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If Hillary Clinton had won a small amount of votes in a few key states, everything would be different, at least outwardly.

The country certainly would have been a million times better off in her hands than in the clutches of an ego-drunk buffoon and his cadre of anti-Semites, sexists and xenophobes. But the distance between a superpower and an also-ran can be razor-thin, and the final tally showed that a frightened populace reached inside for their better angels and came up empty-handed, installing one of the worst among us in the Oval Office. If Clinton had been victorious, she would have been a capable steward who would have offered protections for workers’ rights, but it’s not easy to see what she would have done about manufacturing jobs that aren’t returning even as the factories are re-shored. Machines can handle most of that work now, and not everyone will be able to transition into being a driverless-car engineer. There are no simple answers.

George Packer of the New Yorker has done some great reporting in the pages of that magazine and in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America on the seismic changes U.S. citizens have experienced (and endured) during this millennium, as the Industrial Age ran out of steam. Two Packer pieces follow about the vanishing of our critical institutions, the second one from his entry in this week’s “Sixteen Writers” feature in the New Yorker.


From 2014:

I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “add to cart” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “buy” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery—a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

The invisibility of work and workers in the digital age is as consequential as the rise of the assembly line and, later, the service economy. Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought. The guy stocking shelves and the girl scanning purchases at Target never occupied much of a place in the public mind, and certainly never a romantic one (no one composed a “Ballad of the Floor Associate”), but at least you had to look at them whenever you ventured out to stimulate the economy. They reminded you that low-priced Chinese-made goods were a mixed blessing—that many of the jobs being created in post-industrial America were crappy ones.

With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.•


From this week:

All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers, such as Newt Gingrich, are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the President sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.

But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the nineteen-seventies—eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? Strictly speaking, it no longer exists. “All right we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote, in his “U.S.A.” trilogy.

Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. Hillary Clinton became the sixth Democratic Presidential candidate in the past seven elections to win the popular vote; yet during Barack Obama’s Presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats. The Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age, other than Obama, who has governed as the charismatic and enlightened head of an atrophying body. Did Democrats even notice?•

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Shaping a turd into a circle and poking a hole in the center does not make a donut. Some who otherwise abhor Donald Trump are still enamored with his pledge to rebuild infrastructure, a very necessary priority, but they’re neglecting to notice the details of his plan reveal a cruller made of crap.

President Obama noted recently in a Carnegie Mellon address that the government is here to do the hard, unglamorous, unprofitable work that private enterprise wants no part of, “dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” The Trump plan, however, will neglect the tough jobs that could pay off long-term dividends (e.g., repairing highways, modernizing schools, etc.), instead being a windfall for a few without a return for the many.

From Lawrence Summers at the Financial Times:

I have long been a strong advocate of debt-financed public investment in the context of low interest rates and a decaying US infrastructure, so I was glad to see Mr Trump emphasise it. Unfortunately, the plan presented by his advisers, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, suggests an approach based on tax credits for equity investment and total private sector participation that will not cover the most important projects, not reach many of the most important investors, and involve substantial mis-targeting of public resources.

Many of the highest return infrastructure investments — such as improving roads, repairing 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, upgrading schools or modernising the air traffic control system — do not generate a commercial return and so are excluded from his plan. Nor can the non-taxable pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds that are the most promising sources of capital for infrastructure take advantage of the program.

I am optimistic regarding the efficacy of fiscal expansion. But any responsible economist has to recognise that, past a point, it can lead to some combination of excessive foreign borrowing, inflation and even financial crisis. As Dornbusch showed, in emerging markets this can happen quite quickly. In the US the process would take longer.

Even without taking account of the likely costs of the infrastructure plan (which the Trump team badly underestimates) or the proposed defence build-up, the Trump tax reform proposals are too expensive. Many, like the proposed abolition of the estate tax, will only benefit the high-saving wealthy.•

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Familiarity breeds contempt, as the Internet Age has taught us. 

That medium has shrunk the world in ways Marshall McLuhan couldn’t fully imagine when he was panicking about television ushering in the Global Village, which now seems positively halcyon by comparison. In this decentralized age, we all got drunk and hooked up, but not everyone is sure they want to move in together.

Luckily for the skittish, the new tools contain no center but instead multitudes, with ways to personalize and edit feeds to eliminate friction, so it’s possible for me to sing the song of myself, to disappear into an echo chamber. There’s no need to even think about it: It’s all automated.

A perplexingly large segment of us want to force the physical world to follow suit, to build an actual wall that buffers and protects life a firewall. It seems impossible, but some are willing to die trying.

From Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent Primer Stories essay “The New Nationalism“: 

The television era was about globalism, international cooperation, and the open society. TV let people see for the first time what was happening in other places, often live, as it happened. We watched the Olympics, together, by satellite. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Even 9-11 was a simultaneously experienced, global event.

Television connected us all and broke down national boundaries. Whether it was the British Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York or the California beach bodies of Baywatch broadcast in Pakistan, television images penetrated national divisions.

I interviewed Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he told me that MTV and CNN had more to do with ending the divisions of apartheid than any other force.

But today’s digital media environment is different. At the height of his media era, a telegenic Ronald Reagan could broadcast a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demand that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Today’s ultimate digi-genic candidate Donald Trump demands that we build a wall to protect us from Mexicans. This is because the primary bias of the digital media environment is for distinction. Analog media such as radio and television were continuous, like the sound on a vinyl record. Digital media, by contrast, are made up of many discrete samples. Likewise, digital networks break up our messages into tiny packets, and reassemble them on the other end. Computer programs all boil down to a series of 1’s and 0’s, on or off.•

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Chad: Hey, bro.

Every urban myth, old wives tale and piece of propaganda should be obviated with a few clicks in the Internet Age, but those tubes travel both ways. The decentralization of information made it possible to spread lies and confusion as well as truth, so we now have access to more knowledge than at any point in history–and more bullshit. Choose wisely.

Whether pushing tobacco or a politician, moneyed interests invest heavily on disinformation to aid their cause, and that was so even before viral videos had their moment. In a smart BBC Future piece, Georgina Kenyon profiles Stanford science historian Robert Proctor, who studies the willful spread of ignorance. He’s the world’s foremost “agnotologist.” An excerpt:

A new era of ignorance

“We live in a world of radical ignorance, and the marvel is that any kind of truth cuts through the noise,” says Proctor. Even though knowledge is ‘accessible’, it does not mean it is accessed, he warns.

“Although for most things this is trivial – like, for example, the boiling point of mercury – but for bigger questions of political and philosophical import, the knowledge people have often comes from faith or tradition, or propaganda, more than anywhere else.”

Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.

Consider climate change as an example. “The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts,” says Proctor.•

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The photo at top is from 2005, which might as well be a million years ago. Commuters on the NYC subway were that recently digesting every kind of printed matter, with newspapers especially prominent. We will never witness that scene again, as we’ve transitioned into the age of smartphones, a medium that has disappeared the broadsheet and tabloid and paperback. These tools are wonderfully portable and can hold far more information, though some things have been lost in the changeover. That’s not to say America was wonderful in 2005 and isn’t now–both times were rather grim–but not much good can come of making words shrink, eliminating them, even.

To paraphrase Norma Desmond: News *is* big. It’s the *gadgets* that got small. Reading on smartphones isn’t easy, so skimming headlines about current events is about the best anyone can do now. It’s not just the size of the characters that’s daunting but also the speed with which they travel, as they ping, prompt and interrupt us nonstop. News is always breaking until it feels broken.

Nicholas Carr, one of our time’s preeminent critics (cultural, social and media), has penned a really wonderful Nieman Reports piece on the “nowness” of the news, the concept of fast and first run amok. As he writes, “for 500 years the medium of print has been training us to pay attention.” Not any longer. The opening:

“Thought will spread across the world with the rapidity of light, instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood. It will blanket the earth from one pole to the other—sudden, instantaneous, burning with the fervor of the soul from which it burst forth.”

Those opening words would seem to describe, with the zeal typical of the modern techno-utopian, the arrival of our new online media environment with its feeds, streams, texts and tweets. What is the Web if not sudden, instantaneous and burning with fervor? But French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote these words in 1831 to describe the emergence of the daily newspaper. Journalism, he proclaimed, would soon become “the whole of human thought.” Books, incapable of competing with the immediacy of morning and evening papers, were doomed: “Thought will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book—the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a newspaper.”

Lamartine’s prediction of the imminent demise of books didn’t pan out. Newspapers did not take their place. But he was a prophet nonetheless. The story of media, particularly the news media, has for the last two centuries been a story of the pursuit of ever greater immediacy. From broadsheet to telegram, radio broadcast to TV bulletin, blog to Twitter, we’ve relentlessly ratcheted up the velocity of information flow.

To Shakespeare, ripeness was all. Today, ripeness doesn’t seem to count for much. Nowness is all.•

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Are we obsessed with dystopias because we fear we won’t go on or because we fear we will? I’m split on that.

The amount of content, high and low, pop and academic, concentrated on the death of us all (or most of us) by climate and AI and zombies is astounding. It plays on a deep-seated knowledge that things fall apart–and they do. Despite what some philosophers will tell you these days about species-extincting computers, the only real existential risk right now, apart from an accident with an asteroid, is global warming. 

In a Boston Review interview conducted by Avni Majithia-Sejpal, Junot Diaz, who’s editing a 2017 issue on the topic of global dystopias for that publication, discussed the “default narrative” of a generation. The opening:

Question: 

You are editing a special literary issue of Boston Review, to be published in 2017, on global dystopias. Can you tell us about your vision for this issue: why dystopia, and why now?

Junot Díaz: 

Certainly we are at peak dystopia. We are in a moment where there is, first of all, the creative problem that there is a lot of praxis around dystopia. It has become, along with apocalyptic narrative, the default narrative of the generation. Our political horizons have become distorted by dystopian imaginaries. Our sense of what is possible in the civic is being slowly dragged away from the standard post-World War Two techno-positivism towards a darker, more ruinous vision. It is not only a kind of vocabulary and idiom; it is a useful arena in which to begin to think about who we are becoming as a planet. The steady drum beat of reports from our best and brightest scientists has made it explicitly clear that whether we like or whether we want to admit it or not we have damaged our planet in ways that have transformed us into a dystopian topos. When I think of it in The Hunger Gameswhere, either the movie or the book, a group of people come together and design arenas where people—young people—kill themselves and compete: these are the game makers. We are making the genre in which we are living, and we are making it at such an extraordinary rate. 

There are also questions of politics, questions of subjectivity, questions of responsibility in the civic that dystopia brings out. We have a great tradition of dystopia in the West as a way for us to imagine our way through our present and to indicate towards the future. I have always enjoyed Tom Moyland’s idea of the critical dystopia: the purpose of the critical dystopia, how the critical dystopia is implicated with the utopia, and that a critical dystopia is not just something that is “the bad place.” It is something that maps, warns, and hopes. In that way—as an arena of intellectual engagement—the critical dystopia taken to a lower level could be something regenerative and something useful. And that’s what we would like to see from this special issue.•

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When he was born in 1830, nobody could have imagined Henry Hale Bliss would be killed 69 years later by a horseless, electric automobile, or that such a thing could even exist. In modern context, it would be similar to someone birthed in 1980 dying in 2050 because their driverless vehicle was hacked by a terrorist with a smartphone. Things change, sometimes with surprising swiftness.

The death of the New Yorker remains notable because he was the first recorded fatality of an American car accident, his head and chest crushed by a Manhattan taxicab as he exited a streetcar. Bliss’ demise was covered in an article in the September 14, 1899 New York Times. The story:

H. H. Bliss, a real estate dealer, with offices at 41 Wall Street, and living at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street, was run over last night at Central Park West and Seventy-fourth Street. He was injured fatally.

Bliss, accompanied by a woman named Lee, was alighting from a south-bound Eighth Avenue trolley car, when he was knocked down and run over by an automobile in charge of Arthur Smith of 151 West Sixty-second Street. He had left the car, and had turned to assist Miss Lee, when the automobile struck him. Bliss was knocked to the pavement, and two wheels of the cab passed over his head and body. His skull and chest were crushed. 

Dr. David Orr Edson, son of ex-Mayor Edson, of 38th West Seventy-first Street, was the occupant of the electric cab. As soon as the vehicle was brought to a standstill he sent in a call to Roosevelt Hospital for an ambulance, and until its arrival did all he could to aid the injured man. When he was taken to the hospital Dr. Murray, the house surgeon, said that Bliss was so seriously injured that he could not live.

Smith was arrested and locked up in the West Sixty-eighth Street Station. It is claimed that a large truck occupied the right side of the avenue, making it necessary for Smith to run his vehicle close to the car. Dr. Edson was returning from a sick call in Harlem when the accident happened.

Mr. Bliss boarded at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street. The place where the accident happened is known to the motormen on the trolley line as “Dangerous Stretch,” on account of the many accidents which have occurred there during the past Summer.•

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Discussion of the ideas in David Gelernter’s new book, The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness, which just landed in my mailbox, forms the crux of the latest episode of EconTalk with Russ Roberts. The computer scientist talks about the variety of cognizance that forms our days, an idea he believes lost in the unstudied acceptance of binary labels “conscious” or “unconscious.” He thinks, for instance, that we operate at various levels of up- or down-spectrum consciousness, which permits us to function in different ways. 

Clearly the hard problem is still just that, and the creativity that emerges from consciousness, often the development of new symbols or the successful comparison and combination of seemingly disparate thoughts, isn’t yet understood. Someday we’ll comprehend the chemical reactions that enable these mysterious and magnificent syntheses, but for now we can enjoy though not understand them. In one passage, the author wonderfully articulates the creative process, the parts that are knowable and those that remain inscrutable. The excerpt:

David Gelernter:

You also mention, which is important, the fact that you have a focused sense when you are working on lyrics or writing poetry, let’s say. And I’ve argued, on the other hand, that you need to be well down-spectrum in order to get creativity started. That is, you can’t be at your creative peak when you’ve just got up in the morning: your attention is focused and you are tapping your pencil; you want to get to work and start, you know, getting through the day’s business at a good clip. It’s not the mood in which one can make a lot of progress writing poetry. But that’s exactly why–that’s one of the important reasons why creativity is no picnic. It’s not easily achieved. I think it’s fair to say that everybody is creative in a certain way. In the sort of daily round of things we come up with new solutions to old problems routinely. But the kind of creativity that yields poetry that other people value, that yields original work in any area, is highly valued, is more highly valued than any other human project, because it’s rare. And it’s rare not because it requires a gigantic IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but because it requires a certain kind of balance, which is not something everybody can achieve. On the one hand–it’s not my observation; it’s a general observation–that creativity often hinges on inventing new analogies. When I think of a new resemblance and an analogy between a tree and a tent pole, which is a new analogy let’s say that nobody else has ever thought of before, I take the new analogy and can perhaps use it in a creative way. One of a million other, a billion, a trillion other possible analogies. Now, what makes me come up with a new analogy? What allows me to do that? Generally, it’s a lower-spectrum kind of thinking, a down-spectrum kind of thinking, in which I’m allowing my emotions to emerge. And, I’m allowing emotional similarity between two memories that are in other respects completely different. I’m maybe thinking as a graduate student in computing about an abstract problem involving communication in a network like the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) or the Internet, in which bits get stuck. And I may suddenly find myself thinking about traffic on a late Friday afternoon in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. And the question is–and that leads to a new approach. And I write it up; and I prove a theorem, and I publish a paper. And there’s like a million other things in the sciences and in engineering technology. But the question is: Where does the analogy come from? And it turns out in many cases–not in every case–that there are emotional similarities. Emotion is a tremendously powerful summarizer, abstractor. We can look at a complex scene involving loads of people rushing back and forth because it’s Grand Central Station, and noisy announcements on [?] to understand, loudspeakers, and you’re being hot and tired, and lots of advertisements, and colorful clothing, and a million other things; and smells, and sounds, and–we can take all that or any kind of complex scene or situation, the scene out your window, the scene on the TV (television) when you turn on the news, or a million other things. And take all those complexities and boil them down to a single emotion: it makes me feel some way. Maybe it makes me happy. Maybe it makes me happy. It’s not very usual to have an emotion as simple as that. But it might be. I see my kids romping in the backyard, and I just feel happy. Usually the emotion to which a complex scene has boiled down is more complex than that–is more nuanced. Doesn’t have a name. It’s not just that I’m happy or sad or excited. It’s a more nuanced; it’s a more–it’s a subtler emotion which is cooked up out of many bits and pieces of various emotions. But the distinctive emotion, the distinctive feeling that makes me feel a certain way, the feeling that I get when I look at some scene can be used as a memory cue when I am in the right frame of mind. And that particular feeling–let’s say, Happiness 147–a particular subtle kind of happiness which is faintly shaded by doubts about the coming week and by serious questions I have about what I’m supposed to do tomorrow morning but which is encouraged by the fact that my son is coming home tonight and I’m looking forward to seeing him–so that’s Happiness 147. And it may be that when I look out at some scene and feel Happiness 147, that some other radically different scene that also made me feel that way comes to mind–looking out at that complex thing and I think of some abstract problem in network communications, or I think of a mathematics problem, or I think of what color chair we should get for the living room, or one of a million other things. Any number of things can be boiled down in principle, can be reduced, can be summarized or abstracted by this same emotion. My emotions are so powerful because the phrase, ‘That makes me feel like x,’ can apply to so many situations. So many different things give us a particular feeling. And that feeling can drive in a new analogy. And a new analogy can drive creativity. But the question is: Where does the new analogy come from? And it seems to come often from these emotional overlaps, from a special kind of remembering. And I can only do that kind of remembering when I am paying attention to my emotions. We tend to do our best to suppress emotions when we’re up-spectrum. We’re up-spectrum: We have jobs to do, we have work to do, we have tasks to complete; our minds are moving briskly along; we’re energetic. We generally don’t like indulging in emotions when we are energetic and perky and happy and we want to get stuff done. Emotions tend to bring thought to a halt, or at any rate to slow us down. It tends to be the case as we move lower on the spectrum, we pay more attention to emotions. Emotions get a firmer grip on us. And when we are all the way at the bottom of the spectrum–when we are asleep and dreaming–it’s interesting that although we–often we think of dreaming as emotionally neutral except in the rare case of a nightmare or a euphoria dream, and neither of those happen very often–we think of dreams as being sort of gray and neutral. But if you read the biological[?] literature and the sleep-lab literature, you’ll find that most dreams are strongly colored emotionally. And that’s what we would expect. They occur at the bottom of the spectrum. Life becomes more emotional, just as when you are tired you are more likely to lose your temper; you are more likely to lose your self-control–to be cranky, to yell at your kids, or something like that. We are less self-controlled, we are less self-disciplined; we give freer rein to our emotions as we move down spectrum. And that has a good side. It’s not good to yell at your kids. But as you allow your emotions to emerge, you are more likely to remember things that yield new analogies. You are more likely to be reminded in a fresh way of things that you hadn’t thought of together before.•

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“Things are going to change dramatically in the near future,” promises computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber, who says we’re just a few years from AI as smart as capuchin monkeys and several decades from autonomous robot factories in space. Neither one is theoretically impossible at some point, but, boy, technologists and futurists are awfully aggressive when it comes to time frames. 

Schmidhuber made these and other prognostications at a Wired conference, stressing that while machines will eventually make humans redundant in the universe, we’ll get lots of cool tech stuff before our extinction. Oh, good.

An excerpt:

Jürgen Schmidhuber is painting an image of the future of our Universe. And it’s plain to see, we are neither a real part of it, nor is it our Universe at all.

“In 2050 there will be trillions of self-replicating robot factories on the asteroid belt,” he tells the audience at WIRED2016. “A few million years later, AI will colonise the galaxy. Humans are not going to play a big role there, but that’s ok. We should be proud of being part of a grand process that transcends humankind more than the industrial revolution. It is comparable to the invention of life itself, and I am privileged to live this moment and witness the beginnings of this.”

The pioneer in deep learning neural networks should know. His work – including 333 peer-reviewed papers – has formed the foundations of many of the AI systems we see embedded in smartphones today, including Google’s voice recognition and Google Translate – “each of you has a little piece of us in your pocket,” he said.•

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Perhaps what’s most stunning about Peter Thiel’s lack of self-awareness is that he’s yet to surmise that he’s an “elite living in a coastal bubble,” a charge he levels at those perturbed by his support for Donald Trump, the Worst American™. An immigrant from a country with a horrible, Holocaust-fueled past who’s able to look around the authoritarian, racist threats of an evidently unstable person clearly doesn’t see the burning forest for the trees, but this billionaire ideologue truly believes he understands the hearts and souls of Main Street. Well, he may understand the absolute worst of that block, but that’s more an accident of similarly damaged psyches.

There’s a thought by those who know him in Silicon Valley and can’t fathom his support for a hatemonger that Thiel possesses some hidden master plan that would explain his exhortation of a bigoted monster. I would guess this is a huge rationalization by a group of people unable to accept that one of their own is an unrepentant prick. Even if their theory is true, only the most hubristic troll can be so lost in his ludicrous theories that he can sit in his well-appointed living room and dream about tearing down America and rebuilding it in his own vision. The technologists who continue to stand by Thiel have a blind spot for him as capacious as the one he has for Trump.

What is Thiel’s grand design for recreating America? I don’t give a fuck, but Nick Bilton has a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece that tries to discern just that and reveals much about the investor’s psychology in the process. An excerpt:

The predominant theory in Silicon Valley about Thiel’s Trumpism—or at least the version you hear uttered the most in public—suggests it’s largely a personality tick. Thiel is “a contrarian,” as Jeff Bezos noted at last month’s Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. Others have said that he just wants the attention. “What Peter has done, is not comprehensible to me,” Michael Lazerow, an investor, said to me. “I’ve yet to be able to figure out what Peter is supporting. It’s very clear about what he’s ignoring.” Lazerow went on to say that Trump’s policies are as erratic as his temperament, but his hatred is not. Thiel appears to be supporting the latter. And then there’s the theory of ego.

Thiel evidently approves of the attention he’s getting. (In the Times story, after all, he appeared quite aware of the “intensity” of the criticism he had provoked.) But there’s also another thesis floating around the Valley. “My belief is that Peter does not personally believe in Trump, but that he wants to create what I call the ‘burn it down party’,” investor Jason Calacanis told me. “Peter would like to see Trump win because it is the quickest way to break the two-party system and create Peter’s vision for America, which he is slowly unpacking.”

That theory, no matter how dystopian, may have some credence. Thiel, wittingly or not, has been articulating a very particular vision of late. During a speech at the National Press Club, Thiel hit on some familiar territory. He noted that the tech industry is deeply out of touch with the impact that their financially successful products have on the rest of the country. (This is one area where I actually agree with Thiel: in the Valley, a majority of pointless app founders are often too able to convince themselves that they have somehow “made the world a better place.”) In general, as Adam Davidson recently explained in The New Yorker, Thiel articulated a vision of national despair and ruin centered around inequality, student debt, and the trade deficit. “The protagonists in his national drama are Trump voters,” Davidson writes. “The villains are élites in their coastal bubbles of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., who do not intend to tolerate the views of half this country.”

When Thiel is intellectually convinced of something—an idea, an injustice, a preference—he often seems unbothered by many of the smaller details or sensitivities or possible ramifications.•

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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Tubes would eventually bring mail to every home, but they weren’t of the pneumatic variety. In a predictive piece he wrote for the December 30, 1900 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, U.S. Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith offered that the type of inter-borough pneumatic tubing system utilized in early-1900s New York City might someday be linked to every individual residence. He was right in the big picture, even if he got the details wrong.

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In Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, his follow-up to Sapiens which picks up from the latter book’s final, futuristic section, the Israeli historian identifies “attaining happiness” as one of the goals of humans in the next century, a process which will probably involve a manipulation of brain chemistry. That aim might be even more elusive than immortality (another goal he discusses), with the author asserting that the right just to pursue happiness is no longer enough. In fact, that messy pursuit is rather costly.

As Harari points out, the lack of happiness is one of the great burdens not only for us personally but for society, filling our jails and hospitals, mostly due to drug abuse. The opioid epidemic isn’t born just of dissatisfaction, but a mass addiction to pain killers is a fairly clear sign that we’re in pain. These and other drugs allow people to “get high” because they feel low. As the author notes, suicide has spiked in advanced cultures as famine, war and plague have been conquered to a great degree. A piece of the puzzle is still missing.

The struggle for happiness has long been known as the “human condition”–it’s what makes us who we are. To borrow a word from gormless film people clutching golden statues, it’s our “journey.” Not everyone agrees today. Some see disquiet as a design error. If we could take a pill that delivered unbridled contentment sans side effects, or if our brain function was manipulated in some other fashion to deliver the same, that would make us something different than what we are. As I’ve mentioned before, technology is perhaps most powerful, for good and bad, when it works flawlessly, when there’s no obvious mess.

I thought of technocracy’s promise of happiness being delivered to us like a taco by a drone when reading a quote in a Euronews report about robot “police officers” being introduced in Dubai. They don’t only shake your hand, but they can also recognize your face. An excerpt:

“Robot cops” will soon be patrolling the streets of Dubai.

A prototype of the new android police officer was recently seen in the halls of the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX), Dubai’s annual computer and electronics show.
Equipped with a touchscreen which can be used to report a crime or process traffic violation fines, it can also salute and shake hands, and speaks English, French and Arabic.

Its interactive screen and microphone are directly connected to the Dubai Police force. …

“Technology is not our end goal, it’s our enabler,” said Aisha Butti Bin Bishr, Director General of the Smart Dubai Office. “Our end goal is to make our people happier. But we are using technology, innovative technology, to serve people. Later on, you will see one of our applications where we’ve brought almost 27 government entities together on one platform – more than 55 services that can be performed in one place. With a single payment you can perform all government services and transactions.”•

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon her departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, Libya October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2ST4W

The only thing Hillary Clinton had to gain from using a private email account and server as Secretary of State was convenience. She wasn’t trying to hide or steal anything. You could argue this server was less secure and made it easier to hack sensitive business, but it’s not like the American government’s servers are exactly impervious to breaches.

The partisanship of the FBI in trying to launch an October surprise may be shockingly reckless, but the press in all its forms was making a small story into a huge one long before Comey’s cohort tried to tip the election. The media may know its biases, but when it comes to scandal–or something that looks like it might pass for it–everyone is all in. That’s why a Secretary of State using a private email account, something Colin Powell also did, has been treated with the utmost importance, though it will not in any way decide foreign policy or create jobs or fix the healthcare system. When it comes to the future of our country, it’s a non-issue masquerading as a vital one.

The opening of Matthew Yglesias’ take on the “scandal” at Vox:

Some time ago, Hillary Clinton and her advisers decided that the best course of action was to apologize for having used a personal email address to conduct government business while serving as secretary of state. Clinton herself was, clearly, not really all that remorseful about this, and it showed in her early efforts to address it. Eventually aides prevailed upon her to express a greater degree of regret, which they hoped would lay the issue to rest.

It did not. Instead, email-related talk has dogged Clinton throughout the election and it has influenced public perceptions of her in an overwhelmingly negative way. July polling showed 56 percent of Americans believed Clinton broke the law by relying on a personal email address with another 36 percent piling on to say the episode showed “bad judgments” albeit not criminality.

Because Clinton herself apologized for it and because it does not appear to be in any way important, Clinton allies, surrogates, and co-partisans have largely not familiarized themselves with the details of the matter, instead saying vaguely that it was an error of judgment and she apologized and America has bigger fish to fry.

This has had the effect of further inscribing and reinscribing the notion that Clinton did something wrong, meaning that every bit of micro-news that puts the scandal back on cable amounts to reminding people of something bad that Clinton did. In total, network newscasts have, remarkably, dedicated more airtime to coverage of Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined.

This is unfortunate because emailgate, like so many Clinton pseudo-scandals before it, is bullshit. The real scandal here is the way a story that was at best of modest significance came to dominate the US presidential election — overwhelming stories of much more importance, giving the American people a completely skewed impression of one of the two nominees, and creating space for the FBI to intervene in the election in favor of its apparently preferred candidate in a dangerous way.•

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From the August 5, 1943 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Even if they must suck the blood of the young, Silicon Valley billionaires will live forever, but just in case they don’t, start-ups are looking for venture capital to help disrupt the grave and create Death 2.0.

Technology firms launched by millennials are getting into the funeral business, using the new tools to offer transparency and simplicity to those forcing their way through practical decisions when contending with the painful loss of a loved one.

The opening of Eilene Zimmerman’s New York Times article “Start-Ups for the End of Life“:

Death and dying can be costly, but they are rarely considered a business by consumers. Many would rather not ponder critical decisions about feeding tubes, funeral homes and other end-of-life issues until the need is thrust upon them.

But as our population ages and the industry gets more attention, new firms — many of them technology companies — are setting out to compete on price and convenience.

This $18 billion funeral industry has long been a technology holdout, said Dan Isard, president of the Foresight Companies, a financial management firm in Phoenix, which specializes in funeral and cemetery professions.

Mr. Isard said funeral directors “would rather sit across from someone and talk to them, listen to them, than have them go online and try and figure it out for themselves.” That is also one reason the death care industry, as it is called in the industry, has been able to maintain its lack of pricing transparency. But with nearly 2.6 million people dying annually in the United States, entrepreneurs see an opportunity to innovate. 

A new crop of tech start-ups is hoping to capture a slice of that sector. Many are founded by millennials, who have grown up online and expect to shop for — and curate — everything there.

As baby boomers become more comfortable shopping online, these start-ups are finding a highly engaged audience. And those in their 20s and 30s, hitting major life events like marriage, the birth of a child or the loss of a parent, also require planning services.•

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When it comes to contemporary economics, the old William Goldman adage about Hollywood seems to apply: Nobody knows anything. There are hints and suspicions, but the evidence looks less than solid–it looks strange, in fact. 

It would make sense that as machines can do more labor, making pizzas and building houses and driving trucks, there would less work for people unless new jobs emerged that were beyond the reach of robots. That’s what happened during the Industrial Revolution, but the past is not necessarily prologue. And it’s important to remember that not all the work has to be taken from our hands for things to fall apart, but rather just enough to over-stress the system.

Thing is, recent economic indicators are fuzzy at best about the impact of automation, not suggesting they’ve caused a productivity boom. Is that because the new tools I mentioned above are just becoming ascendant, or is there something else at play?

Excerpts follow from Derek Mead of the Atlantic and Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press, who each try to make sense of what’s happening.


From Mead’s “When Will Robots Take All the Jobs?“:

There is a contradiction in economic forecasting today that I’ve come to think of as the “robot paradox.” Some people seem confident that automation will take many workers’ jobs, yet they cannot point to evidence that technology has done anything in the last few years to replace work or add to productivity. Indeed, economic growth has been lackluster for the last few years, productivity growth is mysteriously moribund, and the last two years have been perhaps the best time this century for wage growth. This is not what the end of work looks like.

Since I have written repeatedly that policymakers should take the threat of automation seriously, I’ve developed several theories about the robot paradox. The first begins with humility: Maybe I’m wrong, and today’s statistics are evidence that machines will continue to supplement workers, as they have mostly done for the last few centuries, rather than erode overall employment. The second is that I’m right, just not yet: The economy ison the precipice of several wrenching changes—self-driving cars, machine-learning, and the continued digitization of shopping—that will replace hundreds of thousands of jobs in a future so near it is practically the edge of the present.

But the third theory is the most important, the most empirical, and yet the most overlooked. It is that the time to look for technological displacement of workers is not during recoveries, but rather during recessions. There is nothing to see now, but after the next downturn (or the recession after that), there will be.•


From Wiseman’s “Why Robots, Not Trade, Ae Behind So Many Factory Job Losses“:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump blames Mexico and China for stealing millions of jobs from the United States.

He might want to bash the robots instead.

Despite the Republican presidential nominee’s charge that “we don’t make anything anymore,” manufacturing is still flourishing in America. Problem is, factories don’t need as many people as they used to because machines now do so much of the work.

America has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979. Yet American factory production, minus raw materials and some other costs, more than doubled over the same span to $1.91 trillion last year, according to the Commerce Department, which uses 2009 dollars to adjust for inflation. That’s a notch below the record set on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. And it makes U.S. manufacturers No. 2 in the world behind China.

Trump and other critics are right that trade has claimed some American factory jobs, especially after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and gained easier access to the U.S. market. And industries that have relied heavily on labor – like textile and furniture manufacturing – have lost jobs and production to low-wage foreign competition. U.S. textile production, for instance, is down 46 percent since 2000. And over that time, the textile industry has shed 366,000, or 62 percent, of its jobs in the United States.

But research shows that the automation of U.S. factories is a much bigger factor than foreign trade in the loss of factory jobs. A study at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research last year found that trade accounted for just 13 percent of America’s lost factory jobs. The vast majority of the lost jobs – 88 percent – were taken by robots and other homegrown factors that reduce factories’ need for human labor.

“We’re making more with fewer people,” says Howard Shatz, a senior economist at the Rand Corp. think tank.•

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One thing we can be assured of is computerized data not staying in a container, resting easily or behaving. Information, in this sense, truly wants to be free–as in liberated–especially since so many stand to profit from its agglomeration and dissemination. We’re just at the beginning of the Internet of Things, in which a conversation among machines, a real-time exchange of numbers and pictures and more, will likely make quotidian life more efficient and convenient while it quietly obliterates privacy.

Excerpts follow from two pieces on the impact of data on transit and surveillance in the next five years. The first is a Verge Q&A with outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and the latter a speculative scene by Peter Moskowitz from Fusion about the inescapable transparency of American political activism in 2020.


From the Verge:

Question:

It’s November, 2021: what does the world look like?

Anthony Foxx:

By 2021, we will see autonomous vehicles in operation across the country in ways that we [only] imagine today… Families will be able to walk out of their homes and call a vehicle, and that vehicle will take them to work or to school. We’re going to see transit systems sharing services with some of these companies. It’s not just autonomy in the vehicles. You’re going to see trucks running more closely together, which result in fuel savings and positive climate impact. You’ll see companies that will start to use unmanned aircraft to deliver products to us. My daughter, who will be 16 in 2021, won’t have her driver’s license. She will be using a service. …

Question:

Data collection can enable autonomy, but only if it’s shared across the industry. How do you encourage that sharing?

Anthony Foxx:

I want us to have a broader imagination of how data can lift the safety advantages of autonomous cars. [If] I drive over a pothole and you are driving behind me, and see what happens to my car, you glean that understanding and you think to avoid that pothole. If an autonomous car runs over a pothole, will it be able to communicate and share that data not only with cars of the same type [of car], or a particular manufacturer, but [with] all autonomous vehicles regardless of who made it? That’s one question I think the industry needs to spend time on, because there are issues around propriety of information. We found in the aviation arena that information is shared between commercial carriers all the time on an anonymous basis. [The information] doesn’t identify the carrier specifically, but it identifies the situation and it allows us to attack safety challenges much more quickly. What if, for example, a car… averts an accident by making a particular move? Can that information now be shared among other vehicles?•


From Fusion:

It’s 2020, and you live in Chicago. A little bit about yourself: You’re politically active. Not a front-of-the-lines activist necessarily, but someone who cares about race, and income inequality, about the state of policing and the police state. You’re tech savvy—not a hacker or a programmer—but you know your way around social media, and that’s where you get a lot of information about events like readings, birthdays, whatever. You see an event in your Facebook newsfeed one day, a protest against police brutality, let’s say, and you click “attending.”

Here’s what happens next.

You’re already being watched before you leave your house. No one’s eyes are necessarily on you. But you are being tracked, logged, recorded, nonetheless. We’ve all heard about how much data sites like Facebook and Google collect on you, even when you’re not on the sites. They often know your location, what you’ve purchased, and what you’re searching for. Most of us give those companies our data voluntarily, without even knowing exactly how it’s used, either by private companies, or by the police state. 

Surveillance has always been legal in the U.S., but before the proliferation of technology, it required manpower. Someone had to be actively surveilling you, driving a car behind yours, clicking a camera, jotting down notes on your every move. Now, tracking people is cheaper and easier than ever.

In 2020, law enforcement agencies are using this data in smarter, more precise, and creepier ways. Technologies were developed long ago to track you and your friends via your Facebook feed. So were databases where pictures of faces are stored indefinitely for use with facial recognition software. Cameras watching our moves on subways and in traffic and on the street have been inconspicuously recording for decades.•

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Personalization was a buzzword, a selling point, of Web 1.0: You would soon get what you wanted and only that delivered to you seamlessly. Of all the dubious ideas of that pre-bubble era, none came truer. At first you had to set your preferences, but now that mostly occurs automatically, algorithmically. 

The phenomenon is especially evident in news, with the erstwhile gatekeepers, already disrupted financially, being swept away by a flood of information. The variety of yesterday’s newspapers, even ones that had a political slant, forced a certain amount of friction into our lives, made us look at the other side of the argument and question ourselves. Those debates disappeared into the zeros and ones.

In a smart New York Times column, Farhad Manjoo articulates the phenomenon of more (information) being less. He points out that even actual proof means little today, writing “you would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the ‘truth.’ In fact, the opposite has happened.”

An excerpt:

You’re Not Rational

The root of the problem with online news is something that initially sounds great: We have a lot more media to choose from.

In the last 20 years, the internet has overrun your morning paper and evening newscast with a smorgasbord of information sources, from well-funded online magazines to muckraking fact-checkers to the three guys in your country club whose Facebook group claims proof that Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump are really the same person.

A wider variety of news sources was supposed to be the bulwark of a rational age — “the marketplace of ideas,” the boosters called it.

But that’s not how any of this works. Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons. Instead, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.

This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near-infinite choice.•

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Because Gary Johnson smokes pot and clearly doesn’t bother studying for tests, the Libertarian Presidential candidate has been sort of the cool kid of the class this election season. But Zoltan Istvan, standard-bearer of the Transhumanist Party, is not only in favor of legalizing all drugs in America, he also believes athletes should be on PEDs and we needn’t regulate gene editing. Now that man’s a party!

I’ve really enjoyed writing about Istvan’s ideas over the course of his campaign, even if I’m sometimes aghast at them. The unorthodox pol just did a lively pre-Election Day Ask Me Anything at Reddit, and I’ve embedded a few exchanges below.


Question:

Is there a way to protect privacy with technology developing along current trajectory? Big data and more deliberate forms of mass surveillance seem to suggest major social changes concerning and individual’s right to keep secrets.

Will privacy become an anachronism in the next few decades?

Zoltan Istvan:

Everyone hates this, but we must get over our privacy issues. They simply won’t survive the onslaught of tech. My response is to observe the government as much as they want to observe us, so at least it’s a two-way street. Ultimately, though, there’s just too much tech tracking us now and 20 years into the future for privacy to survive as we know it today.


Question:

Do you think the claim by a few people that we’ve subverted our natural evolution in favour of becoming a part of a singularity has any kind of credence? What kind of obstacles do you think we still have to overcome for that kind of scenario to be a positive experience?

Zoltan Istvan:

It’s tough to talk about the Singularity since the idea is essentially beyond our comprehension. It’s such a bizarre concept, and yet I believe in it. But we are certainly are subverting our natural evolution, and to those that oppose it, I like to bring up the fact that without basic evolutionary progress, we might still be dying from infections from cavities.

Question:

Very good point. So does that mean you tend to believe that we’re more likely to find ways to augment and prolong through methods like, say, nano technology as opposed to shedding physical form entirely?

Zoltan Istvan:

Yes, I think we’ll likely want to stay in semi-human form for as long as possible. Even I’m a bit skeptical to just become intelligent AI or organized star dust.


Question:

I believe this to be a long-term solution to technological unemployment that doesn’t involve a huge centralized government agency, but I’ve also come to consider how Basic Income might be useful towards attaining this system. However, I’ve been cautioning against total reliance on this idea, because I realize that almost all governments out there are only out to perpetuate power, and a basic income in a highly automated society represents a great deal of power over citizens who will have no other way to survive besides this common dole.

So my questions are thus:

A. What are your plans involving basic income?

B. Do you believe that Basic Income by itself is enough, or that Vyrdism represents a proper step forward beyond it?

C. Are you concerned by the potential ability of governments to abuse the concept of basic income to enforce a totalitarian order?

Zoltan Istvan:

I highly support a basic income. I can’t see any other way around the situation that is not completely dystopic for the future. I have a plan over 6 years to begin implementing a moderate basic income, which would include higher taxes, companies that create the automation to pay up, and loaning or selling of federal land (we have tons available). With that, we could bridge a few decades of a UBI. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. But capitalism likely won’t survive.

This article of mine is one possibility of an outcome. The lack of any ownership might prevent a totalitarian order. Read here.

Question:

and loaning or selling of federal land (we have tons available.

Are you talking about national parks? Would you sell them to entities that will function as a park/nature reserve only or would you allow them to mine or drill for natural resources?

Zoltan Istvan:

National Parks would be last on the list to touch. But there’s plenty of other land just sitting out there. And yes, I’d allow some natural resources to be mined or drilled. But very selectively. We all must take a step back and imagine how many trillions of dollars we’re dealing with here. Half the 11 Western most states are federal land. And our population is barely budging, and the machine age is upon us. I doubt there will be more than a few more human generations behind us anymore. So the land is not as necessary as it once was. We simply might not be entities that eat anymore in 50-100 years. So let’s use that federal land to make our lives better now.


Question:

Hey Zolt. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about your thoughts on regulating human enhancement through gene editing methods such as CRISPR. I know as a libertarian-leaning person, you are against agency regulation in general, however, do you feel there is a place for a regulatory agency outside or parallel to the FDA to oversee safety and efficacy of human enhancement and germline modification? Thanks!

Zoltan Istvan:

On this, I just really don’t think we need regulation. I think the greater concern is that China goes full speed ahead with genetic editing and America gets left behind and we dance around whether it’s a good idea–and then shortly after a new generation of Chinese babies are born with better genetic intelligence than everyone else (posing a serious national security and cultural issue). I say embrace it. We don’t need a new agency for gene editing.


Question:

Where do Sports fall into the Transhumanist viewpoint?

Zoltan Istvan:

I think sports are great when we allow ourselves to use drugs and enhancements. I think the future is the creation of new sports with new technologies, and turning humans sports more into Formula 1 type racing endeavors, where the scientists and engineers and coaches are just as important as the athletes. Read here.


Question:

If the world becomes globalized through tech, can we expect countries to dissolve? Will the world become borderless?

Zoltan Istvan:

Yes, I don’t expect as many countries in 25 years. And in 50, there might only be a few left. Despite BREXIT, I still think we will go borderless at some point. I advocate for this in the future. I think peace will come of it.


Question:

Are you voting for yourself in a week, or for one of the other candidates?

Zoltan Istvan:

I’m voting for myself. I will totally understand given all the circumstances if my supporters vote for others though.

Question:

Would you endorse one of the other candidates over the other?

Zoltan Istvan:

Yes, in general, I think in swing states, you should vote for Hillary (though I’m not anti-Trump, I just like Hillary better). In Utah, vote Evan McMullin. Everywhere, else I suggest voting for Gary Johnson. If Gary get’s 5% of the vote, the Libertarian Party will get federal funding. That means America will not longer be a 2-party system. Whether you like Libertarians is not the question–it’s a question of overcoming the two party monopoly, which I think is important for democracy.

Question:

How do you justify telling people to vote for Hillary though?

I mean she represents everything that people hate about the government right now. From her directly lying to the public and holding no remorse about it, to her husband pardoning criminals on the way out for money, to being under active FBI investigation for deleting evidence after a subpoena

Zoltan Istvan:

One main reason is that is Trump becomes President, and gets assassinated, Mike Pence will take office and that could be a disaster for science and tech, especially in the gene editing and AI era. Read my sci-fi story.

I like Gary Johnson the best. Actually, I like myself the best, but the reality is the choice is between Hillary and Trump. And people must make that choice.•

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Humans, as we know them, will not persist.

That’s not to say we’ll certainly meet with some sort of extinction event, even if that’s a very plausible scenario sooner or later. It does, however, mean speciation will likely occur whether as a result of our commandeering of evolution through biotechnology or via the establishment of space settlements in environments far different from the one that sustains us.

If you read this site with any regularity, you know my opinion that sending humans to Mars in the near- or medium-term is needless and crazy. Doing so within the next decade as Elon Musk plans to seems particularly foolhardy. Reusable rockets carrying robots to do reconnaissance and infrastructure-building for the foreseeable future seems wiser. But billionaires get a bigger vote than the rest of us, so off we (probably) go.

In “The Martians Are Coming–and They’re Human,” an excellent Nautilus essay, Scott Solomon analyzes how Mars would remake Homo sapiens, explaining why perhaps that planet’s pioneers will develop orange skin, why sex between Martians and Earthlings will be verboten, etc. An excerpt:

Take this all together—no sex between Earthlings and Martians, founder effects, changes to the microbiome, natural selection in the harsh Martian environment, and low gravity—and the message is clear: Settling Mars could eventually lead to the evolution of an entirely new human species. This happens routinely to animals and plants isolated on islands—think of Darwin’s famous finches. But while speciation on islands can take thousands of years, the accelerated mutation rate on Mars and the stark contrasts between conditions on Mars and Earth, would likely speed up the process. In just a few hundred generations—perhaps as little as 6,000 years—a new type of human might emerge.

In 1950, Ray Bradbury published a series of linked short stories called “The Martian Chronicles” that imagined a distant future in which Mars had been long ago colonized by humans, who have subsequently lost all interest in and connection to Earth. The Martians have brown skin and yellow eyes. “Do you ever wonder if—well, if there are people living on the third planet?” asks one Martian. “The third planet is incapable of supporting life,” states her husband. “Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.”

Bradbury’s fiction may well prove prescient. Should some disaster occur on Earth, colonizing Mars might be necessary for our long-term survival. Yet the strategy meant to preserve our species might ultimately change us forever.•

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Almost all the promises Uber used to sell itself as an agent for social good have turned out to be utter bullshit.

The rideshare service isn’t in business to employ Iraq War veterans or keep African-Americans safe from police brutality. Travis Kalanick’s outfit isn’t here to free you from the shackles of bureaucracy, unless you’re very troubled by a steady income and benefits. It isn’t part of the solution for employment woes, as people who should know better have said. At long last, Uber is a corporation that will do whatever it takes to make as much money as possible without regard to the effect it has on human beings, drivers, passengers and anyone else.  

Another piece of the company’s hype as an agent for social change has fallen into tatters. The idea that Uber would make transportation colorblind has turned out to be a fugazy. From Gaby Del Valle at the Gothamist:

Uber has long claimed that its platform prevents drivers from engaging in discriminatory practices, like refusing to pick up people of color, but a new study suggests that Uber and other ride-sharing apps haven’t stopped drivers from racially and sexually discriminating against passengers.

According to a study conducted over two years by the National Bureau of Economic Research, black passengers are more likely to wait longer for a ride or have their ride canceled than their white counterparts, while women are likely to be taken on longer rides by drivers who either want to charge them more money or flirt with them (or both).

The study involved nearly 1,500 rides in Seattle and Boston, and the findings are based almost entirely on data from Uber rides, since Lyft displays the rider’s name and picture before a driver chooses to accept the ride, making discrimination nearly impossible to quantify.

In Seattle, undergraduate students from the University of Washington were given identical phones with Uber and Lyft pre-downloaded and told to take a few pre-determined routes. They were instructed to note what time they requested the ride, when the ride was accepted by the driver, what time they were picked up, and when they got to their destination. The results showed that wait times for black passengers were up to 35 percent longer than they were for white drivers.

In Boston, researchers set up two different Uber and Lyft accounts for each rider—one with an “African-American-sounding” name and one with a “white-sounding” name—and had passengers order rides from both. (“White” passengers had names like Allison, Brendan, and Brad while “black” passengers had names like Aisha, Hakim, and Darnell).

In Boston, profiles that appeared to belong to black men had a cancellation rate of 11.2 percent, compared to just 4.5 percent for passengers who appeared to be white men. Passengers believed to be black women had a cancellation rate of 8.4 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for white women.•

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futuristiccar4567driverless

In the 1969 National Geographic feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” the idea of driverless autos centered on retro-fitting roads and highways, making them over into “guideways.” An excerpt:

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”•

It hasn’t worked out that way. The eyes and ears of the operation–the brains, really–will be within the vehicle with an assist perhaps from wi-fi–enabled gadgets on the outside; any contributions from driving surfaces will be secondary. Key to the “formal education” of cars will be the sharing of information among them, which will permit constant learning. Perhaps someday they’ll be smart enough to tell us how to replace millions of jobs lost in the trucking, taxi, delivery and limousine industries.

From a smart interview Jason Anders of WSJ conducted with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, whose company is tasked with supplying Teslas with autonomous capability:

Question:

Tesla announced that all of its coming vehicles are going to have your technology. Is Elon Musk pushing things too fast?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

If you don’t develop the technology and deploy it, it never gets better. At some level, you have to put it on the road. But what’s important is it’s a massive software problem. So companies like Tesla who have a great deal of software capability have an advantage. There’s a rigorous methodology of developing software. The software becomes better and better over use.

Question:

What can’t the cars do today?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

A whole lot of stuff. We’re going to have an AI inside the car that’s going to look around corners. So even if you’re driving, the AI might prevent you from an accident. There’s all kinds of things that the AI could predict on your behalf.

Question:

Can the car be doing too much?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

The thing to realize is the quality of the software improves over time, whereas people’s performance of driving decreases.

Question:

What about at first, when very few cars on the road are driverless?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

Making sure we don’t cause an accident is something we can control, and we ought to do that as quickly as possible.

But the cars will learn from every other car’s experience. We’re going to see capabilities of computers grow way faster than at any time in the history of our industry.•

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chinaoxygen-e1443212251420-1

A horrifying sign of the times is the peddling of packaged air, sold in bottles so that those with disposable income in badly polluted locales can breathe freely. It sounds like a smog-saturated setting imagined for a dystopic, futuristic novel, or, you know, contemporary China. Considering one of the two major American political parties would like to shutter the EPA and its nominee wants to remove “70 or 80% of the regulations,” we all might want to grab a six-pack if we can afford to.

From 

Would you pay $100 for a whiff of Welsh air?

In some of the world’s most polluted cities, people apparently will: Sales of bottled air from fresh-smelling places are taking off.

An Australian company is hawking six-packs of air bottled in places like Bondi Beach in Sydney or the eucalyptus-covered Blue Mountains. A Canadian firm sells containers of Rocky Mountain breeze as an antidote to smoggy skies (“a shot of nature,” its marketing promises).

Aethaer, a British company, is hoping to turn packaged air into a popular luxury item in fast-growing markets like China. The company sells glass jars holding 580 milliliters (a bit more than a pint) of air from Wales — with a “morning dew feel,” according to its website — for 80 pounds, or $97.

The company’s 28-year-old founder, Leo De Watts, said he hoped buyers would come to regard his product as a collectible, like a “sculpture or a limited-edition print made by an artist.” “Clean air is actually a very rare commodity,” he said.

The market for all kinds of pollution-fighting tools is booming in many smog-choked cities in China, India and Southeast Asia. Innovations abound, including air purifiers that are attached to bicycles and outdoor towers that are meant to suck up smog.

Bottled air is one of the least practical but most talked-about ideas.•

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