shine a thoughtful light on our own lives and behaviors in IT and strive to model a quality of justice in which we can all believe.  

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Thursday, July 6, 2017
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