Tech platforms, data, and the aftermath of Roe v Wade

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Last Friday, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision nullifying Roe v Wade, the almost 50-year-old court case that enshrined legal access to abortions in the United States. The decision was widely expected, thanks to a story that Politico published in May, based on a draft opinion that was leaked anonymously. The advance notice allowed more than a dozen states to pass “trigger laws,” which in some cases made abortion illegal as soon as the official Supreme Court decision was released. This has raised the potential for legal action against women who are seeking to terminate a pregnancy, and fears that content shared via social apps—including apps designed to help women track the progress of their menstrual cycle and their potential fertility—and through social platforms, and even web searches, could be used to try to incriminate them.

This isn’t an idle fear: In 2017, Latice Fisher, a Black woman, went to a hospital in Mississippi after losing a pregnancy at home in the thirty-sixth week. Because she admitted during a gynecological exam that she was pregnant, but never returned for a followup visit, medical staff gave police her medical records, and they started an investigation. Since Fisher had also voluntarily given police her phone, Wired noted that prosecutors were able to access her search history on the device, including a web search she conducted for misoprostol (medication that can be used to trigger an abortion). Although there was no evidence that Fisher had ever used the medication, the district attorney’s office nevertheless used the search as evidence that she had killed her fetus, and she was charged with second-degree murder (the case was eventually dropped).

“Those seeking, offering, or facilitating abortion access must now assume that any data they provide online or offline could be sought by law enforcement,” the EFF wrote in a statement following the court’s ruling nullifying Roe. The Washington Post noted that “a Google search for a reproductive health clinic, online order for abortion pills, location ping at a doctor’s office and text message about considering ending a pregnancy could all become sources of evidence.” The Post advised those searching for abortions to use encrypted private messaging apps such as Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal. The latter was the most secure, the paper said, because Apple has a key that allows it to decrypt iMessages, so law enforcement could force it to do so, and WhatsApp shares data with its parent company, Meta. The paper also recommended using web browsers in incognito mode, and leaving a phone at home when visiting clinics.

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A new baby loon arrives at Otter Lake

We spent a week at Otter Lake with family, and one day I paddled out in the kayak to find a mother loon on the nest, hidden among the bulrushes on a tiny island. As I got closer, I could see the father about 300 yards away — and then suddenly he dove, and within about two seconds he was right beside me, standing up on his feet and paddling around hooting, clearly trying to get me to leave, which I did.

The next day when I went out for a paddle, I saw the two adult loons and thought at first something had happened to the nest, but then as I got closer, I saw a tiny little lump of feathers on the mother’s back. And as I followed them (at a respectful distance) the little lump of feathers slid into the water and started paddling around with his mom and dad. Very cool.

In search of the Gros Michel, the Cadillac of bananas

The Gros Michel — the Big Mike — used to be the standard commercial banana, until a bug wiped it out in the 1950s. The same thing could happen to the Cavendish variety, since it is also a genetic clone

I am here for the Gros Michel—the OG banana that was the standard across the United States from 1870, when it sold for $2 a bunch in Jersey City, until the late 1950s, when the ruinous fungus Panama disease all but wiped it out.

I am on a quest across New York City for the Gros Michel, the Big Mike, the banana that launched a thousand pratfalls. Online, people speak of it in revered digital tones: “I am absolutely dying to try one,” one banana forum user writes, promising to pay “an arm and a leg” for them. Another claims they are so delicious that regular Cavendish bananas are disgusting by comparison. Today, the banana is virtually gone from the consumer market in the United States—finding it will be at best a challenge, and perhaps impossible.

It wasn’t always the case: The Gros Michel was once everywhere. When America fell in love with the banana, this is the fruit that captured its heart. The alchemist who first produced the banana split used a Gros Michel; the chemist who produced artificial banana flavor allegedly had it in mind as well. When Eddie Cantor sings “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” it is Big Mike he’s singing about.

Crypto bros want “a world run on eBay”

Ryan Broderick writes in his newsletter Garbage Day about an NFT event in New York City and what it says about the future of crypto

I’ve read about a bunch of different use cases for NFTs — party passes, hotel reservations, concert tickets, video game earnables — and in every instance the only thing an NFT version of that specific product would accomplish is a wildly unstable and inflationary secondary market. The guys at NFT NYC this week basically want a world run that’s run entirely on eBay.

They think that they can all become Jordan Belfort by adding unregulated bidding wars to everything we buy online. They see themselves as savvy enough investors that in a world of constant digital price gouging that they could still come out on top. And they see NFTs as a literal ticket to an exclusive club of culture and wealth.

Yancey Strickler on the promise of crypto

The co-founder of Kickstarter writes about how paying too much attention to the scammy aspects of crypto risks overlooking the potential benefits of the blockchain

Few words are as divisive as “crypto.” Say it and half the room walks away out of principle, a smaller group hisses in disgust, and a last group leans in, some closer than feels comfortable if you’re honest. Hearing someone explain crypto can feel like being trapped in a bewildering dream with no way out.

The politics associated with it are no simpler: It’s simultaneously hyper-capitalist, with an extreme focus on market prices, and quasi-socialist, offering communities of people programmatic distribution of ownership and voting power.


Crypto is seen as a scam machine. Any Very Online person is routinely exposed to the latest crypto duping, with its freshest scams gleefully aggregated in Web3 Is Going Great, each incident dumber than the last. Even the stuff that isn’t a scam seems tasteless at best, and idiotic to most people. Few look at a Bored Ape and see six figures of value. They see six degrees of delusion.

Blindly dismissing any project that touches a blockchain because it shares the same plumbing as crypto is like missing the forest for the logging industry. So long as everything that touches a public ledger is vilified as a scam and part of some dystopian future, the number of responsible people and teams who feel inspired to thoughtfully explore projects that see beyond the constraints of our Web2 systems will be limited.

To change that, we need a better way to talk about this space. We need to distinguish between crypto as a specific set of experiences and products, and the wider possibilities that can and will emerge from shared public ledgers. With time and maturation, different categories of products and use-cases can emerge.

Summer has main character syndrome

Helena Fitzgerald writes in her newsletter Griefbacon about how summer is great but it also objectively sucks in a number of ways:

Everyone is so excited about summer and everything is so obligated. It’s so much harder to have fun at a party that everyone aggressively insists is the best party ever than at one nobody cares about. Summer always has to be the best party; summer has main character syndrome. Summer thinks every story is about summer, and is always changing the subject back to itself.

Summer is a try-hard, showing up to a wedding in a bikini, getting too drunk and getting you kicked out of your favorite local bar. Summer is the seasonal version of trying to have a conversation with someone who’s on coke, and it’s the feeling of being so tired that you can’t actually fall asleep. It’s obvious and sweaty and too fast and too slow at once, and everybody wants you to love it and be happy about it, which makes everything bad about it worse. 

Marc Andreessen on Twitter

From an interview with Tyler Cowen:

The thing about Twitter — is Twitter an engine or a camera? This prevailing view is that . . . I say social media broadly, but Twitter specifically because it’s where the elites are — the intellectual elites, the social elites. The prevailing wisdom on Twitter is that it’s primarily an engine. It’s changing behavior for better or worse. I actually tend to think it’s at least as much a camera. It’s like a giant X-ray machine.

via this interview

They fell to their knees and kissed the sand

Half a century ago, the British government forcibly removed 2,000 people from a remote string of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They’ve never stopped struggling to return. The expulsions were part of an international bargain, though not one that the 2,000 people of Chagos had any say in. The short version: For many years, the archipelago was a faraway administrative appendage of the British colony of Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa.


When Mauritius sought independence, in the mid-1960s, Britain decided to keep Chagos for itself. It did so primarily to sequester one of the atolls, Diego Garcia, for use by the United States—part of a global American ambition, at the height of the Cold War, to establish military outposts in strategic places. Chagos itself was nowhere, but it was equidistant from everywhere: Draw a long line from Madagascar to Indonesia, and another from India to Antarctica, and stick a pin in the blue at the intersection.

The catch for Britain was that under international law, the archipelago could be separated from Mauritius only if it had no “permanent population.” — via The Atlantic