Internet of Restaurants in the New York Times: Rah Rah Data Mining

Last May I went to the annual National Restaurant Association meeting with Bruce Schneier, a well known technologist, and listened to Internet of Things pitches. Here’s what we found:

Some of the sales pitches are compelling: Companies offer to harvest customer data so the restaurant can better track its clientele’s needs. They offer to manage every aspect of a restaurant’s labor force. They offer to turn every piece of kitchen equipment into an “Internet of Things” device, a phrase now used casually in marketing, as if we all agree on its definition. Turn your restaurant into a panopticon! Schneier isn’t surprised, as he’s seen this sort of thing before in other industries. “Much of the ‘Internet of Restaurants,'” as we agree to call it, “is extractive and disempowering while pretending to be about giving control to employees and owners,” he says.

There are basically two models:

1) Extract data from your customers and employees and use it to exploit them.
2) Have your data extracted by your IoT provider and they will monetize it either by trying to dominate the market or by selling it to someone else.

Earlier this week, the New York Times wrote a “rah rah data mining!” piece on IoT in restaurants, largely without skepticism.

The early diners are dawdling, so your 7:30 p.m. reservation looks more like 8. While you wait, the last order of the duck you wanted passes by. Tonight, you’ll be eating something else — without a second bottle of wine, because you can’t find your server in the busy dining room. This is not your favorite night out.

The right data could have fixed it, according to the tech wizards who are determined to jolt the restaurant industry out of its current slump. Information culled and crunched from a wide array of sources can identify customers who like to linger, based on data about their dining histories, so the manager can anticipate your wait, buy you a drink and make the delay less painful.

It can track the restaurant’s duck sales by day, week and season, and flag you as a regular who likes duck. It can identify a server whose customers have spent a less-thanaverage amount on alcohol, to see if he needs to sharpen his second-round skills.

So Big Data is staging an intervention.

Every word choice here is fascinating, because it’s staged as “intervention.” Big Data is not a healthcare provider or a friend trying to “intervene.” It’s written from the PoV of the customer here, for the customer’s benefit, not from the PoV of a business trying to extract your money. And it’s written with no sense of the trade-offs of giving away your data – yours either as customer or or as restaurant.

It’s a riveting example of what Schneier calls “surveillance capitalism,” hyped up here in the paper of record.

CRISPR and Down Syndrome

I wrote a piece for The Nation on the Age of CRISPR. I argue we’re going to need new approaches both to regulation and to our discourse around “normal” as we develop these new tools. I use the ongoing failures to change how we talk about Down syndrome as my example:

A few weeks ago, two stories crossed paths. In MIT Technology Review, we learned that, for the first time in the United States, researchers had used the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR to modify a human embryo. Several days later, CBS News released a report that through nearly universal prenatal testing followed by selective abortion, Iceland has virtually eliminated Down syndrome.

The CRISPR story shows that we are on the cusp of an enormous leap of capability when it comes to shaping the genetic potential of our offspring. Meanwhile, I’ve contended that the past decades of testing, genetic consultation, and decision-making about abortion related to prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome have served as a kind of test run for the future of human procreation. Can we make informed choices? Can we understand that probability doesn’t equate to outcome when we’re talking genetic makeup? Can we use science to build a more just, happier humanity?

If what’s happening in Iceland is, indeed, a test run, it’s a test we’re failing. Prospective parents are making decisions based on fear and stigma, helped along by the medical profession. As our tools to make such decisions get even more powerful, we have to shift how we talk about genetic diversity.


Portlight – Disaster Relief for People with Disabilities

Today at Pacific Standard, I have an interview with Paul Timmons, co-founder of Portlight Strategies. They provide inclusive disaster response to make sure that emergency responders respect the civil rights of disabled folks, they repatriate people with their mobility devices, and they coordinate relief.

I’ve been watching on social media as Portlight has been helping to coordinate specific rescues and reached out to Paul to get his take on the issues. Here’s the big takeaway:

What do readers need to know about people with disabilities and disasters?

The most important message is for the emergency responders, the emergency management people: There is no disaster loophole when it comes to ensuring the civil rights of people with disabilities. That message drives everything else that goes on in this space.

Donate to Portlight here

The Scarcity Model of Disability Services

In Florida, parents are forced to call their disabled children “limited” or they risk losing effective healthcare in order to fund GOP donors. It’s a nasty story, but it’s part of a big parent where parents, teachers, and therapists are forced to emphasize deficits in order to preserve access to needed supports. I wrote:

I can only imagine what a person-centered or other positive approach might have been like for us in those earlier years. We should never have had to justify services by listening to others denigrate our son. The tears around my dining room table were, in the long scheme of things, a minor setback on our road to understanding him and learning to advocate for him effectively. Still, I remember the sting. It shapes how I enter every meeting since, always on my guard.

The corruption in Florida, meanwhile, is much more serious. The specific alleged conduct is vile and potentially life-threatening. Anyone involved should be fired, sued, voted out of office, or prosecuted to the extent the law allows. That none of these things will likely happen points both to the routine acceptance of harms done to disabled children and to the specific collapse of decency in Florida’s state government. Still, it’s a system that forces us to emphasize faults that makes such corruption possible.

All humans have needs. A scarcity model based on support only for those with “special” needs is not the only way to organize society. Demanding proof of deficits demeans people with disabilities and opens the door to corruption and abuse.


AL School Official: Segregate Disabled Students to Help Test Scores

From Alabama:

Is it against the law for us to establish perhaps an academy on special education or something on that order,” asked Bell, “so that our scores that already are not that good would not be further cut down by special-ed’s test scores involved?”

When Bell’s colleagues mentioned LRE, she didn’t seem to understand. “It doesn’t matter about that. You can make it the least restrictive environment,” she said, “I’m trying to see if you can move them out.”

The whole testing world drives ableism. Also ableism drives the testing world and its focus on assessing IQ. School officials have long been using various tricks to drive out disabled students from their testing pool. Charter schools are often based on the premise that they can keep out the “difficult” students and crow about testing scores.

So yeah, this woman’s remarks are a problem and she should resign. But she’s a symptom of a much bigger disaster behind the scenes.

Savannah Leckie

Savannah Leckie, an autistic teenager, seems to have been murdered by her mother. The autistic community, led by ASAN, has long sought victim-centered narratives when such murders happen. This, from Ozark County Times, tells us about Savannah.

Over the next few weeks, we will see increasing discussion of the killer’s mental health. We won’t see local reporters calling ASAN (or other good groups) for comment, linking Leckie’s death to the pattern of murders of disabled people by their caregivers, etc.

But at least there’s one story that really mourns the human we’ve lost. It’s something on this bitter morning.

What’s Going On At InBev?

Yesterday, Pacific Standard published a piece of mine on medieval brewing and lack of gender diversity at Google. I mostly talked about medieval history and the Bennett-thesis on patriarchal equilibrium. But as I reached the end of the draft, I started doing a little research into contemporary brewing, tipped off by a friend that there had been a lot of comment about gender and craft beer.

Indeed there has been! Although home brewing codes masculine in our culture, there’s been lots of emphasis lately on supporting female-owned craft breweries. At the same time, though, the huge beverage company InBev has been buying up craft breweries, so I went to look at their management team. Its a vast global enterprise, with divisions all over the world. Not a single woman is in charge anywhere. I wrote:

Back to brewing—the craft beer revolution of the last few decades has provided opportunities for women to enter the industry, despite the modern cultural associations of beer with manliness. The Pink Boots society, an organization dedicated to supporting women in the beer industry, has been growing over the last decade. But patriarchal equilibrium is rearing its head in that industry as well, not because individual men are driving out individual women, but because Big Beer is attacking Craft Beer. Right now, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the beer giant, is purchasing craft breweries. There’s not a single woman on its management team.

It’s important to identify and work against individual acts of discrimination. The gender consequences of InBev offer another way to look at the big picture of gendered (and other forms of) discrimination.


On Brewing and Google

When the anti-diversity memo by (now former) Google employee James Damore went viral, all I could think of was medieval brewing. In the memo, Damore argued that women as a gender just aren’t as mentally fit as men to be good programmers. Appropriately, the rebuttals to Damore have focused on two issues. First, he’s wrong on the science. Second, he ignores the specific history of coding and gender. Both critiques are accurate and important. As a historian, though, I’d like us to broaden the discussion away from technology and the last 50 years, and recognize that the exclusion of women from coding fits perfectly into centuries of labor history. It turns out that whenever an occupation becomes profitable, women get cut out….

As the Google story broke, I emailed Bennett to ask for her reactions. She wasn’t at all surprised: “This coding story is an old story—in employment and so much else, power moves toward power. The shocking thing about coding-and-gender is that it is such a dramatic version of that old story, and that it happened on our watch.” Bennett recalls that, during the late 1980s and ’90s, feminist scholars were talking about the rising gender imbalance in computer programing even as it took place. As she wrote to me, “We know this pattern; we can now discern it early; and we’ve not yet figured out how to stop it.”

New from Pacific Standard.

Media and Trump Voter Narratives

Yesterday, two different but familiar stories emerged from the New York Times. In one, a Trump voter said he was sorry, but didn’t say what he was going to do about it. In another, Trump voters declared that they would stand with him no matter what, and that they were unpersuadable. At least 60% of Trump voters feel this way.

My thoughts in a thread.

1) No more empty Trump voter regrets without specific plans for restorative attempts to repair harms.
2) Celebrate the unpersuadable and stop trying to persuade them. Knowing they cannot be reached is a gift.
3) Hire people who got it right.

Southern Nationalism = White Supremacy (with Bonus Templar Content)

This is well-known (I gather, not my world) cosplayer Alisa Kiss and her boyfriend at Charlottesville Nazi rally, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Note his Templar shield (which is what caught my interest).

A gif of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. A white man
holds the hand of a white woman. He has a Templar shield and is shouting
“You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us.”

Kiss has claimed she wasn’t really at the rally, just tagging along with some “Southern Nationalist friends” for fun. She was 1) lying 2) Southern nationalism is code for people who want to create a white supremacist state and cling to Lost Cause ideology. It is not a neutral word for folks who are fond of the South. If they are your friends, you are pals with white supremacists.

Her career is collapsing. Maybe Jews will replace her after all.