Alexis Madrigal

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Can’t name a thinker from the second half of the 20th century who was more right about the seismic changes that were to come than Marshall McLuhan. Not Andy Warhol or Jane Jacobs or George Carlin or Malcolm X or anyone. I wonder if he doubted all he’d said when he was cast from the zeitgeist and accused of being a mountebank as his celebrity faded. Likely he still knew he was largely correct.

A McLuhan quote rebounding around Twitter today: “World War III [will be] a guerrilla information war with no division between military & civilian participation.” That line, from 1970’s Culture Is Our Business, sums up the destabilized, decentralized state of life in 2017 in the wake of a Presidential election fought by bot armies. There was a time not too long ago, during the Arab Spring, when social media was greeted as a liberator, but now we have direct evidence all that connectedness has delivered a permanent state of anarchy. The term chaos agent, long used to describe individuals, is today an apt descriptor for the most popular medium. 

What the theorist feared most of all was the Global Village, the reality that we were all becoming one tribe because of satellites and other communication enablers. It may have seemed especially misanthropic during the decade that gave us the Summer of Love, but it was really just a practical concern. And now that we’re a computerized society, all living in the same room, the technologies will endeavor to bring us even closer–inside of each other’s heads in unprecedented ways.

In “DARPA’s Ex-Leader’s Speculative Dream of Mind-Melding Empathy,” Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic writes of Arati Prabhakar’s Aspen Ideas Festival speech about a radical vision of increasing connectedness. The journalist, very appropriately, believes it may create a nightmare. An excerpt:

Then she delivered the true Utopian dream:

“Imagine if we could connect among ourselves in new and deeper ways and imagine if those connections happened in a way that gave us so much empathy and understanding of each other that we could put our minds together, literally, to take on some of the world’s hardest problems.”

She did not expound on the image, but one imagines she’s thinking about a kind of direct brain-to-brain interface.

DARPA has, after all, invested a lot in direct electronic brain interfaces. In one research program, they’re working on “intuitive” neural interfaces for controlling prosthetic limbs. In another, they’re creating “an implantable neural interface able to provide advanced signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and electronics.” The goal there is to create a translator between “the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeroes that constitute the language of information technology.”

And once you’ve got intuitive neural controls and a translator that lets you send brain signals into computers and back again, it does not seem an incredible leap to hook two (or … a million?) humans up together.

“If we could get to that future, we would look back at today’s reality and it would look like black-and-white,” Prabhakar said. “It would look like flatland.”•

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Alexis Madrigal has an interesting article in the Atlantic about the data stream vs. anecdotal evidence divide of the recent Presidential election. An excerpt about Obama’s tech team:

“To really understand what happened behind the scenes at the Obama campaign, you need to know a little bit about its organizational structure. Tech was Harper Reed’s domain. ‘Digital’ was Joe Rospars’ kingdom; his team was composed of the people who sent you all those emails, designed some of the consumer-facing pieces of BarackObama.com, and ran the campaigns’ most-excellent accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, video, and the like. Analytics was run by Dan Wagner, and those guys were responsible for coming up with ways of finding and targeting voters they could persuade or turn out. Jeremy Bird ran Field, the on-the-ground operations of organizing voters at the community level that many consider Obama’s secret sauce . The tech for the campaign was supposed to help the Field, Analytics, and Digital teams do their jobs better. Tech, in a campaign or at least this campaign or perhaps any successful campaign, has to play a supporting role. The goal was not to build a product. The goal was to reelect the President. As Reed put it, if the campaign were Moneyball, he wouldn’t be Billy Beane, he’d be ‘Google Boy.’

There’s one other interesting component to the campaign’s structure. And that’s the presence of two big tech vendors interfacing with the various teams — Blue State Digital and NGP Van. The most obvious is the firm that Rospars, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and Clay Johnson co-founded, Blue State Digital. They’re the preeminent progressive digital agency, and a decent chunk — maybe 30 percent — of their business comes from providing technology to campaigns. Of course, BSD’s biggest client was the Obama campaign and has been for some time. BSD and Obama for America were and are so deeply enmeshed, it would be difficult to say where one ended and the other began. After all, both Goff and Rospars, the company’s principals, were paid staffers of the Obama campaign. And yet between 2008 and 2012, BSD was purchased by WPP, one of the largest ad agencies in the world. What had been an obviously progressive organization was now owned by a huge conglomerate and had clients that weren’t other Democratic politicians. 

One other thing to know about Rospars, specifically: ‘He’s the Karl Rove of the Internet,’ someone who knows him very well told me. What Rove was to direct mail — the undisputed king of the medium — Rospars is to email. He and Goff are the brains behind Obama’s unprecedented online fundraising efforts. They know what they were doing and had proven that time and again.”

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Charles Lindbergh photo of Goddard’s rocket, 1935, Roswell, New Mexico.

From a brief post by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic about the source of Robert Goddard’s rocketeering:

“I don’t tend to believe most origin stories about how people came to do their life’s work, but I love this one about Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, anyway. As told by Goddard Space Center science writer, Daniel Pendick, it was on this day in 1899 (!) that the scientist first decided that he wanted to ‘fly without wings’ to Mars. He climbed up a cherry tree to do some pruning and had a vision of his/the future.

‘I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet,’ one of his biographers, Milton Lehman, recorded. ‘I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.'”

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From historian Roger Launius (via Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic), a reminder of the unpopularity of the U.S. space program of the 1960s:

“For example, many people believe that Project Apollo was popular, probably because it garnered significant media attention, but the polls do not support a contention that Americans embraced the lunar landing mission. Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45-60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much onspace, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda. These data do not support a contention that most people approved of Apollo and thought it important to explore space.”

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From Alexis Madrigal’s new Atlantic article about Facebook’s attempt to govern its “nation” of users, a succinct description of the origins of technocracy:

“The original technocrats were a group of thinkers and engineers in the 1930s who revived Plato’s dream of the philosopher-king, but with a machine-age spin. Led by Thorstein Veblen, Howard Scott and M. King Hubbert, they advocated not rule by the people or the monarchy or the dictator, but by the engineers. The engineers and scientists would rule rationally and impartially. They would create a Technocracy that functioned like clockwork and ensured the productivity of all was efficiently distributed. They worked out a whole system by which the North American continent would be ruled with functional sequences that would allow the Continental Director to get things done.

Technocracy, as originally conceived, was explicitly not democratic. Its proponents did not want popular rule; they wanted rule by a knowledgeable elite who would make good decisions. And maybe they would have, but there was one big problem. Few people found the general vision of surrendering their political power to engineers all that appealing.” 

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It’s tough to imagine consumer electronics that grew faster than the Walkman or iPod or iPhone, but according to one study none of them can compare to the much-derided boom box, which saturated American culture at a blinding rate. From Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic:

“When we think about the great consumer electronics technologies of our time, the cellular phone probably springs to mind. If we go farther back, perhaps we’d pick the color television or the digital camera. But none of those products were adopted as fast by the American people as the boom box.

That factoid is a sidenote in a 2011 paper that I stumbled on from the Journal of Management and Marketing Research. Author Tarique Hossain included data from the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association on the ‘observed penetration rate at the end of the 7th year’ for all the technologies listed above. Hossain’s data didn’t include the starting years for these seven-year periods, but I’m assuming they mark the introduction of the boom box in the mid-1970s. That would mean that by the early 1980s, more than 60 percent of American households owned some kind of portable cassette player with speakers attached to it. “

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Mail delivered by the United States Postal Service increased every year for 200 years until 2007, when the digital revolution jumpstarted the USPS’s   obsolescence. Technology has doomed the former linchpin of American communications, but technology actually rescued it in the 1960s. An excerpt from an Alexis Madrigal piece in the Atlantic:

“Despite these successes, there have been some hard times for the Postal Service. The biggest crisis USPS faced probably came in the mid-1960s. During that time, which was before Richard Nixon signed a bill that made the service ‘self-funding,’ the Post Office could not get enough funds from Congress to buy the machines they needed to keep up with the post-War explosion in the mail. In October of 1966 the situation came to a head, when, as the museum exhibit put it, ‘a flood of holiday advertisements and election mailings choked the system.’ The Chicago Post Office, the largest in the country, ‘stopped delivering mail for three weeks.’

Automation was the only way out. Zip codes, which were only introduced in 1963, became the lynchpin in the automated postal system. Imagine life without them: a single person can’t sort more than a letter a second, which is at best, 3,600 letters an hour. With the help of machines, postal workers could gain almost an order of magnitude of speed, sorting 30,000 letters an hour.”

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“An army of men in wool pants running through the neighborhood handing out pottery catalogs door to door”:

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At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal looks a new book by Shelley Adler which comes to unusual conclusions about the mysterious cluster of deaths among Hmong men who had emigrated to America in the 1980s. The piece’s opening:

“They died in their sleep one by one, thousands of miles from home. Their median age was 33. All but one — 116 of the 117 — were healthy men. Immigrants from southeast Asia, you could count the time most had spent on American soil in just months. At the peak of the deaths in the early 1980s, the death rate from this mysterious problem among the Hmong ethnic group was equivalent to the top five natural causes of death for other American men in their age group.

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren’t clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped.

Doctors gave the problem a name, the kind that reeks of defeat, a dragon label on the edge of the known medical world: Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. SUNDS. It didn’t do much in terms of diagnosis or treatment, but it was easier to track the periodic conferences dedicated to understanding the problem.

Twenty-five years later, Shelley Adler’s new book pieces together what happened, drawing on interviews with the Hmong population and analyzing the extant scientific literature. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection is a mind-bending exploration of how what you believe interacts with how your body works. Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia.”

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"They really are trying to get at what people think using how they talk."

Since language is available in critical mass all over the Internet, researchers will continue to mine this material to promote more efficient marketing or to determine the nature of our hearts and minds. The Atlantic has a new article about an intelligence branch of the government running a program designed to unravel how people around the globe use metaphors. An excerpt from Alexis Madrigal’s article:

“Every speaker in every language in the world uses them effortlessly, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity wants know how what we say reflects our worldviews. They call it The Metaphor Program, and it is a unique effort within the government to probe how a people’s language reveals their mindset.

‘The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture,’ declared an open solicitation for researchers released last week. A spokesperson for IARPA declined to comment at the time.

IARPA wants some computer scientists with experience in processing language in big chunks to come up with methods of pulling out a culture’s relationship with particular concepts. ‘They really are trying to get at what people think using how they talk,’ Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told me. Bergen is one of a dozen or so lead researchers who are expected to vie for a research grant that could be worth tens of millions of dollars over five years, if the team scan show progress towards automatically tagging and processing metaphors across languages.”

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