We Need Guardrails: On this week’s episode of Track Changes we sit down to discuss the big question of regulating online content. Could a class action lawsuit be brought against sites that encourage violence? How can content be screened to ensure it doesn’t lead to harm? What is the role of government in all this? We discuss these questions and many more and Paul and Rich share some online privacy tips. We also chat with Engineer, John Holdun!
Rich Ziade And yes—
Paul Ford It’s wild—
RZ And at the same time if I type in, you know, Call of Duty whatever—wherever we’re at at this point “Shock and Awe”.
RZ [Giggling] That would be a Call of Duty. The—have you seen what these video—
PF [Chuckling] Call of Duty: Shock and Awe.
RZ Yeah, I know.
PF It’s just a drone pilot—
RZ Yeah, it’s just a dro—[laughing]
PF It’s just a guy in a room—
RZ In a trailer in Vegas [laughs maniacally].
PF This is the tech industry [music plays along for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Hey, Rich.
PF I got a big idea for you. Ready?
PF You know you’ll be watching like a—somebody’s making a cake and you’re like, “Ah! Fondant. That’s crazy. You can make a cake that looks like a school book for back to school.”
PF And then you look over [music fades out] to the right and there’s—it’s like more cakes, you know, are like Egyptian bakeries! And you’re like, “Oh that’s wild.” And then like two clicks in, it’s suddenly just Hitler speeches.
RZ Now, is this real?
RZ See, I have not had this happen to me. Maybe because I subconsciously avoided Hitler speeches but—
PF Well, you know what it is? No, no, I think it’s more like it’s actually video games are the gateway. So it’s like, you know, “Somebody’s playing Mario Kart,” and you’re like, “Oh,” and then you click once and then it’s like—
RZ Also, video games are about killing and guns, right?
PF And territory. Yeah.
PF So, it’s very—but it gets very master race very quick on YouTube.
RZ Alright, wait, let’s—we’re talking about this kinda casually as this sort of quirk in YouTube but this is a big issue right now.
PF Yeah, no, the way that—
RZ Give a little background here.
PF Well, we’re livin’ in a world in which radicalization and like white supremacy is yielding school shootings. And there’s a real sense and it documents—and also sort of like, you know, Brazil has gone very far right and their people have pointed to YouTube and said, “Yeah, here’s how that happened.”
RZ Mm hmm.
PF So, here’s my question, you’re a lawyer.
RZ I am.
PF Yup . . . Why can’t we have a class action lawsuit? Why can’t people who have lost people in mass shootings that have been, you know, caused by YouTube radicalization—and maybe it’s not just YouTube but let’s stay focused on one thing. Why can’t they sue in a class action and say, “Look at what you’ve done to our culture. Look at what you’ve done to the world.”
RZ Ok, let’s back up: who is they?
PF Well, you know, this is tricky, like who’s got the damages? I mean it’s people who’ve lost loved ones in shootings from people who’ve been radicalized and were big YouTube contributors. At one point there was that person running around with a gun at YouTube itself. That was bad. So, I don’t know, YouTube could sue itself. There’s the entire country of Brazil. So there’s lots of people who could claim that people who were radicalized by clicking that third link, caused their lives untold damage.
RZ Ok, so you’ve got a couple of problems here. And let me disclaim: I’m not a practicing class action attorney, I just know the sort of the high level concepts. So a class action suit is a suit you can bring on behalf of an absent party. In essence, you’re saying, “I am representing a particular cohort of people that fit a certain set of criteria that establishes a class.”
PF Ok, so I thought that I was taking—they thought they were taking allergy medicine, now they all have extra hands growing out of their chests.
RZ “On behalf of all consumers who have purchased Benadryl Xtreme [laughs],” or whatever it’s called.
PF “And now have that third hand between their two nipples, yeah.”
RZ “Yes, I am bringing action.” And then there’s this whole set of machinery that kicks in—
PF It does make pushups easier.
RZ That third hand?
RZ Yeah. So it’s weird. The machinery around a class action is interesting in that you have to define that group [mm hmm] and then there’s this communication opportunity, there’s this opportunity to jump on—[this is where you—] A letter goes out and say, “Hey! Did you ever buy Benadryl Xtreme? Come on! And you can join this class action suit.” Right?
PF And then there’s always that website like Benadryl Xtreme Facts.
RZ Exactly. Exactly. So, you can’t bring a class action suit on—well, you can bring any suit. Let’s [chuckles] back up. I say this to people all the time, “Couldn’t they sue me for that?” I’m like, “They could sue you for anything.” [Laughing]
PF This is one of the bright spots, we’ve talked about this before, it’s just one of the bright spots of having council as your co-founder [Rich laughs] cuz, you know, when we started Postlight, I’m like, “Man, we gotta really button this up. I’m worried about gettin’ sued.” Cuz I’m always—as a former writer and former media person, you’re constantly worried about litigation—
RZ Libel and—
PF Well and every contract basically says, “This’ll be on you. Good luck, buddy!” And—
RZ [Laughs] Oh the poor writers.
PF Oh I’m so paranoid, right? I’ve just been paranoid for 20 years and you turn to me and you just went, “Eh. Anybody can sue you for any reason.”
RZ Yeah! I mean—
PF “They probably will, just relax.”
RZ If somebody’s feelin’ really aggressive, they can sue you. So, I have to establish a class, and this is a very complicated—this is a deep, deep hole, right?
PF So, establishing a class is a whole thing onto itself.
RZ I can’t say, “I am suing you on behalf of the citizens of Brazil.”
RZ No, not gonna work.
PF Obviously, right?
PF But ok.
RZ Ok, so this important, right? It’s very easy, if you can establish that I bought your product and your product had a design defect that caused me harm. That’s a very nice criteria to carve out a set of requirements around you joining that class.
PF Oh my God, so what we’re really saying here is that if I sold you a gun as a school shooter and it blew your arm off, and that just kept happening to all the school shooters, the school shooters would form a class.
RZ That’s a compelling argument!
PF But the people who are being—
RZ A faulty weapon—
PF But the people who are being killed don’t form a class in the same way.
RZ They don’t [sighs]. They don’t.
PF I’m gonna throw America out the window right now [yeah]. I’m very frustrated.
RZ Yeah, well, you’re bringing up a great point, right? Which is the ultimate class action, the ultimate ability to make change happen in a sweeping way is call your congressman.
PF Right, right.
RZ The courts are really not designed for that kind of sort of sweeping level of change which you’re starting to hear rumblings now, right?
PF Interesting, so if I wanna change YouTube, the actual mechanism available to me—cuz you’ve got freedom of speech in there [mm hmm], you’ve got all sort of stuff like—
PF Being able to say, “This is a radicalization and we need to unwind it, shut it down, [mm hmm] or give the people—Google, you now owe all the victims of radicalized YouTube fans, you owe them ten billion dollars.”
PF That’s gonna be basically impossible.
RZ It’s tough.
PF Or it would of happened, I mean these are ripe plums to pluck, right?
RZ Yeah, because what you’re doing is you’re using the courts to sort of push policy agenda across a huge swaths of population. A better example, like if I subscribe to YouTube Premium and one of the things they guaranteed to me was that adult content would be shielded from my kids and their algorithms put adult content in front of my children, then I can—
PF Faulty product.
RZ—say, “I am suing YouTube and Google on behalf of all paying subscribers of YouTube Premium.”
PF Mm! Paying subscribers.
RZ Well, it doesn’t have to be paying, but it has to be—you have to have some way—Citizens of Flint, Michigan who are drinking bad water is arguably another way of clearly carving out. You can’t sue on behalf of America.
PF Ok. Unfortunately. I mean that’s what elections are for.
RZ That’s what elections are for, that’s how change happens.
PF Wait, hold on, hold on. So does free matter here? Like the fact that YouTube is giving me access, you know, kind of in exchange for my attention and advertising time but I don’t pay YoutTube anything. There are paid products.
RZ You could—a really slick—slick sounds shady. I don’t mean slick. A really good legal team could put together a class action suit on behalf of users of YouTube who have signed their Terms of Service. You could do it. I mean it’s not unreasonable. I don’t know if that’s how you’d wanna go about it. A lot of times what they do is they don’t bother with the class action because case precedent actually has weight. So if I sue YouTube for something that happened to me, forget the class action.
PF Alright, so, you know, let’s—let’s do a Google search. Alright?
PF Ok. “YouTube class action” what do we find?
RZ Ok, so there is a class action lawsuit recently filed. “The LGBTQ creators accuse YouTube of discrimination in class action lawsuit, alleging it unfairly restricts and demonetizes queer content.”
PF Oh, see this is interesting, right? Cuz now you’re back to the—So the legacy of YouTube was, “Hey, put everything up! It’s cool.” And then copyright holders said, “It’s not cool at all.” And then Google started to work out deals with everybody.
RZ Yes [heavy sigh]. Yes.
PF And so then you have this system for sort of like some content gets blocked; some content gets monetized; you know, there’s sort of—
RZ Anybody can make money with their content on YouTube. They’ve done a good job establishing a monetization platform [that’s right]. So if you’ve got something that can get views, you can make money. Cuz they’ll put Advil or whatever in the beginning of the ads—of the video.
PF It might be a very small amount of money but nonetheless—
RZ It often is a very small amount of money.
PF And then you will get—So there’s all these systems for managing around copyright. That was the great crisis of like 2008. You know? [Mm hmm] That was when, as this thing exploded, that’s what everybody was worried about. They weren’t [yes] worried about—And then it was sort of like, “What are we gonna recommend to people to keep them engaged and watching video?” Now we’re on the other side: you have a community of creators who are saying, “Whatever the hell you’re doing, it is keeping us from being successful. [Yup] You’re seeing us as pornographic or dangerous or difficult.”
RZ Let’s not gloss over us here which is—there is, again, establishing who the class is which is LGBTQ creators who have put their content on YouTube.
PF Who are expecting monetization.
RZ Yeah, but again, to contrast that with “America”. And what’s happening to America. Here you have a very clearly defined set of criteria to join this class action suit.
PF And you can point and say, “Here are my damages. I was expecting to make this money.”
PF “And I entered into a contract with YouTube when I went in with the Terms of Service but because of my gender identity, you have kept me from achieving any of those goals.”
RZ Well, yes. The real crux of this lawsuit as I’m kind of glancing at it is that a lot of the queer content is being deemed as shocking or sexually explicit.
RZ And so as a result, they’re taking it down. “And therefore I can’t money on a video that’s been taken down because you have categorized it as shocking and sexually explicit.”
PF And meanwhile, the boundaries of the queer community as to what—basically what they’re talking about here is that queerness over the last x-thousand years has been seen as shocking.
RZ Not only that—and this is why—this is kind of the point of this suit is my guess. This is partly about money and partly about the fact that they don’t—like hate groups are thriving on YouTube.
PF Yeah, no—
RZ And you’ve decided my—my—
PF Here’s this Bay Area like progressive company, you know, Google—if there’s anything that like—the west coast is really funny [yeah] cuz it’s like, “Eh! You know, absolutely we’ll do AI for drones but we’re incredibly queer friendly.” And sort of like [yeah] that paradox is really tricky for people. A good example: Microsoft has been one of the most progressive about, you know, respecting gay marriage and respecting gay relatinships [mm hmm mm hmm] and providing benefits to people, right? But then it’s Microsoft and it sells Microsoft Word to everybody and that gets tricky, right?
PF And so like—So you’ve got—
RZ The Department of Defense is using Microsoft.
PF Exactly. People at Google don’t wanna look like they are oppressing LGBTQ folks.
PF They’re gonna get ‘em that way, too.
RZ No! You can’t put—you can’t put pornographic videos on YouTube.
PF Yeah, I think everybody knows that.
RZ Everybody knows that. Look, there’s plenty of everything on YouTube and it gets into this—
PF And so it picked this one class of everything and said, “That’s too much.”
PF And the people who created it went, “Hold on a minute. That is an unfair way to classify us, we’re a little nervous about classification in the first place.”
PF “And you have gone and made decisions about what’s appropriate kind of without consulting or respecting this community and it’s norms.”
RZ And, yes, and at the same time if I type in, you know, Call of Duty wherever we’re at at this point, “Shock and Awe”.
RZ [Laughing] That would be a good Call of Duty. Have you seen these—
PF Call of Duty: Shock and Awe.
RZ Yeah, I know.
PF It’s just a drone pilot.
RZ Yeah it’s a just a dro—[laughing] in a trailer in Vegas, yeah [laughs boisterously].
PF This is the tech industry.
RZ Dude. Have you seen—I mean the graphic quality of video games is not graphics anymore, it looks—
PF Well, this was—
RZ No, look, I have a seven-year-old boy. It is graphically violent.
PF We pulled our kids off of YouTube. They’re not allowed on that.
RZ I mean it’s a video game. And—
PF This is another tricky one, right? Because everybody wants this one both ways. This one’s very tricky for me. Cuz when you work in media, you are desperately trying to affect change in the world. You’re trying to get ideas out there so that people can share them and connect to them and identify.
RZ Also! To expose really bad things!
PF That’s right. Except with video games which somehow can show you repeatedly murdering everybody but that’s just fun.
RZ Well that’s the thing, it’s gotten to that point, right? And the truth is, you know, that is media, by the way—
PF You know what’s wild?
RZ A great expose of a terrible treatment of people in some country is media but so is Call of Duty: Shock and Awe.
PF That’s right.
RZ I mean they’re media. And YouTube views them as such but has to apply different rules. I mean if there is a—
PF The best part of Call of Duty: Shock and Awe is when you just throw a shoe at George W. Bush. [Rich laughing] Right between the eyes [music fades in].
RZ It’s a minigame in the game.
PF If you get ‘em right between the eyes, you gotta have a great five years [Rich laughing, music plays alone for three seconds, ramps down]. Well, Rich, it’s that time again [music fades out].
RZ Uh oh.
PF It’s time to say, “Hello, Postlight,” when we talk to a person who works at Postlight.
RZ I love this segment.
PF It’s becoming one of my favorites.
RZ Who do we have today, Paul?
PF Well, you know, let’s let him tell us. Can you give us your name and what you do here?
John Holdun My name’s John Holdun, I’m a Lead Engineer here.
RZ Where’d you grow up, John?
JH I was born on Long Island. Moved around as a kid to Connecticut and Ohio and then California for a while, but I’ve been back in New York, in the city for about ten years now.
RZ Where’d you go to school? College.
JH I went to NYU. I studied play writing [oh ok] for three semesters and then dropped out and [ok] that’s it [laughs].
RZ Ok, so self taught engineer.
JH Yeah, I started—I was aware of the internet and had access to the internet as a kid in like the late nineties when there wasn’t a ton to know which was really lucky and convenient for me. I was able to grasp it in a way that I—it was very low stakes. And so I just kind of grew with the web as it matured and ended up—
RZ Don’t you feel lucky?
JH I feel extremely lucky. Yeah—
RZ Got to play at that moment in time. Everything is so hermetically sealed now.
JH Yeah, I feel like if I were coming into this now I don’t know that I’d be able to do it. I think there’s such a—
PF I don’t think I’d be in tech.
RZ I might not have been in tech.
PF It’s just cuz you can’t get in anymore.
RZ So you kept going.
PF There’s nothing better. Actually, to that end: Postlight has a thing called Postlight Labs where we encourage people and give them time to develop ideas.
RZ Mm hmm.
PF We’re a small agency, it’s not years but it’s some time and you built something really interesting and really compelling that I want you to talk about a little bit called Trimmings.
PF Why was Trimmings created?
PF There’ll be a security problem and then there’ll be a new feature and somebody will update one little part and then the rest of it has to get updated. So is that a little bit about what you’re talking about or?
JH Yeah! And I think also in contrast, HTML has changed a lot in the 20 plus years that it’s been like usable. It’s more than 20 years but—
PF It still looks like HTML.
PF No, that first goofy webpage from the nineties still opens.
RZ It does.
PF Ok, so this is the world we’re in and then you took some time and built the thing called Trimmings. What does that do?
PF So instead of these big component frameworks, just take the HTML and make it a little more app like—
PF But still regular old HTML.
PF So, easy to learn.
JH Yeah, and it also—it kind of gets back to the ability to view source . . . which is how I learned, I learned by looking at what other people were doing and copying them, and you can get that with open source or tools like Glitch that allow you to really interact with the application but you can’t just go to a website that you think is cool and really deconstruct it and figure out how it was made right now. And so this is something that—The idea is you can—because you’re just writing all the stuff that’s being served as it is without any kind of transformation. It’s easier to see why things are happening the way they’re happening and then do those things yourself.
RZ I mean he’s bringing up a good point which is, I mean, a view source has been a huge part of my life for the last 20 years and the walls are just getting higher and higher and higher. There’s no source today—
PF You don’t view source, you inspect the one element.
RZ You inspect one element and then you kinda walk back, if you need to to really see what’s up.
PF Well and then there’s like five skyscrapers hanging off of that element.
RZ Exactly. Exactly.
PF It’s like you gotta figure out the CSS—everything is like 50 layers deep.
PF So, ok, if people wanna look at Trimmings, what do they do?
JH Go to postlight.com, there’ll be a link there, there’ll be some very pretty graphics there, and some good documentation on what this thing is and how you can use it.
PF We have an excellent search functionality.
JH Yes [laughs].
RZ Let’s depart from your professional life for a second—
RZ—John. What else do you do for fun?
JH So, the things I love about what I do for work all sort of relate to structure, and hierarchy, and form. Putting things into boxes, and then putting those boxes together. And I discovered over the years that a weight—that something that lights my brain up in the same way but with a very different set of skills is designing experiences, designing what I call themed attractions. So in my spare time I build these immersive pop up walk throughs that are like—like a theme park ride, like an art exhibit, like an Instagram museum kind of installation but the idea is I’m telling a story by traversing through a space.
PF Give us an example of the most recent one.
JH The most recent one it was a story called “Bobby’s Birthday”. It was a story about a dog and a cat who are roommates. And one morning the dog wakes up and realizes that it’s the cat’s birthday and runs around town planning a last minute surprise party.
PF So I go—I go to a place—
PF . . . to celebrate “Bobby’s Birthday” in quotes.
PF I give you some money.
JH Yeah, if you want to. It’s donation.
PF Ok, I’d like to.
JH Thank you.
RZ [Chuckles] That’s very nice of you, Paul.
PF I’m there, there’s probably a few other people.
PF Ok. What am I looking at? What happens?
JH Yeah, so in this one—every one I’ve done—I’ve done three real ones so far and planned out many more, and they’ve all been a little different. This one was presented through five sort of nearly life sized dioramas that were just layers of colored plywood, painted plywood, that our—almost like a pop-up book but rather than being a book you hold in your hands, it’s a like two foot wide thing mounted to a wall. And they’re mounted in a series throughout this little art gallery, so you start at one end of the room and move to the other. And as you do that, you’re sort of following the path that the dog was following by running around town and getting everything ready for this party.
PF We have to go to one.
RZ I mean this is—this is fascinating to me cuz I’ve—now in this conversation I’m seeing the dotted line between you as an engineer as someone that’s interested in this kind of world creation.
RZ Cuz engineering a lot of it is world creation. It’s you’re creating these experiences. Anything interesting—I mean you could’ve just written children’s books, John. Like, you went for the whole thing, right? [Laughs]
JH I think it’s—it really is—like there is part of me that wants to tell a story and evoke a mood; but part of me also just wants to—in some ways the story is the excuse for building the thing. Like I’m so [mm hmm] interested in the form and as an artistic medium, I find these spatial experiences just so fascinating. Ultimately, I think if there were more of them in the world, I might feel less compelled to build them because then I could just go to them. But I go to Disneyland a couple times a year and it’s not enough, so I gotta make my own [chuckles].
RZ No, yeah, we’ve talked to others who are finding inspiration in the things they like enjoy and care about and how it sort of fuels a lot of their professional thinking and problem solving and whatnot. Do you see that to be the case for you? Or you see a wall between like going to work and this sort of stuff you do in your free time?
JH I think it’s related and I think even like going back to Trimmings, like part of the inspiration for building that library is that most of the problems that I’ve been solving in my career are not really technology problems. They’re like questions that are being answered with technology but the things that are being done have very little to do with the fact that it’s this language or that language. And I think so much of what I think brings me success or makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing in my day to day work is in not thinking about the code or the programming but thinking about what I am trying to accomplish and then trying to get to . . . that.
PF Alright, good, so is there a site for people to learn about the theme park stuff?
JH Yeah, I have a little company, I call it Variable Stage. They can go to variablestage.com and see what I’ve done and what’s coming up next.
PF Great. Can’t ask for more than that [John laughs].
RZ Very cool. Thank you, John, for doing this. Interesting angles.
JH Thank you. Yeah, this was fun.
PF That was “Hello, Postlight.” You got to meet John Holdun, a Lead Engineer here. If you’d like to work with people like John, you’d be very, very lucky. We’re lucky. You can send an email to email@example.com and let us know what’s up. Also, if you wanna talk to him. We’ll forward it along. If it’s appropriate. Rich, any other questions? Any thoughts? [Music fades in]
RZ No, that’s it. This was great.
PF Alright, let’s get back to work [music plays alone for four seconds].
RZ I guess what I’m getting at is it’s really hard [music fades out]. It’s really hard to delineate but at the same time, I think they’re coming to terms with the fact that they’re gonna have to, right? If there was a great ten minute sort of New York Times expose on the beheading of a journalist, horrible story, there’s footage that came out, it’s blurred out, it’s graphic, the descriptions are graphic—
PF I mean that’s the—
RZ You could easily fall under those criteria of like, “We can’t put this up,” but that is an important piece of journalism that’s making its way out there, right?
PF Well, and then there’s always a lot of little exceptions that way, right?
RZ Well, that’s the problem.
PF The archetypal exception right now is that they—essentially, you know, Twitter has created the political loophole where like if you’re a leader of a certain like—
RZ Is that true? Is that in their—
RZ Is that in their criteria?
PF From what I understand, yes, there’s now like [ok] an understanding that, “You know what? If it’s Trump, it’s gonna go. Like we’re just gonna let it.”
RZ Or! A prime minister of any country, right?
PF What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? I mean are you going then be in the business of censoring national leaders? Like we’ve talked about this [yup]. There was a point, I think, early on where Twitter could’ve made a stand but once the guy’s the President of the United States, then you’re in a position that’s kind of untenable either way. You’re just gonna have to throw your hands up and say, “We lost this one, our rules don’t apply to this specific class of humans.” I sort of feel that on the other side, you know, if The Washington Post blurs out a journalist beheading or cuts away at a certain time, it’s content that otherwise would be on Liveleak. But if it’s been through that editorial process, it’s more likely that—it’s almost like everyone just says, “Yeah . . . but this is the exception. This is the exception that proves the rule.”
RZ Yeah, I think this is proving out how hard this is.
PF Oh God. I mean this is where we come back to—
RZ This is so hard.
PF Look, I mean, I would say probably three quarters of the podcast where we talk about cultural issues, we essentially end up going, “This will be the job of government in the future to create regulatory frameworks that people could comply with,” and it seems—
RZ I think that’s probably right.
PF It seems complicated and impossible right now but this is literally the job of government. You’ve got the whole like Bay Area just-asking-questions-Libertarian-like-industrial-complex [yeah] going, “Now! Now! Regulation will destroy innovation.” But it’s like, where’s the innovation right now?
PF Like Facebook’s gonna buy another chat company?
RZ Yeah, yeah.
PF If you could shoo me—
RZ And there’s harm. There’s real harm happening, right?
PF There’s real harm. I’m looking at TikTok and it’s all sweet little teenagers and I just wanna help them because they’re literally all singing about how they’re depressed.
RZ Is that what TikTok is?
PF There’s a lot of depressed teens on TikTok.
RZ Oh boy.
RZ Well, I mean, it’s ugly right now. The world is kinda ugly and—
PF Well, I don’t think the world’s necessarily uglier than, I mean, it’s certainly no uglier than it was between 1939 and 1944.
RZ Can tech solve this?
PF Tech—tech is just another frickin’ thing. Right? I love it. I love it.
PF Humans! Democracy is a good organizing technology for figuring out how to guide a nation-state, right? Facebook is not.
RZ I’m gonna counter-argue here: have you seen Full House of Moustaches?
PF I have. It is really good. They took the Full House introduction with like the Olsen twins.
RZ Yeah, what’s that song?
PF Uh, it’s the Full House theme song. [Rich hums the beginning of the Full House theme song] And they put Nick Offerman’s face, from Parks and Recreation—
RZ On all of them.
PF On every—on the kids, on the Bob Saget—
RZ On babies. Yeah.
PF On everybody.
PF And it’s sort of Deep Fake’s kinda I will allow—
RZ If we can do that . . . No, no, no, I’m not done with my counter-argument here [laughs].
PF Cuz I was actually willing to accept like, “Alright, maybe Full House of Moustaches—”
RZ [Laughing] Maybe tech is great!
PF Full House of Moustaches does justify Brazil’s incredible far-right implosion.
RZ [Laughs] No! But I mean we’re good at computers, man!
PF We are. I think that—you know, it’s funny, too—we’re gonna hit the limits of deep learning relatively soon. I can kind of feel it in my bones.
PF Yeah. I mean there’s gonna—it’s like the web, like it’s gonna be around and it’s gonna be a big deal and it’s gonna be—but I’m not seeing the incredible written—there was a period of like four years of unbelievable acceleration where it was like, “Hey, check this out, we’ll draw a cat for you,” that pace is slowing down.
RZ Is that true?
PF Yeah, honestly, it’s about the datasets. Like what other data do they have?
RZ No, but look! I guess what I’m trying to say is, you know, we’re doing some amazing things, we’re gonna keep doing some amazing things, is there a way to really understand and find out the sort of—this is coming down to intent.
PF Like there’s patterns I’d be looking for that would show me, you know, Google buying the, you know, this and that and Facebook buying this and that. And I think there’s some of that going on.
RZ Yeah, I don’t know if this is solvable. It probably isn’t. I mean this is about inferring intent and it’s an arms race, right? Between brains on both sides. Can a piece of software infer intent? If I’m putting up my really cool run on Call of Duty, I’m just showing other video game people how good I am at a game.
RZ If I’m putting up something that’s there to like dial up hate amongst the population, then my intent is really the distinguishing factor here, right?
PF Look, I mean, you know, highways are really useful for getting from point A to point B. What do you do when you put a highway on a cliff? What do you put on the right side where the cliff is?
PF Exactly. What we have are no rails. We’re just building these systems.
RZ So your read is it’s I’m thinking this can be solved post submission. And you’re saying, “No way, the rails have to be there. You can’t submit it.”
PF Well, humans are banana cakes so you gotta do both. Some people would be like, “Rails?!? Let’s go! Hit the gas pedal!” You know and that’s where you get your 4chans and your 8chans—
RZ What you have now, I think. There’s some great tech right now that’s blocking really obviously stupid bad things.
PF Yeah, the great tech is called like 500 people in The Philippines.
RZ That’s real, right?
RZ I mean is that true. When I upload a video is it going to The Philippines or wherever?
PF I’m assuming it’s gotta get flagged. Like I’m assuming a button gets hit. Cuz even there the scope is too crazy, right?
RZ It’s impossible. It’s like millions in every hour.
PF No, lifetimes of video every hour, right?
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF So like, you gotta think like, how could you say this should probably be reviewed? Well, somebody flags it. And—
RZ Ok. User. When you say somebody, you don’t mean a YouTube employee, you mean somebody on the internet is like, “Woah, this is bad, flag.”
PF That’s right.
RZ And then it gets sent off.
PF “Woah! What is this? This is not appropriate content.”
PF And then, you know, probably something like more than ten thousand people see it. There needs to be a sense that—
RZ Ok, so it tips a little bit.
PF I mean that’s tricky, that doesn’t cover you for things like child porn which is gonna have like a really small community—
RZ Right which are very strict federal laws around it.
PF Oh my God, right?
PF But also just evil, right? And so if you own a platform and you take—if you have any moral responsibility, you kinda gotta get that stuff stopped. You gotta.
PF And so like humans need to get involved; robots need to get involved; people need to flag stuff [yeah]; and like if you start to see communities like that emerging where they’re sharing that content, you gotta kinda bring out the bunker buster bombs digitally.
RZ Yeah. It’s all gotta come down.
PF Yeah. You can’t like, “Oh, we removed the offensive content.” It’s like, “No, we destroyed that little village of pain.”
RZ Yup. So, let me ask you this: do you think a world leader should be policed? I mean—
PF God, that’s a tricky one, right? Because you’re basically into a zone of [sighs] I want all—I like when the poison comes out in clear light. So it’s like, “Alright, well, we’re in a weird situation and we elected a guy that I can’t bear. But it’s fascinating to see the poison bubble up.
RZ Yeah! It is—
PF And so I’m like, “Do I want that blocked?” I mean the tricky thing is like the reason to block and to stop someone from being able to amplify their signal is because it will turn into dangerous or destructive action, and we have a very ambiguous relationship, both sort of nationally and just as humans who like freedom, with that concept. That like I could say something and people will do something bad as a result.
RZ Well, that’s real.
PF We don’t like to talk about the fact that someone could play a video game where they shoot a lot of people and then run around and shoot a lot of people as if they were in a video game.
RZ Ok, so you’re saying [rings out the ing]. [Paul sighs] I feel like you’re having a debate with yourself right now.
PF I am. At this point I think it’s too late, like you can’t put it back in the box so just like let’s see what the hell is happening on the Twitter feed.
RZ I mean in a way, I feel like it’s runnin’ out of steam.
PF It is running out of steam.
RZ Right? And, in fact, I’m gonna lay out where I stand not politically but just like where—everybody knows where they were when the elections happened in ‘16.
RZ I was really, really upset. Like I wasn’t a fan, frankly, of anybody too much but—
PF It had been a poisonous year.
RZ Yeah but I was not happy that this knucklehead won. And there was distress. I live in Brooklyn, New York. Ok? There were people walking the streets at like five in the morning—
PF [Laughing] It really was—I never saw anything—
RZ I’ve never seen anything like it.
PF It was like September 11th level of confusion and despair.
RZ It was really bad. It was really bad.
PF But there was no reference. Like there was no—it was terrible.
RZ There was a woman in the bathrobe at eight in the morning [Paul laughs] walking around and her coffee mug was empty [laughs wheezily].
PF I remember—No, I remember one of my fellow parents turning to me and like with a four-year-old right there and just being like, “God, I gotta wonder if I should’ve even have had this kid.”
RZ Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF It made people question the existence of their children.
RZ It was bananas, right? And so, you know, we’ve got fans all over the country and around the world. And so people had different perceptions, I’m—I’m fully acknowledging that I live in Brooklyn, New York, and that there is a particular reaction.
PF My mom lives in a town called Mount Savage, Maryland, and they were over the moon.
RZ Yeah! Exactly, I mean—
PF Someone finally listened.
RZ What was fascinating to me right after that is like, ok, there was a lot of screwing around with the elections and propaganda and false information and all of that—
PF And Russia.
RZ And Russia. But for the most part, there was clearly a huge chunk of America wanted this guy [laughs].
PF Oh yeah they were like, “This is what I’ve been dreaming of.”
RZ Yeah! And I had dinner with a friend that night and I said, “You know, this is how the system works.”
RZ “This is how the system works.” “This is horrible, he’s gonna pick the Supreme Court Justice.” I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s the system. That’s actually the system and how it works.” So I was like, “You know what? I wanna see this play out. I wanna see where this could possibly go.” I had thought that it was gonna take him like a year and he would do something absolutely so insanely stupid that he would be kicked out. But, you know, I think he had good babysitters and you had a situation where we got to see this play out [mm hmm]. What is reassuring to me is that everybody’s rolling their eyes now. Even the one that [yeah] are in the middle of the country are like, “Oh! Come on already. I can’t do this anymore.” So that’s promis—I mean this is outside of tech. It’s very promising to me that we are seeing that. And we’re seeing that beyond Brooklyn is what I’m trying to say.
PF You’re looking at something hundreds of years old that has some self correcting mechanisms versus something that’s like 30 years old.
RZ I always have this view—you know, I studied, obviously, you know, The Constitution in law school and sort of the founding structures and The Federalist Papers and all that. And I couldn’t—you know, they trusted nobody. The founding fathers like had incredibly suspicious, cynical view of human beings.
PF Wisely, they didn’t even trust themselves.
RZ [Laughing] They didn’t trust themselves!
PF You know, and they sort of like kept glossing around slavery [yeah] and just like [yeah, yeah] they knew that was a mess. They knew that was poison.
RZ Yeah! Yeah, and it’s like, “Well, you know what? Everybody’s gonna lie cheat, how do we make sure we’re just sort of staring at each other from across the room?”
RZ And that’s the system and so I think coming back to tech, I think it’s impossible, I think we have to rely on people, “Well, government’s gonna have to regulate.” And that sounds terrible in its own way, right? It does because we’re gonna screw that up in some way.
PF Oh but we—But let’s be clear, right? A lot of the things that we love, right or left, are utterly due to government regulation.
PF Like Yosemite or, you know, [yeah] being able to breathe.
PF Those are good things.
RZ I wanna end this with a pitch.
RZ And it’s a technology pitch. I don’t get the YouTube stuff, I get very little of it, and it’s partly due to how I use my computer. So the first thing I wanna pitch, and I’m excited to pitch this because it’s incredibly fast now, is Firefox. Firefox has been around for 12 years?
RZ 15 years?
PF Well I mean it goes back even further.
RZ Oh, it’s Mozilla. So it goes back even further.
PF It’s the first real browser.
RZ Right, right, and it’s really fast, they did all kinds of good stuff to make it fast but it is like extremely aggressive about your privacy. So my suggestion—it’s actually hilarious, my—Amazon doesn’t know what to do with me. So they’re suggesting like football gear and pads [laughs].
PF I’m on Firefox too like nobody knows—
RZ [Laughing] Nobody knows what’s going on.
RZ And I keep getting really bad music on YouTube suggested [laughs]. So everything’s a mess.
PF But you’re just generic now.
RZ It’s really having a hard time.
PF I’m gonna second this endorsement. I moved everything over to Firefox, it’s a little bit jankier with Google Meet but other than that—
RZ It’s a lovely thing.
PF It’s just been flawless. And they did a great job, the Firefox people should be very, very proud.
RZ It’s killer.
PF And everybody’s like, [nasally], “Well, you know, browsers, and blah blah blah,” but I’m like, “Well like I still use it for like eight hours a day.”
RZ Follow up: you recommended this to me, Paul, and it’s actually also amazing. It’s a DNS server you set up in your house [mm hmm] called Pi-hole.
PF It’s P-I I think dash hole.
RZ P-I dash hole.
PF And it’s a Raspberry Pi computer, it’s a 30 dollar computer or less.
RZ Explain what this does.
PF Yeah, so you install—it runs essentially Linux and then you install a couple of layers on top of it and you plug it into your router, right?
PF And then there’s a thing called DNS which is sort of the phonebook for the whole internet. Don’t worry about too much past that. What Pi-hole does is it becomes your little DNS server and you—all of your traffic routes through it and it blocks the living hell out of ads, like BAM!
RZ Beyond ads, though. It’s really worth noting [yeah], when you load a webpage today, there’s all this garbage that comes along with it.
PF Analytics and trackers. It murders all of it.
RZ It doesn’t get into the house.
PF With just remorseless butchery of the entire infrastructure [yup] of like ad tech.
RZ And I have to tell ya, between—
PF Between that and Firefox it is like 500 times faster.
RZ It’s the internet! Like what the internet is supposed to be.
PF Yeah, I know, it’s really good.
RZ It’s a wonderful thing.
PF I guess I don’t get to be part of a class action lawsuit against YouTube just for being a fascist platform.
RZ You can do anything you want, Paul.
PF That’s true.
RZ Define your class and you can do anything you want.
PF But it’s hard—what you’re saying as a lawyer is that it’s hard to define that class given the sort of—like the cultural conversation about YouTube and radicalization doesn’t translate to a class in a class action lawsuit.
RZ Unless you can narrow down that class. That’s right.
PF So, essentially what we wanna do then is probably elect somebody who will—
PF Who will go after this and put it on rails.
RZ Yeah. We took a big dump on technology in this episode.
PF Well, that’s our job!
RZ But we love technology . . . and we build great technology.
PF One of the things we’re good at is we think this stuff through with our clients so that they can [yeah] make good decisions.
RZ That’s right. That’s right.
PF It’s not as simple as like, “We’re ethical,” it’s way more like, “How am I gonna live in these giant platforms and what decisions am I gonna make that are good for my users and good for my stakeholders and good for my company?”
RZ Yeah. Also, let’s face it: I mean [music fades in] we’re talking about all these cool tools. It’s slow. Speed is, you know, low speed, bad speed is bad UX, right? Speed, scalability, these are all problems right now.
PF [Sighs] Nobody wants to talk about speed, it’s the most important thing in the world. Our company has spent so much energy trying to optimize page load when there is garbage competing with us.
RZ That’s right.
PF Especially when we’re doing media word cuz there’s no choice, like this is revenue, and like it is an unbelievable amount of work to make a page load fast. You can do it.
RZ That’s right.
PF But it’s brutal.
PF So but we can do it for you. We can help you with all sorts of things: build your platforms, build your API—we are a product strategy firm that delivers great work built top to bottom, front end, back end, and design. And the other thing about us—
RZ Well, who are we, Paul?
PF This is Postlight. We’re at 101 5th Avenue. So let’s get back to work.
RZ Ping us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PF That’s exactly right. That email goes straight to me and Rich and a few other people, and we will look forward to your message. If you wanna give us a couple, let’s say five stars on iTunes [Rich snort chuckles] that would be fantastic. And—
RZ Have a lovely week.
PF We’ll talk to everybody soon.
RZ Bye [music ramps up, plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].