Urban Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bartlett:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?•

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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.

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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 reviewerbrought 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.•

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psychkinesis (1)

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.•

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No one has ever told a bigger lie than F. Scott’s Fitzgerald with his oft-quoted whopper: “There are no second acts in American lives.” There have always been second acts and many more after that. I mean, not if you drink yourself to death, but for anyone who waits out the bad times with good humor. 

Bat Masterson was many things in his 67 years–buffalo hunter, Army scout, sheriff, gambler, boxing manager, etc.–until he was one final thing in his dotage: a New York City newspaper sportswriter. He died an ink-stained wretch at an editor’s desk, not a gunslinger in a saloon. The report of his death from the October 26, 1921 New York Times:

William Barclay Masterson, better known as Bat Masterson, sporting writer, friend of Theodore Roosevelt and former sheriff of Dodge City, Kan., died suddenly yesterday while writing an article at his desk in the office of the The Morning Telegraph. He had been connected with the paper for more than ten years, and for the last few years had been one of its editors.

At one time Masterson was said to have been the best known man between the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast, and his exploits and his ability as a gun fighter have become part of the tradition of the Middle West of many years ago. He was the last of the old time gun fighters.

He was born in Iriquios County, Ill., in 1854, the son of a farmer who came originally from St. Lawrence County, N.Y. Little more than a boy, Bat, his rifle across his knees, left the farm and rode into the then Fort Dodge and joined a party of buffalo hunters. Then his actual career began, and probably more weird and bloodthirsty tales have been written about him than of nearly any other man. His fights, however, were in the cause of justice, and he was one of a group of gunfighters who made that part of the country unhealthy for the bad men of the period.

While in the frontier town Bat heard one day that his brother had been killed across the street. Bat headed over. What happened he thus told later on the witness stand:

“The cowboys had been on the range for some time and were drinking. My brother was the Town Marshall. They were carrying six-shooters and he attempted to disarm one of them who was particularly mean. They shot and killed him and they attempted to kill me. I shot and killed them–one at any rate–and shot the other one.”

His second killing was a cowboy named Jim Kennedy, who had come to town seeking the life of the Mayor. Kennedy shot several times through the door of a Mayor’s house and killed a woman. Then Masterson started out to get him. And he did.

One of Masterson’s most famous exploits was the battle of Dobe Walls, when with nine companions he stood off 200 Indians in a siege of 29 days. The attacking force was composed of Arapahoes and Cheyennes. A fortunate accident–the fall of part of the dirt roof of a saloon in which the buffalo hunters were sleeping–prevented the party from being surprised by the Indians and murdered in their sleep, for the attack was not anticipated. In the gray light of a June morning, when the hunters were engaged in restoring the roof, the Indians descended upon them. The hunters abandoned the roof and took to their guns. Time after time the Indian attack was stopped and the enemy driven back to the shelter of a fringe of cottonwoods along the Canadian River.

Masterson was only 18 years old when he joined Lieutenant Baldwin’s civilian scouts under Colonel Nelson A. Miles. He participated in the battle of Red River, where the Indians were commanded by Geronimo, and in other Indian engagements. Masterson lived fifteen years in Denver. There he became interested in pugilism. He went broke backing Charlie Mitchell in his fight with James J. Corbett. He was an official in the fight between Fitzsimmons and Corbett.•

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Masterson officiating Fitzsimmons–Corbett in 1897:

I’ve never felt nostalgic about “Mean Streets” New York, even if I don’t particularly like what’s replaced it, with runaway gentrification and a tourist-trap Times Square. When I was a child growing up in Queens during a rougher time in NYC history, incinerators spewed “black snow” over us when we played outside. The grade school I went to and apartment building we lived in were coated in asbestos until it was removed at some point. Usually really nice neighbors would stagger down the street completely drunk a couple times of week or get into fights when they were high, when they weren’t busy working or trying to care for their families.

These things come back to me sometimes. Like when I learned that fellow Queens native Stephen Jay Gould suffered from mesothelioma or when the news first broke that Flint children were essentially being raised on lead water or when the opioid crisis took hold. 

In “Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog,” a wise Bloomberg View column, Noah Smith wonders about the silent costs of environmental problems, drug use and poverty. It’s a topic that’s discussed infrequently in the public realm since it’s easier (though costlier) to react to effects than causes. Occasionally someone will write an article about the far higher percentage of past traumatic brain injuries among convicts and wonder about causality, but that’s the exception. I’d love to read a study that traces the outcomes of those who play several years of tackle football in childhood and those who don’t. 

Smith looks at the situation mostly from the economic costs of a brain-addled populace in the time when America has become chiefly an information culture, but successfully treating the foundational issues would relieve personal pain as well as better us broadly in a globally competitive business world.

An excerpt:

In the 21st century, rich countries’ economies depend more and more on knowledge industries like technology, finance and business services. Even outside of those industries, almost every worker now has to know how to use office-productivity software, interact with websites or perform other complex tasks. In this new world, humans are being asked to think all the time.

That means U.S. policy makers need to be looking at better ways to upgrade the mental capabilities of the labor force. Unfortunately, a number of things interfere with Americans’ ability to think clearly.

The biggest threat to clear-headedness comes from drugs. The twin epidemics of opioid-painkiller dependence and heroin abuse destroy people’s lives and harm productivity. There is a strong correlation between opioid use and unemployment, and it’s no great stretch to assume that the former helps cause the latter. A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy. Even when opioid and opiate users stay at their jobs, they probably become less productive.

A second, much-discussed problem is lead pollution. A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize. Lead paint contaminates soil, lead pipes contaminate drinking water, and a variety of commercial products from cosmetics to electronics contain bits of lead. The U.S. is allowing its people to be poisoned with heavy metals, and both their intelligence and their self-control is being degraded as a result.

But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another.•

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In Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, first published in America in 1945, the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. You could say that the writer was great at finding ugliness anywhere he roamed in the U.S., much the same way that Joan Didion always recognized looming collapse no matter where she landed–both were good at projecting the disquiet within onto any landscape–except that Miller took deep appreciation in many things, often hidden pieces of culture and art and history that delighted him. The book is largely a success, apart for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for the great things that a slave culture can produce.

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the chapter “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert”:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•

When crime goes down, even markedly, size of the police force doesn’t necessarily follow suit. Officials and citizens alike fear returning gains made and double down on what’s apparently worked, even if the drop wasn’t merely the result of cops. (New York City’s rate plummeted in the 1990s purportedly because of the “Broken Windows” policing, but other U.S. cities that didn’t subscribe to this theory also experienced similar declines.)

What happens to all the officers otherwise unoccupied by serious lawlessness? It’s possible that the mission creeps. James Murphy wrote lyrics about this phenomenon in 2007:

New York, you’re safer
And you’re wasting my time
Our records all show
You are filthy but fine
But they shuttered your stores
When you opened the doors
To the cops who were bored
Once they’d run out of crime

In Japan, wild Tokyo biker gangs of the 1950s were long ago chased from the road and the Yakuza crime syndicate is in a state of disrepair. In fact, there was only one fatal shooting in the whole country in 2015. How can a swelling number of officers (now aided by a drone squad) fill the time? In part, by making tiny offenses into major issues, a shift familiar to any longtime New Yorker.

From the Economist:

This means plenty of attention for crimes that would be considered too petty to investigate elsewhere, such as the theft of a bicycle or the possession of a tiny amount of drugs. One woman describes how five officers crowded into her cramped apartment after she reported her knickers being swiped from a clothesline. A small army of detectives was assigned last year to apprehend a group of 22 people who had been growing marijuana for their personal use only and smoking it in deserted rural spots.

In fact, as the police run out of things to do, they are becoming more inventive about what constitutes a crime, says Kanako Takayama of Kyoto University. In one recent case, she says, they arrested a group of people who had shared the cost of renting a car, deeming the arrangement an illegal taxi. Some prefectures have begun prosecuting people who ride their bicycles through red lights.

In 2015 a man was arrested for scribbling Adolf Hitler moustaches onto posters of Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. Ms Takayama says detectives have started appearing without permission on university campuses, to monitor “troublesome” students. One reason why police are going after cyclists may be to make up for the steady fall in driving offences. (Both drivers and cyclists can avoid fines by signing up for remedial training at certified driving schools, which are often staffed by retired officers, notes Colin Jones of Doshisha University.) Fifteen years ago police in Hokkaido, in Japan’s sparsely populated north, conspired with yakuza gangsters to smuggle guns into the country so they could meet quotas for finding them.

The hunt for things to do may sometimes be beneficial. The number of reported cases of children being abused at home has almost doubled since 2010, despite the declining birth rate. That suggests the police are increasingly intervening in the domestic sphere, which they used to avoid.•

Computers were going to revolutionize the world, then failed to do so for decades, and then did in fact transform society beyond our wildest imagination. The same could be said for the early years of automobiles and television and smartphones and other tools. 

There is generally an indefinite gestation between the announcement of exciting (and threatening) new technologies and their arrival. Right now academics and analysts are predicting developments in AI and robotics over the next several decades that will result in an automation revolution devastating to the workforce. Productivity numbers, however, aren’t showing that to be the case so far. Time will tell, but we should be formulating plans to counter a potential worst-case scenario.

Two of the thinkers who’ve argued that we’re at a technological tipping point, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

With all the automation of work why aren’t costs for basic human needs (housing, food, security & education) going down rapidly. Shouldn’t those marginal costs approach zero? What needs to be done to accelerate this decline in costs?

Andrew McAfee:

Costs for food actually have gone down a huge amount, very steadily, since at least 1900. Education remains high cost in large part because it remains low productivity: primary education still has essentially the same student / teacher ratio as a century ago. This means that it suffers from a bad case of Baumol’s cost disease. Housing costs remain high in the most desirable cities because land prices shoot up. In more rural areas housing costs have, I believe, gone down over time, but not as quickly as I would have expected. Construction remains a strangely low productivity industry. I wonder how quickly this will change…

Erik Brynjolfsson:

Technology is advancing rapidly, but implementing new processes, business models and organizations takes much longer. For electricity, it was 30 years before we saw big productivity improvements in factories because core processes weren’t reinvented quickly enough. We will see declines in all those categories. I believe extreme poverty can be solved by 2035 globally. But we need to do more to implement the technologies. That’s a big part of our research agenda.


Question:

Climate change: is there anything more important? What do you think can be done? What of risks to the already most marginalized?

Andrew McAfee:

Of the risks we know about today, I do think climate change is the biggest – mainly because the tail risk is SO big. But I also think we urgently need to deal with income stagnation and the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and other wealthy countries. Not because those people are more important than others on the planet, but because if disenfranchised people in rich countries elect the wrong leaders at this crucial point in time, we could have big global problems.

Question:

If! OK so fast forward to 2017…what now? Thanks!

Erik Brynjolfsson: 

Then we all need organize and work to elect better leaders and leaders that embody our values if we want democracy to work. I see a growing amount energy around these issues.


Question:

How can we close the technological-economic gap in the US? It seems to me that the upper class get access to new technology at a pace that only widens the gap between rich and poor.

Erik Brynjolfsson:

You are right about the growing gap, but I disagree about the diagnosis. Access to many of the core technologies, mainly because of the spread of the Internet, smart phones and mobile telephony is increasingly ubiquitous. But we are not using these technologies to create shares prosperity. Companies have focused on automating a lot of routine work rather than augmenting their workforce with new capabilities. As a society, we need to reinvent education to focus on creativity, interpersonal skills and other strengths of humans relative to machines. As we can do more to make sure everyone is sharing in the benefits our economy creates by policies like an expanded earned income tax credit, that directs more money to our lowest paid workers. In our book, the Second Machine Age, Andy McAfee and I have three chapters devoted to how we can address these challenges as individuals, managers, entrepreneurs, organizers, policymakers and citizens.

Andrew Mcafee:

Even though powerful technologies have become much more affordable over time, a digital divide remains in both access and use. I’m really impressed by the work that Samasource and others are doing to help people in non-affluent communities get access to modern digital technologies, learn how to use them, and learn that they can be gateways to work, jobs, and careers.


Question:

How do you think K-12 and even universities should be preparing youth to adjust to the rapidly changing digital society?

Andrew McAfee: 

Stop emphasizing things (like rote memorization and arithmetic) that computers are already better at. Stop driving creativity out of kids by making them sit still all day and having a pre-determined series of subjects inflicted on them. Stop teaching them to wait for the voice of authority to tell them what to do next. In a word, Montessori (I was a Montessori kid).

Erik Brynjolfsson: 

We need a) to invest more in education, but b) more fundamentally, a reinvention of education at all levels to encourage creativity and interpersonal skills. Those are the skills increasingly valued because machines don’t do them well. Technology can help, but its not a silver bullet. At MIT, we have a lot more team-oriented, projected-oriented classes that solve real problems. I think that is big part of the model going forward.•

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Sebastian Thrun is a brilliant guy who was positioned at the starting line of the recent boom in driverless technology, but he’s no stranger to irrational exuberance. A couple years ago, the Udacity founder earnestly announced that “if I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me.” Yes, that would be nice.

The computer scientist and entrepreneur is now employed as CEO of Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk, engaged in trying to perfect the flying car, a vehicle of retrofuture dreams that seems exceedingly unnecessary. Wouldn’t it be far better for society if he and others like him were engaged in innovation aimed at more practical public transportation solutions for the masses? The thing about childhood dreams is that most of them are childish.

Steven Levy held roughly the same view last month when he sat down to interview Thrun for Backchannel (now housed at Wired). The opening:

Steven Levy:

Why do we need flying cars?

Sebastian Thrun: 

It is a childhood dream. Flying is just such a magical thing to do. Making personalized flight available to everybody really opens up a set of new experiences. But in the long term there’s a practicality to the idea of a flying vehicle that takes off vertically like a helicopter, is very quiet, and can serve short range transportation. The ground is getting more and more congested. In the US, road usage increases by about three percent every year. But we don’t build any roads. And countries like China that very recently witnessed an explosion of automotive ownership are suffering tremendously from unbelievable traffic jams. While the ground infrastructure of roads is one-dimensional, the sky is three-dimensional, and it is much, much larger.

Steven Levy:

But it you build flying cars, won’t the air be just as congested?

Sebastian Thrun: 

The nice thing about the air is there is more of it. You could have virtual highways in the sky and stack them vertically. So you never have a traffic intersection or similar.

Steven Levy:

But highways have lanes. You can’t have dotted lines in the sky.

Sebastian Thrun: 

Yes, you can, it turns out. Thanks to the US government we have the Global Positioning System that gives us precision location information. We can paint virtual highways into the sky. We are actually doing this today. When you look at the way planes fly, they use equipment that effectively constructs highways in the sky.

Steven Levy:

Still, the number of planes is tiny compared to cars, which you want to put in the air. Plus, everybody is buying drones. If you folks get your way, the sky is going to be completely full.

Sebastian Thrun: 

Every idea put to the extreme sounds odd.•

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Almost developing a driverless car isn’t nearly the same thing as perfecting a fully driverless one, that last two or three percent to be worked out making all the difference. Getting most of the way there is useful but not transformational. When autonomous has truly arrived it will impact environment, safety, economics, law and urban, suburban and rural life in myriad ways. 

Mary Barra just announced GM is deploying a new fleet of (almost) driverless vehicles for testing. Despite the bold headlines, that’s no so different than what other traditional automakers and Silicon Valley startups are doing, though the company is stressing that it’s uniquely positioned to mass-produce the cars once autonomous is a going concern–whenever that is. If money and talent are mainly what’s required, the industry has those factors covered. GM alone is spending $600 million annually on their division and is in the process of recruiting nearly 1,200 additional engineers.

While those are solid, well-paying positions, the lucky new hires endeavoring to remove human hands from the wheel will also, if successful, be disappearing millions of blue-collar jobs. That will make us richer in the aggregate but put undue pressure on segments of society, though as Nicholas Carr recently wrote, the promised AI-induced jobspocalypse has yet to materialize despite all the bold predictions. Has our “death” been greatly exaggerated or just deferred?

My best guess is that new tools, once envisioned, often take longer to perfect than we hope (or fear)–remember that Lillian Ross reported on VCRs and a Netflix-like service in 1970! The process, however, may speed ahead faster now than in the past because tools today are cheaper and more powerful. It’s probably more a question of whether we’ll produce an adequate array of new positions to replace the old ones and enable workers to educate and re-educate themselves to continually cope with shifting landscapes.

Two excerpts follow, the first about GM’s announcement, and the second concerning AI’s possible impact on the middle class.•


From Brent Snavely in USA Today:

LAKE ORION, Mich. — General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous vehicles you see here today are purpose-built, self-driving test vehicles,” Barra said before several hundred employees gathered at the plant in Lake Orion, Mich., Tuesday. “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt is the second generation of vehicles capable of handling nearly all road situations on their own without driver intervention. They are equipped with the latest array of equipment, including cameras, radar, sensors and other hardware designed and built by GM and its suppliers.

The new version of the self-driving Bolts must still be driven with a person behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take control if necessary.•


From Cade Metz at Wired:

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference—the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy—but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.•

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Despite the robot apocalypse we’ve been promised, statistics don’t show an increase in productivity or decrease in employment. Many of the jobs recently created have been lesser ones, but even wages have shown some rise at times over the last year. Perhaps the decline of the American middle class over the last 50 years has been largely a political result rather than a technological one? It would be tough to convince people living in former manufacturing strongholds, but it may be so.

Three possible reasons the numbers don’t reveal a coming widespread technological unemployment:

  1. The numbers aren’t able to accurately capture the new automated economy. Doubtful.
  2. Automation may be overhyped for the moment the way computers or the Internet or smartphones originally were, but soon enough it will make a dent on society that will be felt deeply. Possible.
  3. The impact of automation will be gradual and manageable, improving society while not creating what Yuval Harari indelicately describes as a “useless class.” Possible.

In a Rough Type post, Nicholas Carr thinks machines may be depressing wages but have otherwise been overstated. An excerpt:

I’m convinced that computer automation is changing the way people work, often in profound ways, and I think it’s likely that automation is playing an important role in restraining wage growth by, among other things, deskilling certain occupations and reducing the bargaining power of workers. But the argument that computers are going to bring extreme unemployment in coming decades — an argument that was also popular in both the 1950s and the 1990s, it’s worth remembering — sounds increasingly dubious. It runs counter to the facts. Anyone making the argument today needs to provide a lucid and rational explanation of why, despite years of rapid advances in robotics, computer power, network connectivity, and artificial intelligence techniques, we have yet to see any sign of a broad loss of jobs in the economy.•

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Yawning wealth inequality breeds suspicion for haves and have-nots alike.

Many among today’s Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reported on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist told him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

In 1905, when New York City had nearly a thousand millionaires, seemingly everyone wanted to part them from their money. Cranks would frequently write a jaw-dropping number on a piece of scrap paper and expectantly hand it to a bank teller, believing it was a sure thing. They were escorted from the building–and often sent to Bellevue. But in the waning days of the Gilded Age, some took things a step further, paying unannounced visits to the well-to-do in their mansions. The deep-pocketed were shaken, and precautions were taken, which included cannons, howitzers and fatal electric shocks.

From an article in the November 12, 1905 New York Times:

…The Morosini mansion at Riverdale-on-the-Hudson is equipped with very extraordinary and picturesque apparatus as a proof against burglars and other unwelcome visitors. Several small-bore cannon and sundry howitzers are planted around the house, each piece of ordinance being connected with the house by an electric wire.

Whenever occasion demands, a button may be pressed inside the mansion, and any one or all of the cannon can be fired off. In addition to this novel safeguard the grounds surrounding the mansion can be illuminated by means of electric bulbs scattered thickly among the trees and shrubbery.

Recently there was occasion one night for the police to answer a call from the Morosini mansion, two servants having become obstreperous. As the vehicle containing two officers from the King’s Bridge Station passed through the gate, the lawn for a hundred feet about suddenly burst into light. Adjacent trees glowed with a hundred dazzling flashes. Surprised, the officers came to an abrupt halt. But presently continuing on toward the house, every foot of the way was similarly illuminated, lights budding everywhere, making the grounds almost as brilliant as day. During a subsequent survey of the premises the police learned that all the windows on the ground floor were connected with heavily charged electric wires. When the family retires a switch is turned on, and any one attempting to open a window from the outside is apt to be fatally shocked.•

Epochs pass, cultures rise and fall, but if they do so between a telephone call and the reply, they can cause a shock to the system of individuals and societies that are difficult to withstand.

Despite the racist scapegoating of the recent Presidential election, most jobs that have been disappeared from Middle America’s manufacturing sector have vanished into the zeros and ones of automation rather than through offshoring. Many have puzzled over why this transition hasn’t resulted in a productivity spike. Is there not enough demand because of the decline of wages? Is there another inscrutable reason? 

Tough to say, but while economists are working out the fine points, more jobs, and even industries, will be placed in robotic hands, and the pace of the changeover will quicken as the tools become more powerful. If the process happens too rapidly, however, the driverless cars will handle smoothly but our ride will be bumpy. In an Atlantic article by Alana Samuels about the regions of America most likely to be upended by algorithms in the near term, there’s this harrowing passage:

Previously, automation had hurt middle-class jobs such as those in manufacturing. Now, it’s coming for the lower-income jobs. When those jobs disappear, an entire group of less-educated workers who already weren’t making very much money will be out of work. [Johannes] Moenius worries about the possibility of entire regions in which low earners are competing for increasingly scarce jobs. “I wasn’t in L.A. when the riots happened, but are we worried about this from a social perspective?” he said. “Not for tomorrow, but for 10 years from now? It’s quite frankly frightening.”•

That’s a particularly dystopic view, and maybe technological progress will be slower than expected, but sooner or later, we’ll be forced to change our focus as we’re relieved of our traditional duties. As Kevin Kelly says: “We’re constantly redefining what humans are here for.”

In a clever Guardian essay, Yuval Noah Harari wonders about the future of the post-work “useless class.” In the piece, the historian tries to divine what we’ll be using our wetware for should intelligent machines permanently displace a wide swath of the citizenry. He believes we’ll subsist on Universal Basic Income and occupy ourselves playing video games enhanced by VR and AR. An endless, mass participation version of Pokémon Go, would be, god forbid, the new religion, though Harari is contrarian in believing it won’t be much different from the life we already know.

Hundreds of millions already spend countless, unpaid hours creating free content for Facebook, so I suppose his vision is possible if not plausible. Either way, let’s hope tomorrow will involve more than Taylor Swift and an Oculus Rift.

The opening:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again.

The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.”

What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together?•

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Steve Wozniak’s views have evolved quickly in regards to the existential threat of intelligent machines. In early 2015, he told the Australian Financial Review that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” The future is “very bad for people,” he warned. Just a few months later, Homo sapiens received an upgrade from the Apple co-founder, who said AI would keep us around as “family pets,” even if they were making all the crucial decisions.

Two years on, Wozniak has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. On Monday, he said this on CNBC: “I’ve totally changed my mind — We aren’t talking about artificial intelligence that sits down and says, ‘What is my life in the world? What do I have as obstacles? How do I solve them? What should I solve?’,” Wozniak said. “Only humans do that.”

Well, that’s a relief. In the same week, I successfully filed my taxes and found out my species wasn’t doomed. Nice.

The Woz granted an interview to USA Today in advance of this weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, with it’s forward-thinking theme: “The Future of Humanity: Where Will We Be in 2075?”  In that year, the computer programmer believes Apple, Facebook and Google and will be even bigger and more formidable corporations and cities will sprout up in heretofore uninhabitable deserts. Neither seems plausible.

An excerpt:

Woz shared some other predictions on what type of planet we can expect in 2075:

New cities. Deserts could be ideal locations for cities of the future, designed and built from scratch, according to Wozniak. There, housing problems will not exist and people will shuttle among domed structures. Special wearable suits will allow people to venture outside, he said.

— The influence of artificial intelligence. Within all cities, AI will be ubiquitous, Wozniak says. Like a scene straight from the movie Minority Report, consumers will interact with smart walls and other surfaces to shop, communicate and be entertained. Medical devices will enable self-diagnosis and doctor-free prescriptions, he says. “The question will be ethical, on whether we can eliminate the need for physicians,” he says.

— Mars colony. Woz is convinced a colony will exist on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin start-up has designs on traveling to Mars, Wozniak envisions Earth zoned for residential use and Mars for heavy industry.

— Extraterrestrials. With apologies to those who believe in aliens, Wozniak says there is a “random chance” that Earthlings will communicate with another race. “It’s worth trying,” he says, “but I don’t have high hopes.”•

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If you believe driverless cars won’t soon impact humans who have jobs behind the wheel, a valid argument would be that you think the technology will take considerably longer to implement than expected. You may not wind up being correct, but it’s a rational stance.

Making a case, though, that robocars won’t supplant taxi, bus, limo and delivery drivers because humans possess priceless intangibles is wrong-minded, with a couple of exceptions. Some in the future may desire a human driver as an expensive luxury item, a status symbol, the way a few among us still purchase hand-made shoes. And elderly passengers might need a helping hand into and out of a vehicle, which could require a human helper, even if that person isn’t doubling as the driver. A graying population almost demands such a service.

Plenty of analysts have fallen into what I believe is a trap by trying to apply the example of the persistence of human and freestyle chess in the aftermath of Deep Blue to all fields. Let’s remember that even though a few souls are employed in the chess field, it’s mostly just a leisure game, not a business looking to eliminate costs. While a human paired with a computer may currently be the team to beat, that’s likely just a transitional phase, with people ending up on the losing end of the board. Driverless cars, once perfected, will likewise kick us to the curb.

From Lisa Eadicicco of Time:

Rachel Bolles, who’s been driving for Uber in the Columbus, Ohio area for just over a year, says her job is about much more than getting passengers from A to B. “I consider myself part nanny, part chauffeur,” she says. “A lot of these people just need someone to talk to.”

That was more true than ever when Bolles picked up a distraught customer coping with the death of his girlfriend’s father. Having recently lost her own father, Bolles empathized and offered advice during the trip. “It was one of those rides you walk away from feeling really good,” she says.

But many observers argue that the approximately 4.5 million Americans who work as professional drivers in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by self-driving vehicles. Once a far-flung fantasy, the technology is inching closer to reality every day. …

Despite self-driving vehicles’ impressive progress, neither Bolles nor any of the half-dozen other rideshare drivers TIME interviewed expressed fear of losing their job to a robotic car any time soon. Some envision themselves working in a different field by the time self-driving technology is ready for primetime, which will likely take several years at least. (Workers, after all, tend to be short-term thinkers.) Others believe the tech may complement, but not completely replace, human drivers. “There’s a lot more to driving than not running into another car,” said Kat Ellery, who also drives for Uber and Lyft in Columbus. “There are a lot of idiosyncrasies that [self-driving cars] can’t account for.”•

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Fascinating article by the New York Times Technology section detailing how Uber and other Gig Economy giants are employing behavioral science to subtlely manipulate their workers into acting in the best interests of the companies. As the piece says: “Most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion.”

Businesses have forever tried to nudge consumers into buying their products, whether though legitimate means or the unethical kind (e.g., subliminal advertising), but using Digital Age tools to stealthily treat employees like lab rats is an altogether different thing. The “freedom” promised to contractors who toil in the piecemeal workforce isn’t really quite so free, and there are broader implications for the future.

An excerpt:

Even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.” Its drivers are officially independent business owners rather than traditional employees with set schedules. This allows Uber to minimize labor costs, but means it cannot compel drivers to show up at a specific place and time. And this lack of control can wreak havoc on a service whose goal is to seamlessly transport passengers whenever and wherever they want.

Uber helps solve this fundamental problem by using psychological inducements and other techniques unearthed by social science to influence when, where and how long drivers work. It’s a quest for a perfectly efficient system: a balance between rider demand and driver supply at the lowest cost to passengers and the company.

Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.•

The Quartz “Daily Brief” newsletter referred me to “Cars and Second Order Consequences,” a smart Benedict Evans post that tries to anticipate changes beyond the obvious that will be wrought by EVs and driverless. There’s plenty of good stuff on the fate of gas stations, mass transportation and city living when on-demand rides become the new normal.

What really caught my eye, though, was the final idea in the piece, in which Evans imagines how these rolling computers with unblinking vision will change policing. He focuses only on how it will be a boon for law enforcement, but this non-stop surveillance, a totalitarian dream, can easily be abused by governments, corporations and hackers. Let’s recall that a panopticon is a prison building designed to allow all inmates to be observed at all times. There’s no opting out.

An excerpt:

Finally, remember the cameras. Pretty much every vision of automatic cars involves them using HD, 360 degree computer vision. That means that every AV will be watching everything that goes on around it – even the things that are not related to driving. An autonomous car is a moving panopticon. They might not be saving and uploading every part of that data. But they could be. 

By implication, in 2030 or so, police investigating a crime won’t just get copies of the CCTV from surrounding properties, but get copies of the sensor data from every car that happened to be passing, and then run facial recognition scans against known offenders. Or, perhaps, just ask if any car in the area thought it saw something suspicious.•

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Megan McArdle seems like a basically decent person, but she’s spent much time railing against the Affordable Care Act which has helped my family and friends immeasurably. She has the privilege of worrying about “innovation” when others are fixated on that not-dying thing. Must be nice.

The Libertarian columnist recently went looking for the American Dream in Utah, a state that’s done a commendable job in combating homelessness and other social ills, though it must be noted that it’s whiter and more patriarchal than a Freedom Caucus meeting about maternity leave.

The role of the Mormon Church is clearly paramount in enabling a higher-than-usual upward mobility for the impoverished, and that aspect is clearly not replicable in other quarters of the country unless a large number of Midwesterners who’ve taken Broadway vacations to catch The Book of Mormon have had an epiphany. 

Worse yet, a scary number of Christians seem to have turned away from their charitable roots, not at all asking, “What would Jesus do?” In the recent Presidential election, Christianity was often a euphemism for white supremacy. Maybe that’s because many who identify with the faith have stopped attending church or perhaps the American strain of the religion is so embedded with prejudice that it’s incompatible with true equality.

Christian politicians are often are even worse when it comes to tending to the poor, pushing punishing policies trained on hurting those who have the least, creating a prison state and denying minorities of voting rights. They simply don’t want poorer citizens, especially non-white ones, to thrive, and there’s no moral equivalency in this regard between conservatives and liberals. For many, power trumps church teachings: Mike Pence was very eager to strike a deal with the devil, while Mike Huckabee has gleefully defended Trump’s incessant outrages.

There’s good stuff from McArdle about Utah’s social services programs, the role of volunteerism and the promotion of self-reliance, but she comes away only moderately hopeful that the Salt Lake miracle can be duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. Of course, if you’re a Libertarian who doesn’t really like government very much, there’s no other conclusion to be drawn. If Obamacare really helped your loved ones, however, you might feel differently.

An excerpt:

“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.

But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church. Its politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, led the way in rejecting Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. And the state is currently engaged in a major initiative on intergenerational poverty. The bill that kicked it off passed the state’s Republican legislature unanimously, and the lieutenant governor has been its public face.

This follows what you might call the state’s “war on homelessness” — a war that has been largely victorious, with most of the state’s homeless resettled in permanent housing through a focus on “Housing First.” That means getting people into permanent shelter before trying to diagnose and address the problems that contributed to their homelessness, like mental illness and substance abuse.

This approach can be cheaper than the previous regime, in which too many individuals ended up in emergency rooms or temporary shelter seeking expensive help for urgent crises. But Housing First runs into fierce emotional resistance in many quarters, because it smacks too much of rewarding people for self-destructive behaviors. Utah’s brand of conservatism overcame that, in part because the Mormon Church supported it.

That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad.•

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Recently, I posted about Jack Healy’s excellent New York Times article about the Winemiller farming family in Ohio’s Clermont County, which boasts a low 4.1% unemployment rate. The parents have already lost two of three adult children to heroin overdoses, with the third one battling to beat the same poison. The father is a staunch Trump supporter, drawn by his tough-on-crime talk, hoping someone, anyone, can capture and kill the demons that has run over his life. The faith is misplaced, but grief can sometimes harden into vengeance.

Such demises can be categorized in Case-Deaton terms as “deaths of despair.” The husband-and-wife economists offered, in 2015, a shocking report about the sharp spike in mortality for white, middle-aged Americans, especially those who possess a high-school-or-less education. The epidemic seems driven by suicide, alcohol, opioids and obesity, self-destructive behaviors associated with hopelessness, dysfunction and poor childhood training. Deaton even compared the findings to the scourge of AIDS. The paper was published, appropriately, on December 8, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Economics is certainly partly to blame for the steep decline of those in this demographic, though the full picture is far more complicated. In a follow-up paper, the economists write that the “story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, child rearing, and religion.” The duo stresses the importance of dealing with the opioid problem but promise no quick fix for what’s a deeply entrenched disaster. Somehow we need to break free from our often-myopic politics to address these troubles, staying the course over long term. As Case and Deaton write: “The epidemic will not be easily or quickly reversed by policy.”

An excerpt: 

Taking all of the evidence together, we find it hard to sustain the income-based explanation. For white non-Hispanics, the story can be told, especially for those aged 50–54, and for the difference between them and the elderly, but we are left with no explanation for why Blacks and Hispanics are doing so well, nor for the divergence in mortality between college and high-school graduates, whose mortality rates are not just diverging, but going in opposite directions. Nor does the European experience provide support, because the mortality trends show no signs of the Great Recession in spite of its marked effects on household median incomes in some countries but not in others.

It is possible that it is not the last 20 years that matters, but rather that the long-run stagnation in wages and in incomes has bred a sense of hopelessness. But Figure 2.4 shows that, even if we go back to the late 1960s, the ethnic and racial patterns of median family incomes are similar for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and so can provide no basis for their sharply different mortality outcomes after 1998.

There is a microeconomic literature on health determinants that shows that those with higher incomes have lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, see National Academy of Sciences (2015) and Chetty et al (2016) for a recent large-scale study for the US. Income is correlated with many other relevant outcomes, particularly education, though there are careful studies, such as Elo and Preston (1996), that find separately protective effects of income and education, even when both are allowed for together with controls for age, geography, and ethnicity. These studies attempt to control for the obviously  important reverse effect of health on income by excluding those who are not in the labor force due to long-term physical or mental illness, or by not using income in the period(s) prior to death. Even so, there are likely also effects that are not eliminated in this way, for example, that operate through insults in childhood that impair both adult earnings and adult health. Nevertheless, it seems likely that income is protective of health, at least to some extent, even if it is overstated in the literature that does not allow for other factors.•

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All manner of largef-than-life 19th-century Americans struggled financially in that century despite their great celebrity. P.T. Barnum lost everything. Edgar Allen Poe never had anything. Mathew Brady was turned away from easy street despite having in his possession the photographic history of the Civil War.

Thomas Nast suffered a similar fate. As Poe was to the short story, Nast was to the political cartoon: The father, more or less, of the U.S. version of an enduring genre that has survived numerous technological and media shifts. He was wildly influential into the 1880s, credited in the previous decade with helping to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cohorts, as well as responsible for creating the Republican elephant symbol and the popular visual concept of Santa Claus. Nast was ahead of his time as an abolitionist and integrationist, though he wasn’t perfect in regards to race and ethnicity, repeatedly displaying in his drawings a fervent anti-Irish strain, for whatever reason.

Despite wide renown and handsome paydays, Tweed went broke in 1884 after investing his wealth in a brokerage firm operated by a swindler. He never really recovered. By the time of his death in 1902, the artist was referred to as “once famous” and, having been forced to push his pencil aside, was employed as Consul General to Ecuador, essentially a gift position from President Roosevelt, a longtime fan of his work.

The cartoonist’s death from yellow fever was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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From the February 21, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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When it comes to technology, promises often sound like threats. 

In a very smart Edge piece, Chris Anderson, the former Wired EIC who’s now CEO of 3DRobotics, holds forth on closed-loop systems, which allow for processes to be monitored, measured and corrected–even self-corrected. As every object becomes “smart,” they can collect information about themselves, their users and their surroundings. In many ways, these feedback loops will be a boon, allowing (potentially) for smoother maintenance, a better use of resources and a cleaner environment. But the new arrangement won’t all be good.

The question Anderson posed which I used as the headline makes it sound like we’ll be able to control where such technology snakes, but I don’t think that’s true. It won’t get out of hand in a sci-fi thriller sense but in very quiet, almost imperceptible ways. There will hardly be a hum. 

At any rate, Anderson’s story of how he built a drone company from scratch, first with the help of his children and then a 19-year-old kid with no college background from Tijuana, is amazing and a great lesson in globalized economics.

From Edge:

If we could measure the world, how would we manage it differently? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the digital realm since the birth of the Internet. Our digital lives—clicks, histories, and cookies—can now be measured beautifully. The feedback loop is complete; it’s called closing the loop. As you know, we can only manage what we can measure. We’re now measuring on-screen activity beautifully, but most of the world is not on screens.                                 

As we get better and better at measuring the world—wearables, Internet of Things, cars, satellites, drones, sensors—we are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result. This journey with the Internet that we started more than twenty years ago is now extending to the physical world. Every industry is going to have to ask the same questions: What do we want to measure? What do we do with that data? How can we manage things differently once we have that data? This notion of closing the loop everywhere is perhaps the biggest endeavor of our age.                                 

Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can’t measure the results—there’s no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely. …

I use the phrase closing the loop because that’s the phrase we use in robotics. Other people might use the phrase big data. Before they called it big data, they called it data mining. Remember that? That was nuts. Anyway, we’re going to come up with a new word for it.                                 

It goes both ways: The tendrils of the Internet reach out through sensors, and then these sensors feed back to the Internet. The sensors get smarter because they’re connected to the Internet, and the Internet gets smarter because it’s connected to the sensors. This feedback loop extends beyond the industry that’s feeding back to the meta-industry, which is the Internet and the planet.•

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Economist Tyler Cowen just did a fun Ask Me Anything at Reddit, discussing driverless cars, the Hyperloop, wealth redistribution, Universal Basic Income, the American Dream, etc.

Cowen also discusses Peter Thiel’s role in the Trump Administration, though his opinion seems too coy. We’re not talking about someone who just so happens to work for a “flawed” Administration but a serious supporter of a deeply racist campaign to elect a wholly unqualified President and empower a cadre of Breitbart bigots. Trump owns the mess he’s creating, but Thiel does also. The most hopeful thing you can say about the Silicon Valley billionaire, who was also sure there were WMDs in Iraq, is that outside of his realm he has no idea what he’s doing. The least hopeful is that he’s just not a good person.

A few exchanges follow.


Question:

What is an issue or concept in economics that you wish were easier to explain so that it would be given more attention by the public?

Tyler Cowen:

The idea that a sound polity has to be based on ideas other than just redistribution of wealth.


Question:

What do you think about Peter Thiel’s relationship with President Trump?

Tyler Cowen:

I haven’t seen Peter since his time with Trump. I am not myself a Trump supporter, but wish to reserve judgment until I know more about Peter’s role. I am not in general opposed to the idea of people working with administrations that may have serious flaws.


Question:

In a recent article by you, you spoke about who in the US was experiencing the American Dream, finding evidence that the Dream is still alive and thriving for Hispanics in the U.S. What challenges do you perceive now with the new Administration that might reduce the prospects for this group?

Tyler Cowen:

Breaking up families, general feeling of hostility, possibly damaging the economy of Mexico and relations with them. All bad trends. I am hoping the strong and loving ties across the people themselves will outweigh that. We will see, but on this I am cautiously optimistic.


Question:

Do you think convenience apps like Amazon grocery make us more complacent?

Tyler Cowen:

Anything shipped to your home — worry! Getting out and about is these days underrated. Serendipitous discovery and the like. Confronting the physical spaces we have built, and, eventually, demanding improvements in them.


Question:

Given that universal basic income or similar scheme will become necessity after large scale automation kicks in, will these arguments about fiscal and budgetary crisis still hold true?

And with self driving cars and tech like Hyperloop, wouldn’t the rents in the cities go down?

Tyler Cowen:

Driverless cars are still quite a while away in their most potent form, as that requires redoing the whole infrastructure. But so far I see location only becoming more important, even in light of tech developments, such as the internet, that were supposed to make it less important. It is hard for me to see how a country with so many immigrants will tolerate a UBI. I think that idea is for Denmark and New Zealand, I don’t see it happening in the United States. Plus it can cost a lot too. So the arguments about fiscal crisis I think still hold.


Question:

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?

Tyler Cowen:

Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.


Question:

I am a single guy. Can learning economics help me find a girlfriend?

Tyler Cowen:

No, it will hurt you. Run the other way!•

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Rebuilding the world has to rank at the top of economic low-hanging fruit of the last century. America, its forces marshaled, played a leading role in piecing together the shattered globe in the wake of WWII. Yes, four decades of unfortunate tax rates, globalization, automation and the demise of unions have all abetted the decline of the U.S. middle class, but just as true is that the good times simply ended, the job completed (more or less), the outlier ran headlong into entropy. The contents of this half-empty glass finally spilled all over the world in 2016, provoking outrageously regressive political shifts, with perhaps more states becoming submerged this year.

As An Extraordinary Time author Marc Levinson wrote in 2016 in the Wall Street Journal: “The quarter-century from 1948 to 1973 was the most striking stretch of economic advance in human history. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people were lifted from penury to unimagined riches.” In “End of a Golden Age,” an Aeon essay, the economist and journalist further argues the global circumstances of the postwar era were a one-time-only opportunity for runaway productivity, a fortunate arrangement of stars likely to never align again.

Well, never is an extremely long stretch (we hope), but the economic-growth-rate promises brought to the trail by Sanders and Trump, which have made it to the White House with the unfortunate election of the latter candidate, were at best fanciful, though delusional might also be a fair assessment. If I had to guess, I would say someday we’ll see tremendous growth again, but when that happens and what precipitates it, I don’t know. Nobody really does.

An excerpt:

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today.•

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