Caitlin Dewey

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Democracy is only as good as the people, and information is only useful if those crunching the numbers possess sound, critical minds. Smartphones have allowed those in the furthest corners of the globe to have access to an almost unlimited library of ideas and data. How will they use it?

In America and other developed nations, unending streams of info have created a stubbornly chaotic new normal, with conspiracies growing like weeds and democracy coming to seem less like a village than a lynch mob. Will other people, unencumbered by our baggage, manage the modern arrangement in a saner way?

In a Washington Post piece, Caitlin Dewey writes of a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything with members of the Maasai tribe, who are already connected to the rest of us, which might be a blessing. An excerpt:

Earlier this week, Redditors were given a pretty neat opportunity: Two leaders from the Maasai tribe, a seminomadic people living in Western Kenya, signed on to do an “Ask Me Anything.” Redditors asked about the standard stuff: religious practices, diet, what people in the village do for fun. And then, inevitably, one user asked the chiefs to describe their favorite “kind of Internet porn.”

“They don’t believe it and don’t know what it is,” the chiefs’ interlocutor replied — to a giddily gleeful audience. “Don’t think or know about pornography. They are asking is it normal in America.”

The assembled Redditors went wild. It was their crowning achievement. They concluded that they had, in what may have been the Redditiest moment ever Reddited, introduced the concept of Internet porn to a culture that had not encountered it.

But what actually happened is slightly more complicated … and truthfully, more fascinating. Chief Joseph and Assistant Chief Leshan had, in fact, seen Internet porn before, because data-enabled mobile phones have actually become a huge part of even their remote, disconnected community.

As distant as the Maasai may seem from the modern world — the tribe has access to neither running water nor electricity, and many of the questions in the AMA centered on customs like drinking goats’ blood and circumcision without anesthetics — they do increasingly have access to forums like Reddit.

As Adam Schiller, the 24-year-old volunteer who set up the AMA, put it: “Imagine having porn before you have power.”•



More than a billion people work for free for Mark Zuckerberg. The log in to Facebook–although they actually never really log out–and get to work creating content. Sure, they receive some utility and sense of belonging in return for their efforts and data and willingness to be social experiments, but they’re essentially serfs in a virtual world where they have little voice in how their information is repurposed. Everything in this virtual society may be virtual, but it seems a new kind of nation-state by most  measurements. 

It’s clear from his investments and comments that Zuckerberg wants VR to be a key part of this new parallel universe. A recent photo of the Facebook founder striding to the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Spain, scores of journalists in VR headsets unaware of his entrance, has been widely circulated. I bet a lot of people even took time to post it on Facebook. How nice of them to volunteer their services! In the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey offers a sharp analysis of the off-putting picture. An excerpt:

Zuckerberg has said that, in his vision for the future, these virtual experiences will be fundamentally social. But the photo suggests something quite different: Hundreds of people share a physical space, but no perception, no experience, no phenomenological anchor. The communality of a conference (literally from conferre, “to bring together”) is thrown over for a series of hyper-individualized bubbles. And you’re reminded, from Zuckerberg’s awkward semi-smile, that the man who owns the bubbles also owns what’s in them. That controlling virtual reality, in other words, is only a step from controlling reality itself.

Then again, Zuckerberg arguably does that already.•

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I’ve stayed in some dumpy hotels in my day, but most of them didn’t have shivs or shanks. Lawyers, inmates and their relatives apparently now review prisons on Yelp. From Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post:

“Lawyer Robert Miller has visited five prisons and 17 jails in his lifetime, but he has reviewed only three of them on Yelp. One he found ‘average,’ with inexperienced and power-hungry officers. Another he faulted for its ‘kind of very firmly rude staff.’ His most recent review, a January critique of Theo Lacy jail in Orange County, Calif., lauds the cleanliness, urban setting and ‘very nice’ deputies.

Miller gave it five out of five stars.

‘I started reviewing because I needed something to kill time while I waited to see clients,’ said Miller, who has worked as a private defense lawyer in Southern California for 18 years. ‘But I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually.’

As Miller acknowledges, it’s not the kind of helpful testimonial commonly found on Yelp, the popular consumer reviews site many people turn to for recommendations on, say, bowling alleys and Chinese takeout. But as Yelp grows more popular — logging 36 million reviews as of last quarter — lawyers as well as prison inmates and their family members have turned to the site to report mediocre food and allegations of serious abuse. They join the enterprising reviewers who have used Yelp to critique traffic signals and public bathrooms.”