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There are tons of futurists now, even if they identify by other names (economists, political scientists, etc.) You could easily make an argument that today is the golden age of tomorrow.

An aversion to myopia is great, though thinking solely about the future also has its costs. In a Fast Company article about the current fixation on futurism, D.J. Pangburn focuses on Hal Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars, a book that questions our constant obsession with the next big thing and distrust of those who don’t buy into such sci-fi scenarios.

When wealthy technologists talk excitedly about space-mining minting the first trillionaires while offering those left behind the promise of some basic income, it becomes clear they don’t realize they’re encouraging bloody revolution. But a scan of books published in the last few years reveals numerous titles by technologists and futurists wary of where we’re headed, believing investments must be made in the present as well.

An excerpt:

Another recurring theme in Trees on Mars is Niedzviecki skeptic’s view of the futurist. He sees the ascension of the futurist to a preeminent place in society—and the idea that all should become futurists for individual and collective progress—as deeply problematic.

Should everyone be a futurist? Niedzviecki doesn’t think so, but he is seeing a massive revolution in how societies are positioning themselves around technological success, a repositioning of education around technology; a reorganization of societal goals around the “latest chimeras of success”—the best futurists who knew what was going to happen before it happened, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In doing this, Niedzviecki believes we run the risk of condemning those people who really don’t feel it’s necessary or interesting to think as futurists.

“It’s self-satisfying bullshit from a small set of people who were able to take advantage of this and sell this,” Niedzviecki says. “And my line of frustration runs through the whole book and perhaps culminates when I go to SXSW Interactive.”

There Niedzviecki sat in on a panel dealing with disruption, where he listened to “high-priced, famous gurus” tell attendees that if they can’t keep up with the pace of disruption then they are failures that will be left behind. Niedzviecki recalls sitting there thinking: “That’s not the way it is—that’s the way you have made it.”

“I think the vast majority of people who preach disruption do not understand the ramifications of what they’re saying,” Niedzviecki said.•

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Donald Trump, an audiobook of The Turner Diaries narrated by Andrew Dice Clay, clearly won’t fulfill his promise to unite the Republican Party.

The hideous hotelier rose to prominence in primary season by going smashmouth on the GOP establishment, which has made it rather difficult to assemble a wide coalition at the upcoming convention. Trump doesn’t necessarily require the aid of the usual suspects to win the general election, though it might be helpful if they could control their utter disdain for him. That hatred was actually useful to the cankerous candidate in initially earning the support of the party’s angry base, but it may not play as well on a bigger stage. 

From Alex Isenstadt at Politico:

Each presidential election year, Republicans eagerly await their national convention — a four-day celebration that draws thousands of GOP operatives, donors and lobbyists who are ready to party.

This year — the year of Trump — it’s anything but a party.

Many GOP regulars are skipping Cleveland entirely. (“I would rather attend the public hanging of a good friend,” says Will Ritter, an up-and-coming Republican digital strategist who worked on the three previous conventions.) And among those who are making the trek, there’s an overwhelming sense it won’t be fun at all. At a time when many Republicans are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, pessimistic about their prospects for victory in the fall and alarmed about the direction of their party, there’s a reluctance about attending the convention more typically reserved for going to the DMV, being summoned for jury duty or undergoing a root canal.

“This is the first year in the past two decades that Republicans aren’t excited about attending the convention. Normally, we’re all jazzed up about getting together and celebrating our nominee,” said Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster who has attended every Republican convention since 1996. “There’s nothing to celebrate this cycle. I’m going because I have to, not because I want to.”

Those who are going often say they’re doing so out of a sense of obligation — to meet with clients or to hold meetings before making a beeline back to the airport. As the Republican Party prepares to nominate a figure who is registering historically high disapproval ratings, some don’t want to advertise their presence in Cleveland. “Don’t use my name,” said one senior party strategist. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m there.” (A few days after the interview, the strategist got back in touch, having decided not to go, after all.)”•

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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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Vladimir Putin has chased off his political enemies–the ones he hasn’t killed–just as readily as he’s made outside investors quickly retreat, wary of his tilt toward totalitarianism. One of the dispossessed, the former billionaire banker Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is biding his time in London until Putin’s ouster or death, assembling if not a shadow government then at least an ever-expanding “cabinet” of experts that might someday replace the Kremlin kleptocracy with a modern, uncorrupted state. The sweep of history is often uncooperative, however, so there’s no guarantee these men and ladies in waiting will ever be called to duty. Even if Khodorkovsky’s moment does arrive, perhaps his years in prison and abroad have made him estranged not only from his country’s land but also its modern spirit.

Masha Gessen, who’s consistently filed some of the very best analysis of Putin’s reign, interviewed the exile for Vanity Fair “Hive” and penned another great piece. An excerpt:

Soon after he was released from prison, Khodorkovsky came to the conclusion that Russia was not ripe for an armed revolution—and that, in any case, violent revolution would bring far more suffering than it could possibly alleviate. I sensed a hint of disappointment when Khodorkovsky laid out this conclusion for me in November 2014. He really does believe that armed struggle is the only threat that, in the present moment, could truly influence the regime. It was armed struggle, or the threat of it, that toppled the oligarchic government of Ukraine, in 2014. But most anti-Putin Russians are not prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. “And I think people do have the right to live a quiet life in our country,” Khodorkovsky admitted. “Things suck, but life goes on. And people go on, and accumulate a little bit of capital—apartments and things. And I guess as long as people can go on living like that, it would be wrong to break it. Russia has broken enough lives already, of enough of its citizens.” Khodorkovsky’s own life is a vivid example, and not the worst: his company was effectively confiscated by the state; his billions have been reduced to millions; many of his former employees are in prison; many more are in exile; one is dead; and Khodorkovsky himself cannot go home.

If there is no potential for immediate armed struggle, he acknowledged, “this regime cannot be toppled. It will continue moving along its own trajectory.” The trajectory cannot be indefinite. Like all closed systems, the regime will eventually come to an end—if only because Putin himself will eventually die. The question is, What happens then?

It could be 20 years from now, at which point Khodorkovsky will be in his 70s. He told me that he never said that his project would be completed in his lifetime: “Just because we may not see cold fusion in our lifetimes is no reason not to work on it.” His own plan is to devote the next 10 years preparing Russia for its next chapter: creating a network of many thousands who have a wide range of skills and experience working together. Quoting another Putin opponent in exile, Garry Kasparov, Khodorkovsky said, “We are running a marathon that can at any moment turn into a sprint.” He went on, “And when the starter pistol goes off, as can happen at any moment, society must know that there is a team capable of assuming the role of government. If we are not that team, then there will be another team that takes over. And if the other team doesn’t exist, then we descend into a crisis of governance.” That is the sad story of regime change almost everywhere.

Khodorkovsky’s math is straightforward: “Right now there are about two million people on the state payroll in Russia, including roughly 600,000 who actually work in the federal government. Out of those, tens of thousands will be lost”—in the transition to a new regime—“and will need to be replaced. Some of these people will have worked in key positions. This means that we need several thousand people, if not tens of thousands of people, who are capable of playing a political role that goes beyond technical competence: we need people who will be able to direct the process of transitioning to a new direction.”

The goal is twofold: first, to assemble an army of civilians who are capable of performing all the tasks that need doing in a country; and second, to find ways, in a nation where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed and communication severely restricted, to publicize the existence of such people and create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill around them, even as those of them who are physically in Russia are being silenced, marginalized, discredited, and killed.•

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Only slightly less misbegotten than the former Tribune Publishing’s new five-letter curse of a name, “tronc” is the vision forward of its leading stockholders, who may, if they maintain control of the company, hold sway over the Digital Age reinvention of 160 of what we used to call “publications.”

In “Desperate Times, Desperate Measures,” an excellent LA Weekly piece by Hillel Aron, the writer traces how Michael Ferro, with a poor won-loss record in the business, plans to revitalize the flagging fortunes of not only the Los Angeles Times (as a “global entertainment brand”) but also the wider industry. Aiding him is the second-largest stockholder, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who seems to not realize that while great journalism might seem magical, it is not magic. It’s mostly drudgery and some inspiration. He’s quoted in the piece as saying that “one piece of technology…would use artificial intelligence to take a text story and convert it to video, generating as many as 2,000 videos a day.” Sounds like a plan, though not a particularly good one.

The bigger question may not be whether Ferro and Soon-Shiong fail, but if anyone can succeed. I don’t know that trying to remake the New York Times into The Daily Show is any better of an idea. As Aron relates, it isn’t merely the Internet or destabilizing new tools and shifting cultural attitudes that caused the ink to bleed red.

An excerpt:

Ferro’s track record is spotty at best. While he did help stabilize the Chicago Sun-Times after it emerged from bankruptcy, his three years as chairman of the company that owned the paper included laying off every staff photographer and creating a content farm called Aggrego, which produced a flood of non-reported blog posts — and did not prove to be a significant economic or technological success.

These grandiose proclamations, this bluster, this pretense that he has the answers that no one in the industry has come up with — that’s what you have to buy into in order to accept that all of this is real,” says Robert Feder, a former media columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who now writes a daily media blog licensed by the Chicago Tribune.

“I don’t want to shit all over Ferro, because I wish there were a lot more people willing to experiment and take risks,” former L.A. Times deputy publisher Nicco Mele says. “But there is no silver bullet, and to suggest that there is is wildly misleading.” …

One of the myths about the newspaper industry is that it’s getting killed by the internet, by technology and social media. The reality is more complicated — and more troubling for journalism.

“It’s not just about the internet,” former L.A. Times deputy publisher Mele says. “It’s about changing habits and deep cultural changes. People are valuing opinion over news. People are less engaged in the day-to-day of their own communities. People are much more mobile and transient. If there was one trend that is really underappreciated, it’s, since Watergate, the continuing erosion of trust in the institutions that once made America great — the press first and foremost.”

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This week, Gretchen Carlson, a highly educated person who pretended to be a dim housewife on Fox News, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes. Even if he's fired there's a job waiting for him at HGTV.

This week, Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against loathsome Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, but even if he’s fired, there’s a job for him at Home & Garden TV.

If you want to work in this industry, baby, you're going to have to be nice to me.

If you want to work in this industry, baby, you’re going to have to be nice to me.

Ill show you my penis.

I’ll show you my penis now.

 

  • Foreign Affairs looks at what’s right and wrong with the U.S economy.

Project Nourished

Pill dinners never quite caught on, and I don’t believe Virtual Reality dining will become a going concern anytime soon. Certainly there’s great potential in the entertainment portion of the hospitality industry. Do a karaoke duet with a hologram of your favorite pop singer or enjoy hearing a virtual Bobby Short at a piano bar. Even the windows and decor could be changed at will.

When it comes to the actual food, however, humans tend to like having their senses pleased rather than tricked. That hasn’t stopped the people at Project Nourished from experimenting with tools that go far beyond your basic utensils. From Erin Carson at CNET:

It might be the best meal you’ve never had.

A group of about 30 people in Los Angeles is experimenting with how we eat food, but not like Uber offering delivery or a bakery concocting a new donut-pastry combo. This time, you can put away the forks, knives, oven mitts and double mezzalunas.

It’s called Project Nourished, and what’s on your dinner table is a virtual reality headset, some devices that look like they came from a modern art museum, and something called “3D printed food.”

The way it works: You put on the headset and you’re transported to an interesting location, which is probably the most normal element of this exercise.

Also on the table are several other devices. One is an “aromatic diffuser,” which has a tube sticking out of it that blasts food aromas at you. Another is a “bone conduction transducer” that wraps around the back of your head to mimic the sounds and vibrations of chewing. There’s a cup for drinking. Finally, there’s a utensil shaped like tweezers. For eating.

Put all those items together, and you could be eating sushi in Japan, or be having a simulated food experience totally foreign to this world.

In reality, you’d be wearing odd-shaped devices that make you look like someone glued pieces of a honeycomb-shaped ball on your head, all while you chew on a piece of algae.•

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When we talk of finding life on other planets, we often tend to think, narcissistically, of something that at least vaguely resembles us, or the Earth’s animals, plants and microscopic organisms. The real mindblower, though, would be if we discover something Other, life that reminds us of nothing we’ve known, not contained in our books or brains. So much more will become possible then.

In a smart Atlantic essay, Ross Andersen writes of accompanying astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger to Colorado’s majestic Maroon Bells mountains and coming to understand how small they might actually be when we learn more about our neighbors in space. An excerpt:

As we stood admiring the Maroon Bells, I asked Kaltenegger whether she thought there were scenes like this all across the cosmos. “No,” she said, before explaining that Earth was but a single, limited expression of nature’s raw creative power. Just as our planet contains many habitats with many ecologies, each with its own diverse creatures, other planets may play host to living worlds that look nothing like our own.

“Take mountains,” she said. “Earth’s crust is quite thin, which means its mountains can only reach so high.” This seemed ungrateful, surrounded as we were by jagged, vertical rock faces, studded with dense pine stands. “If Earth’s crust were thicker, the mountains could be much larger,” she said.

On some distant planet, there might be peaks that tower more than 100,000 feet above an alien sea. These extraterrestrial peaks might be forested, or they might be coated in an alien form of vegetation, or something beyond the reach of our current imagination.•

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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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When Gloria Steinem went undercover in 1963 serving cocktails in a Playboy club to pen the Show magazine article “A Bunny’s Tale,” the young writer viewed the Hefner-inspired job as analogous with the experience of all women of that age: They were servers, subordinates, the help.

Fifty-three years later, as Hillary Clinton is the betting favorite to serve in a different capacity, as President of the country, Steinem sits for a portrait by Samiha Shafy of Spiegel. Two excerpts from the smart piece follow, including a doozy of an anecdote about that dapper sexist Gay Talese.


She didn’t set out to be the leader of a movement and she was initially frightened by the prospect of appearing in public. When she had to speak to an audience, her mouth felt as though she had swallowed dust. “I felt I could be an observer, but not a participant,” she says. Had she been able to publish the texts that she wanted to write, that’s likely as far as her activism would have gone.

But that was back in the 1960s. Steinem recalls being a young journalist riding in a taxi with the famous scribes Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. All three were covering Bobby Kennedy’s Senate campaign and they were coming from an appearance by the candidate. Steinem sat squished between the two and she was just saying something about Kennedy when Talese suddenly bent over her toward Bellow and said: “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Then the men began complaining about the traffic. Humiliated, Steinem fell silent. When she got out of the cab, she was furious — at herself because she hadn’t objected or at least slammed the door shut.


Steinem says that all you really need to know about a society is how it treats its women. It is no accident, she says, that many modern-day terrorists grow up in an environment where men have control over women. “The most reliable indicator of whether or not there is violence inside a country, or whether it will use military violence against another country, is not poverty or access to natural resources or religion or even degree of democracy,” Steinem writes. “It’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.”

She argues that what differentiates democracies from authoritarian systems is the right of women to control their own bodies. That also means the freedom to end an unwanted pregnancy, an issue that continues to deeply divide the US in this election year of 2016. Just in March, Donald Trump said that abortions should be illegal and that women who have abortions should be punished.

In the first issue of the magazine Ms., which she founded in 1971, Steinem demanded that abortions be legalized. She printed the names of 52 women who admitted to having had the procedure in secret, often under life-threatening conditions. And she added her name to the list as well. Back when she was 22, she had gotten engaged. He was a good man, she says, but she didn’t want to get married, preferring instead to go to India on a study fellowship. On the way there, she realized that she was pregnant. In London, she found a doctor who agreed to help her under two conditions: that she never reveal his name and that she promise to make the best out of her life. She dedicated her recently published memoirs to the doctor.•

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“We are flummoxed by today’s nationalist, regressively anti-global sentiments only because we are interpreting politics through that now-obsolete television screen,” writes Douglas Rushkoff in an excellent Fast Company essay about the factious nature of the Digital Age. The post-TV landscape is a narrowcasted one littered with an infinite number of granular choices and niches. It’s empowering in a sense, an opportunity to vote “Leave” to everything, even a future that’s arriving regardless of popular consensus. It’s a far cry from not that long ago when an entire world sat transfixed by Neil Armstrong’s giant leap. Now everyone is trying to land on the moon at the same time–and no one can agree where it is. It’s more democratic this way, but maybe to an untenable degree, perhaps to the point where it’s a new form of anarchy.

Two excerpts follow from: 1) Rushkoff’s FC piece, and 2) Scott Timberg’s smart Salon Q&A with the media theorist.


From Rushkoff:

A media environment is really just the kind of culture engendered by a particular medium. The invention of text encouraged written history, contracts, the Bible, and monotheism. The clock tower in medieval Europe led to hourly wages and the time-is-money ethos of the industrial age. Different media environments encourage us to play different roles and to see, think, or act in particular ways.

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

Television connected us all and broke down national boundaries. Whether it was the British Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York or the California beach bodies of Baywatch broadcast in Pakistan, television images penetrated national divisions. I interviewed Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he told me that MTV and CNN had more to do with ending the divisions of apartheid than any other force.

But today’s digital media environment is different. At the height of his media era, a telegenic Ronald Reagan could broadcast a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demand that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Today’s ultimate digi-genic candidate Donald Trump demands that we build a wall to protect us from Mexicans.

This is because the primary bias of the digital media environment is for distinction.•


Timberg’s opening question:

Salon:

You argue that the support for Donald Trump and the puzzling Brexit vote both have to do, in important ways, with the dominance of the Internet. Not with anything political, but in the ways we communicate. How do you see these things related?

Douglas Rushkoff:

I don’t know if I’d blame the Internet as much as the idea that we’re in a digital media environment. The idea of being in a media environment, a technological environment, is really old – this guy [Lewis] Mumford is the one who came up with it…. And the beauty of that analysis is not that it says that one thing causes another – that the printing press led to the mechanization of world culture — but it sort of went hand in hand. We developed mechanical abilities, we made machines, then we took on some of the qualities of those machines. Because they’re around us, they’re part of the world we live in.

The thing I’ve been interested in is the shift from the television media environment, which we all grew up in, which was so globalist in spirit, and in funding — it promoted a global view and global markets and global simultaneity.

The digital media environment is so different in the way it’s structured and biased. We know that the algorithms in our social-media feeds tend to isolate us in our highly individuated factions or filter bubble — so we don’t interact with people with different ideas.

What are the biases of these technologies? All of these revolutions have been very discrete — we’re going to restore Egypt, we’re going to restore the caliphate — there’s this sense of nationalism and segmentation and difference.•

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Encouraging Jonah Lehrer to return to publishing is not much different than ushering a gambling addict back to a craps table and telling him to have better luck this time. The game will not likely end well.

Something in his makeup triggers in the disgraced neuroscientist unacceptable, compulsive behavior when he’s at a keyboard (and maybe elsewhere?), and it would seem he’d be best served by laboring in a different vocation while dedicating the many years it will take to figuring out the source of his waywardness. The plagiarist and fabulist doesn’t need to disappear from the face of the earth or anything, but it’s probably good to keep him a safe distance from the dice. 

Lehrer has just written A Book About Love, which, Simon & Schuster would like you to know, is a book about love. Jennifer Senior of the New York Times reviews the title in her usual sharp, lucid manner, finding an author who hasn’t truly reversed course but merely shifted. An excerpt:

In retrospect — and I am hardly the first person to point this out — the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing. It was a referendum on a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new.

Apparently, he’s learned nothing. This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down. …

As for the question that’s on everyone’s mind — did Mr. Lehrer play by the rules in this book? — I think the answer is complicated, but unpromising.

In an author’s note, Mr. Lehrer says that he se”nt his quotes to everyone he interviewed and that his book was independently fact-checked. And it’s true that this book contains far more citations than his previous work.

But I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations.•

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Visitors to General Motors "Futurama" Exhibit

I’d be happy to wager there have never in our history been more intelligent people toiling in the area of futurism. They may formally identify as economists or political scientists or technologists rather than futurists, but there’s a steady deluge of books and papers on the promise and perils of tomorrow, which contain advice on how we can maximize the former and minimize the latter. 

This crowded field goes unmentioned in Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times column, which paints a dire picture of futurism in a post-Toffler world. The writer is absolutely correct to call out the U.S. government for ignoring to a good extent the chorus of clarion calls, protected by gerrymandering from the consequences of myopia. The present (e.g., infrastructure) is barely acknowledged let alone the next wave. I do believe, however, that the critical mass of thinkers in this area will ultimately serve us well, even in the recalcitrant public sector, which, as always, is prone to the sweep of history.

The opening:

All around, technology is altering the world: Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and even terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the Western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen — all of which happen to be tech companies.

But even though these and bigger changes are just getting started — here come artificial intelligence, gene editing, drones, better virtual reality and a battery-powered transportation system — futurism has fallen out of favor. Even as the pace of technology keeps increasing, we haven’t developed many good ways, as a society, to think about long-term change.

Look at the news: Politics has become frustratingly small-minded and shortsighted. We aren’t any better at recognizing threats and opportunities that we see emerging beyond the horizon of the next election. While roads, bridges, broadband networks and other vital pieces of infrastructure are breaking down, governments, especially ours, have become derelict at rebuilding things — “a near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future,” as the writer Elizabeth Drew put it recently.

In many large ways, it’s almost as if we have collectively stopped planning for the future. Instead, we all just sort of bounce along in the present, caught in the headlights of a tomorrow pushed by a few large corporations and shaped by the inescapable logic of hyper-efficiency — a future heading straight for us. It’s not just future shock; we now have future blindness.•

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Does democracy know its limits?

As long as Donald Trump, a preferred artist at KKK karaoke night, isn’t in the White House, America can look askance at England and its self-defeating Brexit. But what if, say, Texas had the opportunity to vote to become independent after the election or reelection of President Obama? The state may be shockingly purplish this time around, but it would have already exited the nation if such a referendum was permitted in 2008 or 2012. Direct democracy seems like such an inviting idea. Who doesn’t want more democracy? But maybe it’s best we don’t vote on everything.

Three excerpts from: 1) Michael Sauga’s Spiegel editorial about the downside of direct democracy, 2) Andrew Sullivan’s New York piece about what he feels may be democracy’s breaking point, and 3) the late Michael Kelly’s 1992 New York Times article about Ross Perot’s long-held McLuhan-ish dream of an electronic voting booth of sorts.


From Sauga:

Boris Johnson has always had a playful relationship with power. During his time at university, it is said that the conservative politician pretended to be a member of the Labour Party in order to have better chances in the student union. As a journalist, he had a penchant for criticizing EU laws that didn’t even exist. And when the world was recently left scratching its head over how Britain could have voted to leave the EU, the leader of the Brexit camp unceremoniously dismissed the historical vote by 17 million Brits as a non-event. For now, the former London mayor concluded, “nothing will change over the short term.”

The success of political gambler Johnson represents a defeat not only for supporters of the European Union in Britain, but also for those who believe in direct democracy. Even here in Germany, citizens initiatives along with a broad spectrum of political parties — from the conservative Christian Social Union to the Green Party — have supported the idea of holding the greatest possible number of referendums as an antidote to the crisis in Western parliamentarianism. The hope is that calling voters to the polls will not only bring about the purest possible expression of the electorate’s preference, but also that it will provide clarity on issues of importance and create the foundation for a new societal consensus on the strength of a majority vote. The idea is that more votes translate into more democracy.

Rarely, though, have the limitations of plebiscites been shown so clearly as in the British vote. Not because most experts believe the result to be misguided. Voters have the undeniable right to value the supposed advantages of increased sovereignty over the obvious economic and political disadvantages.•


From Sullivan:

What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy — in a truly revolutionary form. If late-stage political democracy has taken two centuries to ripen, the media equivalent took around two decades, swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse. The process had its origins in partisan talk radio at the end of the past century. The rise of the internet — an event so swift and pervasive its political effect is only now beginning to be understood — further democratized every source of information, dramatically expanded each outlet’s readership, and gave everyone a platform. All the old barriers to entry — the cost of print and paper and distribution — crumbled.

So much of this was welcome. I relished it myself in the early aughts, starting a blog and soon reaching as many readers, if not more, as some small magazines do. Fusty old-media institutions, grown fat and lazy, deserved a drubbing. The early independent blogosphere corrected facts, exposed bias, earned scoops. And as the medium matured, and as Facebook and Twitter took hold, everyone became a kind of blogger. In ways no 20th-century journalist would have believed, we all now have our own virtual newspapers on our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines — picking stories from countless sources and creating a peer-to-peer media almost completely free of editing or interference by elites. This was bound to make politics more fluid. Political organizing — calling a meeting, fomenting a rally to advance a cause — used to be extremely laborious. Now you could bring together a virtual mass movement with a single webpage. It would take you a few seconds.

The web was also uniquely capable of absorbing other forms of media, conflating genres and categories in ways never seen before. The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting; your Pornhub jostled right next to your mother’s Facebook page. The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.•


From Kelly:

WASHINGTON, June 5— Twenty-three years ago, Ross Perot had a simple idea.

The nation was splintered by the great and painful issues of the day. There had been years of disorder and disunity, and lately, terrible riots in Los Angeles and other cities. People talked of an America in crisis. The Government seemed to many to be ineffectual and out of touch.

What this country needed, Mr. Perot thought, was a good, long talk with itself.

The information age was dawning, and Mr. Perot, then building what would become one of the world’s largest computer-processing companies, saw in its glow the answer to everything. One Hour, One Issue

Every week, Mr. Perot proposed, the television networks would broadcast an hourlong program in which one issue would be discussed. Viewers would record their opinions by marking computer cards, which they would mail to regional tabulating centers. Consensus would be reached, and the leaders would know what the people wanted.

Mr. Perot gave his idea a name that draped the old dream of pure democracy with the glossy promise of technology: “the electronic town hall.”

Today, Mr. Perot’s idea, essentially unchanged from 1969, is at the core of his ‘We the People’ drive for the Presidency, and of his theory for governing.

It forms the basis of Mr. Perot’s pitch, in which he presents himself, not as a politician running for President, but as a patriot willing to be drafted ‘as a servant of the people’ to take on the ‘dirty, thankless’ job of rescuing America from “the Establishment,” and running it.

In set speeches and interviews, the Texas billionaire describes the electronic town hall as the principal tool of governance in a Perot Presidency, and he makes grand claims: “If we ever put the people back in charge of this country and make sure they understand the issues, you’ll see the White House and Congress, like a ballet, pirouetting around the stage getting it done in unison.”

Although Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he would not try to use the electronic town hall as a direct decision-making body, he has on other occasions suggested placing a startling degree of power in the hands of the television audience.

He has proposed at least twice — in an interview with David Frost broadcast on April 24 and in a March 18 speech at the National Press Club — passing a constitutional amendment that would strip Congress of its authority to levy taxes, and place that power directly in the hands of the people, in a debate and referendum orchestrated through an electronic town hall.•

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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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The ideal of leadership in the soft-serve brain of Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin, a swaggering capo with nuclear capabilities, John Gotti topped by a Ushanka, a Bond villain painted so broadly that even the hideous hotelier, who understands politics in the same way that Elmer Fudd understands rabbits, can sort of get it.

Trump has long lusted for a piece of real estate in Russia to call his own, hoping to land his brand in a state known for suspect, remorseless dealings among oligarchs. For 25 years, it’s been a country of the gaudiest capitalism, a place seemingly made for a mogul who dines on vanilla ice cream and shits gold paint.

Putin, a 20th-century leader stuck in the wrong era, is forcing his nation into a past that no longer exists, fiddling while the oil burns. It’s no shock he’s pulling hard for a strongman wannabe in Trump to win the White House. What is bad for us is good for him, or at least that’s the plan.

In a smart Slate piece, Franklin Foer masterfully traces Trump’s lengthy flirtation with Moscow. An excerpt:

One of the important facts about Trump is his lack of creditworthiness. After his 2004 bankruptcy and his long streak of lawsuits, the big banks decided he wasn’t worth the effort. They’d rather not touch the self-proclaimed “king of debt.” This sent him chasing less conventional sources of cash. BuzzFeed has shown, for instance, his efforts to woo Muammar Qaddafi as an investor. Libyan money never did materialize. It was Russian capital that fueled many of his signature projects—that helped him preserve his image as a great builder as he recovered from bankruptcy.

The money didn’t come directly. Hunting for partners with cash, he turned to a small upstart called the Bayrock Group, which would pull together massive real estate deals using the Trump name. Its chairman was a former Soviet official named Tevfik Arif, who made a small fortune running luxe hotels in Turkey. To run Bayrock’s operation, Arif hired Felix Satter, a Soviet-born, Brighton Beach–bred college dropout. Satter changed his name to Sater, likely to distance himself from the criminal activity that a name-check would easily turn up. As a young man, Saterserved time for slashing a man’s face with a broken margarita glass in a barroom brawl. The Feds also busted him for a working in a stock brokerage tied to four different Mafia families, which made $40 million off fraudulent trades. One lawsuit would later describe “Satter’s proven history of using mob-like tactics to achieve his goals.” Another would note that he threatened a Trump investor with the prospect of the electrocution of his testicles, the amputation of his leg, and his corpse residing in the trunk of Sater’s car.
“Russia is one of the hottest places in the world for investment,” Trump said. “We will be in Moscow at some point.”

What was Trump thinking entering into business with partners like these?•

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Today is a special day when Americans eat too much, drink too much and blow stuff up. That’s right, it’s Monday.

Oh, and it’s also July 4th, the anniversary of when we decided in 1776 to wax those British father-rapers who were taxing us and then using that money to supply us with basic services we desperately needed. I mean, we would have died. The English were so upset about our Declaration of Independence that they impulsively decided to commit suicide just 240 years later.

Yes, it’s the birthday of the U.S.A., the greatest nation in the history of the world. If you forget that America is the best country ever, don’t worry, we’ll remind you every five minutes. That’s because we’re enormous and wealthy yet deeply insecure, much like Donald Trump, who hopes to become President mainly so that he can masturbate in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Luckily, other countries are far worse than we are, so they can’t say shit. Yes, Turkmenistan, I’m looking at you. Suck it, weirdos! And if any of you talk trash about us, we’ll know right away because we’re listening in on all your private conversations. We can’t help it: Spying on you, sexy world, gets us really, really hard.

Anyhow, enjoy a safe and happy holiday!


A special performance of “America the Beautiful” by Meat Loaf and Mitt Romney.

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I’m largely very admiring of David Remnick’s tenure as EIC at the New Yorker, but his remarks about Gay Talese’s regrettable article (and book), The Voyeur’s Motel, are wrong-minded and tone-deaf. I’m speaking specifically about the quote he gave Erik Wemple of the Washington Post after the piece got even dicier as new information came to light:

“The central fact of the piece, that Gerald Foos was, in the late Sixties and Seventies, a voyeur, spying on the guests in his motel, is not in doubt in the article or in the Post’s article. The fact that he could sometimes prove an unreliable and inaccurate narrator is also something that Gay Talese makes clear to the reader, repeatedly, and is part of the way Foos is characterized throughout the article. This is not an account of, say, national security. This was, from the start, a profile of a very peculiar character, to say the least, and Gay Talese flagged those qualities honestly and repeatedly.”

Two things:

  • This comment explicitly states that journalism that’s not about something as important as national security needn’t adhere to the same rules of scrutiny. That shouldn’t be the case. Even if lives aren’t in the balance, nonfiction articles on any topic, from baseball to ballet, should be treated with the same standards in regards to editorial oversight and fact-checking.
  • The article Remnick refers to is NOT a puff piece. A woman is purported to have been brutally murdered, which Gerald Foos says he didn’t alert the police to at the time it occurred and Talese didn’t report when he learned of its possibility later on. Maybe it was all a twisted fantasy or perhaps it was truly a horrible crime, but trying to diminish this story into one in which no one could have possibly have been hurt is a convenient rationalization.

The last thing anyone wants to do is beat up on an octogenarian who’s done lots of interesting work, but if someone remains in the game at an advanced age, they should expect their work and ethics to be scrutinized as much anyone’s else’s. I would think Talese wholly accepts this reality.

This imbroglio reminds me of something Remnick said a couple years back, when paraphrasing Condé Nast Creative Director Anna Wintour. He told Politico that “I’ve learned a lot by talking with her about how she does what she does…when you’re dealing with writers or other editors, God knows if you’re running something larger like a country, Hamlet-like indecision may be interesting, but it’s highly ineffective.”

This line references Wintour’s 2013 comments in which she said: “I realized possibly that what people working for [an editor] hate most is indecision. Even if I’m completely unsure, I will pretend to know exactly what I’m talking about and will make a decision.”

This statement wasn’t sensible when Wintour made it nor when Remnick parroted it. No one in leadership should waver endlessly, but there is a difference between right and wrong, often a huge one, and having a spine of steel won’t change that, won’t make everything equally okay regardless of the direction taken. In the case of Talese’s piece, Remnick should have taken more time to decide. What he may be forgetting is that the really decisive Hamlet did far more damage than the dithering version.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. cheap brain emulations
  2. form of government on mars
  3. it’s time to turn off the dog
  4. gay talese at plato’s retreat
  5. david petraeus interview
  6. alec ross work in the future
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  10. nat hentoff’s merle haggard article
This week, Trump's most ardent  supporters took a break from the campaign to take advantage of July 4th white sales.

This week, Trump’s most ardent supporters took a break from the campaign to take advantage of July 4th white sales.

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  • Russ Roberts & Kevin Kelly talk the latter’s new book, The Inevitable.
  • Baidu’s Andrew Ng suggests AI might necessitate a new New Deal.
  • A brief note from 1929 about a widower.

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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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The first driverless car fatality has apparently occurred, which is a sad situation that’s received a great deal of press. Certainly autonomous risks should be investigated and discussed, but since that crash there’ve been numerous road deaths in America in standard vehicles that have received scant attention. Those are the kind of accidents we’re used to and seem acceptable because human hands were involved. No one should think driverless cars won’t malfunction, especially in their early days–they’ll hopefully greatly reduce deaths, not eliminate them.

When this technology arrives, it will likely be great for traffic safety but a huge blow to American Labor as drivers of trucks, taxis and delivery vehicles will be made redundant. What will happen to them and all the businesses they support while on the road? In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Baidu’s Andrew Ng suggested a new New Deal might be the answer. An excerpt:

IS IT TIME TO RETHINK YOUR CAREER?
Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Chinese Internet giant Baidu, on how AI will impact what we do for a living

Truck driving is one of the most common occupations in America today: Millions of men and women make their living moving freight from coast to coast. Very soon, however, all those jobs could disappear. Autonomous vehicles will cover those same routes in a faster, safer and more efficient manner. What company, faced with that choice, would choose expensive, error-prone human drivers?

There’s a historical precedent for this kind of labor upheaval. Before the Industrial Revolution, 90% of Americans worked on farms. The rise of steam power and manufacturing left many out of work, but also created new jobs—and entirely new fields that no one at the time could have imagined. This sea change took place over the course of two centuries; America had time to adjust. Farmers tilled their fields until retirement, while their children went off to school and became electricians, factory foremen, real-estate agents and food chemists.

‘We’re about to face labor displacement of a magnitude we haven’t seen since the 1930s.’
Truck drivers won’t be so lucky. Their jobs, along with millions of others, could soon be obsolete. The age of intelligent machines will see huge numbers of individuals unable to work, unable to earn, unable to pay taxes. Those workers will need to be retrained—or risk being left out in the cold. We could face labor displacement of a magnitude we haven’t seen since the 1930s.

In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal provided relief for massive unemployment and helped kick-start the economy. More important, it helped us transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Programs like the Public Works Administration improved our transportation infrastructure by hiring the unemployed to build bridges and new highways. These improvements paved the way for broad adoption of what was then exciting new technology: the car.

We need to update the New Deal for the 21st century and establish a trainee program for the new jobs artificial intelligence will create. We need to retrain truck drivers and office assistants to create data analysts, trip optimizers and other professionals we don’t yet know we need. It would have been impossible for an antebellum farmer to imagine his son becoming an electrician, and it’s impossible to say what new jobs AI will create. But it’s clear that drastic measures are necessary if we want to transition from an industrial society to an age of intelligent machines.•

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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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