From the August 6, 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
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From the August 6, 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Donald Trump will end in disgrace, not primarily because he’s an ignorant con artist wholly unfit to be President, but because he has stashed in his closet a mausoleum full of skeletons pertaining to his personal life, business career and Russia. His family’s laundry is dirty despite all the laundering he’s done. Trump ultimately falls, as do his cohort of disgraceful henchmen, half-wits and horseshitters. This sordid episode doesn’t conclude in book deals all around but in most of the players being booked.
That won’t, however, save America. Our problems run deeper and wider than Trump, who’s the culmination of our social collapse, not the source. Russia’s machinations and James Comey’s boneheaded move may have put the QVC quisling over the top, but there’s really no rationalizing nearly 63 million citizens pulling the lever for a completely unqualified and indecent anti-politician. We’ve been heading for this disaster for generations, our break from reality a long time coming.
In an excellent Atlantic essay, Kurt Andersen, who has a history with Trump, writes that he began to notice our ugly divorce from reality during the Dubya Era “truthiness,” precisely in 2004. It’s interesting the writer chose the year he did, because that was when The Apprentice debuted, and a deeply immoral and largely failed businessman was awarded the role of Manhattan’s greatest builder despite not being able to get a loan of clean money to open a tent in Central Park.
But our fall from grace has more distant origins. Our drift started with Reagan unwinding the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of cable news, the emergence of Reality TV and the decentralization of the media, when the gatekeepers of legacy journalism were obliterated, when anyone could suddenly pose as an expert on vaccinations or trade pacts. The Internet made it possible to legitimize our most dubious fears and worst impulses.
We have more information than ever before, and it’s been put to worrisome use, as “lone gunmen” and multi-billion dollar corporations alike began to commodify conspiracy theories, from Ancient Aliens to Pizzagate to Seth Rich. The sideshow that has always existed in the U.S. was relocated to the center ring, as Chuck Barris’ suspicion about America’s dark side proved truer than even he could have predicted.
As much as anything, performance became essential to success, convincingly playing a Doctor, Survivor or a populist Presidential candidate was more important than truth. Life became neither quite real nor fake, just a sort of purgatory. It’s a variation of who we actually are–a vulgarization.
· · ·
It’s a new abnormal that’s been creeping over this relatively wealthy though often dissatisfied nation for decades. Here’s the transcript of a scene from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss how performance had become introduced in a significant way into quotidian life, and that was way before Facebook gave the word “friends” scare quotes and prior to Kardashians, online identities and selfies:
That was one of the reasons why Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well, that performing in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way, obscene. Isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? You see a terrorist on television and he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, single people or artists kind of live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or single person or an artist should look and behave. They all act like that know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident. But privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books.
God, I mean those books are so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing all these roles in life we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, I mean, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t dare to ask each other.
No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.
I mean, we just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, this incredible emphasis we now put on our careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, well, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can turn on the automatic pilot.•
· · ·
The opening of Andersen’s article, in which he argues that Sixties individualism and Digital Age fantasy conspired to lay us low:
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”
Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.
Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.•
Tags: Kurt Andersen
There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg is a top-shelf CEO, even if the product he’s selling is dubious, an advertising scheme that connects hatemongers as surely as old lovers, can aid in toppling democracies as well as autocracies and is willing to quietly conduct “social experiments” on its customers, who are used as an endless source of free content to publish and private information to repurpose. No matter how much the Facebook founder claims to be repairing the ill effects of his company, he’s really just doubling down on its core tenets, which seem as likely as not to be antithetical to healthy societies.
In a Nick Bilton Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer analyzes Zuckerberg’s many recent moves which make it seem like he’s readying himself for a White House run. (My own thoughts on the same can be read here.) As with all Bilton pieces, there’s interesting insight, though I do think one line in his conclusion borders on ludicrous.
Bilton writes that Zuckerberg’s “skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” That would be a fairly ridiculous statement regardless of who we were talking about. Bill Gates is legitimately eradicating diseases and no one believes he can counteract “so much of what ails us.” No one would believe that about a President of the United States, even on those happy occasions when we have a sane and intelligent one who doesn’t believe he can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens.
It can’t be that Bilton believes Zuckerberg is capable of healing the country’s major problems just because he’s a bright and wealthy person because there are many far smarter and some modestly richer. It has to be the CEO’s management abilities and Facebook itself which elicited this judgement, but the former has been used to mixed results at best as far as civic life is concerned and the latter may permanently be more a negative than a positive.
Considering Bilton acknowledges elsewhere in the article that Zuckerberg is clueless about his fellow citizens, his “remedy” line just sounds like more Silicon Valley idol worship, something best approached lightly in this moment of Theranos, Juicero, Kalanick, Damore and Thiel.
I have my own theory as to what’s going on here. Over the years, I’ve spent some time with Zuckerberg, and I always got the feeling that he truly believed there wasn’t a problem that technology couldn’t solve. He felt deeply, and likely still does, that he was using Facebook to connect people, and that those connections were making the world a better place.
Lately, however, it appears that he has realized that there is another darker side to all of this technology. That the opioid epidemic has grown because of the Internet, that sites like Twitter enable people to spew hatred and lie without repercussions, and—most importantly—that his very own Web site was used by Russian hackers and idiot bros in the Midwest to share fake news stories that helped give us President Trump.
Zuckerberg may have ascended to prominence as a brilliant technologist, but he has turned Facebook into a behemoth because he is also a generationally gifted chief executive, someone who tends to think 20 steps ahead. In fact, I’ve never met a C.E.O. who can do this with such adroitness. I’m sure that the possibility of public office has crossed Zuckerberg’s mind, but probably for a reason that none of us have thought of, and it may also be 19 steps down the line. I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot for 2020, but I do think he has left the option open to run for office one day. Maybe it won’t be the highest office in the land, too, but rather mayor of Palo Alto, or governor of California. Or maybe Zuckerberg just wants to join the local community board near his house. But, nevertheless, I think he’s got a larger plan in mind that we mere mortals just don’t understand: there isn’t a world in which Zuckerberg would amend the S-1 with that update, fully aware that his every move is scrutinized by investors, with zero intention of ever using an ounce of latitude afforded by the amendment.
But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Zuckerberg over the past several months. As his surrogates have said to me, he partially wants to do this tour of America to show he’s just like us, and in touch with how Facebook (and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) can affect people. Unfortunately, though, I think his expedition has had the opposite effect, and highlighted just how out of touch Zuckerberg really is with the rest of the country. While he can plan 20 moves ahead, he can’t seem to understand that cavorting around the country with a professional photographer, snapping disingenuous images of him milking cows, touring shrimp boats in the Bayou, and having dinner with a lovely family in Ohio, seems aloof or, worse, patronizing. I have some advice for Zuckerberg: fire your photographer. If you want to post a picture of yourself at dinner in Ohio, take a selfie like everyone else on the planet.•
Just read “Far-Distant Days,” Ben Thomas’ very good Aeon essay about the often-vertiginous reality of the deep past, which may be discomfiting to face but must be confronted should we hope to manage today and tomorrow’s challenges. In the opening, Thomas draws on Ray Bradbury’s 1965 essay “The Machine-Tooled Happyland,” which was inspired by his long-simmering anger over Julian Halevy’s decidedly negative 1955 Nation review of Disneyland’s opening.
Halevy identified Walt’s new theme park and its far more raffish cousin Las Vegas as twin examples of vulgar American escapism that was being driven by mounting conformity. This road to nowhere–or at least to un-realism–became eminently more crowded in the decades that followed with the emergence of Graceland, Comic-Con, Dungeons & Dragons, the Internet, Netflix, Facebook, Reality TV, cosplay, Virtual Reality, Pokémon Go and, finally, a garbage-mouthed game show host for a President. Halevy’s concluding sentences:
I’m writing about Disneyland and Las Vegas to make another point: that both these institutions exist for the relief of tension and boredom, as tranquilizers for social anxiety, and that they both provide fantasy experiences in which not-so-secret longings are pseudo-satisfied. Their huge profits and mushrooming growth suggest that as conformity and adjustment become more rigidly imposed on the American scene, the drift to fantasy relief will become a flight. So make your reservations early.•
“The drift to fantasy relief will become a flight,” may be the most ominous and truest prediction made in mid-century America.
One decade later, Bradbury, whose devotion to Disney was rivaled only by Charles Laughton, struck back at Halevy in his response in Holiday. More puzzling than the writer’s unbridled appreciation for Disney’s still-crude animatronics in a time when real rockets were traveling through space, were his views on the future of history. Bradbury believed machines in “audio-animatronic museums” could make the inscrutable past uniform, could bring it to life. He wrote: “One problem of man is believing in his past.”
When he asserts that in 2065 “Caesar, computerized, [will] speak in the Forum,” he was unwittingly describing Virtual Reality far more than robotics. He believed new tools would finally get humanity on the same page, that history would be taught by robotics that were controlled by a seer like Disney, not fully comprehending a decentralized age would allow for the remixing and distorting of history on an epic scale, and that all of it, even slavery and the Holocaust, could be reduced to entertainment or worse.
Bradbury did, however, have some inkling of the potential pitfalls, writing: “Am I frightened by any of this? 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.”
The full essay:
“THE MACHINE-TOOLED HAPPYLAND”
The wondrous devices of Disneyland take on startling importance in the mind of a science fiction seer
Two thousand years back, people entering Grecian temples dropped coins into machinery that then clanked forth holy water.
It is a long way from that first slot machine to the “miracles of rare device” created by Walt Disney for his kingdom, Disneyland. When Walt Whitman wrote, “I sing the Body Electric,” he little knew he was guessing the motto of our robot-dominated society. I believe Disney’s influence will be felt centuries from today. I say that Disney and Disneyland can be prime movers of our age.
But before I offer proof, let me sketch my background. At twelve, I owned one of the first Mickey Mouse buttons in Tucson, Arizona. At nineteen, selling newspapers on a street corner, I lived in terror I might be struck by a car and killed before the premiere of Disney’s film extravaganza, Fantasia. In the last thirty years I have seen Fantasia fifteen times, Snow White twelve times, Pinocchio eight times. In sum, I was, and still am, a Disney nut.
You can imagine, then, how I regarded an article in the Nation some years ago that equated Disneyland with Las Vegas. Both communities, claimed the article, were vulgar, both represented American culture at its most corrupt, vile and terrible.
I rumbled for half an hour, then exploded. I sent a letter winging to the prim Nationeditors.
“Sirs,” it said, “like many intellectuals before me I delayed going to Disneyland, having heard it was just too dreadfully middle-class. One wouldn’t dream of being caught dead there.
“But finally a good friend jollied me into my first grand tour of the Magic Kingdom. I went…with one of the great children of our time: Charles Laughton.”
It is a good memory, the memory of the day Captain Bligh dragged me writhing through the gates of Disneyland. He plowed a furrow in the mobs; he surged ahead, one great all-enveloping presence from whom all fell aside. I followed in the wake of Moses as he bade the waters part, and part they did. The crowds dropped their jaws and, buffeted by the passage of his immense body through the shocked air, spun about and stared after us.
We made straight for the nearest boat—wouldn’t Captain Bligh?—the Jungle Ride.
Charlie sat near the prow, pointing here to crocodiles, there to bull elephants, farther on to feasting lions. He laughed at the wild palaver of our riverboat steersman’s jokes, ducked when pistols were fired dead-on at charging hippopotamuses, and basked face up in the rain, eyes shut, as we sailed under the Schweitzer Falls.
We blasted off in another boat, this one of the future, the Rocket to the Moon. Lord, how Bligh loved that.
And at dusk we circuited the Mississippi in the Mark Twain, with the jazz band thumping like a great dark heart, and the steamboat blowing its forlorn dragon-voice whistle, and the slow banks passing, and all of us topside, hands sticky with spun candy, coats snowed with popcorn salt, smiles hammer-tacked to our faces by one explosionof delight and surprise after another.
Then, weary children, Charlie the greatest child and most weary of all, we drove home on the freeway.
That night I could not help but remember a trip East when I got of a Greyhound in Las Vegas at three in the morning. I wandered through the mechanical din, through clusters of feverish women clenching robot devices, Indian-wrestling them two falls out of three. I heard the dry chuckle of coins falling out of chutes, only to be reinserted, redigested and lost forever in the machinery guts.
And under the shaded lights, the green-visored men and women dealing cards, dealing cards, noiselessly, expressionlessly, numbly, with viper motions, flicking chips, rolling dice, taking money, stacking chips—showing no joy, no fun, no love, no care, unhearing, silent and blind. Yet on and on their hands moved. The hands belonged only to themselves. While across from these ice-cold Erector-set people, I saw the angered lust of the grapplers, the snatchers, the forever losing and the always lost.
I stayed in Dante’s Las Vegas Inferno for one hour, then climbed back on my bus, taking my soul locked between my ribs, careful not to breathe it out where someone might snatch it, press it, fold it and sell it for a two-buck chip.
In sum, if you lifted the tops of the Las Vegas gamblers’ craniums you would find watch cogs, black hairsprings, levers, wheels in wheels all apurr and agrind. Tap them, they’d leak lubricant. Bang them, they’d bell like aluminum tambourines. Slap their cheeks and a procession of dizzy lemons and cherries would fly by under their cocked eyelids. Shoot them and they’d spurt nuts and bolts.
Vegas’s real people are brute robots, machine-tooled bums.
Disneyland’s robots are, on the other hand, people, loving, caring and eternally good.
Essence is everything.
What final point do I choose to make in the comparison? It is this: we live in an age of one billion robot devices that surround, bully, change and sometimes destroy us. The metal-and-plastic machines are all amoral. But by their design and function they lure us to be better or worse than we might otherwise be.
In such an age it would be foolhardy to ignore the one man who is building human qualities into robots—robots whose influence will be ricocheting off social and political institutions ten thousand afternoons from today.
Snobbery now could cripple our intellectual development. After I had heard too many people sneer at Disney and his audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, I went to the Disney robot factory in Glendale. I watched the finishing touches being put on a second computerized, electric- and air-pressure-driven humanoid that will “live” at Disneyland from this summer on. I saw this new effigy of Mr. Lincoln sit, stand, shift his arms, turn his wrists, twitch his fingers, put his hands behind his back, turn his head, look at me, blink and prepare to speak. In those few moments I was filled with an awe I have rarely felt in my life.
Only a few hundred years ago all this would have been considered blasphemous, I thought. To create man is not man’s business, but God’s, it would have been said. Disney and every technician with him would have been bundled and burned at the stake in 1600.
And again, I thought, all of this was dreamed before. From the fantastic geometric robot drawings of Bracelli in 1624 to the mechanical people in Capek’s R.U.R. in 1925, others have conceived and drawn metallic extensions of man and his senses, or played at it in theater.
But the fact remains that Disney is the first to make a robot that is convincingly real, that looks, speaks and acts like a man. Disney has set the history of humanized robots on its way toward wider, more fantastic excursions into the needs of civilization.
Send your mind on to the year 2065. A mere century from now set yourself down with a group of children entering an audio-animatronic museum. Inside, you find the primal sea from which we swam and crawled up on the land. In that sea, the lizard beasts that tore the air with strange cries for a million on a million years. Robot animals feasting and being feasted upon as robot apeman waits in the wings for the nightmare blood to cease flowing.
Farther on you see robot cavemen frictioning fire into existence, bringing a mammoth down in a hairy avalanche, curing pelts, drawing quicksilver horse flights like flashes of motion pictures on cavern walls.
Robot Vikings treading the Vinland coastal sands.
Caesar, computerized, speaks in the Forum. falls in the Senate, lies dead and perfect as Antony declaims over his body for the ten-thousandth time.
Napoleon, ticking as quietly as a clockshop, at Waterloo.
Generals Grant and Lee alive again at Appomattox.
King John, all hums and oiled whirs at Runnymede, signing Magna Charta.
Fantastic? Perhaps. Ridiculous? Somewhat. Nonsensical? Vulgar? A touch. Not worth the doing? Worth doing a thousand times over.
For one problem of man is believing in his past.
We have had to take on faith the unproven events of unproven years. For all the reality of ruins and scrolls and tablets, we fear that much of what we read has been made up. Artifacts may be no more than created symbols, artificial skeletons thrown together to fit imaginary closets. The reality, even of the immediate past, is irretrievable.
Thus, through half belief, we are often doomed to repeat that very past we should have learned from.
But now through audio-animatronics, robot mechanics, or if you prefer, the science of machines leaning their warm shadows toward humanity, we can grasp and fuse the best of two art forms.
Motion pictures suffer from not being “real” or three-dimensionally present. Their great asset is that they can be perfect. That is, a director of genius can shoot, cut, reshoot, edit and re-edit his dream until it is just the way he wants it. His film, locked in a time capsule and opened five centuries later, would still contain his ideal in exactly the form he set for it.
The theater suffers from a reverse problem. Live drama is indeed more real, it is “there” before you in the flesh. But it is not perfect. Out of thirty-odd performances a month, only once, perhaps, will all the actors together hit the emotional peak they are searching for.
Audio-animatronics borrows the perfection of the cinema and marries it to the “presence” of stage drama.
To what purpose?
So that at long last we may begin to believe in every one of man’s many million days upon this Earth.
Emerging from the robot museums of tomorrow, your future student will say: I know, I believe in the history of the Egyptians, for this day I helped lay the cornerstone of the Great Pyramid.
Or, I believe Plato actually existed, for this afternoon under a laurel tree in a lovely country place I heard him discourse with friends, argue by the quiet hour; the building stones of a great Republic fell from his mouth.
Now at last see how Hitler derived his power. I stood in the stadium at Nuremberg, I saw his fists beat on the air, I heard his shout and the echoing shout of the mob and the ranked armies. For some while I touched the living fabric of evil. I knew the terrible and tempting beauty of such stuffs. I smelled the torches that burned the books. I turned away and came out for air…. Beyond, in that museum, lies Belsen, and beyond that, Hiroshima…. Tomorrow I will go there.
For these students it will not be history was but history is.
Not Aristotle lived and died, but Aristotle is in residence this very hour, just down the way.
Not Lincoln’s funeral train forever lost in the crepe of time, but Lincoln eternally journeying from Springfield to Washington to save a nation.
Not Columbus sailed but Columbus sails tomorrow morning; sign up, take ship, go along.
Not Cortez sighted Mexico, but Cortez makes landfall at 3 P.M. by the robot museum clock. This instant, Montezuma waits to be wound-up and sent on his way.
Perhaps out of all this fresh seeing and knowing will come such understanding as will stop our cycling round to repeat our past.
Do I make too much of this? Perhaps. Nothing is guaranteed. We are wandering in the childhood of machines. When we and the machines mature, who can say what we might accomplish together?
Am I frightened by any of this? 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. Otherwise we shall end in the company of Baron Frankenstein and some AC-DC Genghis Khan.
The new appreciation of history begins with the responsibility in the hands of a man I trust, Walt Disney. In Disneyland he has proven again that the first function of architecture is to make men over make them wish to go on living, feed them fresh oxygen, grow them tall, delight their eyes, make them kind.
Disneyland liberates men to their better selves. Here the wild brute is gently corralled, not wised and squashed, not put upon and harassed, not tromped on by real-estate operators, nor exhausted by smog and traffic.
What works at Disneyland should work in the robots that Disney, and others long after him, invent and send forth upon the land.
I rest my case by sending you at your next free hour to Disneyland itself. There you will collect your own evidence. There you will see the happy faces of people.
I don’t mean dumb-cluck happy, I don’t mean men’s-club happy or sewing-circle happy. I mean truly happy.
No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life.
Disneyland causes you to care all over again. You feel it is that first day in the spring of that special year when you discovered you were really alive. You return to those morns in childhood when you woke and lay in bed and thought, eyes shut, “Yes, sir, the guys will be here any sec. A pebble will tap the window, a dirt clod will horse-thump the roof, a yell will shake the treehouse slats.”
And then you woke fully and the rock did bang the roof and the yell shook the sky and your tennis shoes picked you up and ran you out of the house into living.
Disneyland is all that. I’m heading there now. Race you?•
Yesterday was the 72nd anniversary of the United States dropping the “Little Boy” atom bomb on Hiroshima, and Wednesday will be the same for “Fat Man” razing Nagasaki, a horrifying turn of events that was best captured by John Hersey in a feat of journalism that might still rank as the greatest non-fiction writing ever.
Just imagine standing in Harry S. Truman’s shoes and being told a million people will die if the war continues but these newly developed bolts of Thor, which could abbreviate the fighting, would unleash destruction heretofore unknown to humankind.
At the time, so much about the weapon was a mystery to all but a few involved in its creation. The day after Hiroshima, rumors printed in newspapers suggested the bomb was the size of a golf ball or weighed 25 pounds (actual weight: 9,700 lbs.). You would think these questions and the devastation itself would be enough to occupy writers for years, but by September of the same year, some scribes were speculating about what else the Atomic Age would bring. Synthetic weather and interplanetary trade were named as potential upsides, with the latter potentially leading to fresh warfare with the inhabitants of Saturn.
An article from the September 17, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Prior to dropping out of Harvard to turn Facebook into the most populous “state” on Earth, one that dwarfs even China, Mark Zuckerberg was a double major. One of those areas of study, unsurprisingly, was computer science. As John Lanchester reminds in his excellent London Review of Books essay about the social network, the other concentration, psychology, is at least as vital in understanding how the entrepreneur was so successful in executing the McLuhan nightmare of a Global Village well beyond what anyone else had been able to accomplish.
Zuckerberg didn’t really invent anything, as Friendster was already on the map. But his predecessor quickly faded while he’s developed the fastest growing service in the global history of business. His corporation’s amazing boom was and is driven primarily by three factors: The entrepreneur was at the right age to understand the trajectory of the market, he used his copious venture capital money to attract brilliant engineers, and he willfully exploited a hole in our psyches. An Lanchester succinctly puts it: Zuckerberg had a keen understanding of the “social dynamics of popularity and status.”
That’s permitted the company to “hire” 2,000,000,000 people to create free content for the platform each month, which would make Facebook by far the largest sweatshop in the annals of humanity, except even those dodgy operations pay some small wage. All you get for your efforts from Zuckerberg are “friends” and “likes,” which may be an even more lopsided return than receiving some strings of shiny beads in exchange for Manhattan.
The company might not have gone anywhere, however, had it not be for early seed money from Peter Thiel, the immigrant “genius” who was sure there were WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a great President. It seemed at one point that Thiel had a moral blind spot to rival the one exhibited by Hitler’s secretary, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s actively a morally dubious figure. What attracted the investor to the peculiar product was his reading of René Girard ideas on “mimesis,” which asserted that all human desires are borrowed from other people and we have an innate need to copy one another. The philosopher viewed this tendency as a human failing with sometimes grave consequences. Thiel saw it as an opportunity.
The blinding success of social media enriched Zuckerberg and Thiel, but is it good for individual users and society on a wider scale? This question is one that the Facebook founder has probably never even entertained. His offspring can’t be a bad seed because he’s too deeply invested in it. Instead, after Facebook was deluged with criticism for its non-response to those who used the platform as a repository for Fake News during the 2016 Presidential election, Zuckerberg proposed a “solution” in his “Building Global Community” manifesto, one that essentially doubled down on the elements of his brainchild (extending connectedness and building “communities”) that are among the very problems. Certainly it benefits the company to downplay rather than neutralize Fake News, since Facebook, an advertising company, profits handsomely from such bullshit content.
The still-young businessman might have another dubious plan to cure what ails America politically. Having publicly renounced atheism, embarked on a 50-states listening tour to pose for photo ops milking cows and hired Hillary Clinton’s pollster, Zuckerberg seems to have his eye on the White House. It’s a wonder why he would accept a demotion to leading a nation of such a relatively puny size. One thing is sure: If he does run, Zuckerberg will appear to be what he thinks we want him to be while promising to bring us together. That’s nothing new on the campaign trail, though it’s attended by a fresh ominousness considering the source.
Zuckerberg’s news about Facebook’s size came with an announcement which may or may not prove to be significant. He said that the company was changing its ‘mission statement’, its version of the canting pieties beloved of corporate America. Facebook’s mission used to be ‘making the world more open and connected’. A non-Facebooker reading that is likely to ask: why? Connection is presented as an end in itself, an inherently and automatically good thing. Is it, though? Flaubert was sceptical about trains because he thought (in Julian Barnes’s paraphrase) that ‘the railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid.’ You don’t have to be as misanthropic as Flaubert to wonder if something similar isn’t true about connecting people on Facebook. For instance, Facebook is generally agreed to have played a big, perhaps even a crucial, role in the election of Donald Trump. The benefit to humanity is not clear. This thought, or something like it, seems to have occurred to Zuckerberg, because the new mission statement spells out a reason for all this connectedness. It says that the new mission is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.
Hmm. Alphabet’s mission statement, ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, came accompanied by the maxim ‘Don’t be evil,’ which has been the source of a lot of ridicule: Steve Jobs called it ‘bullshit’.1 Which it is, but it isn’t only bullshit. Plenty of companies, indeed entire industries, base their business model on being evil. The insurance business, for instance, depends on the fact that insurers charge customers more than their insurance is worth; that’s fair enough, since if they didn’t do that they wouldn’t be viable as businesses. What isn’t fair is the panoply of cynical techniques that many insurers use to avoid, as far as possible, paying out when the insured-against event happens. Just ask anyone who has had a property suffer a major mishap. It’s worth saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ because lots of businesses are. This is especially an issue in the world of the internet. Internet companies are working in a field that is poorly understood (if understood at all) by customers and regulators. The stuff they’re doing, if they’re any good at all, is by definition new. In that overlapping area of novelty and ignorance and unregulation, it’s well worth reminding employees not to be evil, because if the company succeeds and grows, plenty of chances to be evil are going to come along.
Google and Facebook have both been walking this line from the beginning. Their styles of doing so are different. An internet entrepreneur I know has had dealings with both companies. ‘YouTube knows they have lots of dirty things going on and are keen to try and do some good to alleviate it,’ he told me. I asked what he meant by ‘dirty’. ‘Terrorist and extremist content, stolen content, copyright violations. That kind of thing. But Google in my experience knows that there are ambiguities, moral doubts, around some of what they do, and at least they try to think about it. Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’.
That might sound harsh. There have, however, been ethical problems and ambiguities about Facebook since the moment of its creation, a fact we know because its creator was live-blogging at the time.•
It makes sense that new tools that have potentially life-extending properties–CRISPR, for instance–will become affordable enough in rapidly so that their gifts can reach the masses. That should hold true for whatever next-level treatments that follow. In a time of radical abundance, there will be enough for all, we’re promised.
Of course, we already live in a time of relative radical abundance, with adequate wealth to feed, clothe, house, inoculate and educate every last person. Distribution, however, often depends on geography, race, gender, politics, etc. Even when the stars align, a regression into myths and conspiracies can do damage (e.g., unfounded fears about immunizations). What I’m saying is humans are awfully good at mucking up something great, and that may be a permanent part of who we are.
· · ·
In an Aeon essay, ethicist Christopher Wareham wonders how we can prevent a new type of wealth inequality centered on life expectancy without banning breathtaking technologies, which would be a foolhardy step. An excerpt:
Even if life-extending drugs were relatively cheap, it is reasonable to assume that the poor, with less disposable income, are likely to spend money on more immediate and pressing needs. An intervention whose benefits, though substantial, are long-term and preventive is more likely to be marketable to wealthier groups who already have longer, healthier lifespans. The ‘healthspan rich’ would get richer, and the ‘healthspan poor’ would remain poor. This could entrench a two-tier society in which poorer groups suffer not only from poverty, but also from comparatively shorter youth and greater susceptibility to age-related disease.
The bioethicist John Harris at the University of Manchester claims that this unjust outcome is ‘the major ethical problem with life-extending technologies’.
Some bioethicists argue that this justifies a ban on life-prolonging technologies, or at the very least deprioritising research and treatments aimed at substantially extending human healthspans. But this move is too harsh. Besides the practical problems with policing bans and preventing the emergence of unregulated products, banning has some obvious ethical drawbacks.
First, banning longevity medications would be an instance of ethically questionable ‘levelling down’. While other bans, such as the prohibition of drugs, arguably ‘level up’ by reducing the harms of banned substances, a ban on extending healthy lifespans explicitly aims at preventing some people from getting too well-off. As Harris points out, this is like refusing to cure one person’s cancer because it would be unfair on those who are incurable.
A second ethical problem with banning is that life-extending interventions could be used as treatments for a range of health effects. Humans and other primates that show signs of slowed ageing tend to have lower incidences of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. This complicates a ban even further: denying the opportunity to receive treatments because they might result in too much healthspan increase appears deeply objectionable.
Banning is a bad option, but if avoiding radically unequal healthspans is a priority, what type of policies would best achieve it? Is there a way to increase welfare without creating drastic imbalances in healthspan?•
Tags: Christopher Wareham
It’s amazing how much of mainstream culture is now uncoupled from reality. Fake TV weddings, psychic readings, conspiracy theories and fake news are all the rage. Even the President is a fugazi, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, a make-believe Manhattan builder, who holds the highest office in the land after pulling out of a role to play the same in Sharknado 3. It’s an illusion, yet it’s also real enough to get us all killed.
It was assumed after devotion to religion began to wane in the West during the second half of the 20th century that the world would become a more rational place. That hasn’t occurred. Most of us live adrift in a nebulous region inside our smartphones where we try to present the avatar we dream of being.
Even exorcisms, once scary as hell, have been commodified and packaged, staged for a fee by entrepreneurs of no particular denomination. Some consumers want them for reassurance, others for entertainment. With VR developing, won’t we soon be able to immerse ourselves in such a scenario at will, when we’re not visiting a simulated genocide or experiencing a virtual plane crash? It will all feel authentic, except that it will be free of consequences. Or so it will seem.
From the Economist:
THE exorcist, Philippe Moscato, walks from room to room in a large Paris flat, sprinkling blessed water and offering incantations. “Spirits away!”, he calls out, telling pests their attacks will, from now on, be futile. He informs the homeowner the air will improve after his work is done, with the entire apartment block likely to benefit. For the ritual, which lasts an hour, Mr Moscato pockets €155 ($182). He says he despooks property in Paris a few times each week and roughly once a week conducts an exorcism of a person. He is not alone. Look online and a host of private exorcists, healers, mediums, kabbalists, shamans and energiticians offer similar services, for fees as high as €500 per ceremony. Some offer to help a business out of a bad patch, or to restore love to a failing relationship. Many help with supposed hauntings of properties. One self-declared exorcist near Paris says he earns as much a €12,000 a month (before tax) by working 15-hour days, including consultations by phone. The exorcism business is on the rise in France. Why?
According to the exorcists they thrive because customers get much-needed benefits from the rituals. Mr Moscato, for example, describes an “avalanche” of demand following prominent terrorist attacks in France late in 2015. He suggests three parts of France are particularly vulnerable to “black magic”—Paris, Lyon and the French Riviera, where local mafia are said to be active—and this can be countered by sufficiently strong exorcists. Alessandra Nucci, a writer on Catholic matters who attended a course run by the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) in Rome, argues “absolutely, there are more and more” private operators in Europe who charge for their services. She says they fill a vacuum left by priests reluctant to do the job: the “church has, for too long, neglected exorcisms, despite strong demand from the public”, she says.•
Apart from E.L. Doctorow, no one was able to conjure the late Harry Houdini, not even his widow.
But she certainly tried. A famed debunker of spiritualists, Houdini made a pact with his wife, Bess, that if the dead could speak to the living, he would deliver to her a special coded message from the beyond. Nobody but the two knew what the special message was. When a poorly received punch to the abdomen in 1926 made it impossible for the entertainer to escape death, his widow annually attempted to contact him through séance. No words were reportedly ever exchanged. The following are a couple of Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles about the wife’s attempts to continue the marital conversation.
From April 24, 1936:
From February 12, 1943:
Laurie Penny, who’s written some of my favorite articles this year, has published a piece at Wired in which she wonders about automation devastating traditionally male employment. The three key questions about robotic hands taking control of our work remain the same: 1) How many positions will be automated out of existence, 2) Will said transition, if it occurs, happen quickly or gradually?, and 3) Will many automation-proof positions be created to offset the losses? Numerous studies, including one that author quotes, claim to know how many jobs will disappear over the next several decades, though it seems fairly impossible to predict with any accuracy.
I do feel optimistic about men’s capacity to change from labor to nurture because of a trend I’ve noticed: Many retired police officers and firefighters have kept busy by beginning second careers in nursing and home healthcare. I don’t know how widespread this phenomenon is, but I’ve seen it repeatedly in the last decade while visiting relatives in hospitals and senior centers. Some of this work won’t pay the bills for those who go directly into the sector, but if technology forces us to reinvent masculinity, it would be a very welcome and long overdue turn of events.
ROBOTS ARE COMING for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.
This is why automation is so much more than an economic problem. It is a cultural problem, an identity problem, and—critically—a gender problem. Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money. Otherwise they’re about as much use as a wooden coach-and-four on the freeway.
There’s hope for mankind, but it’ll be a hard sell. The way we respond to automation will depend very much on what we decide it means to be a man, or a woman, in the awkward adolescence of the 21st century.
Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border. A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades; 97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing. That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls.
While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counterphenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise. These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million-plus more workers in the next decade.•
Tags: Laurie Penny
The ethical pitfalls of genetic engineering are many, but the upside is likely to go far beyond anything humans have ever done to improve our health, even the creation of vaccines. What’s most exciting about today’s announcement that CRISPR successfully edited mutations from genes in human embryos without provoking an unwanted chain reaction is that the fix wouldn’t only be individual. The lucky baby would no longer pass the hereditary illness on to future generations.
It’s questionable if our species is equipped to control the many negative applications of a tool so powerful, but it can do much good and isn’t going away, so we need to apply ourselves to that challenging mission.
The opening of Pam Belluck’s NYT article on the breakthrough:
Scientists for the first time have successfully edited genes in human embryos to repair a common and serious disease-causing mutation, producing apparently healthy embryos, according to a study published on Wednesday.
The research marks a major milestone and, while a long way from clinical use, it raises the prospect that gene editing may one day protect babies from a variety of hereditary conditions.
But the achievement is also an example of genetic engineering, once feared and unthinkable, and is sure to renew ethical concerns that some might try to design babies with certain traits, like greater intelligence or athleticism.
The study, published in the journal Nature, comes just months after a national scientific committee recommended new guidelines for modifying embryos, easing blanket proscriptions but urging it be used only for dire medical problems.
“We’ve always said in the past gene editing shouldn’t be done, mostly because it couldn’t be done safely,” said Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-led the committee. “That’s still true, but now it looks like it’s going to be done safely soon,” he said, adding that the research is “a big breakthrough.”
Scientists at Oregon Health and Science University, with colleagues in California, China and South Korea, reported that they repaired dozens of embryos, fixing a mutation that causes a common heart condition that can lead to sudden death later in life.
If embryos with the repaired mutation were allowed to develop into babies, they would not only be disease-free but also would not transmit the disease to descendants.
The researchers averted two important safety problems: They produced embryos in which all cells — not just some — were mutation-free, and they avoided creating unwanted extra mutations.
“It feels a bit like a ‘one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who helped discover the gene-editing method used, called CRISPR-Cas9, said in an email.•
In the 1960s and 1970s, when alternative lifestyles began to bleed from the American margins to the center, novelist Leo Litwak was there to observe these new practices up close, turning his reconnaissance into trippy magazine articles. Below are two examples.
The impetus for change in 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice comes from two of the titular characters attending guerrilla psychological workshops at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. “Perhaps this marathon will open up some doors,” their guide tells them at the outset of an intensive 24-hour session. Two years prior, Leo Litwak, the novelist, journalist and book reviewer, brought his considerable writing skills to the alternative-therapy retreat for a New York Times Magazine story. A section from “Joy Is the Prize” in which the author is awakened to a repressed memory from WWII:
I never anticipated the effect of these revelations, as one after another of these strangers expressed his grief and was eased. I woke up one night and felt as if everything were changed. I felt as if I were about to weep. The following morning the feeling was even more intense.
Brigitte and I walked down to the cliff edge. We lay beneath a tree. She could see that I was close to weeping. I told her that I’d been thinking about my numbness, which I had traced to the war. I tried to keep the tears down. I felt vulnerable and unguarded. I felt that I was about to lose all my secrets and I was ready to let them go. Not being guarded, I had no need to put anyone down, and I felt what it was to be unarmed. I could look anyone in the eyes and my eyes were open.
That night I said to Daniel: “Why do you keep diverting us with your intellectual arguments? I see suffering in your eyes. You give me a glimpse of it, then you turn it off. Your eyes go dead and the intellectual stuff bores me. I feel that’s part of your strategy.”
Schutz suggested that the two of us sit in the center of the room and talk to each other. I told Daniel I was close to surrender. I wanted to let go. I felt near to my grief. I wanted to release it and be purged. Daniel asked about my marriage and my work. Just when he hit a nerve, bringing me near the release I wanted, he began to speculate on the tragedy of the human condition. I told him: “You’re letting me off and I don’t want to be left off.”
Schutz asked if I would be willing to take a fantasy trip.
It was later afternoon and the room was already dark. I lay down, Schutz beside me, and the group gathered around. I closed my eyes. Schutz asked me to imagine myself very tiny and to imagine that tiny self entering my own body. He wanted me to describe the trip.
I saw an enormous statue of myself, lying in the desert, mouth open as if I were dead. I entered my mouth. I climbed down my gullet, entering it as if it were a manhole. I climbed into my chest cavity. Schutz asked me what I saw. “It’s empty,” I said. “There’s nothing here.” I was totally absorbed by the effort to visualize entering myself and lost all sense of the group. I told Schutz there was no heart in my body. Suddenly, I felt tremendous pressure in my chest, as if tears were going to explode. He told me to go to the vicinity of the heart and report what I saw. There, on a ledge of the chest wall, near where the heart should have been, I saw a baby buggy. He asked me to look into it. I didn’t want to, because I feared I might weep, but I looked, and I saw a doll. He asked me to touch it. I was relieved to discover that it was only a doll. Schutz asked me if I could bring a heart into my body. And suddenly there it was, a heart sheathed in slime, hung with blood vessels. And that heart broke me up. I felt my chest convulse. I exploded. I burst into tears.
I recognized the heart. The incident had occurred more than 20 years before and had left me cold.•
Litwak spent some quality time in the ’60s and ’70s writing about American dreamers, from Ronald Reagan to Walt Disney to Werner Erhard. For his fascinating 1972 New York Times Magazine piece, “Rolfing, Aikido, Hypnodramas, Psychokinesis, and Other Things Beyond the Here and Now,”(subscription required), Litwak attended the Association for Humanistic Psychology meeting at Squaw Valley, becoming familiar with all manner of back-cracking, mind-bending, life-altering methods. An excerpt:
The insistence upon active audience participation keeps the meetings from becoming dull. I attended a hypnodrama session at the Hofbrau, an A-frame, chalet-type building, with scripted placards advertising the menu hanging from the walls (“Hier gibts fondue”). The Hofbrau was jammed. We were to be hypnotized, and were then to participate in a hypnodrama. We encircled the fieldstone fireplace in the center of the large dining hall as Ira Greenberg of the Carmelito, Calif., State Hospital led the session. He described hypnosis as a “control of our controls.” It was a technique, he said, that enabled us to concentrate deeply and regress to forgotten states; once these states were recalled, hypnodrama could be used to act them out, enabling us finally to gratify the unsatisfied nurture needs of infancy.
We removed our shoes and lay on the floor flat on our backs. We were instructed to relax. We began with the toes and very gradually worked up to the head. We were assured that the process was pleasant. We were asked to imagine a yardstick within our minds. We slowly counted down the yardstick until we came to the number which we felt represented the depth of our hypnosis. We tried to sink beneath this number. There were a few snores. We were urged to stay awake. We then began a fantasy trip. We flew up the mountain that was behind the Hofbrau; we were told to soar above the crest and enjoy the flight. We then settled down near the crest by a cave; entered inside and walked down a corridor passing several doors, stopping at that one which enclosed a place we had always wished to enter. We passed through this door, looked around, left the cave, descended to the Hofbrau and then awoke. We assembled in groups of five to discuss the experience. An elderly couple, a trifle disgruntled, denied that they were hypnotized and were skeptical that anyone else was. I myself felt quite relaxed and refreshed. A good many of those in the audience said they had been in deep trances.
A hypnodrama was then staged, based on a young woman’s fantasy. When she had been asked to pass through the door to her special place, her fantasy was that she had entered her high-school lavatory; a woman attendant sat at the threshold and refused to acknowledge her; she felt deeply disturbed. Roles were assigned to volunteers. The young lady was returned to hypnosis. She again passed through the door and confronted the impassive woman attendant. She burst into tears, and begged for a demonstration of affection. The attendant rose to comfort her. At the moment of revelation I had to leave for an appointment with the A.H.P. officers who were to brief me on the current state of humanistic psychology.•
“A lot of things around us happen almost by magic now,” Death of Expertise author Tom Schindler tells Chauncey DeVega in the initial exchange of a really interesting Salon Q&A, arguing that Americans sometimes cry poverty when they’re really relatively rich. I agree to a point, though the problem may be that the wonder happens around us rather than to us. Everyone has a supercomputer or two in their pockets now, but Main Street is still divorced from the wealth-building of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Many of my friends and relatives went into debt and foreclosure after the financial meltdown in 2008, and they mostly haven’t been able to completely recover. Even the growing U.S. job sectors, like healthcare, know real limitations. From “The Future of Work Is the Low-Wage Health Care Job,” a Vox piece by Soo Oh:
In interviews, home care aides told Vox about the drawbacks of a booming field: aching backs, unstable schedules, second jobs, salaries low enough to qualify for Medicaid, and emotional burnout. Health care jobs might be a beacon of the new economy. But that doesn’t mean they’re good news for the workers who do them.•
The same goes for the new manufacturing jobs, which provide a far-less-stable situation than similar positions from decades past. The fear of falling and wealth inequality are very real.
Nichols does make a good point, however. Social media and Reality TV have created such an unrealistic aura of luxury and lavishness that you couldn’t create a greater unhappiness-making machine if you tried. Even the people supposedly experiencing these charmed lives are often accursed. Many Real Housewives and their ilk actually go into hock to present a lifestyle well beyond their means. Something is being sold, but almost no one can afford it.
How did the American people arrive at this moment where an ignoramus such as Donald Trump has become president?
Narcissism. Actually, for all of our talk about how people are “suffering” and these are “tough” economic times, and the so-called economic anxiety of the white working class — which, again, as an old-school conservative I’ll be the first to admit is a nice way of saying “racism” — I think we actually are a very affluent society where a lot of things around us happen almost by magic now.
People look around and they say, “Well, sure, flying an airplane — how hard can that be? How hard can negotiating a nuclear arms treaty be? The world works. We’re at peace. Terrorism is awful, but the U.S. is highly competent.” For most people 9/11 is a distant memory. I think that they just look around and they see that things pretty much work even though their lives don’t seem to. The second thing I would add is how the internet helps to create a sense of relative deprivation.
I didn’t coin this, and I wish I had. One of my friends calls it the “HGTV Effect.” Where you’re living in Ohio in maybe a one-floor or two-bedroom, three-bedroom, one-bath, 1950s kind of house, and you’re watching your 40-inch television and you’re saying, “How come I don’t have granite counter tops? Those mooks do. These are just working people on some TV show, and they’ve got a brand new granite and steel kitchen. I’m deprived, I’m poor.” It’s amazing to me what people now consider deprived.
Donald Trump surfed that. He exploited that feeling. He said, “There are people out there that are screwing you out of having the golden toilets that I have. And I’m going to get even with those people, because I know what they’re up to, and I’m going to screw them over and get yours for you.” People are dumb enough to believe it because they don’t understand how the economy works, they don’t understand how society works, they don’t understand the basics about the relationship between education and jobs, none of it. It’s basically they look up from the television, or their phone, and they say “Where’s my money?” And that’s how we got here.•
There are three reasons, I think, why our culture is so often fixated on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios:
1) These nightmares are a warning shot, a clarion call, maybe Cassandra’s cautions, about a calamity of our making. Climate change, for instance, or perhaps some other end of our own design. It could be that a highly technological society has embedded within in it an endgame that is inexorable.
2) We have an innate fear of the finish line because whether we doom ourselves or not, ruin awaits us all, as individuals and as a species. Even our planet won’t ultimately escape the dying of the sun.
3) Or maybe these are sort of a comforting fantasy in a strange way. Perhaps some part of us wishes it would all go away: the discomfiting whirring, surveilling buzz of postmodern life. It could be that down deep quiet seems preferable, the ON switches out of reach. Of course, the cruel joke is that our technological tomorrow will be quiet and ambient, and there will be no switches.
In “William Gibson Has a Theory About Our Cultural Obsession With Dystopias,” a smart New York Q&A conducted by Abraham Riesman, one of the great seers of our time discusses the meaning of our dead-end inventions. In an echo of his famous line about the future, the author says dystopia is already here, though it’s “not very evenly distributed.” The opening:
How do you account for the recent surge in popular fiction about the collapse of civilization into dystopia or Armageddon?
This could be a case of consumers of a particular kind of pop culture trying to tell us something, alas. Seriously, what I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase “the 22nd century.” Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.
Do you mean it’s ominous because people are so pessimistic that they can’t even imagine a future?
Well, that’s the question — why don’t we? I don’t know.
Why do you think we, as a culture, are so endlessly obsessed with stories about last-ditch attempts to stave off the end of the world?
The end of the world is universal shorthand for whatever we don’t want to happen. We have very little control over anything much at all, individually, so fantasies of staving off the end of the world are fairly benign fantasies of increased agency.
What grim future do you fear most? A brutal dystopia? A nuked-out wasteland? A chaotic world war?
I don’t think of those as very distinct states. It’s certainly possible to have all three at once.•
In 1973, the former child preacher Marjoe Gortner was hired by OUI, a middling vagina periodical of the Magazine Age, to write a deservedly mocking article about the American visit of another youthful religious performer, the 16-year-old Maharaj Ji, an adolescent Indian guru who promised to levitate the Houston Astrodome, a plot that never got off the ground.
More than any other holy-ish person of the time, the Indian teenager would have fit in quite nicely in Silicon Valley of our time, since he believed he could disrupt and improve the world, creating a technocratic paradise. Sound familiar? Two excerpts from the resulting report, which profiled the futurist cult leader.
The guru’s people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that’s fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it’s like joining a country club: once you’re in, you’ll be like everyone – else in the club.
The people who’ve been chanting say, “Speak it out, speak it out,” and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, “Oh, you’ve got it.” And the joy that comes over everybody’s faces! It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they’ve got it, it’s forever. It’s quite an experience.
So essentially they’re the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They’re both illuminating experiences. The guru’s path is interesting, though. Once you’ve seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have–all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don’t have to worry about anything. That’s their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji’s quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It’s a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners–and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.
The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.
The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.
It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of ‘modular units adaptable to any desired shape.’ The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•
“The Houston Astrodome will physically separate itself from the planet which we call Earth and will fly.”
I used to believe that you should only predict how the world will look in five years or five hundred, anything in between destined to fail except if you happen to be the rare McLuhan-ish thinker.
It’s time for me to retract the five-year part. Go back to 2012 and tell me anything vital about how we live now in America seemed possible. Yes, the decline of the GOP, the anarchy of the Internet, the Reality TV culture couldn’t be viewed as positives, but that these elements and others would congeal in just this way seems implausible even now.
Freeman Dyson only speculates about the far end of the spectrum, wondering about a time when we can control evolution, human and otherwise. In “The Green Universe: A Vision,” a 2016 New York Review of Books piece, the physicist imagined a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the universe with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth,” he predicted.
Who knows? Not theoretically impossible, although we will all be dead by then, and maybe the species will be extinct if we don’t act urgently to curb climate change, something Dyson has a spotty-at-best record on.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari speculates in the same head-spinning manner as Dyson, though his timeline is much more ambitious–perhaps too much so. The academic acknowledges he’s not an expert in AI and technology and when he makes predictions about the future, positing, for instance, that a post-human society is upon us, he takes for granted the accuracy of the experts in those fields. He argues that “you don’t really need to know how a nuclear bomb works” to understand its impact. Sure, but there’s specific science behind nukes, not so with these other areas. Harari is brilliant and fascinating, though that doesn’t mean that projections from the end of Sapiens and throughout Homo Deus are necessarily right.
In “Inevitably Posthuman,” Lawrence Klepp of the Weekly Standard is willing to wager Harari is as mistaken as Edward Bellamy and other futurists, arguing that the academic is “extrapolating current technological and social tendencies and cutting and pasting them onto the blank slate of the future, and his chances of being right are not any greater than theirs were.”
Odds are that Klepp is correct, although he lists Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the books that was “wrong” about the future, which seems to be a simplistic reading of that title and its warnings. At the very least, Harari’s writings should be similarly viewed as cautionary tales.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of futurology, the utopian and the apocalyptic. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, like the Book of Revelation, offers a bit of both. And why not? The function of imaginary futures is to deliver us from banality. The present, like the past, may be a disappointing muddle, but the future had better be very good or very bad, or it won’t sell.
Harari, an Oxford-educated Israeli historian who teaches in Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens (2015), a provocative, panoramic view of human evolution and history upward from apedom. It became an international bestseller, recommended by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama. Harari’s style is breezy and accessible, sprinkled with allusions to pop culture and everyday life, but his perspective is coolly detached and almost Machiavellian in its unflinching realism about power, the role of elites, and the absence of justice in history. He is an unapologetic oracle of Darwin and data. And he is clearly a religious skeptic, but he practices a form of Buddhist meditation, and among the best things in his new book, like his previous one, are his observations on the varieties of religious experience.
Harari begins by assuring us that humanity is on a winning streak. Famine and plague, two historical scourges, are disappearing, and a third, war, is no longer routine statecraft. For the first time in history, more people die of eating too much than eating too little. More people succumb to ailments related to old age than to infectious diseases. Victims of all kinds of violence are, as percentages of the population, at historical lows in most places. The next stop, presumably, is Utopia.
But if it’s the best of times, it’s also the worst of times—at least for other species. In the present era, which Harari follows other writers in calling the Anthropocene epoch, a dominant, overbreeding humanity is playing the role of the dinosaur-dooming asteroid 65 million years ago. We’re transforming the planet. Many species of larger wild animals are reaching the vanishing point, while the now far more numerous domesticated animals raised for food have been bred into miserable, bloated, immobilized travesties of their wild ancestors. We live in an age of mass extinctions. The question Harari raises is whether we are going to be the next victims of our own success.
In a few decades, we might have a new caste society that, in Harari’s account, looks something like the Egypt of the pharaohs. Most of humanity, made redundant by artificial intelligence and robots, will be ushered into subservience or virtual-reality obliviousness. But there will be a rich elite whose technical mastery will bring them something approaching omniscience. They will periodically arrange complete biochemical makeovers, giving themselves perpetual youth, and they will have assorted injections and brain prosthetics to bestow unflagging confidence and intelligence and bliss. They will be beings apart, experiencing mental states unknown to all previous merely human beings. It will make them, in effect, a new species, Homo deus—just as the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago gave rise to our own human species, Homo sapiens, with unheard-of powers of abstraction and imagination, “thereby turning an insignificant African ape into the ruler of the world.”
On the other hand, this god-incubating project might just be a mad-scientist experiment that blows up in our genetically enhanced faces. Harari concedes that “revamping the human mind is an extremely complex and dangerous undertaking” since “we don’t really understand the mind.”•
It’s not that China doesn’t hold military parades in any given calendar year, but the one that was led over the weekend by the fatigue-clad, pot-bellied President Xi Jinping rattled swords to an eye-popping degree.
It makes sense the the financial capital and soft power China has amassed over the last few decades would eventually find its way into a more ambitious, state-of-the-art military. That was going to happen, Trump or not. But the vacuum created by the absence of a sane White House and the nativist language of our leadership seems to be causing a greater aggression in verbiage–for now, it’s just talk–in Asia and Europe.
From a Reuters report by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard:
BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping told the military on Sunday to transform itself into an elite force, as he oversaw a parade with flybys of advanced jets and a mass rally of troops to mark 90 years since the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.
China’s armed forces, the world’s largest, are in the midst of an ambitious modernization program, which includes investment in technology and new equipment such as stealth fighters and aircraft carriers, as well as cuts to troop numbers.
Xi presided over the large-scale military parade at the remote Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region, where he inspected troops from the back of a jeep, an event carried live on state television.
Traveling down a long strip lined with tanks, missile launchers and other military vehicles, Xi, wearing military fatigues and a field cap, greeted thousands of troops.
Xi, who oversees the PLA in his role as head of the powerful Central Military Commission, repeatedly shouted, “Hello comrades!” and “Comrades, you are working hard!” into four microphones fixed atop his motorcade as martial music blared in the background.
The troops bellowed back: “Serve the people!”, “Follow the Party!”, “Fight to win!” and “Forge exemplary conduct!”.
Tanks, vehicle-mounted nuclear-capable missiles and other equipment rolled by, as military aircraft flew above, including H-6K bombers, which have been patrolling near Taiwan and Japan recently, the J-15 carrier-based fighters and new generation J-20 stealth fighter.
“Today, we are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation than any other time in history, and we need to build a strong people’s military more than any other time in history,” Xi told the assembled troops in a short speech that did not yield any new policy announcements.
Xi said that the military must “unswervingly” back the ruling Communist Party.
“Always listen to and follow the party’s orders, and march to wherever the party points,” he said.
Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter anymore than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.
No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success.
By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.
Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife–the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much–though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.
In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.
· · ·
From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:
So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.
“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.
“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”
Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?
“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.
“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•
When Noah Smith recently published his excellent column “Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog,” I suggested one cause of U.S. cognitive impairment I believe he overlooked. The Bloomberg View writer noted that poverty, lead poisoning and drugs are key factors in our stupor, all certainly true, but I wonder if years of playing tackle football may also be causing mass brain-related decline in men.
That question extends far beyond the few who make it to the NFL since “1.23 million youth ages 6-12 played tackle football in 2015.” The issue has been raised again this week after a chilling study of CTE in football players in which 110 of 111 former pros were found to have the degenerative disease and the subsequent announcement by offensive lineman/mathematician John Urschel that he was retiring early–though it may be later than he thinks.
Two excerpts follow.
From Joe Ward, Josh Williams and Sam Manchester’s NYT piece:
Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist, has examined the brains of 202 deceased football players. A broad survey of her findings was published on Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Of the 202 players, 111 of them played in the N.F.L. — and 110 of those were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.
C.T.E. causes myriad symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. The problems can arise years after the blows to the head have stopped. …
In addition to the 111 brains from those who played in the N.F.L., researchers also examined brains from the Canadian Football League, semi-professional players, college players and high school players. Of the 202 brains studied, 87 percent were found to have C.T.E. The study found that the high school players had mild cases, while college and professional players showed more severe effects. But even those with mild cases exhibited cognitive, mood and behavioral symptoms.
There is still a lot to learn about C.T.E. Who gets it, who doesn’t, and why? Can anything be done to stop the degeneration once it begins? How many blows to the head, and at what levels, must occur for C.T.E. to take hold?
“It is no longer debatable whether or not there is a problem in football — there is a problem,” Dr. McKee said.•
The opening of Ken Belson’s NYT article:
One of the N.F.L.’s smartest players did the math and decided to retire after just three years in the league.
John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who received much publicity for his off-season pursuit of a doctorate in math at M.I.T., told the team on Thursday that he was hanging up his cleats at 26.
Urschel’s agent, Jim Ivler, said Urschel was overwhelmed with interview requests but would not be speaking to the news media. On Twitter, Urschel wrote that “there is no big story here” and that the decision to retire was not an easy one to make, but “it was the right one for me.”
He added that he planned to return to school full time in the fall, “to take courses that are only offered in the fall semester” and spend time with his fiancée, who is expecting their first child in December.
Urschel’s decision came two days after the release of a study in which all but one of 111 brains of former N.F.L. players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head.
The Baltimore Sun and ESPN, citing anonymous sources with the Ravens, said his retirement was related to the study.
Urschel, who had spoken about balancing concerns about the safety of the game and his love for it, left before the team’s first full practice of the coming season.•
Less than a dozen years separate these two images of commuters in the NYC subway system, the bottom one taken late in 2016, a reminder that the future can arrive frustratingly slowly and then all at once.
While both groups have their heads buried in media, the difference in the tools they’re utilizing makes all the difference. It’s not that newspapers never tried to manipulate readers, but they were static, intermittent and allowed for reflection. Smartphones are incredibly useful, but they not only makes reading on any profound level difficult, they’re also the largest social and psychological experiments in human history, persuasion machines constantly updated in real time, ever-shifting in an attempt to stay a step ahead of consumers. The funny thing is, I don’t think we mind very much.
In the very smart Wired interview “Our Minds Have Been Hijacked By Our Phones. Tristan Harris Wants to Rescue Them,” Nicholas Thompson questions the activist about the problem and what he believes are the solutions. The title seems a misnomer: Is it really a hijacking if we’re complicit? Harris thinks we “lack awareness” of how the Big Three (Apple, Google and Facebook) are gaming us, but I believe it’s a tacit agreement in which we choose to ignore the fine print.
Complicating matters is that the next level the Internet and social media extends far beyond a phone you can slide into your pocket: Tomorrow will be a much more ambient and pervasive time, and it’s unlikely anyone will be able to evade the chips and sensors. We will be endlessly logged on. Are there legislative solutions? Probably, though they’ll need to be limber and able to morph quickly, and with the jaw-dropping money involved, the public will have to demand them.
I’d feel more confident this could be achieved if we weren’t so deeply complicit, so desperately in need of attention. That’s one of the biggest shocks in the early years of the Digital Age: People don’t really mind so much that they’re being manipulated and surveilled. We not only like to watch, but we like being watched. For many, it’s a small price to pay for “friends” and “likes.” Big Brother now seems like just another member of the family.
An exchange in which Thompson probes Harris’ solutions for the new abnormal:
How do we reform it?
So the first step is to transform our self-awareness. People often believe that other people can be persuaded, but not me. I’m the smart one. It’s only those other people over there that can’t control their thoughts. So it’s essential to understand that we experience the world through a mind and a meat-suit body operating on evolutionary hardware that’s millions of years of old, and that we’re up against thousands of engineers and the most personalized data on exactly how we work on the other end.
Do you feel that about yourself? I tried to reach you last weekend about something, but you went into the woods and turned off your phone. Don’t you think you have control?
Sure, if you turn everything off. But when we aren’t offline, we have to see that some of the world’s smartest minds are working to undermine the agency we have over our minds.
So step one is awareness. Awareness that people with very high IQs work at Google, and they want to hijack your mind, whether they’re working on doing that deliberately or not. And we don’t realize that?
Yeah. And I don’t mean to be so obtuse about it. YouTube has a hundred engineers who are trying to get the perfect next video to play automatically. And their techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time, and we will have to resist the perfect. There’s a whole system that’s much more powerful than us, and it’s only going to get stronger. The first step is just understanding that you don’t really get to choose how you react to things.•
Terrorism developed as a way for weak factions to disrupt war, to hack what had been a very centralized activity since the formation of discrete states. The thing is, such ad hoc chicanery hardly ever works, at least ultimately. Eventually the element of surprise is identified, neutralized.
Our new tech tools, however, have begun to level the playing field. Sure, ISIS still can’t hack its way to heaven in 2017, but a fully formed terror state like Russia managed for a very reasonable sum to successfully wage “memetic warfare” against America, a much wealthier and militarily superior nation, albeit, with what would appear to be aid and comfort from a cabal of traitors. As the world grows ever more computerized, perhaps eventually we’ll all have an army to do our bidding and every target, real and virtual, will be made vulnerable.
Most defense spending in NATO countries still goes on crazily expensive metal boxes that you can drive, steer, or fly. But, as in so many other areas of our digital world, military capability is rapidly shifting from the visible to the invisible, from hardware to software, from atoms to bits. And that shift is drastically changing the equation when it comes to the costs, possibilities and vulnerabilities of deploying force. Compare the expense of a B-2 bomber with the negligible costs of a terrorist hijacker or a state-sponsored hacker, capable of causing periodic havoc to another country’s banks or transport infrastructure — or even democratic elections.
The US has partly recognized this changing reality and in 2014 outlined a third offset strategy, declaring that it must retain supremacy in next-generation technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. The only other country that might rival the US in these fields is China, which has been pouring money into such technologies too.
But the third offset strategy only counters part of the threat in the age of asymmetrical conflict. In the virtual world, there are few rules of the game, little way of assessing your opponent’s intentions and capabilities, and no real clues about whether you are winning or losing. Related article Donald Trump is the odd man out with Putin and Xi China and Russia co-operate in areas posing a challenge to western interests Such murkiness is perfect for those keen to subvert the west’s military strength.
China and Russia appear to understand this new world disorder far better than others — and are adept at turning the west’s own vulnerabilities against it. Chinese strategists were among the first to map out this new terrain. In 1999 two officers in the People’s Liberation Army wrote Unrestricted Warfare in which they argued that the three indispensable “hardware elements of any war” — namely soldiers, weapons and a battlefield — had changed beyond recognition. Soldiers included hackers, financiers and terrorists. Their weapons could range from civilian aeroplanes to net browsers to computer viruses, while the battlefield would be “everywhere.”
Russian strategic thinkers have also widened their conception of force.•
Tags: John Thornhill
In the future, you will never be alone again. Never.
Prelude to the Internet of Things, when nearly every last object will be a computer and society a machine with no OFF switch, is today’s proliferation of sensors and cameras, making their way into private homes as well as public spaces. You may barely notice them, which is the idea.
I doubt, though, most would care even if aware that the Roomba is doing a constant sweep for information and the TV may also be watching them. So many have willingly surrendered the most intimate details in exchange for a “friend” or a “like.” We essentially gleefully gave away what was always feared would be taken from us. We’ve acquiesced to a “soft” totalitarianism.
What the Internet Era of Silicon Valley has perhaps done best of all is locating and massaging the psychological weak spots of their customers who crave not only convenience and “free” services but also attention. That they’ve divined unobtrusive ways to simultaneously follow and search us is a big part of the bargain. It’s out of sight, out of mind.
Three excerpts follow.
Your Roomba may be vacuuming up more than you think.
High-end models of Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum, collect data as they clean, identifying the locations of your walls and furniture. This helps them avoid crashing into your couch, but it also creates a map of your home that iRobot is considering selling to Amazon, Apple or Google.
Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, told Reuters that a deal could come in the next two years, though iRobot said in a statement on Tuesday: “We have not formed any plans to sell data.”
In the hands of a company like Amazon, Apple or Google, that data could fuel new “smart” home products.
“When we think about ‘what is supposed to happen’ when I enter a room, everything depends on the room at a foundational level knowing what is in it,” an iRobot spokesman said in a written response to questions. “In order to ‘do the right thing’ when you say ‘turn on the lights,’ the room must know what lights it has to turn on. Same thing for music, TV, heat, blinds, the stove, coffee machines, fans, gaming consoles, smart picture frames or robot pets.”
But the data, if sold, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly. …
Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said that if iRobot did sell the data, it would raise a variety of legal questions.
What happens if a Roomba user consents to the data collection and later sells his or her home — especially furnished — and now the buyers of the data have a map of a home that belongs to someone who didn’t consent, Mr. Gidari asked. How long is the data kept? If the house burns down, can the insurance company obtain the data and use it to identify possible causes? Can the police use it after a robbery?•
As moviemaking becomes as much a science as an art, the moviemakers need to ever-better ways to gauge audience reactions. Did they enjoy it? How much… exactly? At minute 42? A system from Caltech and Disney Research uses a facial expression tracking neural network to learn and predict how members of the audience react, perhaps setting the stage for a new generation of Nielsen ratings.
The research project, just presented at IEEE’s Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in Hawaii, demonstrates a new method by which facial expressions in a theater can be reliably and relatively simply tracked in real time.
It uses what’s called a factorized variational autoencoder — the math of it I am not even going to try to explain, but it’s better than existing methods at capturing the essence of complex things like faces in motion. …
Of course, this is just one application of a technology like this — it could be applied in other situations like monitoring crowds, or elsewhere interpreting complex visual data in real time.•
The opening of David Pierce’s Wired piece “Inside Andy Rubin’s Quest To Create an OS For Everything“:
Here’s some free advice: Don’t try to break into Andy Rubin’s house. As soon as your car turns into the driveway at his sprawling pad in the Silicon Valley hills, a camera will snap a photo of your vehicle, run it through computer-vision software to extract the plate number, and file it into a database. Rubin’s system can be set to text him every time a certain car shows up or to let specific vehicles through the gate. Thirty-odd other cameras survey almost every corner of the property, and Rubin can pull them up in a web browser, watching the real-time grid like Lucius Fox surveying Gotham from the Batcave. If by some miracle you were to make it all the way to the front door, you’d never get past the retinal scanner.
Rubin doesn’t employ human security guards. He doesn’t think he needs them. The 54-year-old tech visionary (who, among other things, coinvented Android) is pretty sure he has the world’s smartest house. The homebrew security net is only the beginning: There’s also a heating and ventilating system that takes excess heat from various rooms and automatically routes it into cooler areas. He has a wireless music system, a Crestron custom-install home automation system, and an automatic cleaner for his pool.
Getting the whole place up and running took Rubin a decade. And don’t even ask him what it cost. There’s an entire room full of things he bought, tried, and shelved, but the part that really drove him crazy was that it didn’t seem like automating his home ought to be this hard. Take the license-plate camera, for instance: Computer-vision software that can read a tag is readily available. Outdoor cameras are cheap and easy to find, as are infrared illuminators that let those cameras see in the dark. Self-opening gates are everywhere. All the pieces were available, but “they were all by different companies,” Rubin says. “And there was no UI. It’s not turnkey.”
At some point during his renovations, Rubin realized he was experiencing more than just rich-guy gadget problems. He was too far ahead of the curve. If anything, the problem is about to get much worse: The price and size of a Wi-Fi radio and microprocessor are both falling toward zero; wireless bandwidth is more plentiful and reliable; batteries last longer; sensors are more accurate; software is more reliable and more easily updated. As many as 200 billion new internet-connected devices are predicted to be online in just the next few years. Phones and tablets, certainly. But also light bulbs and doorknobs, shoes and sofa cushions, washing machines and showerheads.
In many cases, the effects of these connected devices will be invisible: better temperature optimization in warehouses or super-efficient routes for UPS drivers. But at the same time, all those freshly awake devices will present an entirely new way to interact with the world around you.•
Thomas Edison, who fluctuated between identifying himself as an atheist and some form of non-traditional believer, referred to the brain as being merely a machine. In today’s terms, gray matter is often called a computer. Tomorrow the metaphor will be different. We’ll continue to grasp for these analogies until when and if we can unlock the secrets of consciousness.
Tim Parks of the New York Review of Books conducted a new chapter in his continuing Q&A on the topic with roboticist and philosopher Riccardo Manzotti, an externalist who believes the mind is more than just the actions and reactions of the nervous system. He leads off the introduction with this question: Will we ever really know what, or even where, consciousness is?
I’m not a roboticist nor philosopher, but I’m fairly certain the answer is a definite “yes,” whether the mind is merely neural activity or something more, providing we don’t first become extinct by our own hand or the hand of…whatever. A run as good as the one the dinosaurs enjoyed would likely be enough for us to figure out the matter–the gray matter–and likely replicate consciousness in machines. Not happening in our lifetimes but happening if there are enough lifetimes.
Internalists often mention Wilder Penfield’s experiments. He managed to get people to have hallucinations by stimulating parts of their brains electrically during open brain surgery. Other neuroscientists have even managed to relate stimulation of a particular neuron to “seeing” a particular face, obviously in the absence of that face. Again this suggests that experience is generated by the brain; we don’t need the world around to see something.
Have you checked out the hallucinations Penfield reports?
They are all rather everyday ordinary experiences. Seeing one’s wife entering the room. Hearing a friend’s voice.
Well, if experience were actually generated freely by the brain, isn’t it odd that it remains so strictly tied to the world? Why no colors that have never been seen before? Sounds never heard in reality? Why no experiences that clearly have nothing to do with the outer world? Even when we dream we are aware that the bizarre aspects of dreams are due to their superimposition or mixing of different elements of known experience. An elephant that’s pink, or green. A dog that can talk. Whatever.
But surely the point is that we’re seeing something that’s not there.
Tim, we discussed this in our conversation on dreams. The question of what’s “there” or what’s “now” is complex. The objects that make up our experience can be milliseconds or years away from our bodies. Photons take time to travel, neurons take time to send electrical signals. We have already suggested that although ongoing ordinary experience of the world follows a privileged neural path that makes it possible for the body to deal with phenomena immediately around it, there are also other paths, eddies as it were, where neural activity mills, or is somehow delayed, then released later in dreams, or when a surgeon stimulates a part of the brain electrically. But this does not mean the brain is creating experience.
I’m not entirely convinced by this.•
In the early years of automobiles, electric models were favored, and even steam-driven cars were predominant over models powered by fossil fuels. Things change. Ultimately, the internal-combustion engine proved more stable and became the king of the road.
Interestingly, electricity had a chance to make inroads in another area in which gases had proven to be unstable: anesthesia. In the nascent years of the practice, miscalculations with ether and chloroform led to deaths. No one wanted to go back to the brutality of surgery during consciousness, but there had to be a better way. Enter Dr. Louise G. Rabinovitch, who experimented successfully (and chillingly and unethically, often) with bringing a blissful unconsciousness to animal and human test subjects with electric shock. A better understanding of anesthesia made this jolting scheme unnecessary, but the doctor’s jaw-dropping reports of her experiments likely would have prevented her methods from becoming popular in any case. From an article about “electric sleep” in the September 27, 1908 New York Times:
PARIS–Dr. Louise G. Rabinovitch, the well-known New York psychoclacist, and Dr. V. Magnan are preparing another stop in their series of discoveries in electric sleep experiments, which have been safely conducted on rabbits and dogs, will be made soon on human beings, patients in the insane hospital in Paris.
Dr. Rabinovitch has been conducting her experiments with hopes of finding the means of doing away entirely with the usual anaesthetics–ether and chloroform–and so far has been very successful.
The City of Paris early in the Summer fitted up a laboratory for the hospital of Sainte-Anne, and there she has been working steadily. Already she has put a patient to sleep by electricity without performing an operation. She has also in several cases used electricity as a local anaesthetic on a part of the arm or leg and has performed a slight operation. Her intention now is, in which she is encouraged by the veteran Dr. Magnan, to perform a serious operation made under the influence of electric sleep. This will be the first time that this has been done anywhere in the world.
Dr. Rabinovitch has made some remarkable discoveries while she has been working in her laboratory, and finds no difficulty in instilling life into animals which have died on the operating table. The immense value of this discovery to physicians when patients die because of an anaesthetic can be seen at once.“
One dog playing about the laboratory, the doctor told me, had been dead three times. “While under the influence of electric sleep I killed her instantly with chloroform. The heart stopped beating and respiration ceased. If the animal had been left alone then it would have remained dead, but I immediately instituted artificial respiration by means of electricity, and presently the animal started to breathe of its own accord. Again, after I had killed the dog and resuscitated it, hemorrhage set in, caused by an operation, and the dog bled to death. I brought it back to life again. The animal is at present perfectly healthy.”•
The Arab Spring demonstrated how the new technological tools could help bring down tyranny, but the dictators were also early adopters. If the anarchy could be redirected, it could be a virtual chaos agent–an army of them, in fact–or even a tireless oppressor. It’s a new way to wage war and quell revolution. China, becoming the new center of the world as America abdicates its authority, is leading the way in cyber-oppression, but the playing field knows many states.
Two excerpts follow.
From Bloomberg Technology:
Governments around the world are enlisting “cyber troops” who manipulate Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to steer public opinion, spread misinformation and undermine critics, according to a new report from the University of Oxford.
Adding to growing evidence of government-sponsored efforts to use online tools to influence politics, researchers found 29 countries using social media to shape opinion domestically or with foreign audiences. The tactics are deployed by authoritarian regimes, but also democratically-elected governments, the authors said.
“Social media makes propaganda campaigns much stronger and potentially more effective than in the past,” said Samantha Bradshaw, the report’s lead author and a researcher at Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project. “I don’t think people realize how much governments are using these tools to reach them. It’s a lot more hidden.”
Online behavior of the government-backed groups varies widely, from commenting on Facebook and Twitter posts, to targeting people individually. Journalists are harassed by government groups in Mexico and Russia, while cyber troops in Saudi Arabia flood negative Twitter posts about the regime with unrelated content and hashtags to make it harder for people to find the offending post. In the Czech Republic, the government is more likely to post a fact-check response to something they see as inaccurate, said the report.
Governments also use fake accounts to mask where the material is coming from. In Serbia, fake accounts are used to promote the government’s agenda, and bloggers in Vietnam spread favorable information. Meanwhile, government actors in Argentina, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela and elsewhere use automation software — known as “bots” — to spread social media posts in ways that mimics human users.
“Cyber troops are a pervasive and global phenomenon,” said the report published by the group that is studying how digital tools are being used to manipulate public opinion.•
The opening of “Creating the Honest Man,” Kai Strittmatter’s Süddeutsche Zeitung article:
It is actually very simple, the professor in Beijing says. “There are two kinds of people in the world: good people and bad people. Now imagine a world in which the good ones are rewarded and the bad ones punished”. A world in which those who respect their parents, avoid jaywalking, and pay all their bills on time are rewarded for good behavior. A world where such people enjoy special privileges, where they are allowed to buy “soft sleeper” tickets on a train or get easy access to bank loans. In contrast, the poorly behaved – the ones who cheat on university admissions tests, download films illegally, or have more children than the state allows – are denied this extra comfort. It is a world in which an omnipresent, all-knowing digital mechanism knows more about you than you do. This mechanism can help you improve yourself because it can tell you, in real time, where you failed and what you can do to become a more honest and trustworthy person. And who doesn’t want a world full of fairness and harmony?
Honesty. In Shanghai, there is an app for that: it’s called “Honest Shanghai”. You just download it and register. The app uses facial recognition software to recognize you and gain access to troves of your personal data, which is drawn from different government entities. According to the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization, where the data converge, the app can currently access exactly 5,198 pieces of information from a total of 97 public authorities. It knows whether you’ve paid your electricity bill, donated blood, or travelled on the subway without paying for a ticket. The software then processes the information and lets you know whether your recorded behavior is considered “good”, “bad” or “neutral”. Good Shanghaiers are currently allowed, for instance, to borrow books from the public library without paying the mandatory 100-yuan deposit.
While the app appears to be little more than a gimmick that people can sign up to voluntarily, the system behind it has far-reaching implications. Officially, it is called the “Social Credit System”; the Chinese title also translates as “System for Social Trustworthiness”. The digital mechanism it is based on is set to be gathering data on every single person in China by 2020. It already collects data on all residents of Shanghai. Shao Zhiqing of the Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization emphatically points out that his office doesn’t evaluate people. In Shanghai, he says, this job is done by third-party service providers that get access to the government data. It is their algorithms that evaluate the data and rate behavior accordingly. Without doubt though, Shao says, the Social Credit System that collects and provides the data will change China. “First of all, it will allow us to answer the question: are you a trustworthy person?” says Shao. “It’s all about bringing order to the market. And ultimately, it’s also about social order.”
Later, in the city of Rongcheng, a civil servant tells us: “We want to civilize people”. Once again, China is looking to create the new man.
Something big is happening in China. Something that has never happened before in the country, or anywhere else for that matter.•
Tags: Kai Strittmatter