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Evolution Between the Sofa Cushions

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IMAGINE an insecticide-soaked mattress crawling with bedbugs. You now have a metaphor for the future of our relationship to the living world. In the second half of the 20th century, synthetic pesticides all but eradicated the four-millimeter-long blood-sucking insects in the developed world. Today, those same poisons have little effect, and so, bedbugs have returned, lurking beneath mattresses and between bed frame slats — ready for dinner when we’re ready for sleep.

The case is no different for other bugs in our day-to-day life, as environmental toxicologist Emily Monosson details in Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene (Island Press). Monosson surveys a world we have subjected to coordinated chemical warfare for the better part of a century, and finds life has evolved its way around our pesticides, antibiotics and chemotherapies.

Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.

This insecticide resistance is unquestionably genetic, and it is striking. In one study, entomologists at the University of Kentucky found that bugs from resistant populations in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky, were at least 12,000 times as resistant to the insecticide deltamethrin as bugs from a laboratory colony that had never encountered insecticides. The resistant bugs were so resistant that the team was unable to determine a standard benchmark of deltamethrin toxicity — the LD50, or the dose that kills 50 percent of exposed bugs — because it would have required a higher concentration of the insecticide than can be dissolved in the delivery agent, acetone.

More recently, the same research group determined that the outer layer of resistant bugs’ integument — their skin, essentially — is modified at the molecular level to prevent deltamethrin from penetrating into deeper tissues where it has toxic effect. This particular form of insecticide resistance has not been seen in any other insect species, and it leaves us with much the same set of anti-bedbug tactics our pre-industrial ancestors used: steam-clean clothing, discard infested upholstery, sweep every nook and cranny, and beware of mattresses left curbside for the taking.

¤

These insectival developments come as no surprise to evolutionary biologists. In Unnatural Selection, Monosson builds from the bedrock principles of natural selection that Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace first articulated more than a century and a half ago. Start with a population of living things that vary in some manner: color, running speed, ability to sniff out food, or capacity to withstand a toxin. If the variation in that trait determines which members of the population are able to survive and reproduce, and if the trait has a genetic basis that passes from parents to offspring, then the next generation will contain more individuals with the “favored” version of the trait. This process shaped the history of life over billions of years, eventually resulting in Homo sapiens, a species capable of synthesizing chemical compounds to eradicate other forms of life that cause us inconvenience.

Yet, as Monosson explains, our chemical conquest has never been as complete as we thought, especially outside the developed world. Antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides, applied on a global scale, are exceptionally strong agents of selection. The lucky bacterial cell, or malarial mosquito, or agricultural weed that can carry on in an environment soaked with these agents has a tremendous advantage over its susceptible siblings, and in short order those mutants come to define a new, resistant normality.

The most widely known example is probably bacterial resistance to antibiotics, particularly in the wake of increasingly alarming statements from national and international health agencies, warning that we risk losing some of our most foundational medical treatments. Bacteria able to survive onslaughts of penicillin emerged within the first years of that early antibiotic’s widespread use; Alexander Fleming, who discovered the drug, famously warned of the dangers of resistance evolution in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1945. This pattern has repeated itself with the development of each new antibiotic: as quickly as biochemists identify and synthesize new anti-bacterial compounds, bacteria evolve to overcome them.

Similarly, the introduction of the insecticide DDT rapidly led to the evolution of resistant mosquitoes, houseflies, and, yes, bedbugs. Decades of farming with the herbicide glyphosate, better known under the brand name Roundup, have led to the evolution of resistance in dozens of weed species. One after another, Monosson ticks off cases, dividing them into chapters corresponding roughly to biological classification. She goes beyond these headline examples to describe lesser-known triumphs of “resistance evolution,” such as viruses evading human immune responses and inadequate vaccination, cancer cells overcoming chemotherapy, and fish that survive water polluted by biochemical toxins. She opens most chapters by sketching the histories of particular treatments and pesticides, and explains genetic and biochemical technicalities in clear, precise prose.

Sometimes Monosson’s choices of personalizing detail are less than telling, but more often than not she delivers deft analogies. She compares recombination — how viruses exchange and mix genetic code — to two decks of differently colored cards, shuffled together. She also draws out the common themes across the many disparate organisms and environments she discusses. Resistance is more likely to evolve, she explains, when chemical agents are potent but incompletely applied, when the target population is large and variable, or when our synthetic pesticides are chemically similar to toxins that exist in the natural world, which pest populations may have already encountered.

So Unnatural Selection turns out to be a stealth lesson in basic biology — just the book to give to a friend or family member who thinks that evolution has little to do with day-to-day practicalities.Monosson’s focus on chemical toxins does mean, however, that sheskips many other classic examples of evolutionary responses precipitated by human actions. For example, plants growing on soils polluted by mining waste have repeatedly evolved the capacity to survive heavy metal contamination; species ranging from songbirds to butterflies to fruit flies and mosquitoes have changed the timing of their breeding seasons, or their temperature tolerance, in response to warming global climates.

Then, too, there are evolutionary changes humans have caused without even realizing it. In 2013, ornithologists Charles Brown and Mary Bomberger Brown reported 30 years’ worth of their observations of a colony of cliff swallows that built their mud-daubed nests on highway overpasses in southwestern Nebraska. Swallows hunting for insects over high-speed roads is a recipe for roadkill, but Brown and Brown found that the number of road-killed cliff swallows decreased steadily over their decades-long records. They also observed that swallows’ wings had become shorter over the same time period, and that swallows they found dead on the highway had longer wings than the general population. Long wings are well-suited for swift flight, but less so for rapid mid-air maneuvering, and Brown and Brown believe that selection by oncoming traffic has created shorter-winged cliff swallows that are better able to dodge a speeding sport utility vehicle.

¤

Yet for all these evolutionary survival stories, there are myriad cases where evolution has failed to overcome humanity’s alteration of the world around us. The mounting list of species extinctions — there have been only five periods in the history of the planet with comparable losses of biological diversity — is a testimony to how often life has not found a way around our activities. In a recent review article for the journal Science, a team of evolutionary biologists led by Scott P. Carroll explicitly connect the basic principles of evolution in response to selection to sustainable global development goals. Their report divides evolutionary changes that complicate and threaten human lives, like insecticide and antibiotic resistance, from the much longer list of living systems that need to adapt, but cannot.

Carroll and his co-authors note that, in the course of tracing the origins of species, evolutionary biologists have developed experimental protocols, genetic analysis, and mathematical models that may be critical to minimizing the biological toll of climate change and other human alterations to the environment. With these tools, we can, maybe, identify species most threatened by environmental change, predict whether they will be able to adapt, and even choose genetic stocks to transplant from warmer parts of a species’ range in order to prepare northern populations for higher average temperatures. In the midst of the sixth global mass extinction, these efforts offer hope of some rescues, even if they cannot stop the flood of loss.

Toward the end of Unnatural Selection, Monosson addresses the question that arises naturally from her subject: if living things can evolve to cope with the ways we have changed the planet, why should we try to slow or undo those changes? Her answer is that “I worry not only about the species, but about individuals.” That is, although humanity as a whole may manage in an evolving world, failure to moderate our use of chemical agents will mean a future of real, individual people sickened by un-killable bacteria and left hungry by impervious agricultural pests. The same logic applies to the rest of the living world. Life, as a whole, will almost certainly survive the worst we can do to it — but how many varied and beautiful living creatures will be selected out of existence in the process?

¤

Jeremy Yoder is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota.

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pfctdayelise
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The latest from our nightmare future
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#GamerGate: a Primer by Sly

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Hope LGM frequenter, Sly doesn’t mind being a front-pager tonight. I just want everyone to see his great summation of GamerGate:

Here’s a basic but somewhat detailed summation:

      • Most people who have been on-line long enough get to know about the various self-identifications that form the loose confederation of Organized On-Line Misogyny: Your Red Pillers, your Slymepitters, your MRAs, your Incels, your PUAs, your MGTOWers, etc. Though they differ in the details of their reason for being women-haters, they are unified to the extent that they (a) hate women and (b) use the Internet to talk to and organize with other women-haters. Feminists know them well. Veterans of the Skeptic-Misogyny conflicts got to learn over the past few years how they can’t stand women who have the temerity to bring their lady-brains into what they, the misogynists, assume to be de facto male spaces.

        Anyway, #GamerGate is essentially a repeat of what happened within the Skeptic/New Atheism movement. A subculture that was predominantly male and thus saturated with all the notions of masculinity that men are socialized to accept as natural, whether they are unhealthy or not, is becoming less predominantly male. The men who cling to those notions of masculinity, especially the toxic varieties, see that they are losing cultural capital among their peers. They feel marginalized, and those within the confederation of On-Line Misogynists find a new fora for their overtly toxic anti-feminism. Reactionary movement ensues to “take back” the subculture from the people who are ruining it. Many bystanders who have no idea whats going on get swept up as cannon fodder in a conflict they know nothing about and useful idiots for a ideology that they’d otherwise reject.

        It is in this context that Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend posted his missive in which he alleged that Quinn traded sex for good press. The misogynists seized upon it, pointing out yet another instance of how women ruin everything. Doxxing/Harrassment/Threats ensued. When the allegation turned out to be bunk, the Doxxing/Harrassment/Threats had to be justified somehow, so more doxxing was done to find something to rationalize the initial breech. Quinn doxxed another charity (also false). Quinn slept with her boss for a promotion (also false). Quinn made up the doxxing/harassment/threats (plainly false). The conspiracy theories were rampant, and the campaign took on a new title when actor and wingnut jerkoff Adam Baldwin was the first to tweet one of the original conspiracy videos under the hashtag “GamerGate.”

        Various attempts were made to shield the harassers and conspiracy mongers from allegations of sexism, like organized donations to the charity that Quinn didn’t dox, the manufacturing of a “chillgirl” gamer mascot who, like, totally doesn’t need feminism because it’s not like it was 100 years ago – GAWD WHY DONT YOU JUST LET ME PLAY GAMES, setting up sockpuppet twitter accounts claiming to be women and minorities using the hashtag #NotYourShield, etc. All of this was deliberately organized as a means of public relations.

        Those of us who saw how utterly stupid and noxious this was started voicing our disgust. Leigh Alexander, a writer and Editor-At-Large for Gamasutra, published an article titled “‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over” in which she said that the changing face and mentality of the gamer identity is a welcome thing, because people who believe that they have a license to exclude others from the identity by any means necessary – up to and including waging campaigns of harassment – are a bunch of rabid jackals in the midst of a death rattle. Other on-line publications put out similar articles. This is ultimately what blew everything up, because if there’s one thing that reactionaries cannot stand is when you stop criticizing what they love and start criticizing them directly. They forgot about Zoe Quinn (GamerGaters now refer to her as “Literally Who #1,” or “LitWhoW1,” while Sarkeesian is “LitWho2″), and switched their harassment campaign to those critical on-line publications.

        Otherwise neutral parties were swept up into the “movement” as its Useful Idiots, misunderstanding the “‘Gamers’ are Over” message as an assault on anyone who plays videogames. These people likely now constitute a majority of GamerGaters, and is why so many GamerGaters claim they don’t support doxxing and harassment. To be fair they’re being honest, but they exist solely as a shield for the misogynists to voice and act upon their misogyny.

        And so, at the present moment, GamerGate, as a collective identity, is composed of two groups preoccupied with the following causes:

        Group #1: Scouring any tint of cultural leftism from gaming.

        Group #2: Disavowing Group #1.

        Group #1 survives by trading complicated conspiracy theories done up as 30-minute YouTube vidoes or 120000×80000 pixel MS-Paint images, linking articles from anti-feminist writers at Forbes and Breitbart to one another, and totally crushing on anti-feminist women like Christina Hoff Sommers (because, as everyone knows, you can’t be a misogynist if you’re a woman or agree with a woman who spouts anti-feminist gibberish). That, and trading cartoon kiddie porn and creepshots on 8chan.

        Group #2 survives by shouting “NOT ALL GAMERS ARE LIKE THAT!” without realizing that no one is talking to them.








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Courtney
1 day ago
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...And everyone dismisses group 2 out of hand, thus pissing them off and pushing them further down the path toward group 1, without providing actual resources of support for the victims of abuse by group 1.

So the same thing as usual.
Boston, MA
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2 public comments
gangsterofboats
1 day ago
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Not accurate. At all.
DerBonk
1 day ago
Form all I have seen on 8chan, Twitter etc. it is. People claiming to only care about free speech right next to antisemitic, racist and mysoginist statements.
smadin
1 day ago
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Accurate.
Boston

Ask Polly: Do I Have to Lose Weight to Find Love?

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Dear Polly, How do you make yourself ready to drop your defenses? Let me explain. I'm a single lady in my late 30s who has been pretty much on my own for the last few years, since my only long-term relationship broke up. I have a decent-ish career and a ... More »






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pfctdayelise
5 days ago
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I feel you, LW. Hope you have the courage to believe this advice. It's hard to believe until you can live it.
Melbourne, Australia
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Don't Be Afraid to Talk About Abortion

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by Jazmine Hughes

The article "Abortion: Not Easy, Not Sorry," in ELLE, is stunning; its writer, Laurie Abraham, re-examines her personal history with her abortions, using Katha Politt, author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, as a lens with which Abraham can embrace her past. Between the two of them, the golden nuggets, the things that made me shake my head and underline passages and say, "Yes, THANK YOU." are plentiful. Try:

I'm tired of the rhetoric, even from pro-choice advocates, who in their understandable defensive posture seem to restrict themselves to discussing the most "sympathetic" abortions: those performed because of rape or incest, because the life or health of the mother is in danger, or when the fetus has some devastating disease like Tay-Sachs. All those taken together account for less than a tenth of the more than one million pregnancies terminated in this country each year, Pollitt tells us in Pro: "So sorry, fifteen-year-old girls who got drunk at a party, single mothers with all the kids they can handle and no money, mothers preoccupied with taking care of disabled children, students with just one more year to a degree, battered women, women who have lost their job or finally just landed a decent one, and forty-five-year-olds who have already raised their kids to adulthood, to say nothing of women who just don't feel ready to be a mother, or maybe even don't ever want to be a mother."

Or:

…because there seems to be this cultural fantasy that, as Pollitt puts it, "ill-timed pregnancy" is a bump easily absorbed, a hurdle easily surmounted. It's as if, she writes, "bearing and raising children is something [women] should be ready to do at any moment." If childbirth is compulsory, women's sexuality is what "defines them," she continues, "not their brains and gifts and individuality and character, and certainly not their wishes or their ambitions or their will." Put another way, gender equality is a hollow concept if a woman can't control her fertility except by refraining from sex.

Or:

It's Pollitt who offers perhaps the most forgiving perspective on my abortion history, and who says something that seemed to resonate with a number of my friends and colleagues. "Women have to control their fertility for 30 years," she tells me, echoing a line from Pro. "Thirty years is a long time not to make mistakes."

I had one unplanned pregnancy in each decade of my reproductive life, which isn't something to be proud of, but I'm not sure it's anything to be ashamed of, either.

Or pretty much anything else.

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pfctdayelise
5 days ago
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Great article.
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can your employer do that? probably — but you can still discuss it

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I get a lot of letters like this — letters that ask, essentially, can my employer really do this?

I work in a industry where I sometimes work in the evenings after my standard 8 hours. I don’t mind at all, because it’s good money. Now to avoid paying overtime, my employer is telling me that I have to shift my hours. In other words, I have to come in late to work, then work into the evening to equal 8 hours with no overtime. Can they do this? This is not what I signed up for.

Here’s another:

I am an hourly worker for a company with 7 branches. My position is being terminated because customer service in the 7 branches is being centralized to the home office. I was copied on an email to my branch manager that I am going to be required to travel to St. Pete to train the CSR’s there ( my replacements) The company is paying my hotel, meals and gas. Can I be fired if I refuse to go? Especially if I have a doctor appointment scheduled during that time period?

The answer to both of these letters — and so many others — is:  Yes, your employer can do that, but they might end up handling it differently if you have a calm conversation with them explaining your concerns. Maybe not, of course, but many, many employers in many, many situations do respond to that.

So the relevant question in situations like these isn’t just “Is this legally allowed?” but also “Is there a way to address this that could produce a change?”

To be clear, laws matter. It’s important to know if your employer is doing something prohibited by law. But the majority of the time I hear this question, (a) what the employer is doing is perfectly legal, and (b) that’s not the starting place that’s going to get you the best results anyway. When you’re upset about something your employer is doing, it often makes sense to start by having a calm conversation with your manager where you explain what you’re concerned about and why.

It sounds like this:

“I wanted to talk to you about your request that I do X. I understand why you’re asking — it’s because Y. But to be honest, Z was one of the reasons I took the job — it’s important to me, and X would be a real drawback for me. Is there any chance of revisiting the plan?”

Or:

“Doing X would cause me real hardship because of Y. Are there any other options?”

Or:

“I understand why you want me to do X, but I’m concerned about Y. Could we take a look at other ways to approach it?”

In many cases, that’s all that it will take to get a different answer. Of course, other times it won’t work — but that conversation is where you should start, unless your employer has already given you compelling reasons to skip that step.

(And for cases where what your employer is doing or proposing doing is actually illegal, there’s information here and here.)

can your employer do that? probably — but you can still discuss it was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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it’s ada lovelace day: get angry

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It’s kind of a shitty time to be having Ada Lovelace Day, what with the continuing #gamergate bullshit and Kathy Sierra’s recent departure from twitter. Every time I check for news updates online–which is getting to be less and less often–someone is getting death threats, someone is leaving her career, and the internet is continuing on exactly as it was. So today I think it’s appropriate to celebrate the contribution of women who’ve left online life or the technology field as a whole.

Reading Kathy Sierra’s post about leaving twitter made me intensely angry. That someone like weev is given the power to chase someone like Ms. Sierra away from anything is infuriating. Sierra has been contributing to the betterment of technology and the internet for decades. She’s helped who-knows-how-many people, and in doing so had a hand in giving us better tools, standards, and techniques. Weev has done jack shit, and in addition to being useless, he’s a piece of human garbage. People like Sierra create a platform and people like weev use it to drive them away.

But that’s what the internet is. If you’re not a member of the dominant demographic, you exist here at its pleasure. Knowing you have just as much right to be here–more right, in the cases of Sierra and so many other people in minority groups who were important contributors and have been chased away–doesn’t change shit. This is their internet and it always has been.

When I was a teenager, leading the volunteers for a GeoCities neighborhood, there was a guy in his twenties I’d chat with. He started out as a volunteer in my neighborhood and the chatting was professional, but he started flirting with me and at some point sent me a mixtape in the mail. I was interested in the mixtape and in talking about music, but he wanted things to get sexy and I wasn’t into it. At some point I told him to stop. He responded by moving his site to a different neighborhood (note: I know how silly all this sounds in the context of GeoCities and cybersex, but this was the 90s and the whole internet was pretty cheesy). Eventually he became leader of the volunteer efforts there, and started saying silly things about how his was the cool music neighborhood and the one I worked on/had my site on was lame or something, but mine remained the more desirable music neighborhood because it had originally been the only one.

I didn’t think much of any of this. I’d been online for less than a year at this point, and GeoCities was only my second online community. I expected that the whole internet would be mostly reading weird stuff, sitting in chatrooms with other teenagers, doing HTML, and helping other people do theirs. I’d been leading the volunteer group a few months when this dude, in a meeting of volunteer leaders, told the GeoCities employees who oversaw us that I shouldn’t be in charge because I was just a teenager. He had no seniority over me, no paid role in the company, and no justification for the relevance of my age; they replaced me with him immediately.

Things like that happened a few more times before a clear picture emerged: white men run the internet, white men run technology, and whatever place you imagine your work has earned you in either, white men can snap their fingers and take it away.

The internet is much more diverse than it was in the nineties, of course. But though the original white, male shitbags make up less of it, they retain their supremacy, and the unspoken reality is that it’s still their internet. Why does 4chan still exist? Because it’s theirs. Any challenge to its “right” to exist will be met with cries of censorship. And censorship on the internet is a far worse crime than hate speech, death threats, or nearly anything else, because the latter set rarely targets those same original white, male shitbags.

What troubles me is that it isn’t only white men. It takes an internet of billions to hold us back. There is currently no way to participate online without being complicit. We hate what happened to Ms. Sierra but we don’t want the government spying on us, so we have to back the EFF even though they back weev. We hate rape but we like WikiLeaks, so we have to back Julian Assange. We hate labor abuses but we need our toilet paper delivered next-day without having to leave the house, so we have to back Amazon. We hate institutionalized income inequality but we like Node, so we have to back Walmart. We hate the environmental impact of electronics planned to be obsolete after a year, but we can’t do our work without the latest version of OSX, so we have to back Apple. I could go on for fucking weeks. Even if we directly support none of these things, they can use our open source work. They can learn from our blog posts and conference talks.

I’ve seen direct and implied statements to the tune of “We are all Kathy Sierra,” meaning we all lose when a troll wins. While I agree we all lose, I think we have ourselves to blame. While we support the systems that support him, we are all weev.

But so. It’s Ada Lovelace Day and we’re supposed to talk about the women in technology who’ve inspired us. The women who inspire me are those who’ve taken the frightening step of lessening their culpability by decreasing their participation. While it’s courageous to remain in tech/on the internet and try to make it a better place, you can’t get around the compromise in doing so. By remaining in those systems, we award them importance. The more we say we must stay and fight to exist in these systems, the more we imply that we can’t exist without them, that they are ultimately good and necessary. And they aren’t. What is good and necessary in them exists because the shitbags allow it to, and is a side-effect.

My decades-long, non-scientific survey of the internet says that little of what we’re getting from technology is vital, let alone doing objective good in the world. The internet is mostly entertainment, shopping, and marketing. Most of the shopping isn’t done by people with limited mobility. Most of the entertainment isn’t educational. The trade-off for this wealth of pornography, shoes, gadgets, and cat pictures is ascribing necessity to a system wherein people like weev have inordinate power. That is: giving too much importance to a mostly-useless thing provides a place for mostly-useless people to flourish. Can it also give power to the powerless? Sure. For instance, many of us are better informed about Ferguson than we’d be otherwise. But also look at how the people of Ferguson remain under attack despite twitter’s attention, while on other parts of twitter death threats are driving individual female gamers from their homes. When the real world comes to the internet for help, it doesn’t provide much. On the other hand, for an abstract thing, the internet excels at causing fear, suicide, and violence in the real world. Whatever our good intentions about our technology work, this is what it enables.

To leave these worlds behind is to chip away at the source of their power: our belief in their power. We don’t need the startup industry to create technology. We don’t need to be on twitter to talk to our friends. I hold out hope that we’ll eventually have a second technology industry, maybe even a second internet, one where ethics go beyond babywords like “be nice” and are fully-formed and at the core of our participation. The ones we have now, however, are fucked, dangerous, and a waste of everyone’s time. I think Ada Lovelace would be pissed to see her work lead to a place where shitbags like weev are respected and exalted, and I think it’s time for more of us to be pissed at what our participation is enabling, as well.

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pfctdayelise
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