Ben’s 2019

Twenty nineteen. The word of the year is “impunity.”

Here’s a nice symbol of the moment: the founder of WeWork reportedly wanted to be the world’s first trillionaire, the president of the world and live forever — but all he succeeded in doing was evaporating $40bn of market capitalization on a fake business and getting thousands of people laid off while pocketing $1.7bn. The system is functioning just fine, thank you.

Perhaps we are living through a time of transition from one type of society to the next. But as the sun sets on this decade, do we want barbarism, or…?

What did I do this year? Cam and I fled our broken Chinatown apartment for some nice country living in Brooklyn.

My second niece was born. Two of my best friends got married.

I joined the first 2020 rally of the season, trudging through the snow to see the future #46 (let’s see!)

My time at the International Rescue Committee came to a close. Leaving was not easy. I can genuinely say that I’ve never felt greater love and admiration for my colleagues. And being part of this kind of organization, but safe and thriving in a comfortable desk job, was a privilege — but could often feel a bit dissonant!

Some things in life are marathons, others are sprints. My professional mission has always been some variation on: “make technology work for people.” In fact, that’s what drew me to join IRC and help establish its nascent R&D team a few years back. The Airbel Center grew quickly in three years, with humanitarian innovation projects now underway in a half dozen countries, and the catalyst for a major early childhood education initiative that just keeps growing. I’m very grateful for having the opportunity to be part of that sprint.

But when I had an opportunity to join Consumer Reports to establish a new institute on privacy and digital rights, I had to take it. Getting the Digital Lab up and running has been fun and exciting challenge — and things are just getting started. So the office is in Yonkers now, pretty far from the homestead. I struggled with the idea of getting a car, and ultimately succumbed because of the necessity of a daily 2 hour commute (and lots of burning of the midnight oil…)

In some ways, this new mission is not unlike what I’ve been doing at IRC for the last few years: kickstarting a new team within a well-established and respected non-profit. And it’s also similar to work I did at Mozilla — incubating new research programs and software, trying to raise the standard for end users, and figuring out how to shape the market as an activist social enterprise. 2020 will be a big year — we’re building an ambitious strategy around new kinds of research and products to strengthen people’s privacy rights. Plus tons of innovative partnerships and interesting issues to work on.

So about “Big Tech.” I’m not enamored with the rhetoric but glad we’re getting back to discussion that seems to have left off in the 90s with Microsoft. This year, I participated or led in working groups on digital competition antitrust in SF, DC and Seattle, and became even more convinced that interoperability is the key to building the internet we want. Masnick’s essay for K1A inspired me and apparently some others.

I taught Faking the News at NYU again — this time introducing a little voice-cloning and text generation with the GPT-2 AI. GPT-2 is seriously amazing and having a deep learning supercomputer in the basement to help with writing is something I’m really excited to explore (exploit?) in the future.

I’m grateful that the year was filled with interesting travel — took some time off in Thailand, dropped in on Berlin again, attended my first MozFest in many years, and made a visit to Bellagio where Cam was staying in residency. (Cam, by the way, was recognized this year by everyone from TIME to MIT to Marie Claire [!] for being a rockstar, which of course I’ve known from the start). Good times at our first-ever hosted Friendsgiving; a pilgrimage to the board game Mecca of PAX Unplugged, and a little event out in Half Moon Bay.

In no particular order, here are some books that made an impression this year. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is a truly great novel about finance, climate change and the soul of the city — familiar to anyone who’s ever lived here. Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism deserves the hype but needed an editor. Don’t sleep on Trump Sky Alpha — an on-the-nose, semi-satirical dystopian take on how World War III and its aftermath would play on Twitter. Automating Inequality — strongly recommended to understand how privacy is a social justice issue. Writing and Selling Science Fiction — timeless advice (“Heinlein did it better!”) and one can always dream about future alternative careers. Super Pumped — not quite Bad Blood but it will scratch the same itch.

And of course the primary debates began — these are really my Superbowl, I’m ashamed to say. These have been filled with all kinds of amusing and surreal moments, like a campaign promise to “save life on this planet.”

A decent campaign promise!

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