Urban Studies

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From the April 2, 1856 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Paddy Chayefsky, that brilliant satirist, offered a spectacular pre-Beale rant on the Mike Douglas Show in 1969. It starts with polite chatter about the success of his script for Marty but quickly transitions into a much more serious and futuristic discussion. The writer is full of doom and gloom, of course, during the tumult of the Vietnam Era; his best-case scenario for humankind to live more peacefully is a computer-friendly “new society” that yields to globalization and technocracy, one in which citizens are merely producers and consumers, free of nationalism and disparate identity. Well, some of that came true. All the while, he wears a fun, red lei because one of his fellow guests is Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord. Gwen Verdon, Lionel Hampton and Cy Coleman share the panel.

Chayefsky joins the show at the 7:45 mark.

Our visual understanding of prehistoric megafauna and other creatures is aided greatly by the work of Charles R. Knight, the painter who gained nationwide attention beginning in the 1920s for his interpretations of dinosaurs and birds long extinct. He certainly couldn’t work from life or memory or photographs, so he became a hunter of facts, an interviewer of scholars, a measurer of skeletons. For an article in the July 31, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reporter Frank J. Costello visited the paleoartist in his Upper West Side Manhattan studio and studied his process. The piece’s opening below.

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Capturing greatness is rare enough, recapturing it even more unlikely. 

Someday Silicon Valley will also founder, the way former Industrial Era powers Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Detroit did. Clusters built around a narrow type of enterprise almost always do, since specialization can be wonderfully beneficial for a while but has a relatively short shelf life. Once the boom goes bust, bringing it back is almost impossible. Cities like New York that are open for business in a broad way have a better shot at continued prosperity, their fickleness and willingness to constantly tear down an asset.

From the Economist piece “Silicon Valley 1.0“:

Cleveland is a reminder that decline can be as self-sustaining as success. There are three reasons why clusters fail. One is that they over-specialise in products that are later improved elsewhere. Sheffield stuck to steelmaking even as others learned to make it better and cheaper. A second is that they complacently fail to upgrade their productivity. Detroit succumbed to Japanese carmakers in the 1970s and 1980s because it thought more about providing its cars with ornate fins (and its workers with gold-plated benefits) than it did about their performance. The third is that they suffer from an external shock from which they fail to recover, as could be the case with the City of London in the wake of Brexit.

Naomi Lamoreaux, an economic historian at Yale University, says Cleveland falls into the third category. It led in a wide variety of industries into the 1920s, including cars, chemicals, paints and varnishes, machine tools and electrical machinery as well as iron and steel. It spent money on R&D. But then came a series of external shocks. The Depression destroyed the local financial institutions that had supported Cleveland’s start-ups. Regulations adopted in its wake gave New York’s banks such a competitive advantage that local capital markets withered. The federal government’s wartime policy of dispersing manufacturing industry eroded the city’s industrial base.

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Cleveland’s decline became self-reinforcing. Firms downsized, closed or relocated. The inner city fell prey to crime and dysfunction. The white middle-class moved to suburbia. Politicians responded not with pragmatic ideas for reform but by whipping up anger and resentment, which only hastened white- and business-flight. Dennis Kucinich, the mayor in 1977-79, who much later ran for president, refused to privatise the electric utility and, in 1978, took the city into bankruptcy. A once-proud city was mocked as “the mistake on the lake”. To cap it all, Cleveland paid the price for its earlier successes: by 1969 the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught fire, an event that is still celebrated in one of its local brews, Burning River Pale Ale.

The city’s story is also a warning that rebuilding clusters is fiendishly hard.•

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

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


Question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calum Chace:

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

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

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

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


Question:

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

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

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

Calum Chace:

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

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

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


Question:

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

Calum Chace:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rob Rhinehart’s Soylent is a tougher sell in developed countries with endless food magazines and cooking shows, though those chugging Red Bulls and wolfing down Devil Dogs shouldn’t look askance at the meal-replacement beverage. The beverage would seem to hold special promise as a sustenance provider in places where scarcity still reigns supreme.

Two excerpts follow from Tom Braithwaite’s smart Financial Times profile of Rhinehart, who somehow manages to live off the grid while living in Los Angeles.


Rhinehart is convinced we will start to abandon three meals a day and instead sip functional foods whenever we need to. “Being wrapped up in breakfast, lunch, dinner came from an agricultural society and the industrial revolution. We don’t work on farms, we don’t work on assembly lines and I don’t think we should eat like we do. I think people will switch to eating when hungry rather than eating on a schedule.”

He stresses this does not mean the end of eating for pleasure. “You get home from work, you’re not in the mood to cook or you’re running out the door in the morning, you don’t have time, but then Friday or Saturday night rolls around and you want to go out with your friends. That’s what I think we’ll move towards.”•


One foot in the future and one foot in the past seems to sum up Rhinehart. His latest project is building a home in Los Angeles, off the grid. This is surprisingly possible in one of the world’s most urban environments. He found disused land in an unfashionable part of town and plonked a shipping container in it, which he now lives in.

This might be eccentric but it’s not a millionaire’s whimsy. The land was cheap because it is not served by electricity or water; the shipping container was $1,500. Rhinehart proudly says he is not wealthy — whatever his paper worth, he draws a fairly modest salary.

“Do you wanna see a picture?” he says, passing me his phone. “The only drawback is the area’s still a little rough, so it got graffitied.”

The container’s power is solar-generated. Of course there is no need for a kitchen. Rhinehart is currently relying on a “Porta Potty” but has hopes for advances in new toilets that vaporise waste. He once tried to save water by taking an antibiotic to minimise trips to the toilet. “I massacred my gut bacteria,” he wrote in his blog.•

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From the July 3, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Every time I start to criticize Elon Musk, I remember to be thankful he’s not Peter Thiel.

Walter Isaacson famously named Benjamin Franklin when searching for an historical antecedent for Musk, but the Tesla-Space X-Hyperloop-aspiring-Martian billionaire seem to have his heart set on being a multi-planetary Thomas Edison.

In his just-released “Master Plan, Part Deux,” Musk expounds on a vision that would be daunting if it was being attempted by a wonderfully funded Bell Labs or NASA or even a superpower government let alone a struggling private company. The sections on solar roofs and autonomous transport are particularly fascinating.

As Will Oremus writes in a Slate column, one aspect of Musk’s ambitions didn’t make big news despite having world-changing implications. An excerpt:

On Wednesday night, Elon Musk announced a new master plan for his company. It is the philosophical successor to his original master plan, published 10 years ago when few had heard of Tesla and fewer cared. If that first plan seemed implausibly audacious, this one borders on schizophrenic—a compendium of goals so futuristic and disparate that it would be a marvel for any company to achieve one of them, let alone all. They include (deep breath):

  • Building at least four all-new models: a “new kind of pickup truck,” a compact SUV, a semi truck, and a bus-like mass transport vehicle that delivers its passengers from door to door. They’ll all be fully electric, of course.
  • Developing and implementing a fully autonomous driving system that will require no human involvement. The system will have such redundancy that a failure of any part of the driving system will not compromise its ability to navigate safely.
  • Creating a car-sharing platform through which Tesla owners can, at the tap of a button, rent out their self-driving vehicle to a “Tesla shared fleet” when they’re not using it. Others can then summon the car for a ride, generating income for its owner which can help to pay off the price of buying it.
  • Merging Tesla and SolarCity, the country’s largest solar power company, and together developing a seamlessly integrated system that can both capture and store solar power on your rooftop, turning your home into its own energy utility. And then “scale that throughout the world.”

Not even cracking the top four objectives in the new plan is Musk’s recently stated intention to essentially reinvent the mass production process, developing a heavily automated factory that can churn out cars five to 10 times more efficiently than before. In other words, Musk writes, Tesla is designing “the machine that makes the machine—turning the factory itself into a product.”•

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Long before work began in earnest on autonomous cars that wouldn’t require us to keep our eyes on the road, one brave (and incredibly foolish) soul experimented in this area. Even though the headline of this November 5, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article refers to plural “autoists,” Jimmy Burns is the lone driver named who made cross-country trips blindfolded, guided only by his trusty dog Pedro. No explanation for Burns’ behavior is provided.

From the January 12, 1902 New York Times:

Phoenix, Ariz.–”Padre,” a big medicine man of the Yuma Indians, who lives on a reservation near Yuma, Ariz., has been offered as a sacrifice to the spirit in accordance with the custom of his tribe and has expiated the sins of the tribe, which are held responsible for an epidemic of smallpox.

The medicine man learned several days ago of the intention of the Indians to sacrifice him, and fled to the mountains. Being half starved he returned to the Indian village and pleaded for mercy. He was bound hand and foot and conveyed by a squad of Indians to Mexico, where he was bound to a tree and tortured to death.

“Padre” had a warm place in the hearts of his tribesmen, but their customs required them to make a heavy sacrifice.•

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A great light of the nineteenth-century chess world who burned briefly, Harry Nelson Pillsbury was a brilliant player as well as an accomplished mnemonist capable of quickly absorbing and regurgitating seemingly endless strings of facts. In fact, according to his Wikipedia page, he could “could play checkers and chess simultaneously while playing a hand of whist, and reciting a list of long words.” Pillsbury never had the opportunity to become world champion because his mental health deteriorated, the result of syphilis which he contracted in his twenties. An article in the April 9, 1906 Brooklyn Daily Eagle assigned his decline to more genteel origins.

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From the April 29, 1900 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Just as talkies were announcing themselves across America, genius Russian silent film director Sergei Eisenstein was dejectedly departing Hollywood, no richer financially or creatively for his failed attempts at pleasing U.S. movie producers. An article in the May 1, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle made clear his disenchantment with the business end of show business and the automaton nature of the burgeoning studio system.

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080326-N-9623R-007 Iraq (March 26, 2008) Construction Electrician 2nd Class Greg Martinez, assigned to the convoy security element (CSE ) of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 17, controls the MARCBOT IV, a remote controlled vehicle mounted with a video camera which is used to investigate suspicious areas without putting team members at risk. NMCB -17 CSE teams are highly trained Seabees tasked with the safe movement of various convoys to and from their missions. NMCB-17, also known as the "Desert Battalion", is to Iraq and other areas of operations supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth W. Robinson (Released)

Racism and guns are never far away in America, but the bloodshed of the last few days has been particularly sickening, a reminder that African-Americans are still prone to an instant death penalty for minor or phantom offenses, and that the endless supply of powerful guns has made us all, even the police, sitting ducks.

Adding to the troubling nature of the carnage is the unprecedented domestic use of a “bomb robot” by Dallas officers to kill a suspected sniper, a tactic employed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq that’s the latest “dividend” to return home from that misbegotten war. I’m sure the police were just trying to keep any more innocent people from being murdered, but the precedent is chilling.

From Daniel Rivera at Fusion:

Early Friday morning, a police standoff with a suspect in the killing of five police officers in Dallas came to an abrupt end on Friday morning in an unusual way.

“Negotiations broke down. We had an exchange of gunfire with the suspect,” Dallas police chief David Brown explained in a press conference. “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was.”

You read that correctly: “bomb robot.”

Typically, in violent standoffs involving gunfire, police wait out the suspects, or try to deploy snipers of their own to remove the threat. The general rule is that if police are not directly under threat of taking fire, they should try to bring home the suspect alive. Brown, though, said the robot was the only choice the force had. 

“Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased,” he said.

The use of a robot to kill someone has taken police observers aback.•

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America is doing really well, in the aggregate.

A closer look at the numbers reveals our prosperity has grown increasingly top-heavy for decades, a failure that’s not an orphan. Among the factors suppressing the earnings of the vast majority are tax codes, the decline of unions, corporate pay structures, globalization and automation.

The future looks bright in the big picture, but only if we find a way to allow working-class people to participate in the wealth created. Otherwise we’ll develop a large underclass distracted intermittently by the few amazing, cheap gadgets in their pockets, by bread and Kardashians.

Investment in workers and infrastructure is key, as always. It’s worth noting that if too many jobs are automated out of existence too quickly, we may have a challenge that even education can’t remedy.

From Edward Alden and Rebecca Strauss’ smart Foreign Affairs article, “Is America Great?“:

In our own research, we have looked in detail at how the United States measures against other advanced economies on many of the attributes that underlie national competitiveness, from innovation to education. The picture is a pretty good one. On innovation, for example, which drives economic growth in wealthy nations, the United States is far ahead of any country in the world. Corporate taxes and regulations, although both in real need of reform and modernization, do not pose the serious competitive disadvantage that many Republicans have suggested. The United States has slipped in global education rankings, but there are encouraging signs of progress, with high school graduation rates recently reaching record levels.

So if the United States is doing so well compared to its economic rivals, what accounts for the political appeal of claims that it has been a loser in global competition? The answer lies in the growing disconnect between the macro-level performance of the U.S. economy, which has been reasonably good, and the economy as it is lived by many Americans, which has been far from good.

The economist Michael Porter and his colleagues at Harvard Business School have called it “an economy doing only half its job.” Porter defines a competitive economy as one in which companies can compete successfully in global markets while also supporting rising wages and living standards for ordinary citizens. U.S. companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google account more than half of the top 100 companies in the world by market value, and such firms have only gained ground over the past five years. But despite this competitive triumph, wages and living standards for the average American have stagnated for decades. Real wages have been flat since the 1970s, which roughly corresponds with the time when the United States began facing tougher overseas competition, first from Japan and Germany and later from China. Young men today, who have been hit particularly by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, on average earn less than their fathers did.

Porter and his colleagues argue that the biggest cause of this growing divide is the failure of governments, and of companies themselves, to invest in Americans—to give them the education, skills, infrastructure, and access to capital they to need to prosper along with U.S. companies.•

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From the August 22, 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Alvin Toffler just died, but Douglas Rushkoff, an intellectual descendant of the Future Shock author and Marshall McLuhan, continues on. The media and cultural theorist is driven more by politics–specifically politics from the Left–than his predecessors, though he’s also examining the same macro questions: What have we created with our cleverness? Is it good for us? How can we best manage the downsides?

In a smart 52 Insights Q&A, Rushkoff speaks to the American corporatocracy and what he sees as the intrusion of new tools in our lives. One comment he makes in regard to our gadgets: “Maybe they will just fade into the background. Maybe you’ll have smart devices that can get data from what you’re doing but they don’t affect you as much.”

On some level devices that gather information from us do have an impact on us, even if the process is stealthy. Much good will come from the Internet of Things, but it’s a system with no OFF switch, no escape hatch. At that point, we’re inside the machine for good.

An excerpt:

Question:

I get on the bus every morning and I am succumb to my technology addiction like everyone else, but sometimes I look up and check out how many people are actually looking out of the window rather than at their phones. It’s usually about 50/50. Do you think this trend will continue in 50 years?

Douglas Rushkoff:

It’s hard to know what will happen. I like the optimism implicit in your question, asking, what will we be like in 50 years rather than whether we will be here in 50 years. The question of how we will have adapted to technology seems to be a much smaller proportion of the impact of technology than all of the externalized impacts of technology that we don’t talk about.

I’m less concerned with how the iPhone is changing my vision than the two refrigerators’ worth of electricity the iPhone is using when it’s operating, or the African kids that are being sent into caves to get rare earth metals to put into my battery, or the electronic waste that’s being buried in South America and China, or the children of Pakistan who are being poisoned by old CRT monitors. These people are going to be impacted way more. In my own crowd and the young people I talk to, I actually don’t see people so enamoured of their technology as older people. It’s the boomer and maybe some Gen-X-ers or Gen-Y who love all of this stuff, their Internet of Things. Younger people either know they can’t afford that stuff or really just don’t care so much. They don’t see it as so central to their experience. Yeah there’s a lot of texting going on but even that. . . I look at my daughter’s class, they’re 10 or 11 years old and they don’t like the stuff. I think we’re going to see people using technology much more appropriately in the future and in a more limited fashion. That could mean a very big disruption for the growth of all these internet service companies that think we will just want to do more and more. Then again maybe they will just fade into the background. Maybe you’ll have smart devices that can get data from what you’re doing but they don’t affect you as much.

Question:

What really keeps you up at night? What are you most concerned about in society?

Douglas Rushkoff:

The thing that disturbs me most is when people accept the artifacts that have been left for them as the given circumstances of nature. When people look at corporate capitalism, or Facebook, or the religion they have, as if they were given by god and not invented by people. It’s this automatic acceptance of how things are that leads to a sense of helplessness about changing any of them. I am deeply concerned about the environment and the degree to which temperatures are rising, and how the worst expectations of environmentalists have already been surpassed.•

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Gay Talese’s recent New Yorker story about voyeuristic Colorado motel owner Gerald Foos was disquieting for many reasons, not only because of the peeping Tom’s perverted behavior, which began in the 1960s. In the piece, the author writes that he learned the innkeeper witnessed–perhaps even unintentionally incited–a murder. For some reason, Talese didn’t immediately phone the police, just as he had failed to do repeatedly for many years while knowing of Foos’ repeated invasions of privacy. Maybe the killing was a lie that oozed from a deeply troubled brain–one can only hope–but the persistent sexual surveillance was clearly real.

It turns out Talese wasn’t nearly as circumspect about his creepy subject as he needed to be. Since the article’s publication, it’s come to light that Foos wasn’t the owner of the motel from 1980 to 1988, a fact he kept from the journalist. The events described during that period seem to have been fabricated, with Talese now forced to disavow his soon-to-be published book on the topic.

From Paul Farhi at the Washington Post:

In his forthcoming book, The Voyeur’s Motel, acclaimed journalist and nonfiction author Gay Talese chronicles the bizarre story of Gerald Foos, who allegedly spied on guests at his Colorado motel from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

But Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw — enough that the author himself now has deep reservations about the truth of some material he presents.

“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.

“I’m not going to promote this book,” the writer said. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”•

Update: Talese is now disavowing his disavowal of the book.

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As his sprawling 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary put it, cult leader Benjamin Purnell had “executive ability.”

He used native business acumen to escape an impoverished youth in Kentucky through the establishment, in 1903, of a religious cult known as the House of David, which he cofounded with his wife, Mary. They claimed to be the final representatives of God who would be sent to Earth.

“King Ben,” as he came to be known, built a veritable empire of a commune, which bore fruit literally and figuratively, burnishing his brand by portraying himself as immortal and promising to confer everlasting life unto others who gifted him with their worldly possessions. It worked wonderfully well for a while. The community boasted a cannery, an electricity plant, bands, orchestras, a zoological garden and a barnstorming baseball team of wide repute.

By his last decade, though, Purnell was accused of having sex with numerous underaged girls who lived on the grounds and was also beset by other legal issues. As a royal, priest and CEO, his career was in tatters. He died soon after his fall from grace, mortal as the rest of us, with some followers splintering into smaller groups.

The obit’s opening is embedded below.

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Alvin Toffler, the sociological salesman who anticipated and feared tomorrow, just died at 87.

Has there ever been a biography written about the man whose pants were forever being scared off? I’d love to know what it was about his life that positioned him, beginning in the 1960s, to look ahead at our future and be shocked. There was always a strong sci-fi strain to his work, though it’s undeniably important to think about how science and technology could go horribly wrong. By imagining the worst, perhaps we can avoid it. Like anyone else who toiled in speculative markets, Toffler was sometimes way off the mark, though he was also incredibly prescient on other occasions.

Below is an excerpt from his BBC obituary and a few Afflictor posts about Toffler from over the years.


From the BBC:

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Although many writers in the 1960s focused on social upheavals related to technological advancement, Toffler wrote in a page-turning style that made difficult concepts easy to understand.

Future Shock (1970) argued that economists who believed the rise in prosperity of the 1960s was just a trend were wrong – and that it would continue indefinitely.

The Third Wave, in 1980, was a hugely influential work that forecast the spread of emails, interactive media, online chat rooms and other digital advancements.

But among the pluses, he also foresaw increased social alienation, rising drug use and the decline of the nuclear family.

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Not all of his futurist predictions have come to pass. He thought humanity’s frontier spirit would lead to the creation of “artificial cities beneath the waves” as well as colonies in space.

One of his most famous assertions was: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”•


“Who Is To Write The Evolutionary Code Of Tomorrow?”

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A passage about genetic engineering, a fraught field but one with tremendous promise, from a 1978 Omni interview with Toffler conducted by leathery beaver merchant Bob Guccione:

Omni:

What’s good about genetic engineering?

Alvin Toffler:

Genetic manipulation can yield cheap insulin. It can probably help us solve the cancer riddle. But, more important, over the very long run it could help us crack the world food problem.

You could radically reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers–which means saving energy and helping the poor nations substantially. You could produce new, fast-growing species. You could create species adapted to lands that are now marginal, infertile, arid, or saline. And if you really let your long-range imagination roam, you can foresee a possible convergence of genetic manipulation, weather modification, and computerized agriculture–all coming together with a wholly new energy system. Such developments would simply remake agriculture as we’ve known it for 10,000 years.

Omni:

What is the downside?

Alvin Toffler:

Horrendous. Almost beyond our imagination, When you cut up genes and splice them together in new ways, you risk the accidental escape from the laboratory of new life forms and the swift spread of new diseases for which the human race no defenses.

As is the case with nuclear energy we have safety guidelines. But no system, in my view, can ever be totally fail-safe. All our safety calculations are based on certain assumptions. The assumptions are reasonable, even conservative. But none of the calculations tell what happens if one of the assumptions turns out to be wrong. Or what to do if a terrorist manages to get a hold of the crucial test tube.

A lot of good people are working to tighten controls in this field. NATO recently issued a report summarizing the steps taken by dozens of countries from the U.S.S.R. to Britain and the U.S. But what do we do about irresponsible corporations or nations who just want to crash ahead? And completely honest, socially responsible geneticists are found on both sides of an emotional debate as to how–or even whether–to proceed.

Farther down the road, you also get into very deep political, philosophical, and ecological issues. Who is to write the evolutionary code of tomorrow? Which species shall live and which shall die out? Environmentalists today worry about vanishing species and the effect of eliminating the leopard or the snail darter from the planet. These are real worries, because every species has a role to play in the overall ecology. But we have not yet begun to think about the possible emergence of new, predesigned species to take their place.•


“Shut Down The Public Education System”

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Toffler called for the dismantling of the U.S. public-education system in a 2007 interview at Edutopia. An excerpt:

Edutopia:

You’ve been writing about our educational system for decades. What’s the most pressing need in public education right now?

Alvin Toffler:

Shut down the public education system.

Edutopia:

That’s pretty radical.

Alvin Toffler:

I’m roughly quoting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who said, “We don’t need to reform the system; we need to replace the system.”

Edutopia:

Why not just readjust what we have in place now? Do we really need to start from the ground up?

Alvin Toffler:

We should be thinking from the ground up. That’s different from changing everything. However, we first have to understand how we got the education system that we now have. Teachers are wonderful, and there are hundreds of thousands of them who are creative and terrific, but they are operating in a system that is completely out of time. It is a system designed to produce industrial workers….

The public school system is designed to produce a workforce for an economy that will not be there. And therefore, with all the best intentions in the world, we’re stealing the kids’ future.

Do I have all the answers for how to replace it? No. But it seems to me that before we can get serious about creating an appropriate education system for the world that’s coming and that these kids will have to operate within, we have to ask some really fundamental questions.

And some of these questions are scary. For example: Should education be compulsory? And, if so, for who? Why does everybody have to start at age five? Maybe some kids should start at age eight and work fast. Or vice versa. Why is everything massified in the system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system — everybody reading the same textbook at the same time — did not offer.•


“This Technology Is Exacting A Heavy Price”

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Orson Welles narrates this 1972 documentary that McGraw-Hill produced about sociologist Toffler‘s gargantuan 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. Toffler caused a sensation with his views about the human incapacity to adapt in the short term to remarkable change, in this case of the technological variety. The movie is odd and paranoid and overheated and fun.

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From the October 3, 1920 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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When it comes to human-made material goods, it would seem that cheap abundance is within sight for the first time in our species’ history. The rub is that the cost of getting there has been sky-high environmentally, with scary repercussions staring us in the maw.

As we’ve witnessed in California, in the U.S. we haven’t made great decisions when it comes to safeguarding our water supply, that precious resource. Water economist David Zetland, author of The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges are embedded below.


Question:

Yesterday, there was a picture on r/pics of a California lake (almost empty) in 2014 and the same lake with much more water in it from this year. How are things going in California? (I realize you no longer live there.) Are conditions improving there? What needs to happen now to get them even better?

David Zetland:

Yes, I did too. I hope that some of the 5000+ people who upvoted it see your comment :)

“Things” are ok. The environment is really under stress due to drought and climate change (hard to separate), and El Niño didn’t fix anything. The biggest problem in the State is groundwater, which is barely regulated and hardly measured (there are laws now, but it will take 5+ years to implement anything).

People in cities may say “nothing’s wrong” b/c their taps flow but they are missing the environmental and groundwater stress.

I’m not an optimist in terms of improvements, as the dominant perspective is growth of population, agriculture and urban landscapes. All of these are increasing demand in a system that’s “managed” to the hilt, meaning there’s very little space for safety if things go wrong. (The big nightmare is an earthquake that “disturbs” the Delta, thereby cutting off water to SF as well as half of SoCal. That could happen tomorrow.)

I’ve suggested for years that California needs to reduce water transfers, to get regions to focus more on local supplies (i.e., recycling wastewater, saving rainwater) rather than calling for more dams or transfers.

I moved to the Netherlands b/c I don’t trust California’s water management to do much more than get by, with a good chance it will fail (it already has for communities losing access to well water or facing polluted well water).


Question:

Do you view cities like LA and LV as unsustainable, or is there a way for large cities to exist in desert climates without robbing other regions?

David Zetland: 

Good question. EVERY city is unsustainable in some way, due to the way they need to concentrate food, energy, water, etc. Those that are farther from those sources thus need to be smaller. LA was amazing back in the 30s, but grew off imported water (you can even go back earlier, to the 1913 LA Aqueduct if you want to pinpoint an issue).

The main idea is that ALL cities should pay the full cost of their resource use/environmental impact. Very few do, but it’s FAR worse when politicians allow them to get away with stuff/subsidize their growth.


Question:

If the planet is made up of mostly water, why are we concerned about the scarcity of water?

David Zetland:

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong quality.

Wettest place on earth has shortages.


Question:

I’ve always wondered – why not just price water according to its scarcity? Give the first x gallons cheap or free to residential customers, then charge against an accelerating price scale? That would dissuade large inefficient users, but still allow people to stay clean and healthy in their homes.

David Zetland:

You’re right in principle, but the details should be implemented differently. More.


Question:

What little things can people do to help use less water ?

David Zetland:

Little: Turn off taps when not using water. Bigger: Don’t have a lawn. Fix leaks. Biggest: Don’t eat meat.

Mega: Get involved in regional water management, to help those who do not care as much change their habits (via changed incentives — prices — more than preaching).•

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For those raised under capitalism who’ve absorbed the teachings of that system, a post-scarcity Second Machine Age sans labor is awfully difficult to envision. It’s essentially the technology-driven collapse that Karl Marx envisioned. Something has to replace the work that disappears, doesn’t it? Some mixed blessing for us to enjoy/endure? Even if intelligent machines can somehow make such a tiol-free scenario possible, we’re not even sure that we want it. Few aspire to drudgery. but genuine productivity feels good.

Eventually and maybe not gradually enough to make the transition smooth, we’ll be inside a new machine that operates under different rules, and we’ll have to likewise reinvent ourselves. Right now the spectre of mass technological unemployment has allowed the idea of Universal Basic Income to capture hearts and minds in Silicon Valley, discussion that has reverberated far beyond that well-appointed patch of Silicon Valley, even into the Oval office. Not all the plans are equal–or even good–but they are being discussed in halls of power.

Two excerpts below from: 1) President Obama discussing Basic Income in a Bloomberg interview, and 2) Ilana E. Strauss’ Atlantic piece about the possibility of a labor-free society that doesn’t promote ennui.


From Bloomberg:

Question:

Some economists suggest that globalization is going to start targeting all those services jobs. If you want to keep up wages in that area, doesn’t it push us toward something like a universal basic income?

President Obama:

The way I describe it is that, because of automation, because of globalization, we’re going to have to examine the social compact, the same way we did early in the 19th century and then again during and after the Great Depression. The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labor laws, etc.—those will have to be updated for these new realities. But if we’re smart right now, then we build ourselves a runway to make that transition less abrupt, because we’re still growing, and we’re beating the competition around the world. Look, for example, at smart cars, where the technology basically exists now. The number of people who are currently employed driving vehicles of some sort is enormous. And some of those jobs are pretty good jobs. You know, people are worried about Uber, but the fear is actually driverless Uber, right? Or driverless buses or what have you.

Now, there are all kinds of reasons why society may be better off if smart cars are the norm. Significant drops in traffic fatalities, much more efficient use of the vehicle, so that we’re less likely to emit as much pollution and carbon that causes climate change. You know, drastically reduced traffic, which means we’re giving back hours to families that are currently taken up in road rage. All kinds of reasons why we may want to do that. But if we haven’t given any thought to where are the people who are currently making a living driving transferring into, then there’s going to be deep resistance.

So trying to separate out issues of efficiency and productivity from issues of distribution and how people experience their own lives and their ability to take care of their families, I think, is a bad recipe. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation.•


From Strauss:

People have speculated for centuries about a future without work, and today is no different, with academics, writers, and activists once again warning that technology is replacing human workers. Some imagine that the coming work-free world will be defined by inequality: A few wealthy people will own all the capital, and the masses will struggle in an impoverished wasteland.

A different, less paranoid, and not mutually exclusive prediction holds that the future will be a wasteland of a different sort, one characterized by purposelessness: Without jobs to give their lives meaning, people will simply become lazy and depressed. Indeed, today’s unemployed don’t seem to be having a great time. One Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans who have been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, double the rate for working Americans. Also, some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time. Perhaps this is why many worry about the agonizing dullness of a jobless future.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow from findings like these that a world without work would be filled with malaise.•

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In the same decade humans set foot on the moon, the most soaring technological achievement of our species, Sir Edmund Hillary went on an expedition to the Himalayas to search for the Abominable Snowman. There are still some among us all these years later who believe Yeti roams the Earth and the moonwalk was faked.

Great scientific knowledge and utter disregard for facts can exist in the same moment. There’s perhaps no more perplexing aspect of modern life than conspiracy theories mucking up the works, from chemtrails to 9/11 Truthers to Birthers to anti-Vaxxers. Endless information was supposed to set us free from such madness. It did not. The new tools have made it easier to spread lies, to conduct a war on info, to even run an essentially fact-free Presidential campaign.

Excerpts from two articles follow: 1) Christopher Mele’s New York Times article about those who believe the Orlando massacre a staged or “false flag” event, and 2) William Finnegan’s New Yorker commentary on Trump’s appreciation for unhinged conspiracist Alex Jones, who believes pretty much every job an inside one.


From Mele:

Jesse Walker, the author ofThe United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, said fear, the human need to find patterns and tell stories, and the recognition that conspiracies are not impossible help fuel such theories. The stories — no matter how outlandish — can bring meaning and a measure of comfort in a world that can make no sense, he said.

False-flag theories have long been around. One focused on the assassination attempt in 1835 of President Andrew Jackson, during which the president fought off a gunman whose two weapons misfired. Conspiracy theorists at the time believed Jackson had hired the gunman as a way to drum up sympathy for himself, Mr. Walker said.

Unlike the 1800s, stories today benefit from instant delivery through the internet and social media. One of the better-known purveyors is Alex Jones, who hosts an internet show at the website infowars.com. The day of the Orlando shooting, he posted a  video in which he asserted that the government had let the massacre happen so it could pass “hate laws to deal with right-wingers” and to disarm gun owners. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Mike Rothschild of Pasadena, Calif., who has researched and written about conspiracy theories, described the world of false-flag believers as a “bank of awakened internet sleuths that has got it all figured out.” They see it as their duty to warn others about secret elites in government who are plotting against citizens, he said.•


From Finnegan:

On December 2nd, while the awful news from San Bernardino was erupting, bit by unconfirmed bit, I was surprised by the crisp self-assurance of a couple of bloggers whose names were new to me. They were on it—number of victims, names of shooters, police-radio intercepts. Soon, though, the bloggers veered off from the story that other news sources were slowly, frantically putting together. The information being released by the authorities did not match the information the bloggers were unearthing, and the latter quickly deduced that, like other “mass shootings” staged by the government, in Newtown, Connecticut, and elsewhere, this was a “false flag” operation. The official account was fiction. One Web site that carried the work of these “reporters” was called Infowars. I made do with other sources for news. But I kept an eye on Infowars and its proprietor, Alex Jones, who is a conspiracy theorist and radio talk-show host in Austin, Texas. Jones’s guest on his show the morning of the shooting had been, as chance would have it, Donald Trump. Jones had praised Trump, claiming that ninety per cent of his listeners were Trump supporters, and Trump had returned the favor, saying, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”

Jones’s amazing reputation arises mainly from his high-volume insistence that national tragedies such as the September 11th terror attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing were all inside jobs, “false flag” ops secretly perpetrated by the government to increase its tyrannical power (and, in some cases, seize guns). Jones believes that no one was actually hurt at Sandy Hook—those were actors—and that the Apollo 11 moon-landing footage was faked. Etcetera. Trump also trades heavily in imaginary events and conspiracy theories. He gained national traction on the American right by promoting the canard that President Obama was born outside the United States—a race-baiting lie that the candidate still toys with on Twitter. But birtherism is only the best-known among Trump’s large collection of creepy political fairy tales. You’ve probably heard the one about vaccines and autism. He even pushed that during a Presidential primary debate, on national television. Do you really believe that Obama won the 2012 election fairly? Wrong. Fraud. (At the same time, it’s Mitt Romney, total loser, who let everyone down.) Bill Ayers, not Obama, wrote “Dreams from My Father.” There is no drought in California, and the Chinese, outwitting us per usual, invented the concept of global warming to undermine American manufacturing. And so on.

Does Donald Trump actually believe any of this?•

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Jeannette Piccard, bold balloonist, is pictured directly above with her husband, Jean, and Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic automaker on hand to wish them–and their pet turtle–well on a daring 1934 trip via gondola into the stratosphere, which turned out to be a bumpy ride. Jeanette is usually credited as the first woman in space; her spouse was the twin brother of Auguste Piccard, the family’s most famous aeronaut. (The siblings would decades later inspire the name of Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek captain.) Jeannette traveled far not only up there, but also in here, following up her aviation exploits and a stint at NASA by being ordained an Episcopalian priest. An article in the October 23 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recorded the fraught moment when she reached the high point of her life, literally at least.

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