It’s Time to Cancel College Football

November 9, 2015 6 comments

I love football. My husband Pete played right guard and defensive end in high school, and a picture of him in his uniform (#67) is on my dresser. Pete and I were season ticket holders for The Atlanta Falcons for more than a decade. Before that, we were season ticket holders for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. I was commissioner of a fantasy football league for more than a decade. I love football, but I have mostly given it up, because it is hurting our athletes.

The evidence is unmistakable: football players can develop traumatic brain injuries decades later, even if they never had a concussion. The NFL agrees that a third of former players will develop serious brain injuries. In 79 brains of former players studied by the nation’s largest brain bank, 76 had traumatic brain injuries. Suicides among former players suffering from brain injuries are rising.

When our oldest son was born, Pete and I had several conversations about whether we would let him play football. Pete showed me his slightly crooked left pinky finger, noted that a jammed finger was his only real injury, and argued that the sport is perfectly safe at the high-school level. That was ten years ago. These days, with every new news report about chronic traumatic encephalitis (CTE), he cowers. He is worried that all those hits as a lineman will catch up with him—and he only played through high school. Not the big hits, but the accumulation of small hits. When our now 11-year-old begged to join a rugby team this fall, it was Pete who said no.

Every time this topic comes up, the phrase “an inconvenient truth” comes to mind. The facts are extremely inconvenient. But the evidence is so clear at this point that it seems irresponsible to continue with the status quo. At minimum, it’s time for major rule changes. But I’m skeptical that rule changes can fix the problem. I’m wondering if it’s time for us to cancel football. Especially college football. As a university, our mission is to nurture our students—to help prepare them for productive and healthy lives as members of society. All of our students—including members of our football team. Can we really say right now that we are putting their best interests first?

Pro football players are adults, and they make their own choices. But in college football, the students have been put in our care. Our responsibilities as a university are different.

Yes, I know what I’m suggesting would cause a firestorm of unprecedented proportions. Yes, I know the alumni will riot. But should we refuse to do the right thing because it’s inconvenient or unpopular?

I admire Chris Borland, who left the NFL after one year out of concern for his health. I admire my colleague Janet Murray, who turned down an invitation to be guest coach for our football team because she feels the damage the sport is doing to our students’ long-term health is unjustifiable. She explained this in a letter to our football coach. More people need to stand up. It’s time for things to change.

It seems likely that over the next several years a series of high-profile lawsuits will lead to multi-million dollar judgments for former players, both college and pro. I wouldn’t buy stock in a company that insures NFL teams. As a state school, Georgia Tech typically doesn’t buy insurance—we self insure, or rely on our sovereign immunity from lawsuits. I don’t understand the legal nuances here, but I wonder what’s going to happen. If state sovereign immunity holds up in court, will our former players get no compensation? If it doesn’t hold up, will we have fewer science labs and student lounges because all our money is going to cover football liability? Neither option is appealing.

After the first round of lawsuits, no doubt the rules of football will be changed to make it safer. I’ll speculate that a few years later, there will be more lawsuits saying, “Sorry, we’re still getting hurt.” And then the rules will change more. And onwards, until eventually the game will be unrecognizable from what it is today. But do we really need to let this whole process take decades? Given that the end seems inevitable, can we speed things up a bit by doing the right thing now?

Georgia Tech’s mission statement says, “We will be leaders in improving the human condition in Georgia, the United States, and around the globe.” I hope we have the courage to lead on this issue. It would certainly make a statement if we said, “We are cancelling football, because it’s not safe.” We can have our homecoming celebration at a basketball or baseball game. They are also fine traditions.

We gave up our NFL season tickets this year, and I don’t play fantasy football any more. I do sometimes still watch Falcons and Yellow Jackets games on television, but feel guilty even about that.

To everyone reading this, especially my fellow faculty members at Georgia Tech, and others schools: If you agree, I hope you’ll say something. Publicly. We need all of us to speak up, if change is to happen sooner rather than later. Before another generation of players suffer the consequences.

Categories: academia, sports Tags:

Teaching about Privacy and Surveillance: Real Life is not an Episode of ‘24’

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Privacy is an increasingly important social implication of technology, and we spend quite a bit of time about it in our required undergraduate ethics and social implications of technology class, CS 4001. Since we’re talking about privacy, it makes sense to talk about surveillance. Since 2004, I’ve taught a class about The USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently I’ve added a class on information revealed by Edward Snowden. I spend more time preparing for those classes than for any other two or three put together—it’s confusing and complicated. There are provisions of the Patriot Act that are absolutely essential—like broadening the jurisdiction of warrants to tap phones to the entire country (rather than making you get a warrant in each state). And others that are egregious violations of our liberty—like the section 215 provision that lets the government get the records of any organization without a warrant or probable cause and bars the organization from acknowledging the search. The FBI can simply demand the membership list of a mosque—and they have done so. For the last two years, I’ve assigned my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about US warrantless surveillance (“The Program”) and information leaked by Edward Snowden. In our class discussion, we don’t focus on Snowden, but on other people—like NSA analyst Thomas Drake—and the tough decisions they had to make. After class on Tuesday where I carefully spell out what’s allowed under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), I feel like a bit of fool on Thursday when we discuss The Program and the fact that all those rules aren’t really followed anyway.

I do my best not to express any opinions to my class—I present the facts, and ask them what they think. And as much as possible, I emphasize tradeoffs and try to show the issues as complicated. And then I walk back from class and scratch my head—what do I actually think?

After class last week, two things became clearer in my mind. The first is about checks and balances. My children are learning about checks and balances in elementary school social studies class. Checks and balances are fundamental to how our government works. And it suddenly became evident to me that most cases of the system going too far are situations where checks and balances are not occurring. You don’t need a court order to get records with a National Security Letter (NSL). Why not? A secret court like the FISA court could do the job. And if it’s urgent, the review could take place within a reasonable time after the fact (as FISA mandates for surveillance.) It’s too much to ask any one branch of government to police themselves. The FBI needs to pursue things as aggressively as they dare, and the judiciary needs to say, “You may go this far and no farther.” Parts of the Patriot Act removed checks and balances, and procedures without checks and balances are where we get into trouble. Everything you need to know we all learned in elementary school—but somehow, we’ve forgotten it.

The second thought is about means and ends. It is possible for me to describe a fictional situation in which reasonable people would agree that that the ends justify evil means—like recording everyone all the time, or torturing someone for information. If you don’t agree with that statement, make the situation more extreme until you do. But in real life, the evidence for the need is almost never that compelling. If you demand an iron-clad case, you’ll (almost) never say the ends justify evil means in real situations. Real life is not an episode of ’24’.

Should We Pay Less Social Media Attention to Violence? Lessons from WWII and Fu-Go

September 10, 2015 Leave a comment

On September 11th, 2001, I turned the television off. I knew what was happening was historic. But I knew my family in New York City were fine. Initial details were sketchy, and lots of misinformation was being reported. I figured, why listen to the blow-by-blow—I’ll get the real story later, right? Plus I didn’t see any point in wallowing in tragedy. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of—I got back to work. I had a paper deadline for the CHI conference coming up.

If part of the point of terrorism is to draw the public’s attention, what if we all simply refused to listen? Or if the media refused to publish the story? Of course that’s a silly suggestion. People want to know. In fact, some evolutionary biologists argue that we are hard-wired to be fascinated by danger—our fascination keeps us safe. Is turning news about violent attacks off either possible or desirable?

I was struck again by this idea when I listened to the Radio Lab podcast on the Fu-Go project. During World War II, Japan sent thousands of balloons carrying bombs to the US. The intent was to terrorize the American public. To prevent that outcome, the US government suppressed stories about the bombs. No one was told about them, and the public wasn’t terrorized at all. And that mostly worked out perfectly—with one exception. A group of children out on a church picnic found one, and all gathered around to see what it was—with disastrous consequences. All the other bombs exploded harmlessly. (Though there’s a chance that some are still out there, in remote places in the Pacific Northwest. One was found in 2014.)

The tradeoffs here are headache inducing. By suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the US government prevented national panic. And caused the deaths of six people.

I would never condone government suppression of free speech. And if bombs were floating around my area, I’d definitely want to know. But I do wonder if sharing stories about such acts is causing part of the problem. What if we all stopped forwarding the link about that crazy shooter? Would that make the next person less likely to shoot people for attention? What if we all just turned this kind of news off?

I don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to do that on a large scale. But maybe, just as an experiment, we could all try not posting/forwarding/retweeting stories that draw attention to someone who did something heinous in order to get attention.

Kudos to Radio Lab for a thought provoking (though depressing) podcast.

Categories: social computing Tags:

The Irony of the Controversy Over Duke’s Freshman Reading, “Fun Home”

September 4, 2015 1 comment

There are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings—and I hate people like that!” — Tom Lehrer

I confess that I was a little late doing my freshman reading. Before freshman year of college, I made a deliberate decision not to read the optional summer reading we were suggested. My teenage self reasoned: Only a total tool would do the optional summer reading. I’m too cool for that.

Twenty-nine years later, as my 25th college reunion was approaching, I thought: Why was I such a dolt as a teen? Some nice people put a lot of effort into suggesting books for me. Ones that would open my horizons to different approaches to knowledge. So I went back and read one of the books—Lucy by Donald Johanson. It was great (though out of date by the time I read it). I’m still trying to find out what the other assigned books were.

This month, a number of incoming students at Duke University are busy not doing their freshman reading as well—but for another reason. They are offended by it. Among other books, the university assigned Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a coming-of-age memoir that deals with the author coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The book also contains explicit sexual content.

In the wake of student protests about the book, a number of members of my social network posted indignant messages, outraged that the Duke students were offended. One went as far as to suggest that those students’ admission to Duke should be rescinded. Really?

I served on Georgia Tech’s committee to pick the freshman reading last year, and we found it a challenging task. The freshman reading is not just any reading—it has a special status. It says to people “This is the kind of place you are coming to.” With that in mind, I argued against a reading that I thought was too nerdy. Imagine someone who had mixed feelings about coming to a tech school, thinking “I’m not part of the pocket protector set… will I fit in?” Now imagine them opening their uber-nerdy pre-frosh reading and banging their head on the table, “What have I done? What kind of a place am I going to?” Fear of nerdiness can particularly be an issue for young women, and it’s part of why we don’t have more women in computer science and other fields. If you want to teach that same reading in a literature class, that’s great—go for it. But the freshman reading has a special status. Students should absolutely be required to read things in college that make them feel uncomfortable—but not for the freshman reading.

I really feel for the Duke students who got their copy of Fun Home and were distraught. Duke freshman Brian Grasso’s article in the Washington Post is quite eloquent about it. Our students at Georgia Tech are politically diverse, and I have come to love that diversity. Each fall I teach an ethics class, “Computers, Society, and Professionalism.” The diversity of views is an asset—I count on it to get really thought-provoking conversations started. I ask my students to keep an open mind and really listen to views different from their own, and I try to do that myself.

The irony of this entire incident borders on absurdity. Some people are decrying the controversy over Fun Home in the name of diversity and acceptance of people who are different from you. But aren’t conservative Christians part of that diversity?

It’s easy to turn the tables and imagine a book about someone coming to terms with their identity as a born-again Christian. Would you assign that as pre-freshman reading? Of course not. Would you assign it in other classes like theology or literature? Of course. And the same goes for Fun Home.

If anyone remembers what the freshman reading for the incoming Harvard class of 1987 was, send me a message—I’m a bit behind finishing it.

Categories: academia

Hulk Hogan and Social Media as the New Big Brother

August 4, 2015 1 comment

Have you ever said anything you regret? Anything that is a little bit offensive? Anything that might get you fired? Ever get angry and vent inappropriately? Have you done that any time in the last eight years?

Last week, wrestler Hulk Hogan was released from his contract by the World Wresting Federation (WWE) because he had been recorded in a racist rant eight years earlier. Am I the only person disturbed by this? I don’t condone racism. And I’m not ready to invite Hogan over for tea. But was it a pattern of behavior over time, or just one rant? He apologized for the rant. Are we allowed to be wrong and grow and change any more? No matter what he said, should a person’s life be changed by one rant?

WWE is a publicly traded company, and they are within their rights to fire anyone for not meeting the terms of their contract. I don’t know what Hogan’s contract says, but I’m sure they have a lot of leeway. Hogan has moved over the years from being a feature attraction, to nice to have around, to now a liability—so they let him go. But this is representative of a broader trend: we are moving dangerously close to a world foretold by old science fiction novels. Where one angry moment, captured on video, changes your life. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the government that was responsible for surveillance. In 2015, it’s the public and the media—spread via social media. Social media is the new Big Brother.

OK, at least Hogan knew he was being recorded. That’s not true for the employees of Planned Parenthood who were surreptitiously recorded, and the results edited and shown out of context for political purposes. It’s not true of the employees of Acorn who similarly targeted in 2010. And it’s not true of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded making racist remarks by his girlfriend in his own home. As a result of those remarks, Sterling was forced to sell the team. His case is arguably the most disturbing, because he was in his own home at the time the remarks were made. Lately it seems like we all might be recorded at any time. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in the court of public opinion. 

Hulk Hogan might be a bit racist. A preponderance of reports confirms that Donald Sterling is definitely a racist—that tape was just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how despicable Sterling is, I believe in his right to privacy in his own home. The source of these privacy violations is not the government, but the easy ability to record video and share it over social media. But the solution to our eroding privacy is not clear.

Categories: privacy, social computing Tags:

Rachel, Caitlyn, and the Myth of the “True Self”

June 18, 2015 5 comments

When an individual … makes an implicit or explicit claim to be a person of a particular kind, he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in the manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect. – Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Issues of personal identity—who we are and how we present ourselves to others—are foundational to the field of online community design. So it is with no small amount of amusement that I have been watching the controversy about Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black for a decade. The coincidence of this hitting the media shortly after Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine has led many people to draw comparisons. As Goffman says, claiming to be a particular identity is a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. Under what circumstances is it OK for someone to ask to be treated as a particular race or gender? Why is Rachel’s demand being demonized while Caitlyn’s is lauded as heroic? What does it mean to “be” a particular race or gender?

Some time in the late 1990s, Brenda Laurel and colleagues designed a virtual reality art installation focusing on themes of embodiment. Aiming to make users feel embodied, the simulation changed if you took on the body of the snake, coyote or eagle. Brenda and collaborators used elements of Native American stories and images in the design. When they showed the work, some members of the local intelligentsia criticized the work for “appropriating First Nation’s art.” (You can imagine that symbols of sacred importance to Native Americans often get used by outsiders in haphazard ways that feel disrespectful.) Brenda went to meet with the critics, to try to communicate how much her art was meant to show respect. In the course of the conversation, Brenda mentioned that she is one-sixteenth Cherokee. In response to that, she says, “Suddenly the tone changed, and it was OK for us to have done what we did.”

What does it mean to be Cherokee? Does having one great-great grandparent who was a member of a group make you a member? Brenda didn’t exactly grow up on a reservation. She never even met her Cherokee ancestor. Would you feel any differently about Rachel Dolezal if she were one sixteenth of African descent? One thirty-second? Evolutionary biologists tell us that everyone is likely of African descent if you go back far enough. Genetics seems like a weak heuristic for identity.

No one has one identity. We all are different selves in different parts of our lives. Amy the professor and Amy the mom are different, and I switch between those roles fluidly. And some of those roles are more comfortable than others. Even though Amy the professor is at ease in front of a large audience, Amy the bride was terrified to appear in that fancy dress in front of family and friends. Our many selves complement one another, and over time we may cultivate some more than others. Caitlyn and Rachel both made decisions that a very different sort of self, at odds with their genetics, would be more comfortable for them.

The rhetoric that Bruce found her “true self” in becoming Caitlyn is nonsense. There is no such thing as a “true self.” We should say, rather, that the personal identity that Caitlyn chose to embrace is so much more comfortable for her that she was willing to go to great lengths to embody it.

Why does Rachel’s situation seem so much more problematic? Racial “passing” is by no means new—it just usually goes in the other direction. Part of the problem is a question of honesty—she lied. Lindsey Van Gelder’s epic 1985 Ms. Magazine article “The Strange Case of the Electronic Lover” tells the story of a male psychiatrist, “Alex,” who pretended to be a disabled woman, “Joan,” to get closer to women on an early CompuServe bulletin board. Joan refused to meet her online friends in person, but did tell a few about this great guy she knows, Alex. Alex went on to have romantic relationships with some of Joan’s online friends. While some people believe that BBS members were angry at Alex for gender swapping, many have a simpler explanation: they were angry at Alex for being a manipulative liar. As people were angry at Alex for lying, are people angry with Rachel for lying? That’s certainly part of the picture. But returning to the question of the comparison to Caitlyn, are people just beginning to transition to a new gender “lying”? While they may choose to be honest with family and friends about the beginnings of their transition, they certainly can’t give a full explanation to every retail clerk and waiter they encounter day by day. Are transitioning people “lying”?

Another part of the consternation about Rachel is that she assumed an identity that has been traditionally oppressed and consequently under some circumstances is entitled to special treatment. If she took any financial benefit by pretending to be African American, then that constitutes fraud. Is that true of Caitlyn as well? If Caitlyn Jenner now accepted a scholarship for women, would that be OK? Can you medically become another race in the same sense that we recognize that someone may medically become another gender? If Rachel could have permanent skin darkening treatments, would it be ethical for her to accept a scholarship for minorities? The complexities are dizzying.

Most of the time, the right answer is “Who cares?” You can present yourself however you like. The absurdity of trying to determine what race a particular person belongs to is poked fun at in a Dave Chappell video on the “racial draft.” Like a sports draft, African Americans take Tiger Woods (who is half Thai) with the first pick; Jews take Lenny Kravitz (half Jewish) with the second. The question whether someone “really” belongs to a particular group is absurd.

However, there are special situations—like scholarships for minorities—where eligibility is restricted to certain groups. Sometimes you have to decide. In her 1998 book Cyberville, Stacy Horn tells the story of having to decide whether to let a transitioning person, online nickname “Embraceable Ewe,” into the women-only forum (“WIT”) on her Echo bulletin board system. Stacy wonders, “If I let her into WIT, will it feel like there is a man in the room, or a woman?” It’s impossible to answer the question of whether Embraceable Ewe should be allowed into WIT without exploring two underlying questions: what is a woman, and what is the real purpose of single-gender space? Although initially Stacy declares that Embraceable can join WIT when her transition is complete, later she relents. She concludes, “It’s not up to me to tell anyone who they are. I am not the one to decide anyone’s gender.” Ultimately for Stacy, accepting people for who they say they are is simply good manners.

As Goffman points out, assuming a particular identity is making a moral demand to be treated in a particular way. If we all simply treat everyone with respect all the time, maybe some of the need to pin down who-is-what will fade.

Thanks to Josh Berman, Oliver Haimson, Stacy Horn, Brenda Laurel, and Pete Weimann for their help with this post.  (Edited with comments from Stacy and Oliver–further comments appreciated!)

Categories: identity

Dear Nonprofits: Software Needs Upkeep (Why we need better education about software development and professional ethics)

March 30, 2015 5 comments

A friend who is president of a nonprofit came to see me last week with a problem: he doesn’t know how to maintain their mobile app. They worked hard to get a grant, and used the money to hire a web design firm to make them a mobile app. Seems like a nice idea, right? Except one problem: they don’t have ongoing funding for software updates and design changes. They had a one-time grant, and they spent it all on their first version. The first version is not bad–it works. But that’s kind of like saying “we made a version of Facebook that works years ago, so we’re done, right?” That doesn’t explain what all those employees in Mountain View are doing, working sixty-hour weeks.

Anyone who works in the software industry knows that software needs ongoing love and care. You’ll never get the functionality quite right–design has to evolve over time. And even if you do get it mostly right, there will be new releases of operating systems and new devices that break the old code. It will need to be updated.

Giving someone a first version of software and walking away is rather like selling them a horse knowing that they have no barn and no money for grooming or hay or vet bills. The upkeep is the issue, not the cost of the horse. The well-known web design firm that sold my friend a horse with no barn should be ashamed. Because they knew.

Nonprofits are particularly vulnerable when they have limited in-house technical capability. They are completely dependent on the vendor in every phase of the project. Dependent on the vendor’s honesty and forthrightness as well as the quality of the product they deliver.

This particular vendor just informed the nonprofit that they would not be able to support future software changes because “their business is going in a new direction.” Now there’s a line for you. They knew that supporting the nonprofit was a losing proposition, from a financial perspective. It’s the business equivalent of a one-night-stand: that was nice, but I don’t want to see you again.

For those of you running small organizations, please think hard about how you are going to maintain any software you buy. For those of you running web design firms, think hard about whether you are serving the best interests of your clients in the long run. I imagine the staff who sold my friend the app are thinking “we delivered what we agreed to,” and don’t see any issue. But you know better and need to hold yourselves to a higher standard.

This is not a new phenomenon. Cliff Lampe found the same thing in a study of three nonprofits. At the root of the problem is two shortcomings in education. So that more small businesses and nonprofits don’t keep making this mistake, we need education about the software development process as part of the standard high-school curriculum. There is no part of the working world that is not touched by software, and people need to know how it is created and maintained. Even if they have no intention of becoming a developer, they need to know how to be an informed software customer. Second, for the people at web design firms who keep taking advantage of customers, there seems to be a lack of adequate professional ethics education. I teach students in my Computers, Society, and Professionalism class that software engineers have a special ethical responsibility because the client may not understand the problem domain and is relying on the knowledge and honesty of the developer. More people need to get that message.

Responding to an earlier version of this post, Jill Dimond makes the excellent point that part of the problem is with funders of nonprofits. It’s more appealing to fund something new than to sustain something already funded.  Funders should take a lesson from Habitat for Humanity, who make sure to give people a house that they are financially able to maintain.  Most funders are acting more like reality television shows who give people a mansion they can’t afford. And then we all act surprised when the family loses the home in bankruptcy. Funders need to plan for the long-term, or else why bother at all?

Categories: ethics Tags: ,

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