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We’ve come up with the menacing term “troll” for someone who spreads hate and does other horrible things anonymously on the Internet. Internet trolls are unsettling not just because of the things they say but for the mystery they represent: what kind of person could be so vile? One afternoon this fall, the Swedish journalist Robert Aschberg sat on a patio outside a drab apartment building in a suburb of Stockholm, face to face with an Internet troll, trying to answer this question.
The troll turned out to be a quiet, skinny man in his 30s, wearing a hoodie and a dirty baseball cap—a sorry foil to Aschberg’s smart suit jacket, gleaming bald head, and TV-trained baritone. Aschberg’s research team had linked the man to a months-long campaign of harassment against a teenage girl born with a shrunken hand. After meeting her online, the troll tormented her obsessively, leaving insulting comments about her hand on her Instagram page, barraging her with Facebook messages, even sending her taunts through the mail.
Aschberg had come to the man’s home with a television crew to confront him, but now he denied everything. “Have you regretted what you’ve done?” Aschberg asked, handing the man a page of Facebook messages the victim had received from an account linked to him. The man shook his head. “I haven’t written anything,” he said. “I didn’t have a profile then. It was hacked.”
This was the first time Aschberg had encountered an outright denial since he had started exposing Internet trolls on his television show Trolljägarna (Troll Hunter). Usually he just shoots them his signature glare—honed over decades as a muckraking TV journalist and famous for its ability to bore right through sex creeps, stalkers, and corrupt politicians—and they spill their guts. But the glare had met its match. After 10 minutes of fruitless back and forth on the patio, Aschberg ended the interview. “Some advice from someone who’s been around for a while,” he said wearily. “Lay low on the Internet with this sort of stuff.” The man still shook his head: “But I haven’t done any of that.”
With evidence in hand, Aschberg confronts a troll on his show.
“He’s a pathological liar,” Aschberg grumbled in the car afterward. But he wasn’t particularly concerned. The goal of Troll Hunter is not to rid the Internet of every troll. “The agenda is to raise hell about all the hate on the Net,” he says. “To start a discussion.” Back at the Troll Hunter office, a whiteboard organized Aschberg’s agenda. Dossiers on other trolls were tacked up in two rows: a pair of teens who anonymously slander their high school classmates on Instagram, a politician who runs a racist website, a male law student who stole the identity of a young woman to entice another man into an online relationship. In a sign of the issue’s resonance in Sweden, a pithy neologism has been coined to encompass all these forms of online nastiness: näthat (“Net hate”). Troll Hunter, which has become a minor hit for its brash tackling of näthat, is currently filming its second season.
Hate is having a sort of renaissance online, even in the countries thought to be beyond it.
It is generally no longer acceptable in public life to hurl slurs at women or minorities, to rally around the idea that some humans are inherently worth less than others, or to terrorize vulnerable people. But old-school hate is having a sort of renaissance online, and in the countries thought to be furthest beyond it. The anonymity provided by the Internet fosters communities where people can feed on each other’s hate without consequence. They can easily form into mobs and terrify victims. Individual trolls can hide behind dozens of screen names to multiply their effect. And attempts to curb online hate must always contend with the long-standing ideals that imagine the Internet’s main purpose as offering unfettered space for free speech and marginalized ideas. The struggle against hate online is so urgent and difficult that the law professor Danielle Citron, in her new book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, calls the Internet “the next battleground for civil rights.”
A publicity shot for Troll Hunter.
That Sweden has so much hate to combat is surprising. It’s developed a reputation not only as a bastion of liberalism and feminism but as a sort of digital utopia, where Nordic geeks while away long winter nights sharing movies and music over impossibly fast broadband connections. Sweden boasts a 95 percent Internet penetration rate, the fourth-highest in the world, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Its thriving tech industry has produced iconic brands like Spotify and Minecraft. A political movement born in Sweden, the Pirate Party, is based on the idea that the Internet is a force for peace and prosperity. But Sweden’s Internet also has a disturbing underbelly. It burst into view with the so-called “Instagram riot” of 2012, when hundreds of angry teenagers descended on a Gothenburg high school, calling for the head of a girl who spread sexual slander about fellow students on Instagram. The more banal everyday harassment faced by women on the Internet was documented in a much-discussed 2013 TV special called Men Who Net Hate Women, a play on the Swedish title of the first book of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium trilogy.
Internet hatred is a problem anywhere a significant part of life is lived online. But the problem is sharpened by Sweden’s cultural and legal commitment to free expression, according to Mårten Schultz, a law professor at Stockholm University and a regular guest on Troll Hunter, where he discusses the legal issues surrounding each case. Swedes tend to approach näthat as the unpleasant but unavoidable side effect of having the liberty to say what you wish. Proposed legislation to combat online harassment is met with strong resistance from free speech and Internet rights activists.
What’s more, Sweden’s liberal freedom-of-information laws offer easy access to personal information about nearly anyone, including people’s personal identity numbers, their addresses, even their taxable income. That can make online harassment uniquely invasive. “The government publicly disseminates a lot of information you wouldn’t be able to get outside of Scandinavia,” Schultz says. “We have quite weak protection of privacy in Sweden.”
The same information ecosystem that aids trolls also makes it easier to expose them.
Yet the rich information ecosystem that empowers Internet trolls also makes Sweden a perfect stalking ground for those who want to expose them. In addition to Aschberg, a group of volunteer researchers called Researchgruppen, or Research Group,has pioneered a form of activist journalism based on following the crumbs of data anonymous Internet trolls leave behind and unmasking them. In its largest troll hunt, Research Group scraped the comments section of the right-wing online publication Avpixlat and obtained a huge database of its comments and user information. Starting with this data, members meticulously identified many of Avpixlat’s most prolific commenters and then turned the names over to Expressen, one of Sweden’s two major tabloids. In December 2013, Expressen revealed in a series of front-page stories that dozens of prominent Swedes had posted racist, sexist, and otherwise hateful comments under pseudonyms on Avpixlat, including a number of politicians and officials from the ascendant far-right Sweden Democrats. It was one of the biggest scoops of the year. The Sweden Democrats, which have their roots in Sweden’s neo-Nazi movement, have long attempted to distance themselves from their racist past, adopting a more respectable rhetoric of protecting “Swedish culture.” But here were their members and supporters casting doubt on the Holocaust and calling Muslim immigrants “locusts.” A number of politicians and officials were forced to resign. Expressen released a short documentary of its reporters acting as troll hunters, knocking on doors and confronting Avpixlat commenters with their own words.
Make the Unknown Known
Martin Fredriksson is a cofounder of Research Group and its de facto leader. He is a lanky 34-year-old with close-cropped hair and a quietly intense demeanor, though he is prone to outbursts on Twitter that hint at his past as a militant anti-racism activist. I met Fredriksson at the tiny one-room office of Piscatus, the public records service for journalists that he oversees as his day job. Robert Aschberg, the chair of Piscatus’s board, has known Fredriksson for years and jokes that he is a brilliant researcher and an excellent journalist, but “you can’t have him in furnished rooms.” The extreme sparseness of the office bore him out. One of the only decorations was a Spice Girls poster.
Fredriksson hunched over his computer’s dual screens and logged in to the intranet he had created to coördinate Research Group’s unmasking of Avpixlat users. Research Group typically works in a decentralized manner, with members pursuing their own projects and collaborating with others when needed. The group currently has 10 members, all volunteers, including a psychology graduate student, a couple of journalism students, a grade school librarian, a writer for an online IT trade publication, and a porter in a hospital. The little organizing that occurs typically happens in Internet relay chat rooms and on a wiki. But analyzing the Avpixlat database, which contained three million comments and over 55,000 accounts, required a centralized, systematized process. An image on the main page of the intranet pokes fun at the immensity of the task. Two horses have their heads stuck in a haystack. “Find anything?” asks one. “Nope,” says the other.
The Expressen home page when the paper published the Avpixlat scoop, unmasking prominent Swedes.
Research Group was founded during the exhaustive process of unmasking a particularly frightening Internet troll. That episode began in 2005, when Fredriksson and his close friend Mathias Wåg learned that an anonymous person was requesting public information about Wåg from the government. As a return address, the requester used a post office box in Stockholm. That kept Fredriksson and Wåg in the dark at first. But the next year, they obtained a copy of a prison magazine in which a notorious neo-Nazi named Hampus Hellekant, who was in prison for murdering a union organizer, had listed the same post office box. In 2007, after Hellekant was released, pseudonymous posts began to appear on Swedish neo-Nazi forums and websites, soliciting information about Wåg and other leftist activists.
For three years, Fredriksson and some like-minded investigators tracked Hellekant’s every move, online and off. “He was functioning more or less as the intelligence service for the Nazi movement,” Fredriksson says. Their counterintelligence operation involved a mix of traditional journalistic techniques and innovative data analysis. One unlikely breakthrough came courtesy of -Hellekant’s habit of illegally parking his car all over Stockholm. Fredriksson’s team requested parking ticket records from the city. They were able to match the car’s location on certain days with time and GPS metadata on image files Hellekant posted under a pseudonym. In 2009 they sold the story of Hellekant’s post-prison activities to a leftist newspaper, and Research Group was born.
Since then, its members have investigated the men’s rights movement, Swedish police tactics, and various right-wing groups. Until the Avpixlat story they had mostly published their findings quietly on their website or partnered with small left-wing news organizations. “The official story is that we pick subjects about democracy and equality,” says Fredriksson. “But the real reason is that we just have special interests—we just try to focus on stuff that interests us as people.”
By the time Research Group came together, Fredriksson’s interest in Nazi hunting and talent for investigative reporting had landed him a job with Aschberg. Fredriksson had scraped data from a mobile payment platform with woefully inadequate security in order to investigate the donors to a neo-Nazi website. He also happened to get the records of scores of users who had made payments to Internet porn sites. Aschberg used the data on his show Insider, Sweden’s answer to NBC’s Dateline, where he exposed government officials who had bought Internet porn on their official cell phones. Then he hired Fredriksson as a researcher on Insider: he functioned as the technical brains behind many of Aschberg’s confrontations. Today Fredriksson does not work for Troll Hunter, and the show has no formal connection to Research Group. But Fredriksson’s legacy is clear in the technical detective work that the show often uses to expose its targets.
Fredriksson might accurately be called a “data journalist,” as his specialty is teasing stories from huge spools of information. But the bland term doesn’t do justice to his guerrilla methods, which can make the pursuit of information as thrilling as the hunt for a serial killer in a crime novel. When Fredriksson gets interested in a project, he seizes it obsessively. Aschberg speaks of him in awe, as a potent but alien force. “He’s very special,” he says. “He’s one of those guys who can sit for 24 hours and drink sodas and just work.”
Members of Research Group.
Fredriksson is a member of a generation of Swedes known as “Generation 64,” who grew up tinkering with Commodore 64s in the 1980s and went on to revolutionize Sweden’s IT industry. His upbringing also coincided with the rise of a neo-Nazi movement in the 1990s, when he was a teenage punk rocker. He and his friends constantly clashed with a gang of skinheads in his small hometown in southern Sweden. “I was very interested in politics. I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to do politics I’d have to deal with the Nazi threat in some way,” he says. He joined the controversial leftist group Antifascistisk Aktion (AFA), which openly endorses the use of violence against neo-Nazis. In 2006 he was sentenced to community service for beating a man during a fight between a group of neo-Nazis and antiracists. “He said it was me. It actually wasn’t, but it just as well could have been,” Fredriksson says. He says he eventually came to believe that violence is wrong, and today his weapon of choice is information, not his fists. He is more interested in understanding hate than destroying it, although he wouldn’t mind if one led to the other. Research Group challenges the traditional divide between activism and journalism: it is guided by the values of its members, many of whom come from leftist circles. In the early 2000s, Fredriksson was heavily involved in Sweden’s free culture movement, which abhorred copyright laws, embraced piracy, and coded the first version of the legendary Pirate Bay’s BitTorrent tracker. Whenever Research Group is in the news, critics seize on its members’ leftist ties to discredit them as agenda-driven propagandists. But their methods are meticulous, and their facts are undeniable. “Our history will always be there,” says Fredriksson. “People will always say, ‘Oh, 10 years ago you did that.’ Whereas I live in the now. The only way for me to build credibility is to just publish valid stuff again and again, and hope I’m not wrong.”
However, his idiosyncratic background sometimes leads him from the path of traditional journalistic inquiry into murky ethical territory. “I like to pick up stones and see what’s under them,” he says. “I like to go wherever I want to go and just look at stuff.”
The mass unmasking of Avpixlat commenters in 2013 was an accidental consequence of this curiosity. Avpixlat is an influential voice in Sweden’s growing right-wing populist movement, which is driven by a xenophobic panic that Muslim immigrants and Roma are destroying the country. The site fixates on spreading stories of rapes and murders committed by immigrants, which it contends are being covered up by the liberal establishment. (“Avpixlat” means “de-pixelate,” as in un-censoring an image that’s been digitally obscured.) Initially, Fredriksson wanted to study how it functioned as a source of näthat. Avpixlat, and especially its unruly comments section, has become notorious as a launching pad for rampaging online mobs. “They provoke, they incite people to harass politicians and journalists,” says Annika Hamrud, a journalist who has written extensively about the Swedish right wing. When the site picked up the story of how a shop owner in a small town put up a sign welcoming Syrian refugees to Sweden, she explains, he was bombarded with online abuse. Wåg, Fredriksson’s friend and colleague, calls Avpixlat “the finger that points the mob where to go.” Fredriksson’s idea was to create a database of Avpixlat comments in order to investigate how its cybermobs mobilized. Avpixlat uses the popular commenting platform Disqus, which is also used by mainstream publications in Sweden and around the world. Fredriksson planned to scrape Disqus comments from Avpixlat and as many other Swedish websites as possible. He would then compare the handles of commenters on mainstream websites with those on Avpixlat. The extent of the overlap would suggest how dominant Avpixlat users were throughout the Web, and how responsible they were for the general proliferation of näthat.
A neo-Nazi rally in Linköping, Sweden, in 2005.
Fredriksson hacked together a simple script and began to scrape Avpixlat’s comments using Disqus’s public API (the application programming interface, which lets online services share data). As he built his database, he noticed something odd. Along with each username and its associated comments, he was capturing a string of encrypted data. He recognized the string as the result of a cryptographic function known as an MD5 hash, which had been applied to every e-mail address that commenters used to register their accounts. (The e-mail addresses were included to support a third-party service called Gravatar.) Fredriksson realized he could figure out Avpixlat commenters’ e-mail addresses, even though they were encrypted, by applying the MD5 hash function to a list of known addresses and cross-referencing the results with the hashes in the Avpixlat database. He tested this theory on a comment he’d made on Avpixlat with his own Disqus account. He encrypted his e-mail address and searched the Avpixlat database for the resulting hash. He found his comment. “By that time I knew I had stumbled on something which the newspapers would be very interested in,” he says. He kept his scrapers running on Avpixlat and other websites that used Disqus, including American sites like CNN, eventually assembling a database of 30 million comments. But the goal was no longer a general survey of näthat. He wanted to answer an even more fundamental question: who are the real people behind Avpixlat’s hateful comments? “It had been like this great unknown for many years,” Fredriksson says. “It was this huge blank spot on the map that we could just fill out. Make the unknown known.”
In order to begin the process of unmasking Avpixlat’s users, Research Group needed a huge list of e-mail addresses to check against the Avpixlat commenter database, especially those of people whose participation in a racist right-wing website would be newsworthy. Sweden’s liberal public-records laws proved invaluable again. Research Group filed public information requests and collected thousands of e-mail addresses of parliament members, judges, and other government officials. For good measure, Fredriksson threw in a list of a few million e-mail addresses he’d found floating around on the Web. All told, Research Group assembled a list of more than 200 million addresses—more than 20 times the population of Sweden—to check against the database of 55,000 Avpixlat accounts.
Fredriksson gives lectures about online research, and he has found it’s easier to unmask people than many believe. “Anonymity online is possible, but it’s frail,” he says. He clicked on one Avpixlat user who had used his account to complain a lot about Muslims. He entered the user’s e-mail address into Google and found that the man had listed the address and his full name on the roster of his local boating club: “There he is.” If users’ e-mail addresses didn’t suffice, a researcher would begin wading through their comments, which sometimes numbered in the thousands, to glean clues to their identity.
Research Group toiled away for 10 months on the Avpixlat data, eventually identifying around 6,000 commenters, of whom only a handful were ever publicly named. A few months into the research, Fredriksson approached Expressen, whose investigative reporting on the Swedish far right he admired. The newspaper bought the story.
Fredriksson says people who spread hatred don’t deserve anonymity.
Research Group was so focused on analyzing the database that it did not seriously consider what the public fallout from the revelations might be. When the story came out, it sparked a firestorm. Angry Internet users, who saw the exposé as an assault on freedom of speech, began to distribute addresses of Research Group members as payback, a favored tactic of online intimidation known as “doxxing.” A Research Group member named My Vingren moved from her apartment after strange men visited one night. The address of Fredriksson’s parents was circulated. Debate about the ethics of the story raged, and even political opponents of the Sweden Democrats voiced reservations. Particularly egregious to some critics was that while many of Expressen’s targets were politicians, some were private citizens, including businesspeople and a professor. “I was this close to having a stress reaction,” Fredriksson says.
“I like to pick up stones and see what’s under them,” Fredriksson says.
Fredriksson stands by Research Group’s work on the database. He does not believe anonymity should be protected if it’s used to spread hate. “I think there are legitimate causes for anonymity,” he says. “But I think the Internet is a wonderful thing—I’ve been part of spreading culture among the masses—and personally, I get pissed off when the Internet is abused by some people.” Still, he’s ambivalent about Expressen’s exposure of private citizens. Research Group left it up to Expressen to choose what to report. If it had been his choice, he says, he would only have exposed politicians. “It could have been a much stronger story if they had stuck to public figures,” he says.
Research Group emerged from the furor slightly shell-shocked but proud, with a newfound reputation as a reputable journalistic force. A few months later, the Swedish Association of Investigative Journalists gave the group and Expressen an award for the scoop. This past September, Expressen published a new series based on the data, exposing more Sweden Democrats. One had called a black man a chimpanzee, while another had suggested that Muslims were genetically predisposed to violence. For these stories, Research Group was nominated for the Stora Journalistpriset, Sweden’s most prestigious journalism prize.
The stories came out a week before Sweden’s general election and had, by all appearances, no effect on the outcome. In fact, the Sweden Democrats won 13 percent of the vote, doubling their previous result to become the third-largest party in Sweden. Some even suggested that Expressen had helped the Sweden Democrats by making them seem like victims. Fredriksson says he’s simply happy to have helped push their public persona a little closer to what he believes they stand for in their heart of hearts: the ugly id that’s visible in Avpixlat’s comments sections every day. “I say, well, we just showed that they are racist, and people are apparently liking that,” he says. “So, good for them.”
Research Group is currently deep into researching its next project, which is based on a huge database belonging to Flashback, Sweden’s largest general-interest forum. At a recent gathering, Research Group members spent six hours working through a list that Fredriksson provided of 100 e-mail addresses belonging to high-ranking military members, to see whether they had posted anything interesting on the site. They found only one—a man who had apparently confessed to hiring prostitutes, although this was unlikely to rise to the level of newsworthiness their publishing partner was looking for.
Exposing Flashback users could prove to be even more explosive than outing Avpixlat commenters. Flashback users do not talk mainly about their hatred of immigrants (though some do) but about their love lives, video games, cooking, politics, drug habits—the whole spectrum of human interest. Last summer, Fredriksson sparked an online outcry when someone asked on Twitter if Research Group had the database and he replied in the affirmative. When asked why, he brusquely responded, “Because we can.”
The tweet was controversial even within Research Group, and Fredriksson later tried to clarify that the team would be mining the database for näthat. But many Flashback users probably weren’t mollified. Research Group had “bragged about having stuff that would jeopardize vulnerable people’s secrets,” says Jack Werner, a journalist who covers online culture for the Swedish daily Metro and is a longtime Flashback user. “It was not very ethical but rather quite blunt and childish.” Anna Troberg, the leader of Sweden’s Pirate Party, denounced Research Group as “glorified vigilantes.”
Fredriksson wouldn’t tell me much about the project, except that it would be similar to the Avpixlat story in focusing mainly on official misdeeds. He says Flashback users can rest assured that Research Group is not interested in exposing anyone’s medical issues. “If they posted in the sex or drugs or health sections, then it’s just not interesting to us,” he says. “If they post in other parts of Flashback, where they put up slander about other people? It’s interesting to look at that.”
Adrian Chen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York, Wired, and the New York Times.
Credit: Photographs by Anders Lindén; Expressen.se; images 2 and 5 courtesy of Research Group; images 3 and 4 courtesy of DRG TV Strix
One night in 1982, John Mumford was working on an avalanche patrol on an icy Colorado mountain pass when the van carrying him and two other men slid off the road and plunged over a cliff. The other guys were able to walk away, but Mumford had broken his neck. The lower half of his body was paralyzed, and though he could bend his arms at the elbows, he could no longer grasp things in his hands.
Fifteen years later, however, he received a technological wonder that reactivated his left hand. It was known as the Freehand System. A surgeon placed a sensor on Mumford’s right shoulder, implanted a pacemaker-size device known as a stimulator just below the skin on his upper chest, and threaded wires into the muscles of his left arm. On the outside of Mumford’s body, a wire ran from the shoulder sensor to an external control unit; another wire ran from that control unit to a transmitting coil over the stimulator in his chest. Out of this kludge came something incredible: by maneuvering his right shoulder in certain ways, Mumford could send signals through the stimulator and down his left arm into the muscles of his hand. The device fell short of perfection—he wished he could throw darts with his buddies. But he could hold a key or a fork or a spoon or a glass. He could open the refrigerator, take out a sandwich, and eat it on his own. Mumford was so enthusiastic that he went to work for the manufacturer, a Cleveland-area company called NeuroControl, traveling the country to demonstrate the Freehand at assistive-technology trade shows.
Mumford was in Cleveland for a marketing meeting in 2001 when he got news that still baffles him: NeuroControl was getting out of the Freehand business. It would focus instead on a bigger potential market with a device that helped stroke victims. Before long, NeuroControl went out of business entirely, wiping out at least $26 million in investment. At first, Mumford remained an enthusiastic user of the Freehand, though one thing worried him: the wires running outside his body would sometimes fray or break after catching on clothing. Each time, he found someone who could reach into his supply of replacements and reconnect the system. But by 2010, the last wire was gone, and without the prospect of tech support from NeuroControl, the electrical equipment implanted in Mumford’s body went dormant. He lost the independence that had come from having regained extensive use of one hand. “To all of a sudden have that taken away—it’s incredibly frustrating,” he says. “There’s not a day where I don’t miss it.”
Mumford’s voice rises in astonishment as he tells the tale. “I have a device implanted in my body that was considered to be one of the best innovations or inventions of that century,” he says. “The last thing you think is that the company is going to go out of business, and not only is it going to go out of business, but you’re not even going to be able to buy parts for that. That seems insane!”
“It was all legal. Whether it was ethical or not is another question.”
Around 250 people are believed to have gotten the Freehand from NeuroControl, and Mumford was far from the only one heartbroken by the company’s failure. Their experience is a cautionary tale now for any implantable medical device that might serve “orphan markets”—relatively small groups of people. Although advances in brain-machine interfaces and electrical–stimulation devices are generating marvelous research results in people with paralysis—some are using their thoughts to control robotic arms, and others are taking tentative steps—it’s possible those breakthroughs won’t last long on the market, assuming they can be commercialized at all. Limp limbs can be reanimated by technology, but they can be quieted again by basic market economics.
The initial flourish
The technology in Mumford’s body began to be developed in the 1970s. The lead inventor, P. Hunter Peckham, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, wanted to see whether electrical stimulation would reverse atrophy and ultimately restore function to paralyzed muscles. First in animals and then in people, Peckham and colleagues used hypodermic needles to inject tiny coils of wire into muscles, near nerves. They could then send mild pulses of electricity through these wires and stimulate the muscles, changing their very structure. Over time, by putting the wires in the right places and precisely tuning the bursts of electricity, the researchers could coördinate the muscles’ movements—re–creating, among other things, the normal grasp of a hand. Eventually the scientists figured out how to implant the technology into patients and let them operate it themselves, outside the lab, by means of a joystick-like unit mounted to the shoulder. The first version of what would become the Freehand system was installed in a patient in 1986. Peckham and five other investors founded NeuroControl seven years later with technologies licensed from Case Western.
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Freehand in 1997, it was a milestone. It was not the first commercial bionic device—pacemakers and cochlear implants already existed—but it was the first that helped paralyzed patients regain some use of the hands. In fact, it was the first one that used electrical stimulation to make joints move—and to this day it remains the only one ever released.
To see how it worked, watch this promotional video made by the company in the 1990s.
Here’s Mumford marveling at the system’s power:
Independent researchshowed that even at a cost of around $60,000 (for the device and the necessary surgery), the Freehand saved money in the long run by reducing a patient’s need for attendant care. But while the technology was impressive, the Freehand got stuck in a small niche.
Although there are 250,000 people with spinal-cord injuries in the United States alone, the Freehand worked only for people whose paralysis stemmed from an injury to a certain area—between the fifth and sixth vertebrae of their cervical spine. That’s because a break in that location left them with enough shoulder and elbow mobility to trigger the Freehand’s grasp-and-release function. Although NeuroControl estimated its potential market at more than 50,000 people in the United States, not all of them were willing or healthy enough to endure the major operation that was required to implant the device and all those wires.
Most important, the potential market was further narrowed by the fact that some private insurers and Medicare, the U.S. government insurance program for the elderly and the disabled, would not always cover the full cost. Rehabilitation clinics and hospitals were already likely to be conservative about recommending a novel implantable system to patients. But given that they might absorb any uncovered costs from the procedure, many medical centers were more reluctant to advocate the technology than NeuroControl had hoped.
Lacking momentum, NeuroControl stopped selling the product. “The investors had expected that it would penetrate a much larger volume of the overall spinal-injury population,” says Geoff Thrope, who was NeuroControl’s director of business development. “We were able to make dozens of implant sales per year. You need to be in the hundreds, if not thousands, to have it make sense.”
But the decision still rankles Peckham, who resigned from NeuroControl’s board as a result. With some more time, he says, NeuroControl might have seen its way through to a sustainable business. It had 19 patients enrolled in a clinical trial in England; one more would have given it the 20 necessary to allow the British national health-care system to move toward covering the cost of the Freehand. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was likely to follow suit, he says. The problem was that other board members—primarily venture capitalists who “decided they were not seeing the return on the investment they had anticipated”—were impatient.
“It was all legal,” Peckham says. “Whether it was ethical or not is another question. Well, I guess it depends upon what your ethics are, right?”
Wires in the warehouse
You don’t have to dig into archival footage to see the Freehand in action. A few miles from where Mumford lives in the Denver suburbs, I met Scott Abram, an accountant for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Abram broke his neck in 1989, at age 17, when he dived into a shallow river on a high school field trip. He got the Freehand a decade later and still uses it for certain tasks. When we had lunch in a restaurant, he ordered a chicken sandwich. By activating the Freehand with shrugs of his left shoulder, he was able to manipulate his right hand in ways that helped him bring the sandwich to his mouth and down to the plate. All the while, a pager-like control unit on the left side of his wheelchair was still doing what it has done for 15 years: telling the stimulator in his chest which wires in his right arm needed jolts of electricity.
Abram knows full well what Mumford went through when the wires on the outside of his body needed to be replaced. It happens to him, too. There’s one key difference, though: several years ago, Abram managed to track down Kevin Kilgore, one of the researchers who developed the technology with Peckham in Cleveland. And Kilgore has been sending him wires over the years.
The situation mystifies and upsets Kilgore as much as anyone. When NeuroControl was in business, it supplied the Freehand to surgeons who installed it and served as the patients’ point of contact. From the perspective of patients like Mumford, the researchers who had originally invented the technology were not in the picture at all. When NeuroControl folded, nearly everything about it fell into a black hole. Not only did it fail to arrange technical support for its customers, but its website and phone number went out of service, leaving both the surgeons and the patients in the dark about what they might do next. Kilgore and Peckham say the company even refused to give them a list of patients who had gotten the implants. To this day the engineers say they don’t know exactly how many there were.
For Damion Cummins of Monroe, Louisiana, the company’s demise had a surreal aftermath. He had gotten the Freehand after being paralyzed in a high school football game. But it didn’t consistently work as well as he hoped, and he stopped using it after less than two years. Stopping was easy enough—he no longer asked someone to tape the awkward external wires to the device in his chest. But as the years went on, he wondered about that dormant electrical equipment, some of which you can feel right under his skin. “Is it going to disintegrate or break off?” he asked himself. “Should I worry about that?” He thought about going to see the surgeon in Shreveport who had implanted the Freehand, but the doctor had moved to California. Cummins says he spent a few years feeling uneasy about the electronics in his body before he finally tracked down the surgeon and called him. “Should I have it taken out?” Cummins asked. “No, as long as nothing’s bothering you,” the doctor said.
It’s painful for Kilgore to hear about the isolation that Cummins felt. About five years ago Kilgore got a $75,000 grant from Paralyzed Veterans of America, a nonprofit group, to follow patients with electrical-stimulation implants over an extended period. He spent much of the money buying up one of the few chunks of NeuroControl that hadn’t completely vanished: its inventory of wires, stimulator coils, controllers, batteries, and other Freehand parts, which another Ohio company had bought and was keeping in a warehouse. With that stockpile, Kilgore reached out to the Freehand patients he and his colleagues did know of—a few dozen people in Ohio—and set up an online users’ group in hopes of finding more.
Components installed inside Freehand patients fared better than the ones on the outside. The diagram above shows how wires ran from one shoulder to a control unit and from that unit to a transmitting coil.
In 2009, Kilgore and other researchers tracked down 65 Freehand recipients and determined that more than half were still using the device. Today he estimates that he has enough parts to keep such patients going for a few more years. But eventually, he says, “the ultimate fix” is for the patients to get something better. Nearly 30 years after the birth of the Freehand, the Case Western team has improved the technology significantly. Among other things, they have made the control unit small enough to be implanted in the body, eliminating the need for external wires that can snag and break. The device can also do more than restore grasping ability. It can be networked, as they put it, to send electrical stimuli to many more muscles—providing upper-body support, for example, or bowel and bladder control. The researchers have gotten some paralyzed people to stand and take halting steps with the help of a walker.
The essential economic dilemma remains, though: without a company to market this technology widely, the pool of potential recipients is limited to people who live in or can afford to travel to Cleveland. And if it’s not a commercial product, insurance companies won’t cover the cost of the device. That means the researchers have to rely on grant money to get these technologies into patients. “I can do five implants a year on grants,” Kilgore says. “But I get 100 phone calls a year.”
Even hundreds of patients a year might not make for a big enough market to entice private investors. But Kilgore and Peckham think they may have figured out a solution.
Deepening the pool
They are convinced that avoiding a repeat of the NeuroControl fiasco with many future implantable technologies will require a nonprofit/for-profit partnership. They’ve formed the nonprofit: the Institute for Functional Restoration at Case Western. Its mission is to usher technologies through regulatory approval; after that it could market the devices itself or license them to for-profit companies. Ideally, if such a company failed, the nonprofit—funded mainly by a private foundation—could keep supporting patients.
The first technology the institute will handle will be the networked device that is the descendant of the original Freehand. The organization has grants to begin a clinical trial and even to develop a manufacturing facility for the devices. It also has a waiting list of potential patients. But it has yet to sign up any companies as for-profit partners—companies that, as Peckham puts it, are “not trying to meet some venture expectations of how fast you return their investment.”
In theory, there could be many potential partners. As it happens, the neurostimulation business is enjoying a renaissance, especially in Cleveland, given the abundance of technologies to license from Case Western, the Cleveland Clinic, and other centers there. Several of the companies are staffed with alumni from NeuroControl, including Thrope, who now heads NDI, a firm that invests in neurotechnologies. Thrope says partnering with a nonprofit would be attractive to companies that don’t want to bear the risks inherent in taking a new technology through years of testing and regulatory approval. If the nonprofit can handle that part and then turn things over to a for-profit company, Kilgore and Peckham’s model “has some worthiness to it,” he says.
But even with that risk removed, Thrope is quick to add, not a lot of companies are interested in selling products that only a small group of people can use. Instead, he says, he and other investors are eager to find opportunities to address what doctors call multiple “indications,” meaning they can treat more than one condition. He mentions Second Sight, a publicly traded maker of a $140,000 retinal implant that can restore sight to people with a hereditary form of blindness. The potential market is quite big—perhaps 1.5 million people worldwide and 100,000 in the United States—but even so, Second Sight is already testing ways to deepen the pool of patients by treating other forms of blindness. Thrope says his firm, which he founded in 2002, rarely jumps in to invest in a neurotechnology until it has been developed beyond its initial stage and can treat a second or third indication. It’s “reversing the formula we used in NeuroControl,” Thrope says. “We’ve tried to avoid breakthrough technologies if possible.”
Avoiding breakthroughs: that seems to go against our tendency to imagine that technology will fix so many broken things, our bodies included. But consider the perspective of Damion Cummins. He says he endured multiple surgeries to get the Freehand because anything that could improve his daily life was worth a shot. He accepted the idea that it might not work. But when I asked him if he would have gotten the implant if he had realized there was a chance NeuroControl could fold, he replied: “If I had known that, then I definitely would not have.”
When the Japanese computer scientist Yukihiro Matsumoto decided to create Ruby, a programming language that has helped build Twitter, Hulu, and much of the modern Web, he was chasing an idea from a 1966 science fiction novel called Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany. At the book’s heart is an invented language of the same name that upgrades the minds of all those who speak it. “Babel-17 is such an exact analytical language, it almost assures you technical mastery of any situation you look at,” the protagonist says at one point. With Ruby, Matsumoto wanted the same thing: to reprogram and improve the way programmers think.
It sounds grandiose, but Matsumoto’s isn’t a fringe view. Software developers as a species tend to be convinced that programming languages have a grip on the mind strong enough to change the way you approach problems—even to change which problems you think to solve. It’s how they size up companies, products, their peers: “What language do you use?”
That can help outsiders understand the software companies that have become so powerful and valuable, and the products and services that infuse our lives. A decision that seems like the most inside kind of inside baseball—whether someone builds a new thing using, say, Ruby or PHP or C—can suddenly affect us all. If you want to know why Facebook looks and works the way it does and what kinds of things it can do for and to us next, you need to know something about PHP, the programming language Mark Zuckerberg built it with.
Among programmers, PHP is perhaps the least respected of all programming languages. A now canonical blog post on its flaws described it as “a fractal of bad design,” and those who willingly use it are seen as amateurs. “There’s this myth of the brilliant engineering that went into Facebook,” says Jeff Atwood, co-creator of the popular programming question–and-answer site Stack Overflow. “But they were building PHP code in Windows XP. They were hackers in almost the derogatory sense of the word.” In the space of 10 minutes, Atwood called PHP “a shambling monster,” “a pandemic,” and a haunted house whose residents have come to love the ghosts.
Babel-17 By Samuel R. Delany 1966 Real World OCaml By Yaron Minsky et al. O’Reilly, 2013 PHPHackScala
Most successful programming languages have an overall philosophy or set of guiding principles that organize their vocabulary and grammar—the set of possible instructions they make available to the programmer—into a logical whole. PHP doesn’t. Its creator, Rasmus Lerdorf, freely admits he just cobbled it together. “I don’t know how to stop it,” he said in a 2003 interview. “I have absolutely no idea how to write a programming language—I just kept adding the next logical step along the way.”
Programmers’ favorite example is a PHP function called “mysql_escape_string,” which rids a query of malicious input before sending it off to a database. (For an example of a malicious input, think of a form on a website that asks for your e-mail address; a hacker can enter code in that slot to force the site to cough up passwords.) When a bug was discovered in the function, a new version was added, called “mysql_real_escape_string,” but the original was not replaced. The result is a bit like having two similar-looking buttons right next to each other in an airline cockpit: one that puts the landing gear down and one that puts it down safely. It’s not just an affront to common sense—it’s a recipe for disaster.
Yet despite the widespread contempt for PHP, much of the Web was built on its back. PHP powers 39 percent of all domains, by one estimate. Facebook, Wikipedia, and the leading publishing platform WordPress are all PHP projects. That’s because PHP, for all its flaws, is perfect for getting started. The name originally stood for “personal home page.” It made it easy to add dynamic content like the date or a user’s name to static HTML pages. PHP allowed the leap from tinkering with a website to writing a Web application to be so small as to be imperceptible. You didn’t need to be a pro.
PHP’s get-going-ness was crucial to the success of Wikipedia, says Ori Livneh, a principal software engineer at the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the project. “I’ve always loathed PHP,” he tells me. The project suffers from large-scale design flaws as a result of its reliance on the language. (They are partly why the foundation didn’t make Wikipedia pages available in a version adapted for mobile devices until 2008, and why the site didn’t get a user-friendly editing interface until 2013.) But PHP allowed people who weren’t—or were barely—software engineers to contribute new features. It’s how Wikipedia entries came to display hieroglyphics on Egyptology pages, for instance, and handle sheet music.
The programming language PHP created and sustains Facebook’s move-fast, hacker-oriented corporate culture.
You wouldn’t have built Google in PHP, because Google, to become Google, needed to do exactly one thing very well—it needed search to be spare and fast and meticulously well engineered. It was made with more refined and powerful languages, such as Java and C++. Facebook, by contrast, is a bazaar of small experiments, a smorgasbord of buttons, feeds, and gizmos trying to capture your attention. PHP is made for making—for cooking up features quickly.
You can almost imagine Zuckerberg in his Harvard dorm room on the fateful day that Facebook was born, doing the least he could to get his site online. The Web moves so fast, and users are so fickle, that the only way you’ll ever be able to capture the moment is by being first. It didn’t matter if he made a big ball of mud, or a plate of spaghetti, or a horrible hose cabinet (to borrow from programmers’ rich lexicon for describing messy code). He got the thing done. People could use it. He wasn’t thinking about beautiful code; he was thinking about his friends logging in to “Thefacebook” to look at pictures of girls they knew.
Today Facebook is worth more than $200 billion and there are signs all over the walls at its offices: “Done is better than perfect”; “Move fast and break things.” These bold messages are supposed to keep employees in tune with the company’s “hacker” culture. But these are precisely PHP’s values. Moving fast and breaking things is in fact so much the essence of PHP that anyone who “speaks” the language indelibly thinks that way. You might say that the language itself created and sustains Facebook’s culture.
The secret weapon
If you wanted to find the exact opposite of PHP, a kind of natural experiment to show you what the other extreme looked like, you couldn’t do much better than the self-serious Lower Manhattan headquarters of the financial trading firm Jane Street Capital. The 400-person company claims to be responsible for roughly 2 percent of daily equity trading volume in the United States.
When I meet Yaron Minsky, Jane Street’s head of technology, he’s sitting at a desk with a working Enigma machine beside him, one of only a few dozen of the World War II code devices left in the world. I would think it the clear winner of the contest for Coolest Secret Weapon in the Room if it weren’t for the way he keeps talking about an obscure programming language called OCaml. Minsky, a computer science PhD, convinced his employer 10 years ago to rewrite the company’s entire trading system in OCaml. Before that, almost nobody used the language for actual work; it was developed at a French research institute by academics trying to improve a computer system that automatically proves mathematical theorems. But Minsky thought OCaml, which he had gotten to know in grad school, could replace the complex Excel spreadsheets that powered Jane Street’s trading systems.
OCaml’s big selling point is its “type system,” which is something like Microsoft Word’s grammar checker, except that instead of just putting a squiggly green line underneath code it thinks is wrong, it won’t let you run it. Programs written with a type system tend to be far more reliable than those written without one—useful when a program might trade $30 billion on a big day.
Minsky says that by catching bugs, OCaml’s type system allows Jane Street’s coders to focus on loftier problems. One wonders if they have internalized the system’s constant nagging over time, so that OCaml has become a kind of Newspeak that makes it impossible to think bad thoughts.
The catch is that to get the full benefits of the type checker, the programmers have to add complex annotations to their code. It’s as if Word’s grammar checker required you to diagram all your sentences. Writing code with type constraints can be a nuisance, even demoralizing. To make it worse, OCaml, more than most other programming languages, traffics in a kind of deep abstract math far beyond most coders. The language’s rigor is like catnip to some people, though, giving Jane Street an unusual advantage in the tight hiring market for programmers. Software developers mostly join Facebook and Wikipedia in spite of PHP. Minsky says that OCaml—along with his book Real World OCaml—helps lure a steady supply of high-quality candidates. The attraction isn’t just the language but the kind of people who use it. Jane Street is a company where they play four-person chess in the break room. The culture of competitive intelligence and the use of a fancy programming language seem to go hand in hand.
Google appears to be trying to pull off a similar trick with Go, a high–performance programming language it developed. Intended to make the workings of the Web more elegant and efficient, it’s good for developing the kind of high-stakes software needed to run the collections of servers behind large Web services. It also acts as something like a dog whistle to coders interested in the new and the difficult.
In late 2010, Facebook was having a crisis. PHP was not built for performance, but it was being asked to perform. The site was growing so fast it seemed that if something didn’t change fairly drastically, it would start falling over.
Switching languages altogether wasn’t an option. Facebook had millions of lines of PHP code, thousands of engineers expert in writing it, and more than half a billion users. Instead, a small team of senior engineers was assigned to a special project to invent a way for Facebook to keep functioning without giving up on its hacky mother tongue.
One part of the solution was to create a piece of software—a compiler—that would translate Facebook’s PHP code into much faster C++ code. The other was a feat of computer linguistic engineering that let Facebook’s programmers keep their PHP-ian culture but write more reliable code.
Startups can cleverly use the power of programming languages to manipulate their organizational psychology.
The rescue squad did it by inventing a dialect of PHP called Hack. Hack is PHP with an optional type system; that is, you can write plain old quick and dirty PHP—or, if you so choose, you can tie yourself to the mast, adding annotations to let the type system check the correctness of your code. That this type checker is written entirely in OCaml is no coincidence. Facebook wanted its coders to keep moving fast in the comfort of their native tongue, but it didn’t want them to have to break things as they did it. (Last year Zuckerberg announced a new engineering slogan: “Move fast with stable infra,” using the hacker shorthand for the infrastructure that keeps the site running.)
Around the same time, Twitter underwent a similar transformation. The service was originally built with Ruby on Rails—a popular Web programming framework created using Matsumoto’s Ruby and inspired in large part by PHP. Then came the deluge of users. When someone with hundreds of thousands of followers tweeted, hundreds of thousands of other people’s timelines had to be immediately updated. Big tweets like that would frequently overwhelm the system and force engineers to take the site down to allow it to catch up. They did it so often that the “fail whale” on the company’s maintenance page became famous in its own right. Twitter stopped the bleeding by replacing large pieces of the service’s plumbing with a language called Scala. It should not be surprising that Scala, like OCaml, was developed by academics, has a powerful type system, and prizes correctness and performance even at the expense of the individual programmers’ freedom and delight in their craft.
Much as startups “mature” by finally figuring out where their revenue will come from, they can cleverly use the power of programming languages to manipulate their organizational psychology. Programming–language designer Guido van Rossum, who spent seven years at Google and now works at Dropbox, says that once a software company gets to be a certain size, the only way to stave off chaos is to use a language that requires more from the programmer up front. “It feels like it’s slowing you down, because you have to say everything three times,” van Rossum says. That is why many startups wait as long as they can before making the switch. You lose some of the swaggering hackers who got you started, and the possibility that small teams can rush out new features. But a more exacting language helps people across the company understand one another’s code and gives your product the stability needed to be part of the furniture of daily life.
That software startups can perform such maneuvers might even help explain why they can be so powerful. The expanding reach of computers is part of it. But these companies also have a unique ability to remake themselves. As they change and grow, they can do more than just redraw the org chart. Because they are built in code, they can do something far more drastic. They can rewire themselves, their culture, the very way they think.
James Somers is a writer and programmer in New York. He works at Genius.com.
IBM’s Watson, the machine-learning computer that won Jeopardy! in 2011 and has found work searching medical and scientific data for insights, could soon have yet another job: museum tour guide.
A group of researchers at IBM Research India used Watson as part of an Android app called Usher that supplies information about nearby artwork in a museum and answers questions that you ask about it. It’s an example of the way IBM hopes programmers will make use of the capabilities of Watson in all sorts of apps. The research was presented last week at a conference on intelligent user interfaces in Atlanta.
The app analyzes accelerometer data from the phone to tell whether the user is walking, roaming around an area, or standing still; and it analyzes accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass data to figure out where the user is looking. That way, the app can tell you things like, “On your left is van Gogh’s Sunflowers.”
When the person stopped in front of a painting, researchers could type or speak a question about an artwork being viewed, such as “Who painted this?” or “What is the meaning of this painting?” or “What is the medium of this painting?” The person’s location and the question are then sent to a version of Watson—in the case of the simulation, a version trained to answer general questions.
Usher isn’t publicly available yet, and has been tried out only with some demo content that researchers created to go along with some paintings. But Shubham Toshniwal, a coauthor of the paper who works in the Watson group at IBM Research India in New Delhi, says it has been received “pretty well” internally at IBM, and he can imagine it helping people learn more about their surroundings in a variety of indoor spaces, ranging from historical buildings to offices.
In the years since Watson’s star turn on TV, IBM has poured money into the research effort behind it in hopes that it will yield software and hardware that can sift through mountains of data to answer complicated questions (see “Does Watson Know the Answer to IBM’s Woes?”).
With Usher, the IBM researchers used software to simulate how a person would browse a museum in which different artworks and areas were assigned IDs that corresponded with data (such as the names of paintings) stored in a database. The person’s location, tracked indoors by measuring the strength of available Wi-Fi signals in relation to the user’s smartphone, would help Usher determine which artworks they were near.
Toshniwal says the app can find your friends who are also in the museum by connecting accounts from social networks like Facebook.
If researchers continue working on Usher, one big issue is the need to improve indoor location tracking. As the research notes, while Wi-Fi signals can give basic data about where a person is standing, it’s not precise.
A potential solution may lie in the use of proximity sensors like Apple’s iBeacon technology, which uses low-energy Bluetooth to determine the proximity of nearby users’ iPhones. A number of museums are already trying it out.
Gain the insight you need on machine learning at EmTech Digital.
Using electrodes (the white dots in this MRI image) on the brain’s surface, researchers found that deep brain stimulation dampens the synchronization of neurons in Parkinson’s patients.
Sending pulses of electricity through the brain via implanted electrodes—a procedure known as deep brain stimulation—can relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
The catch is that no one knows exactly why zapping the brain with electricity is so beneficial. A study published today in Nature Neuroscience offers a potential explanation for the benefits seen in Parkinson’s disease: it keeps neurons from getting too “in sync.”
If the finding bears out in further studies, it may be useful for making more sophisticated and effective devices that monitor brain activity and adjust stimulation automatically.
Healthy neurons don’t just fire randomly; there’s often a low-frequency rhythm that determines the timing of their activity, like a conductor setting the beat for a band. A growing number of studies suggest that synchronization has a role in many brain functions, from memory to perception to movement.
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, led by neurosurgeon Philip Starr, had previously found that this synchronization is abnormally high in the motor cortex of people with Parkinson’s disease compared to patients with dystonia (a different kind of movement disorder) or with epilepsy.
The same group has now found that deep brain stimulation lowers this excessive synchronization. Coralie de Hemptinne, one of the study’s authors, says that brain cells need a balance between coӧrdination and independence; in Parkinson’s disease, motor cortex cells may have trouble disassociating their activity from the low-frequency rhythm in order to initiate movement. That could explain why people with the disease become stiff or frozen.
The study looked at patients undergoing deep brain surgery for their Parkinson’s disease, with electrodes implanted into brain structures that control movement. The study was limited to the time of surgery, but the group is now taking recordings from a few Parkinson’s patients who have permanent electrodes on the brain’s surface along with a deep brain stimulation implant, to see whether this connection persists.
The ultimate goal, de Hemptinne says, is to find a measurable signal that could be used to improve the therapy and automatically tune a deep brain stimulator. “Right now deep brain stimulation is working pretty well in movement disorders, but it’s still not optimal,” she says. Current stimulators must be adjusted for each patient through trial and error, and they stimulate the brain continuously.
A better device would adjust itself according to activity in the brain and stimulate only when needed—but it must know what to look for. Medtronic, for instance, is testing a deep brain stimulator that both records from and stimulates the brain, but researchers are still trying to figure out what to look for in different diseases (see “New Implantable Device Can Manipulate and Record Brain Activity”).
Exactly how deep brain stimulation works is also not settled yet.
“There are many biological changes that have been associated with deep brain stimulation,” and it’s not clear which are actually responsible for the therapeutic effect, says Michael Okun, a neurologist at the University of Florida. While synchronization of brain rhythms could be one factor, he says, “we should be very cautious about overinterpretation.”
Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.
“Yes…but is it art?” This age-old question has generally targeted the avant-garde, but its application to advertising can be equally apt. The best work by Sterling Cooper’s resident creative geniuses Don Draper and Peggy Olson—the Carousel, Burger Chef—transcends its mercenary origins to articulate hidden yet widespread fears and desires, in the stealthily symbolic way that’s normally the province of painters and poets. But for an ad to be truly effective, the reverse must also be true: Greed and guile are gussied up in artsy drag, its surface sophistication used to exploit the anxieties the product for sale is designed to salve.
Photographer Pima Ryan embodies this Madison Avenue manicheanism. Played by guest star Mimi Rogers, her talent has made her a legend among SC&P’s creative staff, for good and for ill. Peggy’s thrilled to bring Pima aboard the campaign for Cinzano vermouth, and her onscreen debut takes place in a blinding white soundstage that evokes the iconic artistry of late-season Mad Men go-to reference point Stanley Kubrick. But Peggy’s friend and sidekick Stan Rizzo is equal parts irritated and intimidated by this hired gun. At first he mocks her work, on set and to her face. But when challenged by her directly to show her his best stuff, he comes up short. “You should see what she does,” he tells his girlfriend Elaine, awestruck and petulant in equal measure. “It’s so sensual.” Instinctively, Elaine strips down and volunteers to serve as Stan’s model for an impromptu shoot, in hopes that their real, relationship-based sexual chemistry is enough to rival the simulacrum seen in Pima’s photos. Perhaps life, they hope, can imitate art.
Courtesy of AMC
But Stan and Elaine aren’t the only ones capable of conflating sexual and artistic success. After checking out and dismissing the results of their shoot, Pima comes on to Stan, who responds with his typical eagerness. He may have failed to win her approval as a photographer, but becoming her lover is seen as equally validating. If you can’t beat her, join her.
Peggy, however, sees through Pima’s advances when they’re thrust in her own direction. Whatever her problems, confidence in her work has not been one for many years, so the sex/approval trade-off holds no appeal for her. When she snipes at Stan for his infidelity to his girlfriend, and he snaps back that it’s none of her business, her answer exposes their special-guest superstar for what she is: “No, it’s Pima’s business, which turns out to be more advertising than art. She tried the same thing with me, but she didn’t get as far, and that’s why I’m not gonna give her another job.” Art points to a void, something we’re afraid or incapable of articulating. Advertising does the same, then offers something to fill it. In the end, Pima wasn’t selling anything Peggy needed to buy.
Diana, the waitress with whom Don pursues an ill-fated relationship in this episode, has no more interest than Peggy in pursuing outside means to fill the hole in her life. In this case, however, the motive wasn’t self-confidence, but self-abnegation. If she were more like Stan, dating Don—a handsome, talented, enormously wealthy person—would have provided her with some measure of happiness she couldn’t win on her own. But she doesn’t want happiness. She wants to remember her daughters, one who died, and one she left behind when the grief overwhelmed her. She lives in a representation of the void she has embraced, a sparsely furnished and undecorated studio apartment. “Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she demands of Don. He does see it, eventually, and leaves her to the nothing she’s chosen.
Courtesy of AMC
But he returns to a nothing that someone else has chosen for him: In the hour’s funniest sight gag, Don’s apartment has been emptied out on the down low by his ex-wife Megan’s trash-talking, French-speaking mother Marie. Nominally, this is an act of vengeance against the man she feels dishonored her daughter and damaged her family. But by effectively booty-calling Roger Sterling in the middle of robbing Don blind, she reveals a Stan-like need to seek fulfillment from a happier, richer person than herself. Megan sees this for what it is the moment she returns to the apartment, lambasting her mother and Roger—not for stealing Don’s stuff but for what they did together afterwards. Yet at the same time, she recognizes the unhappiness that drove her mother to do it, and subsequently to leave her father, ostensibly for Roger. In a fight with her sister, she applauds her mother’s decision to end years of emotional misery. “It’s a sin to be a ghoul and feed on everyone’s pain,” she chides her sibling. Whatever her mother and Roger were feeding on, it wasn’t pain.
So that leaves Don alone in his barren apartment. He’s lost Diana. He’s lost the million dollars he paid Megan for their settlement, in a vain effort to persuade Diana that he was serious enough about her to end his drawn-out divorce as soon as possible. The poor sap’s even lost his easy chair. Knowing Don, there will always be someone else to sleep with and some other million to earn. But for the time being he’s learning what Stan learned from Pima: When you get what you think you want, what you’re really doing is acknowledging how badly you needed it in the first place. It may look like art, it may look like love, but you’re being bought and sold the whole time.
Why Everyone Went Nuts Over Hillary Clinton’s New Logo
Hillary Clinton speaks at the University of Miami on March 7, 2015. Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images
On Sunday, shortly after Hillary Clinton announced her bid for the 2016 presidency, the internet erupted with a chorus of grievances. Not about policy or any number of other quibbles that often arise with a newly minted candidate. No, people were upset about her logo.
It seemed innocuous enough: Two America-blue rectangles joined by a red arrow dashing across the middle. It was an H! For Hillary. But across Twitter, armies of armchair graphic designers saw something different. Suddenly, the H was a rip-off of a road-side hospital sign. Or, in more of a stretch, a rip-off the WikiLeaks logo. Some of the most imaginative critics saw a visual echo of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers. Many others thought Clinton’s mark was too simplistic—was it made in MS Paint?!—or just plain ugly.
In some ways, the logo was destined to be ripped apart. It was both highly visible and a little bit…different. As Armin Vit, co-founder of the popular logo criticism blog Brand New sees it, the maelstrom of opinions comes down to a confluence of two things: heightened stakes and shattered expectations.
High-profile design projects are liable to face criticism, and the Clinton logo, designed by Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram, is about as high-profile as branding gets. That’s one basic reason the reaction to the logo has been so strong. The stakes are high. Presidential candidates are like brands we’re all automatically invested in. Imagine if Coca-Cola never had a logo, and then very suddenly did. It would be hard not to have an opinion about it.
The rise of social media has given people a platform to broadcast these opinions to the world. And broadcast we do. Remember the brouhaha that greeted the Tropicana and Gap redesigns? Bierut himself wrote an essay on the phenomenon of the casual critic in 2013: “New logo? Game on! Graphic design criticism is now a spectator sport, and anyone can play.”
Then there’s the matter of expectations. We’re all familiar with the visual language of presidential campaigns, and Hillary’s new logo instantly feels different. Compare the H to Clinton’s 2012 logo—a cheerful serif wordmark with a waving flag banner beneath it. Or compare it to Obama’s elegant logos from 2008 and 2012, often pointed to as a benchmark for excellence in a political design. Clinton’s H stands out. It’s blocky and blunt and graphic. “It doesn’t look like any presidential candidate logo ever,” Vit says.
It’s also exceedingly simple, observes Aaron Draplin, a well-known graphic designer with dozens of logos to his name. “Maybe a little too simple,” he adds. That’s likely another part of why the response has been so vociferous. A simple logo lends itself to comparisons, meme-style remixes, and rip-off allegations. It also invites the most tired form of graphic design criticism: people saying they could’ve done that themselves, and better, for less money!
The arrow is incorporated into Clinton’s campaign materials throughout. Screenshot: WIRED
This complaint ignores what distinguishes a good logo from a great one. A political candidate’s logo isn’t just a static thing that gets slapped on the side of a bus. It’s a symbol that will be deployed in all sorts of different materials, potentially in many different forms.
In this case, the design isn’t just about the H itself—which, as Draplin points out, is actually perfectly designed for the social media avatars where so many people will experience it. Instead, the challenge presumably was to create something that was flexible enough to be used in many contexts. Here, Draplin points out, the logo’s simplicity becomes an asset. Just look at the way the arrow is incorporated subtly throughout Clinton’s website, baked into the donate button, for example, or built from the faces of voters at the end of Clinton’s campaign video, block by block. “There’s a lot of opportunity here, on a really sort of basic, graphic molecular level,” Draplin says. The H isn’t just a logo; it’s the basis of full-on graphic identity.
The masses may not like the H, but that’s hardly a surprise. “Crowdsmashing,” as writer Paul Ford once dubbed the communal dumping-on of something new, is a pastime at this point. As Bierut pointed out in 2013, we already know that graphic design can provoke a good crowdsmash. Add the emotional charge of a presidential election, and you’re bound to ignite a fire.
Last night Veep returned for its fourth season, and in keeping with its willingness to drag now-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) over the coals, it distilled the essence of her political career into one sad blinking cursor. It appeared, naturally, while Selina was in the middle of her speech to a joint session of Congress; and it occurred, naturally, thanks to her staff—especially by “Tweedledumber” Mike and “Tweedledick” Dan. Things eventually got back on track, but it was a fitting introduction to the Meyer White Administration: It’s going to be the best hot mess to ever hit the capitol.
Has Hillary chosen a running mate yet? ‘Cause we might have an idea.
Great drone footage is mesmerizing, no matter what it depicts. (Exhibit A: This video of a truck driving through mud in super-slow-motion.) But perfect shots—the swooping landscapes, the hovering overheads—are hard to come by. A new drone from 3D Robotics (a company co-founded by former WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson) is the beginning of a project to make it a little easier.
The $1,000 Solo drone (or $1,400 with a GoPro included) is full of clever tools to automate and simplify shooting. There’s even a one-click way to take an ultra-dramatic selfie video. But one of the most impressive features is that the drone will be sold as an open platform, allowing hackers to tinker with the hardware and software.
The Solo, which will be available in May, is designed to be ready to fly right out of the box. This quadcopter is 3.3 pounds, all black, and vaguely threatening; it looks more like a drone you’d want sneaking behind enemy lines than one you’d want delivering your burrito. It has a simple controller, which looks like an old-school video game joystick, with a holder for your iPhone or iPad, which act as both the monitor for the drone and the remote control for the mounted GoPro camera. There are lots of helpful tools for newbie pilots, like a panic button on the controller that will stop the drone in its tracks wherever you are, and a flight simulator app so you can learn to fly a drone without risking crashing $1,000 into a wall. (Repeatedly.)
The Solo’s best feature, though, is its camera automation. In addition to the standard “follow me” mode, you can draw a line on your phone’s screen, and the Solo will fly back and forth along exactly that line while recording video. Pick an object and select “Orbit,” and the drone will fly a perfect circle, camera focused on your subject the whole time. And in selfie mode, the camera trains on you and flies away, epic-action-movie-style. You can control your GoPro settings in flight, too, which no other drone offers. The goal is for Solo to take great video without you doing much of anything, and then do even more as you get better.
A lot of these first features are made so flying and shooting video will be a little easier. But the second phase for 3DR and the Solo is to open it up—the company sees Solo as a platform, and has opened up both hardware and software in hopes that developers will build specific apps, crazy tricks, and unique functionality into the two computers on board the drone. Or, they can drop new sensors or chips into the accessory bay and do even more.
Drones are rapidly getting both more powerful and easier to master; DJI’s new Phantom 3, launched just last week, has a better camera, live-streaming capabilities, and a new positioning system that makes it much easier to fly. It’s also cheaper than the Solo, when you factor in a gimbal and a camera. But 3DR’s vision is bigger, and more open; it wants to be the Android of drones; extensible and customizable for purposes beyond even what it can conceive. And most of all, it wants to get everyone flying and shooting, because as anyone who’s flown a drone tells you, it’s hard not to get hooked.
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The mobile video space is becoming more crowded by the day. Following on from Vine and its six seconds of recording simplicity, and Instagram and its 15 seconds of recording simplicity, comes MixBit. Can this new startup
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Google recently unveiled Chromecast, a $35 dongle that is able to stream content from mobile devices to your television. This is Google’s latest attempt to grab a foothold in the TV industry, which it’s going to need to be
Hulu has been withdrawn from sale for the second time in its history, with the joint partners once again deciding against accepting the bids that were coming in, just as they did in 2011. Instead, the three partners are
Facebook and Twitter have been at war as competing social networks for a number of years. But the latest battleground between the two is mobile video, with Video on Instagram (owned by Facebook) arriving as a direct response
Dec. 21, 2010 - 12:39 PM PDT Dec. 21, 2010 - 12:39 PM PDT
It’s being reporting today that HP/Palm is preparing to release the “PalmPad” next month. The story is accompanied by a diagram showing the PalmPad.
Dec. 21, 2010 - 7:55 AM PDT Dec. 21, 2010 - 7:55 AM PDTSummary:
Remote health monitoring generated €7.6 billion globally in 2010, an amount destined to grow as this nascent area of healthcare is used more heavily in the
Dec. 20, 2010 - 11:36 AM PDT Dec. 20, 2010 - 11:36 AM PDT
The geek in your life is hard enough to find appropriate gifts for the holidays, and this year, once again you waited until the last moment. Never fear, we have scoured
Dec. 18, 2010 - 6:00 AM PDT Dec. 18, 2010 - 6:00 AM PDTSummary:
The growth of Android in the smartphone space has been phenomenal, but recent ad statistics show it may be leveling off. VoIP calling is hot on Android, however,
Dec. 17, 2010 - 8:00 AM PDT Dec. 17, 2010 - 8:00 AM PDT
Join James, Matt and Kevin live for this week’s audio podcast where they’ll cover the week’s mobile technology news and share experiences with the
Dec. 17, 2010 - 7:08 AM PDT Dec. 17, 2010 - 7:08 AM PDTSummary:
Amazon has rolled out a major new version of the Kindle app for Android that adds magazines and newspapers to the standard e-book fare. The app also adds shopping
The tablet market is going into hyperdrive. The announcement of Microsoft’s foray into the tablet market utilization with Windows 8 architecture made a few ripples. It will be really interesting to see how this plays
One of the thorniest issues is traveling and maintaining security. Norton has come up with a nice little VPN package that allows for secure surfing while on open networks.
If you have ever been in a hotel, most likely you
Tesla's sales model? It's simple: don't sell cars:
If you are waiting with bated breath for electric vehicles to revolutionize the transportation sector, you are likely to pass out. If it happens, it will not be an overnight process. That...
Super-fast gigabit wireless heads to CES 2013:
WiGig, the technology standard promising gigabit wireless networking, is ready to make a splash at the 2013 International CES next month. The massive annual consumer electronics event in ...
For the well-heeled, the rise of the 'sharing economy':
As I neared the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and traffic opened up, I pressed a wee bit harder on the accelerator pedal in my BMW ActiveE, and sped through the S-curves. Yes, it...