Happy New Year to my Jewish readers, and Happy Sept. 10 to everyone. I'll be off through Monday night, but rest assured the rest of the Axios tech team will make sure you don't miss a beat.
We're excited to announce the addition of two newsletters to the Axios family:
- Axios Edge, Felix Salmon's must-read weekly newsletter covering the big stories that will drive the business world, launches this Sunday. Don't miss out, sign up here.
- And on Friday, Sept. 21, we'll launch Axios Autonomous Vehicles, a weekly analysis of autonomous tech, and its impact on cities, policy and the economy. It'll be worthy of your time — sign up here.
1 big thing: Making computer science accessible
Despite all the efforts to make computer science more attractive to underrepresented groups, the field still contains a lot of barriers for those with disabilities. A group is looking to change that.
Driving the news: Last week, the CSforAll initiative introduced an accessibility pledge designed to encourage companies and schools to remove some of those obstacles. So far, 49 organizations have made the pledge, including school districts, corporations, content creators, universities and nonprofits.
The details: Making computer science (or any field) truly accessible means addressing a wide range of technical accommodations, from having screenreader-friendly content, to captioned videos, to high-contrast options for the partially sighted, to uncluttered web pages for those with Asperger's.
It's also important to specifically address accessibility in recruitment materials, teacher preparation and structural issues like class scheduling.
What they're saying...
Meredith Boyce, who went blind at 14 due to a brain aneurysm and a stroke, says learning computer science required navigating an obstacle course.
- Often the only girl in her classes, Boyce says she was always the only student with a disability.
- Screenreaders and screen magnification software often don't work well with the software used to write code.
- Administrators pressured her not to take computer science, because making the classes accessible placed extra demands on the school and its teachers.
"We in the tech community already talk about learning to code as a pathway to greater financial parity for people who are underserved populations. But I think that my situation helped me to conceptualize technology as a way for myself and other disabled people to achieve equality in communication," Boyce said.
Emma Koslow, a 17-year old high school student, is another adviser to the CSforAll accessibility effort. Koslow, who has vocal and motor tics and misophonia (a rare neurological disorder), founded Programming Pals, an online computer science tutoring service for students with disabilities.
"Unfortunately, there are little to no organizations that support students with disabilities in computer science," Koslow said. "The minority typically goes unnoticed."
Yes, but: Tech can also remove barriers for people with disabilities both by helping those with a disability and by avoiding prejudice from those without one."Nobody knows you're disabled if you're just another person on Twitter," Boyce said. "We can finally scream for our rights and be given a seat at the table."
The bottom line: As former U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith is fond of saying, it's important to field the whole team, and the U.S. hasn't been doing that.
2. Devices dominate teenagers' social lives
Today's teens prefer texting over in-person communication, use social media multiple times a day, and admit that digital distractions interfere with homework, personal relationships and sleep, according to a new survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, Axios' Kim Hart reports.
Why it matters: Concerns over the negative impact of social media use have increased recently with reports of teen depression, suicide and cyberbullying on the rise. The study by Common Sense Media, a non-profit group focused on tech and media's impact on kids, shows teens have a complicated relationship with technology.
- 81% of teens use social media, with 70% saying they use it multiple times a day, up from 34% in 2012. And 89% have their own smartphone, more than doubling since 2012.
- 72% of teens believe that tech companies manipulate users to spend more time on devices.
- The proportion of teens who prefer in-person interaction has plummeted from 49% in 2012 to 32% in 2018. Texting is now the favorite mode of communication.
- 13% of teens say they've been cyber bullied.
- 33% of teens say they wish their parents would spend less time on their devices, up from 21% in 2012.
- In 2012, 68% said their go-to social site was Facebook. That number fell to 15% in 2018, with Snapchat and Instagram becoming the new favorites.
The social life conundrum: 54% of teens agree that using social media often distracts them when they are with people, and 44% say they get frustrated when their friends are using their phones while hanging out. Yet 55% say they hardly ever or never put their devices away when hanging out with friends.
The impact: Interestingly, despite the increased use of social media, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive effect on them. For instance, 25% say using social media makes them feel less lonely, compared to 3% who say it makes them feel more lonely.
- Yes, but: Still, more than two-thirds of teens agree with the statement, "social media has a negative impact on many people my age."
- And 40% agree with the statement, "I sometimes wish I could go back to a time when there was no such thing as social media."
Go deeper: Read Kim's full story.
3. How bad code can make good art
A new generation of artist-programmers, weaned on code and disdainful of discipline boundaries, is starting to offer pointed and frequently hilarious critiques of artificial intelligence and social media — using tech itself as the medium.
A dozen of them introduced their work this weekend at the XOXO Festival in Portland, and Axios' Scott Rosenberg has a report.
Why it matters: Many of tech's biggest problems today developed because the industry tends to apply a pure-engineering mindset to stubbornly organic realms of human behavior — and while these projects don't solve problems themselves, they spark the kind of creative thinking we'll need to do.
- Janelle Shane collects examples of "AI ineptitude" — like efforts to train an algorithm to name ice cream flavors with results like "peanut butter slime" and "strawberry cream disease," or image generators that produce barely recognizable results.
- Nicole He's enhance.computer is an art project in the guise of a video game that asks you to solve a mystery by using voice commands to investigate an image — a cliche of countless science fiction films. "Enhance.computer is kind of broken," He says, but that's intentional — and besides, "People like yelling at computers."
- Diana Smith makes elaborate images using only HTML and CSS code to create lines, shapes and colors. That lets other designers remix them by changing the code.
- Simone Giertz's "Shitty Robots" are deliberately klutzy projects that do useless things badly. They make you laugh, and also question our obsession with automation.
- Choreographer Kate Sicchio combines live coding and dance, using algorithms that generate instructions for movement based on sound and other inputs.
Most of these artists are women. Their status as outsiders in a field that remains male-dominated gives them unorthodox perspectives and a willingness to ignore conventions and break rules.
One sign that this field is maturing: Not all of the work is self-referentially about technology.
- Comedian-author Baratunde Thurston presented Living While Black, a quiz app that asks you to distinguish between true and made-up headlines about white people calling the cops about black people's behavior.
Go deeper: Read Scott's full story.
4. Jack Ma to retire from Alibaba in one year
Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, said he will retire on Alibaba's 20th anniversary, which is Sept. 10, 2019. He'll be succeeded as chairman by company CEO Daniel Zhang.
- The company's announcement followed a report late last week in the New York Times that Ma's retirement was imminent.
- According to a South China Morning Post profile of Zhang, his employees don't call him by either of his names or by his title — instead, he is known as xiaoyaozi, or "the free and unfettered one.”
5. Take Note
- MIT Technology Review is holding its EmTech conference in Cambridge, Mass., through Wednesday.
- Ripple general counsel Brynly Llyr has left the cryptocurrency startup. (Quartz)
- Snap lost its number two executive, Imran Khan, who left the company "to pursue other opportunities." (Axios)
- How Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned that critics don't always eventually come around when you just stick to your guns. (The New Yorker)
- Rumors of child kidnapping spread on WhatsApp and inspired the killing of five people in a rural village in India. (BuzzFeed News)
- There's further evidence that electric scooters are leading to more injuries, with ER doctors in seven cities saying they are seeing a spike in visits. (The Washington Post)
- Popular Dr. Unarchiver app and other Mac apps produced by its maker are found to spy on users. (9to5Mac)
- CEO Les Moonves is out at CBS, brought down by charges of sexual assault aired by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker. (Axios)