Watching Small Drones in the Israel – Palestine Conflict

I lack both the qualifications and the words to comment in general geopolitical terms on the horrifying explosion of violence in Palestine and Israel this month. Other than that there is never any justification for intentionally killing civilians, no matter how good an excuse you say you have for doing it,

I do have some thoughts on what’s going on with drones.

Drones Still Don’t Wear Uniforms. And They Still Really, Really Should.

It’s 2023, and we still have no standard, universally accepted way to tell consumer drones apart in the air. Unlike the many mechanisms that allow people on the ground to figure out if a manned aircraft belongs to your side, the other side, or is piloted by a neutral actor, our tools for doing the same thing with drones are fragmented, brand-new, and distinctly untested in war time situations.

What’s more, current norms-based international humanitarian law that’s pertinent to air warfare largely doesn’t account for the existence of capable aircraft without a human pilot in them.

I’ve been worried about this issue for a long time: in 2018, I wrote a Foreign Policy article with a Palestinian colleague about drone mistaken identity, with the Gaza border protests of that era as the backdrop. At the time, Israel was piloting large DJI Matrice 100 drones (a model designed for film-making) that had been modified to drop tear gas canisters over the border into Gaza, a practice that brought up a rather large number of international humanitarian law questions.

Strikingly, then Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attempted to attribute the death of a Palestinian photojournalist to the fact that he’d been using a drone, claiming “I don’t know who is or isn’t a photographer. Anyone who operates drones above IDF soldiers needs to understand he’s putting himself in danger.” (The journalist, Yasser Murtaja, was not using a drone at the time of his death, but Liberman didn’t know that).

In other words, Liberman was attempting to argue in 2018 that simply using a drone in airspace the IDF happens to be operating in is enough to make you a legitimate target – a legal argument that is worrisome indeed for the many reporters, humanitarian aid workers, and other civilians who now regularly operate drones in disaster and conflict today.

The IDF also was using commercial DJI Mavic drones as early as 2017 for border defense operations – and continued to do so even after the US Army officially banned its fighters from using the Chinese products. Insofar as I can determine (and I’d appreciate it if you let me know otherwise), the IDF is still using DJI products today. As just one example of their current use, Lebanon’s Hezbollah claimed in 2021 that it shot down an Israeli DJI Matrice 100 drone that was flying above the UN-imposed Blue Line (and Israel claims that it regularly takes down DJI drones piloted by Hezbollah).

Today, as I write this, this pressing question about drones, identity, and IHL remains unanswered. When the Ukraine War began in early 2022, I wrote an article for the ICRC’s website speculating on where small drones fit into IHL. Since then, I’ve come across many, many examples of friendly fire incidents related to small consumer drones from both Russian and Ukrainian sources – a picture that’s complicated even further by the massive proliferation of electronic warfare and other counter-drone systems on modern battlefields.

Until we take action to globally discuss where small drones fit into IHl and how we can tell them apart in contested airspace, every civilian who operates a drone in conflict settings is going to be at very enhanced risk. I worry about the journalists and aid workers who are flying them right now over the conflict in Israel and Palestine.

There are also new technological considerations that could be relevant to IHL as well, like Israel’s drones which it claims are capable of mimicking cell towers, allowing Israeli forces to install spyware on enemy phones and track people into buildings. (The actual capability of these tools in real-world settings versus the hype remains unknown, though).

I hope that the world will finally start realizing that we need better ways to sort out whose drone belongs to whom, quickly.

Drones As Evidence Tools in War Crimes Disputes – Al Ahli Hospital

Drones are a remarkably efficient and inexpensive tool for capturing super-high resolution 3D maps and models of the real world, and crime scene investigators have been using them in this capacity around the world for, at this point, over a decade. War crimes investigators are also starting to follow suit, like those who reportedly used drones to map large extents of the Ukrainian city of Bucha after Russia retreated in April 2022.

Investigators are also evaluating drone video of potential war crimes, like this drone imagery shot by a Ukrainian during the occupation of Bucha, which appears to show a military vehicle shooting at an unsuspecting person on a bicycle. The international war crimes investigation world is still trying to figure out best practices and protocols for integrating drone-collected data into official investigations, but it’s clear that the practice is absolutely here to stay.

The IDF reminded us of this on October 18th, when it released fairly high quality drone footage, collected by an unknown (but almost certainly military-type) aircraft, of the damaged Al-Ahli Hospital and parking lot in Gaza, where Hamas says hundreds of people were killed in an air attack on Oct 17th. Hamas claims the IDF intentionally targeted the hospital, which is a blatant violation of human rights law: the IDF, meanwhile, counters that the damage was caused by a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rocket, and is using its drone video to bolster its argument.

The IDF’s release of this footage is a phenomenal example of how drone imagery has become a truly mainstream tool that both nations and individuals can wield to counter existing narratives, or create new ones of their own. It’s also an indicator of how drone footage is inevitably going to be used to litigate war crimes claims in the future, in ways that will take place outside of the confines of traditional, formal legal mechanisms of investigation.

Nor is this the only drone imagery that the IDF has shared on social media and with journalists. As just one example, the IDF has publicly released footage from its recent retaliatory drone strikes in Gaza (see below), and night-time drone footage of an airstrike on the home of Ayman Nofal, who they claim was a senior Hamas operative: it’s also shared drone footage of communities destroyed by the October 7th Hamas attacks.

Israeli journalists and other actors have released drone footage of the aftermath of the Hamas attacks over the border within Israel, like this haunting aerial footage of the devastated Re’im music festival grounds, which was shot by an Israeli first responder organization. During conflict, the aerial view can be wielded in multiple ways.

Of course, drone footage is also coming out of Gaza.

Drone pilots there, including journalists and other actors, have released a constant stream of horrifying aerial footage of damage to civilian buildings from Israeli attacks, often sharing it on platforms like Telegram – footage which, like the Israeli drone videos, receives constant play in international media, highlighting the massive destruction Israel has already wrought in Gaza.

Like the IDF, Hamas has also intentionally released video of its own drone attacks on Israeli targets, in an effort to demonstrate its own technical expertise and command of modern tools. In this case, we see a grenade dropped by a small, likely Chinese (possibly DJI) drone, echoing the tactics we’ve seen over and over again since early 2022 in Ukraine and Russia.

While global media inevitably pays the most attention to drone warfare that involves grenades, no one should be ignoring how drone warfare is waged with information, either.

interesting drone meme from a pro-Hamas source.

Just How Much Did Hamas Learn About Drones From Telegram?

Most every news story I’ve seen about how Hamas used small drones on October 7th converges on one key question: where did they learn to do that? Some sources claim that they learned it from Iran. Others, including a Ukrainian official, claim that Hamas fighters were trained in the modern art of consumer drone warfare by Russians, passing on information honed in battle since 2022.

While I certainly don’t know enough to discount any of these theories at this time, I do want to say this: it’s plausible that Hamas learned to fight with small drones, at least to the level it just demonstrated that it’s capable of, primarily by paying attention to Telegram.

As you probably know, I’ve constantly monitored both Russian and Ukrainian Telegram sources on small drone warfare since the conflict there began in February 2022. There’s a truly dizzying array of battle-tested information on drone warfare available there for anyone to view, from super detailed tactical breakdowns to open-source DJI drone hacks designed to counter electronic-warfare tools to a sea of instructional videos.

A relatively clever person familiar with Telegram and the relevant drone-centric sources could probably piece together a reasonably decent battle-drone strategy from this information alone. They’d also be able to find plenty useful information and highly relevant DJI hacks on the open Internet – many of them are posted on Github.

While foreign trainers familar with the tactics would certainly be helpful – especially for more complex practices, like building and piloting small FPV kamikaze drones – they might not necessarily be required. Maybe it’s really not that surprising that Hamas knew how to (for example) disable RTH mode on the DJI drones they used to drop grenades on Israeli targets on October 7th. All it takes is someone on your side who’s reasonably good at Google.

Arguably, we can chalk up our present day dirt-cheap-drone revolution on the battlefield to two components: the existence of inexpensive and very easy to acquire consumer drone technology, and a social media world where it’s extremely easy to track down the inspiration and information you need to start fighting with them.

The IDF Has Been Using FPV Racing Drones For a Long Time

The IDF has been using consumer DJI products for a long time, but it’s also been taking advantage of cheap, hyper-fast and notoriously hard to pilot FPV racing drones for way longer than most people realize, too.

Back in 2018, the IDF was confronted with the thread of hundreds of “fire balloons” or kites launched from the Gaza Strip, low-tech explosive devices that nevertheless presented a major security headache. They hit on a then-novel idea: they’d recruit Israel’s best hobby FPV (first person view) racing drone pilots, and train them to use their cheap, nimble aircraft to smash into the balloons, reducing the threat.

Ultimately, they were able to recruit 15 drone pilots who had both the fast reflexes and the prior drone racing expertise to successfully do the job.

Wolverine Gen2 Multi-Mission UAS (MMU)

The drone pilots eventually launched their own startup company, Xtend, which builds small racing-type drones for explicitly military purposes – and have become so popular that the American armed forces are reportedly using them too.

What I don’t know is the price of these drones, which are almost certainly considerably more expensive than the $400 models put together with Superglue that have proven so effective in Ukraine and in Russia.

And as that war has demonstrated, being really, really goddamn cheap may be the single most crucial feature a small battle-drone can offer in 2022.

Why I Care About Drones – Part One

The white object paused for a moment in the late-fall sky over Palo Alto, buzzing in place like an electric white hummingbird. Then, as I watched, it floated with eerie, perfect stability in the direction of the Stanford soccer fields, red and green lights blinking UFO-style on its undercarriage. I’d never seen anything man made, move like that before, flying in stable, parallel lines like a freakishly disciplined hummingbird.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

For a long time, I’d been cynical about the world-shaking wonders that techbro-engendered innovation would supposedly bestow upon humanity. I’d spent the last few years working as a reporter in Southeast Asia, and I’d watched in real time as Facebook came to Myanmar and was, almost immediately, turned into a tool for broadcasting genocidal hatred against religious minorities. (I’ve written about that here).

the ur-drone. the little dude that started it all.

I’d also watched social media companies decimate the journalism industry I had once, all too foolishly, dreamed of making a career in. Since starting a master’s degree program at Stanford a few months earlier, I’d seen nothing to convince me that my grim take on the state of modern technology was wrong. 

And now I was looking at something that actually surprised me, a little flying robot hovering calmly way up above Silicon Valley’s 2013-era wasteland of cat-washing startups, gig-economy scams, and Facebook-fueled privacy violations.

It wasn’t like I was totally unaware of drones, or the fact that regular people could buy them now: I’d read about them in the normal course of keeping up with tech news, and one of my college friends had even made drones the focus of his own career in journalism. But coming face to face with one, away from all the abstract talk about them on Twitter? That was different. 

pretty sure it was this field specifically

I started to follow the drone across the playing fields, the first one I’d ever seen.

I wanted to see where it was going to land. 

That moment is my drone origin story. It’s the moment where I was formally introduced to the weird helicopter-computer things – specifically, the kind that are relatively cheap, sold at normal stores, and intended for civilian use – that I’ve spent the last decade building my career around.

Which leads to a second question for anyone who knows me and what I do: why have I stuck with drones for so long, anyway? What’s gripped me so hard – someone who began my career as a journalist with zero engineering background to speak of – about little flying camera robots? 

On one level, my career in drones has been a matter of practicality, a pragmatic move in an uncertain world. I was following a familiar narrative: a disillusioned millennial realizes that the foreign correspondent career they’d dreamed of has been buried alive in a shallow, unmarked grave by the likes of big-tech social media companies and ever-more voracious executives , and that the time has come to move on to better-compensated, STEM-filled pastures. 

But of course, it’s more than that. 

I’ve spent a decade working with, writing about, and thinking about small drones because something about them resonates deeply with the lizard-level part of my mind responsible for finding things cool as hell. And it’s not just that civilian drones are intrinsically cool, which even the most avowed drone-haters will probably admit when pressed: they’re cool in an intensely complex and fraught way, man-made tools equally capable of freaking people out and fascinating them.

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Drones bring out strong reactions in people, in a way that many other modern tech wonders, from food-delivery apps to high-resolution TVs, simply don’t. They’re shape-shifters, chameleons, objects that can be used for everything from pure altruism to hideous violence – and while these transistive properties aren’t unique to drones, it’s also true that your iPhone can’t physically roam. Which, of course, a drone can (albeit much less independently then many people believe is possible).

Among other things, drones are: 

Mass-produced flying cameras that even poorly coordinated people (like me) can pilot, meaning that for the first time in history, anyone with a few hundred bucks and functional thumbs can gaze, god-like, upon the vast expanse of the earth from above. 

i use this meme too much and i don’t care

Easily-accessible mechanisms by which cops and oppressive governments can create a to-go version of the panopticon, hovering eerily above a civil rights protest near you.

Near-miraculous map making devices that humanitarian aid workers can use to rebuild cities and lives after nightmarish natural disasters, and that indigenous activists in Borneo can pilot to capture data good enough to win them court cases against gigantic, land-grabbing corporations. 

Off-the-shelf products that Ukrainian soldiers use to super-accurately target artillery strikes against Russian armor, and to blast Soviet-era grenades directly into the faces of enemy fighters, whose last, surprised, moments are captured on grainy drone-borne live video. (I’ve written about this quite a bit too).

Flying eyes that have, in just a decade or so, captured an entire world of perspectives that no one had ever seen before – drone’s-eye views that we now see everywhere in art, film, and on television, aerial angles we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing that it’s easy to forget they weren’t always there.

FPV DIY drones REALLY look like bugs, if we’re counting.

That’s a lot of complexity to consider when we’re talking about a four-armed, plastic-paneled, model helicopter that kind of looks like a bug.

As for me personally, it’s all of these things, but there’s one more factor. The biggest one of them all.

I’m fascinated by drones because I am not, on the face of it, the kind of person anyone would have expected to work with them for a living. 

In large part, I owe my career in drones to spite. 

While I’ve always been enthralled by science and technology, I’m cursed with a form of dyscalculia which makes me impressively bad at arithmetic. I’m one of those poor saps who still can’t calculate tip percentages in my head without whipping out my phone, or without making a joke about how it’s a good thing we actually do all have calculators in our pocket nowadays, ha ha ha. (I’m really, really glad that teachers today have lost the ability to make that comment). 

As a nerdy kid, I desperately wanted to be good at math. I believed the scientists who said that grasping it was the key to perceiving larger worlds of wonder and cosmic understanding (and so on), and I also knew that decent standardized math scores were a necessary prerequisite for getting into good colleges in the throat-slittingly brutal environment of 2000s undergrad admissions.  But no matter how hard I tried, my SAT math scores never rose above the level of “dismal,” a failure that looked even more weird and embarrassing when compared to my perfect scores on every verbal-based standardized test I ever took.

I suffered, in other words, from a terrible case of lop-sided brain. 

Eventually, my world-class inability to calculate tips in my head festered into a deep well of resentment towards the entire system, which, appeared to be designed to make damn sure that everything in life – from college to career to basic economic stability –  rode upon if you could do a quadratic equation in a painfully fluorescent-lit room without looking at your notes or not. 

When I graduated right into the teeth of the recession in 2010 and started my first job as a reporter, in an industry that I was well-aware was dying all around me, and in an era where everyone in power devoted a lot of time to waxing poetic about the noble virtues of boy-genius STEM professionals in hoodies,  my ressentiment grew even more intense.

I spent a lot of time worrying about what would happen if I could never find another journalism job, if I was doomed to eventually end up in the garbage-bin  of precarious employment that our culture had, in its infinite wisdom, designated for losers (like me) who had debased themselves by getting an English degree.

Such was the anxious, fear and loathing-filled head space I was in at the start of my journalism master’s degree at Stanford in 2013. 

While I wasn’t deluded enough to think that a journalism master’s degree would magically usher me into a well-compensated and rewarding career as a foreign correspondent in the media hellscape of the 2010s, I’d decided to enroll in the program on the basis of two things.

First: having any kind of Stanford degree at all might help keep my resume from being immediately filtered out of an employer’s inbox by the cruel hand of a sorting algorithm, and that was worth something.

Second: maybe, while spending a year hanging around Stanford in the midst of all that irrational, sun-kissed, economic exuberance, I’d find something to do that wasn’t journalism. Something where I might actually get a reasonable amount of money. Something I liked doing in a place that would be willing to overlook my shameful failures in the realm of 6th-grade fractions.

But I wasn’t very hopeful. 

ten years later and, thank Christ, we still don’t have burrito delivery drones

All of these bleak and confused visions of my future were on my mind on that day at Stanford in 2013, and maybe that’s also why I started following the drone. Eventually, I zeroed in on where the DJI Phantom had come from. I was not very surprised to find that it belonged to two friendly, tanned Stanford seniors in flip-flops. Everyone at Stanford was friendly, tanned, and had on flip-flops.

Like most everyone else I’d met since I’d arrived here, they told me they were working on a start-up idea. Specifically, they’d use drones to deliver burritos. While I was not very interested in a prospective future where bubbly future venture capitalists had legal carte-blanche to drop foil-wrapped carne asada projectiles onto my head, I was very much interested in the drone itself. And they were eager to tell me about it. 

It was a Phantom produced by China’s DJI company, it cost around $800, and it was, I’d later learn, the first truly beginner-friendly drone capable of shooting truly high quality video to hit the market. You just had to attach a GoPro sports camera to the bottom, and although the Phantom had only been released in January, YouTube was already filling up with sweet aerial surfing videos. 

As I rode my bicycle back to my apartment, I thought about the drone. I could think of a lot of things that reporters, like me, could do with it.

Report on war zones from a safer distance away from the fighting and the violence. Investigate distant, closed-off places where reporters would usually be denied access, both by natural forces and by people who’d rather not be investigated. Capture striking and never-before seen angles on natural disasters, destruction, and large-scale human dramas, from refugee camps to anti-government protests.

Anyway, I needed to write a story about something for my journalism classes – and digging into drones sounded more exciting than anything else I could think to write about, in the unrelentingly sterile environs of Palo Alto. 

The Stanford UAV Club logo.

That’s how, a week later, I ended up at the Stanford UAV Club meeting, which was shortened to SUAVE, an ironic adjective for a group of people who had extraordinarily strong opinions on toy helicopters. 

It was emphatically not called the drone club in official communications, and there was a reason for that. “UAV” means “unmanned aerial vehicle,” a technical term that specifically, precisely describes flying, computerized gizmos without people riding them.

  Back in 2013, UAV enthusiasts were fighting an increasingly desperate rear-guard action to convince the public to start using that unfortunate acronym to refer to the small, largely home-built hobby aircraft they worked on – instead of using “drone,” an ominous, deadly-sounding word most still associated with the huge, missile-equipped Predators the US government was flying over the Middle East in the course of the War on Terror. 

The Stanford UAV Club’s members were almost all aeronautical engineering students, who were, impressively, even more clean-cut and earnest than the other Stanford students I’d met, with a little bit more social awkwardness and a little bit less of that lingering whiff of pure avarice that lingered unpleasantly in the air wherever computer science and business majors congregated (which was pretty much everywhere) .

Most of them, I’d eventually come to learn, were once the kind of kid who’d hang out at airports and memorize the name of every single aircraft they saw fly overhead, who eventually turned into the kind of adult who liked spending their leisure time fiddling with remote controlled aircraft – a pursuit that was both a life-long hobby and also, conveniently, pretty central to their actual academic work.

That was the purpose for the Stanford UAV club: a location, as well as some club funding, for figuring out how to build fun-sized flying machines with computer enhancement, in the fine do-it-yourself tradition that RC hobbyists had been carrying on since the 1940s. 

When I walked into that first meeting, after having introduced myself to the club’s president as a journalist, I assumed I’d just be hanging around in a sort of detached, observational role, making my little anthropological notes on the intriguing social customs of Drone Guys (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they were indeed all guys at the time). Which means that I was a little surprised when, during that first meeting, President Timothy turned to me and the other new guy – a slightly jittery-looking computer science student – and asked if we wanted to get some drone building experience ourselves. 

The computer science guy and I flicked glances at each other from across the conference table. Us? We weren’t engineers-engineers, and I’m pretty sure we both had only a very vague, impressionistic idea of what a drone’s guts actually looked like. I assumed that building a drone from scratch involved delicately wiring up precision-electronics in a clean room filled with people in jumpsuits.

drone guts

Meanwhile, I was so poorly coordinated that I regularly struggled with things like “opening doors with standard house keys.”  Were these supposedly clean-cut aeronautical engineering types trying to coerce me into starting a fire so they could collect insurance money?

“It’s easier than it sounds,” said Timothy, in the winsome, boyish voice of a former Eagle Scout. 

The craft room where SUAVE built its little flying robots was a small, closet-like space: the white foam skeletons of dead model aircraft hung on pegs on the wall, and every spot of available space was covered in bins of unidentifiable wires, tubes, and motors. The club members rummaged around and brought out box after box of electronic bits and batteries, which looked, to my eyes, exactly like the parts one would use to make a low-rent pipe bomb. 

“I’ll show you how to get started,” Timothy said, walking over to our table with a laptop with a PDF instruction manual pulled on the screen, and yet another box that contained a selection of what appeared to be dismembered drone arms and bodies, made of metal and red-and-white plastic. “First, we’re gonna need the glue gun.”

“A glue gun?” I said, incredulous. 

“Oh, yeah. We do a ton of this drone building stuff with a glue gun,” he replied, serenely. 

The computer science student and I exchanged glances again. Wait, this is how they do it? I thought, as I watched the club leader moosh a little tiny brushless motor onto one metallic drone arm with a big, sloppy dollop of hot glue.

This is that engineering mystique, that pursuit of precision brilliance that I’d been led to believe, for all this time, was far beyond the grasp of my feeble, creative-writing-doing brain? They’re literally just gluing shit together? 

“Well, that’s all we’ve got to do to attach the motors. Now we’ve got to secure the battery,” Timothy said.  And then he reached for the duct tape. 

In this way, I came to my second drone epiphany. Yes, it was indisputably true that I was horrible at basic arithmetic, and it was also true that I had only the faintest idea (at the time) how all this electronic junk somehow could be mashed together to produce a flying computer.

But if the bulk of the work required to put together a marvelous little flying robot could be executed with a glue gun and a roll of duct tape you could buy at the drug store, maybe drones weren’t beyond my understanding. Maybe, just maybe, I could learn to build them and fly them myself. It wasn’t like I had anything to lose. 

And that’s exactly what I did.


Part Two coming soon, in which I elaborate further about why civilian drones matter and why it’s a good thing, actually, that average people can use them to contemplate the earth from above, make maps, and even the playing field a bit with the powerful.

Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 3

When Covid arrived, I was, like most reasonable people, terrified of the virus. I was also absolutely terrified by the glittering, data-hoovering opportunity that a global pandemic represented for the always-hungry likes of Facebook and Google.

My fears about how Big Tech might take advantage of this planet-sized tragedy only solidified after it came out in early March 2020 that the Trump administration had been holding conference calls with Silicon Valley to discuss how they might be able to work together on battling the pandemic – and if the companies had any useful data they might be willing to share with the federal government.

My mind filled with visions of an unholy alliance between privacy-destroying tech firms and the deranged Trump administration, who could use public health concerns to legally mandate that Americans cough up their health and location data to both Zuck and the MAGA set in exchange for access to Covid testing and vaccines.

There was some precedent for my paranoia.

I’d spent the last decade watching as Facebook sweet-talked governments, medical systems, and non-profits around the world into adopting their platform for communicating with the public about crises, seducing decision-makers with promises of an easy, domesticated solution that would liberate them from having to futz with building and updating their own websites.

I’d also watched in disgust as how, after crucial organizations became comfortable with pushing out vital information on Facebook, the company began to make it harder and harder for people to find or to view those potentially life-saving posts if they weren’t already logged in. The end-game was obvious: they were building a world where if someone wanted to look at updates from their city government on local flooding, or see what their local hospital was saying about flu vaccinations, they’d have to submit to becoming legible to Facebook first.

Covid, then, represented a massive opportunity for a company that was already so clearly hell-bent on taking advantage of disaster and crises as away to herd even more organizations and people into its blue, walled-off paddocks.

And while it was true that Facebook and Trump regularly sparred with one another in public, as GOP leaders complained that the platform was unfairly censoring them (when in truth, the site was doing the exact opposite), it was a different story in private.

i was a kid when this happened and it just keeps getting dumber and more insidious the more I read about it

At the time, Facebook policy vice president and former George W Bush policy advisor Joel Kaplan – a notorious participant in the 2000 “Brook’s Brothers” riot that helped secure the presidency for George W Bush – was working overtime to win the MAGA set’s trust.  Why wouldn’t Zuckerberg and his highly-paid and ethically suspect colleagues take the opportunity to partner, at least for now, with the Trump administration?

Much to my surprise, and relief, both Trump and Facebook spectacularly fumbled the world-domination bag.

 In retrospect, it was even less surprising that the rift between the MAGAs and Big Tech began over disinformation.

In early March, as the world became horribly aware that Covid was both real and destined to become real bad, Facebook joined forces with Google and Twitter to announce that their sites would make a special effort to counter the spread of egregious misinformation about the pandemic.

Then came May 25th, 2020, and the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of a bloodthirsty Minneapolis cop. As protests against police brutality ignited across the United States, social media users were confronted with a tsunami of hate speech and disinformation directed against Black Americans and activists. Perhaps anticipating what would happen next, Trump hastened to sign a executive order on “preventing online censorship,” although it was almost entirely symbolic in practice.

President Trump then, in the course of making his own contributions to the fire hose of racist bullshit that swirled around the Internet at the time, crossed a line. In ominous May 29th posts on both Facebook and Twitter, he declared that “once the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Twitter acted relatively quickly to limit the public’s ability to view or interact with Trump’s post, citing their rules against “glorifying violence.”

Facebook, meanwhile, didn’t do shit.

As both the public and national media took note of the two social media platform’s distinctly different approach to Trump’s violent rhetoric, Mark Zuckerberg was eventually forced to say something. In an impressive display of weasel-words, Zuckerberg wrote a lengthy post justifying his decision to leave the President’s egregiously terms-of-service violating emission up, claiming (as he had before in response to Myanmar) that the company “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth.” 

Mark was, I suspect, surprised when his word salad failed to turn down the heat on both himself and his company.

Repulsed Facebook employees publicly called both Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan out, accusing their leaders of bending over to accommodate the whims of the GOP. Soon, over 800 advertisers had joined a boycott against the company, including heavy-hitters like Coca-Cola, Ford, and Unilever. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Zuckerberg finally agreed at the end of June to do more to remove violence-inciting posts and to label posts by politicians with virulently policy-flouting content.

While many critics from the left were temporarily quieted by this move, Facebook’s woes weren’t over yet.

zuckerberg and fauci touching base

In mid-July, Zuckerberg, in a rare display of semi-human sentiment, openly criticized the Trump administration’s stunningly shit response to the virus in a live interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci. Soon after the Fauci comments, Zuckerberg insisted to Axios that he didn’t have a secret deal with Trump, as some media outlets had begun to speculate – though he did confirm that he spoke with the President “from time to time.” Trump, for his part, largely kept quiet about these open provocations. For a few days, it seemed like Zuckerberg was, infuriatingly, managing to once again get away with his obfuscating aw-shucks act.

Then in early August, Trump claimed (falsely) in a Fox and Friends interview, which he shared on Facebook, that children are “almost immune” from Covid-19. Facebook, pushing its luck, decided that it would hold the President to its terms of service: it deleted Trump’s video.

what a time to be alive

Predictably, Trump lost his shit, and perhaps even more predictably, he lost his shit during an interview with Gerald Rivera.

After deeming his comment on Covid to be “a perfect statement, a statement about youth,” he took up his old claim that Facebook was censoring him. “They’re doing anybody, on the right, anybody, any Republican, any conservative Republican is censored and look at the horrible things they say on the left,” Trump wailed to Geraldo’s sympathetic listeners.

By September, Trump was making ominous noises at the White House about taking “concrete legal steps” against social media sites that censored conservatives online. The relationship between the President and Facebook would remain distrustful at best until Trump – grudgingly – left office.

Which was, of course, a good thing. The Trump administration’s wildly unpredictable behavior and constant hostility to Silicon Valley’s prideful overlords ensured that both the government and Big Tech would fail to pull off the frightening privacy-destroying partnership I’d been so afraid of when the pandemic first began.

But bad as the relationship between Trump and Zuck now was, Donald Trump was still allowed on the platform. Which he used to spewed claims about voter fraud up to and after the 2020 election, and where his supporters openly discussed the plans that would eventually lead to January 6th in ever-more-deranged Facebook groups.

On that particular day of infamy, Facebook did suspend Trump’s account. But only after Twitter did it first. (Trump now has his Facebook account back, but he doesn’t use it much. The moment has passed).

Facebook found little friendliness from the new Biden administration, populated by staffers who were far less enamored with big tech than the technocrats of the Obama era had been.

thanks Facebook!

Biden’s team immediately criticized the company for failing to adequately control rampant disinformation about the Covid vaccine, as the Democrat-led administration set about frantically picking up the pieces of the GOP’s disastrous pandemic response. Meanwhile, it battled with Biden in public, Facebook (per whistleblower revelations) carefully tracked the spread of Covid disinformation internally – while consistently sharing as little of their findings with the new Democrat-led government as possible. 

Eventually, Facebook did eventually, begrudgingly, give into Biden administration pressure to take down obvious Covid-19 bullshit. It was a move that was in alignment, you might recall, with what Zuckerberg publicly claimed he was going to do when the pandemic began.

It was also a choice that the GOP is now, as I write this in the summer of 2023, using to bolster their nonsense claims (which they’ve been making in one form or another since 2015) that the Biden administration is unjustly censoring the GOP on social media.

A Louisiana judge recently used this exact rationale to ban federal agencies and officials from working with social media companies to address “protected speech.” And much of the media continues to politely ignore the fact that Trump and the GOP have spent years blatantly pressuring social media companies to cater to them, actions they’ve figured out they can obfuscate by shrieking as loudly as possible about how they’re being oppressed by the Coastal Elite.

blue pretzel/ouroboros

And then came Meta.

At the end of 2021, Zuckerberg, high on an in-house supply incomprehensible to the likes of groveling, ground-dwelling peasants like us, announced that his company would be changing its name, placing products like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp under the same blandly ominous title.

What’s more, the whole shambling horror would be pivoting operations over to something he’d dubbed the Metaverse, an incomprehensible concept that was – I think, it’s terrifically hard to say for sure – positioned somewhere in between hideous NFTs of vomiting apes, The Blockchain (such as it is), and a 2005-era VR video game where you don’t have any legs. Supposedly, it was a play to attract more young people, more hip people, to Meta’s increasingly geriatric lineup of products. After all, nothing says youthful cool like dropping fake computer money on virtual branded estate.

turns out that people just want to be sexy 20-foot dragon ladies in VR worlds, not dead-eyed dorks posing in front of monuments

Unsurprisingly to everyone who isn’t Mark Zuckerberg, the Metaverse was a majestic, world-beating failure. Meta hemorrhaged money, burning billions of dollars in pursuit of a lame product that nobody wanted. The company’s frantic flailing drove even more people away from Facebook’s both grotesquely ethically compromised and now terminally lame platform. For the first time ever, in early 2022, Facebook started losing users.

Facebook, or Meta, was by no means dead. But Facebook, surprisingly, had stopped feeling inevitable.

wow, he’s just like us

As the world became aware of Elon Musk’s manure-brained battle to weasel out of buying Twitter in 2022, the attention of what remained of tech journalism shifted away from Zuckerberg’s failings to Musk’s even splashier, rocket-fuel stained antics. By 2022, the Metaverse’s incredible, legless failure had conditioned many people to view the company as more absurd than it was outright evil. I noticed a considerable uptick in fluff pieces about how Mark Zuckerberg was learning BJJ, like a normal human with normal, relatable hobbies.

For Mark, Elon Musk’s incredible two year effort to light his own reputation on fire has also had the remarkably convenient knock-on effect of making him seem reasonable. “Yes, Zuckerberg’s companies ransack private data and tear apart societies, and he does openly thirst for world domination,” some reasoned, “but you also don’t see him promoting creepy eugenics theories, blowing up rockets in environmentally sensitive areas, or directly meddling in the Ukraine War.”

And so, Zuckerberg and the Metaverse and everything else were able to slink back into the shadows for a bit. Sure, there were still stories about how the company was failing to control hate speech in conflict zones. How it had been slapped with more historically huge and yet affordable fines from the European Union. How people in poor countries were getting charged for their supposedly free Facebook-branded mobile data. But the media had, largely, shifted its coverage of man-made horrors beyond our comprehension to the latest, splashiest abominations that Elon was involved in.

When Elon Musk finally did walk into Twitter HQ with a shit-eating grin and a stupid Home Depot sink in his hands, his status as the Internet’s new Most Hated Man was secured. And it became terribly apparent that Twitter as we knew it, as I knew it, was gone for good, and something much, much worse was going to take its place.

relics from the old, fun internet

Enter Threads. 

Meta’s Twitter-killer features little news by design, in line with Meta’s new hardline strategy against accommodating those press-room bastards that have inflicted them with so many indignities in the past. It also has even less moderation than Facebook or Instagam ever did, echoing both Musk and Zuckerberg’s profoundly cynical, if hard to argue with, realization that governments don’t have the courage to force them to make their websites less evil. Unsurprisingly, the site already has a hate-speech problem.

 Somehow, some people, mourning over the terminally-ill wreck of what was once Twitter, are still hailing Zuckerberg as something of a savior, or at least, as someone who’s substantially less evil than Elon Musk (which is wrong, but is very convenient for Zuck). Others are shrugging and leaning into Threads, shifting back into the once all-powerful idea that Facebook is inevitable, that resisting it is as foolish as shooting into the eye of a hurricane.

As for me? I’m somewhat afraid of Threads, albeit less so now, in August, then I was when it first came out in July, as it’s become clear that the service isn’t becoming the default Twitter-replacement that Meta had so fervently hoped it would be. But I’m also angry about Threads, the kind of rage that develops when you see your oldest and most loathsome enemy somehow survive threat after threat, and continue to shamble hungrily on. 

I’m angry about how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook and all the rest of his horrible companies have been able to spend the last 15 years getting away with it, how they never seem to suffer truly meaningful consequences for constantly, continuously, making the world worse. And I’m also angry about how so many people know what Zuckerberg is, and know what he’s done, and are still willing to give him yet another chance.

facebook has always made me feel like I’m trapped in a Bruegel painting

“Maybe this time, he won’t be evil!” people say, and then he does something evil again, and the same people claim that this was, somehow, a surprise. It’s a lot like inviting the Dread Vampire Zartok into your home, even after he’s drained the blood of your neighbors, because he hasn’t drained your blood yet. It’s a form of collective madness, or at least, it makes me, and everyone else who has spent years trying to warn people, feel mad.

Oh, I’d like to imagine that Mark Zuckerberg sleeps terribly.

That every night, the hungry ghosts of the dead close in upon him.

The small, charred ghosts of the Rohingya children burned alive in their homes, who still smell faintly of smoke and cooked flesh.

The pale and bloated ghosts of the people who drowned in the Mediterranean after fleeing ethnic cleansing in their home countries, whose faces have been nibbled upon by deep-sea fish.

The suicides.

The men and women slowly tortured to death in secret Syrian prison cells. 

They gather around him, and they whisper things that cannot be written into his ear. And he is tormented. 

But that’s a fantasy. 

Mark Zuckerberg is a man who sleeps well. He has hobbies. He enjoys non-descript barbecue sauce. He’s happily married. He has none of the freakish, manic anxiety that swirls around Elon Musk. Zuckerberg is self-assured.

He walks, serene, under a shield of plausible deniability. After all: he didn’t burn those Rohingya villages himself. He didn’t lead the soldiers that chased those Muslim Indians off of their land, or the vigilantes killing their ethnic enemies in Ethiopia.

He didn’t personally destroy the self-esteem of teenage girls, or publicly stream a mass-shooting at a mosque in New Zealand, or coordinate storming the Capitol on January 6th. He didn’t spread the lies that persuaded millions of Americans to wave off the vaccines that might have saved their lives, and he didn’t give those Kenyan moderators the PTSD that makes them see the faces of the screaming dead at night. 

Certainly, Zuckerberg would acknowledge that his website played a role. But who’s to say how much of one? It is so hard to quantify these things. And there are fewer and fewer people left who have the time and the resources to try.

“But can we really blame Facebook for that?” some people will say. “Wasn’t journalism already in trouble before he came along?

Maybe. But isn’t it interesting how Mark Zuckerberg and his company exists entirely in a cocoon of plausible deniability, in an ecosystem they’ve designed to exquisitely accommodate their own version of reality?

Perhaps I am too hard on Mark Zuckerberg.

Perhaps he deserves another chance to connect the world, like he says he always meant to do. Move fast. Break things. You have to make a few mistakes to get ahead. Just a few little mistakes. 

“The idiots trusted me,” Mark Zuckerberg famously said, in the early-on years, when people had not learned what he was yet. 

No. I won’t be posting on Threads. 

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Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 2

It was April 2016, and Mark Zuckerberg, clad in his usual incredibly expensive cotton t-shirt, told the world that his website – and thus, the entire Internet – was headed to a video-filled future, where live broadcasts and snappy, “snackable” content would push out the old, boring world of words.

Mark told the world that he knew this because he had the data: he knew for a fact that people were spending lots of time watching video, and simply couldn’t get enough of punchy video ads. Anxiety-filled media companies and publications, already wondering if video was the play of the future, scrambled to answer the call. 

ooh, we’re pivoting! ooh, look at us pivot!

Just a few months later, Facebook admitted it had made yet another one of its signature, whimsical little oopsies. It had fucked up the math: it had overestimated video viewership metrics by, it said, about 80 percent. Or, possibly, by 900 percent. Somewhere in that ballpark.

But the evidence that Facebook lied came out too late. The lumbering executive minds of great lumbering companies had already been made up. Print reporters were laid off en masse, and many of those who survived were pressured to spend less time messing around with icky, unprofitable words, and more time on making fun little videos.

And like many millennials who had once dreamed of reporting careers, I watched the bloodbath and regretfully decided that I wasn’t going to bother with pursuing another full-time journalism job either. 

Despite all the cuts and the reshuffling and the chaos, the profits that Mark Zuckerberg had promised for journalism never arrived, and remained a blue-shaded mirage on the far off horizon. In late 2019, Facebook coughed up $40 million to advertisers to settle a lawsuit they’d filed against the company, claiming (it seems, accurately) that Facebook had flagrantly lied to them about how much time users actually spent viewing video ads.

While the media industry eventually concluded the Pivot to Video had been a terrible mistake, the jobs that had been lost in the process never recovered. And Facebook, or Meta, or whatever the terrible thing is called, has soured on journalism too. It’s a far cry from the friendly overtures – hiding a handgun behind its back – that the company was making to the media less than a decade ago.

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This summer, in a particularly petulant act, Meta announced that instead of adhering to a new Canada law that would require social media companies to share profits with publications, its sites would block all links to Canadian news sites instead. Threads, for its part, has rejected journalism entirely, in favor of content – ah, that hideous, bloodless word! – that Threads and Instagram lead Adam Mosseri has deemed more uplifting, more marketable.

 Sum it all up, and you’re left with the conclusion that Facebook seduced the entire journalism industry with promises of riches and security, then turned around and shot it in the knees – not to kill it immediately, but to ensure that it’d bleed out slowly instead. And we’ve all been left to suffer with the results, in a world where fewer and fewer people can make any kind of meaningful living from finding the truth hidden within the great morass of disinformation that the Internet churns out, like guano from an island full of shouting, shitting seabirds. 

welcome to the internet where we SHIT and we SCREAM

Are you starting to detect a pattern here, a through-line, a single blue vein running like the shit-filled intestines of a shrimp through the last decade and a half of lies, conflict, corruption, and death? But I can’t address every stunningly ethics-free and immoral thing Meta has done. Not in one article.

I’d be working on it for years, or I’d eventually, after staring too long into one company’s seemingly inexhaustible reserve of unpunished and incredibly public crimes, go mad. I can only run through the violations and the failures as they come to mind, the ones that made the biggest impression on me.

For me, in my narrative, first there was Myanmar, and then came 2016 – that venom-filled year in which I realized that the evils that Facebook had unleashed on Myanmar were coming home. When I first started watching what was happening in Myanmar in 2013, many students of social media culture, like me, operated under the hopeful assumption that the country’s Facebook-enabled descent into hell could at least partially be chalked up to a lack of online literacy.

We reasoned that countries like the US had a solid 20 year head-start on being online over places like Myanmar, and that the general global public simply needed time, and perhaps some carefully-crafted public education, to get a better sense of what was real and what was dangerous bullshit on the Internet. 

We were incredibly wrong. 

It turned out that the evils enabled by Facebook, and by social media in general, were much more deeply rooted in the tar-filled recesses of the bad bits of the human mind than that. And as the shadowy creeps at Cambridge Analytica secretly sifted through my Facebook data and that of everyone else, I watched my algorithmically-barfed up feed with an ever-increasing sense of nausea. Realizing as I watched that it could happen here.

And it was. 

wow i miss this kind of thing so much

The second-cousins of people I’d vaguely known in high school accused my actual friends of being Soros-funded shills for global Jewish conspiracy. I watched as real-life friendships crumbled, families decided they’d never speak to each other again, and parents accused children of being blood-sucking, welfare-exploiting Communists.

I spent hours a day sucked into pointless, deranged political fights with people I’d never met before, as Facebook’s nasty little algorithm zeroed in on exactly what was most likely to put me over the edge into the Red Mist. The site always was terrible at figuring out which ads would appeal to me, but it did get pretty good at figuring out how to make me stroke-inducingly angry.

Eventually, I came to recognize that the site was twisting human relationships into dark and unrecognizable shapes, working to reform our conversations and our thoughts into patterns legible to marketers: transforming us into creatures easier to sell to, easier to keep locked up inside the confines of Facebook’s ecosystem. I knew all this and yet, as we got closer and closer to the election, I stayed on the repulsive thing, unable to resist watching the fighting, the weird digital-media enabled derangement that seemed to have spread to everyone on the Internet. 

Then, Trump won. 

Facebook lost its hold on me over that, repulsed me even more than it had before – as I realized that  it had played a decisive role in helping something dark and disgusting in the human mind manifest into a new, far more dangerous, real-world form, and that, by adding my own voice to the collective scream that had come to define the site, I’d helped bring it all into being too. In early 2017, I mothballed my account, scrubbing all the data and removing all my friends.

Did you know that if you deactivate your account, Facebook will keep tracking your data, under the theory that you might come back someday? And did you know that even if you delete your account, even if you’ve never had one to begin with, Facebook will create a zombiefied shadow profile for you anyway – which might include sensitive health data that you’ve entered into your medical providers website? Were you aware that Facebook will, at best, take its sweet time to crack down on scammers who appropriate your name and your identity so they can better exploit your elderly relatives? (Or never deal them with at all). And what’s more, were you warned that you can’t delete a Threads account once you’ve made one without deleting your Instagram account as well, an issue that the company swears that it will fix eventually, one of these days/months/decades? 

proustian shit for me

After I left Facebook, I turned my attention to Twitter, which was, while a cesspool, a cesspool I found much more suited to my particular slop-seeking tastes. Twitter’s developers had never figured out how to monetize user-data in the grim and shark-like way Facebook had, and Jack Dorsey largely appeared to be too busy gobbling up magic mushrooms and studying erotic yoga poses to make progress on the problem. The site was designed in such a way that I never found myself screaming at someone’s gibbering fascist uncle with a soul patch in darkest Missouri, and it was much easier for me to simply block and ignore the weird conservative wildlife that did, on occasion, stumble across my profile. And most importantly, Twitter never made me feel quite as debased, as repulsive, as angry as Facebook did. 

When the Cambridge Analytica revelations came out in 2018, revealing that a political consulting company had been quietly exploiting user data that Facebook had failed miserably to protect, I felt both horrified and validated. And I was pleased to see that Facebook’s previously relatively-clean public image, already tarnished by how repulsive many people found the site in the lead-up to Trump’s election, was finally, finally beginning to take on serious damage. 

Sure, tons of people still used Facebook, but signs of weakness were appearing, hints that younger, cooler people were beginning to back away from a website that seemed engineered to allow their weird Trump-loving great-uncles to yell at them. Indications that Gen Z kids increasingly regarded Facebook as a place they’d only use (maybe) to wish their grandparents a happy birthday, not a site where they’d ever want to actually hang out. But Instagram was still popular, and Facebook owned that, and WhatsApp was still globally pervasive, and Facebook owned that too. The same blue sheep-paddock, as Meta had correctly deduced, could be made to take on many forms. 

hey, remember this

Zuckerberg apologized for Cambridge Analytica, just like he did when his company was called out for abetting genocide in Myanmar. Zuckerberg went on another one of his Apology Tours in public, as the company (largely behind the scenes) rolled over and pissed at the feet of GOP politicians and MAGA emperor-makers, ceded to the ever-changing, deranged whims of Donald Trump. Zuckerberg even agreed to a photo-op with Trump in the White House, which the President saw fit to post first on Twitter.

 And while people trusted Facebook a lot less than they used to in 2016, the site, and the company, still seemed horribly inevitable. People had fallen out of love with Facebook, but many of us were getting the uncomfortable feeling that soon, our personal feelings wouldn’t matter anymore. That Mark Zuckerberg’s company was building towards a future where getting a Facebook account would no longer be an actual consumer choice, but a price you’d be forced to pay just to get on the Internet, or to pay your taxes, or to set up a doctor’s appointment. 

Exhibit A of this unsettling world-domination strategy? Libra, Facebook’s now-failed June 2019 universal cryptocurrency boondoggle that the company claimed would use the blockchain, or whatever, to help connect the world’s underbanked and digitally-isolated people with the global financial system. It was a financially-focused rebrand of Meta’s now flailing strategy to get the entire world onto Facebook (and incidentally, the Internet), the same effort that had helped ensnare Myanmar. Regulators almost immediately responded with suspicion – to their credit – but the company continued for a while to doggedly press on. 

Also connected to Libra, in terms of overall strategy, was Facebook’s new effort to map the entire world with imagery pulled from satellites and drones, using computer vision tools to suss out population figures for 22 different countries, followed-up with maps doing the same thing for the majority of the African continent. Facebook’s messaging around the project, much like Libra’s, emphasized the warm and cuddly impacts, focusing on how the data would be used to support charitable causes and humanitarian response efforts. Their releases discreetly ignored the profit motive behind why such a gigantic, publicly-traded company was pumping such vast sums of money and human resources into supposedly charitable projects. 

only a little ominous!

For me, and a lot of other Facebook-cynical observers, that unspoken answer was obvious. They were doing all this to herd even more of the planet into their own walled garden, permitting the company to profit off ever more human data, of every more aspect of modern-day, digital life.

What Zuckerberg seemed to want was for the world to view his Facebook as more than just a tech company – as more like an inevitable, unstoppable natural phenomenon. The kind that moves fast and breaks things. And places. And people. 

Contract employees paid only somewhat above minimum wage, employed by vendors with intentionally-bland names,employed in satellite offices around the world in locations as far away from Facebook’s actual, highly-compensated employees as possible. People who spend their entire day at work staring into the dark and rotting heart of humanity’s absolute worst impulses, clicking through scene after loathsome scene of screeching men slowly having their heads sawed off, kittens loaded into blenders, Holocaust deniers and mass-shooting victims. Human big-tech byproducts who are able to access a perfunctory amount of mental health support, but who are also achingly aware that they’ll be out on the street if they make a few mistakes in the course of viewing a tsunami of horror. 

I have some small sense of what it is like to gaze long into the digital abyss, due to my reporting and research work around conflict and war crimes – but then again, I have no idea at all, because I willingly and knowingly chose to look at these things, was compensated fairly, received praise and platitudes for taking on the burden. In late 2020, American Facebook moderators settled with the company for $52 million, cash intended to compensate both current and former employees for the psychological damage they’d taken on in the line of duty: leaders also agreed to introduce content moderation tools that muted audio by default and swapped video over to black and white, small changes intended to make viewing evidence of a blood-soaked world more bearable.

 But of course the problem isn’t fixed. Of course, Facebook is Still Working On It. This summer, Facebook moderators in Kenya launched their own lawsuit mirroring that filed by their American counterparts, seeking $1.6 billion to compensate them for miserable working conditions, inept psychological counseling, and crippling psychological damage – and for lost jobs, as some moderators claim they were fired in retaliation for attempting to organize a union. On social media, we joke, in a way that’s not really joking, about how our tech overlords have created the Torment Nexus, about how we’re locked in a psychological hell we can’t escape. 

Some of us much more than others.

More next time.

Facebook Destroys Everything: Part 1

I want to tell you a real bummer of a story about Facebook.

The kind of no-fun, downer tale that Alex Mosseri, the head of Threads, Meta’s new social media service, said he doesn’t want his website to support.

I arrived in Myanmar for the first time in November 2012, the same week that the country’s very first ATMs that worked with international credit cards went online. The humble money machine’s arrival was a big deal, one of the clearest signs yet that the oppressive, isolationist military junta that had run the country from 1962 all the way up to 2011 was truly gone. An indicator that Myanmar was entering a new, much more outwardly-focused, era. 

19th street in Yangon in 2013, photo by me

With the fall of the junta came an even bigger deal: the arrival of the relatively free Internet in Myanmar, liberated from the ultra-restrictive controls that the old regime had placed on its citizen’s access to international information. Before, the few bloggers that had managed to skirt the controls and write online, like poet and activist Nay Phone Latt, were met with prison sentences, fines, and violence.

Now, Nay Phone Latt was free, Internet cafes were doing a booming business, and there was even talk of the imminent arrival of publicly-available mobile data. And most exciting of all, people across Myanmar were setting up their very first Facebook accounts. 

I’d come to Myanmar to write about the rise of the Internet, as part of my then-regular beat on tech in Southeast Asia – a subject I’d grown fascinated by ever since I started my first reporting job out of college at the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. It was an opportune time for that kind of thing.

The Arab Spring, and the way in which its fearless millennial-aged leaders had organized on social media platforms that their authoritarian overlords understood poorly,  had ushered in a wave of  global optimism about how Facebook and Twitter could, just perhaps, usher in a new era of democracy and empathetic communication, build a perfect framework for a Marketplace of Ideas (and do it all while making a shit-ton of money).

According to some pundits, Mark Zuckerberg might just, in his weird nerd way, heal the world

While I was more skeptical than most about if the ascendance of social media was a good thing or not, it was very clear to me that it was important – and so I’d begun my reporting career looking at what Cambodians were doing online, how they were using Facebook to politically organize against their own repressive government, to meet one another, to reach out to a broader technological world.  I’d connected with a Myanmar NGO dedicated to digital inclusion, and through them, I got a chance to meet and interview a number of brilliant and extremely online Burmese people, all of them brimming with long-suppressed, almost giddy, optimism about their country’s technological future. 

It was hard for me not to share their enthusiasm, their massive relief at finally getting out from under the jackboot of a military regime that had tried to lock them away from the rest of their world for as long as they could remember. I came away from speaking with them with a warm, happy feeling about how online communication maybe, just maybe, really did have the power to unfuck the world. 

I’d also come to Myanmar because of Barack Obama.

The US had sent then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Myanmar on a diplomatic visit in late 2011, restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar in January 2012, and had begun to roll back long-standing economic sanctions. This extended process of thawing the ice cube was set to culminate with the first-ever trip to Myanmar by a US President, who would meet with both President Thein Sein and the recently-freed and globally iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to congratulate them on their achievements and to implore them to keep up the good work.  

picture by me from Yangon in 2012.

On the day of the President’s arrival, I walked towards the university auditorium where he was set to speak through the streets of Yangon, which were lined with excited and intensely curious Burmese people, many of whom were wearing t-shirts with Obama’s face on them, who were waving little paper American flags (sold by enterprising street vendors).

We all watched the massive US motorcade roll by, the President’s enormous black monolith of a car smack-dab in the center of it, and people cheered and shouted and waved, and shook my hand as the nearest American who could be congratulated.

another one of my 2012 photos – the President in Yangon

 Once there, I managed to talk my way into the official White House press pool, and I was able to join the great scrum of jostling foreign correspondents on the balcony of the auditorium as Obama, Clinton, and Suu Kyi embraced each other and spoke to the audience about the rise of a new relationship, a new era. For onlookers, it was easy to get seduced by how picture-perfect it all was, to believe that Myanmar was on the up-and-up, that both the government and its people were headed towards a freer, wealthier future. 

But it was not that simple. Nothing ever is. 

Prior to my first visit, in June 2012, people form the Rakhine Buddhist ethnic group and Muslims from the long-persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority, up in Myanmar’s north, had begun fighting with one another, in the latest outburst of tensions that had been flaring up on and off for generations. Myanmar state security forces headed to the scene at President Thein Sein’s request and promptly started making things even worse – rounding up Rohingya (long denied citizenship by the Burmese state) en masse, raiding their villages, raping them, killing them.

 After a few months of relative peace, the violence escalated once again in October, right before both I and the President arrived in Myanmar. By then, at least 80 were dead, and it was estimated that somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000 people, almost all Rohingya, had been displaced, burned out of their homes and villages, forced into squalid and desperate refugee camps.

While United Nations experts raised the alarm in Geneva and Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing hundreds of burned buildings in Rohingya villages, most global onlookers seemed to regard the violence and the fire as one of those things: regrettable, but not unexpected, and certainly not so awful that it was worth torching newly-established relations ever. 

Obama explicitly mentioned the Rohingya situation while speaking at the University of Yangon, calling upon Myanmar to “stop incitement and to stop violence.” For his part, President Thein Sein –  who’d said just a few short months ago that his country didn’t want the Rohingya, and that it’d be best if they were resettled in any country willing to take them – publicly agreed to eleven US-defined human rights commitments, from “taking decisive action in Rakhine” to permitting aid workers to enter certain conflict-wracked areas. Messy. Imperfect. But, from the perspective of the US, good enough for now. 

temple in Yangon in 2012. photo by me.

After I got back from that first trip to Yangon, I kept following the Rohingya clashes in Myanmar on the news, watching with growing trepidation as the situation grew ever more terrible, as the deaths piled up, and as ever more Muslims were forced to flee into newly-established and massively growing refugee camps over the border in Bangladesh. I also watched as this growing darkness was reflected on the Internet  – indeed, intensified by it, the online world and the offline world becoming ever more enmeshed, interlocked, impossible to tell apart.

 As far as many newly online people around the world were concerned in the early 2010s, Facebook was the Internet: the single, centralized portal through which they interacted with the rest of the planet, where everything online that bore the slightest relevance to their lives took place. They were part of a millions-strong captive audience, and Facebook had realized that if they played their cards right, if they hurried the process along, they could keep all these people safely locked up in their own custom-designed, eminently profitable enclosures. And they could mask their ambitions by claiming that all they really wanted to do was help people gain economically-vital access to the Internet. 

I’d already been seeing the darkness in Cambodia, where reporters had started to notice an alarming up-tick in violent, intense rhetoric against the Vietnamese minority in Khmer Facebook groups in the run-up to the 2013 elections, as the CNRP opposition party accused them of secretly wanting to take over Cambodia again. And now I was hearing about how Facebook was even worse in Myanmar, as more and more of the nation got online for the very first time: how Buddhist firebrand monks were using the platform to whip newly-online people into paroxysms of anger about the prospect of Muslims taking over their land. Outnumbering them. 

But still, reasonable people had reasonable questions about the causality of it all. Was there a truly direct connection between the violence against Rohingyas and the nastiness on Facebook? Were enough people in Myanmar even online that it’d actually make a difference? Was the way people used Mark Zuckerberg’s platform really, ethically speaking, Mark Zuckerberg’s fault

I spent the spring of 2013 mulling over these questions, rooting around in the nastier recesses of politically-minded Facebook groups, reading through the then-nascent literature on how social media could, just perhaps, drive social progress in ways that didn’t help bring about yet more Arab Springs and bust open secret torture prisons.

In June, I got the chance to go back to Yangon. I’d be writing about the nation’s first-ever Internet Freedom Forum, a gathering dedicated to helping Myanmar’s people take advantage of the new, liberated Internet. Nay Phone Latt spoke at the conference, and so did a number of the other brilliant young Burmese tech enthusiasts I’d met before. The mood was still buoyantly optimistic as we circulated from one Post-It note-filled brainstorming session to the next, as we drank tea, discussed Internet freedom regulations and online privacy. 

And yet, I could detect a slight edge in the air, a certain trepidation that had grown, mutated into new forms, in the few  months since I’d been away. People knew that the country’s fate still remained very much in doubt, and they knew the turn to democracy could evaporate just as quickly as it had come about. At night, I’d walk back to my hotel room through the silent, dark streets of Yangon – a city that was still figuring out what it wanted to do about night life – and sometimes stray dogs would tail me home, lean, rangy beasts with a worrisome, predatory alertness, much more so than I remembered seeing in the local curs in India and in Cambodia. 

vendor in Yangon in 2013 selling/promoting 969 Movement materials, a nationalist, anti-Muslim movement led by extremist monk Ashin Wirathu. photo by me.

 During the conference, we talked about how hateful talk about the Rohingya was starting to pop up on Facebook, about how it was casting an ominous shadow over the good things about helping more people get online. Hopefully, it’d stay relatively isolated, and people could be taught to use and to read social media in more critical, careful ways. Hopefully, the whole thing would represent a nasty but not-unexpected blip on the road towards the Internet helping Myanmar build a better, freer society. 


And then, near the end of my visit, I had an honest-to-god Thomas Friedman moment. In a taxi cab.

The driver was a charming young Burmese man who spoke good English, and we chatted about the usual things for a bit: the weather (sticky), how I liked Yangon (quite a bit, hungry dogs aside), and my opinion on Burmese food (I’m a fan).

Then he asked me what I was in town for, and I told him that I’d come to write about the Internet. “Oh, yes, I’ve got a Facebook account now,” he said, with great enthusiasm. “It is very interesting. Learning a lot. I didn’t know about all the bad things the Bengalis had been doing.” 

“Bad things?” I asked, though I knew what he was going to say next. 

“Killing Buddhists, stealing their land. There’s pictures on Facebook. Everyone knows they’re terrorists,” he replied. 

“Oh, fuck,” I thought. 

I was going to write “you know what happened next.” But as I watched social media discourse about the launch of Threads this summer, I realized that a lot of you – good, smart, reasonably well-informed people – don’t know what happened in Myanmar after 2013. Or the role Facebook played.  

 So, here’s a brief summary. 

Internet access ripped across Myanmar after 2013, and so did smartphones, which often came conveniently pre-loaded with the Facebook app. In 2016, Facebook even partnered with Myanmar’s government to launch two products that let people use basic versions of Facebook without having to pay for data: millions of people signed on, eager to talk to their friends and read the news for free on a platform that most assumed was perfectly trustworthy. They also used Facebook to talk about the Rohingya – and there was a lot to talk about, as the violence kept getting worse, as over a hundred thousand Rohingya were pushed into refugee camps. 

In August 2017, a Rohingya armed group attacked military targets and killed civilians in Rakhine state: Myanmar’s security forces responded with total warfare. Soldiers massacred thousands of unarmed people, raped women, and burned down hundreds of villages. Children were incinerated inside their own homes.

scene from one of the enormous refugee camps in Bangladesh. Credit: UN Women/Allison Joyce.

Over 730,000 Rohingya fled across the border into Bangladesh, forced to take up residence in overcrowded refugee camps where they still wait in limbo to this day, subject to the often unsympathetic, cruel whims of the Bangladeshi government. Hundreds of thousands more remained trapped unhappily in Myanmar, existing without rights and as a hated, hunted underclass. Experts started to apply terms like “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” to the Rohingya killings, and few bothered to argue.

The few who did included Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the erstwhile human rights hero that I’d seen Obama shake hands with just a few years before. After becoming the de facto head of government in 2015, Suu Kyi started to vocally defend the military’s actions against people she deemed to be Muslim terrorists. She was still grumbling about unjust disinformation when she was brought before the Hague in 2019 to defend Myanmar against charges of genocide, praising the same military that kept her under house arrest for over a decade. 

Yet Suu Kyi’s willingness to defend mass murder wasn’t enough to keep her in power.

In February 2021, the military decided that this political liberalization business had gone too far: it reverted to tradition, launching a coup against the government, invalidating the 2020 election, and arresting Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials on highly-suspect allegations of  fraud. The military swiftly locked down Internet access, restricted aid worker freedom of movement, and viciously attacked protesters.

In response, both existing ethnic militias and newly formed ones fought just as ferociously back, creating a brutal civil war that’s still happening today. Nor have things improved for the Rohingya, who still languish in dangerous camps, who are still deprived of rights by governments in both Myanmar and in Bangladesh. Who still drown by the hundreds in overladen boats headed for places where they might, just might, find dignified work. 

As this last dismal decade in Myanmar unfolded, one thing has become exceedingly clear: Facebook, in its rush to massively profit from getting an entire country on the Internet in just a few short years, played a key role in the country’s slide into hell. During that blood-soaked period from 2016 to 2018, website’s attention-hunting  algorithms pumped vast amounts of ferocious anti-Rohingya content into the feeds of millions of Myanmar Facebook users, and the site failed over and over to counter dangerous hate speech, ignoring pleas from local activists, including some people I knew.

Screen cap from 8/7/2023 of an inflammatory Wirathu interview that’s still publicly visible on Facebook.

Despite Facebook’s claims that it had cracked down on hate speech, in 2020, researchers found Facebook was still promoting anti-Rohingya hate videos from Ashin Wirathu, the extremist monk they’d supposedly banned years before. (Just now, it took me approximately 5 seconds to find an anti-Muslim 2020 interview with Ashin Wirathu, with English subtitles, still up and visible on a Facebook page run by Indian Hindu nationalists – and I wasn’t even asked to log in).

When the military launched its 2021 coup, Facebook promised, like always, that it would take action to reduce the reach of pro-junta posts. But researchers found that the constantly-churning algorithm continued to promote posts advocating for violence anyway.

 As I write this, Facebook remains wildly popular in Myanmar today, persisting despite the military’s occasional, doomed attempts to ban it in retribution for attempting to ban them  – measures which people relatively easily get around with VPNs. The site’s filters still consistently fail to catch ads promoting virulent-anti Rohingya hate-speech, and activists are regularly imprisoned by the junta for their anti-government Facebook posts. In Myanmar, as in much of the rest of the world, Facebook has accumulated a power center of its own, wound itself around the very idea of modern, connected life itself. 

Nor can Zuckerberg claim it was a mistake, a misunderstanding. Throughout this entire dark period, Facebook knew what it was doing. 

mark zuckerberg at a 2018 keynote about fighting fake news, and we all know how well that went.

In 2018, an independent report commissioned by the company itself concluded that the website had helped fuel genocide, and the company agreed with its findings, said it was hiring more Burmese speaking moderators, that it was “looking into” creating a human rights policy. (It only got around to actually doing this in 2021). 

The company’s statements on the matter remained bloodless, at a distance: the closest show of actual human emotion came from Adam Mosseri, the current Threads chief and Facebook’s then VP of product management. “Connecting the world isn’t always going to be a good thing,” he conceded on a Slate podcast. “We’re trying to take the issue seriously, but we lose some sleep over this.”

Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledged, in a 2018 interview with Ezra Klein, that his company’s penchant for encouraging genocide was “a real issue” that “we’re paying a lot of attention to.”It was familiar Zuckerberg line. A chunk of bloody meat tossed to the press and to the public, a bribe that could get away with being bereft of actual content, actual human sentiment. 

In another, even more illuminating, 2018 interview with Recode, Zuckerberg said that he felt “fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California at an office, making content policy decisions for people around the world.”

To drive the point home, he added this: “A lot of the most sensitive issues that we faced today are conflicts between our real values, right? Freedom of speech and hate speech and offensive content…. Where is the line, right? And the reality is that different people are drawn to different places, we serve people in a lot of countries around the world, and a lot of different opinions on that.” 

In these words, Zuckerberg expressed his most fundamental perspective, the belief system that has shielded him with remarkable effectiveness from the public anger that he deserves. (He would go on to use almost the exact same phrasing to defend his soft-gloved treatment of Donald Trump in 2020 and 2021).

It’s phrasing that acknowledges the existence of ethical issues with tech, while deftly absolving the person who created these issues in the first place from responsibility for cleaning things up. It’s a message that Facebook is inevitable, inescapable, that humanity will simply have to adapt to its presence.

And it’s a message that allows Zuck to publicly pretend that he’s simply too humble to feel OK with making decisions for other people, even as he works hard, right out in the open, to herd an entire species into his immensely profitable, walled-garden  of a website. 

As I write this in 2023, Facebook, or Meta, if we’re going to politely go along with another one of the company’s great squid-ink moves, claims they’re still Working on The Myanmar Problem. I’m sure company spokespeople would agree, if I asked them, that they’re Very Apologetic and that they absolutely still Need to Do Better. 

That’s what Meta always says, after every single damning revelation, after every single time they’re entirely and unequivocally caught doing something wildly immoral.

Zuckerberg and his company have learned this is really all they need to do, that there is little appetite among the truly powerful for holding them accountable. That the lawsuits filed against them by groups like the Rohingya, like the Ethiopians impacted by the war in Tigray, will almost inevitably fail. 

But, no, I don’t blame anyone for not knowing about all this, about what Facebook helped enable in Myanmar, about what it did in Ethiopia, and in Kenya, and in India and South Sudan and in the United States, and a lot of other places besides.

After all, there are way fewer full-time journalists writing about these things than there used to be. Including me.

Enter the Pivot to Video.

The World is Dependent on Drones Made by Just One Chinese Company – And That’s a Problem (And More)

What’s the Deal With All These Chinese Drones?

I’ve been watching the rise of China’s DJI consumer drone company for over a decade, ever since DJI launched the cheap drone epoch we’re living in today with the release of the original Phantom back in 2013. The Phantom was revolutionary, the first drone that pretty much anyone could use to shoot sweet footage of surfers – a device that launched an entire industry of drone service providers, and turned the Shenzen based company into, arguably, China’s closest answer to Apple.

Phantom 1 - DJI
the very first 2013-era Phantom 1 drone

At the same time, the United States and other countries have grown increasingly suspicious of DJI’s motives and loyalties, and lawmakers, like the odious Ron DeSantis in Florida, are rolling out new policies that crack down on the use of Chinese-made drones by government employees, from police officers to state university researchers.

Which might seem kinda reasonable, as compared to the other things DeSantis gets up to, except there’s one big, fat problem: there is no non-Chinese consumer drone company that does what DJI does. Much less does it at such a low price-point, which is a vital consideration for the vast swaths of modern drone users who don’t have unlimited cash to throw around.

And building a DJI-killer is a lot harder than you might assume: although a number of Western competitors tried to knock DJI off the pedestal over the last decade, they all failed. Partially, this was because DJI’s Shenzen location gives it direct access to the world’s biggest source of electronic parts manufacturing. Partially, a lot of those Western consumer drone companies made some really dumb decisions. Eventually, they largely stopped trying.

This is also why both Ukrainians and Russians are continuing to chew through vast quantities of DJI drones on the battlefield, despite massive misgivings about their reliance on Chinese tech. While Russian leaders may regularly claim that they’ll be coming out with a DJI replacement any day now, I’m not exactly holding my breath.

What’s more, our uncomfortable dependence on DJI creates a pretty enormous problem for civilian drone users in every country that doesn’t get along with China. If DJI drones were suddenly banned in one fell swoop in the US tomorrow, as some GOP lawmakers are calling for, then the civilian drone industry would be, to put it delicately, completely screwed.

I believe that it’s possible for the US and Europe to figure out how to build drones that can actually compete with DJI products, but it’s going to take some government support and changing up some of our existing priorities. Anyway, read the full Foreign Policy story here.

Why People Are Afraid of Drones, Part One: Drones are Inscrutable

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I have long been fascinated by why people are so disquieted by drones. While pretty much every one alive in 2019 experiences some degree of acute tech anxiety, drones, as a category of objects, still inspire an unusual amount of disquiet – much more so than, say, an iPhone. This distrust extends to both consumer drones you can buy at the mall and to enormous militarized drones: anything with the word ‘drone’ appended to it inspires clickbaity headlines and nervous conversations at bars. Some of this, I think, can be attributed to the fact that we still lack widely-agreed upon modifiers for the word ‘drone’ in our society, which differentiate between objects in the overall ‘drone’ category – which means that it’s easy for people to assume that a $500 multirotor you can buy at the mall and a Predator drone are actually somewhat similar objects.

But that’s not all that’s going on. It is apparent to me that there isn’t a single, easily-explained reason why people distrust and fear drones as a general category of things. There are actually many interlocking reasons, ranging from the very obvious (there isn’t a person in them and some of them can be used to blow things up) to those that are more subtle.

What I want to do with this series of blog posts is to describe some of the reasons for drone-distrust that I’ve come across or conjectured about. This is both for my own amusement, and for a more practical reason: public distrust of drones drives me and my drone sector colleagues absolutely nuts, and the first step towards figuring out ways to address the public fears is clearly describing what they are. So let’s begin with this reason: Drones are inscrutable.

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By that, I mean that it is very hard  for people to know how much a drone knows, or how smart it is, just by looking at it. Most people do not know very much about drones as a general category of flying objects. Certainly they haven’t (and have no desire to) delve into the various technical details regarding each platform’s specific capacities. Nor is it likely that this is going to change much. Despite the lofty hopes of many consumer drone companies, we do not presently and probably never will live in a world where the average person has much use for a drone, beyond their obvious utility as a last-minute present for Father’s Day. While civil service and public utility drones are becoming much more common, they’re still nowhere near typical, as boring and unnoticeable as a city truck with its flashers on. Nor do most people know much about, or have reason to think much about, the distinctions between a cheap consumer drone and, say, a massively expensive Reaper UAS used by the military to zap people on other continents. This understandable lack of public familiarity with drones leaves plenty of room for confusion, misapprehension, and outside influence.

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I can’t even with those goddamned magic fantasy drones on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The average person’s knowledge gap around drones is then reinforced by our media (writ large), which absolutely loves to portray drones – even small, cheap-looking ones – as much more intelligent and sophisticated than they actually are today. (This is also why my loved ones hate watching TV with me now). TV and movies today are absolutely lousy with small drones that can: fly for days at a time, stealthily and silently track people both inside and outside of buildings, shrug off terrible weather and the occasional bullet, and can make complicated strategic decisions on their own, without human input. TV and movie drones are majestically capable, terrifying devices. They make real drones, the kind I actually fly, look like total delicate dumbshits.

Which, let’s be frank, they are. Real drones are dumb and fragile as hell, especially when we compare them to their fictional brethren.  In Real Life, my (nice!) $1200 quadcopter drone is not capable of: reliably navigating around trees, following me in an area that isn’t an open field, avoiding taking photos of things I don’t want it to take photos of, being controlled from more than about a mile and a half away, and reliably avoiding plummeting into a lake or something if it loses radio signal. Its battery lasts for approximately 25 minutes if I’m lucky, and it makes a sound somewhere between a dentist drill and a demented, enormous bumblebee. It cannot fly in rain or snow beyond a gentle drizzle, or navigate winds above 20 miles an hour. While it can navigate a pre-programmed flight path using GPS capability, and take photographs at pre-determined intervals (both very cool features), it’s still not capable of making its own value judgements about where to go or what to photograph.

It has no autonomy, but instead just does exactly what I  tell it. Drone facial recognition software, while a frightening possibility, remains mostly theoretical and is prone to even more errors than the already horrifyingly-error ridden terrestrial type of facial recognition tools. While there are fancier small drones on the market, they’re really not capable of doing much more than mine can. But again, the average person doesn’t know much about the actual dumbshitness of civilian drones, and doesn’t really have a good way to know that, unless they use drones themselves. Certainly drone companies aren’t eager to brag about how stupid their drones actually are, and ‘Drone Fails to Do Anything Exciting’ is not a compelling tech magazine headline.

Image result for drone camera

This leaves people to draw their own conclusions about drones, and what I think they often conclude is that drones are much more intelligent and capable than they actually are. However, the actual parameters of that smartness are also confused, because these media drone portrayals often vary widely in what they show drones doing. Taken together, this means that people know 1. Drones are smart and capable and 2. It’s unclear exactly how smart and capable they are, or what that actually means in practice, which is scary. In other words, to most people, drones are inscrutable.

This inscrutability is compounded by a few factors. For starters, consider that a drone, visually, betrays almost no information about what it is up to or who is flying it to the average schmo on the ground. Police and fire vehicles, even news helicopters, usually have some kind of marking on them that gives us a hint about where they’re from and what they’re up to. Drones do not, and even if they did, they’re so small and so distant that it would be hard for us to see it. We still lack any system that might allow someone on the ground to identify a drone, or at least read off a drone license number: the only way to know what a drone is for is to find the pilot. There’s no clear means of determining exactly who is looking through the computerized eyes of a drone, and what they’re looking for. Or what is looking through the drones eyes, because we are also uncertain about the degree to which drones have minds of their own.

While no one relishes the idea of being spied upon by a person, being spied upon by a creepy human being with a telescope is not a particularly novel or shocking idea. A human being, even a creepy one, operates within human parameters and can presumably be subject to human reason and justice. Being spied upon by a machine, however, is much more disturbing. A good old-fashioned creeper, in the pre-Internet era, had a limited ability to disseminate imagery of you in your underpants far and wide. A machine-equipped creeper has the ability to disseminate those images to everyone on the planet with a pulse in 15 minutes, before you’ve even known that it’s happened. This is terrifying. Even more terrifying, perhaps, is the idea of a machine itself making the decision to disseminate those images – or perhaps making the decision in collaboration with a creepy human being.

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this is just a cool photo of andre bazin

To be sure, this human concern over what it means to have a machine mediating our perception of the world is a relatively old one, an anxiety that ebbs and flows in our culture. Andre Bazin wrote, in 1945: “Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography. For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent… All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.”

Drone photography take this modern dynamic that Bazin describes even further, because a human being is by definition absent (or at least, is in control of the situation from very far away) when a drone snaps a picture. Perhaps even more importantly,  we – living as we do in an era of AI hype – may not be entirely confident that a drone *is* a “nonliving agent.” AI is new, and so are drones, and there is plenty of kerfuffle in the media about AI being attached to drones.

We therefore shouldn’t be surprised if some people also assume that all drones are equipped to some degree of AI that is much more sophisticated (and frightening) than what is actually possible today, as part of their overestimation of the general abilities of the technology. Insofar as they are aware, a drone may very well be looking at you – and making choices about following you – in and of itself, without being explicitly guided in its every action by a human being.

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he bite

The drone is turned into something less like a ‘dumb’ remote controlled airplane and much more into something more like a trained attack dog, or even a trained spy. It may be carrying out sinister directives at the behest of someone else, but it is also capable of making its own choices in the process. It is an object that has been imbued with an unusual amount of agency: one could argue that it has become an agent in and of itself. If we look at this from the lens of actor-network theory, drone of uncertain (and currently impossible) intelligence is an entity that exists in a weird  place, somewhere between being an artifact and being a social actor in and of itself. We don’t know that it isn’t exerting a certain amount of automated capacity to choose, or to act.

It is a thing that is ontologically uncertain, and mostly, we don’t like that. (I wouldn’t either, if I didn’t know about drones). This makes sense. After all, it is considerably harder to outsmart something that wants to hurt you or spy on you that is imbued with its own intelligence and autonomy than it is to outsmart a remote-controlled machine controlled by a far-away human that can only see so much ‘through’ the eyes of their mechanical avatar. While we may distrust the motives of the people who made our Amazon Echo or our iPhone, we generally don’t think that the object itself has bad intentions. Yet I often get the sense that people who distrust drones are imbuing the drone itself with bad motives or intent, because they suspect that the drone is capable of doing such a thing.

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but what does it mean if the drone just personally *felt* like bombarding you with chicken? DYSTOPIA IS UPON US

In another sense, our uncertainty about what drones are up to and how much they know makes us animists, leads us to anthropomorphize them to an extent that we do not anthropomorphize, say, our smart thermostat or our iPad. My drone is not very smart, but its blinking lights and what I interpret as its occasionally temperamental opinions about the conditions it will operate under lead me – even though I know better – to treat it more like a pet at times than like a tool. (I’ve certainly found myself talking to it).

Multirotor drones even move in ways that suggest living objects, more like darting hummingbirds than like conventional aircraft. When I’m bringing my drone in for a landing, it hovers expectantly in front of me: it is an object, but it’s definitely not inanimate. The fact that drones move, too, is another source of distrust. Even if we distrust our Amazon Echo or our iPhone, they are un-moving objects that stay where we’ve put them. Drones, though – they move, and presumably might be able to do so without human input. Creepy.

So then, if drones are inscrutable: what can we do to make them less inscrutable, to make their motives more apparent? Time will certainly help, in that we generally become less frightened of technologies as we grow more accustomed to them. The development of systems that will permit the average person to get a sense of what a drone is up to – perhaps by pointing their phone at it to pull a “license plate,” or something of that nature – will help as well. Still, I don’t see this central ontological issue with drones as something that we are somehow going to fix, or explain away.  They are human, and therefore we are going to have to learn to live with them.

Patriotic Lobsters: An American Mystery

We regularly drive from Boston to Southern Vermont to visit my partner’s family, up through the Green Mountains. The little two-lane road is deeply atmospheric, in that creepy Ichabod-Crane sort of way: it passes through a few little villages with economies that appear to be largely dependent on flea markets and small-batch artisan pottery. It was as we passed thorough one of these towns that I spotted the Patriotic Lobster, slapped confidently on the side of an otherwise mundane home. It was a wooden lobster painted in red, white, and blue colors, with a bit of rustic flair, the sort of thing you could imagine an old, half-blind lobsterman lovingly crafting in a shack. I had to have it.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find one. You can buy so many weird things in so many places online, but there is one thing you cannot buy online, and that is a hideous red-white-and blue lobster wall-hanging that I can offend my neighbors with. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I think about stealing that Patriotic Lobster, right off the side of the house: I imagine creeping up in a ski-mask and snatching it, then vanishing into the night. I could also, I guess, knock on the door and offer to buy it, a roll of $20s in my hand. (I don’t know what the market value of a wooden Patriotic Lobster is, but it’s priceless to me). But no. I won’t steal it, and I won’t buy it, either. I don’t have the heart, the ruthlessness, to deprive someone of their own horrible lobster.

I have to keep looking.

A French wine merchant apparently thought this was a great way to advertise to Americans, with the terrible baby-clowns and the cruelly-abused draft lobsters. I would like to find out, someday, if it actually worked.

While I haven’t found my very own Patriotic Lobster, I have found lots of other patriotic lobster products. So many that I could probably open up my own highly specialized boutique. Flags. Clothing. Onesies for children. Semi-tasteful wall hangings (which are, obviously, not what I’m searching for). Some even featured crabs or shrimp or crawfish. But the vast majority centered around lobsters, proving that Americans surely must consider lobsters the most patriotic of our native sea-bugs. Lobsters have actually been linked to rah-rah patriotism before, overcoming their initial cultural status as dubious sea-bugs fit only for the tables of the desperate.

During World War II, the U.S. Government found itself with a hefty supply of surplus lobster on its hands, due to the collapse of the export market: the Fisheries Department put out an advertising campaign framing consuming the leggy beasts as an act of patriotism. A 1918 issue of Munsey’s Magazine (which is a danged good name for a publication) noted that it “is a patriot’s duty nowadays to eat lobster,” as a person who consumes less lobster must necessarily eat less pork, beef, and wheat. I also was able to dig up this postcard from early 1900s, which appears to be a French pun about Americans who, you know, ride gigantic lobsters about on the summer shores of Southern France.

But while there is a certain linkage between lobster and heady feelings of country-love, I don’t think this adequately explains the existence of all the patriotic lobster-crap you can buy on the Internet. What message are these object’s makers trying to send here, exactly? Does hanging a flag outside your home with a red and white blue lobster simply symbolize a smidgen of coastal pride, a fondness for lobster rolls? (Which does not explain why one of these Patriotic Lobsters would show up in darkest, landlocked Vermont). Or does it really mean that you love America so much that you’d like to crack its hard exterior exoskeleton and devour the tender flesh within it? Do we wish to extract the essence of America and serve it with some drawn butter on a picnic table in Cape Cod?

God, I don’t know.

All I can say with confidence is that something lurks within the American psyche – within my psyche, I’ll freely confess – that makes us want to make and buy shit with festive red-and-white crustaceans on it. Come with me on a journey through the world of Patriotic Shellfish.

It was the summer of 1999, and innovation was in the air. A Cuffy’s of Cape Cod employee had a brilliant, scandalous idea. You can buy this vintage, “pre-worn” item on eBay.

Your father always did have his lucky lobster-clutching-things collection of belts, for all evening occasions and relevant superstitions. A lobster clutching a Christmas ornament. A lobster clutching a shamrock. A lobster clutching a skull (for Halloween). And then there was this, for the Fourth of July. You hated that belt. Also, I am unsettled by the fact that this product is labeled as “‘patriotic pinchers.”

OK, but what does wearing a tank top with a patriotic lobster on it say about one’s heterosexual masculinity? Is it a straight-up expression of country-love, or sort of a leering joke? Who goes out and specifically orders this sort of thing? Have I just not spent enough time in Maine to understand? I would like to hear your theories.

This is another exceedingly masculine patriotic lobster t-shirt, except it’s a spiny lobster and not the more mundane, less dangerous-to-wrangle American Lobster, which are of course exclusively fished and consumed by delicate pansy wimp-boys. I’ve probably just entirely made up a whole macho rivalry around people who fish for different sorts of lobsters – but what if I haven’t? What if it’s real?

My Patriotic Lobster has taught me this: Americans are absolutely ecstatic over the possibility of dressing their offspring in patriotic crustaceans. I find it a bit tragic, in a way. Why is it assumed that anyone over the age of 10 must surely have too much dignity to adorn themselves in a bunch of nationalistic sea-bugs? Perhaps I too would enjoy a summer swimming set with color-coordinated lobsters. You don’t know me.

If you’d like your little boy to adopt an air of masculine, casual coolness to the world – set him on that path towards success – then you must dress him in inspiring Patriotic Lobsters. I guess this is a thing, for some people.

A number of different outfits sell this patriotic lobster garden flag, which leads me to believe that an actual human being – maybe multiple human beings – has bought one before. I will probably do the same. It calls to me.

This is the best thing I found, of course. It’s an actual, living crawfish that was born patriotic, rendered that way by the semi-benevolent hand of human selective breeding. While I can’t exactly stick it on my wall (that would be mean to the crayfish), I could absolutely buy one of these beauties, put it in a tank, and make all my friends admire it whenever they come over. But I would also have to keep it alive, which is a bigger responsibility than just owning some terrible art. My search will probably continue, but I’m glad to know this guy is at least an option.

Japan Blog Post: Narisawa

I found out about Narisawa a while ago on one of those Best Restaurants in The World For Terrible Snobs websites. I’d been looking for high-end restaurants in Tokyo for our upcoming family trip, and was struck by a picture that appeared to show people eating a mossy chunk of bracken in the forest. It was actually a picture of one of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s better known creations, named “The Essence of the Forest,” featuring scattered local ingredients meant to resemble the forest floor, as well as a bamboo cup of purified, oak-infused water from a forest spring. Narisawa explicitly wanted to make his high-end diners scrabble for little tidbits through leaves on the forest floor, like a foraging badger.

I read more about him, and was charmed by his down-to-earth reliance on local ingredients, and self-confident (but well-considered) weirdness. He calls his food “Innovative Satoyama”: the word “Satoyama” in Japanese refers to the liminal zone between mountainous foothils and the flat land where most people live. Narisawa interprets this term as a reflection of human coexistence with, and proximity to, nature and natural ingredients. The food the restaurant serves is meant to be a visual expression of these values, something he describes as “Satoyama Scenery.” I wanted to see what it was that he was talking about, and also, I just wanted to eat that fucking forest bracken. Luckily my family did, too.

Narisawa has two Michelin stars and has been getting a lot of press recently thanks to Chef Narisawa’s recent appearance on that “Final Table” show on Netflix. Reservations can be a challenge, both due to its popularity and the fact that there’s only one dinner service a night. They do mercifully open their reservations up to a month in advance, freeing you from having to make concrete dinner reservations a year out. The restaurant is located in central Tokyo, in a pretty modernist building, with an entrance that faces away from the street and towards a small garden. The dining room is fairly austere (as is often the case in fine Japanese restaurants), because the focus is meant to be on the food, as well as on the open picture window that shows the chefs darting around the kitchen during the dinner service

The lighting was excellent, which I appreciate. So many of today’s nice restaurants have dank and forbidding lighting. If I’m going to do an many-course tasting menu at a place like this, I really like it when I can actually see the food. The lighting also made it very easy to take nice-looking photographs of the food, which may even be intentional – without asking, the servers would cheerfully tilt dishes towards my iPhone camera so I could catch a better angle. How vindicating! Chef Narisawa was there in the kitchen, overseeing the dinner service (we watched through the window), and he in fact came out to say hello to us and to ask us if we were enjoying the food midway through our meal.

We arrived for the earliest seating, and behind us were a group of Americans who we were pretty sure were from a band, except none of us were cool enough to know who they were. We’d picked the middle option for the tasting menu, which came out to a dozen courses focused on different Japanese ingredients and regions of the country. The menu is variable and extremely seasonal: we were eating the “Winter Collection,” which differs markedly from what you might be served during other times during the year. . One of us selected the wine pairing, and one of us selected the sake pairing as well: the wine pairing featured exclusively Japanese wines (which were pretty good, but the sakes, unsurprisingly, are better). The sake selection is truly remarkable, and I enjoyed trying varieties I’d never heard of before.

Here’s the “Satoyama Scenery and Essence of the Forest.” The forest bracken on a plate! I loved this. They encourage you to eat this with your hands, much to the horror of some of the usual jerkholes on TripAdvisor. I didn’t actually lick the plate, but I probably could have, if I really had no sense of shame.

This was followed by Japanese Yam from Saga and Botargo from Fukuoka. This was served hot in a sheet of paper, and we ate them fast, which is why I don’t have a photograph. Our waiter told us the dish was meant to evoke the handheld wintery street-food of the chef’s youth. It was a surprisingly delicious, comforting bite, with the fishy quality of the roe matching nicely with the dense, carby yam.

These are skewers of soft-shelled turtle from Shizuoka, brushed with a light teriyaki sauce and with just a bit of buzz from the Japanese equivalent of Sichuan peppercorns. “You are fine with eating turtle?” the waiter asked us at the beginning of the meal, just in case we were turtlephobes. (We were not. We hail from New Orleans, where we take angry, hissing bog turtles and turn them into refined soups).

This was a turnip from Shizuoka was filled with crab from Hokkaido. This was the best turnip I’ve ever had. It made me want to eat more turnips, except I know very well that any turnip I cook will not be filled with butter and Hokkaido crab. All my future turnips shall pale in comparison with this perfect, Ur-Turnip. My turnip life has peaked.

Spanish mackerel from Yamaguchi was served with mixed grains from Gifu. Like the finest high-end breakfast cereal you’ll ever taste. Some unnoticeable detail with the sauce was wrong on my plate, so the waiter apologized profusely and brought me a new one (I hadn’t noticed anything was wrong, so I didn’t ask). Impressive!

This is rosy seabass from Ishikawa served with kombu (seaweed) from Rebun Island off Hokkaido.

Free range chicken from Shizuoka with wild mushrooms from Hokkaido. It is a known thing that a very good restaurant that dares to have chicken on the menu will make exceptionally good chicken. By their chicken, ye shall judge them.

This langoustine hails from Shizuoka and was part of a dish named “Luxury Essence 2007″: the crustacean is served in a truly remarkable broth, which apparently is made from chicken, pork, and ham. It is now among the Two Best Langoustines I’ve Ever Eaten. The first was a langoustine I ate back in 2009 at Extebarri, the famous Basque all-grill restaurant. Eating that was like being punched in the front teeth by a delectably smoky mantis shrimp.

The Narisawa langoustine was totally different from that langoustine, much more subtle and aromatic, but it was equally sublime: eating it was more like being gently caressed by a mantis shrimp. I dismembered my langoustine with extreme throughness. It died for my sins, after all. I also dismembered my mother’s langoustine, as she is not nearly as committed as I am to digging for very tiny pieces of meat inside of multiple layers of hard chitin. I ended up with a fairly large boneyard of langoustine parts on my plate, and a profound sense of happiness with the world, in that particular moment. (How many good langoustines does one life get, I wonder?)

This was eel from Aichi with fresh wasabi from Shizuoka. The eel was delicious, although at this point in the meal we were starting to flag, and it was just a little dry.

This was the piece de resistance, the biggest fanciest thing: the “Sumi 2008” Kobe beef from Hyogo, which is served to you as a gigantic carbonized thing that looks like a space rock from Planet Zarg that might be cursed. It is the most delicious cursed alien space rock you will ever eat. The black charcoal on the exterior of the meat is carbonized leek. I looked up a recipe for the carbonized umami leek dust and I’m pretending I’m going to try to replicate it someday.

The beef was sliced and served to us with a single piece of steamed taro, and a drop of an extraordinarily densely-flavored reduction sauce, with notes of soy and vinegar.

A strawberry from Fukuoka was served with deliciously light magnolia sorbet from Gifu. Intensely essence-of-strawberry flavored here – I loved it. Japan does strawberries much better than anywhere else.

Finally, we were served whiskey ice cream in a whole pear (like the turnip!), with walnuts from Yamagata. The waiter politely told us that we shouldn’t eat the walnuts. I bet they’ve had some fucking guy at Narisawa before who shrugged and tried to eat the walnuts. Tragedy ensured. Christ, don’t eat the walnuts. Please. One of my walnuts rolled on the table, because I am very clumsy and bad at eating, and I had another thought. About the walnuts. Has someone, some déclassé couple perhaps, got into an actual hissing and spitting fight here, right at the point that the walnut course is served? Has anyone yeeted a whole entire walnut at their spouse’s face at Narisawa before? I hope they haven’t, as the restaurant is so nice and the staff are so nice, but you have to wonder, when a place serves people who’ve gone through six or seven wine pairings little hard projectiles on a plate.

Finally, we ended with some subtle tea cookies made with yame matcha from Fukuoka and Azuki beans from Kyoto.
Our meal at Narisawa was incredible, and it was interesting as well. Interesting is the highest compliment i can give a restaurant: I mean that it is a place that works with local ingredients that I have never tried before and does things with them I have never experienced before. It is a perfect way to sample the flavors of Japan at a restaurant that is actively engaging with modern, international food culture.

Tokyo Day 2: 7-11, the Meiji Shrine, and Harajuku

A morning view of Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay.

When I can’t sleep because I’m jet-lagged, I like to go for a walk, particularly in those early-morning hours before the streets fill with people. By 6:00 in the morning in Tokyo, I was wandering around the Shiodome area trying to figure out where the 7-11 was. I had two reasons for this: one, 7-11 stores usually have international ATMs, which are otherwise hard to find in Japan, and I needed to pull some cash. Two, I wanted to buy some novelty potato chips and an energy drink as a precursor to the hotel breakfast. I took the convenient, High-Line-esque above ground walkway from my hotel to the Shiodome Caretta building, a hefty half-moon shaped complex of shops and restaurants that theoretically had two 7-11s inside of it. It ended up taking me about 20 minutes to figure out how to actually get inside the building, but I did.

Wonderful 7-11 mayo potato things.

The 7-11 was everything I had been promised it would be. I’ve been to really good 7-11s before – Bangkok does them particularly well – but Japanese 7-11s are the OG, based in the country that had truly created the unskeezy, gourmet 7-11 concept, taken it from mysterious rotating hot dogs to a beloved phenomenon. (While 7-11 was founded in Dallas and still has headquarters there, the Japanese have owned the chain since 2005).

I looked happily at the pretty rows of triangle-shaped rice balls, tonkatsu sandwiches, and pre-prepared pasta carbonara bowls, fresh noodle salads, and nigiri assortments, and selected a crab-and-mayo filled nori roll. The potato chip aisle was even better, with everything from cheese-and-cod filled variants on the inferior American Combo to caffeinated chewing gum, whole dried crabs, and strawberries coated in mochi: I settled on freeze-dried potato wedges with mayonnaise. I should probably note here that I absolutely love mayonnaise:I am one of those Mayo People who goes through a thing of Kewpie mayonnaise approximately once a month. If you’re one of those poor, weird souls who can’t stand the stuff, you may want to tread carefully in Japan. Because they put it on or in everything here.

I returned to the hotel to meet up with my partner. The Villa Fontaine hotel breakfast was lovely, although I’d pregamed as mentioned above and didn’t eat much. Japanese breakfast buffets usually feature a nice salad bar, which I appreciate deeply and wish was more of a thing in the US. There was also beef Japanese curry, Japanese omelette (tamago), natto, rice porridge with fresh octopus and other toppings, Western-style bacon and eggs, and a selection of Japanese sweets.

You should get a Pasmo card in Japan.

We met up with my parents, and we collectively decided that we’d make our way towards the famous Meiji Shrine, after which we’d head towards Harajuku. My mother had wisely purchased Pasmo cards for all of us at the airport, which are refillable smart cards that can be used for a wide array of travel services, including buses and trains (and even some shops). After some initial, inevitable confusion over which line we should get on, we were on our way. As Boston-dwellers, my partner and I marveled at how much nicer the Tokyo trains were than our gazillion-year old, mildly urine-scented T. While it is nice that we have some semblance of public transit in the U.S, I’m regularly reminded of how desperately underfunded and out of date it is whenever I travel abroad.

We got off at Harajuku station, but before we went to the Meiji Shrine, we needed to have lunch. I’d picked out a place called Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki, which is located on the third floor of a building on Omotesando Avenue, very close to the train station. We had to remove our shoes in the bamboo-lined entry of the restaurant, after which our server led us through the impressively quiet restaurant to our table, which overlooked the tree-lined street. Matsubara-an focuses on handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles and the snacks that accompany them: they have a selection of set menus from ¥1,500-¥3,810 at lunch time, which come with noodles and a selection of appetizers.

Appetizers at Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki.

Our appetizers included some deliciously vinegary cold noodles, a bit of fried taro, tofu with preserved beans, and a few slices of cold duck.

We also tried the super-light vegetable tempura (some of the best we’d have on our trip) There’s a dizzying array of options on the menu, from soba with shrimp and squid tempura, to soba with fried eel, to hot soba with clams. I considered trying the cold soba, which I’m partial to, but it seemed somehow wrong in the depths of winter.

Three of us ordered the duck soba, which isn’t exactly commonplace on U.S. menus. We didn’t regret it: the super-rich broth matched perfectly with soft leeks (very popular in Japanese winter cuisine), soft and fatty duck breast, and a little bit of shungiku (chrysanthemum greens).

Suitably fortified, we walked roughly five minutes to the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, or 明治神宮, Meiji Jingū. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the departed Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken:  The Meiji Restoration of 1868 that toppled the Togukawa Shogunate and restored Japan’s emperors to power was carried out in this Emperor’s name. The Meiji Period from 1868 to 1912 was a period of incredible change in Japan, as the nation industrialized and opened itself up to Western commerce and to Western technologies and cultural influences. Meiji’s reign also coincided with Japan’s two successful wars against China from 1894 to 1895, and with Russia from 1904 to 1905, announcing the arrival of Japan as a major world power to other wealthy nations. The Meiji shrine is sometimes confused with the much more controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which Emperor Meiji dedicated specifically to Japan’s war dead – including people found to be war criminals by International Military Tribunal for the Far East – and which is still favored by nationalists and conservatives today.

Torii gate standing at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, made of 1,500 year old cypress wood.

Emperor Meiji’s time may have been especially action-packed, but the Shinto shrine dedicated to him is decidedly not, at least if you don’t go there during the peak of sweaty, jostling tourist season in the summer. The shrine sits in the middle of a 170-acre forest park (which is attached to Yoyogi Park), and we found it to be a delightfully quiet departure from the buildings that surround it. When we arrived, the late-afternoon light was absolutely superb, painting everything in wonderful golden and green shades.

We walked through the huge torii gate at the entrance of the park (which is made of 1,500 year old cypress) and meandered up the forest path to the main shrine, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the few trees that still retained blazing-bright fall colors. We watched a few people who appeared to be some flavor of Instagram influencer take many, many supposedly casual shots of themselves posing in front of the huge collection of decorative sake barrels at the shrine. Sake factories from all over Japan contribute barrels here. I was very happy to spot a gigantic yellow and black Jorō spider in its web, which it had built in one of the lamp posts lining the walkways.

Main buildings at the Meiji Shrine.

The main shrine is a reproduction of the 1920 original, which was destroyed by US air raids during World War II: this particular iteration was completed in 1958. The shrine’s 100th anniversary takes place in 2020, so there’s some renovation work going on in the area, which means that the treasure house building is closed.  There’s also an inner garden area, which requires an entrance fee. We didn’t visit this because the light was fading, but I’d like to see it sometime, especially during the spring flower season.

The shrine itself was beautiful, but what we were most struck by was what appeared to be an intense crow civil war happening in the trees above it. Tokyo is absolutely full of jungle crows, which are hefty, 18-23 inch long beasts that are quite happy to make unblinking, fuck-you eye contact with you if you happen to walk by one as it’s tearing apart a badly-secured trash bag. Which I don’t mind, because I love crows. I deeply appreciate their incredible disinterest in taking human bullshit, and I’m fascinated by how eerily similar they are to us when it comes to both their personal habits and their intelligence.

The Japanese jungle crow population has soared in recent years, quite possibly due to a rise in the quantity of delicious, unprotected garbage produced by the Japanese public. Tokyo first began to wage wars on crows back in 2001, when former governor Shintaro Ishihara was viciously attacked by one while he tried to play golf: deeply pissed-off, he told the Washington Post that he intended “to make crow-meat pies Tokyo’s special dish.” Efforts to ward off marauding, bitey crows in the capital city have ranged from the traditional (shooting, trapping) to the, um, creative, like using swarms of bees to scare them off.  The crow extermination campaign that began then obviously hasn’t succeeded. Tokyo’s crows are still the bane of people who must put out their garbage. There are also plenty of people, like me, who enjoy them for their attitudes and their intellect: there’s even a 2012 documentary, “Tokyo Waka,” that delves into the parallel lives of urban crows and people.

Remaining fall foliage at the Meiji shrine. We were all startled by how late fall colors persist in Japan.

It was getting dark by the time we left the main shrine, and the park was closing, as the loudspeakers arrayed throughout the park at regular intervals helpfully reminded us, complete with a very recognizable, gently-cajoling “please leave” chiming sound. So we did, walking towards Harajuku, because we figured we ought to see it. If you’re even vaguely aware of Japanese culture, you’ve probably heard of Harajuku before, a district of Tokyo that has become internationally famous as a bastion of weird fashion and particularly daring street-youth-culture styles.  Harajuku first became “cool” in the 1990s, as colorful Japanese youth fashion became internationally famous, thanks to the efforts of talented fashion photographers and a media world increasingly fascinated by the prospect of an ascendant Japan. Tourists began to go to the area to gawk at groups of kids, while many of the kids in turn became justifiably annoyed at being treated like zoo animals dressed in exqusite gothic-Lolita attire (or whatever, there’s a lot of possibilities when you’re talking about Harajuku fashion through the ages).

In 2018? Well, influential Tokyo street-fashion photographer and magazine publisher Shoichi Aoki feels that the scene isn’t what it used to be, diminished by millenials and Gen-Zers who prefer the muted tones of Uniqlo to wearing fifteen thousand day-glo accessories. Others, of course, beg to differ, noting that many of Japan’s most daring boutiques are still in the area, and fashion-conscious kids these days continue to hangout in the area, including local art and fashion students who presumably have a far better sense of what’s actually cool than anyone who’s old enough to grumble about how everything was better when they were young.

What I am sure about is this: I am hilariously unqualified to ascertain if a certain area is actually cool, and I will make no assessments of the coolness level of Harajuku here, because that would make me look like an idiot.  Our arrival at Harajuku lined up perfectly with the end of school, and the street was heaving with both high school kids dressed in uniforms and rubbernecking, ambling tourists, many of them eating enormous puffs of rainbow cotton candy with fuzzy ears and LCD lights stuck into it.

Attractive people dressed in maid outfits and extremely tight pants handed out leaflets for shows, maid cafes, and fashion sales. I browsed through a few boutiques, but I was starting to get tired already thanks to the effects of jet lag, and my heart wasn’t really in it, even if I do happen to love things like sweatshirts with creepy two-legged brains on them. We stuck our heads into a sock store to escape the crowds, and then we bought a bunch of practical, cute pairs of socks with little Shiba Inus on them. Being an adult is terrible, but, then, you also have warm feet.

The Ghibli-designed clock at the Shiodome, which we didn’t actually see go off, to my endless regret.

We headed back to the Shiodome-Ginza area afterwards on the train, which had become a little bit more busy as rush hour began, but still hadn’t attained the nightmarish, sardine-like heights you often see on American TV shows about how exotic and weird Japan is. (It really isn’t).  Daniel and my dad were going to go out with some of my dad’s former Japanese colleagues, so my mother and I had decided to go get sukiyaki, one of our favorite Japanese dishes, and something that is oddly difficult to get in the United States.

Raw Wagyu beef at Seryna in Ginza.

The hotel concierge had recommended Seryna, one of Ginza’s startlingly large number of high-end sukiyaki and shabu shabby restaurants. It is in fact located in the basement level of the Tiffany building, in case there were any doubts about what you’re getting into. We opted for the sukiyaki set that wasn’t made with ultra-high end Wagyu beef (complete with a birth certificate), just the regular, bog-standard Wagyu beef, which is still the best beef you’ll ever eat ever.

We began with a delicious stuffed crab appetizer and drinks. I ordered yuzu wine, which has a marvelously tangy, light flavor, and is very refreshing served over ice.

Sukiyaki is often presented as a pre-cooked meal in the USA, but in Japan, it’s cooked in front of you in stages. A very nice young woman in a kimono swirled beef fat in a cast-iron pot as the first stage, then began to put in a few slices of beef. This flavors the broth that the rest of the ingredients, including vegetables and tofu, are cooked in. She spoke some English: we mentioned to her that my parents live in Orange County. “Wow, Orange County?” she said. “I was just there. Visiting Disneyland!” (A lot of Japanese people that I spoke to during our vacation had recently visited Disneyland, in what I found to be an amusing cultural exchange. Jesus, is that the most exciting thing about the United States to non-Americans? Don’t answer that).

She passed the beef to our plates with tongs. It really was the most exquisite beef I’ve ever had. It melted in my mouth exactly like all the ad copy for high-end Japanese beef says it should. We also were given bowls of raw egg to dip the beef into, which I did: it’s a nice unctuous compliment.

At this point in the evening, the jet-lag was hitting me hard, but I was determined to finish this meal. Our server added vegetables – chrysanthemum greens and onions – to the cast-iron pot next, which took on an exquisite beefy flavor. This was alternated with beef, then tofu. It was a small portion of beef, but it was really all you needed. I was about to pass out into my rice bowl by the time we ate our last slice of beef, so we headed back to our hotel through the pretty, lit-up streets of Ginza, which had been decorated for the Christmas holiday. Well, I’d managed to stay awake past 10:00, anyway. That’s an achievement.


Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki
鎌倉 松原庵 欅
Location: Harajuku Quest 4F, 1-13-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Seryna Ginza
Location: Ginza Tiffany Building, B1, 2-7-17, Ginza, Chuo-ku,Tokyo