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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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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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patty-hearst-american-heiress-the-wild-saga-of-the-kidnapping-crimes-and-trial-of-patty-hearts-jeffrey-toobin-book-seventies-criThe transformation of heiress Patty Hearst from debutante to terrorist after her 1974 abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army is endlessly interesting as a study in extreme psychological metamorphosis, though its fascination four decades ago lie mostly mostly in its more lurid aspects, the violent collision of rich and poor, of high society and anti-social impulses, the sacred taking up with the profane. It was worlds colliding, an impact that made the masses feel unsafe, that so fixated the nation. The Lindbergh baby was alive and conspiring with the kidnappers. Anything, it seemed, was possible, and how could that be good?

Jeffrey Toobin, the wonderful New Yorker writer and legal analyst, just published American Heiress, a book about the scion-gone-wild, though he’s fully cognizant that titles about the crimes of the rich and famous, “Tania” or O.J., for whatever they may tell us about America, aren’t nearly the most important stories to tell. One exchange from a recent New York Times interview with Toobin:

What’s the last great book you read?

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. Meticulously reported and gracefully written, this book captures the horror of urban violence in Los Angeles. At roughly the same time as Leovy was shadowing L.A.P.D. detectives in East L.A., I was across town, covering O. J. Her book made me think twice about what counts as a “big” story.

That’s the truth, though Hearst’s case speaks to the seismic shift young people (and some older ones) can make, whether we’re talking about her, Manson Family members, Jonestown joiners or ISIS acolytes. 

Three pieces follow: 1) An excerpt from Dana Spitotta’s NYT review of Toobin’s title, 2) A segment of a 1974 People interview with psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, who consulted with the family while Patty was underground, and 3) A 1974 video of the devastated Randolph Hearst discussing his daughter’s life on the lam. 


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From Spiotta:

Perhaps the captivity story that has fascinated us the most is the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the subject of Jeffrey Toobin’s terrifically engrossing new book, “American Heiress.” The brief outline of the events will be familiar to many: Hearst was taken from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or S.L.A. (a tiny, slogan-drunk band of revolutionaries so obsessed with guns and publicity that they seem almost pre-­satirized). After being held in a closet and haphazardly coached in guerrilla warfare and revolutionary theory, Hearst declared — in a notorious message delivered in a mesmerizing combination of “breathy rich-girl diction” and “pidgin Marxist” jargon — that she was now “Tania,” that she had not been brainwashed and that her captors had offered to let her go, but “I have chosen to stay and fight.” She then helped to rob banks (in which one bystander died) and plant bombs until she was apprehended in 1975. In custody, she claimed that all of her crimes were committed under duress. Her lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, built his defense on the argument that she had acted out of “coercive persuasion” (Stockholm syndrome was not yet a common concept). She was found guilty and served nearly two years of her sentence before President Carter commuted it to time served. 

Was Patricia Hearst responsible for her crimes, or was she a victim who did what she needed to do to survive? Or is the truth somewhere in between? The story has been the subject of many books — some dozen are listed by Toobin. Also inspired by the case: two novels (“Trance,” by Christopher Sorrentino, and “American Woman,” by Susan Choi), a feature film, several documentaries, at least two porn movies and an episode of “Drunk History.” Hearst herself wrote a book. Yet the questions remain unresolved, which is one reason for Toobin to investigate. Another is that he sees the episode as “a kind of trailer for the modern world” in terms of celebrity culture, the media and criminal justice.•


As surprising as it is that so many middle-class youths are drawn today via social media to ISIS, Patty Hearst, practically American royalty, being kidnapped in 1974 by the SLA and then converted somehow to its terrorist cause, completely stunned the world. She didn’t go willingly, but she became a willing accomplice, brainwashed probably, though a lot of Americans were unforgiving. It seems like some of the same factors that work for ISIS may have helped the SLA remake the debutante as “Tania.” Whatever the situation, USC psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, whom the family hired while she was still on the lam to help them understand their daughter’s descent into terrorism, probably should not have discussed the case with Barbara Wilkins of People magazine while she was still at large, but he did. An excerpt:

Question:

Why did the Hearsts consult you?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I had published a book on terrorism in Germany in 1973—dealing with the Olympic tragedy in Munich and the Arab-Israeli situation. In September ’73, I became a negotiator in Vienna between the government and two Arab terrorists. After that, I was invited to speak at Harvard and the State Department and to testify before the House Committee on Internal Security. That was how the Hearsts heard about me and my work.

Question:

When did you get involved in the case of Patricia Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

When a Mr. Gould of the Hearst newspapers called me up, on behalf of the family, about four weeks after the kidnapping. I went up to Hillsborough to visit the Hearsts. I told them to take the SLA at face value, to take the political message seriously. And I urged them to get a concession for every concession they made.

Question:

What have you discovered about Patty Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I had not known her before, of course. By now everyone has read what her life had been. She was an average, intelligent girl. She lived an unspectacular life with her former tutor. She was more liberal than her family but was still relatively conservative. She was totally without political interests. She was sheltered. She’d gone to Europe with some other girls and, prior to Steve [her fiance Steven Weed], she’d had three or four other boyfriends. She was never very close to any of her sisters. The oldest sister, a polio victim, had deep religious convictions. Patty had a bad relationship with her mother, but a fairly good one with her father. They could talk. When she was kidnapped, Patty was picking out her silverware pattern, because she had talked Steve into marrying her.

Question:

What is the lure of the SLA for a girl like Patty Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

In spite of everything, the sense of close proximity among these people gives a feeling of family, of community and caring. There is shared danger and a sense of strong commitment that is very impressive to the uncommitted.

Question:

Was Patty’s conversion voluntary?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

Everybody asks how voluntary her conversion was. I raise the question, “How intentional was the SLA’s conversion of Patricia?” Maybe they didn’t want to convert her at first. Let’s look at it this way. She’s kidnapped, and she’s frightened and inclined to believe these people are really monsters. Then they treat her very nicely. She begins to talk to them, to the girls. She finds they are very much the kind of people she is—upper-middle-class, intelligent, white kids. She finds a poetess, a sociologist. They tell her how they have found a new ideal and how lousy it was at home. Perhaps she started to think, “Well, at my home it wasn’t so hot either.” This may be what happened. There is a strong possibility, of course, that she was brainwashed. Maybe they did use drugs, although none was found in the bodies after the L.A. shoot-out. …

Question:

Was Patricia in on the kidnapping from the beginning?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

She was undoubtedly a genuine victim. All the talk that she was in cahoots is nonsense. All the evidence, in fact, is against it, including the testimony of her boyfriend, who has no conceivable reason to lie. Why did she have her identification with her? A kidnap victim doesn’t—unless someone else grabs it and takes it along.

Question:

What makes a terrorist?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

A number of different things. Usually the terrorist is imbued with the righteousness of his cause, and fanatacized by the idea of remediable injustice. For example, as long as you could tell women that it was God’s will that they were mistreated by men and that it was irremediable, there was no movement to change things. As soon as it becomes clear that an injustice is not fated, is not obligatory, and that there are alternatives, then the dominant group is in trouble.

Question:

Are there different kinds of terrorists?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I distinguish three categories—the criminal, the mentally deranged and the political. With the SLA, it is not easy to confine them to one category. They are criminally involved because some of their tactics are criminal. Some actions are loony and the details are ludicrous. When Cinque’s body was found, he was wearing heavy pants, army boots up to his calf and three pairs of woolen socks—in Southern California where the temperature was 80°. He had a compass and a canteen. That’s inappropriate. They stole from that sporting goods store, but they certainly did not need the money. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars were found on all the bodies. Only the outside of the folded money burned. There were nutty elements. What kind of an army is 20 people, or 10 people? They were also political, and that is what made it so hard.

Question:

These radical movements seem to attract middle-and upper-middle-class children rather than the lower-middle-class and poor. Why?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

You are asking who becomes a revolutionary. The leaders of a revolution don’t come from the class they are trying to liberate. The to-be-liberated group doesn’t have the means to lead itself out of oppression.

Question:

What can be done about terrorism?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

First, you must change the “remediable” conditions that produce the terrorist solution—for instance, somehow you get rid of the Palestinian refugee camps. Second, the mass media must effect restraint so that terrorist crime does not become fashionable. Finally, I believe we must establish task forces led by law enforcement executives who are advised by responsible behavioral scientists.•


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This 1970s video contains comments Randolph Hearst made to NBC News about his daughter Patty, who was at the time doing a walkabout through the Radical Left. “I think she’s staying underground just like a lot of kids stay underground,” her clearly shaken father remarked, accurately assessing the situation. Before the end of the decade, she was captured, convicted, imprisoned and, controversially, had her sentence commuted. In January 2001, Bill Clinton felt it necessary to grant her a full pardon.

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Despite the constantly updated headlines, the world is likely getting much better by most measures, the major asterisk being climate change. Conditions have never seemed worse, though, with beheadings, xenophobia and terrorism in our faces and on our minds. A connected and wired world presents many shocks to the system, the Global Village both boon and bane. But we only seem to foresee dystopias now. 

H.G. Wells, who wrote science fiction before it was so named, envisioned tomorrow’s downsides but held out hope. The author believed we should toss out the history books, which he felt poisoned us with nationalism, and start anew. His more optimistic side has been adopted by many Silicon Valley technologists, his pessimism by those crafting fiction. A strange dichotomy.

Excerpts from: 1) John Higgs’ Guardian article about the contemporary obsession with things falling apart, and 2) Jaron Lanier’s 2011 Edge article on Wells’ concerns about wealth inequality in the age of machines.

 


From Higgs:

For Wells, imagining a viable version of the future was an intellectual game. It was a chance to show off, and a seemingly respectable way to be deeply subversive. Writing to his friend Elizabeth Healy, he described Anticipations, his 1901 book of predictions, as “designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy, faith in God and respectability – and the British empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electric heating”. Futurology, for Wells, was exhilarating. The idea that writers would give up even trying was so implausible that Wells never imagined it.

The sudden disappearance of worthwhile futures from our culture coincided with the rise in our understanding of climate change. Global warming indeed appears inevitable and apocalyptic, but is this reason enough to remove all hope from our visions of the future? Rising sea levels, the need to decarbonise the economy, and chaotic shifts in ecosystems are all difficult problems to engage with, but we are a species that lived through the Black Death, the Somme and the threat of global thermonuclear war. It seems odd that we would give up now.

I suspect the real problem is as much a rejection of originality as it is a reaction to climate change. In a hypermediated age where we are constantly engaged in filtering out the irrelevant, the last thing we want is to tackle the genuinely new.

But originality was Wells’s calling card.•


From Lanier:

This brings us back, literally thousands of years to an ancient discussion that continues to this day about exactly how people can make a living, or make their way when technology gets better. There is an Aristotle quote about how when the looms can operates themselves, all men will be free. That seems like a reasonable thing to say, a precocious thing for somebody to have said in ancient times. If we zoom forward to the 19th century, we had a tremendous amount of concern about this question of how people would make their way when the machines got good. In fact, much of our modern intellectual world started off as people’s rhetorical postures on this very question.

Marxism, the whole idea of the left, which still dominates the Bay Area where this interview is taking place, was exactly, precisely about this question. This is what Marx was thinking about, and in fact, you can read Marx and it sometimes weirdly reads likes a Silicon Valley rhetoric. It’s the strangest thing; all about “boundaries falling internationally,” and “labor and markets opening up,” and all these things. It’s the weirdest thing.

In fact, I had the strange experience years ago, listening to some rhetoric on the radio … it was KPFA, in fact, the lefty station … and I thought, ‘Oh, God, it’s one of these Silicon startups with their rhetoric about how they’re going to bring down market barriers,’ and it turned out to be an anniversary reading of Das Kapital. The language was similar enough that one could make the mistake.

The origin of science fiction was exactly in this same area of concern. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine foresees a future in which there are the privileged few who benefit from the machines, and then there are the rest who don’t, and both of them become undignified, lesser creatures. Separate species.•


H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles in San Antonio (audio only):

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Yawning wealth inequality seems to be contributing to contemporary political and cultural chaos, so the 1% in the U.S. and Europe has been subject to intense scrutiny over the past few years, even if the result has been more analysis than policy action. In the case of Brazil, the beleaguered host of the soon-to-be Summer Games, distribution is so out of wack you need look no further than the excesses of the .0001% to understand how stacked a deck can be.

Proof comes in the pages of Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires, which examines the nation’s super-rich and how they got be that way. The short answer is that oligarchs were deemed useful by economic reformers who saw a quick way to lift millions from poverty, though the long-term effects of the deal with the devil are far more complicated.

In “Brazil’s Billionaire Problem,” Patrick Iber’s smart New Republic review of the book, the critic looks at South America’s largest state and sees a microcosm. An excerpt:

The most important billionaire to the book is unquestionably Eike Batista. Eike, as he is known, rose as high as the global number 8 on the Bloomberg list of billionaires, valued at over $30 billion dollars. He was open about his ambitions to become the world’s richest man. Eike is a champion speedboat racer, has state-of-the-art hair implants, and was once married to Luma de Oliveira, a Playboy model and carnaval queen. One of their sons, Thor Batista, documents his enormous muscular torso on Instagram and, until not long ago, drove a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren valued at more than a million US dollars. Eike and his family could hardly be more representative of the billionaire playboy lifestyle of the global ultra-wealthy.

Eike also serves as a symbol of the problems of today’s Brazil, and about half of the chapters in Brazillionaires are devoted to him. In spite of what would seem to be fundamental differences in outlook and ideology, Eike forged a pragmatic working relationship with the governments of the center-left Workers’ Party. Until President Dilma Roussef was suspended from office by hostile legislators this May, the country had been governed by the center-left Workers’ Party since 2003, first under the metalworker and union organizer Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and then under Dilma (2011-2016). Before Lula took office, Brazil’s wealthy worried about what would happen when a Lula, a former socialist, assumed power. Eike himself described it as a regression. But Lula was determined to break the association of left-wing rule with economic chaos, and built alliances with Brazilian oligarchs.

Lula embraced a developmentalist program that Cuadros describes as “wanting to bring the nation not so much into the twenty-first century, with tech and high finance, but into the twentieth, with ports, dams, and big, basic Brazilian companies.” Because Eike controlled a suite of interrelated companies, mostly in the mining and gas sectors, and had made big bets on offshore drilling, he received major loans from Brazil’s state-controlled development bank. He grew close to Lula.

Corruption is almost an expected part of business and political deals in Brazil, and Eike, though often portrayed as an “American-style”, “self-made” entrepreneur, was in no way exceptional. He helped finance a flattering biopic about Lula and spent quarter of a million dollars at an auction to purchase a suit Lula had worn to his inauguration. But in spite of evidence of corruption and conflicts of interest through the political system, for a time everyone seemed to be benefitting. Brazil’s economy made enormous strides. The middle class grew and quality of life standards among the poor improved dramatically. Malnutrition was cut in half. One of Lula signature programs, Bolsa Família, provides direct cash transfers to the poor, partially in exchange for children’s school attendance. Many of the billionaires Cuadros interviewed justified their wealth with some version of the “what’s good for GM is good for the country” argument. Most Brazilians found the approach acceptable: Lula left office with an approval rating over eighty percent.

But problems emerged by 2013.•

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The writer Calum Chace, an all-around interesting thinker, is conducting a Reddit AMA based on his new book, The Economic Singularity, which sees a future–and not such a far-flung one–when human labor is a thing of the past. It’s certainly possible since constantly improving technology could make fleets of cars driverless and factories workerless. In fact, there’s no reason why they can’t also be ownerless. 

What happens then? How do we reconcile a free-market society with an automated one? In the long run, it could be a great victory for humanity, but getting from here to there will be bumpy. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

So it seems to me that most of the benefit of capitalism for working-class people come from jobs. Companies need a workforce, and are willing to pay for it. So a lot of the profit gets spread around to a lot of people.

If a few companies could break this model on a large scale, by leveraging automation to allow a relatively small core group of employees to operate a national or international corporation, then that would force everyone to do it in order to stay competitive.

I’m assuming that this is some of what you’re talking about in the book (just guessing from the title and an amazon summary).

I could see the first fully (>98%) automated company making waves in a decade or two. People on /r/futorology like to wax utopian, but a company with <100 employees and billions in automated infrastructure isn’t going to allow themselves to be operated for the public good. The product might be cheap, but it’s not free, and that company is no longer employing enough people to matter.

They’ll have a global reach (through subcontracted shipping companies) coupled with automated vehicles that don’t need to sleep or visit family. They can legally exist in whichever country is cheapest tax-wise, and still destroy the competition on the other side of the globe.

So, lots of rambling. But that’s my question, basically.In your opinion, what might the replacement for capitalism look like?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I think you’ve identified exactly the first stage of the argument. Intelligent machines are probably going to render most of us unemployable.

So how shall we all live? The answer, initially at least, will be some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) which is often discussed here and at a sister Reddit page specifically on the subject. UBI will have to be paid for by taxes, and that raises some tricky questions about how the rich people who pay the taxes are going to respond.

I am fundamentally optimistic. The people who are going to be richest are those who own the AI, since that will generate much of the value throughout the economy. The likes of Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc etc don’t seem to me to be primarily motivated by money, but by an excitement about the future and a desire to see it arrive sooner.

So I don’t think they will want the rest of us to starve. The mechanism by which UBI is phased in, and how it pans out across international boundaries are going to take a lot of detailed planning. Which we haven’t started yet.


Question:

I also think people are underestimating VR & crowdsourcing’s role.

If VR makes things like microtasking more attractive to do and enables the microtaskers (crowd-workers) to do more, then flexwork/ gig-work might become even more popular. I have an ebook that I’m finishing up now that explores this a little bit (& even ties it to robotics).

Do you have any guesses for VR and the future of work?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I talk about the gig economy (microtasking) in my book. A report by PwC says that 7% of US adults are already engaged in it. I’m not sure whether the experience is so great for most of them at the moment, though. Are they “micro-entrepreneurs” or “instaserfs” – members of a new “precariat”? Either way, it will probably get bigger.

It’s hard to avoid waxing lyrical about the potential impact of VR. Oculus Rift has made nothing like the splash since its launch this year a lot of people (including me) expected it to, but it’s probably just obeying Amara’s Law, that we tend to over-estimate the effect of a technology in the short run and under-estimate the effect in the long run.

In that long run I can well imagine VR bringing about the long-awaited death of geography, but it’s probably going to take a while yet. Meanwhile, I’m not sure it will have that much impact on overall levels of employment, other than adding some because of all the virtual experiences that need to be created.


Question:

I think the outcome can be wonderful: a world of radical abundance.

Calum Chace:

I very much agree with you there, I think that all (7 billion + of us globally) are going to be vastly richer from all of this.

For example, when AI can administer the expertise of top doctors & consultants to everyone on the planet for pennies, this is wealth unlike humanity has ever known before.

I wonder though, on the road to this future, are we in for some quite chaotic breaks from the past.

Exactly, and the sooner we start thinking seriously about where we want to get to and how best to get there, the more likely we are to make the journey successfully.

I think the more people who are aware of what is coming, the better. I’m encouraged by the remarkable sea-change in awareness of AI progress that has already occurred. The publication of Bostrom’s Superintelligence led to high-profile comments by the three wise men (Hawking, Musk and Gates) and the publication of Ford’s Rise of the Robots was another seminal moment.

Like a lot of people here, I’ve been talking about the huge importance of AI to anyone who would listen for years and years. I got a lot of benign virtual pats on the head. Now people are listening.

Self-driving cars will probably be the canary in the coal mine. Once they are common sights, people won’t be able to avoid thinking seriously about what is coming.

But we need a positive narrative about the good things that can happen so that the response isn’t panic, or a rush into the embrace of the next populist demagogue who happens along.•

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The excerpt from Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel that unfortunately ran recently in the New Yorker was more than enough for me–way more than enough–and I won’t be investing the time to read the dodgy book. Absent journalistic and personal ethics, the story has been further muddied by revelations of fabrications that basic reportage would have uncovered. Excuses have been made, but the work is stained by the worst excesses of New Journalism, which opened the craft to a wider style, sure, but also made reporting prone to dubious veracity and methods. It’s odd the piece ended up in the New Yorker, which under David Remnick has largely been an impenetrable fortress against such slipshod narratives.

Jack Shafer has read the book so we don’t have to, reviewing it for the New York Times. His opening:

The average reader will greet more with anger than sadness Gay Talese’s disclosure — almost halfway through his book The Voyeur’s Motel — that the detailed sex journal underpinning this zany work of nonfiction can’t be trusted. 

Talese — whose use of the tools of fiction to propel factual accounts helped found New Journalism in the 1960s — drops the self-impeaching evidence casually. Calling into doubt the veracity of his book, Talese writes that the suburban Denver motel owner Gerald Foos claims to have started observing and transcribing the private business of his guests in 1966, peering down at them through 6-by-14-inch surveillance grates he installed in the ceilings of a dozen rooms of his 21-unit motel. The problem with the Foos account, Talese adds, is that he didn’t buy Manor House Motel until 1969, meaning that he must have imagined several years of the wild motel bed-sports described in his journal. 

Further evidence that the Foos story is cooked: “And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan,” Talese writes, stating that Foos “could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.” 

Ordinarily when a journalist discovers profoundly discrediting testimony like this, he utters “Whoa,” itemizes the discrepancies and digs deeper. But not so Talese, who only shrugs at the revelation that his main source has lied to him without detailing the fibs. “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” he writes.

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In an Esquire interview conducted by Luke O’Neil, Jesse Ventura claims to be weary of stupid Americans, but who else buys the idiotic conspiracy theories he peddles to gain attention and money? Only Alex Jones has profited more from the gullibility of the masses. It’s not exactly a harmless vocation, either, since his 9/11 Truther nonsense encourages citizens with a loose grasp on reality to be further governed by such garbage. It’s not that Ventura doesn’t ever address any genuine coverups or such, but that actually makes it worse, intermingling horseshit with honesty, as if there really were no difference between the two.

An excerpt from the Q&A’s introduction:

John Kerry once said, “In America, you have a right to be stupid.” Nowhere is that more true than in the world of politics. That quote leads off Sh*t Politicians Say, the latest book from Jesse Ventura, a man who knows of what he speaks.

In the book, the onetime governor of Minnesota, Vietnam veteran, actor, professional wrestler, media personality, and current icon of libertarian-hued, conspiracy-minded wokeness, walks us through a collection of some of the dumbest things U.S. politicians have said throughout history. And things have only gotten stupider over time. 

“Stupid seems to be everywhere these days,” Ventura writes. “Some believe it’s because the human race is getting stupider and stupider with every passing year. Me? …I’d like to thank television, the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle for bringing more stupid to the public consciousness more efficiently than ever before.”•

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There are tons of futurists now, even if they identify by other names (economists, political scientists, etc.) You could easily make an argument that today is the golden age of tomorrow.

An aversion to myopia is great, though thinking solely about the future also has its costs. In a Fast Company article about the current fixation on futurism, D.J. Pangburn focuses on Hal Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars, a book that questions our constant obsession with the next big thing and distrust of those who don’t buy into such sci-fi scenarios.

When wealthy technologists talk excitedly about space-mining minting the first trillionaires while offering those left behind the promise of some basic income, it becomes clear they don’t realize they’re encouraging bloody revolution. But a scan of books published in the last few years reveals numerous titles by technologists and futurists wary of where we’re headed, believing investments must be made in the present as well.

An excerpt:

Another recurring theme in Trees on Mars is Niedzviecki skeptic’s view of the futurist. He sees the ascension of the futurist to a preeminent place in society—and the idea that all should become futurists for individual and collective progress—as deeply problematic.

Should everyone be a futurist? Niedzviecki doesn’t think so, but he is seeing a massive revolution in how societies are positioning themselves around technological success, a repositioning of education around technology; a reorganization of societal goals around the “latest chimeras of success”—the best futurists who knew what was going to happen before it happened, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In doing this, Niedzviecki believes we run the risk of condemning those people who really don’t feel it’s necessary or interesting to think as futurists.

“It’s self-satisfying bullshit from a small set of people who were able to take advantage of this and sell this,” Niedzviecki says. “And my line of frustration runs through the whole book and perhaps culminates when I go to SXSW Interactive.”

There Niedzviecki sat in on a panel dealing with disruption, where he listened to “high-priced, famous gurus” tell attendees that if they can’t keep up with the pace of disruption then they are failures that will be left behind. Niedzviecki recalls sitting there thinking: “That’s not the way it is—that’s the way you have made it.”

“I think the vast majority of people who preach disruption do not understand the ramifications of what they’re saying,” Niedzviecki said.•

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Encouraging Jonah Lehrer to return to publishing is not much different than ushering a gambling addict back to a craps table and telling him to have better luck this time. The game will not likely end well.

Something in his makeup triggers in the disgraced neuroscientist unacceptable, compulsive behavior when he’s at a keyboard (and maybe elsewhere?), and it would seem he’d be best served by laboring in a different vocation while dedicating the many years it will take to figuring out the source of his waywardness. The plagiarist and fabulist doesn’t need to disappear from the face of the earth or anything, but it’s probably good to keep him a safe distance from the dice. 

Lehrer has just written A Book About Love, which, Simon & Schuster would like you to know, is a book about love. Jennifer Senior of the New York Times reviews the title in her usual sharp, lucid manner, finding an author who hasn’t truly reversed course but merely shifted. An excerpt:

In retrospect — and I am hardly the first person to point this out — the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing. It was a referendum on a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new.

Apparently, he’s learned nothing. This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down. …

As for the question that’s on everyone’s mind — did Mr. Lehrer play by the rules in this book? — I think the answer is complicated, but unpromising.

In an author’s note, Mr. Lehrer says that he se”nt his quotes to everyone he interviewed and that his book was independently fact-checked. And it’s true that this book contains far more citations than his previous work.

But I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations.•

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