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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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It didn’t begin auspiciously for George and Willie Muse, born black, poor and albino to a sharecropper family in the Jim Crow South. It seemed to get even less promising when they were kidnapped in 1899 from their doting mother in Virginia and forced to appear in itinerant freak shows as “Eko and Iko, sheep-headed, cannibalistic Ambassadors from Mars.”

The siblings were given room, board and mandolin lessons by a parade of handlers but were otherwise kept a safe distance from their earnings. Ultimately, their mother reclaimed them 28 years later through the legal system, liberating her boys who then signed a deal with Ringling Brothers that allowed them to retain complete rights to their merchandising. The two grew quite well-off, selling out Madison Square Garden numerous times and performing for the Queen of England. They were international superstars in an era before mass media. One brother, Willie, lived to 108, dying in 2001, having left a footprint in three centuries.

It’s likely a wilder tale than that of any sideshow act from the twentieth century, more than Chang & Eng or the “Two-Headed Nightingale” or anyone. In Truevine, a book by Beth Macy published last month, the author ponders the troubling question of whether the kidnapping and sideshow existence were ultimately better for the Muses than the privations and prejudices of the South would have been. Perhaps, though clearly neither was ideal. Reports are Paramount is angling to acquire big-screen rights to the book.

Two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles are embedded below, the first documenting their mother first finding her sons after a nearly three-decade search, and the second revealing the men’s intelligence, which belied how the circus presented them to the public.


From October 20, 1927:

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From May 14. 1928:

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In a smart Five Books interviewEllen Wayland-Smith, author of Oneida, discusses a group of titles on the topic of Utopia. She surmises that attempts at such communities aren’t prevalent like they were in the 1840s or even the 1960s because most of us realize they don’t normally end well, whether we’re talking about the bitter financial and organizational failures of Fruitlands and Brook Farm or the utter madness of Jonestown. That’s true on a micro-community level, though I would argue that there have never been more people dreaming of large-scale Utopias–and corresponding dystopias–then there are right now. The visions have just grown significantly in scope.

In macro visions, Silicon Valley technologists speak today of an approaching post-scarcity society, an automated, quantified, work-free world in which all basic needs are met and drudgery has disappeared into a string of zeros and ones. These thoughts were once the talking points of those on the fringe, say, a teenage guru who believed he could levitate the Houston Astrodome, but now they (and Mars settlements, a-mortality and the computerization of every object) are on the tongues of the most important business people of our day, billionaires who hope to shape the Earth and beyond into a Shangri-La. 

Perhaps much good will come from these goals, and maybe a few disasters will be enabled as well. 

One exchange from the Five Books Q&A:

Question:

Speaking of the Second Coming, the last book on your list is Paradise Now, by Chris Jennings.

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

It’s called Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. He goes through five utopian experiments in nineteenth century America. It’s a beautifully written book and interesting as well because he takes the odd era of 1840s America and shows how it gave rise to five very different experiments in alternative living. He does a sensitive job of exploring their differences and similarities but he also examines how crazy they seem today. Some of the ideas seem mystical and fabulous; certainly Noyes had some spectacularly strange ideas about gaining immortality through sexual intercourse. The fact that so many of these strange communities sprung up seems unbelievable to the twenty-first century reader. Chris Jennings points out that we seem to have lost something, there seems to be a diminishment of expectations, a loss of energy.

Question:

In the wake of the American Revolution over a hundred experimental communities were formed in the United States. Do societies become less experimental as they age into their institutions? Is the West losing the audacity necessary for experimentation?

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

That is an interesting question. The 1840s were an incredibly weird time. It was a crossroads. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Class identification and geographical identification suddenly became uncertain, that was upsetting. There were also an explosion of religious sects at this time, with the disestablishment of state and church. I think it was a time when people felt very vulnerable. All these changes and uncertainties crystallized attempts to live otherwise.

Question:

Jennings writes that a present day “deficit of imagination” accounts for the fact that there are no utopias at present. Do you see a strong foundation for that analysis?

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

There does seem to be a lack of interest in what is transcendent, which keeps people from finding more meaningful ways of constructing their lives. But what accounts for the absence of utopian schemes at present is probably less a ‘deficit of imagination’ than a cynicism about whether these things can work. As I began by saying, utopian projects usually end disastrously.•

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Since Bob Dylan was the surprise winner of this year’s Nobel Prize, those aghast at the announcement (mostly writers without Nobel Prizes) have taken comfort in Kevin P. Simonson’s 1991 Hustler interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which the author labeled the songwriter the “worst poet alive.” This insult from the guy who turned out Slapstick!

In addition to being wrong about Dylan, Vonnegut’s hatred for the magazine’s infamous owner, Larry Flynt, also seems off-base. It’s not that the publisher was or is a charmer (he’s not), but his “literary output” proved much more influential than Vonnegut’s, with pornography today available on every phone in every pocket. He was right about human nature, whether we like it or not.

If you think that’s good or not depends on what you prefer: a repressed though less outwardly ugly society where things are hidden, or one in which there’s way too much information and everything may be revealed. The latter can be discombobulating, but I think the former is more dangerous.

Click on the exchange below to read a bigger version.

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The great Margaret Atwood has dystopic vision, an eerie end to us all: We build an ever-growing, plugged-in societal machine reliant on cheap energy that eventually runs out. Collapse comes, and we’re swept away with it. It’s a chilling, if unlikely, scenario.

More realistic: We keep shoveling fossil fuels into the system until it’s the death of us, or we wisely adapt ASAP and develop solar energy and such to the point were we can sustain life for eons. 

In a Guardian piece that surveys science and sci-fi writers, Atwood, Richard Dawkins and others ponder the future of humanity, if we have one. The opening:

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion
There’s a serious risk of climate catastrophe and it could be soon. Another alarmingly plausible possibility during the present century is that weapons of mass destruction, which are designed to deter, will be acquired by deluded people for whom deterrence has no meaning. Assuming we survive such manmade disasters, external peril may be averted by technology growing out of the brilliant feat of landing on a comet. The dinosaurs’ world ended when a comet or large meteorite unleashed titanic destructive forces. That will eventually happen again, and smaller but still dangerous strikes are a perennial danger in every century. Telescopes of the future will improve the range of detection, increase the warning time, and give engineers the notice they will need to intercept the bolide and nudge it into a harmless orbit.

In the world of science, DNA sequencing will become ever faster and cheaper and this will revolutionise medicine, taxonomy and my own field of evolution, not to mention forensic evidence in courts of law. Embryology and cell biology will advance mightily. Novel imaging techniques may enable palaeontologists and archeologists to see down into the ground without digging it up. The rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from external reality may become blurred. I expect unmanned space exploration to continue, albeit with economically imposed hiatuses. Out beyond 50 years, self-sustaining colonies may be established on Mars. Human travel to other star systems lies way beyond 50 years, but radio communication from extraterrestrial scientists is an ever-present possibility. However, the intervening light centuries will rule out conversation.

Margaret Atwood, author of Hag-Seed
Will we still have a liveable planet 50 years from now? Kill the oceans and it’s game over for oxygen-breathing mid-range mammals – the oceans make 60 to 80% of our oxygen. Superheating them and dumping them full of plastic may spell our doom. I hope that we’ll be smart enough to avoid this fate. From ideas proposed in my fiction, many are equally horrible, but it seems as if the use of the blood of young people to rejuvenate rich older people – as posited in The Heart Goes Last – is already in process. I do try to avoid predicting “the future” because there are so many variables; thus, so many possible futures. But here’s a safe bet: in 25 years I won’t be on the planet, unless of course I get my tentacles on some of that rejuvenating blood.•

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Author George Plimpton, front left, and J.W. Gallivan, Jr., a Rober

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  • George Plimpton seemed to have lost the will to live soon after I interviewed him in 2003. Two weeks later he was dead. It was unintentional, I swear.
  • The best part of Plimpton’s journalism, from being an embed Bedouin on the set of Lawrence of Arabia to playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, was that he realized the business sometimes served an important purpose, but the vast majority of it was a lark to have fun in between visits from the Time Inc. drink cart. I cant say I approve of his mixing fiction into his fact, but the lust for life was admirable. Perhaps being in close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy as he was assassinated–he helped wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand–gave him perspective that life and death is life and death, and everything else is not.
  • Plimpton began writing for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, one of the young literary lights recruited by editor Sid James to write for his publication in that era. Plimpton thrived, with the magazine nurturing his flair for participatory journalism. One who did less well was Kurt Vonnegut, whose first assignment was to write a full-length article about a spooked racehorse that jumped over a fence. Before grabbing his coat and exiting the offices to never return, he typed these words: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”
  • I’m sure there was some great national prank after Plimpton’s Sidd Finch story on April Fools Day in 1985, but that was one of the last hurrahs of the pre-Information Age, a story that would unravel now on Twitter in minutes. We still get fooled a lot, but by nothing nearly so wonderful. 

In a New York Review of Books piece about Plimpton’s sports journalism, Nathaniel Rich acknowledges that sometimes the writer dropped the ball, as he did in underplaying that racial hatred directed at Henry Aaron as the Atlanta slugger closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, but his close proximity to the game often allowed him to digest small details about the games, including points about class, something not every patrician would appreciate. An excerpt:

Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.) Plimpton writes about baseball locker rooms “heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke,” star players humbled by their off-season jobs (Pro-Bowler Alex Karras fills jelly doughnuts), and teams that cheat by positioning a spy with binoculars on a roof near the opponent’s practice field. He is able to convince major league All-Stars to take part in his scheme by offering, to the players on the team that gets the most hits off him, a reward of $125, the equivalent today of about $1,000. (By comparison, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $19,000 per inning this season.) It was also an age in which the press was powerful enough to convince professional teams to grant full, unfettered access to a journalist. Today a writer for a major national magazine is lucky to be allowed more than one hour with the subject of a cover article. Plimpton spent a full month living in a dormitory with the Lions.

As enjoyable as it is to read about Plimpton being treated roughly by professional gladiators in front of large crowds, the participatory approach also has its journalistic benefits. He understood that within every professional athlete is an amateur who, through some combination of born talent and luck, is surprised to find himself elevated to divine status. As a writer who, after the success of Paper Lion, was a bigger celebrity than most of his subjects, Plimpton had a special sensitivity to the hidden vulnerabilities of giants.

The weigh-in ceremony before Cassius Clay’s first championship fight against Sonny Liston is best remembered for Clay’s rumbling taunts, but Plimpton notes that Clay’s pulse was taken at 180; the doctor concluded that he was “scared to death.” We learn that Roger Maris, after the stress of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, changed his batting style the following year to avoid reliving the experience. Plimpton devotes a chapter in One for the Record to the pitchers who allowed the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ralph Branca tells him that, after yielding “The Shot Heard Round the World,” he left the Polo Grounds to find his sobbing fiancée waiting for him in the parking lot with a priest. Branca’s second career, Plimpton notes, was in life insurance.•

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How do we reconcile a highly automated economy with a free-market one? If jobs of all skill levels emerge that can’t be outsourced beyond our species, we’ll be fine. But if average truly ls over, as Tyler Cowen and others have predicted, we could be in for some turbulence. Everyone and his brother can’t be quickly upskilled, and even if they could, there will be a limit to the number of driverless-car engineers needed. Abundance is great if we can figure out a good distribution system, something America has never perfected. If the macro financial picture is good but the micro is harsh, political solutions may become necessary.

From an PC World interview with The Wealth of Humans author Ryan Avent:

If this abundance of labor is indeed what is sparking global unrest, things will probably get a lot more chaotic before stability returns, unless the world embraces an Amish-style rejection of technology. So how should civilization proceed moving forward? Proposals include universal basic income (UBI), which is quite fashionable in Silicon Valley circles, or shortening the work week to four days.

“Eventually, we’re going to have to change the ways we do things so that people are working less and are also still able to buy the things they need—that would be where redistribution or basic income comes into the picture,” according to Avent. “There’s a couple of things to consider though. People don’t necessarily want to live in a world without work. Even though work is a drag, it creates structure for our day. It creates purpose and meaning. You can imagine that society would be kind of a messy place if nobody ever had to do anything. The other tricky thing is you need to find a way to pay for everything, which means that you have to tax somebody or create common ownership. Something that’s going to require a big political change.”

The big changes may be far in the future. Many of us may be able to wait out the big transformation, but where does that leave the next generation? Are they just completely screwed? As a parent of a young child, I am keenly interested in what skills—if any—will have any value in the decades to come.

“Those with a PhD in computer engineering will probably be okay. I don’t think that’s going to be something that goes away over the next few decades. The skills that will be applicable in a lot of parts of the economy will actually be the softer skills,” Avent says. “The ability to learn from others, to teach yourself new things, to get along in different cultural settings. Basically to be adaptive and be able to pick up new skills. That’s useful now, but in an environment where new sectors and new jobs are constantly be introduced will be critical to being successful.”•

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It surprises me that most of us usually think things are worse than they are in the big picture, because we’re awfully good at selective amnesia when it comes to our own lives. Homes in NYC that were demolished by Hurricane Sandy are mostly valued more highly now than right before that disaster, even though they’re located in the exact some lots near the ever-rising sea levels, in the belly of the beast. The buyers are no different than the rest of us who conveniently forget about investment bubbles that went bust and life choices that laid us low. When it comes to our own plans, we can wave away history as a fluke that wouldn’t dare interfere.

When we consider the direction of our nation, however, we often believe hell awaits our handbasket. Why? Maybe because down deep we’re suspicious about the collective, that anything so unwieldy can ever end up well, so we surrender to both recency and confirmations biases, which skew the way we view today and tomorrow. 

While I don’t believe the endless flow of information has made us more informed, it is true that by many measures we’re in better shape now than humans ever have been. On that topic, the Economist reviews Johan Norberg’s glass-half-full title, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. The opening:

HUMANS are a gloomy species. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving. Asked whether global poverty had fallen by half, doubled or remained the same in the past 20 years, only 5% of Americans answered correctly that it had fallen by half. This is not simple ignorance, observes Johan Norberg, a Swedish economic historian and the author of a new book called “Progress”. By guessing randomly, a chimpanzee would pick the right answer (out of three choices) far more often.

People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; “40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not. 

Pessimism has political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. A whopping 81% of Donald Trump’s supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite.

Mr Norberg unleashes a tornado of evidence that life is, in fact, getting better.

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Even your average Silicon Valley billionaire would find it difficult to gain and maintain a footing on the Moon and Mars and more if playing by the established economics of Big Space. Fortunately, the increasing power and diminishing costs of components in the supercomputers in our pockets have enabled Little Space to compete, turning out satellites and such for a fraction of what it would cost NASA.

It’s this Space Race 2.0 at the heart of Freeman Dyson’s New York Review of Books piece in which he reviews a raft of recent titles on the topic. The scientist-writer frets about NASA and other government bodies for their excessive risk-aversion while acknowledging the cheap-enough-to-fail model may not be bold enough to enable us to fan out among the stars this century. He also analyzes the medium-size methods of deep-pocketed entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who dream big while trying to trim costs like the little guys.

Ultimately, the reviewer is dissatisfied with all the books because they each focus on engineering to the exclusion of biotechnology, ignoring outré-but-not-impossible visions from the febrile mind of pioneering Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who prophesied there would be a time centuries in the future when we could alter and create species to enable them to assimilate in space. 

In one passage about more immediate matters, Dyson offers a common-sense retort to NASA’s fear of falling, arguing mistakes we’ve made on Earth with enclosed habitats like Biosphere 2 aren’t ones we’re destined to repeat. The excerpt::

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix’s Beyond Earth describes the prospects for future manned space missions conducted within the Big Space culture. The prospects are generally dismal, for two reasons. The authors suppose that a main motivation for such missions is a desire of humans to escape from catastrophic climate change on Earth. They also suppose any serious risks to the life and health of astronauts to be unacceptable. Under these conditions, few missions are feasible, and most of them are unattractive. Their preferred mission is a human settlement on Titan, the moon of Saturn that most resembles Earth, with a dense atmosphere and a landscape of gentle hills, rivers, and lakes.

But the authors would not permit the humans to grow their own food on Titan. Farming is considered to be impossible because an enclosed habitat with the name Biosphere Two was a failure. It was built in Arizona and occupied in 1991 by eight human volunteers who were supposed to be ecologically self-sufficient, recycling air and water and food in a closed system. The experiment failed because of a number of mistakes in the design. The purpose of such an experiment should be to learn from the failure how to avoid such mistakes in the future. The notion that the failure of a single experiment should cause the abandonment of a whole way of life is an extreme example of the risk-averseness that has come to permeate the Big Space culture.

Farming is an art that achieved success after innumerable failures. So it was in the past and so it will be in the future. Any successful human settlement in space will begin as the Polynesian settlements in the Pacific islands began, with people bringing pigs and chickens and edible plants on their canoes, along with the skills to breed them. The authors of Beyond Earth imagine various possible futures for human settlement in various places, but none of their settlers resemble the Polynesians.

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Extrapolating current economic trends into the future is a tricky business. Things change.

The American middle class, besieged for decades by tax codes, globalization, automation, Silicon Valley creative destruction, Washington gridlock and the Great Recession, seems more like a dinosaur each day. Men in the U.S. have particularly watched their opportunities crater, with millions more jobs poised to vanish as soon as driverless vehicles take the wheel in trucking, the taxi industry and delivery. (The last of those occupations will also be emptied out by air and ground drones.)

Nicholas Eberstadt’s Men Without Work suggests this story has been seriously under-reported, the subtitle being “America’s Invisible Crisis.” Like Charles Murray, whom I’m not fond of, the author believes misguided social safety nets have played a large role in creating this unintended consequence. I call bullshit on that theory, which seems more driven by ideology than reality.

In a Financial Times review of the book, Lawrence Summers also disagrees with Eberstadt on how we got into this mess, but  he sees a potentially even bleaker future for American males than the author does. Maybe that won’t come to pass, but this is exactly the type of possible outcome we should be discussing right now.

An excerpt:

Now comes Nicholas Eberstadt’s persuasive and important monograph Men Without Work, demonstrating that these issues are not just matters of futurology. Eberstadt, a political economist based at the American Enterprise Institute, marshals a vast amount of data to highlight trends that have been noticed but not adequately emphasised before in the work experience of men in the US. The share of the male population who are neither working, looking for work, in school or old enough to retire has more than doubled over the past 50 years, even though the population has become much healthier and more educated. Today, even with a low overall unemployment rate, roughly one in six men between the ages of 25 and 54 is out of work.

Eberstadt goes on to show that, as one might expect, non-work is a larger issue for those with less education, without spouses or dependent children, for African-Americans and for those who have been convicted of crimes. He finds little redeeming in what those without work are doing, noting that the primary contrast in time use between those in and out of work is in time spent watching TV.

Finally, he highlights that men in the US are doing considerably worse than men in the rest of the industrial world, where even countries with notoriously sclerotic labour markets and bloated welfare systems such as France, and even Greece, enjoy higher rates of prime age male labour force participation.

One can cavil with Eberstadt’s emphasis on labour force withdrawal as distinct from unemployment in looking at the data, particularly when it comes to international comparisons, but overall the evidence he marshals that non-work is currently a crisis is entirely persuasive. As he notes, the impact of non-work on economic growth is the least of it. A society where large numbers of adults in the prime of life are without vocation is unlikely to provide opportunity for all its children, to maintain strong communities or have happy, cohesive families. As we are seeing this fall, such a society is prone to embrace toxic populist politics.

Indeed, Eberstadt understates the significance of what he studies by not highlighting the fact that, if current trends continue, a quarter of men between 25 and 54 will be out of work by mid-century. I would expect Eberstadt’s sorry trends to accelerate as IT accelerates job destruction on the one hand, and developments such as virtual reality make non-work more attractive and addictive on the other, so I can imagine scenarios in which a third or more of men in this cohort are out of work in the US by 2050.

Why is this happening?•

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Many dark fictions about technology focus on machines going rogue and running amok, but couldn’t things progress as planned and still lead to trouble if we have poor priorities and make the wrong decisions?

On a 1979 Dick Cavett Show, Ira Levin was asked how he dreamed up the scenario for his chilling novel The Stepford Wives. He answered that after reading about the possibility of robotic domestic servants in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, he wondered what would happen if we achieved that goal at a very high level. You know, if everything went according to plan.

Humanoid robots aren’t in our near future, but chatbots and digital assistants will be an increasing part of our lives in the short run. They may eventually get so good that we won’t know sometimes if we’re speaking to a human or not. Perhaps we will be aware, but that won’t stop us from speaking to them as if “they” were people. There will be a relationship. That’s the plan, anyhow.

Some excerpts on that topic from Alvin Toffler’s book:

Whether we grow specialized animals to serve us or develop household robots depends in part on the uneven race between the life sciences and the physical sciences. It may be cheaper to make machines for our purposes, than to raise and train animals. Yet the biological sciences are developing so rapidly that the balance may well tip within our lifetimes. Indeed, the day may even come when we begin to grow our machines. …

We are hurtling toward the time when we will be able to breed both super- and subraces. As Theodore J. Gordon put it in The Future, “Given the ability to tailor the race, I wonder if we would “create all men equal,’ or would we choose to manufacture apartheid? Might the races of the future be: a superior group, the DNA controllers; the humble servants; special athletes for the ‘games’; research scientists with 200 IQ and diminutive  bodies …” We shall have the power to produce races of morons or of mathematical savants. …

Technicians at Disneyland have created extremely life-like computer-controlled humanoids capable of moving their arms and legs, grimacing, smiling, glowering, simulating fear, joy and a wide range of other emotions. Built of clear plastic that, according to one reporter, “does everything but bleed,” the robots chase girls, play music, fire pistols, and so closely resemble human forms that visitors routinely shriek with fear, flinch and otherwise react as though they were dealing with real human beings. The purposes to which these robots are put may seem trivial, but the technology on which they are based is highly sophisticated. It depends heavily on knowledge acquired from the space program—and this knowledge is accumulating rapidly.

There appears to be no reason, in principle, why we cannot go forward from these present primitive and trivial robots to build humanoid machines capable of extremely varied behavior, capable even of “human” error and seemingly random choice—in short, to make them behaviorally indistinguishable from humans except by means of highly sophisticated or elaborate tests. At that point we shall face the novel sensation of trying to determine whether the smiling, assured humanoid behind the airline reservation counter is a pretty girl or a carefully wired robot.

The likelihood, of course, is that she will be both.

The thrust toward some form of man-machine symbiosis is furthered by our increasing ingenuity in communicating with machines. A great deal of much-publicized work is being done to facilitate the interaction of men and computers. But quite apart from this, Russian and American scientists have both been experimenting with the placement or implantation of detectors that pick up signals from the nerve ends at the stub of an amputated limb. These signals are then amplified and used to activate an artificial limb, thereby making a machine directly and sensitively responsive to the nervous system of a human being. The human need not “think out” his desires; even involuntary impulses are transmittable. The responsive behavior of the machine is as automatic as the behavior of one’s own hand, eye or leg.•

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The past isn’t necessarily prologue. Sometimes there’s a clean break from history. The Industrial Age transformed Labor, moving us from an agrarian culture to an urban one, providing new jobs that didn’t previously exist: advertising, marketing, car mechanic, etc. That doesn’t mean the Digital Age will follow suit. Much of manufacturing, construction, driving and other fields will eventually fall, probably sooner than later, and Udacity won’t be able to rapidly transition everyone into a Self-Driving Car Engineer. That type of upskilling can take generations to complete.

Not every job has to vanish. Just enough to make unemployment scarily high to cause social unrest. And those who believe Universal Basic Income is a panacea must beware truly bad versions of such programs, which can end up harming more than helping. 

Radical abundance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, of course. It should be a very good one. But we’ve never managed plenty in America very well, and this level would be on an entirely different scale.

Excerpts from two articles on the topic.


From Giles Wilkes’ Economist review of Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans:

What saves this work from overreach is the insistent return to the problem of abundant human labour. The thesis is rather different from the conventional, Malthusian miserabilism about burgeoning humanity doomed to near-starvation, with demand always outpacing supply. Instead, humanity’s growing technical capabilities will render the supply of what workers produce, be that physical products or useful services, ever more abundant and with less and less labour input needed. At first glance, worrying about such abundance seems odd; how typical that an economist should find something dismal in plenty.

But while this may be right when it is a glut of land, clean water, or anything else that is useful, there is a real problem when it is human labour. For the role work plays in the economy is two-sided, responsible both for what we produce, and providing the rights to what is made. Those rights rely on power, and power in the economic system depends on scarcity. Rob human labour of its scarcity, and its position in the economic hierarchy becomes fragile.

A good deal of the Wealth of Humans is a discussion on what is increasingly responsible for creating value in the modern economy, which Mr Avent correctly identifies as “social capital”: that intangible matrix of values, capabilities and cultures that makes a company or nation great. Superlative businesses and nation states with strong institutions provide a secure means of getting well-paid, satisfying work. But access to the fruits of this social capital is limited, often through the political system. Occupational licensing, for example, prevents too great a supply of workers taking certain protected jobs, and border controls achieve the same at a national level. Exceptional companies learn how to erect barriers around their market. The way landholders limit further development provides a telling illustration: during the San Fransisco tech boom, it was the owners of scarce housing who benefited from all that feverish innovation. Forget inventing the next Facebook, be a landlord instead.

Not everyone can, of course, which is the core problem the book grapples with. Only a few can work at Google, or gain a Singaporean passport, inherit property in London’s Mayfair or sell $20 cheese to Manhattanites. For the rest, there is a downward spiral: in a sentence, technological progress drives labour abundance, this abundance pushes down wages, and every attempt to fight it will encourage further substitution towards alternatives.•


From Duncan Jefferies’ Guardian article “The Automated City“:

Enfield council is going one step further – and her name is Amelia. She’s an “intelligent personal assistant” capable of analysing natural language, understanding the context of conversations, applying logic, resolving problems and even sensing emotions. She’s designed to help residents locate information and complete application forms, as well as simplify some of the council’s internal processes. Anyone can chat to her 24/7 through the council’s website. If she can’t answer something, she’s programmed to call a human colleague and learn from the situation, enabling her to tackle a similar question unaided in future.

Amelia is due to be deployed later this year, and is supposed to be 60% cheaper than a human employee – useful when you’re facing budget cuts of £56m over the next four years. Nevertheless, the council claims it has no plans to get rid of its 50 call centre workers.

The Singaporean government, in partnership with Microsoft, is also planning to roll out intelligent chatbots in several stages: at first they will answer simple factual questions from the public, then help them complete tasks and transactions, before finally responding to personalised queries.

Robinson says that, while artificially intelligent chatbots could have a role to play in some areas of public service delivery: “I think we overlook the value of a quality personal relationship between two people at our peril, because it’s based on life experience, which is something that technology will never have – certainly not current generations of technology, and not for many decades to come.”

But whether everyone can be “upskilled” to carry out more fulfilling work, and how many staff will actually be needed as robots take on more routine tasks, remains to be seen.•

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H.G. Wells hoped the people of Earth would someday live in a single world state overseen by a benign central government–if they weren’t first torn apart by yawning wealth inequality abetted by technology. He was correctly sure you couldn’t decouple the health of a society with the machines it depended on, which could have an outsize impact on economics.

In a smart The Conversation essay, Simon John James advises that the author’s social predictions have equal importance to his scientific ones. The opening:

No writer is more renowned for his ability to foresee the future than HG Wells. His writing can be seen to have predicted the aeroplane, the tank, space travel, the atomic bomb, satellite television and the worldwide web. His fantastic fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, flights to the moon and human beings with the powers of gods.

This is what he is generally remembered for today, 150 years after his birth. Yet for all these successes, the futuristic prophecy on which Wells’s heart was most set – the establishment of a world state – remains unfulfilled. He envisioned a Utopian government which would ensure that every individual would be as well educated as possible (especially in science), have work which would satisfy them, and the freedom to enjoy their private life.

His interests in society and technology were closely entwined. Wells’s political vision was closely associated with the fantastic transport technologies that Wells is famous for: from the time machine to the Martian tripods to the moving walkways and aircraft in When the Sleeper Wakes. In Anticipations (1900), Wells prophesied the “abolition of distance” by real-life technologies such as the railway. He stressed that since the inhabitants of different nations could now travel towards each other more quickly and easily, it was all the more important for them to do so peacefully rather than belligerently.•

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David Frost was a jester, then a king. After that, he was somewhere in between but always closer to royalty than risible. The Frost-Nixon interview saw to that.

Below is an excerpt from a more-timely-than ever interview from Frost’s 1970 book, The Americansan exchange about privacy the host had with Ramsey Clark, who served as U.S. Attorney General, who is still with us, doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything just last year. At the outset of this segment, Clark is commenting about wiretapping, though he broadens his remarks to regard privacy in general.

Ramsey Clark:

[It’s] an immense waste, an immoral sort of thing.

David Frost:

Immoral in what sense?

Ramsey Clark:

Well, immoral in the sense that government has to be fair. Government has to concede the dignity of its citizens. If the government can’t protect its citizens with fairness, we’re in real trouble, aren’t we? And it’s always ironic to me that those who urge wiretapping strongest won’t give more money for police salaries to bring real professionalism and real excellence to law enforcement, which is so essential to our safety.

They want an easy way, they want a cheap way. They want a way that demeans the integrity of the individual, of all of our citizens. We can’t overlook the capabilities of our technology. We can destroy privacy, we really can. We have techniques now–and we’re only on the threshold of discovery–that can permeate brick walls three feet thick. 

David Frost:

How? What sorts of things?

Ramsey Clark:

You can take a laser beam and you put it on a resonant surface within the room, and you can pick up any vibration in that room, any sound within that room, from half a mile away.

David Frost:

I think that’s terrifying.

Ramsey Clark:

You know, we can do it with sound and lights, in other words, visual-audio invasion of privacy is possible, and if we really worked at it with the technology that we have, in a few years we could destroy privacy as we know it.

Privacy is pretty hard to retain anyway in a mass society, a highly urbanized society, and if we don’t discipline ourselves now to traditions of privacy and to traditions of the integrity of the individual, we can have a generation of youngsters quite soon that won’t know what it meant because it wasn’t here when they came.•

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Edward Albee, one of the best playwrights America has ever produced, just died.

At the end of his privileged youth, the future dramatist worked delivering telegrams and selling music albums at Bloomingdale’s, and he didn’t care to advance much technologically beyond the record player and the typewriter. Albee despised Digital Era tools, never wanting to own a smartphone or look at the Internet, haughtily sneering at them the way intelligentsia in an earlier age derided TV as the “idiot box.” His New York Times obituary includes this 2012 quote from the writer: “All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done.” Whether or not that applies to his defiant technophobia or not depends on your perspective. At any rate, it worked for him.

From Claudine Ko’s 2010 Vice Q&A:

Question:

Do you have a specific writing space?

Edward Albee:

I do my writing in my head. There are tables around for whenever I feel like writing something down. I don’t care where I do it. It’s called a manuscript, so I write by hand.

Question:

That’s pretty old school.

Edward Albee:

I don’t believe in all those machines.

Question:

And the internet?

Edward Albee:

I know it exists. I don’t use it.

Question:

Do you have a cell phone?

Edward Albee:

No. It’s a waste of time. I might as well watch television. I walk along the streets of New York and I find people bumping into each other, bumping into things, and they have these things in their ears or in their face. They’re not seeing anything of the real world.•

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In a Literary Review piece about Kyle Arnold’s new title, The Divine Madness Of Philip K. Dick, Mike Jay, who knows a thing or two about the delusions that bedevil us, writes about the insane inner world of the speed-typing, speed-taking visionary who lived during the latter stages of his life, quite appropriately, near the quasi-totalitarian theme park Disneyland, a land where mice talk and corporate propaganda is endlessly broadcast. Dick was a hypochondriac about the contents of his head, and it’s no surprise his life was littered with amphetamines, anorexia and anxiety, which drove his brilliance and abbreviated it.

The opening:

Across dozens of novels and well over a hundred short stories, Philip K Dick worried away at one theme above all others: the world is not as it seems. He worked through every imaginable scenario: consensus reality was variously a set of implanted memories, a drug-induced hallucination, a time slip, a covert military simulation, an illusion projected by mega-corporations or extraterrestrials, or a test set by God. His typical protagonist was conspired against, drugged, hypnotised, paranoid, schizophrenic – or, possibly, the only person in possession of the truth.

The preoccupation all too clearly reflected the author’s life. Dick was a chronic doubter, tormented, like René Descartes, by the suspicion that the world was the creation of an evil demon ‘who has directed his entire effort to misleading me’. But cogito ergo sum was not enough to rescue someone who in 1972, during one of his frequent bouts of persecution mania, called the police to confess to being an android. Dick took scepticism to a level that he made his own. It became his brand, and since his death it has been franchised across popular culture. He isn’t credited on Hollywood blockbusters such as The Matrix (in which reality is a simulation created by machines from the future) or The Truman Show (about a reality TV programme in which all but the protagonist are complicit), but their mind-bending plot twists are his in all but name.

As Kyle Arnold acknowledges early in his lucid and accessible study, it would be impossible to investigate the roots of Dick’s cosmic doubt more doggedly than he did himself. He was ‘his own best psychobiographer”…

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In an Atlantic Q&A, Derek Thompson has a smart conversation with the Economist’s Ryan Avent, the author of the soon-to-be-published The Wealth of Humans, a book whose sly title suggests abundance may not arrive without a degree of menace. Avent is firmly in the McAfee-Brynjolfsson camp, believing the Digital Age will rival the Industrial one in its spurring of economic and societal disruption. An excerpt:

The Atlantic:

There is an ongoing debate about whether technological growth is accelerating, as economists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (the authors of The Second Machine Age) insist, or slowing down, as the national productivity numbers indicate. Where do you come down?

Ryan Avent:

I come down squarely in the Brynjolfsson and McAfee camp and strongly disagree with economists like Robert Gordon, who have said that growth is basically over. I think the digital revolution is probably going to be as important and transformative as the industrial revolution. The main reason is machine intelligence, a general-purpose technology that can be used anywhere, from driving cars to customer service, and it’s getting better very, very quickly. There’s no reason to think that improvement will slow down, whether or not Moore’s Law continues.

I think this transformative revolution will create an abundance of labor. It will create enormous growth in [the supply of workers and machines], automating a lot of industries and boosting productivity. When you have this glut of workers, it plays havoc with existing institutions.

I think we are headed for a really important era in economic history. The Industrial Revolution is a pretty good guide of what that will look like. There will have to be a societal negotiation for how to share the gains from growth. That process will be long and drawn out. It will involve intense ideological conflict, and history suggests that a lot will go wrong.•

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The introduction to Nicholas Carr’s soon-to-be published essay collection, Utopia Is Creepy, has been excerpted at Aeon, and it’s a beauty. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

An excerpt:

The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions – greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology – is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his testament The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (1833). By fulfilling its ‘mechanical purposes’, he wrote, the US would turn itself into a new Eden, a ‘state of superabundance’ where ‘there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations’, not to mention ‘vegetables of infinite variety and appearance’.

Similar predictions proliferated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in their visions of ‘technological majesty’, as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We might blow kisses to agrarians such as Jefferson and tree-huggers such as Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.

Cyberspace, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for the spiritual yearnings and tropes of the US. ‘What better way,’ wrote the philosopher Michael Heim inThe Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ (1991), ‘to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?’ In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting ‘the second coming of the computer’, replete with gauzy images of ‘cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos’ and ‘beautifully laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens’.

The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’

The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables.•

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In 2016, the average branch of the New York Public Library operates as a lightly funded community center, with some classes for kids, a climate-controlled place for seniors to knit and Internet time for anyone who can’t afford their own. Books are largely beside the point, donations of gently used volumes not accepted, and quiet is no longer enforced since reading isn’t the primary function of the institution. It’s more about experience now.

In a really thought-provoking Business Insider piece, David Pecovitz of boing boing tells Chris Weller that experience is also the future of libraries, though he believes it will be of a much more technological kind, virtual as well as actual. He predicts we could wind up with a “library of experiences.” Perhaps, though such tools and access may become decentralized.

An excerpt:

The definition of a library is already changing.

Some libraries have 3D printers and other cutting-edge tools that makes them not just places of learning, but creation. “I think the library as a place of access to materials, physical and virtual, becomes increasingly important,” Pescovitz says. People will come to see libraries as places to create the future, not just learn about the present.

Pescovitz offers the example of genetic engineering, carried out through “an open-source library of genetic parts that can be recombined in various way to make new organisms that don’t exist in nature.”

For instance, people could create their own microbes that are engineered to detect toxins in the water, he says, similar to how people are already meeting up in biology-centered hacker spaces.

Several decades from now, libraries will morph even further.

Pescovitz speculates that humans will have collected so much data that society will move into the realm of downloading sensory data. What we experience could be made available for sharing.

“Right now the world is becoming instrumented with sensors everywhere — sensors in our bodies, sensors in our roads, sensors in our mobile phones, sensors in our buildings — all of which all collecting high-resolution data about the physical world,” he says. “Meanwhile, we’re making leaps in understanding how the brain processes experiences and translates that into what we call reality.”

That could lead to a “library of experiences.”

In such a library, Pescovitz imagines that you could “check out” the experience of going to another planet or inhabiting the mind of the family dog.•

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If you want to comprehend the often-disquieting zeitgeist of the Sixties and Seventies, you could do far worse than read back issues of Ramparts magazine, which, under Warren Hinckle’s gonzo editorial guidance, served up the alternative culture without ever watering it down. The journalist just died, and below is his NYT obituary penned by William Grimes, followed by a few of the best articles he wrote and published at Ramparts.


From Grimes:

Warren Hinckle, the flamboyant editor who made Ramparts magazine a powerful national voice for the radical left in the 1960s and later by championing the work of Hunter S. Thompson and helping introduce the no-holds-barred reporting style known as gonzo journalism, died on Thursday. He was 77.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Pia Hinckle said.

Ramparts was a small-circulation quarterly for liberal Roman Catholics when Mr. Hinckle began writing for and promoting it in the early 1960s. A born provocateur with a keen sense of public relations, he took over as the executive editor in 1964 and immediately set about transforming Ramparts from a sleepy intellectual journal to a slickly produced, crusading political magazine that galvanized the American left.

With cover art and eye-catching headlines reminiscent of mainstream magazines like Esquire, Ramparts aimed to deliver “a bomb in every issue,” as Time magazine once put it. It looked at Cardinal Francis Spellman’s involvement in promoting American involvement in Vietnam and the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of a wide variety of cultural organizations.

It published Che Guevara’s diaries, with a long introduction by Fidel Castro; Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison; and some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The magazine’s photo essay in January 1967 showing the injuries inflicted on Vietnamese children by American bombs helped convince the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a public stand against the war.

The covers became countercultural classics: an illustration depicting Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam, as Washington crossing the Delaware; a photograph of four hands, belonging to the magazine’s top editors, holding up draft cards that had been set on fire.•


“Rather Than Write, I Will Ride Buses, Study The Insides Of Jails, And See What Goes On”

kkFrom “The Social History of the Hippies,” Warren Hinckle’s 1967 Ramparts article about those who tuned in, turned on and dropped out, a segment on writer Ken Kesey after his fall from grace with the younger longhhairs: 

HERE WASN’T MUCH DOING on late afternoon television, and the Merry Pranksters were a little restless. A few were turning on; one Prankster amused himself squirting his friends with a yellow plastic watergun; another staggered into the living room, exhausted from peddling a bicycle in ever-diminishing circles in the middle of the street. They were all waiting, quite patiently, for dinner, which the Chief was whipping up himself. It was a curry, the recipe of no doubt cabalistic origin. Kesey evidently took his cooking seriously, because he stood guard by the pot for an hour and a half, stirring, concentrating on the little clock on the stove that didn’t work.

There you have a slice of domestic life, February 1967, from the swish Marin County home of Attorney Brian Rohan. As might be surmised, Rohan is Kesey’s attorney, and the novelist and his aides de camp had parked their bus outside for the duration. The duration might last a long time, because Kesey has dropped out of the hippie scene. Some might say that he was pushed, because he fell, very hard, from favor among the hippies last year when he announced that he, Kesey, personally, was going to help reform the psychedelic scene. This sudden social conscience may have had something to do with beating a jail sentence on a compounded marijuana charge, but when Kesey obtained his freedom with instructions from the judge ‘to preach an anti-LSD warning to teenagers’ it was a little too much for the Haight-Ashbury set. Kesey, after all, was the man who had turned on the Hell’s Angels.

That was when the novelist was living in La Honda, a small community in the Skyline mountain range overgrown with trees and, after Kesey invited the Hell’s Angels to several house parties, overgrown with sheriff’s deputies. It was in this Sherwood Forest setting, after he had finished his second novel with LSD as his co-pilot, that Kesey inaugurated his band of Merry Pranksters (they have an official seal from the State of California incorporating them as “Intrepid Trips, Inc.”), painted the school bus in glow sock colors, announced he would write no more (“Rather than write, I will ride buses, study the insides of jails, and see what goes on”), and set up funtime housekeeping on a full-time basis with the Pranksters, his wife and their three small children (one confounding thing about Kesey is the amorphous quality of the personal relationships in his entourage—the several attractive women don’t seem, from the outside, to belong to any particular man; children are loved enough, but seem to be held in common).

When the Hell’s Angels rumbled by, Kesey welcomed them with LSD. “We’re in the same business. You break people’s bones, I break people’s heads,” he told them. The Angels seem to like the whole acid thing, because today they are a fairly constant act in the Haight-Ashbury show, while Kesey has abdicated his role as Scoutmaster to fledgling acid heads and exiled himself across the Bay.

This self-imposed Elba came about when Kesey sensed that the hippie community had soured on him. He had committed the one mortal sin in the hippie ethic: telling people what to do. “Get into a responsibility bag,” he urged some 400 friends attending a private Halloween party. Kesey hasn’t been seen much in the Haight-Ashbury since that night, and though the Diggers did succeed in getting him to attend the weekend discussion, it is doubtful they will succeed in getting the novelist involved in any serious effort to shape the Haight-Ashbury future. At 31, Ken Kesey is a hippie has-been.•


“I Found Myself Incarcerated In An Anonymity”

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Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was many things, and not all of them were good. But no one could deny he was a fascinating fashion designer. After fleeing the United States when charged with the attempted murder of police officers in Oakland in 1968, the revolutionary spent seven years hiding in a variety of foreign countries. A mostly forgotten part of his walkabout was Cleaver surfacing as a fashion designer in Paris at the very end of his exile. As shown in the print advertisement above, his so-called “penis pants” had an external sock attached so that a guy could wear his junk on the outside. I mean, just because your soul was on ice, that didn’t mean your dong had to be. Cucumber sales soared.

Cleaver penned an article about the early part of his life at large for Ramparts in 1969. An excerpt:

SO NOW IT IS OFFICIAL. I was starting to think that perhaps it never would be. For the past eight months, I’ve been scooting around the globe as a non-person, ducking into doorways at the sight of a camera, avoiding  English-speaking people like the plague. I used so many names that my own was out of focus. I trained myself not to react if I heard the name Eldridge Cleaver called, and learned instead to respond naturally, spontaneously, to my cover names. Anyone who thinks this is easy to do should try it. For my part, I’m glad that it is over.

This morning we held a press conference, thus putting an end to all the hocus-pocus. Two days ago, the Algerian government announced that I had arrived here to participate in the historic First Pan-African Cultural Festival. After that, there was no longer any reason not to reach for the telephone and call home, so the first thing I did was to call my mother in Los Angeles. ‘Boy, where are you at?’ she asked. It sounded as though she expected me to answer, ‘Right around the corner, mom,’ or ‘Up here in San Francisco,’ so that when I said I was in Africa, in Algeria, it was clear that her mind was blown, for her response was, “Africa? You can’t make no phone call from Africa!” That’s my mom. She doesn’t relate to all this shit about phone calls across the ocean when there are no phone poles. She has both her feet on the ground, and it is clear that she intends to keep them there.

It is clear to me now that there are forms of imprisonment other than the kind I left Babylon to avoid, for immediately upon splitting that scene I found myself incarcerated in an anonymity, the walls of which were every bit as thick as those of Folsom Prison. I discovered, to my surprise, that it is impossible to hold a decent conversation without making frequent references to one’s past. So I found myself creating personal histories spontaneously, off the top of my head, and I felt bad about that because I know that I left many people standing around scratching their heads. The shit that I had to run down to them just didn’t add up.

Now all that is over. So what? What has really changed? Alioto is still crazy and mayor, Ronald Reagan is still Mickey Mouse, Nixon is in the White House and the McClellan Committee is investigating the Black Panther Party. And Huey P. Newton is still in prison. I cannot make light of this shit because it is getting deeper. And here we are in Algeria. What is a cat from Arkansas, who calls San Francisco home, doing in Algeria? And listen to Kathleen behind me talking over the telephone in French. With a little loosening of the will, I could easily flip out right now!•


“Lenny Was Called A ‘Sick Comic,’ Though He Insisted That It Was Society Which Was Sick And Not Him”

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Lenny Bruce understood there are few things more obscene than a society full of people making believe that obscene things never happened, since pretending and suppressing and hiding and shushing allows true evil to flourish. The opening of Ralph J. Gleason’s emotional 1966 obituary of Bruce in Ramparts

WHEN THE BODY OF LEONARD SCHNEIDER—stage name Lenny Bruce—was found on the floor of his Hollywood hills home on August 3, the Los Angeles police immediately announced that the victim had died of an overdose of a narcotic, probably heroin.

The press and TV and radio of the nation—the mass media—immediately seized upon this statement and headlined it from coast to coast, never questioning the miracle of instant diagnosis by a layman.

The medical report the next day, however, admitted that the cause of death was unknown and the analysis ‘inconclusive.’ But, as is the way with the mass media, news grows old, and the truth never quite catches up. Lenny Bruce didn’t die of an overdose of heroin. God alone knows what he did die of.

It is ritualistically fitting that he should be the victim, in the end, of distorted news, police malignment and the final irony—being buried with an orthodox Hebrew service, after years of satirizing organized religion. But first, in a sinister evocation of Orwell and Kafka and Greek tragedy, he had to be tortured, the record twisted, and the files rewritten until his death became a relief.

Lenny was called a “sick comic,” though he insisted that it was society which was sick and not him. He was called a ‘dirty comic’ though he never used a word you and I have not heard since our childhood. His tangles with the law over the use of these words and his arrests on narcotics charges were the only two things that the public really knew about him. Mass media saw to that.

When he was in Mission General Hospital in San Francisco, the hospital announced he had screamed such obscenities that the nurses refused to work in the room with him, so they taped his mouth shut with adhesive tape. The newspapers revelled in this and he was shown on TV, his mouth taped and his eyes rolling in protest, being wheeled into the examining room. Words that nurses never heard?

What new phrases he must have invented that day, what priceless epiphanies lost to history now forever. Once, in a particularly poignant discussion of obscenity on stage, Bruce said, “If the titty is pretty it’s dirty, but not if it’s bloody and maimed . . . that’s why you never see atrocity photos at obscenity trials.” He used to point out, too, that the people who watched the killing of the Genovese girl in Brooklyn and who didn’t interfere or call a cop would have been quick to do both if it had been a couple making love. “A true definition of obscenity,” he said, “would be to sing about pork outside a synagogue.”

Bruce found infinity in the grain of sand of obscenity. From it he took off on the fabric which keeps all our lives together. “If something about the human body disgusts you,” he said, “complain to the manufacturer.” He was one of those who, in Hebbel’s expression, “have disturbed the world’s sleep.” And he could not be forgiven.•


“The Real And The Unreal In A Sense Became Totally Confused”

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I’m a little obsessed with Clifford Irving, the writer who in 1970 accepted a million-dollar check for his authorized biography of the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. One problem: Hughes knew nothing of the book. The author was trying to pass off a fake and pocket a huge payday, and just as fascinating as the ruse was Irving doggedly sticking to his story even after the whole thing fell apart spectacularly. It was a literary scandal of Madoff-ian proportions, and a case study in extreme psychological behavior.

In 1972, as Irving was about to serve a stretch in prison for fraud, Ramparts magazine assigned Abbie Hoffman to do a Q&A with the trickster. An excerpt from “How Clifford Irving Stole That Book“:

Abbie Hoffman:

Did you ever get the idea, once the authenticity was questioned, of publishing it as a work of fiction? Would that have been really possible?

Clifford Irving:

You mean since recent events?

Abbie Hoffman:

Yeah.

Clifford Irving:

Oh, yeah, I still would like to have the book published. I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written and it could easily be turned into a novel. It could also be published as is, provided libelous passages were taken out of it and provided that it stated very clearly that it’s a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. There is a court ruUng on it. As we understand it the court has given us permission to publish part or all of the book, provided that it’s made perfectly clear that it doesn’t purport to be genuine.

Abbie Hoffman:

I thought a funny incident occurred at Germaine Greer’s press party when you were introduced to Chief Red Fox. Could you talk about that a little?

Clifford Irving:

I went to this cocktail party. I was dragged along by Beverly Loo and Robert Stewart. I hate those damn cocktail parties but I had nothing to do and I wanted to meet Germaine Greer ’cause I heard she was six feet tall. But she was far more interested in talking to women’s liberation people and I stood around like a dope for awhile until I saw this beautiful old man in a corner. I asked about him and was told that’s Chief Red Fox, a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief, and I said, ‘Beautiful, I’ve got to meet him.’ And I sat at his feet for an hour or two, talked to him, and he was a marvelous old man. But the way he came on to me with the broad American accent and told me how he danced at supermarket openings and was on the Johnny Carson Show where he did a war dance to liven things up, also the way he talked about Indian history, made me a little leery and I thought, well, he’s great but he’s not a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief. Despite the fact that he was decked out like a technicolor western with a war bonnet and greasepaint make-up. And I went up to Beverly Loo and said,’He’s a great man, Beverly, but he’s no more a 101-year-old Sioux Indian than you’re the Empress Loo of the Ming Dynasty. She got very uptight about that and said, ‘What do you mean? How dare you!’ and I decided not to upset her any further so I backed off. Then of course it turned out later that there were great doubts thrown on the veracity of his books and his identity as well. I don’t know if I really smelled it out but something was funny there. I think maybe I was thinking in terms of a hoax since I was involved with one, and Chief Red Fox seemed to fit right into the category.

Abbie Hoffman:

When incidents like that happened did you start to feel you were watching a movie being made about your life or that you were acting out some kind of movie role?

Clifford Irving:

Well, going through that year I often felt that it was a happening because we sometimes had control over events but so many things happened that were absurd. And after awhile—not that I saw myself as a movie star—I saw this whole thing developing as a script, a movie script which no one would ever buy because it was ridiculous, it couldn’t possibly happen. The real and the unreal in a sense became totally confused—not that I really thought I was writing the autobiography of Howard Hughes, although of course in the act of creation you have to believe to a certain extent, but when you stop work you don’t believe any more. I mean you know what you’re doing but all the events had such a quality of ludicrousness and fantasy and coincidence that reality did at times blend with unreality. I think for the publishers as well.•

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“They Do Learn How To Read Too, But It Is A Secondary Discipline”

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In a 1966 issue of Ramparts, writer Howard Gossage tried to explain the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, whose book from two years earlier, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, had announced him as a media star with a message. An excerpt:

McLuhan’s theory is that this is the first generation of the electronic age. He says they are different because the medium that controls their environment is not print — one thing at a time, one thing after another — as it has been for 500 years. It is television, which is everything happening at once, instantaneously, and enveloping.

A child who gets his environmental training on television— and very few nowadays do not — learns the same way any member of a pre-literate society learns: from the direct experience of his eyes and ears, without Gutenberg for a middle man. Of course they do learn how to read too, but it is a secondary discipline, not primary as it is with their elders. When it comes to shaping sensory perceptions, I’m afraid that Master Gutenberg just isn’t in the same class with General Sarnoff or Doctor Stanton.

Despite the uproar over inferior or inept television fare, McLuhan does not think that the program content of television has anything to do with the real changes TV has produced; no more than whether a book is trashy or a classic has anything to do with the process of reading it. The basic message of television is television itself, the process, just as the basic message of a book is print. As McLuhan says, “The medium is the message.”

This new view of our environment is much more realistic in the light of what has happened since the advent of McLuhan’s “Electric Age.” The Gutenberg Age, which preceded it, was one thing after another in orderly sequence from cause to effect. It reached its finest flower with the development of mechanical linkages: A acts on B which acts on C which acts on D on down to the end of the line and the finished product. The whole process was thus fragmented into a series of functions, and for each function there was a specialist. This methodology was not confined to making things; it pervaded our entire economic and social system. It still does, though we are in an age when cause and effect are becoming so nearly simultaneous as to make obsolete all our accustomed notions of chronological sequence and mechanical linkage. With the dawn of the Electric Age, time and speed themselves have become of negligible importance; just flip the switch. Instant speed.

However, our methodology and thought patterns are still, for the most part, based on the old fragmentation and specialism, which may account for some of our society’s confusion, or perhaps a great deal of it.•


“By 1975 Mao Tse-Tung Himself Would Be Bowing In Homage Before The Teenage Theomorphic Guru”

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In 1973, Ken Kelley published a Ramparts profile of teenage guru Maharaji Ji, a.k.a. “The Perfect Master,” who had become popular at the time with Rennie Davis and some other gullible members of the American counterculture. It’s not the absolute best piece about the spiritual leader, but it’s good. The opening:

For an entire week, Berkeley buzzed in anticipation of the return of Rennie Davis. The incredible story of his conversion to the divine prodigy, Satguru Maharaj Ji, had been revealed in a 40-minute interview on the local FM rocker KSAN. Not only was he dedicating his entire life to Maharaj Ji, but by 1975 Mao Tse-tung himself would be bowing in homage before the teenage theomorphic guru. The reaction ranged from sympathy to Paul Krassner’s insistence that the entire enterprise was a CIA plot. In between were those who felt that Davis was bummed out by the abuse heaped on him as an active, white, male Movement heavy, disappointed by the disintegration of the anti-war movement and therefore open to the love-vibes and Telex technology which form the core of the Satguru’s appeal. Whatever the explanation, everyone was curious, and they itched to see the new Rennie Davis and hear him explain it all in the flesh.

He chose Pauley Ballroom on the U.C. campus to make his stand, a site which overlooks the famous Sproul Plaza. There, some eight years earlier, Mario Savio and his fellow students had marched to shut down the university, thereby unloosing a flood of campus protest which did not subside for five years. Rennie Davis had played a crucial role in that Movement. He had raised money, mapped strategy, given speeches, negotiated permits, written pamphlets-in short, he had done everything that the Movement had done and more. When others had grown tired and cynical, he had worked on and on, and it was only in recent months that he had begun to slacken his pace.

People had come to view Rennie Davis as better, more dedicated than the rest of us, and now, suddenly, he was telling us to surrender our hearts and minds to a barely pubescent self-proclaimed Perfect Master from India and waltz into Nirvana. It was as if Che Guevara had returned to recruit for the Campfire Girls: the anomaly was as profound as the amazement.

And so they packed the ballroom to hear Rennie Davis, and one sensed curiosity, a certain amount of hostility, and an undercurrent of fear. As he stood before the assemblage, the vultures descended. “Kiss my lotus ass.” “All power to the Maharajah, huh?” He took it in with smiles and good humor. “I’m really blissed out with a capital B,” he proclaimed in the vernacular of his new calling. “I’m just here to make a report, and if you don’t want to check out what I’m saying, that’s cool. Sooner or later you’ll find out that we are operating under a new leadership, and it is Divine, that it’s literally going to transform the planet into what we’ve always hoped and dreamed for.”•


“Ever Since Telephones Began To Make Money, There Have Been People Willing To Rob And Defraud Phone Companies”

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A year after Ron Rosenbaum’s seminal 1971 Phone Phreak story in Esquire, Ramparts until now. In 1972, that publication ran step-by-step instructions of how someone could receive phone calls for free, sans blue box. In 1973, it published a piece by Bruce Sterling about the history of hacking which explained the pre-Phreak politicized past of phone rip-offs, which was a signature of the Yippie movement. An excerpt:

Abbie Hoffman is said to have caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to amass the single largest investigation file ever opened on an individual American citizen. (If this is true, it is still questionable whether the FBI regarded Abbie Hoffman a serious public threat -quite possibly, his file was enormous simply because Hoffman left colorful legendry wherever he went). He was a gifted publicist, who regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, imagehungry media, with various weird lies, mindboggling rumors, impersonation scams, and other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops, Presidential candidates, and federal judges. Hoffman’s most famous work was a book self-reflexively known as Steal This Book, which publicized a number of methods by which young, penniless hippie agitators might live off the fat of a system supported by humorless drones. Steal This Book, whose title urged readers to damage the very means of distribution which had put it into their hands, might be described as a spiritual ancestor of a computer virus.

Hoffman, like many a later conspirator, made extensive use of pay- phones for his agitation work — in his case, generally through the use of cheap brass washers as coin-slugs.

During the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on telephone service; Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war. But this thin veil of decency was soon dropped entirely. Ripping-off the System found its own justification in deep alienation and a basic outlaw contempt for conventional bourgeois values. Ingenious, vaguely politicized varieties of rip-off, which might be described as ‘anarchy by convenience,’ became very popular in Yippie circles, and because rip-off was so useful, it was to survive the Yippie movement itself. In the early 1970s, it required fairly limited expertise and ingenuity to cheat payphones, to divert “free” electricity and gas service, or to rob vending machines and parking meters for handy pocket change. It also required a conspiracy to spread this knowledge, and the gall and nerve actually to commit petty theft, but the Yippies had these qualifications in plenty. In June 1971, Abbie Hoffman and a telephone enthusiast sarcastically known as ‘Al Bell’ began publishing a newsletter called Youth International Party Line. This newsletter was dedicated to collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones, to the joy of the freewheeling underground and the insensate rage of all straight people.

As a political tactic, phone-service theft ensured that Yippie advocates would always have ready access to the long-distance telephone as a medium, despite the Yippies’ chronic lack of organization, discipline, money, or even a steady home address.

Party Line was run out of Greenwich Village for a couple of years, then “Al Bell” more or less defected from the faltering ranks of Yippiedom, changing the newsletter’s name to TAP or Technical Assistance Program. After the Vietnam War ended, the steam began leaking rapidly out of American radical dissent. But by this time, ‘Bell’ and his dozen or so core contributors had the bit between their teeth, and had begun to derive tremendous gut-level satisfaction from the sensation of pure technical power.

TAP articles, once highly politicized, became pitilessly jargonized and technical, in homage or parody to the Bell System’s own technical documents, which TAP studied closely, gutted, and reproduced without permission. The TAP elite revelled in gloating possession of the specialized knowledge necessary to beat the system.

“Al Bell” dropped out of the game by the late 70s, and “Tom Edison” took over; TAP readers (some 1400 of them, all told) now began to show more interest in telex switches and the growing phenomenon of computer systems. In 1983, “Tom Edison” had his computer stolen and his house set on fire by an arsonist. This was an eventually mortal blow to TAP (though the legendary name was to be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian computeroutlaw named “Predat0r.”)

Ever since telephones began to make money, there have been people willing to rob and defraud phone companies. The legions of petty phone thieves vastly outnumber those “phone phreaks” who “explore the system” for the sake of the intellectual challenge. The New York metropolitan area (long in the vanguard of American crime) claims over 150,000 physical attacks on pay telephones every year! Studied carefully, a modern payphone reveals itself as a little fortress, carefully designed and redesigned over generations, to resist coinslugs, zaps of electricity, chunks of coin-shaped ice, prybars, magnets, lockpicks, blasting caps. Public pay- phones must survive in a world of unfriendly, greedy people, and a modern payphone is as exquisitely evolved as a cactus.•

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lew

The two best-selling works of fiction in 19th-century America (not counting the Bible) were likely Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The latter was written by Lew Wallace, a lawyer, diplomat and Union General who became best known as a man of letters. The current film adaptation, a revenge flick, plotzed something fierce at the box office. Perhaps there’s no place for the religious charioteer in a secular age dreaming of driverless cars.

While Wallace was largely a failure as a battlefield commander, he was forceful leader in the area of race relations, arguing against the color line in college football. There weren’t many Americans like him during his age, and they seem in shorter supply now. Wallace’s obituary from the February 16, 1905 edition of the New York Times asserts that he composed his first drafts on a slate and was good for roughly one line a day, which seems impossible if you total his literary output. The opening:

Crawfordsville, Ind.–Gen. Lew Wallace, author, formerly American Minister to Turkey, and veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, died at his home in this city to-night, aged seventy-eight years.

The health of Gen. Wallace has been failing for several years, and for months it has been known that his vigorous constitution could not much longer withstand the ravages of a wasting disease.

For more than a year he has been unable to properly assimilate food, and this, together with his advanced age, made more difficult his fight against death. At no time ever has he confessed his belief that the end was near, and his rugged constitution and remarkable vitality have done much to prolong his life.

Gen. Lew Wallace, who years ago achieved widespread distinction as a lawyer, legislator, soldier, author, and diplomat, was a man of exceptionally refined manner, broad culture, and imposing personal appearance. He was a son of David Wallace, who was elected Governor of Indiana by the Whigs in 1837. His birthplace was Brooksville, Franklin County, Ind., where he was born April 10, 1827. 

Although Gen. Wallace was famous as a soldier long before he entered the field of letters, it was through his authorship of Ben-Hur and several other popular works that he became known to the largest number of people. Ben-Hur was dramatized eighteen years after the publication of the book, the sale of which in Canada, England, and Continental Europe, as well as in the United States, was tremendous.

As a boy Lew Wallace was a keen lover of books, and his father’s possession of a large library afforded him an opportunity to become acquainted with much of the best literature of the time. From his mother he inherited a love of painting and drawing, but these instincts were overpowered by his desire for a more active life. His mother died when he was only ten years old, and from that time on he refused to submit patiently to restraint. An effort was made to send him to the town school. It was only partially successful. Later his father put him in college at Crawfordsville, but his stay there was brief.

At an early age he commenced the study of law, receiving valuable instruction from his father, and at the end of four years was admitted to the bar. He used to say that the law was the most detestable of all human occupations. It was said that he was unable to prepare a case, but when it came to trial he accepted the statements of his partner as to the law and the evidence and then, following his own convictions to the merits of the case, made an appeal which rarely failed to be effective.•

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A common theme in Christoper Mims’ smart WSJ column about the soft launch of sorts of the Internet of Things and Maarten Rikkens’ interesting Research Gate Q&A with The City of Tomorrow author Carlo Ratti is that the future is arriving with a whimper, not a bang. A world enabled by the IoT will be very different even if it doesn’t look any different. You’ll hardly notice it at first blush. You might even forget about it once you do. That’s great for practical matters and less so for issues of privacy. To my mind, that’s always been the promise and peril of such a ubiquitous, essentially invisible network.


From Mims:

Everyone is waiting for the Internet of Things. The funny thing is, it is already here. Contrary to expectation, though, it isn’t just a bunch of devices that have a chip and an internet connection.

The killer app of the Internet of Things isn’t a thing at all—it is services. And they are being delivered by an unlikely cast of characters: Uber Technologies Inc., SolarCity Corp., ADT Corp., andComcast Corp., to name a few. One recent entrant: the Brita unit ofClorox Corp., which just introduced a Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” pitcher that can re-order its own water filters.

Uber and SolarCity are interesting examples. Both rely on making their assets smart and connected. In Uber’s case, that is a smartphone in the hands of a driver for hire. For SolarCity, the company’s original business model was selling electricity directly to homeowners rather than solar panels, which requires knowing how much electricity a home’s solar panels are producing.

Here is another example: On June 23, Comcast said it would acquire a unit of Icontrol Networks Inc., which helps set up smart homes for clients. The company, founded in 2004, prides itself on being “do it for you” instead of “do it yourself,” as are most home-automation systems, says Chief Marketing Officer Letha McLaren.

Understanding that most people want to solve problems without worrying about the underlying technology was crucial, she says.•


From Rikkens:

Question:

Your book mentions that it is increasingly difficult to divorce the physical space from the digital. Does this mean that all aspects of city design should factor in IoT? Or are some aspects of city design divorced from its influence?

Carlo Ratti:

From an architectural point of view, I do not think that the city of tomorrow will look dramatically different from the city of today — much in the same way that the Roman ‘urbs’ is not all that different from the city as we know it today. We will always need horizontal floors for living, vertical walls in order to separate spaces and exterior enclosures to protect us from the outside. The key elements of architecture will still be there, and our models of urban planning will be quite similar to what we know today. What will change dramatically is the way we live in the city, at the convergence of the digital and physical world. IoT will have its biggest impact on the experience of the city, not necessarily its physical form.•

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tamajanowitz

You can’t be it for very long, and it’s probably not so much fun when you are.

In the 1980s, when New York still had a literary scene that felt central and significant, Tama Janowitz was the It Girl, chronicling and satirizing members of the striving class as they rose and fell in an unforgiving city ever-more consumed with money. Slaves that wanted to be masters, they were hungry, and by the modern vernacular, they were thirsty.

Janowitz’s own ascension to acclaimed author on the talk-show circuit whose work was adapted for the big screen was as unlikely as any, despite her talent. She was blessed. But no matter how public the success, life intervenes, the party ends. For Janowitz, it extends far beyond no longer being able to sell books that get talked about, which only a handful of serious fiction writers can still manage. In her new memoir, Scream, she details dealing with a parent’s dementia and legal battles with a sibling, among other personal calamities. It’s a long way from Letterman appearances–and a lot more interesting, as struggles usually are. 

Two excerpts follow, one from Janowitz’s best-selling bygone era and another from a review of her memoir.


The opening of Dinah Prince’s 1986 New York cover story on Tama Janowitz, written at a time when the city decided that money could buy it happiness but when literature still had a place in the discussion:

On the day before her party at the Milkbar, Tama Janowitz was in a panic. Lisa E. who had organized the affair to celebrate Janowitz’s new book of short stories,Slaves of New York, called to say she had just bought a new dress. It was long and blue and had big sexy cutouts beneath each breast.

“I was like, ‘She’s got a new dress?!‘ Janowitz recalls. “I really wanted one.”

After Janowitz hung up, the 29-year-old author tried to tell herself she would be perfectly presentable. She could wear her black velvet miniskirt and the sequined top an ex-boyfriend had got her from fashion designer Stephen Sprouse in exchange for a painting. 

“It was cute; I mean, it would have been fine,” she says.

Janowitz’s newest beau, a Texas oilman named Brady Oman, was in town for the party. When he heard about Lisa E.’s dress, he took Janowitz shopping in the East Village and SoHo.

“We ran all over looking for dresses,” Janowitz says. “He took me into IF, and, I mean, they were really pretty. But $1,500 for some froufrou thing?”

Two hours before the party, Janowitz called Paige Powell, an advertising associate at Interview.

“Paige, I have nothing to wear!” she said.

Powell met the writer and her new boyfriend at Texarkana with an armload of dresses. In the ladies’ room, Janowitz modeled a scarlet dress with one bare shoulder and a tutu that billowed from her hip.

She walked out in the dress, and it met with the approval of everyone in the restaurant,’ Powell says.

After finishing her steak, Janowitz headed to the party.

“Oh God, I tried to be nervous and thought, Well, I’ll just pretend it’s a party for somebody else,” she says. She descended the red neon-bathed staircase into the Milkbar and instantly became the center of attention. She was photographed by Newsweek, Details, and NY Talk. Patrick McMullan, a downtown paparazzo, posed her beside comedian Howie Mandel.

“I was like, I didn’t know who the person was,” she says. “Some geek who obviously didn’t know who I was and didn’t care to know who I was. But there he was, getting his picture taken with me. I said to him, ‘Howie, I’m waiting for my left breast to fall out of my dress.’ He was totally uninterested.”

Back in her tiny Horatio Street studio apartment by 2 A.M., Janowitz and Oman folded out the couch and went to bed. A few hours later, the shower curtain collapsed in the bathroom. This set off a series of ear-piercing howls from her Yorkshire terriers, Lulu and Beep-beep. Finally, after everyone got back to sleep, the phone rang at 6 A.M.

“Some guy called looking for his boyfriend,” she says, “thinking I had run off with his boyfriend.”

Such is the stuff of Tama Janowitz’s life.•


The opening of the NYT review of Scream, penned by Ada Calhoun:

“Look for the helpers” in times of tragedy, Mister Rogers advised. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.” The calamity-prone author Tama Janowitz employs an opposite strategy, focusing on those she believes are out to get her and nurturing a gimlet-eyed loathing for her fellow man. “Try as I might,” she writes, “for me, other human beings are a blend of pit vipers, chimpanzees and ants, a virtually indistinguishable mass . . . sniffing their fingers and raping.”

Janowitz’s 1986 story collection, Slaves of New York, described a culture of material striving. To make rent, its characters embraced prostitution, both professional and circumstantial. Her 2004 essay collection, Area Code 212, and various of her comic novels have satirized New York social climbers’ ruthless pursuit of wealth and nice apartments. This memoir — which spans her childhood (partly spent in 1968 Israel, where her family was booted from a hotel for not paying), her adventuresome youth (she had a fling with a 63-year-old Lawrence Durrell when she was 19), her career struggles and successes, and her more recent life as caretaker to her dying mother — shows that she comes by her obsession with money honestly.

As a quirky lit-world “it girl” (her charming, wacky Letterman appearances hold up), Janowitz enjoyed a glamorous lifestyle. But she always positioned herself as a misfit outsider. Not for nothing did Janowitz appear in her heyday on the cover of New York magazine beside a slab of meat. Here she punctures myths of the erstwhile art-party scene. Studio 54 was indeed hip, she writes, though you had to be careful on the dance floor, lest you slip, or somebody “suddenly shove a popper up your nose.”
 
Now, exiled in upstate New York, coping with her beloved mother’s decline and embroiled in a series of real estate-based dramas, she enjoys little besides horseback riding and mocking the psychotic organization of her local supermarket.•

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With the publication of Jeffrey Toobin’s Patty Hearst book, American Heiress, here’s a 1975 Jesus H. Christ! episode of Geraldo Rivera’s long-ago talk show, Good Night America, which focused on the FBI’s aggressive attempts to capture the at-large Symbionese Liberation Army hostage-cum-soldier, the newspaper scion getting at that point more ink than anyone in the country.

What’s most interesting is that hippie-ish basketball player Bill Walton, then with the Portland Trail Blazers, was hassled by the Feds who believed he knew where “Tania” was hiding. The host taped an interview in San Francisco with the NBA star and speaks in studio to sportswriters Jack and Micki Scott and attorney William Kunstler. Watch here.•

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If our species survives in the long run, some things are probably inevitable: 3D-printed organs, computer chips treating brain diseases, drug delivery via nanoparticles. These will certainly be positive developments. The trickier aspect arrives when we shift from treating what are clearly biological flaws to opting for augmentation, that moment when humanness itself is viewed as a “failing.”

Paul Armstrong of Forbes addresses these issues in a Q&A with futurist Gerd Leonhard, author of the soon-to-be published Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash Between Man and MachineIt’s a good exchange, with Leonhard voicing concern about tools moving from inside our chest pockets to inside our chests. He argues humans are ill-prepared for a future where machines achieve superintelligence.

The opening:

Paul Armstrong:

You say humanity will change more in the next 20 years than it has in the last 300. Why do you think this is true when most technological advances seem to have had little to do with humans themselves and rather the effect they have or problems they have created for themselves?

Gerd Leonhard:

Technology is always created by humans and in turn re-defining what we can and will do. Every single technological change is now impacting humanity in a much deeper way than ever before because technology will soon impact our own biology, primarily via the rise of genome editing and artificial intelligence. Technology is no longer just a tool we use to achieve something – we are actually (as McLuhan predicted) becoming tools (ie. technology) ourselves. Some of my futurist colleagues call this transhumanism – something I personally think we should examine with great caution. Yet, exponential technological development in sectors such as computing and deep learning, nano-science, material sciences, energy (batteries!) etc means that beyond a doubt we are quickly heading towards that point where computers / robots / AI will have the same processing power as the human brain (10 quadrillion CPS – connections per second), the so-called singularity, in probably less than 10 years. When this happens we will need to decide of we want to ‘merge’ with the machines or not, and the stance I am taking in this book is clear on that discussion: we should embrace technology but not become it, because technology is not what we seek, it’s how we seek!•

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