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Even under the best of circumstances, sperm banks aimed at creating “superior babies” are a faulty proposition. Want the donor father to be a Harvard grad? Remember that Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner and Lou Dobbs—not particularly good or bright people—all fill that bill. Even the so-called “Nobel Prize sperm bank” didn’t really birth any great genius. Despite proactive planning, producing prodigies is a hit-or-miss proposition.

If such a sector serves any purpose at all, it’s as a harbinger of what’s to come when biotech eventually allows adults to “design” their offspring with greater precision. Such “remixing” probably won’t be possible in any profound way in our lifetimes, but something tells me that when it is, we’ll all be smart and beautiful and still kind of shitty.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha’s Washington Post article on the contemporary fertility industry:

Fertility companies freely admit that specimens from attractive donors go fast, but it’s intelligence that drives the pricing: Many companies charge more for donors with a graduate degree.

Talent sells, too. One cryobank, Family Creations, which has offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and other large cities, notes that a 23-year-old egg donor “excels in calligraphy, singing, modeling, metal art sculpting, painting, drawing, shading and clay sculpting.” A 29-year-old donor “excels in softball, tennis, writing and dancing.”

The Seattle Sperm Bank categorizes its donors into three popular categories: “top athletes,” “physicians, dentists and medical residents,” and “musicians.”

And the Fairfax Cryobank in Northern Virginia, one of the nation’s largest, typically stocks sperm from about 500 carefully vetted donors whose profiles read like overeager suitors on a dating site: Donor No. 4499 “enjoys swimming, fencing and reading and writing poetry.” Donor No. 4963 “is an easygoing man with a quick wit.” Donor No. 4345 has “well-developed pectorals and arm muscles.”

Some companies offer a face-matching service that finds donors who look most like the prospective mom or dad. Or, if they prefer, like Jennifer Lawrence. Or Taye Diggs. Or any other famous person they want their offspring to resemble.•

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Larry Page long promised to keep the more anarchic elements of Google discrete from mainstream society. In 2013, he openly pined for a patch of America which his company could employ as a lawless laboratory—a Burning Man of sorts in which the fire could really run wild. From a Verge article of that year:

“There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.” Google is already well-known for coming up with some pretty interesting ideas — the idea of seeing what Page could come up with in this lawless beta-test country is simultaneously exciting and a bit terrifying.•

Of course, Page’s promise was always an empty one. Eric Schimdt was more forthcoming three years earlier when he wrote that the Internet was the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” Since Google was the biggest search engine by far, it’s place in this brave new world was central. Our gamble on an interconnected, unregulated global village played out astoundingly badly over the last calendar year as weaponized Russian bots were deployed on the lane-less highways of Google, Facebook and Twitter to disrupt important elections in the UK and USA. The interference led to Brexit and President Trump, so the Kremlin was elated, but it wasn’t without a backup plan should it fall short of those gargantuan goals: Simply fomenting a race war would have also been acceptable. That Google nearly a year after America’s Election Day is still publishing obvious misinformation for profit suggests the perilous experiments which have played out on Main Street in broad daylight will continue to do so as long as there’s money to be made.

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As for Google getting a barren stretch of remote land to use as its physical testing grounds, the dream has been changed and upgraded. Why settle for the sticks when you can get a place downtown? Once of Ray Bradbury’s worst ideas, which he discussed in 1996, was that “enlightened corporations” could take over cities. Along those lines, Google aims to have its Sidewalk Labs build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto. Not to say that Page, Brin, Schmidt et al., want to detonate explosives on Spadina or bring flying cars to Yonge, but that a scenario in which billionaire technologists are allowed control over a city or even a few city blocks is in and of itself a dangerous experiment.

The opening of Emily Badger’s New York Times piece “Google’s Founders Wanted to Shape a City. Toronto Is Their Chance.“:

Google’s founders have long fantasized about what would happen if the company could shape the real world as much as it has life on the internet.

“Years ago, we were sitting there thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities?” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (now Google’s parent company), said Tuesday. “And our founders got really excited about this. We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”

That is, of course, an outlandish idea. “For all sorts of good reasons, by the way, it doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Schmidt acknowledged. But there he was standing Tuesday before an array of Canadian flags, in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario officials, to announce the closest thing anyone has seen to a tech company that takes the reins in a major city.

Toronto has about 800 acres of waterfront property awaiting redevelopment, a huge and prime stretch of land that amounts to one of the best opportunities in North America to rethink at scale how housing, streets and infrastructure are built. On Tuesday the government and the group overseeing the land announced that they were partnering with an Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, to develop the site.

They want it to embody the city of the future, a technological test bed for other communities around the world, “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”•

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Came across the above online ad quite by accident when searching yesterday on Google, nearly a year after our Presidential Election was bombarded by weaponized disinformation via the search giant as well as Facebook and Twitter, exploding our democracy. It’s difficult to believe that the Page-Brin company, valued at $498 billion, couldn’t have invested in emergency measures to make sure the flow of sludge stopped until the algorithms could be improved. If they couldn’t be adequately upgraded to curb the problem, then a relatively small amount of money could be directed to hire sentient beings to curtail much of the Kremlin-coded mayhem. Social media, a tool America created, has been turned on us, and it’s clear by now that Silicon Valley giants have neither the way nor the will to arrest the trouble without oversight.

From Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article “What Facebook Did to American Democracy,” a passage about how Fake News became Big Business, with Silicon Valley profiting from it handsomely:

In a December 2015 article for BuzzFeed, Joseph Bernstein argued that the dark forces of the internet became a counterculture.” He called it “Chanterculture” after the trolls who gathered at the meme-creating, often-racist 4chan message board. Others ended up calling it the “alt-right.” This culture combined a bunch of people who loved to perpetuate hoaxes with angry Gamergaters with “free-speech” advocates like Milo Yiannopoulos with honest-to-God neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And these people loved Donald Trump.

“This year Chanterculture found its true hero, who makes it plain that what we’re seeing is a genuine movement: the current master of American resentment, Donald Trump,” Bernstein wrote. “Everywhere you look on ‘politically incorrect’ subforums and random chans, he looms.”

When you combine hyper-partisan media with a group of people who love to clown “normies,” you end up with things like Pizzagate, a patently ridiculous and widely debunked conspiracy theory that held there was a child-pedophilia ring linked to Hillary Clinton somehow. It was just the most bizarre thing in the entire world. And many of the figures in Bernstein’s story were all over it, including several who the current president has consorted with on social media.

But Pizzagate was but the most Pynchonian of all the crazy misinformation and hoaxes that spread in the run-up to the election.

BuzzFeed, deeply attuned to the flows of the social web, was all over the story through reporter Craig Silverman. His best-known analysis happened after the election, when he showed that “in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election-news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

But he also tracked fake news before the election, as did other outlets such as The Washington Post, including showing that Facebook’s “Trending” algorithm regularly promoted fake news. By September of 2016, even the Pope himself was talking about fake news, by which we mean actual hoaxes or lies perpetuated by a variety of actors.

The longevity of Snopes shows that hoaxes are nothing new to the internet. Already in January 2015, Robinson Meyer reported about how Facebook was “cracking down on the fake news stories that plague News Feeds everywhere.”

What made the election cycle different was that all of these changes to the information ecosystem had made it possible to develop weird businesses around fake news.•

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Vision and speech recognition are cornerstones of Artificial Intelligence, but they’ll also be utilized in a further assault on reality should they fall into the wrong hands, which they will, of course, as they’ll be in all hands soon enough. A race for AI dominance among nations and corporations almost demands a boom in this sector. Soon enough, the veracity of everything from ancient history to the most recent trending topic will become even more muddled.

Even Disney devotee Ray Bradbury, who more than 50 years ago anxiously anticipated one fine day in the twenty-first century when a computerized Caesar would again address the masses, was leery about what might come to pass. “Am I frightened by any of this?” he asked. “Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error.”

In an excellent Conversation essay about the meaning of the original Blade Runner prompted by the release of its sequel, Marsha Gordon wonders about the withering of memory in the presence of profound AI, as reality receives an “upgrade.” An excerpt:

Today, the relationship between corporations, machines and humans defines modern life in ways that Ridley Scott – even in his wildest and most dystopic imagination – couldn’t have forecast in 1982.

In Blade Runner, implanted memories are propped up by coveted (but fake) family photos. Yet a world in which memory is fragile and malleable seems all too possible and familiar. Recent studies have shown that people’s memories are increasingly susceptible to being warped by social media misinformation, whether it’s stories of fake terrorist attacks or Muslims celebrating after 9/11. When this misinformation spreads on social media networks, it can create and reinforce false collective memories, fomenting a crisis of reality that can skew election results or whip up small town hysteria.

Meanwhile, Facebook has studied how it can manipulate the way its users feel – and yet over a billion people a day log on to willingly participate in its massive data collection efforts.

Our entrancement with technology might seem less dramatic than the full-blown love affair that Scott imagined, but it’s no less all-consuming. We often prioritize our smartphones over human social interactions, with millennials checking their phones over 150 times a day. In fact, even as people increasingly feel that they cannot live without their smartphones, many say that the devices are ruining their relationships.

And at a time when we’re faced with the likelihood of being unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake – a world of Twitter bots and doctored photographs, trolling and faux-outrage, mechanical pets and plastic surgery – we might be well served by recalling Deckard’s first conversation upon arriving at Tyrell Corp. Spotting an owl, Deckard asks, “It’s artificial?” Rachael replies, not skipping a beat, “Of course it is.”

In Blade Runner, reality no longer really matters.

How much longer will it matter to us?•

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The truth was supposed to set us free.

There are more facts readily available to people in our age than ever before. It’s not even close. But the powerful tools that disseminate these bits of knowledge can also be repurposed to obliterate truth, to make all things seem equal, to even make the worse seem the better.

Prior to social media going viral, America already had built an infrastructure amenable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, with Fox News and right-wing radio not selling conservative policy but offering distortions and racial dissension. The Internet immensely broadened the stage for such ill-intended players, making room for Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a meteoric impact on the center from the deepest and darkest corners of the fringe. Donald Trump was even able to exploit this new abnormal to activate a racist base all the way to the White House, with, of course, copious aid from Russia.

In regards to those Russians: We pale in comparison to them in weaponizing the new Information Age, as Putin’s Kremlin, a regime leading its country into many other kinds of disaster, has been able to successfully use our inventions to organize the new rules of engagement, utilizing social media not only to spread messages helpful to its cause but also in mobilizing the complicit and unwitting in other nations to do its bidding. It’s a virtual-and-actual hybrid aimed at disturbing the world, and even the Kremlin has to be shocked by how wonderfully well it’s worked thus far. It couldn’t have occurred without numerous Americans in high positions being duplicitous, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without our new tools.

The opening of Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War“:

One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
 
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West.•

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General Artificial Intelligence is likely possible, but it’s unlikely we’ll create it from the methods we’re now utilizing. It’s not that we can’t use the current blueprint to build something strong enough to greatly improve life—or end it—but it won’t be human-like but rather something that’s at best parallel to humanness. We’ll learn about this pseudo-superintelligence by trial and error for the foreseeable future, which is always perilous when we’re talking about powerful tools that develop gradually—and then all at once.

Terry Winograd, an AI pioneer who had second thoughts, tells Aaron Timms in an Outline Q&A that correcting the mistakes that develop along the way to more and more profound machine intelligence usually will require a large-scale failure that will elicit a course correction. “You have to wait for breakdowns,” he says, using Facebook’s great election-year failure as an example. An excerpt:

Question:

How close do you think we are to achieving “general AI”?

Terry Winograd:

I’m still in the agnostic phase — I’m not sure the techniques we have are going to get to general AI, person-like AI. I believe that nothing’s going on in my head that isn’t physical — so in principle if you could reproduce that physical structure, you could build an AI that’s just like a person. Today’s techniques are not close to that in a direct sense. Everybody knows that my brain does not operate by having trillions of examples. The mechanisms that work for AI practically today aren’t mirrors of what goes on in the brain.

Question:

How do you judge this moment in the public debate about AI? Is all this fear-mongering a useful contribution? Is it fair? Is it silly?

Terry Winograd:

Having those questions out for discussion is good, getting large amounts of hysteria and publicity isn’t. The question is: How do you raise these issues in a thoughtful way without saying, “Skynet is upon us”? Musk, I think, is more on the “clickbait” end of the public discussion about AI. But I do believe that AI is facilitating huge problems for our society — not because it’s going to be smart like a person but because robotics is going to change the whole employment picture, and because the use of AI in decision making is going to move decision-making toward directions that may not have the element of human consideration.•

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If we avoid the most pernicious effects of all the paper-towel-tossing, son-of-a-bitch-calling, refugee-bashing, pussy-grabbing, private-plane-riding, self-dealing, race-baiting, Constitution-shredding behavior of this Presidential Administration, the worst we’ve ever known, it will be because of how mired it is in ineptitude.  

Of course, there’s always the chance that this won’t be the worst government America ever has, that perhaps there will be another just as evil but far more competent, and that the ubiquitous surveillance apparatus we’re constructing for ourselves in our streets and homes will fall into the worst possible hands. Even if we don’t wind up in that place there’ll always be plenty of nations that do. Soon, a technologically enabled police state will be affordable to even the most modestly funded authoritarian regime.

Two excerpts follow.

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From “Privacy Is Under Threat From the Facial Recognition Revolution” in the Financial Times:

Unlike fingerprints, retinal scans or blood samples, it is easily performed without the subject’s knowledge. It will affect how we travel, live, shop, and much else. It will force changes in the way privacy is defined and protected. If those who care about individual rights do not start thinking about the implications now, those changes will be forced upon us rather than chosen.

Facial recognition is already in use around the world. The Chinese equivalent of Amazon, Alibaba, allows people to “pay with a smile” using facial recognition in stores, for example. The potential for good is obvious. Think of the hours that could be saved if facial recognition were to become the default identification tool at airports.

These benefits will have to balanced against the loss of anonymity. In Russia, an app called FindFace identifies individuals in photos, linking them to profiles on a social network called VKontakte. A similar service, if linked to Facebook and other networks, could put names to billions of faces. In the city of Shenzhen jaywalkers are identified using CCTV, and their faces and addresses posted on a large screen to shame them into better behaviour.

The technology will not be limited to connecting a face with information already present on the internet. A facial recognition model developed at Stanford, when presented with paired photos of individuals who self-identify as gay or straight, could tell which was which with 81 per cent accuracy in men and 74 per cent in women. Humans given the same task were much less accurate. Yes, the sample was limited and the study needs to be replicated with a more refined methodology. The results cannot be dismissed, though. Nor can the frightening implications. Consider an algorithm identifying sexual minorities deployed in an intolerant, authoritarian state. The technology may misclassify many, but tyrants lose little sleep over false positives.•

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From “Amazon’s Latest Alexa Devices Ready To Extend Company’s Reach Into Your Home,” Mark Harris’ Guardian article:

Amazon, hoping to replicate the success of its Echo device, is poised to extend its eyes and ears into every part of your life with the launch of new voice-controlled and camera-equipped Alexa devices designed for bedrooms, living rooms and even your car.
 
“Voice control in the home will be ubiquitous,” predicted David Limp, an Amazon senior vice-president who is in charge of the Echo devices, at an event in Seattle on Wednesday. “Kids today will grow up never knowing a day they couldn’t talk to their houses.”

The Echo has been Amazon’s surprise hit in the three years since it launched, finding its way into tens of millions of kitchens around the world, offering internet radio, timers, weather and news reports and voice calls. Now Amazon will start selling a smaller, cheaper version of the original Echo, with fabric and wood veneers, as well a new flagship device called the Echo Plus that promises to work instantly with dozens of smart home devices, such as locks, lights and electric sockets.

“Setting up your smart home is still just too hard,” Limp said. “It can take up to 15 steps to do something as simple as set up a lightbulb.”

Amazon’s vision is of homes with Echo devices in every room, listening to every word you say.•

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I wonder if it dawned on Soviet refugee and Google guy Sergey Brin when he joined the January pro-immigration protests at San Francisco International Airport that his company, founded not even 20 years ago with the “Don’t Be Evil” tagline, played a large role in enabling a xenophobic, anti-refugee Administration into the White House, and it was more than just an egregious oversight. It wasn’t a bug but a feature. Something tells me that Brin avoided too much reflection on this point, that the primary thought among the major communications players in Silicon Valley has been how to do damage control without doing any damage to the bottom line.

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In the Web 1.0 days, editors who argued against selling prime real estate in search results to the highest bidder within an automated system were told that they not only didn’t understand business but that they didn’t understand the future. Both sides were right, in a sense. Tomorrow was indeed up for sale, and sites and groups, many of them under the auspices of the Kremlin and some run by neo-Nazis, paid for placement and gamed the system, meaning that everything those editors feared—and far worse—came to fruition. 

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Google, with its outsize control over Internet communications, is one of the major culprits in the new abnormal, but it isn’t alone, as Facebook and Twitter have also done harm, and it wasn’t an accident. From a Bloomberg report published a few hours ago: 

Facebook Inc. is pledging greater transparency about who’s behind election-related ads online. For years, the company fought to avoid it. Since 2011, Facebook has asked the Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules — transparency that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Communications law requires traditional media like TV and radio to track and disclose political ad buyers. The rule doesn’t apply online, an exemption that’s helped Facebook’s self-serve advertising business generate hundreds of millions of dollars in political campaign spots. When the company was smaller, the issue was debated in some policy corners of Washington. Now that the social network is such a powerful political tool, with more than 2 billion users, the topic is at the center of a debate about the future of American democracy.

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Carole Cadwalladr, who’s done excellent work in the Guardian this year in trying to untangle the impact the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica had on Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, also published a piece on the army of trolls that pollutes the Internet with hatemongering and misinformation, a regiment that is continuing to grow in size and impact. One expert on the topic tells her about these nefarious agents: “It’s an information war…it’s a network…it’s far more powerful than any one actor…and it’s learning…every day, it’s getting stronger.”

An excerpt:

Stories about fake news on Facebook have dominated certain sections of the press for weeks following the American presidential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more insidious. Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for tech companies to be more open and transparent, calls the results “very profound, very troubling”.

He came across a similar instance in 2006 when, “If you typed ‘Jew’ in Google, the first result was jewwatch.org. It was ‘look out for these awful Jews who are ruining your life’. And the Anti-Defamation League went after them and so they put an asterisk next to it which said: ‘These search results may be disturbing but this is an automated process.’ But what you’re showing – and I’m very glad you are documenting it and screenshotting it – is that despite the fact they have vastly researched this problem, it has gotten vastly worse.”

And ordering of search results does influence people, says Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London, who has written at length on the impact of the big tech companies on our civic and political spheres. “There’s large-scale, statistically significant research into the impact of search results on political views. And the way in which you see the results and the types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact on your perspective.” Fake news, he says, has simply “revealed a much bigger problem. These companies are so powerful and so committed to disruption. They thought they were disrupting politics but in a positive way. They hadn’t thought about the downsides. These tools offer remarkable empowerment, but there’s a dark side to it. It enables people to do very cynical, damaging things.”

Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e w-o-m-e-n”. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one, from a site called sheddingoftheego.com, which is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men.”

Next I type: “a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s”. And Google suggests I should ask: “Are Muslims bad?” And here’s what I find out: yes, they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others. Without typing anything else, simply putting the cursor in the search box, Google offers me two new searches and I go for the first, “Islam is bad for society”. In the next list of suggestions, I’m offered: “Islam must be destroyed.”

Jews are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys” I click on the link: “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler really wasn’t that bad.

A few days later, I talk to Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com. He’s been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naive, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? “No, you’re not being naive,” he says. “This is awful. It’s horrible. It’s the equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here. It can and should do better.”•

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Came across a TV report on Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy when I was a child, and it scared the hell out of me. Watching adults, doubled over in emotional pain, screaming and crying as shamelessly as newborns, was more than I could process.

Of course, getting the hell out of people was what psychiatrist Arthur Janov, who just passed away, made his goal after stumbling onto the method during a session in the 1960s. He believed patients regressing to trace the trail of tears back to the womb could free them of the burdens they shouldered. It would likely have been just one more barely noticed fringe therapy, a lot of hokum, were Janov’s book on the treatment not published in 1970, a moment when American culture had cracked open.

The volume was rightfully met with skepticism by book reviewers and medical professionals alike, but it resonated with certain high-profile actors and musicians, especially appealing to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were in the midst of their walkabout through the counterculture. Their recordings based on Primal Scream, particularly Lennon’s searing “Mother,” which sounds like a nursery song sung to a crib covered in blood, were aided by the method even more than Bob Dylan’s singing had been by the Buddhist breath control taught to him by Allen Ginsberg. “You’re so astounded by what you find out about yourself,” Lennon said initially, but he almost immediately worried about encouraging others to see Janov as a guru, especially since the doctor was not shy about self-aggrandizement.

In retrospect, Janov’s shocking method tells us very little about human psychiatry, but it does remind that once people have fulfilled the basics of food and water and shelter, they have the time to notice the well of disenchantment inside them, and that can be a positive thing or it can be manipulated into something menacing.

Two excerpts follow.

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From Margaralit Fox’s New York Times obituary of Janov:

Arthur Janov, a California psychotherapist variously called a messiah and a mountebank for his development of primal scream therapy — a treatment he maintained could cure ailments from depression and alcoholism to ulcers, epilepsy and asthma, not to mention bring about world peace — died on Sunday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 93.

The office manager of his organization, the Janov Primal Center in Santa Monica, Calif., confirmed the death.

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Janov conceived primal therapy, as his method is formally known, after an epiphany in the late 1960s. He introduced it to the world with his first book, “The Primal Scream,” published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1970. The book attracted wide attention in newspapers and magazines and made a celebrity of Dr. Janov, who became a ubiquitous presence on the talk-show circuit.

Primal therapy became a touchstone of ’70s culture, especially after it drew a stream of luminary devotees to Dr. Janov’s Los Angeles treatment center, the Primal Institute, among them John Lennon, Yoko Ono, James Earl Jones and the pianist Roger Williams.
 
“Few treatments have been more dramatic, more highly touted or quicker to catch on than primal therapy,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1971.

Mr. Williams, the article continued, had publicly counted Dr. Janov “as one of history’s five greatest men (along with Socrates, Galileo, Freud and Darwin).”

Dr. Janov appeared to concur. Primal therapy, he told an interviewer in 1971, was “the most important discovery of the 20th century.”

Reporting in 1971 on a visit to the Primal Institute, which Dr. Janov had established three years before, The Boston Globe wrote:

“He has equipped his therapy chambers with an array of nursery props — teddy bears, cribs, playpens, dolls, football helmets, baby rattles, security blankets — all to help adults turn the clock back.”

The primal scream that could result from these sessions (“It sounds,” Dr. Janov told People magazine in 1978, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered”) was not the objective of the therapy per se. It was rather, he said, a sonic barometer of its liberating effects.•

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The opening of Eleanor Hoover’s People piece in 1978:

Since psychologist Arthur Janov published his book The Primal Scream in 1970, more than 3,000 people—including John Lennon, actors Robert Mandan (Soap) and James Earl Jones and UCLA anthropologist Bernard Campbell—have undergone the regression-to-birth therapy he advocates. Janov’s original clinic in Los Angeles is flourishing, and he recently opened a New York branch. He has written four follow-up books, and three more are in progress.

All are aimed at an understanding of what he insists is a global crisis. “The world,” says Janov, 53, “is having a nervous breakdown, and Valium is the only glue that holds it together.” Critics disagree with Janov’s cosmic fears and especially his claim that his treatment of neurosis is the only one that works. “He’s good at taking people apart,” says one L.A. psychologist, “but not so good at putting them back together.”

In Janov’s view, the repressed pain of traumatic childhood experiences eventually produces an emotionally damaged adult. These experiences include not only obvious physical and psychological injuries, but also subtle slights like parents’ failure to comfort a child. Janov’s “cure,” Primal Therapy (a trademarked term), involves reliving the trauma in cataclysmic, emotional outbursts called “primals.” Through them patients exorcise the pain and alleviate such psychosomatic ailments as colitis, asthma, etc., caused by its repression.

“Our research,” Janov declares, “shows that patients after eight months of treatment have a permanent lowering of such vital signs as pulse, blood pressure and core body temperature. This has real implications for the prevention of hypertension and heart disease.”

The therapy costs $6,600 and lasts for at least a year. It begins with 24 hours of total isolation followed by an intense three weeks of daily one-to-one sessions. After that the patient attends primal groups once or twice a week, and some may continue with occasional private sessions.

Janov, son of a Los Angeles butcher, is a UCLA alumnus with a psychology doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School and had a conventional practice until 1967. He stumbled upon the basic idea for Primal Therapy when a patient told him of his fascination with a comedian who wandered around the stage dressed in a diaper shouting “Mommy! Daddy!” Janov persuaded the young man to dredge up memories of his own parents, and the patient began to sob. Finally an ear-shattering scream welled up and convulsed his whole body; then he became calm and said again and again, “I made it. I made it.”

The scream is crucial to the therapy. “It sounds,” says Janov, “like what you might hear from a person about to be murdered.” Some critics have suggested that patients scream because they are expected to. Janov answers: “It comes from a person’s depths and cannot be fabricated.”•

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My feeling about Facebook has long been that it’s the McDonald’s of communication—cheap, easy and bad for you—but that may not be fair to the Golden Arches. The fast-food chain will gladly pour sludge in your aortic valves in exchange for a modest fee, but it’s main interest is not in sizing you up, surveilling you and selling your attention to anyone with money to spend, be they capitalists or Nazis or the Kremlin. Mark Zuckerberg may see his “nation” of users as the next step in global comity, but it’s instead just a mirror, a magnifier, held up to this menacing American moment, with strong supporting roles for Putin thugs and all manner of chaos agents.

Eric Schmidt once called the Internet the “largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” That’s what it still is, despite Zuckerberg wanting us to believe the his enormous piece of the real estate is a bright, welcoming place for the whole family. Facebook and Google were in the news today again for all the wrong reasons. In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, both companies were used to spread “hoaxes, completely unverified rumors, failed witch hunts, and blatant falsehoods.” Algorithms were again insufficient.

Many of us have looked at Zuckerberg’s 2017 “listening tour,” his manifesto and his hiring of a former Hillary Clinton pollster as perhaps a prelude to a Presidential run, but it could be that he fears his empire walls have begun to crumble. A legal and political reckoning will come for what went on during the 2016 election, and depending on the severity of what’s learned, oversight could be on the table for communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Twitter, which may not be too big to fail but too big to succeed.

Two excerpts follow.

_________________________ 

In a New York essay by Max Read:

Nowhere was this confusion about Facebook’s and Zuckerberg’s role in public life more in evidence than in the rumors that the CEO was planning to run for president. Every year, Zuckerberg takes on a “personal challenge,” a sort of billionaire-scale New Year’s resolution, about which he posts updates to his Facebook page. For most Facebook users, these meticulously constructed and assiduously managed challenges are the only access they’ll ever have to Zuckerberg’s otherwise highly private personal life. Thousands of people cluster in the comments under his status updates like crowds loitering outside Buckingham Palace, praising the CEO, encouraging him in his progress, and drawing portraits of his likeness.

This year, Zuckerberg’s challenge has been to meet people in all the states of the U.S. that he hadn’t yet visited. His first stop, in January, was Texas; since then, he’s been to 24 other states. Zuckerberg has adamantly denied that the trips are a trial run for the campaign trail, and, having spoken with many of the people he’s met with over the course of his ­journeys—not to mention stern Facebook publicists — I tend to believe him. He limits his tour activity to interactions in private groups or unannounced visits — no speeches, no barnstorms, no baby-kissing. He’s issued no policy prescriptions and inserted himself into political debates rarely and in limited ways. And yet, the road trip sure looks like a campaign — or at least the sort of “listening tour” that politicians sometimes stage to convince voters, before even announcing, that their hearts are in the right place.

To some extent, of course, the media curiosity is his own fault. (After all, he did choose to be professionally photographed while eating fried food and staring intently at machinery.) But it’s hard for me not to think that the incessant speculation is a function of our own incomplete view of Facebook. The Zuckerberg-for-president interpretation of his project understands Facebook as a large, well-known company, from which a top executive might reasonably launch a political career within the recognizable political framework of the U.S. electoral process.

But if Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company, surely his trip is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere presidential run. Maybe he’s doing research and development, reverse-­engineering social bonds to understand how Facebook might better facilitate them. Maybe Facebook is a church and Zuckerberg is offering his benedictions. Maybe Facebook is a state within a state and Zuckerberg is inspecting its boundaries. Maybe Facebook is an emerging political community and Zuckerberg is cultivating his constituents. Maybe Facebook is a surveillance state and Zuckerberg a dictator undertaking a propaganda tour. Maybe Facebook is a dual power — a network overlaid across the U.S., parallel to and in competition with the government to fulfill civic functions — and Zuckerberg is securing his command. Maybe Facebook is border control between the analog and the digital and Zuckerberg is inspecting one side for holes. Maybe Facebook is a fleet of alien spaceships that have colonized the globe and Zuckerberg is the viceroy trying to win over his new subjects.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: If you run a business and want to improve it, you need to spend time talking to your customers. If you’ve created a hybrid state–church–­railroad–mall–alien colony and want to understand, or expand, it, you need to spend time with your hybrid citizen-believer-passenger-customer-­subjects.•

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In Read’s analysis, there’s also this passage: “The nightmare possibility is that the money was spent strategically in an effort to selectively target swing voters with specific interests in important electoral districts — white working-class Obama voters in Michigan who’d joined anti-immigrant Facebook groups, say — pushing divisive issues that encouraged or discouraged certain voting patterns.” Each day, this possibility becomes more likely a plausibility.

The opening of Mike Isaac and Scott Shane’s NYT piece “Facebook’s Russia-Linked Ads Came in Many Disguises,” which may be flawed only by using past tense in the title:

SAN FRANCISCO — The Russians who posed as Americans on Facebook last year tried on quite an array of disguises.

There was “Defend the 2nd,” a Facebook page for gun-rights supporters, festooned with firearms and tough rhetoric. There was a rainbow-hued page for gay rights activists, “LGBT United.” There was even a Facebook group for animal lovers with memes of adorable puppies that spread across the site with the help of paid ads.

Federal investigators and officials at Facebook now believe these groups and their pages were part of a highly coordinated disinformation campaign linked to the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company in St. Petersburg, Russia, known for spreading Kremlin-linked propaganda and fake news across the web. They were described to The New York Times by two people familiar with the social network and its ads who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Under intensifying pressure from Congress and growing public outcry, Facebook on Monday turned over more than 3,000 of the Russia-linked advertisements from its site over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee. The material is part of an attempt to learn the depth of what investigators now believe was a sprawling foreign effort spanning years to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election.

“We’re obviously deeply disturbed by this,” Joel Kaplan, Facebook vice president for United States public policy, said in an interview. “The ads and accounts we found appeared to amplify divisive political issues across the political spectrum,” including gun rights, gay rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.•

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Probably because I came before smartphones, I often catch myself thinking of them as not exactly a fad but as future artifacts of a period that will ultimately pass. I’ll be happier once people stop staring at them in a daze, living inside them, once this epidemic has ended. It must be a temporary form of insanity. In those moments it seems similar to the opioid crisis.

Of course, that’s not going to work out as my fantasy would have it. The shape of the tool may change—perhaps disappear entirely—but we’ll come to realize belatedly that we were in their pockets all along, not the other way around.

James Cameron, a truly miserable man in so many ways, is right when he tells the Hollywood Reporter that the machines are already our overlords, the emergence of superintelligence not even necessary for the transition of power. Then again, living under even the most soul-crushing machines would probably be preferable than having to answer to Cameron. The interview of the director and Deadpool helmer Tim Miller was conducted by Matthew Belloni and Borys Kit. An excerpt:

Question:

The conflict between technology and humanity is a theme in a lot of Jim’s movies. Does technology scare you?

James Cameron:

Technology has always scared me, and it’s always seduced me. People ask me: “Will the machines ever win against humanity?” I say: “Look around in any airport or restaurant and see how many people are on their phones. The machines have already won.” It’s just [that] they’ve won in a different way. We are co-evolving with our technology. We’re merging. The technology is becoming a mirror to us as we start to build humanoid robots and as we start to seriously build AGI — general intelligence — that’s our equal. Some of the top scientists in artificial intelligence say that’s 10 to 30 years from now. We need to get the damn movies done before that actually happens! And when you talk to these guys, they remind me a lot of that excited optimism that nuclear scientists had in the ’30s and ’40s when they were thinking about how they could power the world. And taking zero responsibility for the idea that it would instantly be weaponized. The first manifestation of nuclear power on our planet was the destruction of two cities and hundreds of thousands of people. So the idea that it can’t happen now is not the case. It can happen, and it may even happen.

Tim Miller: 

Jim is a more positive guy [than I am] in the present and more cynical about the future. I know Hawking and Musk think we can put some roadblocks in there. I’m not so sure we can. I can’t imagine what a truly artificial intelligence will make of us. Jim’s brought some experts in to talk to us, and it’s really interesting to hear their perspective. Generally, they’re scared as shit, which makes me scared.

James Cameron:

One of the scientists we just met with recently, she said: “I used to be really, really optimistic, but now I’m just scared.” Her position on it is probably that we can’t control this. It has more to do with human nature. Putin recently said that the nation that perfects AI will dominate or conquer the world. So that pretty much sets the stage for “We wouldn’t have done it, but now those guys are doing it, so now we have to do it and beat them to the punch.” So now everybody’s got the justification to essentially weaponize AI. I think you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Tim Miller:

When it happens, I don’t think AI’s agenda will be to kill us. That seems like a goal that’s beneath whatever enlightened being that they’re going to become because they can evolve in a day what we’ve done in millions of years. And I don’t think that they have the built-in deficits that we have, because we’re still dealing with the same kind of urges that made us climb down from the trees and kill everybody else. I choose to believe that they’ll be better than us.•

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For a long time, Hugh Hefner was ahead of his time and behind the curve, progressive and regressive, a liberator and a jailer. He was right about America’s phony flirtation with Puritanism but was very pleased to uphold patriarchy to gain wealth and satisfy his lusts. His empire was always built on the backs—and other parts—of women, but his last decades, when he OD’d on silicone and Reality TV, were exceptionally sad. By then, the terminal playboy was just desperately trying to keep pace with a culture of titillation that left him behind for lower pastures.

Working in the fields of pornography and media from the 1950s forward, Hefner was bound to be branded again and again by the seismic technological shifts we’ve experienced with ever greater frequency. An orgiastic agoraphobic, he believed the future would look a lot like himself—homebound, wired to copious machines and pleasured by endless thrills. Below is a re-post that perfectly captures his mindset while he was in his prime.

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hugh-hefner-chicago-playboy-townhouse-bed

During the heyday of the Magazine Age, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, grotto and Bunnies were to remain largely unattainable, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we each could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used five decades ago to extend his adolescence and recuse himself are now much more powerful and affordable. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

_________________________

First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

Should the machines come for our jobs, not everyone will be able to shift into a rewarding career as a Zumba instructor. Someone will actually have to be in the Zumba class. That Zumba ain’t gonna do itself.

Luckily the Flow Industry is here to provide good jobs. As Casey Schwartz writes in a smart NYT Style piece “How to Hack Your Brain (for $5,000),” some are making a killing selling a “brain-shifting” system that allegedly allows people to “upgrade their nervous systems” and live in the moment. A former Esalen instructor named Jamie Wheal is a leader among the Flow educators, peddling the process with anti-Information Age fervor that ultimately sounds suspiciously like a slick Silicon Valley sales pitch, what with its promises of “hacking” and “optimization.” He hopes to increasingly marry the meditative method to neuroscience and heighten the results.

At present, his shoeless acolytes attend multi-day summits in Utah, listen to lectures in a white dome (“Flow Dojo”), do light exercise, engage in hyperventilation, live temporarily in tents and use centrally located porta-potties, which makes it possible for them to avoid shitting on the ground. It may seem like I’m making fun of those seeking to raise their consciousness—and I am!—but I also have a soft spot for people trying to comprehend the world at an off-center angle, if not for the ones charging thousands a head to “change minds.”

An excerpt:

But what is flow?

First popularized decades ago by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an elusive state cultivated by artists, athletes and others, that of being so absorbed in what they’re doing that they lose track of time and thought, finding themselves guided rather by instinct and intuition. It has also been referred to as the Zone — not to be confused with the diet of the same name — or just “being in the moment.” And for those who have experienced it, there is no denying its magic.
 
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, who turns 83 this month, is a deeply philosophical academic formerly of the University of Chicago (now at Claremont Graduate University) and still publishing. In 2004 he gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed over four million times.

Mr. Wheal has taken a somewhat brisker, more commercial approach. He has advised members of the United States Navy Special Operations, top-ranked athletes and executives of technology companies on “optimizing performance” through flow, receiving six-figure fees for some of his consultations.

His five-day retreat, at a sprawling, privately held property known as Summit and convened the day before the solar eclipse, cost almost $5,000 and was a sort of beta test for spreading his gospel to a larger public audience. (He also offers free assessments and videos on his website.)

Attendees were housed in white tepee-like tents, with portable toilets set up down a dirt path. The camp had been erected quickly by the “glamping” company Aether Camp, to Mr. Wheal’s specifications.

Mr. Wheal, who said his father was a test pilot for the British royal navy, came to the United States from England at age 8 and speaks rapidly in a mash-up accent, dropping idiosyncratic phrases and erudite references to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, to Cincinnatus and Aldous Huxley. At moments he is given to phrases that are not immediately comprehensible, like “We are broaching the possibility of midwifing humanity into the infinite game.”

But his larger message came through clearly. In our digital age, loud with bottom-feeder commentary, the ping of incoming emails and bleating social media, the pursuit of flow is all the more urgent.

“Honestly, have we abdicated our purpose just because of these insistent micro asks?” Mr. Wheal said. “Have we just completely ceded our center, completely ceded clarity, and it was all just based on 20-something bro-grammers trying to crack our attention spans?”

To fulfill his flow-finding mission, Mr. Wheal wants to bring what he calls his Dojo Domes to locations around the world.•

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Anthony Fiala, right, with Theodore Roosevelt in Brazil in 1914.


Long before astronauts were chowing down of pilled and tubed food and Silicon Valley was taken with the idea of Soylent, Anthony Fiala, an American chemist and explorer who’d made his way to the Arctic and the Amazon, believed that beef-juice chewing gum and other odd deliveries of nutrition were the wave of the future, especially for wanderers like himself who didn’t have time to be foragers. From the July 8, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and for not quite 200 years we’ve been investing heavily in the narrative of nation-states, discrete bodies with closed borders, certified citizens and localized laws. The World Federalist movement in the U.S. in the middle of last century was just one of the challenges to this orthodoxy, and like the rest, it didn’t go very far. Is the nation-state simply the natural order of things even if it was only recently invented, or is it a passing fancy?

· · ·

In the first few days of 2015, Jamie Bartlett published “Cover of Darkness,” an Aeon article which takes a counterintuitive approach to government surveillance in the Internet Age, believing that online anonymity will increase, the mouse outrunning the cat. My response:

I think he’s right to an extent. No legislation is going to stop corporations and governments from trying to track and commodify us, but media becomes more decentralized over time, and the number of info hacks, leaks and countermeasures will continue to proliferate. “While that’s broadly good for liberty, it may be more a boon to terrorists and trolls than you and I.”

I couldn’t have known at the time how soon that comment would detonate.

· · ·

Returning in part to that theme, Bartlett has now written “Return of the City-State” for the same publication, another smart essay which wonders whether mass migration to the Internet has made it plausible that the nation will vanish. While I agree that online “nations” like Facebook and Google and Twitter have posed serious challenges to borders—just look at Brexit and our Presidential election—and weakened central governance, I think in the foreseeable future we will probably have the best and worst of both systems, actual nation-states and virtual ones, as people look for myriad ways to safeguard themselves in an increasingly anarchic society. Also factor in the immense resources it will take to combat climate change and remodel and rebuild an increasingly wide swath of areas that will become weather danger zones, something smaller governmental models can’t readily manage.

· · ·

Seasteaders, for instance, may find the waters rough. Especially when one of the main backers of this nouveau city-state concept is Peter Thiel, a “genius” who was sure there WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a wonderful President. The problem isn’t always the world as it has already been built, but that human beings inhabit that world and our flaws can negatively impact a large nation or a small island and anything in between. 

· · ·

I doubt nation-states are endangered—though they will be challenged and forced to adapt.

From Bartlett:

There were only tens of millions of people online in 1995 when the nation-state was last declared dead. In 2015, that number had grown to around 3 billion; by 2020, it will be more than 4 billion. (And more than 20 billion internet-connected devices.) Digital technology doesn’t really like the nation-state. John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ (1996) sums it up well: the internet is a technology built on libertarian principles. Censorship-free, decentralised and borderless. And now ubiquitous.

This is an enormous pain for the nation-state in all sorts of ways. It’s now possible for the British National Health Service to be targeted by ransomware launched in North Korea, and there are few ways to stop it or bring perpetrators to justice. App technology such as Uber and Deliveroo has helped to produce a sudden surge in the gig economy, which is reckoned to cost the government £3.5 billion a year by 2020-1. There are already millions of people using bitcoin and blockchain technologies, explicitly designed to wrestle control of the money supply from central banks and governments, and their number will continue to grow. It’s also infusing us with new values, ones that are not always national in nature: a growing number of people see themselves as ‘global’ citizens.

That’s not even the worst of it. On 17 September 2016, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: ‘A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!’ The outcry obscured the fact that Trump was right (in the first half, anyway). Borders determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s a citizen and who’s not, who puts in and who takes from the common pot. If a nation cannot defend its border, it ceases to exist in any meaningful way, both as a going concern and as the agreed-upon myth that it is.

Trump’s tweet was set against the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s offer, one year earlier, of asylum for Syrians. The subsequent movement of people across Europe – EU member states received 1.2 million first-time asylum applications in 2015 – sparked a political and humanitarian crisis, the ramifications of which are still unfolding. It certainly contributed to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. But 1.2 million people is a trickle compared to what’s coming. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and notoriously broad, but according to some estimates as many as 200 million people could be climate-change refugees by the middle of the century. If the EU struggles to control its borders when 1.2 million people move, what would happen if 200 million do? The lesson of history – real, long-lens human history – is that people move, and when they do, it’s hard to stop.

This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others.•

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There are numerous financial and practical reasons for turning society into a giant, tentacled computer that connect us all, but even if mass surveillance and other elements of governmental and corporate fascism aren’t the chief driving forces of the transition, their danger is no less real. My main issue with the febrile fear of Strong AI—computers surpassing our brains and turning us into zoo animals or some such thing—is that this outcome is likely not happening today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, even if it isn’t theoretically impossible.

The bigger issue is that no such superintelligence need develop for humans to be diminished or doomed. Weak AI can do us in with a thousand cuts. The process of computerizing absolutely everything has already begun in earnest, and it hasn’t thus far made us better or wiser or happier. That may be because our best intentions have failed, but more likely is that this new system of digital capitalism has its own agenda and human well-being isn’t job one.

From Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “You Are Already Living Inside a Computer“:

Newer dreams of what’s to come predict that humans and machines might meld, either through biohacking or simulated consciousness. That future also feels very far away—and perhaps impossible. Its remoteness might lessen the fear of an AI apocalypse, but it also obscures a certain truth about machines’ role in humankind’s destiny: Computers already are predominant, human life already plays out mostly within them, and people are satisfied with the results. …

Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing’s original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a café.

After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines.

Today, computation overall is doing this. There’s not much work and play left that computers don’t handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don’t seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers.

* * *

When the use of computers decouples from its ends and becomes a way of life, goals and problems only seem valid when they can be addressed and solved by computational systems. Internet-of-things gadgets offer one example of that new ideal. Another can be found in how Silicon Valley technology companies conceive of their products and services in the first place.•

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I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

______________________________

From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

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From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

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“Perhaps it’s the case that in order to live, we must process our experience first rationally and then irrationally,” Wallace Shawn has written. We still have a long way to go in 2017 with the Step One of that process in regard to our priorities and politics, but the playwright has, in his last two works, tried to “irrationally” address the rise of technology and authoritarianism. Despite promising premises, however, neither Grasses of a Thousand Colors nor Evening at the Talk House develop in profound ways.

Another dramatist, Jordan Harrison, has come much closer to processing these issues potently in a couple of his plays: Marjorie Prime, which thinks about the enhanced near-future of Virtual Reality, and Maple & Vine, which imagines a retreat from our connected technological society to a village that recreates the 1950s, a quaint place marked by repression and racism. Taken together, these works remind that we must go forward into a fraught tomorrow, can’t go back to a yesterday not nearly as bright as it might seem from a distance, but our tools will be powerful and we need to try our best to limit the damage they can do. One challenge will be that while the future arrives more quickly now than it once did, the process of getting there has fewer bumps and seams. It looks benign.

As Chelsea Manning writes in a New York Times op-ed: “The world has become like an eerily banal dystopian novel. Things look the same on the surface, but they are not.” Every now and then, with the Russian invasion during the election and today’s news that Facebook has been selling ads to people interested in the phrases “Jew hater” and “How to Burn Jews,” it becomes obvious that things have gone seriously awry, but we hardly noticed as we were building this Trojan horse inside our own gates. What to do now?

From Manning:

The real power of mass data collection lies in the hand-tailored algorithms capable of sifting, sorting and identifying patterns within the data itself. When enough information is collected over time, governments and corporations can use or abuse those patterns to predict future human behavior. Our data establishes a “pattern of life” from seemingly harmless digital residue like cellphone tower pings, credit card transactions and web browsing histories.

The consequences of our being subjected to constant algorithmic scrutiny are often unclear. For instance, artificial intelligence — Silicon Valley’s catchall term for deepthinking and deep-learning algorithms — is touted by tech companies as a path to the high-tech conveniences of the so-called internet of things. This includes digital home assistants, connected appliances and self-driving cars.

Simultaneously, algorithms are already analyzing social media habits, determining creditworthiness, deciding which job candidates get called in for an interview and judging whether criminal defendants should be released on bail. Other machine-learning systems use automated facial analysis to detect and track emotions, or claim the ability to predict whether someone will become a criminal based only on their facial features.

These systems leave no room for humanity, yet they define our daily lives. When I began rebuilding my life this summer, I painfully discovered that they have no time for people who have fallen off the grid — such nuance eludes them. I came out publicly as transgender and began hormone replacement therapy while in prison. When I was released, however, there was no quantifiable history of me existing as a transwoman. Credit and background checks automatically assumed I was committing fraud. My bank accounts were still under my old name, which legally no longer existed. For months I had to carry around a large folder containing my old ID and a copy of the court order declaring my name change. Even then, human clerks and bank tellers would sometimes see the discrepancy, shrug and say “the computer says no” while denying me access to my accounts.

Such programmatic, machine-driven thinking has become especially dangerous in the hands of governments and the police.

In recent years our military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have merged in unexpected ways. They harvest more data than they can possibly manage, and wade through the quantifiable world side by side in vast, usually windowless buildings called fusion centers.

Such powerful new relationships have created a foundation for, and have breathed life into, a vast police and surveillance state. Advanced algorithms have made this possible on an unprecedented level. Relatively minor infractions, or “microcrimes,” can now be policed aggressively. And with national databases shared among governments and corporations, these minor incidents can follow you forever, even if the information is incorrect or lacking context.•

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It’s been clear for some time that Julian Assange is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, gleefully enabling a nation that murders the political opponents and journalistic critics of the sitting dictator and hacks foreign elections in numerous ways. The Wikileaks founder is an evil man working in the service of an autocracy, not a champion of rights.

But what of Edward Snowden, whom Assange helped shepherd to Russia after his NSA theft? Is he a righteous whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg and Freeman Dyson, among other big thinkers, believe he is? Is he a foolish pawn playing in a game far beyond his capabilities? Is he actually deep into Kremlin espionage? Considering his support for Assange and his equivocations regarding Russia’s nefarious role in the U.S. Presidential election, the latter possibility must at least be pondered.

My initial impression four years ago when Snowden first came to global prominence was that his efforts toward safeguarding privacy, whatever his motivations, were going to meet with failure. These technologies were far beyond taming, were becoming permanent parts of society. Retreat from them was unlikely even if the will was there–and I don’t think it was then or is now. 

In 2013, I wrote:

I haven’t really looked at Edward Snowden as hero or villain from the beginning of the NSA leak controversy. Just a cog in a new machine that American media and citizenry can’t seem to fully comprehend–the machine we’re all living in now. Privacy as we knew it–for individuals, corporations and government–has been permanently left in the past. Everybody’s watching everybody, and it will only get easier to spy. And to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, this would be a really good time for a teachable moment, for a frank discussion about the way our society is now, how some things have disappeared into the cloud.

But when you take temporary refuge in Russia, as Snowden has, with that country’s brutal and murderous recent history of oppression of journalists and surveillance of its own citizens, you’ve pretty much permanently ceded the moral high ground.•

Snowden still stews in exile in Moscow as Putin’s murderous reign continues, even accelerates, and as our world becomes ever more connected and intrusive. The opening of a Spiegel interview with him conducted by Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Spiegel: 

Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?

Edward Snowden: 

The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed

Spiegel: 

But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.

Edward Snowden: 

My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.

Spiegel: 

What did you achieve?

 

Edward Snowden: 

Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.•

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The tick-tick-ticking at the beginning of 60 Minutes is the sound of a stopwatch, but it may as well be a time bomb. It’s not that television news in America wouldn’t have become entertainment without Don Hewitt’s brainchild, this season marking its fiftieth year on the air, but the show played an outsize role in that transformation, proving that the news division could be a prime-time ratings winner and a money maker, even if it needed to create pseudo-events on a regular basis to do so. You could say it was one of the three factors that most enabled where we are now, along with the Reagan Administration dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and the Murdoch-Ailes establishment of Fox, the proto-Fake News. 

That Hewitt dreamed of a career in show biz and Mike Wallace essentially had his start in that world doesn’t seem incidental to what they created on Sunday nights, with the journalist often battering a patsy opponent and villain in a way that was reminiscent of professional wrestling, while his boss edited the piece for maximum impact. It was so much fun, but should it have been? Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s original boss at CBS, didn’t think so, and he was probably right. The program has turned out plenty of good content and isn’t directly responsible for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Alex Joneses, but the slope it was built upon was surely a slippery one.

The opening of a piece from the show’s current Executive Producer Jeff Fager’s book, Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, which was adapted for Vanity Fair:

Fifty years is an eternity in the television world. The average show lasts about two and a half. But this fall 60 Minutes kicks off a half-century on-air. Many factors have helped sustain the broadcast over five decades, but a lot of them can be traced all the way back to the program’s conception. It’s an unlikely story because there never would have been a 60 Minutes if its creator, Don Hewitt, hadn’t been fired back in 1965.

In 1948 when Hewitt joined CBS, then largely a radio network, he was in awe of the people around him, particularly “the Murrow Boys”—the gentlemen correspondents who filed World War II dispatches under the watchful eye of Edward R. Murrow, the man who would become the dean of broadcast news and the paragon of journalistic integrity. The Murrow Boys were elegant and battle-tested and knew how to write a story and deliver it on the radio.

Don wasn’t one of them, and he knew it. He was a feisty kid from New Rochelle, New York, who never got a college degree. Growing up, he had always wanted to be in show business. His two childhood heroes were fictional characters from Broadway: Julian Marsh, the theater director in the musical 42nd Street,and Hildy Johnson, the star police-beat reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy, The Front Page.

Even so, Don joined CBS with some journalistic cred. During the war, he’d written for Stars and Stripes, the daily paper of the U.S. military. But it wasn’t reporting that got him most excited; it was lights and action.•

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Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. Yes, he was often thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way.

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!

The problem with America worrying about the existential risks of AI is that losing the race to AI is also an existential risk. If we invest correctly in the future (not just Artificial Intelligence but also solar and supercomputers) while providing enough infrastructure projects and social safety nets to keep afloat those displaced (hopefully temporarily) by our transition into the Digital Age, the country shouldn’t fall behind China or any other state. Of course, we’re so politically confused and toxic right now that such a scenario seems possible though not plausible. If China should win this arms race and Space Race rolled into one, the authoritarian nation will have the military heft and soft power to shape the world.

Daniel Kliman and Harry Krejsa worry about this dark potential in “Is China Leaping Past Us?” a Politico piece about this Sputnik Moment 2.0:

Its companies are attempting to acquire U.S. firms in key advanced technology sectors like semiconductor development and manufacturing. Chinese corporations have also opened research centers in the United States to tap American talent, and made early-stage investments in American startups focused on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. A small Silicon Valley venture might find access to their intellectual property a minor price to pay for a game-changing capital infusion.

Failing to address China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology will have far-reaching consequences. The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimates that piracy, theft, and counterfeiting by China costs the U.S. economy between $225 billion and $600 billion a year, or up to 3 percent of the entire U.S. GDP. In the long term, the costs only grow more daunting. If scientific advances in quantum communications, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, and battery technology increasingly move to China, so will the future industries – and jobs – that will accompany them. Moreover, future U.S. military advantage depends on America’s continued technological leadership. If China outpaces the United States in innovation, loss of America’s military edge in the Asia-Pacific, if not globally, could follow.•

No matter who is the victor, or if several nations are, the future we’re creating is a machine that will swallow up our privacy and attempt to quantify, surveil and commodify us ceaselessly. And no one will be able to hop over the sensors or hit an OFF switch. In a smart New York Times op-ed “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised,” Nicholas Carr believes our warm welcome of these nascent ambient technologies, as the robots become shapeless and ubiquitous, speaks to our narcissism, which is certainly so. But I think it may be more than that. Religion may have declined, but our fear of being alone on a spinning, jagged rock remains as strong as ever.

An excerpt:

Although they may not look like the robots we envisioned, smart speakers do have antecedents in our cultural fantasy life. The robot they most recall at the moment is HAL, the chattering eyeball in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But their current form — that of a stand-alone gadget — is not likely to be their ultimate form. They seem fated to shed their physical housing and turn into a sort of ambient digital companion. Alexa will come to resemble Samantha, the “artificially intelligent operating system” that beguiles the Joaquin Phoenix character in the movie “Her.” Through a network of speakers, microphones and sensors scattered around our homes, we’ll be able to converse with our solicitous A.I. assistants wherever and whenever we like.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook C.E.O., spent much of last year programming a prototype of such a virtual agent. In a video released in December, he gave a demo of the system. Walking around his Silicon Valley home, he conducted a running dialogue with his omnipresent chatbot, calling on it to supply him with a clean T-shirt and toast bread for his breakfast, play movies and music, and entertain his infant daughter. Hooked up to cameras with facial-recognition software, the digitized Jeeves also acted as a sentry for the Zuckerberg compound, screening visitors and unlocking the gate.

Whether real or fictional, robots hold a mirror up to society. If Rosie and her kin embodied a 20th-century yearning for domestic order and familial bliss, smart speakers symbolize our own, more self-absorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives virtually, through social networks and other simulations, our robots should take the form of disembodied avatars dedicated to keeping us comfortable in our media cocoons. Even as they spy on us, the devices offer sanctuary from the unruliness of reality, with all its frictions and strains.•

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Penny Lane, or some place like it, used to be in our ears and in our eyes. Not so much in the twenty-first century. Now your head is supposed to be inside your phone, while sensors, cameras and computers aim to unobtrusively extract information from you.

These robots do not resemble us at all, so there’s no uncanny valley—you’re not meant to detect any dips. As cars become driverless and the Internet of Things proliferates, there will be no opting out, no covering up. As Leonard Cohen groaned in 1992, just three years after Tim Berners-Lee unwittingly gifted us with a Trojan Horse, which we gleefully wheeled inside the gates: “There’ll be the breaking of the ancient western code / Your private life will suddenly explode.” 

Three excerpts follow.

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The opening of the Economist article “What Machines Can Tell From Your Face“:

The human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy.•

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From “The Next Challenge for Facial Recognition Is Identifying People Whose Faces Are Covered,” a James Vincent Verge piece:

The challenge of recognizing people when their faces are covered is one that plenty of teams are working on — and making quick progress.

Facebook, for example, has trained neural networks that can recognize people based on characteristics like hair, body shape, and posture. Facial recognition systems that work on portions of the face have also been developed (although, again; not ready for commercial use). And there are other, more exotic methods to identify people. AI-powered gait analysis, for example, can recognize individuals with a high degree of accuracy, and even works with low-resolution footage — the sort you might get from a CCTV camera.

One system for identifying masked individuals developed at the University of Basel in Switzerland recreates a 3D model of the target’s face based on what it can see. Bernhard Egger, one of the scientists behind the work, told The Verge that he expected “lots of development” in this area in the near future, but thought that there would always be ways to fool the machine. “Maybe machines will outperform humans on very specific tasks with partial occlusions,” said Egger. “But, I believe, it will still be possible to not be recognized if you want to avoid this.”

Wearing a rigid mask that covers the whole face, for example, would give current facial recognition systems nothing to go on. And other researchers have developed patterned glasses that are specially designed to trick and confuse AI facial recognition systems. Getting clear pictures is also difficult. Egger points out that we’re used to facial recognition performing quickly and accurately, but that’s in situations where the subject is compliant — scanning their face with a phone, for example, or at a border checkpoint.

Privacy advocates, though, say even if these systems have flaws, they’re still likely to be embraced by law enforcement.•

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From “How Apple Is Putting Voices in Users’ Heads—Literally,” a Steven Levy Wired story about Apple technology that could be a boon for the hearing impaired—and, potentially, a bane for all of us:

Merging medical technology like Apple’s is a clear benefit to those needing hearing help. But I’m intrigued by some observations that Dr. Biever, the audiologist who’s worked with hearing loss patients for two decades, shared with me. She says that with this system, patients have the ability to control their sound environment in a way that those with good hearing do not—so much so that she is sometimes envious. How cool would it be to listen to a song without anyone in the room hearing it? “When I’m in the noisiest of rooms and take a call on my iPhone, I can’t hold my phone to ear and do a call,” she says. “But my recipient can do this.”

This paradox reminds me of the approach I’m seeing in the early commercial efforts to develop a brain-machine interface: an initial focus on those with cognitive challenges with a long-term goal of supercharging everyone’s brain. We’re already sort of cyborgs, working in a partnership of dependency with those palm-size slabs of glass and silicon that we carry in our pockets and purses. The next few decades may well see them integrated subcutaneously.

I’m not suggesting that we all might undergo surgery to make use of the tools that Apple has developed. But I do see a future where our senses are augmented less invasively. Pulling out a smartphone to fine-tune one’s aural environment (or even sending vibes to a brain-controlled successor to the iPhone) might one day be as common as tweaking bass and treble on a stereo system.•

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Silicon Valley powerhouses would like to have it both ways: More surveillance of you and less transparency for them. You will be tagged, monitored and commodified, and they will be free from regulations. That’s what technology wants—or at least what technologists want.

Whether it’s Larry Page dreaming of a partitioned parcel where he can conduct dangerous experiments or Peter Thiel actually bankrolling unauthorized herpes vaccine tests on humans in St. Kitts, these billionaires believe laws created to protect us from people just like them are a hindrance.

Because Americans so reflexively worship success and money, such people have already had an outsize impact on how we live. Time will tell how much further their sway is amplified, as our biggest tech corporations try to blur lines and bend wills. Mark Zuckerberg even appears to have his eyes on the leadership of America, a country with a much smaller population than Facebook. How kind that he would accept such a demotion.

· · ·

Libertarians, a political class that has wet dreams about seasteading and abhors zoning regulations, also would like to see government (mostly) disappear. As the sinking of Houston’s runaway sprawl just reminded us, rules and regulations are needed. They can always be done better, but they need to be done.

Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, whose policies, if ever enacted fully, would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans, made his maiden voyage in 2014 to the purported government-less wonderland known as Burning Man. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the world could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. The Beltway “Burner” wrote of his experiences for the Guardian. Maileresque, it was not. An excerpt:

You hear that Burning Man is full of less-than-fully-clad folks and off-label pharmaceuticals. But that’s like saying Bohemian Grove is about peeing on trees or that Chicago is Al Capone territory. Burning Man is cleaner and greener than a rally for solar power. It has more camaraderie and sense of community than a church social. And for a week in the desert, I witnessed more individual expression, alternative lifestyles and imaginative fashion than …. anywhere.

The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some “gifts” that would have interested the federal authorities.

I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.

On my last day of my first Burning Man, at the Reno airport, a shoeless man (he had lost his shoes in the desert) was accosted by another dust-covered Burner carrying sneakers: “Take these,” he said. “They are my Burning Man shoes.” The shoeless man accepted the gift with dignity.•

What a putz, on many levels. Perhaps silliest of all is Norquist’s idea that Burning Man is a far freer society, which is dubious at best. It’s highly regulated and for good reason. Go and create some art in the desert if you like, peep at the nudity on display at this self-aware pseudo-Woodstock, but you’ll need to deal with a bureaucracy. That’s largely a positive development, since rules and sound infrastructure are often what protects us from disaster.

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From “The Endless Rules of Burning Man,” a CityLab piece by Christine Grillo:

The festival has been held on the shadeless alkali flats of Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area, since 1990. To call the environment inhospitable is an understatement. Every year, the temporary Black Rock City—home to 70,000 souls last year—is built with almost a conquistadorial glee by men and women hell-bent on imposing a form of civilization upon the lifeless playa, hauling in generators and propane and water and lumber and porta-potties. (And art, of course.)

As with permanent cities, the construction and maintenance of this municipal infrastructure requires an elaborate regulatory apparatus—and for the greater good, the regs must be enforced. When you imagine Burning Man, you might picture naked people riding bikes and making out and setting things on fire—and, indeed, that’s exactly what you’ll see if you attend. But, for a psychedelic, safety-third debauch, Burning Man has an awful lot of rules. …

As the event has grown, Black Rock City has become more like a real-world municipality, albeit one that’s whiter, wealthier, and more circular than most American cities of its size. Its lawmaking body is the Burning Man Organization—often referred to as the Org, or more jokingly as the Borg. Like many municipal entities or large corporations, the Org has a fondness for bloodless bureaucratese. Witness sentences like this, one of many similar ones to be found on the official Burning Man website: “As part of the organization restructuring efforts, several subcommittees were formed to decentralize management and to include more key stakeholders in decision-making.”•

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Yuval Noah Harari so calmly and clinically describes a fascistic, post-human future driven by algorithms and biotech that his prognostications seem fait accompli. His ideas should be read instead as cautionary tales. As Swift used the undersized and super-sized proportions of Lilliputians and Brobdingnags, respectively, to provoke, lecture and caution, Harari’s monstrous machines and microscopic laboratory manipulations should encourage debate about how even far less of a technological society than he envisions can still impact us with potentially negative consequences, intended or unintended.

In a Los Angeles Review of Books piece by Philip Kitcher, the writer reviews Harari’s most recent title, Homo Deus, along with Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s A Crack in Creation, two volumes dedicated to the next big thing: that moment when we co-opt evolution and become something like gods. Kitcher asserts rightly, I believe, that those who fear germline modifications of genes (changes made in the womb that would eradicate diseases from future generations) are worrying most likely needlessly, at least if we’re talking about truly awful outcomes and not just less-favorable ones (ALS as opposed to being somewhat less than average height).

His lack of concern about enhancement in general, however, seems, myopic to me. He can say in a vacuum that “genetic enhancement should not cater” to those who aim to turn out superior offspring, but in the competition among states and corporations, those neat lines of distinction will be blurred. It we got even foggier once the tools of the cell biologist’s trade are in the hands of the many—when they are fast, cheap and (perhaps) out of control.

An excerpt:

What of enhancement? Here, the case against using tools of gene editing appears even stronger. Nevertheless, as Doudna and Steinberg partly appreciate, revulsion stems from fixating on a specific type of example. When ambitious parents hope their children will exhibit particular characteristics — being tall or intelligent, for example — the desire is often comparative: they want the kids to be taller or smarter than their peers. Genetic enhancement should not cater to that sort of wish. A society in which privileged people buy further biological advantages for themselves and their dependents is an ethically hideous prospect, as exemplified by the alphas, betas, gammas, and deltas of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

When competition plays no role, however, genetic enhancement can be harmless, even benign. The losses affecting us as we age are familiar facts of human life. Hearing becomes less sensitive, and memory declines. Although the causal details underlying these processes are not yet fully known, it is easy to imagine that they might be discovered — and that the discovery could allow somatic interventions to preserve our youthful capacities as we age. People benefiting from those interventions would be genetically enhanced, equipped with abilities no normal human being has ever had. If the interventions were available to all, parts of the standard health protections delivered by all (enlightened) societies, it is hard to see what objections could be leveled against them. …

Yuval Noah Harari is also interested in the threats attending the human future, and impressed with the possibilities of applying biological knowledge to modify human genomes. But in Homo Deus, he paints on a far larger canvas. Scientific advances have provided our species with godlike opportunities. Computer technology and molecular biology together will transform human lives and what it means to be human. Most members of our species will become redundant. All of us will have to face the fact that we are not, and have never been, autonomous agents. The flaws in humanism will be exposed. A new religion in which the flow of data becomes central — becomes the reigning deity — will triumph.

Or will it?•

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