First, the good news

First, listen to this superb and profoundly disturbing segment by On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman about how she and her husband and other guests at a Canadian wedding were detained and mistreated at the U.S. border crossings in spite of their citizenship — American — and because of their religion — Islam.

Welcome back. I told you it well done, didn’t I? I’d be screaming bloody murder at such treatment but Abdurrahman kept her journalistic cool and curiosity, trying to get the facts and understand our rights, asking questions, in spite of never getting answers. People have been saying lately that Verizon picked on the wrong person in me. Well, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not have picked a worse person to detain: a smart, accomplished journalist with an audience.

I would hope that CBP is humiliated by this and will change, but our government isn’t humiliated by spying on the entire damned world and won’t change that, so I’ll give up my hope. Nonetheless, this story is the perfect bookend to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA, showing a government that is out of control — because its citizens can no longer control it. Well done, OtM. Thank you, Sarah.

Now the bad news. Next came a story that did have me shouting at the radio as geographer Jim Thatcher condemned major tech companies with broad brush — without specifics, without evidence or proof, only with innuendo — for the possibility they could be redlining the world and diverting users away from certain areas. “It’s hidden what they’re doing,” he said. If it’s hidden, then how does he know they’re doing it? Not said. Microsoft had a patent that could do things like this but Thatcher acknowledged that “Microsoft may or may not” every use it. They could.

Brooke Gladstone laments Google’s purchase of Waze for $1.3 million because “we are being sold for our data, it’s an old story.” No, I was using Waze at the very moment I heard that because (1) I get data of great value back, helping me avoid not opium dens but traffic jams and (2) I generously want to share my data with others who have generously shared theirs with me. This is an example of a platform that does precisely what news organizations should do: help the public share its information with each other, without gatekeepers.

Next, Thatcher says with emphasis that “theoretically” Google could charge coffee shops for directing us to one over another. Then Thatcher acknowledges that it’s not happening. It could. And he dollops on a cherry of fear about technology and “for-profit” corporations.

Don’t you smell the irony in the oven, OtM? You properly and brilliantly condemn the CBP for detaining Americans because they are Muslims and because Muslims could do terrorism even when they don’t. Then, in the very next segment, you turn around and needlessly condemn technology companies because they could do things some guy imagines even though he admits they don’t.

Those are two sides of the same phenomenon: moral panic, the unsubstantiated suspicion that some apparently alien entity — Muslims or (OMG!) for-profit technology companies — could upset the social order, a fear often fanned by media.

Put down the fan, OtM, and learn the lesson from Abdurrahman’s superb story that your role — you of all media outlets — is to throw cold water on such unwarranted fright-mongering.

Mind you, these two segments were surrounded by two more very good reports: one that gives us a guide for what to ignore in breaking news (so as not to fan flames) and another about how — surprise, surprise, surprise — technology can lead to good ends. I remain a fan and loyal listener of OtM. And that is why I humbly offer you a map to guide you away from a dodgy neighborhood called technopanic.

  • Moral panic? Everybody lives with their own version of FUD, I just don’t see why they feel the need to spread it.

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  • Well now I can go to bed with steam coming out of my ears. I don’t even know where to begin over my outrage after listening to those segments.

  • davemacdo

    I too am I regular listener of OTM. This week, I was shouting at my phone as it played the podcast for many of the reasons you brought up here, and in my head, I could hear Jarvis-rant voice shouting at this guy as well.

    I think an interesting thing that could have been brought into the discussion of Google’s integration with Waze, is that it’s all based on user data. If a lot of people that live in a city tend to avoid a certain area when driving from one side of it to another, then Waze might start to think that’s the best route. Then, when a new person comes to the city, they’ll be similarly routed around the area by Waze, since that’s what all the locals do. The mistake that this conversation makes is that it considers Google as an editorial participant in the conversation about geography, rather than coordinating a conversation that its users are having.

    It’s a little bit like Page Rank, no? Sure, there’s crap that shows up in your search results, but it’s there because people linked to it. In that way, Google and Waze are as much a reflection of their users as they are a tool for them to use.

  • Rdanielson

    Waze acquisition = $1.3 billion.

  • Richard F Jones

    I have been treated humanely by Canadian Border Guards, and I have been verbally abused by US Customs and Border guards in roughly equivalent situations.