Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.
Shifting systems to protect attention
E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.
Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?
The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.
At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.
These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.
Working toward collective action
We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.
NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time
The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues.
Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow
The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government.
One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.
Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.
Tight working relationship
American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts.
Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself.
The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents.
NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.
One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”
Tit for tat
Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny.
The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.
But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent.
Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.
NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship as the lander to take astronauts to the moon
Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded three different groups contracts to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to defense company Dynetics (which was working with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $579 million to a four-company team led by Blue Origin (working with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper).
SpaceX didn’t just receive the least amount of money—its proposal also earned the worst technical and management ratings. NASA’s associate administrator (now acting administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested, and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” The uncertainties were only exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record with meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several full-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $2.9 billion bid for the contract, which was far lower than its rivals’.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in spaceflight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander system. “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What this means: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow—especially to Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, had unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most well-developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. It comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts to space. And it seems to confirm that the SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and shunting newer ones like Blue Origin further to the sidelines. However, there’s at least one major hurdle: Starship needs to launch using a Super Heavy rocket—a design that SpaceX has yet to fly.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, the lunar exploration program being touted as the successor to Apollo. Former president Donald Trump’s directive for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never actually going to be realized, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.