Urban Studies

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I’ve always traced the War on Drugs in the U.S. to the Nixon Administration, but British journalist Johann Hari, author of the book Chasing the Scream, dates it to the end of Prohibition, particularly to bureaucrat Harry Anslinger, a stern-faced Fed who looked like Mussolini as played by George C. Scott, who later mentored Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Tent City infamy. Hari also reveals how intertwined crackdown was (and is) with racism. No shocker there.

The so-called War has been a huge failure tactically and financially and has criminalized citizens for no good reason. All the while, there’s been a tacit understanding that millions of Americans are hooked on Oxy and the like, dousing their pain with a perfectly legal script. These folks are far worse off than pot smokers, but it’s the latter who are still afoul of the law in most states. I’m personally completely opposed to recreational drug use, but I feel even more contempt for the War on Drugs. It’s done far more harm than good. Decriminalize drugs that can be used in moderation, send users of harder drugs to rehab and only imprison those selling drugs to minors. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s a far saner solution. Or try something else; just make it less destructive.

From a LARB Q&A David Breithaupt conducted with Hari, an excerpt about the groups that inspired Anslinger’s folly, a seemingly never-ending waterloo:

He built the war on drugs around the three groups he hated most. The first was African-Americans. This is a man who was so racist that he was regarded as crazily so during the 1920s. His own Senator said he should have to resign because he used the “N word” so much in official memos. He believed that drugs were deranging African-Americans and leading them to attack whites and impregnate white women.

The second group was drug addicts. Anslinger believed that addicts were “contagious” and had to be “quarantined” — cut off from the rest of humanity. These first two groups came together, in his mind, in the form of the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who was his worst nightmare: a drug-addicted African-American woman challenging white supremacy. He was obsessed with her. In the book, I tell the story of how he stalked her, playing a key role in her death. The story of how Billie — and so many other Americans at the time — resisted Anslinger and the early drug war is one of the most inspiring I know.

The third group Anslinger hated was the Mafia. And here’s a complexity to the story: he was one of the first senior figures in federal government to realize the Mafia was real. It’s hard to believe now, but the Mafia was seen as an urban myth — like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But Anslinger had met these wiseguys as a young man. He knew they were real, and he wanted to destroy them. The tragedy is that the policy he believed would destroy them — drug prohibition — was, in fact, the biggest gift they received in the 20th century. He transferred the enormous industry in drugs from the people who used to control it — doctors and pharmacists — into the hands of organized crime. That’s what prohibition does. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said: “Al Capone was the product of alcohol prohibition. The Crips and the Bloods [and, he might well have added, Pablo Escobar and El Chapo] are the product of drug prohibition.”•

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I’ve mentioned before that the final 5% of perfecting driverless cars will be likely be more difficult than the first 95%. Those final digits make all the difference, of course, since, while aspects of automation can be useful, the technology is only transformational if it allows drivers to become passengers. When we can take our hands off the wheel and eyes off the road, the effects on the highway and the economy will be seismic. Consumers will probably have cheap rides a smartphone message away, and truckers, hacks and delivery people may be out of a job.

In a New Statesman article, Christian Wolmar argues that autonomous is a myth and that we will never own driverless cars. Well, someone will someday since nothing about the technology is theoretically impossible, even if the final strides of the marathon are arduous. His argument that driverless cars are as likely as jetpacks seems an exaggeration and his proof not entirely convincing. An excerpt:

The driverless car does not stand up to scrutiny. When pressed, Musk conceded that the “fully autonomous” car that he said would be ready by 2018 would not be completely automatic, nor would it go on general sale. There is a pattern. Whenever I ask people in the field what we can expect by a certain date, it never amounts to anything like a fully autonomous vehicle but rather a set of aids for drivers.

This is a crucial distinction. For this technology to be transformational, the cars have to be 100 per cent autonomous. It is worse than useless if the “driver” has to watch over the controls, ready to take over if an incident seems likely to occur. Such a future would be more dangerous than the present, as our driving skills will have diminished, leaving us less able to react. Google notes that it can take up to 17 seconds for a person to respond to alerts of a situation requiring him or her to assume control of the vehicle.

What is this technology for? The widespread assumption that driverless cars will be a shared resource, like the London Santander Cycles, is groundless. People like owning their personal vehicle because it is always available and can be customised to ensure that the child seat is properly in place and the radio tuned to Magic. Google may be right that a few parking lots will become redundant but it has no answer for the possibility that autonomy will encourage more vehicles on to the road.

The danger of all the hype is that politicians will assume that the driverless revolution obviates the need to search for solutions to more urgent problems, such as congestion and pollution. Why bother
to build infrastructure, such as new Tube lines or tram systems, or to push for road pricing, if we’ll all end up in autonomous pods? Google all but confesses that its autonomous cars are intended to be an alternative to public transport – the opposite of a rational solution to the problems that we face.•

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Capitalism will be just fine, though we’re fucked, very fucked.

In all seriousness, I think economic systems will look very different in the year 2100, when the vast majority of us are gone. 3D printing may have a huge impact on manufacturing, decentralizing it the way media has been. Scarcity-reducing automation will also be a great boon and bane simultaneously, taking much drudgery from our hands–but also paychecks. AI and robotics may not be destabilizing only for workers but for capital as well. Why, exactly, would anyone need to own a fleet of driverless cars or a lights-out factory? Couldn’t such outfits be self-owned and self-sustained?

But while markets will probably be very different, I think they’re stubborn things. I don’t believe they began as an accident but because of something deeply embedded in us–something evolutionary. They may be transformed, but I would guess they’ll persist.

Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck is far more dubious about the future of capitalism, believing we’re watching the system run aground. The title of his recent essay in the Socio-Economic Review doesn’t mince words: “On the Dismal Future of Capitalism.” The opening:

The writing is on the wall, and has been for some time; we must only learn to read it. The message is: capitalism is a historical social formation; it has not just a beginning but also an end.1 Three trends have run in parallel since the 1970s, throughout the family of rich capitalist democracies: declining growth, rising inequality of income and wealth and rising debt—public, private and total. Today the three seem to have become mutually reinforcing: low growth contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflict; inequality dampens growth by curbing effective demand; high levels of existing debt clog credit markets and increase the risk of financial crises; an overgrown financial sector both results from and adds to economic inequality etc. Already the last growth cycle before 2008 was more fake than real2 and post-2008 recovery remains anaemic at best, also because Keynesian stimulus, monetary or fiscal, fails to work in the face of unprecedented amounts of accumulated debt. Note that we are talking about long-term trends, not just a momentary unfortunate coincidence, and indeed about global trends, affecting the capitalist system as a whole and as such. Nothing is in sight that seems only nearly powerful enough to break the three trends, deeply ingrained and densely intertwined as they have become.

Moreover, looking back we see a sequence of political-economic crises that began with in- flation in the 1970s, followed by an explosion of public debt in the 1980s and by rapidly rising private debt in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of financial markets in 2008. This sequence, again, was by and large the same for all major capitalist countries, whose economies have never really been in equilibrium since the end of postwar growth. All three crises began and ended in the same way: inflation, public debt and private debt initially served as expedient political solutions to distributional conflicts between capital and labour (and sometimes third parties such as raw material producers), until they became problems themselves: inflation in the early 1980s, public debt in a first consolidation phase in the 1990s, and private debt after 2008. Today’s political fix is called ‘quantitative easing’: essentially the printing of money by treasuries and central banks to keep interest rates down and accumulated debt sustainable, as well as prevent a stagnant economy from sliding into deflation, at the price of more inequality and of new bubbles in asset markets building and, eventually, collapsing.

The fundamental nature of the crisis is reflected in the extent to which the captains of capitalism have lost orientation and find themselves reduced to devising ever new provisional stopgaps until the next unpleasant surprise catches up with them. The wizards have become clueless. How long can quantitative easing go on? Is deflation the problem or inflation? How does one know a bubble before it blows up? Is growth restored through spending or through cutting back on spending? Is stricter financial regulation conducive or harmful to growth? Until the mid-1970s, growth was to result from redistribution from the top to the bottom; then, when Keynesianism was succeeded by Hayekianism, the opposite was true and markets were to be set free to redistribute from the bottom to the top. Now, seven years after the disaster of 2008, there is still no new growth formula and confusion rules the day. State-administered capitalism has failed—that is, was rejected by the owners of capital as too costly for them, to be replaced with free-market capitalism, which has also failed. For the time being, central banks act as regents waiting for a new ruler. But who would this be, and what would be his recipe for holding the capitalist enterprise together?

I suggest that after more than 200 years, capitalism has become unsustainable as a result of having become ungovernable.•

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America is no doubt plagued by ridiculous wealth inequality, but China, an authoritarian capitalist state, is no slouch in this area. There are copious reason for multimillionaires and billionaires minted in that nation to want to move their loved ones abroad, and one is that many of the industries that have enabled their filthy lucre have also blighted their homeland. These captains of industry have used their windfalls to disappear their children from the world’s highest cancer rates and unbreathable air, stashing them in America or Canada, where their conspicuous spending has heretofore received fewer sideways glances than it would have in the motherland. 

The Chinese elite and their super-rich kids (the “Golden Generation“) have left a mark on the cost of living in Vancouver in much the same way that money from abroad has made New York City all but unlivable for much of the 99%. Dan Levin of the NYT has a smart article about the lush life of “fuerdai” inside British Columbia’s largest city. An excerpt:

Many of Vancouver’s young supercar owners are known as fuerdai, a Mandarin expression, akin to trust-fund kids, that means “rich second generation.” In China, where the superrich are widely criticized as being corrupt and materialistic, the term provokes a mix of scorn and envy.

The fuerdai have brought their passion for extravagance to Vancouver. White Lamborghinis are popular among young Chinese women; the men often turn in their leased supercars after a few months for a newer, cooler status symbol.

Hundreds of young Chinese immigrants, along with a handful of Canadian-born Chinese, have started supercar clubs whose members come together to drive, modify and photograph their flashy vehicles, providing alluring eye candy for their followers on social media.

The Vancouver Dynamic Auto Club has 440 members, 90 percent of whom are from China, said the group’s 27-year-old founder, David Dai. To join, a member must have a car that costs over 100,000 Canadian dollars, or about $77,000. “They don’t work,” Mr. Dai said of Vancouver’s fuerdai. “They just spend their parents’ money.”

Occasionally, the need for speed hits a roadblock. In 2011, the police impounded a squadron of 13 Lamborghinis, Maseratis and other luxury cars, worth $2 million, for racing on a metropolitan Vancouver highway at 125 miles per hour. The drivers were members of a Chinese supercar club, and none were older than 21, according to news reports at the time.

On a recent evening, an overwhelmingly Chinese crowd of young adults had gathered at an invitation-only Rolls-Royce event to see a new black-and-red Dawn convertible, base price $402,000. It is the only such car in North America.

Among the curious was Jin Qiao, 20, a baby-faced art student who moved to Vancouver from Beijing six years ago with his mother. During the week, Mr. Jin drives one of two Mercedes-Benz S.U.V.s, which he said were better suited for the rigors of daily life.

But his most prized possession is a $600,000 Lamborghini Aventador Roadster Galaxy, its exterior custom wrapped to resemble outer space.

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From the August 17, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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While I don’t think the Singularity is upon us, mass automation could very well be. For all the good Weak AI can do for production, it will likely force us to reconsider politics, economics and even the meaning of being human.

It’s best, though, to be circumspect when considering the impact thus far of robotics. While it’s probably safe to assume machines have contributed to the middle-class decline in the U.S., there are other considerable factors, including tax codes. As far as the recent Case-Deaton findings about a spike in the death rate among white, middle-aged Americans, the wide availability of opioids has probably been as much the culprit as the decline of manufacturing. Tax codes and drug restrictions can be shifted, however, whereas automation is pointed in only one direction–and that’s up. If jobs of similar quantity and quality aren’t created to replace the vanished ones, something will have to give.

From Moshe Y. Vardi in the Guardian:

The US economy has been performing quite poorly for the bottom 90% of Americans for the past 40 years. Technology is driving productivity improvements, which grow the economy. But the rising tide is not lifting all boats, and most people are not seeing any benefit from this growth. While the US economy is still creating jobs, it is not creating enough of them. The labor force participation rate, which measures the active portion of the labor force, has been dropping since the late 1990s.

While manufacturing output is at an all-time high, manufacturing employment is today lower than it was in the later 1940s. Wages for private nonsupervisory employees have stagnated since the late 1960s, and the wages-to-GDP ratio has been declining since 1970. Long-term unemployment is trending upwards, and inequality has become a global discussion topic, following the publication of Thomas Piketty’s 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Most shockingly, economists Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel memorial prize in economic science, and Anne Case found that mortality for white middle-aged Americans has been increasing over the past 25 years, due to an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse.

Is automation, driven by progress in technology, in general, and artificial intelligence and robotics, in particular, the main cause for the economic decline of working Americans?•

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From the November 4, 1841 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Head of "Mind Control" Jack Gariss conducting group who are hooked-up to bioscope machines. Location: Los Angeles, CA, US Date taken: March 1972

Universities around the globe and the U.S. government are trying to map the human brains, the tools to do so now a reality. But before such a mission was possible, people still wanted inside their heads, using whatever methods were at hand, even if they were deeply silly.

The article, “Flow Gently, Sweet Alpha,” published in a 1972 issue of Life, is a participatory journalism piece by Jane Howard about the biofeedback craze of the time. Howard travels to several locales–New York, Los Angeles and Laredo, Texas–having electrodes glued to her head, learning to “program her dreams,” taking imaginary excursions through cubes of metal and enrolling in a “Mind Control” course in search of enlightenment. Being hooked up to a biofeedback machine for 45 minutes cost $145 at the time. Jack Gariss, one of the L.A. spiritual gurus featured in the article, had an earlier career as a screenwriter, earning a credit for Cecile B. DeMille’s biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments. An excerpt from the piece:

Mind Control does not use hardware. ‘Those machines are hopelessly obsolete already,’ one instructor told the 50 or so of us in my class. ‘We’re light years ahead of them. In these four days we’ll open up a channel that will make you feel like you can walk on water. You’d better start with puddles, though, until you’re used to being at your alpha level.’

The Silva Mind Control Institute of Laredo, Texas, was founded a year ago by a visionary electronics technician. ‘None of what you’ll learn here is new,’ our instructor told us in the New York City branch. ‘But José Silva is the first man in history to arrange these ideas in their proper sequence. It took him 26 years’ research.’

Mind Control has 50,000 graduates in 50 states and three foreign countries. In four days we would be graduates, too. We would learn all sorts of things. But first we had to stand up, one by one, and say what our zodiacal signs were, what we did for a living, and why we had come.

“I’m a Gemini and a barber, and I heard this course was really far out.”

“I’m a Serpico and a stockbroker, and I figured all this alpha stuff might give me insights about the market.”

“I’m a waitress, Pisces with Capricorn rising, and I’ll try anything once.”

“I’m a salesman and I don’t know anything about horoscopes, but my boss made me come.”

“I’m a Virgo and a ski instructor, and my mother gave me this course as a Christmas present.”

I said I was a Taurus (moon in Gemini) who wanted to learn to concentrate and relax.

“Close your eyes and take a deep breath,” our instructor would tell us during our conditionings. “Envision and repeat to yourself the number 5 three times.” Then 4 three times, and so on down to one. At one, he told us we were “entering a deeper, healthier level of mind, much deeper than before.”

Was this apha? Whatever it was, it felt good. At “my level,” I felt the way accomplished meditators claim to–as if a tidal wave were rushing through my forehead, sliding downward toward the spine, making leisurely spiraling loops along the way. Maybe I wasn’t walking on water, but I did feel more serene.

Phantasmagoric imagery appeared on what I was told was my “mental screen.” I saw coral reefs, mountain cabins, hotel rooms I’d occupied a decade ago, and the pattern on a painted cigarette box my mother had when I was a child. I heard a music box we’d had then, too. It was far more beguiling than a movie, finding all this richness lodged in my mind. I truly felt free of my usual trains of thought, so well trodden as seem almost paved.

But José Silva had not labored for nearly three decades just so we could see pretty pictures. Each conditioning had its topic and purpose. We were told how to sleep soundly, awaken refreshed, relax at will, and project healing energy onto our ailing friends from afar–not firsthand , because the laws about practicing medicine without a license.

We were told we could cancel out everything negative, but merely uttering the simple incantation “cancel, cancel.”•

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I don’t give a screw about Star Trek, the TV series or films, but creator Gene Roddenberry was obviously a special guy and not only for his progressive outlook on race and gender. In a 1976 Penthouse interview conducted by Linda Merinoff, Roddenberry laid out the next 40 years of our society, from the Internet to email to swarms and crowdsourcing to the decline of the traditional postal service to online learning to the telecommunications revolution. Some of his longer-term thoughts on the natural evolution of humans are scary to me, but they were to him as well. Three excerpts follow.


Penthouse:

What is happening to television as a piece of mechanical equipment?

Gene Roddenberry:

I think there is little doubt that we’re probably on the threshold of a whole new revolution in telecommunications. We are now experimenting with mating television sets with print-out devices, think of TV mated with a Xerox-type machine in which probably our newspapers will ultimately be delivered. It’s a much more efficient system. The minute you put the newspaper to bed electronically, you can then push a button and any house that subscribes to the service can have the thing rolled right out of the TV set. We’re also experimenting, in some cities already, with mating television with simple computers and the home will be run by a home-computing feature. You’ll do your billing on it, your banking, probably a great part of your shopping. I think it is inescapable that we mate TV with reproducing devices, that it will become our postal system of the future, almost certainly our telephone or videophone. So I see television going in either of two directions. One is that it can become that opiate we fear. Or, used properly, it can be a way for all people, everywhere, to have access to all the recorded knowledge of all humanity.


Penthouse:

Where do you think mankind is heading?

Gene Roddenberry:

There’s a theory I have that i’ve been making notes on for a couple of years now and intend to write a book on it sometime in the future. You often hear the question, “I wonder what the next dominant species will be?” I think that completely unnoticed by practically all people is the fact that the next dominant species on earth has already arrived and has been with us for some time. And this is a species that I call socio-organism. It first began to make its appearance when men started to gather together in tribal groups, and then city-states, and more lately in nations, giant corporations, and so on. The socio-organism is a living organism that is made up of individual cells–which are human beings. In other words the United States of America is a socio-organism. It is made up of 200 million cells, many of them become increasingly specialized just as the cells in our body do. Furnish food, take away waste products, or the nerves–the sight, the thinking, the planning. Your local PTA is also a small socio-organism. General Motors and ITT are socio-organisms. The interesting thing about this new creature is that unlike all the past life forms, one cell in a socio-organism can be a member of several of these socio-organisms. Also, they do not have to live in physical proximity with each other as in our bodies. It sounds a rather foolish sci-fi thing to say that General Motors is a living organism. But if you take a few steps back and view it from this point of view, you begin to discover that the evolution of this socio-organism almost exactly parallels everything we know about Darwinian evolution.

Briefly, Darwinian evolution is fairly generally accepted, that the first life forms on earth were individual cells floating on the warm soup seas of the time. Finally, through chance and other factors, groups of these cells discovered that by being gathered together they could get their food more efficiently, protect themselves, and become dominant over the single-cell amoebas. With humans, exactly the same thing happened. More and more individual units began to get more and more specialized. As it became more complex, with more and more highly specialized units, the creature became more and more powerful, was capable of protecting itself, taking care of its individual cells. This is a process of accumulating interdependence. The frightening thing about viewing humankind now, this way, is that the socio-organisms are really becoming more dominant than the individual. In Red China they are teaching the very lessons that our bodies have, over the centuries, taught to its cells–that we can no longer exist for ourselves. We must exist for the whole. But you can see the same thing in the United States. People now live the corporate morality. If I join a corporation, my duty is to the corporation. If the corporation says lie, cheat, steal, move here, do that, I must do it because my duty is to the whole. So if indeed civilization is following the laws of Darwinian evolution, you can predict ahead a few centuries or a few dozen or hundred centuries, until a time in which the independent individual will have totally vanished and this planet will be inhabited by totally specialized cells who function as part of these giant, living things. The great battle and great decision we humans face is whether to let this continue until we become faceless, totally interdependent organisms. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. You might, if it were possible, talk to a cell of my heart and say, “Look cell, are you happy?” It seems to have adapted well. Maybe this is the way it suppose to be. Maybe there is some form of mass mind, mass consciousness, when a socio-organism reaches its final form, and we will be part of it and perfectly happy to be part of it. There may be contentments and happiness in this that we presently can’t visualize. I fear it because I can’t visualize it being better than remaining a free individual. I also fear the fact that if I remain, and insist on remaining totally independent and free, that the way things are going I am to be treated as a cancer cell by the socio-organisms around me, which will find it necessary to eradicate me because I endanger the organism.

Penthouse:

What is one’s purpose in this socio-organism? Just to survive?

Gene Roddenberry:

No. My purpose… that’s a hard question. I’ll try to answer it. My purpose is to live out whatever my function may be as a part of the whole that is God. I am a piece of Him. I believe that all intelligence is a part of the whole and it may be a great cyclical thing in which we have to go on, evolving, perfecting, until we reach the point where we are God, so that we can create ourselves so that we know we existed in the first place.


Penthouse:

You’ve said that you felt that Star Trek was a very optimistic show. Are you still that optimistic in the 70’s about the future of mankind? 

Gene Roddenberry:

Yes, but I think that if we have an earth of the Star Trek century, it will not be an unbroken, steady rise to that kind of civilization. We’re in some very tough times. Our twentieth-century technological civilization has no guarantees that it is going to stay around for a long time. But I think man is really an incredible creature. We’ve had civilizations fall before and we build a somewhat better one on the ashes every time. And I’d never consider the society we depicted in Star Trek necessarily a direct, uninterrupted outgrowth of our present civilization, with its heavy emphasis on materialism. I think But my optimism is not for our society. It’s for our essential ingredient in humankind. And I think we humans will rebuild and, if necessary, we’ll lose another civilization and rebuild again on top of that until slowly, bit by bit, we’ll get there.•

The Opening Ceremony at the 1896 Athens Olympics.

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Today is the anniversary of the opening ceremony of the first modern Olympiad, the Athens Summer Games of 1896. While Greece would not host the event again for 108 years, this iteration was paramount for establishing a grandeur, truly globalizing the Games and instituting the Marathon as a major event. Photos above show Panathenaic Stadium, as well as competitors in field events, and unheralded Greek water-carrier Spyridon Louis, who won the Marathon. The particulars of latter event had a surprisingly academic source in French proto-semanticist Michel Bréal, who based its course on the legendary trek run by messenger Phidippides after the Battle of Marathon. Sadly, no women were allowed to participate due to the chauvinism of IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin, but one female still made a mark.

The Olympics sparked interest among American athletes in what had been largely unfamiliar activities, and later that year a collection of U.S. competitors convened in New York City to prepare for future Games. The chariot race was probably not necessary. From a report published in the September 6, 1896 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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For the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan is promising–perhaps overpromising–driverless taxis, robot assistants, instant language translation, etc. In the “et cetera” category is next-level maglev trains, which may reach a world-record 374 mph. Railroad geeks, a global phenomenon, are excited and turning out at viewing posts for test runs.

From Asahi Shimbun:

FUEFUKI, Yamanashi Prefecture–Railway buffs are getting up close and personal with the new superfast maglev train after two special observation platforms overlooking a test line were opened to the public last month.

In addition to seeing the ultimate in train technology speed past at close quarters, observers can also take in the beautiful backdrop of the expanse of the Kofu Basin and the peaks of the Southern Japan Alps.

As most parts of the test line has been carved underground through mountains, the observation platforms provide rare photo opportunities and places to wait for the test train.

The Yamanashi maglev test line is for what will be called the Linear Chuo Shinkansen, and when it goes into service it will allow passengers to travel between Tokyo and Nagoya in just 40 minutes.

One of the lookouts, the Hanatoriyama observatory, is in a park called “Linear no Mieru Oka” (hill where the linear motor train can be seen). The park spreads out over 2,900 square meters including the area for car parks for visitors.•

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During the 1930s, a surprising number of American captains of industry looked longingly at Mussolini’s Italy and even Hitler’s Germany. What they thought they saw was indomitable power. How can we compete with well-coordinated Fascism and totalitarianism, they churlishly asked, with our impudent U.S. laborers? They’ll eat our lunch.

Although Mussolini met with the business end of a meat hook and Hitler died a bunker-based suicide, modern China has aroused those feelings of jealousy all over again in some of our current pouty plutocrats. There is some cause for envy. It’s awe-inspiring what that nation has done in short order, with its headlong dive through the Industrial Age and into the Digital one. Tens of millions have been lifted from abject poverty through mass, manic urbanization, though the day-to-day costs have been steep. It’s striking, though, that while the world’s highest cancer rates and the planet’s worst air pollution receive plenty of attention, the new money has seemingly papered over how sick the larger system is. Authoritarianism is still antithetical to human nature.

Xi Jinping’s current tough-on-crime crusade, aided by cutting-edge sensors and algorithms, is more a political purge than a righteous reckoning for the corrupt. It’s Mao married to modern technology.

The opening of “Crackdown in China,” Orville Schell’s excellent NYRB article:

“As a liberal, I no longer feel I have a future in China,” a prominent Chinese think tank head in the process of moving abroad recently lamented in private. Such refrains are all too familiar these days as educated Chinese professionals express growing alarm over their country’s future. Indeed, not since the 1970s when Mao still reigned and the Cultural Revolution still raged has the Chinese leadership been so possessed by Maoist nostalgia and Leninist-style leadership.

As different leaders have come and gone, China specialists overseas have become accustomed to reading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tea leaves as oscillating cycles of political “relaxation” and “tightening.” China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. But what has been happening lately in Beijing under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is no such simple fluctuation. It is a fundamental shift in ideological and organizational direction that is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations.

At the center of this retrograde trend is Xi’s enormously ambitious initiative to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he calls “tigers and flies,” namely corrupt officials and businessmen both high and low. Since it began in 2012, the campaign has already netted more than 160 “tigers” whose rank is above or equivalent to that of the deputy provincial or deputy ministerial level, and more than 1,400 “flies,” all lower-level officials.1 But it has also morphed from an anticorruption drive into a broader neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and others with differing ideological or political views.

To carry out this mass movement, the Party has mobilized its unique and extensive network of surveillance, security, and secret police in ways that have affected many areas of Chinese life.•

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From the December 28, 1921 New York Times:

Pittsburgh, Pa.–The nimble Pirates, minus the tendency to crack in the heat of a National League pennant chase, and a Pitt football team that will display more agility than any trick movie star, are promised for 1922 by A. Lincoln Bowden, a Pittsburgh oil man, who has volunteered to supply both aggregations with dried monkey meat during the coming year. Glands will be included in the menu, according to the Pittsburgher, who has offered his services in the spirit of a devoted gridiron and diamond fan and says he wants Pittsburgh athletes to beat the world.

Mr. Bowden is about to depart for South America to lay in a supply of monkeys of a superior class, which he has frequently observed in Ecuador. The invigorating element of monkey meat and glands, he asserted, will give indomitable power and unlimited aggressiveness to the baseball and football men.

In proof of his assertions, he points to the case of of a Pittsburgher who was in Ecuador with him two months ago. In this case, Mr. Bowden said, although the patient was quite bald, a diet of monkey meat caused new hair to grow on his head, while all pains and aches left him and neither the heat of the jungle nor the cold of high mountain plateaus affected him in the slightest degree.•

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Despite Snowden’s leak, governments will continue to have powerful tools of surveillance and will likely use them often despite any legislation. But it isn’t a one-sided fight.

As the eye-popping Panama Papers demonstrate, we’ve permanently moved into an era of cat-and-mouse games among governments, corporations and private citizens, with encryption tools and smaller and more powerful microchips allowing the lone leaker to be the mouse that roared–to even become the feline.

Andy Greenberg’s Wired article details how the “Mother of All Megaleaks,” which makes Assange seem a relatively small matter, began simply with a mysterious message sent to a German newspaper reporter. The writer also explains how technology has enabled such revelations to grow in frequency, size and impact. An excerpt:

The leaks are bound to cause ripples around the world—not least of all for Mossack Fonseca itself. The firm didn’t respond to a request for comment from Wired, but it wrote to the Guardian that “many of the circumstances you cite are not and have never been clients of Mossack Fonseca” and that “we have always complied with international protocols … to assure as is reasonably possible, that the companies we incorporate are not being used for tax evasion, money laundering, terrorist finance or other illicit purposes.” Another letter posted to WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed, meanwhile, purports to show how the firm has responded to its own clients:

Mossack Fonseca and its customers won’t be the last to face an embarrassing or even incriminating megaleak. Encryption and anonymity tools like Tor have only become more widespread and easy to use, making it safer in some ways than ever before for sources to reach out to journalists across the globe. Data is more easily transferred—and with tools like Onionshare, more easily securely transferred—than ever before. And actual Moore’s Law continues to fit more data on smaller and smaller slices of hardware every year, any of which could be ferreted out of a corporation or government agency by a motivated insider and put in an envelope to a trusted journalist.

The new era of megaleaks is already underway: The Panama Papers represent the fourth tax haven leak coordinated by the ICIJ since just 2013.•

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H.G. Wells thought you couldn’t really have utopias without a dystopias. The visionary writer believed you needed to aspire to the former and parcel out space for the latter, separate pristine living spaces from the despoiled, industrialized areas that would be exploited to support them. (It’s an idea Larry Page endorses.) Even in a post-industrial landscape, progress will similarly be a mixed blessing. The future is bright–and dark.

A brief excerpt from Wells’ 1905 “A Modern Utopia”:

But in Utopia there will be wide stretches of cheerless or unhealthy or toilsome or dangerous land with never a household; there will be regions of mining and smelting, black with the smoke of furnaces and gashed and desolated by mines, with a sort of weird inhospitable grandeur of industrial desolation, and the men will come thither and work for a spell and return to civilisation again, washing and changing their attire in the swift gliding train. And by way of compensation there will be beautiful regions of the earth specially set apart and favoured for children; in them the presence of children will remit taxation, while in other less wholesome places the presence of children will be taxed.•

Utopians tend to overpromise. 

Techno-utopians go even further. It’s not that Singularitarians with bold plans for transforming medicine or transportation are making theoretically impossible claims, but they sure have aggressive timeframes and seem to think tomorrow will be smooth as can be. But it’s a world with wrinkles and probably needs to be.

Perhaps by the end of the century, we’ll live in a post-scarcity society with robot assistants and miraculous medicine, though there’ll still be problems–stubborn old ones, new ones, ones we can’t yet imagine. We’re far from perfect, and our machines won’t be flawless, either. Progress is wonderful, but it’s not an arrow pointed toward the heavens.

From Nick Romeo’s Daily Beast piece about Singularity University:

It’s common for tech industry rhetoric to invoke the ideal of a better world, but since its 2008 inception, Singularity University has articulated an astonishingly ambitious series of goals and projects that use technological progress for philanthropic ends. Medicine is just one of many domains that [co-founder Peter] Diamandis wants to fundamentally change. He and others at Singularity are also working to develop and support initiatives that will provide universal access to high-quality education, restore and protect polluted environments, and transition the economy to entirely sustainable energy sources.

His audience was a group of 98 executives from 44 countries around the world; each had paid $14,000 to attend the weeklong program at Singularity University’s NASA Research Park campus in Mountain View, California. As Diamandis moved through the sectors of the economy that artificial intelligence would soon dominate—medicine, law, finance, academia, engineering—the crowd seemed strangely energized by the prospect of its imminent irrelevance. Singularity University was generating more than $1 million of revenue by telling its prosperous guests that they would soon be surpassed by machines.

But his vision of the future was nonetheless optimistic. Diamandis believes that solar energy will soon satisfy the demands of the entire planet and replace the market for fossil fuels. This will mean fewer wars and cleaner air. Systems for converting atmospheric humidity into clean drinking water will become cheap and ubiquitous. The industrial meat industry will also vanish, replaced by tastier and healthier laboratory-grown products with no environmental downsides. He also predicts that exponential increases in the power of AI would soon render teachers and universities superfluous. The best education in the world will become freely available to anyone.•

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Marshall McLuhan is dead, of course, and so is Jerome Agel, the “producer” of the oracle’s most famous book, 1967’s The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects. The only principal from the project still with us is its revolutionary graphic designer, Quentin Fiore, who turned 96 in February. The artist subsequently worked on books by or about Buckminster Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Jerry Rubin. How are you these days, Quentin Fiore?

McLuhan not only named the Global Village but also feared it. And there’ll be no retreat. Facebook, for one, may fall into steep decline, become a virtual ghost town, but it won’t matter one bit. The new arrangement is only going to grow deeper. An ominous passage from early in the book which proved awesomely prophetic:

How much do you make? Have you ever contemplated suicide? Are you now or have you ever been…? I have here before me…Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions–the patterns of mechanistic technologies–are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval by the electrically computerized dossier bank–that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.’ We have already reached a point where remedial control, born out of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted. How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force for social change? What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?•

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Speaking of law enforcement in pursuit of criminals, the relative low-speed-chase era of the Wild West experienced one of its most infamous prison breaks during its dying days when the outlaw Harry Tracy escaped the Oregon State Penitentiary in 1902, not the first time he’d slipped through bars. The desperado, who had run with Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang, spent nearly two twisty months dodging officers who hunted him while he engaged in a spree of shootouts, kidnappings and ambushes. Ultimately shot in the leg and cornered, he committed suicide to avoid justice at the hands of others. It was his final escape.

While he was in mid-flight, Tracy’s legend was burnished by a very long Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about his life on the lam. The opening follows.

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Interesting Marketwatch article by Martin Libicki about the potential driverless age allowing law enforcement to override controls of cars. I only have one question: Why would the autos need to be driverless for this to occur?

Cars are already rolling computers and will only continue to be developed in that direction. Such machines can be hacked, and it would make sense that police will eventually have the ability to externally take control of a computerized car. I think the plausibility of this scenario will ultimately come down to what society finds acceptable when we write laws, not to the advent of autonomous vehicles.

From Libicki:

It is time to start thinking about the rules of the new road. Otherwise, we may end up with some analog to today’s chaos in cyberspace, which arose from decisions in the 1980s about how personal computers and the Internet would work.

One of the biggest issues will be the rules under which public infrastructures and public safety officers may be empowered to override how autonomous vehicles are controlled.

It is not hard to imagine why they might want such override power. One is for traffic control. As AVs proliferate there are many advantages to having them talk with intelligent roadways, the better to use scarce freeway space. Controls may also be imposed to leave lanes clear for emergency vehicles or crowded busses. Road conditions that are hard to detect by AV sensors, like weather-related lane closures, may also be more efficiently and fairly handled by having roadways or emergency crews redirect AVs away from problematic lanes, as well as around police, fire, and EMS activity. Overrides could be used to restrict certain vehicles from sensitive locations, like military sites.

More intrusive controls may be called for to deal with crime. For instance, high-speed chases could become a thing of the past.•

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In the Breitbart.com post, I mentioned Mark Kostabi’s 1980s high jinks, in which the artist employed a cadre of rotating wage slaves to provide him with ideas and get paint on their hands so he wouldn’t have to. It was vicious commentary on the soulless cash grab of both the art world and Manhattan in that decade, which also allowed the painter a prime place in the gold rush. It was audacious and shameless and disgusting and perfect.

Here’s the opening sharply written 1988 People piece about the artist by Michael Small:

I don’t use people. But I allow them to serve me—Mark Kostabi

A clerk answers the phone in a Manhattan studio and asks painter Mark Kostabi if he wants to take the call. “It’s one of my sleazy customers,” Kostabi cheerily informs a reporter. “He just bought 24 paintings for $122,000 total.” Without informing the customer, Kostabi punches a button to broadcast the conversation over a speaker. “Mark, you’re gonna be a giant in this industry, bigger than a giant!” the caller raves and offers to buy Kostabi dinner. With a Cheshire cat grin, Kostabi accepts, then asks his benefactor, “Are you going to bring wads of cash for me? I hope so.”

The ’80s deserve Mark Kostabi. In a time when owning certified art has become both a popular investment and a surefire source of power and fame, Kostabi, 27, raises hype to undreamed of levels of crassness. So consumed is he with deals and his image that he has no time left over for painting. Instead he pays other artists $4.50 to $10.50 an hour to imitate the style of his earlier works. His 24-year-old fiancée, a former hairstylist known as Fontaine, earns $300 a week sketching ideas; other hirelings enlarge her drawings on canvas, forge Kostabi’s signature and come up with titles. Two shifts of seven painters produce about six canvases a day, which Kostabi sells for $4,000 to $30,000 apiece. So far in 1988, he has earned more than $1 million.

Clearly he hasn’t done it with flattery. “Anyone who buys my paintings is a total fool,” says Kostabi. “But the more I spit in their faces, the more they beg me to sell them another painting.”

The spat-upon are by no means non-entities. Among the owners of Kostabi’s works, which usually show faceless mannequins armed with such mundane images as cash registers or toilet plungers, are New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. His paintings have appeared on a Smith Barney brochure and Bloomingdale’s shopping bags. His new book, Sadness Because the Video Store Was Closed, makes his paintings available to anyone with $19.95. Kostabi says that Sly Stallone paid $20,000 for two of the book’s originals, one showing two women making love. “He went for the T&A paintings,” notes Kostabi.

To say that some people dislike these works is an understatement. “Kostabi’s paintings are so bad that they even subvert the good name of ‘bad painting,’ ” an Artforum reviewer complained in 1986. Not so fast, other experts retort. “Mark has staked out a valid conceptual idea of art, dealing with status and the hypocrisy of the art world,” says Richard Fishman, a Brown University art professor who invited Kostabi to address his classes. Critic Vivien Raynor has praised Kostabis in the New York Times for their “glistening, sometimes morbid, sometimes witty fantasies.”

Kostabi hates to acknowledge any artist as an inspiration, but he admits his mass production schemes are traceable to the Renaissance, when Rubens hired lesser artists to do the details on his paintings. Kostabi’s hunger for publicity, on the other hand, is pure Warhol. “To me, fame is love,” says Kostabi. “And I need love.” But unlike Warhol, who spoke to everyone without revealing anything, Kostabi will answer any personal question. “I don’t mind if you portray me as a totalitarian wretch,” he says. “Whatever it takes to get me on the talk show circuit.”

Though Kostabi’s employees generally find him entertaining, he is not known for his generosity. In 1987 Diana Gentleman, a former model and music student, beat out 75 artists who answered Kostabi’s newspaper ad for someone to supply him with ideas. Less than six months later she stormed out sobbing. “I realized that I was being exploited beyond my imagination,” Gentleman says. “In the first two months I put out 300 drawings, and I wasn’t earning enough to support myself. I found out recently that one of my drawings was turned into a painting that is now in the Guggenheim. He never bothered to tell them that.” Replies Kostabi: “Legally they are my paintings. The artists work on my time, and they’re paid for it.” Well, most of them are. He doesn’t worry about job applicants who send ideas that he uses for nothing.

Among those who do get paid is Claude, 24, who now earns $9 an hour, and has been turning out three to six Kostabis a week for a year. Though his own intricate works are priced at $200 to $2,000, his Kostabis sell for up to $30,000. If that bothers him, he’s not letting on. “It’s a fun job compared to being a waiter,” Claude says. “And I don’t feel that I need recognition. It’s his artistic statement, his name, his reputation.”

Ironically, most of the hip, good-looking painters who now call Kostabi boss are just the sort who would have intimidated him as a nerdy teenager in Whittier, Calif. The third of four children born to Kaljo Kostabi, a maker of brass musical instruments, and his wife, Rita, a fund-raiser, Mark dropped his Estonian first name, Kalev, but otherwise flunked conformity dismally. “I thought I was the ugliest guy in my high school,” he says, “and I was definitely a weirdo. I would stand up on tables in front of the class and scream and spout off.” He studied art for a few years at Fullerton College and at Cal State Fullerton and flunked a business-economics marketing course. “Nobody understood that I could sell things by insulting people, which is what I did for class demonstrations,” he says. “But it worked, and that’s just what I do now.”

Heading to Manhattan in 1982, Kostabi quickly put his chutzpah to work.•

 

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Silicon Valley technologists are mythologized for birthing products in their garages, but considering the room serving as a makeshift workspace, cars are conspicuously not among those goods. Will 3D printing change that?

Will there come a day when a handful of engineers and designers in grad school are able to turn an automotive startup into a going concern, without massive factories and thousands of employees? Let’s say driverless makes vehicles lighter and cheaper and these latter-day Henry Fords dream up a better vehicle. They raise VC to purchase their own 3D printers or offload the production responsibility to companies that specifically handle that chore. Can they make a car that’s competitively priced? Can hundreds or thousands of such small-scale companies exist and compete? It’s already being tried, but can it succeed? Today’s costs make it almost impossible to envision presently, but you could have said the same of computer hardware a decade before Homebrew tinkerers began repurposing their garages.

Even if automaking isn’t markedly decentralized by 3D printers, much of manufacturing will likely be. It will have good and bad effects on the economy, as these outfits won’t produce a ton of assembly-line positions, but they will likely lower consumer costs greatly. It’s progress with an asterisk.

The opening of “How 3-D Printing Will Make Manufacturing in America Great Again,” a Newsweek piece by Kevin Maney:

If the folks at 3D Hubs are right, presidential candidates can stop fulminatingabout bringing back manufacturing from China or Bangladesh or wherever.

Technology will render such a shift inevitable. In the next decade, the whole business dynamic that makes it a good idea for a lot of U.S. companies to manufacture overseas will go poof. The very concept of a big honkin’ factory will eventually become as anachronistic as a typing pool.

Instead, companies are going to custom-make most things in small factories right in your neighborhood or town, close enough so you could go pick up your stuff, or maybe have it dropped onto your porch by a drone. Factories will essentially get broken up, scattered and made local. As 3D Hubs co-founder Bram de Zwart puts it, “Why would you put a thousand machines in one place when you can put one machine in a thousand places?”

Such is the promise of “distributed manufacturing.” The World Economic Forum last year named it one of the most important technology trends to watch. It is expected to have a mighty impact on jobs, geopolitics and the climate. And while massive distributed factories might seem a little far-fetched in 2016, a handful of companies are starting to make it happen.•

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Was really floored by the sudden and shocking death in Miami of Zaha Hadid, one of the planet’s handful of brand-name architects, the foremost female in the profession and probably the most famous Iraqi in the world. She was often referred to as a “diva” because of her tempestuousness, the cost overruns and, yes, her gender. But everyone working on that level, every Gehry and Meier, is a diva because they’re artists operating in a highly commercial form and have great responsibility to function. It’s a struggle to protect the vision, the beauty, which can warp and shrink under various pressures. They’re not saints, as nobody working in the hundreds of millions, even billions, can be, but there was something of the angels in many of Hadid’s buildings. She made tiny spots on the globe look different and better. Their impact spread beyond those few acres.

From John Winter’s 1993 AR piece on the unveiling of the Vitra Fire Station, when Hadid made the leap beyond paper architect:

The first building by a serious architect is always a major event, and perhaps it is appropriate that this one is realised in that part of the world where, from Rudolf Steiner to Gunter Behnisch, the rule of the right angle has often been set aside. In this case Hadid’s startling imagery of exploding parallelograms has been faithfully carried through to the finished building. The parallelograms are in control and the functions occur in the spaces between them.

The building appears to work well enough and to be well built but this is not an architecture that is dominated by programme or love of construction. Instead, it owes much to the formal idea. The form is heroic and this is a heroic building, like the pre-war buildings of Le Corbusier or the post-war work of Mies – or, if you prefer, like Stonehenge or Gloucester choir. The architects of all these buildings shared a private skill of knowing precisely what to do and the ability to get it done without compromise.

The fire station was seen as having to turn the route and blot out the surrounding buildings. To achieve the latter, the building was made very long so that it became an enclosing fence; to achieve the former, lines are made in the surrounding landscape and the planes of the building are angled in such a way as to lead you round the corner. These planes are of in situ concrete with the bolt holes exposed in the Kahnian manner. Half a dozen planes form the plan, and their height generates the depth for spanning large openings – 32 m over the garage doors and 29 m in a curved beam above the back window of the ground floor.

Space flows infinitely and there are no enclosed rooms, but freestanding, wavy, stainless steel lockers which partition off the changing areas for male and female firefighters. These areas are punctuated by scattered, Ronchamp-style windows. Roof slabs were poured in boarded formwork with no bolt holes, and the floor slab is split open to admit the staircase, a split emphasized by an adjacent crack which forms an artificial light source and defines the limit of the room above.

Slabs thicken to enclose services and lights and to receive an internal lining of insulation and plaster where required. The building is only heated intermittently, so insulation is internal to achieve a fast response. Many spaces are not heated, and these, together with internal walls, are left as exposed concrete. Where there is plaster it is mostly white, with a gold end wall and some walls painted in dark, earthy hues.

After Zaha Hadid left the AA she began tutoring. For a time she collaborated in the OMA office, but has not undergone the usual apprenticeship of young architects who spend years detailing under the supervision of a more experienced architect. So she has never been exposed to conventional ways of doing things, and the fire station is put together like no other building.

If God is in the details then this would seem to be an atheist’s building. Many details are eliminated, there are no skirtings, no door frames, no floor finishes, no light fittings. In line with the main generative concept, doors are simply planes that slide past their surroundings. Lighting takes the form of fluorescent strips in continuous slots embedded in the ceilings or floor, usually placed to throw light on to a wall, transforming it into a glowing plane.•

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dogstrollerFrom the August 17, 1889 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Donald Trump wants to make America great again. You remember those halcyon days, right? Girls Gone Wild entrepreneur Joe Francis had not yet been incarcerated, the Bumfight producers hadn’t been sued and the hazards of Purple Drank were not fully appreciated. It was 2011, and it was ours.

Mitt Romney’s biggest moral failing during the last Presidential campaign may have been his dalliance with Birtherism stemming from his partnership with the megalomaniac Trump, but his greatest practical misstep was decrying government investment in alternative energy, going so far as to bury Tesla which had received a loan from the Obama stimulus. Elon Musk’s outfit wasn’t insolvent like Solyndra, paid back the borrowed money early and will be providing thousands of good jobs for Americans in its battery and solar plants in Nevada and New York. That is, of course, not even mentioning the dire need for replacing fossil fuels as we heat and melt even faster than feared.

This stance is but one of the disastrous decisions the GOP has doubled down on in the current egregious election season, with Trump the leader of the ugly mob. No, he didn’t start it, but he boiled the lies down to their purest and most dangerous form, selling the return of yesterday’s manufacturing base when it’s tomorrow’s high-tech positions that must be won.

From Issie Lapowsky’s Wired piece about the blowhard’s bad ideas about Apple and economics:

Still, it stands to reason that Trump would cling to this talking point. His campaign, exit polls show, has been largely buoyed by the populist anger of the so-called white working class, roughly defined as white working adults without a college degree. These are the people who once staffed the factories of the Rust Belt and the mines of coal country, and their opportunities have taken a big hit from the flow of manufacturing jobs overseas, as well as competition from new generations of immigrants and the rise of technology as a more efficient substitute for manual labor.

The number of voters who meet the “white working class” definition is shrinking. In 1980, 65 percent of voters were white and lacked a college education. In 2012, it was just 36 percent. But it’s been a powerful constituency for Trump, nonetheless, one that he’d be far less dominant without.

Which is why, despite the fact that as a businessman Trump is likely all too aware that upending Apple’s supply chain would be unfeasible, he continues to make grand claims about the company. With this promise, Trump is pandering to his base, promising to restore the kinds of jobs that were once a key part of the American Dream.

But Trump’s promises if realized, would actually hurt the very people he’s promising to help, experts say. That’s because today, those once dependable jobs on the assembly line have been reduced to low-wage, low-skill commodity labor. If Trump—or any of the presidential candidates—really want to help the working class, researchers say, they would be wise to focus less on the types of jobs the US has already lost and more on the industries the US is uniquely poised to create.

Forget Apple. Focus on Tesla

Trump isn’t wrong to see the tech industry as a potential creator of manufacturing jobs in America. He’s just looking at the wrong parts of the tech industry. What the candidates should be focusing on instead, says Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are emerging technologies like robotics, electric vehicles, and autonomous aviation.•

 

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Adrienne LaFrance’s Atlantic article “What Is a Robot?” is one of my favorite pieces thus far in 2016. As the title suggests, the writer tries to define what qualities earns a machine the name “robot,” a term perhaps not as slippery as “existential” but one that’s nebulous nonetheless. The piece does much more, presenting a survey of robotics from ancient to contemporary times and asking many questions about where the sector’s current boom may be leading us.

Two points about the article:

  • It quotes numerous roboticists and those analyzing the field who hold the opinion that a robot must be encased, embodied. I think this is a dangerous position. A robot to me is anything that is given instructions and then completes a task. It’s increasingly coming to mean anything that can receive those basic instructions and then grow and learn on its own, not requiring more input. I don’t think it matters if that machine has an anthropomorphic body like C-3PO or if it’s completely invisible. If we spend too much time counting fingers and toes, we may miss the bigger picture.
  • Early on, there’s discussion about the master-slave relationship humans now enjoy with their machines, which will only increase in the short term–and may eventually be flipped. The following paragraph speaks to this dynamic: “In the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s 1807 opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit, there is a passage known as the master-slave dialectic. In it, Hegel argues, among other things, that holding a slave ultimately dehumanizes the master. And though he could not have known it at the time, Hegel was describing our world, too, and aspects of the human relationship with robots.” I believe this statement is true should machines gain consciousness, but it will remain a little hyperbolic as long as they’re not. Holding sway over Weak AI that does our bidding certainly changes the meaning of us and will present dicey ethical questions, but they are very different ones than provoked by actual slavery. Further, the human mission being altered doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being degraded.

From LaFrance:

Making robots appear innocuous is a way of reinforcing the sense that humans are in control—but, as Richards and Smart explain, it’s also a path toward losing it. Which is why so many roboticists say it’s ultimately not important to focus on what a robot is. (Nevertheless, Richards and Smart propose a useful definition: “A robot is a constructed system that displays both physical and mental agency, but is not alive in the biological sense.”)

“I don’t think it really matters if you get the words right,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. “To me, the most important distinction is whether a technology is designed primarily to be autonomous. To really take care of itself without much guidance from anybody else… The second question—of whether this thing, whatever it is, happens to have legs or eyes or a body—is less important.”

What matters, in other words, is who is in control—and how well humans understand that autonomy occurs along a gradient. Increasingly, people are turning over everyday tasks to machines without necessarily realizing it. “People who are between 20 and 35, basically they’re surrounded by a soup of algorithms telling them everything from where to get Korean barbecue to who to date,” Markoff told me. “That’s a very subtle form of shifting control. It’s sort of soft fascism in a way, all watched over by these machines of loving grace. Why should we trust them to work in our interest? Are they working in our interest? No one thinks about that.”

“A society-wide discussion about autonomy is essential,” he added.•

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