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Welcome to Insight
A newsletter for thinking deeply about complex puzzles worth pondering
I’m launching a newsletter called Insight. Why? Because I have things I think I can do here, in this format, with a smaller but engaged community that’s interested in tackling the complexity and the messy reality of the world. Since I started writing publicly, more than a decade ago, I’ve believed there is room for, and interest in, complicated, in-depth discussions that don’t constantly hedge and hem-and-haw defensively but also don’t paper over the uncertainty. Discussions that are practical and ambitious but also honest in acknowledging ambiguity and unknowns about the world’s massive challenges. Discussions that treat the reader as a partner in thinking. After my experience this year (more on that in a bit), I think it’s time to try do this in a format that directly supports this kind of work. (If you’re reading this in your email, it’s because you’d signed up for my old, rarely-updated newsletter—and now I am inviting you to be part of Insight.)
That was the tl;dr. Here’s that subscribe button if you think this is an experiment worth following:
For me, probably as for you, this year didn’t go as planned. I’ve had my life upended, like the rest of the planet. I’ve also unexpectedly written much about the pandemic—so much that I got a New York Times profile out of it. Ben Smith wrote about me:
Long before she became perhaps the only good amateur epidemiologist, she had quietly made a habit of being right on the big things... In 2011, she went against the current to say the case for Twitter as a driver of broad social movements had been oversimplified. In 2012, she warned news media outlets that their coverage of school shootings could inspire more. In 2013, she argued that Facebook could fuel ethnic cleansing. In 2017, she warned that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could be used as a tool of radicalization.
Next time I’m asked what I do for a living, I might as well just say that I’m “perhaps the only good amateur epidemiologist.” It’s as good a description as any.
I’ve always had difficulty describing my work. About a decade ago, I made up a name to describe my then-emerging field: “technosociology.” I thought the term would help cut through the confusion. Normally when I told people that I studied technology and society, they assumed that I was working on user interfaces or something like that—especially after they’d learned I had studied and worked as a computer programmer before switching to sociology. No, no, I’d say. Technology interacts with the fabric of society. It’s not just about the code or the pixels. Technology is related to it all.
Just like the virus isn’t just about the pathogen.
My work on the pandemic started with a February article in Scientific American that I wrote out of deep frustration. Along with many epidemiologists, public health experts and virologists who had been jumping up and down in frustration, I experienced February as almost an out-of-body experience. I knew we were going to get hit by the pandemic, badly—but we weren’t preparing. We did not prepare as a government, but we also were not preparing as a people. The public wasn’t given information or direction on how to get ready. The public wasn’t even told they had to get ready. It was maddening and terrifying at the same time.
I already had a public presence, and I owed Scientific American an article, so at the end of February, I whipped one up on pandemic preparedness and some basic concepts that I just wasn’t seeing being communicated. Why most epidemiological variables aren’t immutable constants but depend on our response. How mildly ill or barely symptomatic people could transmit this virus, and why that means it’s important to try to stay home, especially to try to avoid overloading hospitals and infecting the elderly. Why preparation matters, and how to go about it, preparing for remote work for deliveries, getting prescriptions filled, storing some food, and such. I thought we’d at least do some edits, but my editor was busy with family commitments, so he put it up quickly.
It’s called “Preparing for Coronavirus to Strike the U.S.” At the time, the title sounded alarmist and, honestly, weird. Since it wasn’t really edited much, it even had typos.
But the article did the work I hoped.
It got widely read. More importantly, it inspired many people to act. I'm still hearing from them: people who read the article and prepared, canceled travel, helped elderly relatives stay safe and at home. It’s hard for me to express how deeply gratifying such comments have been. As far as I can tell, the Scientific American piece is the first public-facing article in mainstream media explaining the science behind flattening the curve, and outlining what it all means practically. The concept is obviously well-known within epidemiology, but I cannot find a reference to the term in either Google News or Lexis/Nexis databases before my piece.
I thought that was the end of my pandemic writing. I had dipped my toes into a field not really my own, and they were as wet as I thought they would, or should, get. To be fair, I wasn’t a complete amateur. I had long been interested in pandemics, and I had taught about the sociology of pandemics. I had even written a bit about pandemics before, since they are great ways to understand important concepts. But they weren’t something I thought would ever become so central to my public work.
Then the pandemic changed the world.
In early March, I spent two more weeks in another out-of-body experience, watching public health authorities here and around the world, along with many experts on social and traditional media, declare masks to be unnecessary and even harmful. I tweeted about it on March 1st and waited for someone, anyone, anyone, to write a good piece explaining how those assertions were incorrect, to put it politely. Worse, these declarations were dangerous, putting lives in jeopardy. But the piece on masks I expected someone else to write never appeared. So I wrote a draft. And waited more. I didn’t think I should be the one writing it. It should have been a medical doctor or a genuine public health authority, to give it the maximum amount of impact. But I didn’t see one piece by an expert in a high-profile outlet saying those things.
On March 17th, with both trepidation but also a sense of obligation, I published an op-ed in the Times about the need to wear masks. About the harms of the muddled, incoherent messaging around wearing masks, at a time when they were opposed by the CDC and the WHO. “Of course masks work — maybe not perfectly and not all to the same degree, but they provide some protection,” it said.
The op-ed challenged almost every aspect of the mask policy then promoted by the most important public-health organizations in the world. It also challenged what many public health authorities were telling people on social media. These experts were saying that masks didn’t work; that they were useless unless fitted correctly; that they had to be medical-grade to be effective; that they would harm the wearer; that they would create a false sense of security; that recommending masks would lead to hoarding. It was all wrong.
I thought that publishing such a high-profile op-ed on the case for masks when it contradicted the official advice so starkly might end my career as a public writer. I worried I might be seen as almost an anti-vaxxer—someone defying medical authority in the middle of a massive health crisis. But I was confident that the science—both the medical science and the sociology—were on my side of the argument. I wasn’t being a knee-jerk contrarian. I was confident enough in the evidence and my intentions to take the risk of publishing the piece. Not because the stakes were low, but because the stakes were so high.
The op-ed’s impact wasn’t what I had feared. It has been the opposite. It has since been reported that my piece became the “tipping point” for the CDC to change its mask guidance. It would take the WHO several more months to do so.
I kept writing because I knew I could contribute something meaningful. Lucky for me, The Atlantic offered freedom and support for my unconventional work. I wrote in April about how COVID models work and why being outdoors was safer than being inside. That same month, I explained (with my co-authors) the details of masks as source control, and also co-authored a scientific piece (that is currently undergoing peer review). In May, I wrote about Hong Kong’s grassroots response to the pandemic. I wrote in July about the error of scolding beach-goers, about the misinformation involved in constantly using pictures of beaches to illustrate epidemic risks. In July, I published a piece on COVID-19 patients dying alone (they still are dying alone, tragically).
I did deep-dives, too. I published about the key role ventilation played, the importance of understanding airborne-transmission of the coronavirus, in July--months before the CDC updated its guidance in October to acknowledge airborne transmission. (The WHO is slowly adapting its language, but it’s still lagging). A few days before the news of the White House superspreader event broke, I wrote another long piece about the important role clusters and overdispersion play in this epidemic.
I also wrote about my traditional beats: society, authoritarianism, technology, protests, the public sphere. I wrote about tear gas in respiratory pandemics, the short-term and long-term impacts of protests, and about the counterproductive surveillance that we are imposing on college students in the name of infection control. In February, I wrote a piece arguing that China’s authoritarianism might have hindered and delayed its own pandemic response, something that has since been confirmed by independent reporting. I wrote about the shortcomings of the WHO, but I argued that we should fix it, not break it even further. I also wrote about journalism’s failures to both understand how complex systems work and to evaluate emerging information with an eye towards action.
It’s that last one—the need to think deeply about complex systems even with uncertain, emerging information—that inspires this newsletter. There’s an analytic method to my seemingly topical madness. It’s a way of thinking that I’ve developed over my career. And it’s one that is overlooked in our traditional education and public spheres.
It’s a way of thinking reflected in my writings about technology and society, my home field. Over the years, I wrote about how to rethink and reclaim free speech in the digital age; about how digital insecurity and institutional legitimacy (for example, for elections) interact. I wrote about how internet infrastructure has contributed to our evolution into a low-trust society. These works discussed the harms of attention-monetizing business models, and the problems of censorship and misinformation in the 21st century, among many other topics.
I’ve written about software insecurity and technical debt (and what it means for our world), about and why institutions like the Post Office are so important to the fabric of society in, and to freeing up creativity and innovation. I’ve written about privacy and surveillance, and how and why they matter, and how new machine learning systems may be able to provide us with both privacy and convenience. I’ve written about machine learning and automation, and what it means for us to have these new gatekeepers become so prevalent, especially for shifting power in society. I wrote why Mark Zuckerberg keeps apologizing, and why it’s futile.
Back in March of 2016, many thought Trump’s candidacy was a joke. They assumed that he would be a weak contender for the Republican Party’s nomination, let alone the presidency. I wrote a piece that month explaining how America’s broken politics and new media environment made him much stronger than people assumed. Long before the election of 2016, I wrote about how conspiracy theories were distorting the public sphere, and why hack-and-dump, as practiced by Wikileaks, etc., was a form of political sabotage, not truth-telling akin to the Pentagon Papers.
My older writings have much in common with my newer topics. These topics range across disciplines, but they all focus on how our society is in transition. And how best to make sense of that transition, and respond to it even in the face of imperfect information.
This newsletter is about the thinking we can do at the intersections between disciplines and methods, bringing together the science and the technology, people and society, recognizing the complexity and ambiguity of it all. More than a decade ago, I started writing publicly, in addition to my academic job, because I thought the public deserved, and wanted to engage with, the complexity and seriousness of these topics. I thought there was too much oversimplification, false certainty and binary logic—but also not enough focus on decision-making and acting in the face of uncertainty and complexity. I still think that.
Wading into these waters this year has been scary. But it has never been boring. But all this is also born of optimism: I believe we can meet these challenges, or at least we can try harder and smarter. Optimism is the domain of the critic, not the superficial cheerleader. I hope this newsletter can be a community for people who also find all this interesting and exciting—and even a reason for hope, that we can and we should swing for the fences, collectively. People who would be happy to read about messy topics that do not have clear-cut answers. People who want to do their best to resist the groupthink that is easy to fall prey to, for so many of us, and would like to join a community dedicated to fostering that. I will not abandon my public writing—in fact, supporting this newsletter is a way of supporting my public writing, by diversifying my professional focus and pillars. Some posts I write will be for the public, and I will still write occasionally for outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times. But some posts and functions (like open-threads/discussions) will be for subscribers only exactly so that we can benefit from a focus and an community that values this effort.
In addition to all that, I want to do unique things here. More thinking out loud, more deep dives into singular aspects of issues, more explicit acknowledgment and engagement of the challenges to my working conclusions. Crucially, I hope that this newsletter will foster more engagement with a smaller community that would rather go beyond snippets on Twitter. There are so many times that I want to have a better back-and-forth with challenges and questions. But I can’t do it in the often dysfunctional world of social media. It’s my hope that this newsletter offers a way forward for all of this.
Will it work? I don’t know, but here’s how to try being part of Insight: