Motherboardhttps://motherboard.vice.com/en_usRSS feed for https://motherboard.vice.comenTue, 20 Nov 2018 18:52:44 +0000<![CDATA[The PlayStation Classic Accurately Captures the Fumbles of Early 3D Games]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/59v3nk/playstation-classic-release-review-all-20-gamesTue, 20 Nov 2018 18:52:44 +0000Unfortunately, there are many bad and wrong opinions circulating about Sony’s Playstation Classic. Set to be released on December 3, it’s a nostalgic mini-console replica of the original PlayStation from 1994 that comes preloaded with 20 games like Final Fantasy VII, Tekken 3, Metal Gear Solid, Twisted Metal, and Jumping Flash!

I played the Playstation Classic over the weekend, and then made the mistake of Googling other people’s opinions about it, my favorite way to ruin my own good time.

“There’s nothing wrong with the PlayStation Classic if you want to drop the cash on another hunk of plastic that’ll gather dust below your television,” Motherboard writer Matthew Gault wrote in September when Sony announced the system. Respectfully, I do want to have this thing gather some dust on my TV stand. It is exactly as-advertised: A novelty system for playing a bunch of old games. It's far from perfect. To be honest, the device itself and many of the games included with it are kind of messed up and broken. But so was the original PlayStation and many of these early 3D games, so in a way it's a faithful recreation.

Reviewer assessments so far have ranged from “incomplete” to “bare-bones.” As someone whose first hands-on experience with the PS Classic was not in PlayStation’s San Mateo headquarters with a Sony representative breathing down my neck—but rather from my bed, in my pajamas, as Ken Kutaragi damn well intended—my review of the system is: It’s fine.

If it had a feature that simulated my little brother erasing all my Final Fantasy VII save points to spite me, I’d be into that, too.

I’m a big believer in realistic expectations when it comes to tech made to elicit hype, which is what all classic/mini/retro consoles are. It’s the holidays, Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are upon us, and we’ve all got mouths to feed—gaming monoliths like PlayStation included. After the retro mini console successes of the SNES and NES Classic systems, PlayStation went and put all of my favorite original PlayStation games on a glorified USB stick and housed it in some cute mini-console packaging. That’s chill with me.

With this very low bar set, here are a few thoughts on the components of the PlayStation Classic.

The Hardware

The most fun parts about this system, for me, are some of what others seem to find most annoying. The first thing I noticed is the controller wire, and how short it is. I have to sit four feet from the TV, which in itself is nostalgia—I used to rearrange my parents’ living room several times a week trying to get close enough to the TV when playing the PlayStation. When Mad Catz came out with PS2 controller wire extenders and I could sit on the couch? That was true luxury.

playstation classic
Image via Sony

The second things I notice is the lack of thumb joysticks, but only out of habit from my PS4 controllers. PlayStation didn’t introduce analog joysticks on its controllers until the Dual Analog controllers in 1997, so there were only three years before gamers could leave stick-less controllers behind. (Just for fun: anyone remember this monstrosity, the PlayStation Analog Joystick? I’d buy it.)

Holy shit is everything harder to play without joysticks. I’m constantly groping for them when trying to adjust viewing angles or move around. This isn’t a complaint, it’s fun. I spent the first 10 minutes of Resident Evil spinning in a circle because the perspective is fucked up and forward means backward. You’re buying the thing to reminisce—so reminisce on how hard we had it back in the day.

Other reviewers have complained that having to press the physical reset button on the PS Classic console to return to the main menu and switch games, instead of using a controller button, is a pain in the ass. I agree, but again, this is arguably part of the experience.. Besides, I’m already sitting tits-close to the thing; I want to hit the button. I hit the button just for the hell of it. I wore my first PS One out hot-swapping music CDs into the console during paused games to make my own custom soundtrack for Cool Boarders and Jet Moto. It was great!

Annoying, friction-adding aspects of the system like the wired controllers and these pointless console buttons add to the nostalgia, for me. If it had a feature that simulated my little brother erasing all my Final Fantasy VII save points to spite me, I’d be into that, too.

The Aesthetics

It’s definitely strange to see old favorites on my HD television—the early 2000s 3D aesthetic looks like ass on my 2018 TV screen. But this, also, is fine.

I don’t want these games to look better than they did. We relearn this lesson every time a franchise tries to do a reboot. When PlayStation released its reboot of the Crash Bandicoot series for PS4 with the N. Sane Trilogy last year, it tried to replicate the 20-year-old original while remodeling it for current-day players, including rendering every hair on Crash’s already-freakish orange body. I really didn’t need to pick out each fiber in his jeans.

Read more: You Already Own a Machine That Can Play Classic PlayStation Games

In these PlayStation remakes, like the new Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro, it’s jarring to see characters and worlds that once only rendered as a loose facsimile—blocks and cubes for feet, watercolor backdrops for scenery, paper dolls twitching and copy/pasted to make crowds—suddenly displayed with photorealism. It’s like reading a good book and being disgusted by the movie. It will never live up to what you made of it in your own mind. Original 3D games let me fill in the blanks with my imagination. When it comes to retro games, I don’t want to be shown the real world; give me the cave wall.

PS Classic Game Review Speedrun

Presented in the order in which I randomly picked them from the carousel menu, here are 20 one-sentence reviews of each of the games on the Playstation Classic.

Jumping Flash!
An acid trip involving an astronaut rabbit attempting to save the world (not clear which world).

Cool Boarders
A snowboarding game where a guy whose rattail you can hear in his voice abuses you for ping-ponging off cliffs.

Grand Theft Auto
I was never allowed to play GTA as a kid because it was too violent; the first thing I did in the game today was walk straight to the train tracks and fry myself on the third rail.

Twisted Metal
The sound of the “Sweet Tooth” clown truck cackle has haunted me for almost 20 years.

Resident Evil
They got some really fucked up raccoons in Raccoon City.

Revelations: Persona
A bunch of kids fuck around and get haunted. Having never played a Persona game before, I’m into this Twilight Zone meet Twin Peaks in an anime RPG aesthetic.

Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six
Absolutely wild that they let Tom Clancy turn a book into a video game. Can’t get over it.

Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
Some people call this game a "classic," and one of the best puzzle games ever made. However, a Street Fighter game with no fighting? I call that "dumb."

Syphon Filter
The beloved debut in the stealth-action series that had to go to the PSP to finally die forever.

Wild Arms
What if Final Fantasy was a Wild West RPG? Alternatively, What if Red Dead Redemption 2 was anime?

Battle Arena Toshinden
It would be easy to write this game off as proto- Tekken, but according to this 1996 IGN article, it invented the side-step maneuver, taking the fighting genre into “true 3D.” That’s cool I guess but I’d still rather play Tekken thanks.

Rayman
This is the greatest thing Ubisoft has ever done. It’s been downhill since 1995.

Mr. Driller
I’m an anime miner baby in a onesie who demands to be called “mister.”

Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee
This is a game about organizing one’s place of employment against the ruling class.

Tekken 3
Was King a furry?

Metal Gear Solid
How could I say anything but nice things about the franchise that would eventually bring me this early YouTube artefact.

Intelligent Qube
I only ever got to play the version of this game that came on a PlayStation demo disk, but the full version is just as much an existential horror as I remember. You’re a tiny man in a suit running from huge endless cubes!

R4 Ridge Racer
This is a good game but the intro is terribly, improbably horny. Hornier than it has any right to be.

Destruction Derby
Dunno why they put this, R4 Ridge Racer, and Twisted Metal on here, but okay. Could have saved one of these racing game slots for Gex but OKAY.

Final Fantasy VII
I have never felt anything more deeply than my eight-year-old self felt Aerith’s death. That said, Team Tifa forever.

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59v3nkSamantha ColeEmanuel MaibergNostalgiaPlaystationRetro Gamingplaystation classic
<![CDATA[Canada Has 'No Plan' to Bring Broadband to Rural and Remote Communities, Watchdog Says]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/nepz8x/canada-has-no-plan-to-bring-broadband-to-rural-and-remote-communities-watchdog-saysTue, 20 Nov 2018 18:22:24 +0000 Canada has “no plan” to wire up remote communities that lack high-speed broadband connections, Canada’s auditor general said in a scathing report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.

The report comes just two years after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, an Indigenous community at the border of Manitoba and Ontario, and vowed that his government would work to end the digital divide that leaves rural and remote communities without high-speed internet.

“This report says what we already knew, which is that there is no strategy to bring the rest of Canada online,” Laura Tribe, executive director of advocacy group Openmedia, said in a phone call. “What we keep hearing from the government is increasing numbers—80 percent, 90 percent—but until we’re at 100 percent, the problem isn’t solved.”

Canadian politicians have for years promised to close the connectivity gap in a nation that is geographically larger than the entire US but has the population of California. This has so far resulted in a series of moving targets, lofty proclamations, piecemeal programs, and ultimately big letdowns. Some underserved Indigenous communities have moved to build their own internet infrastructure, and in northern regions of Canada infrastructure is so frail that a single satellite outage can result in a total connectivity blackout.

Read More: In Canada’s North, a Single Satellite Outage Means Losing Basic Services

The auditor general’s report notes that earlier this year Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) endorsed a high-speed connectivity target for 90 percent of the population—a plan that left out millions of Canadians who live in rural and remote areas. “For them, the government had no plan” to deliver adequate internet speeds, the report states.

In response to an April 2018 House of Commons report that recommended the federal government come up with a national connectivity strategy, ISED balked. “Instead of agreeing to implement a national broadband strategy, the government said that its current approach was comprehensive,” the report states.

“I hope that this gives [the government] some push and incentive to actually do something about this rather than just talk about it,” Tribe said. “The fundamental finding in this report is that talk is cheap.”

Some programs that the government has actually implemented are not being properly administered either, the auditor general said. The report states that a $500 million program to wire up 300 remote communities—slated to continue until 2021—has so far failed to maximize the use of public money.

Additionally, broadband spectrum auctions have favored large industry players by auctioning off large geographic areas, and licenses are set up so that the winners can easily fulfill connectivity targets by focusing on urban centers rather than rural communities.

Read More: The Arctic's Internet Is So Expensive That People Mail the Web on USB Drives

Incumbents are also not incentivized to share their licenses with smaller players, the report states, noting that out of more than 1,000 licenses held by the top three telecommunications companies in Canada, only 108 sub-licenses have been issued to smaller providers.

There is some indication that the auditor general has already succeeded in nudging the federal government to action. Last month ISED announced that it intends to work with its provincial and territorial counterparts to come up with a national broadband strategy to ensure universal access, although details remain scarce on what that might look like. In response to the auditor general’s report, ISED said that it will develop a national strategy and noted that work is already underway.

It’s a heartening step in the right direction, but it’s unlikely that underserved Canadians in rural and remote areas—long fed up with the state of their networks—will be holding their breath.

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nepz8xJordan PearsonNatasha GrzincicNewsCanadadigital dividerural broadbandcanada digital dividefirst nations internetcanadian internet
<![CDATA[The Dirtiest Place in an Airport Is Not in the Bathroom]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/yw7pay/the-dirtiest-place-in-an-airport-is-not-in-the-bathroomTue, 20 Nov 2018 18:08:49 +0000 There’s nothing worse than waking up the day after flying and realizing you caught a cold. Something about the public spaces, lack of real bathrooms, and recirculated air seems to make airports and planes a petri dish of germs. But the filthiest place in the airport may not be what you expect.

A recent study showed that the surface with the highest concentration of viruses at an airport is actually those little bins you put your coat and shoes in at security. Researchers collected air and surface samples at Helsinki-Vantaa, the main airport in Finland, weekly during the peak flu season in 2015 and 2016. Each of the samples was tested in real time for flu virus, as well as four other common cold-causing viruses including rhinovirus and adenovirus. The security bins tested positive 50 percent of the time for four different viruses, the highest of any surface and much worse than compared to, for example, the toilet seats, which didn’t test positive for viruses once over 14 tests.

This particular study was published at the end of the summer, but a researcher at the University of Washington used it to prepare some travel tips this week ahead of the peak travel season in the US, when a record 30.6 million passengers are expected to travel on US airlines.

“The germiest parts of the airport are the same as the germiest parts of the rest of the world—anything people touch,” said Paul Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center in Seattle, in a video . “Everything you touch has been touched by somebody before. That’s OK. Most of the germs that are there are harmless, and some might even be helpful. But once in awhile they can make you sick.”

Pottinger said the most effective way to avoid getting sick when you inevitably come in contact with these surfaces is to wash your hands regularly while traveling, with warm water and soap. Getting a flu shot is also a good idea, but you already did that...right?

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yw7payKaleigh RogersJason KoeblertravelHealthThanksgivingairplanesgermsairportsviruses
<![CDATA[No One Will Admit to Forcing Paradise Evacuees to Leave Walmart Parking Lot]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a3me5p/no-one-will-admit-to-forcing-paradise-evacuees-to-leave-walmart-parking-lotTue, 20 Nov 2018 18:04:23 +0000 Since the outbreak of the Camp Fire in Northern California on November 8—which has killed at least 79 people so far and left 699 people unaccounted for—the Walmart parking lot in Chico, California has functioned as a refugee camp for the hundreds of people displaced by the fire. Local religious organizations and restaurants, as well as national aid organizations such as the Red Cross, Mutual Aid, and Salvation Army, came to the camp to distribute food, water, and clothes.

Then, on Friday of last week, word spread around the camp that that evacuees would have to leave it by Sunday. Hundreds of people have been displaced from the parking lot, but so far, no one is willing to say who gave the initial order asking people to leave the parking lot.

Camellia Boutros, who has been handing out supplies to the evacuees in the parking lot with the non-profit group Mutual Aid, told Motherboard in a phone call that even volunteers don’t know where the order came from.

“I saw that sign saying that it [the parking lot] needs to be evacuated,” Boutros said. “That word has being going around. I have no idea where it came from. None of the volunteers know who is enforcing that or who put that word out.”

Local media outlets reported that Walmart set a deadline for Sunday at 1 p.m. for people to evacuate the parking lot. A spokesperson for the Del Oro Division of the American Red Cross also told Motherboard in a phone call that Walmart was asking people to leave.

“There have been a handful of stores like Walmart where people have been camping, and those businesses have asked people to vacate the property,” the spokesperson said. “So we’ve gone over there and told those people, ‘If you wanna come to our shelters, most of those have plenty of room.’”

However, Walmart denies that it has asked evacuees to vacate the parking lot.

“We didn't set a deadline,” Tiffany Wilson, a director of communications for Walmart locations in southern California, told Motherboard in a phone call. “There were some rumors going around that we had set a deadline today to get evacuees off the property. And we did not set a deadline.”

“I don’t know what that internal conversation looked like or who started it, who made the decision, ‘Okay we’re going to get people to a safe place now,’” Wilson said. “I’m not sure.”

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office and the Chico Police, which have played leading roles in directing relief efforts for the region, did not have a representative available to speak with Motherboard over the course of several phone calls between Sunday and Tuesday. Chico City Manager Mark Orme told the Chico Enterprise-Record that the city of Chico had no role in ordering the evacuation of refugees from the parking lot.

Since Sunday, Butte County Regional Transit has been providing round-trip bus transportation from the Walmart parking lot to four shelters in the Chico area. According to Boutros, there were about a thousand people camping in the parking lot as of Sunday evening. As of Monday, according to the Chico Enterprise-Record, there were still about 100 tents in the parking lot.

It’s not that there’s no reason for moving people to shelters. There’s heavy rain expected later this week, and the National Weather Service even issued a flash flood warning effective from Wednesday until Thursday. The shelters in the Chico region also have running water, beds, medical and psychological resources, and other services to help displaced people in the area that haven’t been available in the Walmart parking lot. The parking lot was a temporary situation, at best.

But there’s also valid reasons for people to be hesitant to move to the shelters. For one, the shelters have also been dealing with a norovirus outbreak for the past several days. And some residents have dogs which will not be accepted to local shelters.

People taking refuge in the Walmart parking lot have also formed a community that evacuees say has helped them deal with the emotional burden associated with losing a home and loved ones. Boutros said that there aren’t any counseling services available at the parking lot. However, there are often such services available at local shelters. Still, Boutros told Motherboard that it’s common for survivors of the wildfire to have a desire to speak and be heard.

“This guy maybe in his mid-twenties, he came [up to me] and he asked for an emergency blanket, and I gave it to him and I asked him how he was doing, and he gradually started telling me that he and his family were okay, but he lost all of his poetry that he had been keeping for years and years and years, all burned up,” Boutros said. “And once he started talking about that, I just let him talk for a while, and it was clear that that had been weighing on him.”

The Walmart parking lot also served as the centralized heart of relief efforts for displaced victims of the Camp Fire. People might get better care in local shelters, but many people don’t seem to want to go to them.

“In the immediate sense, I’m really struck by kindness that I’m seeing in the community response and from people who are coming from surrounding cities and states, even,” Boutros told Motherboard. “There’s a part of me that is wondering how long that kind of response will last. And I’m worried that after a few weeks, when this is crisis is still a crisis—because this is going to be a crisis for a long time—I’m wondering how long will that compassion will hold up, and if we’re going to have organized enough to keep the relief going.”

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a3me5pCaroline HaskinsJason Koeblerclimate changechicoCalifornia wildfireCamp Firebutte county
<![CDATA[US Wireless Data Prices Are Among the Most Expensive on Earth]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/j5zpw7/us-wireless-data-prices-are-among-the-most-expensive-on-earthTue, 20 Nov 2018 17:13:24 +0000 A new study has found that US wireless consumers pay some of the highest prices for mobile data in the developed world. According to a new study from Finnish research firm Rewheel, the US mobile data market has the fifth most expensive price per gigabyte smartphone plans among developed nations, and was the most expensive for mobile data overall.

While the report notes that mobile data prices have dropped 11 percent during the last six months in the States, US mobile data pricing remained significantly higher than 41 countries in the European Union and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The group was quick to note that the problem could actually get worse as the country’s third and fourth largest carriers (T-Mobile and Sprint, respectively) push a merger nobody really asked for.

While both Sprint and T-Mobile have claimed the merger will somehow increase jobs, boost competition, and lower rates, consumer groups have charged that historically the opposite happens. Redundant jobs are quickly eliminated, and any incentive to actually compete on price is reduced proportionally as the market drops from four to three primary carriers.

As such, the research firm argued the United States might want to be wary about any potential mega merger “synergy” promises being bandied about by Sprint and T-Mobile executives.

“Judging from the excessive gigabyte prices, US operators are charging today for 4G mobile broadband...merger promises concerning affordable 5G home broadband should be critically reviewed and if verified must be made binding,” the research firm warned.

With the government currently taking a more rubber stamp approach to telecom oversight in the Ajit Pai era, that isn’t likely to happen.

Pai’s recent repeal of net neutrality—if it survives next February’s court battle—is likely to open the door to entirely new, creative surcharges and penalties on what’s already some of the most expensive mobile data plans in the world.

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j5zpw7Karl BodeEmanuel MaibergMobiledataWireless
<![CDATA[The Internet Doesn't Need Civility, It Needs Ethics]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/pa5gxn/the-internet-doesnt-need-civility-it-needs-ethicsTue, 20 Nov 2018 14:10:23 +0000Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Syracuse University and is the author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture and co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online.

Ryan M Milner is an Associate Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston and is author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media and co-author of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online.


A common lamentation online, one that spans the political divide and is forwarded by politicians and editorial boards alike, is that civility in American politics has died. It’s such a pressing concern that 80 percent of respondents to a recent NPR survey fear that uncivil speech will lead to physical violence. If only people would lower their voices, stop posting rude memes, and quit with the name-calling, we could start having meaningful conversations. We could unite around our shared experiences. We could come together as a nation.

In the current media environment, in which Twitter and Instagram are inundated with harassment, journalists are routinely threatened, and YouTube algorithms prop up reactionary extremists, we find it difficult to argue with that sentiment.

As idyllic as it might sound, however, the call to restore civility isn’t as straightforward as it appears. Civility alone isn’t enough to fix what’s broken. It might actually make the underlying problems worse. We need, instead, to consider the full range of behaviors that facilitate harm online. Yes this includes extreme, explicitly damaging cases. But it also includes the kinds of behaviors that many of us do without thinking, in fact, that many of us have already done today. These things might seem small. When we use them to connect with others, build communities, and express support, they might seem downright civil. But the little things we do every day, even when we have no intention of causing harm, quickly accumulate. Not only do these everyday actions normalize an ever-present toxicity online, they pave the way for the worst kinds of abuses to flourish.

The Civility Trap

When used as a political rallying point, appeals to civility are often a trap, particularly when forwarded in response to critical, dissenting speech. Sidestepping the content of a critique in order to police the tone of that critique—a strategy employed with particular vigor during the Kavanaugh hearings, and which frequently factors into hand-wringing over anti-racist activism—serves to falsey equate civility with politeness, and politeness with the democratic ideal. In short: you are being civil when you don’t ruffle my feathers, which is to say, when I don’t have to hear your grievance.

Besides their tendency to be adopted as bad faith, rhetorical sleights-of-hand, calls for civility have another, perhaps more insidious, consequence: deflecting blame. It’s everybody else’s behavior, they’re the ones who need to start acting right. They’re the ones who need to control themselves. In these instances, “We need to restore civility” becomes an exercise in finger pointing. You’re the one who isn’t being civil. Indeed, the above NPR survey explicitly asked respondents to identify who was to blame for the lack of civility in Washington, with four possible choices: President Trump, Republicans in Congress, Democrats in Congress, or the media. Whose fault is it: this is how the civility question tends to be framed.

Ethics do not mean keeping your voice down. Ethics do not mean keeping feathers unruffled. Ethics mean taking full and unqualified responsibility for the things you choose to do and say.

We certainly maintain that the behavior of others can be a problem, or outright dangerous. We certainly maintain that some people need to control themselves, particularly given the increasingly glaring link between violent political rhetoric and violent action. Those who trade in antagonism, in manipulation, in symbolic violence and physical violence, warrant special, unflinching condemnation.

But few of us are truly blameless. In order to mitigate political toxicity and cultivate healthier communities, we must be willing to consider how, when, and to what effect blame whips around and points the finger squarely at our own chests.

We do this not by focusing merely on what’s civil, certainly when civility is used as a euphemism for tone-policing, or when it’s employed to pathologize and silence social justice activists (as if loudly calling out injustice and bigotry is an equivalent sin to that injustice and bigotry). We do this by focusing on what’s ethical. A more robust civility will stem from that shift in emphasis. Civility without solid ethical foundations, in contrast, will be as useful as a bandaid slapped over a broken bone.

As we conceive of them, online ethics foreground the full political, historical, and technological context of online communication; contend with the repercussions of everyday online behaviors; and avoid harming others. Ethics do not mean keeping your voice down. Ethics do not mean keeping feathers unruffled. Ethics mean taking full and unqualified responsibility for the things you choose to do and say.

The Ethics of the Biomass

It’s not just that online ethics help facilitate more reflective, more empathetic, and indeed, more civil online interactions. Online ethics do even heavier lifting than that. Decisions guided by efforts to contextualize information, foreground stakes, preempt harm, and accept consequences also help combat information disorder, a term Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan use to describe the process by which misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation contaminate public discourse. Ethics are a critical, if underutilized, bulwark against the spread of such information. Without strong ethical foundations, everyday communication functions, instead, as an information sort target.

The fact that unethical—or merely ethically unmoored—behaviors contribute to information disorder is a structural weakness that abusers, bigots, and media manipulators have exploited again and again. Phillips underscores this point in a Data & Society report on the ways extremists and manipulators launder toxic messaging through mainstream journalism. The same point holds for everyday social media users. Extremists need signal boosting. They get it when non-extremists serve as links in the amplification chain, whatever a person’s motives might be for amplifying that content.

When considering how ethical reflection can cultivate civility and help stymie information disorder, biomass pyramids provide a helpful, if unexpected, entry point.

In biology, biomass pyramids chart the relative number or weight of one class of organism compared to another organism within the same ecosystem. For a habitat to support one lion, the biomass pyramid shows, it needs a whole lot of insects. When applied to questions of online toxicity, biomass pyramids speak to the fact that there are far more everyday, relatively low-level cases of harmful behavior than there are apex predator cases—the kinds of actions that are explicitly and wilfully harmful, from coordinated hate and harassment campaigns to media manipulation tactics designed to sow chaos and confusion.

When people talk about online toxicity, they tend to focus on these apex predator cases. With good reason: these attacks have profound personal and professional implications for those targeted.

But apex predators aren’t the only creatures worth considering. The bottom strata is just as responsible for the rancor, negativity, and mis-, dis- and mal- information that clog online spaces, causing a great deal of cumulative harm.

Even when a person’s motives are perfectly innocent, low-level behaviors can still be harmful. They can still flatten others into abstract avatars.

This bottom strata includes posting snarky jokes about an unfolding news story, tragedy, or controversy; retweeting hoaxes and other misleading narratives ironically, to condemn them, make fun of the people involved, or otherwise assert superiority over those who take the narratives seriously; making ambivalent inside jokes because your friends will know what you mean (and for white people in particular, that your friends will know you’re not a real racist); @mentioning the butts of jokes, critiques, or collective mocking, thus looping the target of the conversation into the discussion; and easiest of all, jumping into conversations mid-thread without knowing what the issues are. Regarding visual media, impactive everyday behaviors include responding to a thread with a GIF or reaction image featuring random everyday strangers, or posting (and/or remixing) the latest meme to comment on the news of the day.

Here is one example: recently, one of us published something on, let's say, internet stuff. Other people have written lots of things on the same general subject. One day, a stranger @-mentioned us to say that what we published was better than what someone else had published, and proceeded to explain how the other author fell short. The stranger @-mentioned the other author in the tweet. This was, we suppose, meant as a compliment to us. At the same time, it made us party to something we didn't want any part of, since just saying "thank you" would have cosigned, or seemed to cosign, the underlying insult. The other author, of course, fared much worse; the stranger didn't seem to give them the slightest passing thought.

It was a handle on Twitter to link to, not a person with feelings to consider. But of course, that stranger was wrong—no person on Twitter is just a handle to link to. And no person wants to be told in public that they are less than, for any reason. But that was the conversation, suddenly, this other author had been thrust into. One we were thrust into as well, even as the stranger thought they were saying something nice.

This strata of behavior receives far less attention than apex predator cases. Most basically, this is because each of the above behaviors, taken on their own, pales in comparison to extreme abuses. Whether emanating from platforms like YouTube, white supremacist spaces like The Daily Stormer, or even the White House, the damage done by the proverbial lions is clear, present, and often intractable. From a biomass perspective, insects seem tiny in comparison—and therefore not worth much consideration.

Less obviously, the lower strata of the biomass pyramid receives less fanfare because of assumptions about harm online. In cases of explicit abuse, bigotry, and manipulation, harm is almost always tethered to the criterion of intentionality: the idea that someone meant to hurt another person, meant to sow chaos and confusion, meant to ruin someone’s life.

In terms of classification, and of course interventionist triaging, it makes good sense to use the criterion of intentionality. Coordinated campaigns of hate, harassment, and manipulation, particularly those involving multiple participants, don’t just happen accidentally. Abusers and manipulators choose to abuse and manipulate; this is what makes them apex predators.

At the same time, however, reliance on the criterion of intentionality has some unintended consequences.

First, the criterion of intentionality discourages self-reflection in those who aren’t apex predators. If someone doesn’t set out to harm another person, that person is almost guaranteed not to spend much time reflecting on whether their behavior has or could harm others. Harm is something lions do. If you are not a lion, carry on.

But just because you’re not a lion doesn’t mean you can’t leave a nasty bite. Even when a person’s motives are perfectly innocent, low-level behaviors can still be harmful. They can still flatten others into abstract avatars. They can still weaponize what someone else said, or result in the weaponization of something you said. They can still strip a person of their ability to decide if, for example, they want a picture of themselves to be used as part of some stranger’s snarky Twitter commentary, or to be included in a conversation in which they are being publicly mocked.

From an information disorder perspective, these low-level behaviors can also be of great benefit to the lions. Retweeting false or misleading stories, even if the point is to make fun of how stupid they are, making ironic statements that, taken out of context, look like actual examples of actual hate, and generally opening the floodgates for polluted information to flow through, is what allows apex predators to cause as much damage as they do.

These actions also feed into, and are fed by, issues of journalistic amplification. The greater the social media reaction to a story, the more reason journalists have to cover it, or at least tweet about it. And the greater the journalistic response to a story, the more social media reaction it will generate. And then there are the trending topics algorithms, which do not care why people share things, just that they share things, as polluted information cyclones across platforms, accruing strength as it travels.

Because of these overlapping forces, whether or not someone means to sow discord, or spread hate, or propagate false and misleading information, discord can be sown, hate can be spread, and false and misleading information can be propagated by behaviors that otherwise don’t create a blip on the political radar.

Stacking the Deck with Digital Tools

Focusing on intentionality obscures the collective damage everyday people can do when they use social media in socially and technologically-prescribed ways. The affordances of digital media make this problem even worse by further cloaking the stakes of everyday communication.

We describe these affordances in our book The Ambivalent Internet. They include modularity, the ability to manipulate, rearrange, and/or substitute digitized parts of a larger whole without disrupting or destroying that whole; modifiability, the ability to repurpose and reappropriate aspects of an existing project toward some new end; archivability, the ability to replicate and store existing data; and accessibility, the ability to categorize and search for tagged content.

These tools don’t just allow, they outright encourage participants to flatten contexts into highly shareable, highly remixable, texts: specific images, specific GIFs, specific memes.

All creative play online owes its existence to these affordances. They are what make the internet the internet. They also make it enormously easy to sever social media avatar from offline body, and to mistake one tiny sliver of a story for an entire narrative, or to never even think about what the entire narrative might be. As a result, even the most well-intentioned among us can overlook the consequences of our actions, and never even know whose toes we might be stepping on.

In such an environment, the first step towards making more ethical choices is acknowledging how the deck has been stacked against making more ethical choices.

The second is to anticipate and try and preempt unethical outcomes. This means contending with the fact that your own contextualizing information, including your underlying motivations, become moot once tossed to the internet’s winds. You might know what you meant, or why you did what you did, particularly in cases where you’re relying on “I was just joking” excuses. But others can’t know any of that. Not due to oversensitivity, not due to them not being able to take a joke. But because they can’t read your mind, and shouldn’t be expected to try.

Another critical question to ask is what you don’t know about the content you’re sharing. How and where was something sourced? What happened to the people involved? Did they ever give consent? Who was the initial intended audience? Each of these unknowns shapes the implications, and of course the ethics, of further amplifying that content. The devil, in these cases, isn’t in the details, the devil is in the unseen, unknown, unsolicited narratives.

Finally, we must all remember that the issues we discuss online, the stories we share, the media we play with—all can be traced back to bodies. Fully-fleshed out human beings who have friends, feelings, and a family—just like each of us.

This point is particularly important for middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered white people to reflect on (a point we make as middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered white people ourselves). When your body—your skin color, the resources you have access to, your gender identity, your ability—has never been the source of threats, abuse, and dehumanization, it is very easy to downplay the seriousness of threats, abuse, and dehumanization. To approach them abstractly, as just words, on just the internet. The behaviors in question might not seem like a big deal to you, because they’ve never needed to be a big deal for you. Because you’ve always, more or less, been safe. This might help explain why you react the way you do, but it’s not an excuse to keep reacting that way.

So when in doubt, when you do not understand: remember that what might look like an insect to one person can act like a lion to others. Particularly when those insects are everywhere, always, clogging a person’s experience, weighing down their bodies.

Environmental Protections

The biomass pyramid shows that the distinction between big harm and small harm is, in fact, highly permeable. The big harms perpetrated by apex predators are exactly that: big and dangerous. Smaller harms are, by definition, smaller, and on their own, less dangerous. But the harm at that lower strata can still be harmful. It is also cumulative; it adds up to something massive. So massive, in fact, that these smaller harms implicate all of us—not just as potential victims, but as potential perpetrators. Just as it does in nature, this omnipresent lower strata in turn supports all the strata above, including the largest, most dangerous animals at the top of the food chain. Directly and indirectly, insects feed the lions.

Robust online ethics provide the tools for minimizing all this harm. By using ethical tools, we minimize the environmental support apex predators depend on. We also have in our own hands the ability to cultivate civility that is not superficial, that is not a trap, but that has the potential to fundamentally alter what the online environment is like for the everyday people who call it home.

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pa5gxnWhitney PhillipsRyan M MilnerEmanuel MaibergtoxicityTwitterSocial MediaOpinion
<![CDATA[Can AI Sex Toys Really Learn What We Like?]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/yw7px7/can-ai-sex-toys-really-learn-what-we-likeTue, 20 Nov 2018 13:00:00 +0000 Once a new technology becomes sufficiently popular—or even just buzzworthy—someone, somewhere, will try to turn into into sex tech. 3D porn, sexy VR, and internet-enabled vibrators have all had their time in the sun. Now that AI technology has begun to feel more real life than sci-fi fantasy, a number of companies are attempting to incorporate it into their customers’ sex lives, specifically in the form of AI-enabled sex toys.

What an “AI sex toy” is depends on who you ask. Is it a sex toy that will have a conversation with you, like The Smart Lipstick currently seeking funding on Kickstarter? Or is it a product where the intelligence is concentrated on the backend, like a blowjob machine that can learn how to give you the ultimate blowjob?

For many AI experts, much of what’s being sold as AI erotic devices doesn’t truly count as AI. “You don’t need AI to respond to voice commands,” Annalee Newitz, author of the novel Autonomous and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, told me. She explained that many of the “interactive” toys currently on the market aren’t actually making use of machine learning. But even if we haven’t quite gotten to the point of actually intelligent sex toys, the various products that have advertised themselves as being artificially intelligent offer some idea of what consumers might want out of an AI-enhanced sex toy.

What might that look like? Kyle Machulis, the creator of MetaFetish and Buttplug.io, told me that he suspects that “a toy that you start using and without having to press any buttons, and without having to really even think about it, it starts adapting to pleasure you,” is what most people fantasize about when they think of an AI sex toy.

And indeed, one of the of the earliest attempts to use AI to upgrade a sex toy promised just that. HUM, a vibrator prototype that appeared on IndieGoGo in late 2014, teased consumers with a vision of buttonless white vibrator that would adjust its vibration patterns based on your body’s movements. Billing itself as the first artificially intelligent vibrator, it was talked up everywhere from The View to Cosmopolitan.

“Because of the sensors, you don’t even need to press buttons,” HUM’s creators explained on its Indiegogo page. “HUM feels your touch and motion, and creates vibrations that change in harmony with your body. Just turn it on and use it.” Although the product never made it to market—and its website is now defunct—the media hype around its crowdfunding campaign demonstrated a desire for the kind effortless erotic experience that the HUM team promised its programming could deliver.

More recently, other companies have latched onto the idea that advanced programming might be able to enhance our masturbatory experiences. In October, the company behind the Autoblow, a sex toy for flesh-penis owning individuals that works like an automated masturbation sleeve, released a white paper documenting its attempts to use AI to enhance its product, specifically by using machine learning to teach a sex toy how to give a porn-quality blowjob. Sloan hired a team to watch, annotate, and collect 109 hours of blowjobs in porn scenes to train its algorithm to give what, theoretically, feels like a porn-quality blowjob.

Brian Sloan, the inventor of the Autoblow, told me in a Skype call that the company’s recent project as a way to use machine learning to make an automated blowjob more comparable to the real thing — to get away from the idea of sex toy “modes” and move towards one where sex toys offer “experiences” that parallel sex with another person. In the long term, he said,he sees AI and machine learning as potentially having even more benefit for sex toy users. Sloan said he envisions “a product [that learns] how to stimulate you based your response to the product.”

Yet even as these products outline an enticing future where an amazing masturbatory experience is as easy as opening a box and applying a product to your genitals, they also face obstacles that might get in the way of achieving that experience. One challenge they face: Where will the creators of these products source all the data to teach their AI what, exactly, mindblowing sex looks like?

The Autoblow AI team’s decision to train the device on porn film blowjobs makes sense on one level: Ease of data collection. There’s no shortage of pornography out there, and it’s understandable that someone might assume that the thousands (if not millions) of hours of hardcore content that have been committed to film might be able to educate an AI about sex.

But even setting aside the question of how accurately porn reflects the sex people want to experience firsthand, there’s a significant limit to the data pornography is able to provide. Some of the most important parts of sexual stimulation are invisible to a camera or obscured from outside viewers. Watching porn (even hundreds of hours of porn) can’t tell you what a blowjob giver is doing with their tongue or, for that matter, what’s happening inside a vagina to make sex feel so good. Things get even more complicated for an act like cunnilingus, where porn performers are often forced to choose between something that feels good for their partner and something that looks good on camera. (Machulis recently shared an incredibly in-depth explanation of the issues with using porn to teach sex toys about sex.)

The Lioness, a rabbit-style vibrator that’s available on the market now incorporates force sensors, temperature sensors, and accelerometers and gyroscopes to map out a user’s orgasmic response pattern—all data that could, in theory, be used by an AI to reverse-engineer the ideal orgasm. The Lioness approach, with its reliance on biometrics over visual data, might seem like a better way to develop this sort of device, but this, too, comes with a number of problems. "I love that idea that your device might be able to pick up on arousal signals,” Newitz told me. “The problem is that the limited amount of research that there is out there on [arousal signals] shows that women don’t always experience the physical signs of arousal as arousal. They’ll be measurably aroused—there will be engorgement, lubrication—but when the women are asked, ‘Are you aroused?’ they respond, ’No.’”

Indeed, a number of researchers have found that female (and sometimes male) arousal is frequently noncordant, meaning that your brain and body aren’t always in agreement about whether or not you’re turned on. You mind may be eagerly anticipating sex while your body shows no physical arousal at all, or your brain may be totally uninterested in sex while your genitals swell, lubricate, and otherwise appear to be aroused. Some research has even shown that many women will react physically to images of bonobos having sex, without any conscious sense that what they’re looking at is sexy. This poses a significant problem for a smart vibrator: How can we guarantee that what a smart vibrator registers as a user being turned on and into a stimulation pattern truly is that, and not just some noise generated because, say, someone was shown a picture of bonobo sex?

Ultimately, smart sex toys may end up being hampered by the very problem they seek to solve. The history of AI sex toy hype suggests that we want a sex toy that’ll instantly know what we like, without any effort on our end, because we’re either unwilling or incapable of figuring it out for ourselves. But without doing the hard work of figuring out what, exactly, turns us on and gets us off, there’s no real way for us to teach a sex toy how to take us to the highest peaks of pleasure.

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yw7px7Lux AlptraumSamantha Colesex toys
<![CDATA[Former Staffers Say FCC May Be Hiding Data Showing Broadband Industry Problems]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ev3z8n/former-staffers-say-fcc-may-be-hiding-data-showing-broadband-industry-problemsTue, 20 Nov 2018 12:00:00 +0000 The FCC is refusing to release data from an FCC program that tracks whether ISPs actually deliver the broadband speeds they advertise. Once a promising way to name and shame ISPs that fail to deliver quality service, data from the program is now being withheld by an FCC routinely accused of being far-too cozy with the industry it’s supposed to hold accountable.

Back in 2011 the FCC launched something called the Measuring Broadband America program. Under this program, thousands of volunteers were given custom-firmware embedded routers that provided useful insight into whether ISPs were delivering advertised broadband speeds.

Initially, the program worked as intended. The FCC’s very first report showcased several ISPs that were failing to deliver anything close to the speeds they advertised. New York area cable provider Cablevision, for example, was found to deliver just 50 percent of advertised downstream speeds during prime time courtesy of an oversubscribed network.

By the FCC’s second report in 2012, the company had improved dramatically, offering 128 percent of the bandwidth it advertised during peak usage hours. In the absence of more competition, having a regulator name and shame under-performing ISPs appeared to actually help motivate industry improvements.

That was then, this is now.

Since Ajit Pai was appointed boss of the FCC in early 2017, the FCC has yet to release any data from the program. Last year’s report wasn’t released at all, and the FCC has remained mum on whether it will release any of the program’s data this year, either.

Ars Technica has confirmed that SamKnows, the UK company hired to run the project, is still collecting data from thousands of volunteers and their routers, meaning taxpayers are still funding the program and volunteers are still participating. But the FCC has refused to answer any press inquiries as to why they’re no longer making this data public.

Ars notes that FOIA requests filed back in August have yet to be answered, and the FCC has yet to meet numerous deadlines for providing FOIA access to emails discussing the program.

Former FCC lawyer and advisor Gigi Sohn told Motherboard that withholding this data does a significant disservice to both the public and FCC policy, since it provides a useful way to contrast the “broadband industry’s promises with its actual performance.”

“Without this information, consumers who are lucky enough to have a choice of broadband providers won’t be able to make informed decisions about which broadband provider to choose,” Sohn told me via email. “This information is also vital for policy makers seeking to enforce federal and state laws protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices.”

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.

The agency’s refusal to be transparent about the current status of the program is not particularly surprising.

Pai’s FCC is facing numerous lawsuits for its failure to adequately respond to FOIA requests, including several different suits focused on the net neutrality repeal.

While the agency has yet to offer a justification for its failure to release data from this taxpayer-funded program, Sohn posits that it’s being withheld because it fails to support Pai’s claims that his deeply unpopular policies are somehow making American broadband better.

“The only reason I can think of is that the data doesn’t promote the Chairman’s narrative that broadband industry investment and performance allegedly suffered when it was subject to net neutrality rules grounded in Title II of the Communications Act,” she said.

Pai has repeatedly tried to claim that net neutrality rules curtailed US network investment, something disproven by SEC filings, earnings reports, and the public statements of numerous industry CEOs. Remove net neutrality and other consumer protections, Pai has repeatedly claimed, and broadband will dramatically improve.

So far that hasn’t proven to be the case. The United States still personifies mediocrity when it comes to broadband speed, availability, and price, and the biggest ISPs routinely see the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any industry in the country. All courtesy of limited competition.

Failure to release data from the Measuring Broadband America program is just the latest example of an FCC not keen on holding ISPs accountable for these failures. Pai has also voted down efforts to improve terrible U.S. broadband maps, and has routinely been accused of weakening the very definition of “competition” in a bid to obscure industry issues.

Similarly, the repeal of net neutrality also eliminated meaningful transparency rules requiring ISPs to be clear about the specific limitations of broadband connections. Instead, Pai replaced those rules with transparency guidelines that are entirely voluntary, making it harder for consumers to clearly understand the kind of connection they’re buying.

In addition to rolling back numerous consumer protections, Pai’s policies have weakened the FCC’s authority over ISPs, shifting oversight to an FTC that only has the authority to take action act if it’s clear that ISPs are being “unfair and deceptive” under the FTC act, Sohn said.

“To the extent that the FCC has abdicated its broadband oversight role to the FTC, that agency can’t do its job protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices if nobody can figure out whether the broadband providers are telling the truth or not about their speeds,” she argued.

The less accurate data the public has on the broadband industry’s obvious dysfunction, the easier it will be for Pai to justify doing nothing about it.

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ev3z8nKarl BodeEmanuel MaibergInternetBroadbandAjit Pai
<![CDATA[Scientists Want to Monitor Space Debris from Warming Russian Arctic]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/439xbj/scientists-want-to-monitor-space-debris-from-warming-russian-arcticMon, 19 Nov 2018 20:32:32 +0000 The most sophisticated telescopes on Earth are often constructed in extreme landscapes, such as Hawaiian volcano summits or remote Chilean deserts, chosen for their clear view of the stars.

Now, scientists are looking to the Russian Arctic as a potential location for new astronomical observatories. In a bittersweet twist, this region may become more accessible to scientific and commercial development as climate change warms and melts the Eurasian North, opening up new shipping lanes that have been too icy to easily traverse before. Plus, the region’s long, dark nights and high-latitude coordinates would offer a rare Arctic view of the night sky, and could be a good place to monitor space debris in polar orbits.

To lay the groundwork for potential Arctic observatories, Alexander Rodin, head of the Applied Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), is leading an expedition to build and test experimental telescopes in Nenets Autonomous Region over the coming weeks.

It’s not clear what impact climate change will have on viewing conditions in the region, Rodin told Motherboard in an email. “However, climate change and increasing accessibility increase general interest to the region by major world players,” he said. Rodin hopes to establish Arctic space observation infrastructure in the near future to prepare for the expected rush to develop Russia’s polar regions.

1542659284117-Map_of_Russia_-_Nenets_Autonomous_Okrugsvg
Nenets Autonomous Okrug (in red). Image: Stasyan117

The coastal town of Amderma, located about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow as the crow flies, was selected for this pilot project. Rodin and his colleagues plan to set up temporary instruments there by late November and aim to be taking measurements in December. By 2020, the team hopes to have set up a more permanent operational network of observatories.

“We plan a wide range of experiments, including astro-climate studies, space object observations, and even greenhouse gas monitoring in the region of interest,” Rodin said. “As the Russian Arctic has not been seriously considered as a potential area of astronomical observations, comprehensive preliminary studies need to be done.”

One of the biggest priorities for the expedition is to assess the region’s usefulness for monitoring space debris, which threatens operational spacecraft; the tiny grains erode spacecraft exteriors while larger chunks could cause catastrophic collisions. Decades of spaceflight missions have left an estimated 170 million pieces of space junk in orbit around Earth, including about 30,000 objects that measure more than 10 centimeters (four inches) in diameter.

Scientists around the world are collaborating on the growing space debris problem, but much of the focus has been on busy geostationary orbits above Earth’s equatorial regions, where most of the junk is concentrated. Less attention has been paid to the debris building up in polar orbits, and Rodin believes these trajectories need to be more actively monitored.

“Of course, at the moment, geostationary orbit remains the most populated location in the near-Earth space, but this situation may change in the future,” he told me, citing forthcoming satellite constellation missions, like Russia’s Sfera project.

“We need to be prepared to introduce an international ‘road traffic law’ for Earth-orbiting satellites, including those on the high-inclination orbits, and to control their observation by all participants.”

Read More: Climate Change Has Delayed the First Oil Production Facility in Federal Arctic Waters

More broadly, the expedition aims to yield insights into the development of future astronomical observatories in the Russian Arctic. Rodin recently attended an international conference in Naryan-Mar, Nenets, centered on anticipating the effects of climate change on the region’s industry, science, and culture.

“There is a common opinion that average temperature will rise in the nearest decades, and the area of perennial ice in the Arctic will dramatically shrink,” Rodin said. “However, nobody knows for sure how cloud coverage, haze, atmospheric turbulence, and other parameters important for astronomical observations will change. Thus we need more comprehensive climate research in this key area of our planet.”

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439xbjBecky FerreiraJordan PearsonNatasha GrzincicSpacetelescopesrussiaclimate changeARCTICmeltingSpace Junkspace debrispolarobservatoriesArctic warming
<![CDATA[Cat Tongues Inspire Hairbrush That Could Help Beat Allergies]]>https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/59v3j5/cat-tongues-inspire-hairbrush-that-could-help-beat-allergiesMon, 19 Nov 2018 19:56:01 +0000 Content warning: This article includes an image of a severed cat tongue.

Humans may spend a third of their lives asleep, but cats can spend as much as half their time awake just licking themselves. Until recently, we didn’t know much about the mechanisms of this behavior or how tongue grooming helps kitties keep clean, cool their fur, and eradicate pests like fleas.

To learn more, Alexis Noel and David Hu, two scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, got intimate with cat tongues in new research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. Their analysis was used to develop a new easy-to-clean hairbrush that may help pet owners with allergies, and could lead to advancements in cleaning tech and soft robotics.

Up close, a cat tongue almost resembles a forest of backward-facing hedgehog spines. These spikes are called papillae, which are made of keratin, the same class of hardened proteins that make human fingernails, horse hooves, and tortoise shells.

The researchers took a papilla from the severed tongues of six cat species—a domestic cat, a bobcat, a cougar, a lion, a snow leopard, and a tiger—cleaned them, and scanned them to create 3D models. All the severed tongues in this experiment were donated after death, so thankfully no cats had to die for this research.

What they discovered challenged almost three decades of cat tongue dogma that has described papillae as cone-shaped. They are actually scoop-shaped, the researchers found, with two hollow cavities: one at the base and one at the tip. These cavities create surface tension, allowing cats to wick and stabilize salival fluid, even if the tongue is upside down.

To test this theory, the researchers dried a severed cat tongue with a blow dryer and paper towels before weighing it. Then they dipped the tongue in water and measured the amount of fluid retained in the papillae.

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Image: Alexis Noel and David Hu/PNAS

They also built a motorized “automated grooming machine,” attaching the tongue to a horizontal rack and dragging it at varying speeds across a chunk of fur from the same dead cat. The experiment was repeated with blue food dye to determine the distribution of saliva.

It turns out that the length of papillae plays a central role in feline hygiene. Cat fur has two layers: a topcoat for protecting against the elements, and an undercoat for regulating temperature. Papillae gets saliva to the base of the fur — without it, cats would only be able to clean the top layer.

“The caracal, cheetah, and leopard are the most ‘groomable’ cats due to their short, sparse fur,” the researchers wrote. However, two Persian breeds were deemed “ungroomable” thanks to hair so long that the papillae can’t reach the base. This is why Persian cat owners must groom their pets daily and bath them monthly, or else their fur will become matted and greasy.

Using their 3D models, the team created a tongue-inspired grooming (TIGR) brush that is 400 percent larger than domestic cat papillae. They attached this device to their grooming machine and raked it across faux nylon fur. The TIGR was more effective compared to a human hairbrush, and also much easier to clean.

Because this device gets lower into the fur, it could be used to apply medications or cleaning mixtures directly to cat skin, potentially allowing people with allergies to coexist with cats — a better alternative than allergy shots, pills, or daily cat baths. The researchers have filed a provisional patent for this new technology.

The scientists suggest this tech could also be used in soft robotics or other situations that involve cleaning flexible filaments, such as carpets. Experimenting with dead cat tongues may seem weird, but it turns out felines still have a lot to teach us.

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59v3j5Troy FarahEmanuel MaibergJordan Pearsoncatsgroomingbrush