Douglas Rushkoff

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I read Sean Penn’s “El Chapo Speaksat the beginning of 2016, and spent the rest of the year trying to absorb as many great articles as I could to erase from my mind the awful reporting and prose. “Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons,” wrote the actor-director-poetaster. Yes, Sean, okay, but go fuck yourself.

The following 50 articles made me feel pretty good again. In time, I myself once more began to fly among the falcons.

Congratulations to all the wonderful writers who made the list. My apologies for not reading more small journals and sites, but the time and money of any one person, myself included, is limited.


1) “Latina Hotel Workers Harness Force of Labor and of Politics in Las Vegas” and 2) “A Fighter’s Hour of Need(Dan Barry, New York Times).

As good as any newspaper writer–or whatever you call such people now–Barry reports and composes like a dream. The first piece has as good a kicker as anyone could come up with–even if life subsequently kicked back in a shocking way–and the second is a heartbreaker about the immediate aftermath of a 2013 boxing match in which Magomed Abdusalamov suffered severe brain damage.

Even when Barry shares a byline, I still feel sure I can pick out his sentences, so flawless and inviting they are. One example of that would be…

3) “An Alt-Right Makeover Shrouds the Swastikas by Barry, Serge F. Kovaleski, Julie Turkewitz and Joseph Goldstein.

An angle used to dismiss the idea that the Make America Great White Again message resonated with a surprising, depressing number of citizens has been to point out that some Trump supporters also voted for Obama. That argument seems simplistic. Some bigots aren’t so far gone that they can’t vote for a person of a race they dislike if they feel it’s in their best interests financially or otherwise. That is to say, some racially prejudiced whites voted for President Obama. Trump appealed to them to find their worst selves. Many did.

Likewise the Trump campaign emboldened far worse elements, including white nationalists and separatists and anti-Semites. Thinking they’d been perhaps permanently marginalized, these hate groups are now updating their “brand,” hiding yesterday’s swastikas and burning crosses and other “bad optics,” and referring to themselves not as neo-Nazis but by more vaguely appealing monikers like “European-American advocates.” It’s the same monster wrapped in a different robe, the mainstreaming of malevolence, and they won’t again be easily relegated to the fringe regardless of Trump’s fate.

This group of NYT journalists explores a beast awakened and energized by Trump’s ugly campaign. It’s a great piece, though we should all probably stop calling these groups by their preferred KKK 2.0 alias of “alt-right.”

4) “No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along” (Charles Blow, New York Times)

In the hours after America elected, if barely, a Ku Klux Kardashian, most pundits and talk-show hosts encouraged all to support this demagogue, as if we could readily forget that he was a racist troll who demanded the first African-American President show his birth certificate, a deadbeat billionaire who didn’t pay taxes or many of his contracted workers, a draft-dodger who mocked our POWs while praising Putin, a sexual predator who boasted about his assaults, a xenophobe who blamed Mexicans and Muslims, a bigot who had a long history of targeting African-Americans with the zeal of a one-man lynching bee. In a most passionate and lucid shot across the bow, Blow said “no way,” penning an instant classic, speaking for many among the disenfranchised majority. 

5) “Lunch with the FT: Burning Man’s Larry Harvey (Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times)

If self-appointed Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, a Harvard graduate with a 13-year-old’s understanding of government and economics, ever had his policy preferences enacted fully, it would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans. In fact, we now get to see many of his idiotic ideas played out in real-life experiments. He’s so eager to Brownback the whole country he’s convinced himself, despite being married to a Muslim woman, there’s conservative bona fides in Trump’s Mussolini-esque stylings and suspicious math.

In 2014, Norquist made his way to the government-less wonderland known as Burning Man, free finally from those bullying U.S. regulations, the absence of which allows Chinese business titans to breathe more freely, if not literally. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the nation could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. He was quote as saying: “Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.” Holy fuck, who passed him the peyote?

In his interview piece, Bradshaw broke bread in San Francisco with Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man and its current “Chief Philosophic Officer,” who speaks fondly of rent control and the Bernie-led leftward shift of the Democratic Party. Norquist would not approve, even if Harvey is a contradictory character, insisting he has a “conservative sensibility” and lamenting the way many involved in social justice fixate on self esteem.

6) “The World Wide Cageand 7)Humans Have Long Wished to Fly Like Birds: Maybe We Shall” (Nicholas Carr, Aeon)

One of the best critics of our technological society keeps getting better.

The former piece is the introduction to Carr’s essay collection Utopia Is Creepy. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

The latter is a passage about biotechnology which wonders if science will soon move too fast not only for legislation but for ethics as well. The “philosophy is dead” assertion that’s persistently batted around in scientific circles drives me bonkers because we dearly need consideration about our likely commandeering of evolution. Carr doesn’t make that argument but instead rightly wonders if ethics is likely to be more than a “sideshow” when garages aren’t used to just hatch computer hardware or search engines but greatly altered or even new life forms. The tools will be cheap, the “creativity” decentralized, the “products” attractive. As Freeman Dyson wrote nearly a decade ago: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

8) “Calum Chace: Ask Me Anything” (Chace, Reddit)

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

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

9) “England’s Post-Imperial Stress Disorder(Andrew Brown, Boston Globe)

Not being intimately familiar with the nuances of the U.K.’s politics and culture, I’m wary of assigning support for Brexit to ugly nativist tendencies, but it does seem a self-harming act provoked by the growing pains of globalism. It’s not nearly as dumb a move as a President Trump, for instance, but some of the same forces are at play, particularly when it comes to the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration UKIP party.

It’s not shocking that Britain and the U.S. are trying to dodge the arrival of a new day and greater competition, a time when empires can’t merely strike back at will. We’re richer now, we have better things, but the distribution is very uneven and we feel poor inside. For some, maybe a surprising number, blame must be assigned to the “others.” As Randy Newman sang: “The end of an empire is messy at best.”

10) My President Was Black” (Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Atlantic)

It wasn’t the color of President Obama’s suit that so bothered his critics but the color of his skin. Sure, Bill Clinton was impeached and John Kerry swiftboated, but there was something so deeply disqualifying about the antagonism that faced 44, something beyond mere partisanship, which boiled over into Birtherism, interruptions during the State of the Union, denial of his Christian faith and vicious insults hurled at his gorgeous wife.

The old adage that black people have to be twice as good at a job as white people proved to be mathematically refutable: The Obamas were a million times better, and it wasn’t nearly enough for their detractors. When Obama even mildly suggested that institutional racism still existed, something he rarely did, he was labeled a “jerk” by prominent Republicans. Worse yet, his most overtly bigoted tormentor will succeed him in the White House. 

That raises an obvious question: If the perfect son isn’t good enough, then what kind of chance do his siblings have?

In a towering essay, Coates reflects on Obama’s history and the “fitful spasmodic years” of his White House tenure, which had pluses and minuses but were a gravity-defying time of true accomplishment which will never happen the same way again. In addition to macro ideas about race and identity, Coates’ writing on the Justice Department under this Administration is of particular importance.

11) “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America (Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Atlantic)

Hope is usually audacious but sometimes misplaced.

Without that feeling of expectation in a country founded on white supremacy that has never erased institutional racism, Barack Hussein Obama would certainly have never been elected President of the United States, not once, let alone twice. But his hope has also served as an escape hatch for white Americans who wanted to not only ignore the past but also the present. By stressing the best in us, Obama overlooked the worst of us, and that worst has never gone away.

It’s doubtful he behaved this way merely due to political opportunism: Obama seems a true believer in America and the ideals it espouses but has never lived up to. I love him and Michelle and think they’re wonderful people, but the nation has never been as good as they are, and even on a good day I’m unsure we even aspire to be. A painfully true Atlantic essay by Cottom meditates on these ideas.

12) “We’re Coming Close to the Point Where We Can Create People Who Are Superior to Others” (Hannah Devlin, The Guardian)

Devlin interviews novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wonders if liberal democracy will be doomed by a new type of wealth inequality, the biological kind, in which gene editing and other tools make enhancement and improved health available only to the haves. Ishiguro isn’t a fatalist on the topic, encouraging more public engagement.

Some believe exorbitantly priced technologies created for the moneyed few will rapidly decrease in price and make their way inside everyone’s pockets (and bodies and brains), the same distribution path blazed by consumer electronics. That’s possible but certainly not definite. Of course, as the chilling political winds of 2016 have demonstrated, liberal democracy may be too fragile to even survive to that point.

13) “The Privacy Wars Are About to Get a Whole Lot Worse” (Cory Doctorow, Locus Magazine)

Read the fine print. That’s always been good advice, but it’s never been taken seriously when it comes to the Internet, a fast-moving, seemingly ephemeral medium that doesn’t invite slowing down to contemplate. So companies attach a consent form to their sites and apps about cookies. No one reads it, and there’s no legal recourse from having your laptop or smartphone from being plundered for all your personal info. It quietly removes legal recourse from surveillance capitalism.

In an excellent piece, Doctorow explains how this oversight, which has already had serious consequences, will snake its way into every corner of our lives once the Internet of Things turns every item into a computer, cars and lamps and soda machines and TV screens. “Notice and consent is an absurd legal fiction,” he writes, acknowledging that it persists despite its ridiculous premise and invasive nature.

14) “The Green Universe: A Vision” (Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books)

I’ve probably enjoyed Dyson’s “pure speculation” writings as much as anything I’ve read during my life, particularly the Imagined Worlds lecture and his NYRB essays and reviews. In this piece, the physicist goes far beyond his decades-old vision of an “Astrochicken” (a spacecraft that’s partly biological), conjuring a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Universe with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth,” he writes. It’s a spectacular dream, though we may bury ourselves beneath water or ash long before it can come to fruition, especially with the threat of climate change.

15) “The Augmented Human Being: A Conversation With George Church” (Edge)

CRISPR’s surprising success has swept us into an age when it all seems possible: the manipulation of humans, animals and plants, even perhaps of extinct species. Which way forward?

The geneticist Church, who has long had visions of rejuvenated woolly mammoths and augmented humans, realizes some bristle at manipulation of the Homo sapiens germline because it calls into question all we are, but apart from metaphors, there are also very real practical concerns over the games getting messy and possibly dangerous. The good (diseases being edited out of existence, organs being tailored to transplantees, etc.) shouldn’t be dreams permanently deferred, but it is difficult to understand how bad applications will be contained. Of course, the negative will probably unfold regardless, so we owe it ourselves to pursue the positive, if carefully. Church himself is on board with a cautious approach but not one that’s unduly so.

16) “The Empty Brain(Robert Epstein, Aeon)

Since the 16th century, the human brain has often been compared to a machine of one sort or another, with it being likened to a computer today. The idea that the brain is a machine seems true, though the part about gray matter operating in a similar way to the gadgets that currently sit atop our laps or in our palms is likely false. 

In a wonderfully argumentative and provocative essay, psychologist Epstein says this reflexive labeling of human brains as information processors is a “story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand.” He doesn’t think the brain is tabula rasa but asserts that it doesn’t store memories like an Apple would.

It’s a rich piece of writing full of ideas and examples, though I wish Epstein would have relied less on the word “never” (e.g., “we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace”), because while he’s almost certainly correct about the foreseeable future, given enough time no one knows how the machines in our heads and pockets will change.

17) “North Korea’s One-Percenters Savor Life in ‘Pyonghattan‘” (Anna Fifield, The Washington Post)

Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though.

18) “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi (Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Jewish Journal)

The poet of despair, who lived for a time in a monastery, spent some of his last decade discussing spirituality and more earthly matters with the Los Angeles-based rabbi, who explains how the Jewish tradition informed Cohen’s work. “We shared a common language, a common nightmare,” he writes. One remark the prophet of doom made to Finley hits especially hard with the demons awakened during this election season: “You won’t like what comes next after America.”

19) Five Books Interview: Ellen Wayland-Smith Discusses Utopias (Five Books)

In a smart Q&AWayland-Smith, author of Oneida, talks about a group of titles on the topic of Utopia. She surmises that attempts at such communities aren’t prevalent like they were in the 1840s or even the 1960s because most of us realize they don’t normally end well, whether we’re talking about the bitter financial and organizational failures of Fruitlands and Brook Farm or the utter madness of Jonestown. That’s true on a micro-community level, though I would argue that there have never been more people dreaming of large-scale Utopias–and corresponding dystopias–then there are right now. The visions have just grown significantly in scope.

In macro visions, Silicon Valley technologists speak today of an approaching post-scarcity society, an automated, quantified, work-free world in which all basic needs are met and drudgery has disappeared into a string of zeros and ones. These thoughts were once the talking points of those on the fringe, say, a teenage guru who believed he could levitate the Houston Astrodome, but now they (and Mars settlements, a-mortality and the computerization of every object) are on the tongues of the most important business people of our day, billionaires who hope to shape the Earth and beyond into a Shangri-La. 

Perhaps much good will come from these goals, and maybe a few disasters will be enabled as well. 

20) “Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny” (Tad Friend, New Yorker)

Friend’s “Letter from California” articles in the New Yorker are probably the long-form journalism I most anticipate, because he’s so good at understanding distinct milieus and those who make them what they are, revealing the micro and macro of any situation or subject and sorting through psychological motivations that drive the behavior of individuals or groups. To put it concisely: He gets ecosystems.

The writer’s latest effort, a profile of Y Combinator President Sam Altman, a stripling yet a strongman, reveals someone who has almost no patience for or interest in most people yet wants to save the world–or something.

It’s not a hit job, as Altman really has no intent to offend or injure, but it vivisects Silicon Valley’s Venture Capital culture and the outrageous hubris of those insulated inside its wealth and privilege, the ones who nod approvingly while watching Steve Jobs use Mahatma Gandhi’s image to sell wildly marked-up electronics made by sweatshop labor, and believe they also can think different.

When envisioning the future, Altman sees perhaps a post-scarcity, automated future where a few grand a year of Universal Basic Income can buy the jobless a bare existence (certainly not the big patch of Big Sur he owns), or maybe there’ll be complete societal collapse. Either or. More or less. If the latter occurs, the VC wunderkind plans to flee the carnage by jetting to the safety of his New Zealand spread with Peter Thiel, who has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary. A grisly death seems preferable. 

21) “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” (Neal Gabler, The Atlantic)

The term “middle class” was not always a nebulous one in America. It meant that you had arrived on solid ground and only the worst luck or behavior was likely to shake the earth beneath your feet. That’s become less and less true for four decades, as a number of factors (technology, globalization, tax codes, the decline of unions, the 2008 economic collapse, etc.) have conspired to hollow out this hallowed ground. You can’t arrive someplace that barely exists.

Middle class is now what you think you would be if you had any money. George Carlin’s great line that “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it” seems truer every day. It’s not so much a fear of falling anymore, but the fear of never getting up, at least not within the current financial arrangement. Those hardworking, decent people you see every day? They’re just as afraid as you are. They are you.

In the spirit of the great 1977 Atlantic article “The Gentle Art of Poverty” and William McPherson’s recent Hedgehog Review piece “Falling,” the excellent writer and film critic Gabler has penned an essay about his “secret shame” of being far poorer than appearances would indicate.

22) “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy(Roxane Gay, The New York Times)

We have to separate the art and the artist or we’ll end up without a culture, but it’s not always so easy to do. There was likely no more creative person who ever walked the Earth than David Bowie, whose death kicked off an awful 2016, yet the guy did have sex with children. And Pablo Picasso beat women, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an anti-Semite, Anne Sexton molested her daughter and so on. In Gay’s smart, humane op-ed, she looks at the controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation writer-director Parker, realizing she can’t compartmentalize her feelings about creators and creations. Agree with her or not, but it’s certainly a far more suitable response than Stephen Galloway’s shockingly amoral Hollywood Reporter piece on the firestorm.

23) “The Case Against Reality (Amanda Gefter, The Atlantic)

A world in which Virtual Reality is in wide use would present a different way to see things, but what if reality is already not what we think it is? It’s usually accepted that we don’t all see things exactly the same way–not just metaphorically–and that our individual interpretation of stimuli is more a rough cut than an exact science. It’s a guesstimate. But things may be even murkier than we believe. Gefter interviews cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman who thinks our perception isn’t even a reliable simulacra, that what we take in is nothing like what actually is. It requires just a few minutes to read and will provoke hours of thought.

24) “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” (Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books)

For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore. 

I’ve often wondered how Nazi Germany was possible, and I think this election has finally provided me with the answer. There has to be pervasive prejudice, sure, and it helps if there is a financially desperate populace, but I also think it’s the large-scale revenge of mediocrity, of people wanting to establish an order where might, not merit, will rule.

Gessen addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S. as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. Her advice to those wondering if they’re being too paranoid about what may now occur: “Believe the autocrat.”

25) “The Future of Privacy” (William Gibson, New York Times)

What surprises me most about the new abnormal isn’t that surveillance has entered our lives but that we’ve invited it in.

For a coupon code or a “friend,” we’re willing to surrender privacy to a corporate state that wants to engage us, know us, follow us, all to better commodify us. In fact, we feel sort of left out if no one is watching.

It may be that in a scary world we want a brother looking after us even if it’s Big Brother, so we’ve entered into an era of likes and leaks, one that will only grow more profoundly challenging when the Internet of Things becomes the thing.

In a wonderful essay, Gibson considers privacy, history and encryption, those thorny, interrelated topics.

26) “Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife” (Michael Graziano, The Atlantic)

When Russian oligarch Dmitry Itskov vows that by 2045 we’ll be able to upload our consciousness into a computer and achieve a sort of immortality, I’m perplexed. Think about the unlikelihood: It’s not a promise to just create a general, computational brain–difficult enough–but to precisely simulate particular human minds. That ups the ante by a whole lot. While it seems theoretically possible, this process may take awhile.

The Princeton neuroscientist Graziano plots the steps required to encase human consciousness, to create a second life that sounds a bit like Second Life. He acknowledges opinions will differ over whether we’ve generated “another you” or some unsatisfactory simulacrum, a mere copy of an original. Graziano’s clearly excited, though, by the possibility that “biological life [may become] more like a larval stage.”

27) “Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will” (Yuval Noah Harari, The Financial Times)

First we slide machines into our pockets, and then we slide into theirs.

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, we’ve been part of a biological organism larger than ourselves. At first, we were barely connected parts, but gradually we became a Global Village. In order for that connectivity to become possible, the bio-organism gave way to a technological machine. As we stand now, we’re moving ourselves deeper and deeper into a computer, one with no OFF switch. We’ll be counted, whether we like it or not. Some of that will be great, and some not.

The Israeli historian examines this new normal, one that’s occurred without close study of what it will mean for the cogs in the machine–us. As he writes, “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

28) “How Howard Stern Owned Donald Trump(Virginia Heffernan, Politico Magazine)

Whether it’s Howard Stern or that other shock jock Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump’s deep-seated need for praise has made him a mark for those who know how to push his buttons. In the 1990s, when the hideous hotelier was at a career nadir, he was a veritable Wack Packer, dropping by the Stern show to cruelly evaluate women and engage in all sorts of locker-room banter. Trump has dismissed these un-Presidential comments as “entertainment,” but his vulgarity off-air is likewise well-documented. He wasn’t out of his element when with the King of All Media but squarely in it. And it wasn’t just two decades ago. Up until 2014, Trump was still playing right along, allowing himself to be flattered into conversation he must have realized on some level was best avoided.

For Stern, who’s become somewhat less of an asshole as Trump has become far more of one, the joke was always that ugly men were sitting in judgement of attractive women. The future GOP nominee, however, was seemingly not aware he was a punchline. He’s a self-described teetotaler who somehow has beer goggles for himself. During this Baba Booey of an election season, Heffernan wrote knowingly of the dynamic between the two men.

29) “I’m Andrew Hessel: Ask Me Anything” (Hessel, Reddit)

If you like your human beings to come with fingers and toes, you may be disquieted by this undeniably heady AMA conducted by a futurist and a “biotechnology catalyst” at Autodesk. The researcher fields questions about a variety of flaws and illnesses plaguing people that biotech may be able to address, even eliminate. Of course, depending on your perspective, humanness itself can be seen as a failing, something to be “cured.”

30) “What If the Aliens We Are Looking For Are AI? (Richard Hollingham, BBC Future) 

If there are aliens out there, Sir Martin Rees feels fairly certain they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for carbon beings to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that perhaps cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. Hollingham explores this theory, wondering if a lack of contact can be explained by the limits we put on our search by expecting a familiar face in the final frontier.

31) “We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus

If performance-enhancing drugs weren’t at all dangerous to the athletes using them, should they be banned?

I bet plenty of people would say they should, bowing before some notion of competitive purity which has never existed. It’s also a nod to “god-given ability,” a curious concept in an increasingly agnostic world. Why should those born with the best legs and lungs be the fastest? Why should the ones lucky enough to have the greatest gray matter at birth be our best thinkers? Why should those fortunate to initially get the healthiest organs live the longest? It doesn’t make much sense to hold back the rest of the world out of respect for a few winners of the genetics lottery.

Hsu relates how genetic engineering will supercharge athletes and the rest of us, making widely available the gifts of Usain Bolt, who gained his from hard work, sure, but also a twist of fate. In fact, extrapolating much further, he believes “speciation seems a definite possibility.”

32) “How Democracies Fall Apart(Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, Foreign Affairs

If we are hollow men (and women), American liberty, that admittedly unevenly distributed thing, may be over after 240 years. And it could very well end not with a bang but a whimper.

Those waiting for the moment when autocracy topples the normal order of things are too late. Election Day was that time. It’s not guaranteed that the nation transforms into 1930s Europe or that we definitely descend into tyranny, but the conditions have never been more favorable in modern times for the U.S. to capitulate to autocracy. The creeps are in office, and the creeping will be a gradual process. Don’t wait for an explosion; we’re living in its wake.

Kendall-Taylor and Frantz analyze how quietly freedom can abandon us.

33) Khizr Khan’s Speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention (Khan, DNC)

Ever since Apple’sThink Different ad in 1997, the one in which Steve jobs used Gandhi’s image to sell marked-up consumer electronics made by sweatshop labor, Silicon Valley business titans have been celebrated the way astronauts used to be. Jobs, who took credit for that advertising campaign which someone else created, specifically wondered why we put on a pedestal those who voyage into space when he and his clever friends were changing the world–or something–with their gadgets. He believed technologists were the best and brightest Americans. He was wrong.

Some of the Valley’s biggest names filed dourly into Trump Tower recently in a sort of reverse perp walk. It was the same, sad spectacle of Al Gore’s pilgrimage, which was answered with Scott Pruitt, climate-change denier, being chosen EPA Chief. Perhaps they made the trek on some sort of utilitarian impulse, but I would guess there was also some element of self-preservation, not an unheard of sense of compromise for those who see their corporations as if they were countries, not only because of their elephantine “GDPs,” but also because of how they view themselves. I don’t think they’re all Peter Thiel, an emotional leper and intellectual fraud who now gets to play out his remarkably stupid theories in a large-scale manner. I’ve joked that Thiel has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary, but the truth is probably far darker. 

What would have been far more impressive would have been if Musk, Cook, Page, Sandberg, Bezos and the rest stopped downstairs in front of the building and read a statement saying that while they would love to aid any U.S. President, they could not in this case because the President-Elect has displayed vicious xenophobia, misogyny and callous disregard for non-white people throughout the campaign and in the election’s aftermath. He’s shown totalitarian impulses and has disdain for the checks and balances that make the U.S. a free country. In fact, with his bullying nastiness he continues to double down on his prejudices, which has been made very clear by not only his words but through his cabinet appointments. They could have stated their dream for the future doesn’t involve using Big Data to spy on Muslims and Mexicans or programming 3D printers to build internment camps on Mars. They might have noted that Steve Bannon, whom Trump chose as his Chef Strategist, just recently said that there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon alley, revealing his white-nationalistic ugliness yet again. They could have refused to normalize Trump’s odious vision. They could have taken a stand.

They didn’t because they’re not our absolute finest citizens. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who understand the essence of the nation in a way the tech billionaires do not, more truly represent us at our most excellent. They possess a wisdom and moral courage that’s as necessary as the Constitution itself. The Silicon Valley folks lack these essential qualities, and without them, you can’t be called our best and brightest.

And maybe Khan’s DNC speech is our ultimate Cassandra moment, when we didn’t listen, or maybe we did but when we looked deep inside for our better angels we came up empty. Regardless, he told the truth beautifully and passionately. When we went low, he went high.

34) “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.” (Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane)

It was thought that the Russian hacking of the U.S. Presidential election wasn’t met with an immediate response because no one thought Trump really had a chance to win, but the truth is the gravity of this virtual Watergate initially took even many veteran Washington insiders by surprise. This great piece of reportage provides deep and fascinating insight into one of the jaw-dropping scandals of an outrageous election season, which has its origins in the 1990s.

35) “Goodbye to Barack Obama’s World” (Edward Luce, The Financial Times

He must be taken seriously,” Luce wrote in the Financial Times in December 2015 of Donald Trump, as the anti-politician trolled the whole of America with his Penthouse-Apartment Pinochet routine, which seems to have been more genuine than many realized.

Like most, the columnist believed several months earlier that the Reality TV Torquemada was headed for a crash, though he rightly surmised the demons Trump had so gleefully and opportunistically awakened, the vengeful pangs of those who longed to Make America Great White Again, were not likely to dissipate.

But the dice were kind to the casino killer, and a string of accidents and incidents enabled Trump and the mob he riled to score enough Electoral College votes to turn the country, and world, upside down. It’s such an unforced error, one which makes Brexit seem a mere trifle, that it feels like we’ve permanently surrendered something essential about the U.S., that more than an era has ended.

In this post-election analysis, Luce looks forward for America and the whole globe and sees possibilities that are downright ugly.

36) “The Writer Who Was Too Strong To Live” (Dave McKenna, Deadspin)

A postmortem about Jennifer Frey, a journalistic prodigy of the 1990s who burned brilliantly before burning out. A Harvard grad who was filing pieces for newspapers before she was even allowed to drink–legally, that is–Frey was a full-time sportswriter for the New York Times by 24, out-thinking, out-hustling and out-filing even veteran scribes at a clip that was all but impossible. Frey seemed to have it all and was positioned to only get more.

Part of what she had, though, that nobody knew about, was bipolar disorder, which she self-medicated with a sea of alcohol. Career, family and friends gradually floated away, and she died painfully and miserably at age 47. The problem with formidable talent as much as with outrageous wealth is that it can be forceful enough to insulate a troubled soul from treatment. Then, when the fall finally occurs, as it must, it’s too late to rise once more.

37) “United States of Paranoia: They See Gangs of Stalkers” (Mike McPhate, The New York Times)

Sometimes mental illness wears the trappings of the era in which it’s experienced. Mike Jay has written beautifully in the last couple of years about such occurrences attending the burial of Napoleon Bonaparte and the current rise of surveillance and Reality TV. The latter is something of a Truman Show syndrome, in which sick people believe they’re being observed, that they’re being followed. To a degree, they’re right, we all are under much greater technological scrutiny now, though these folks have a paranoia which can drive such concerns into crippling obsessions.

Because we’re all connected now, the “besieged” have found one another online, banning together as “targeted individuals” who’ve been marked by the government (or some other group entity) for observation, harassment and mind control. McPhate’s troubling article demonstrates that the dream of endless information offering lucidity has been dashed for a surprising amount of people, that the inundation of data has served to confuse rather than clarify. These shaky citizens resemble those with alien abduction stories, except they seem to have been “shanghaied” by the sweep of history.

38) “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation. (Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times)

Many people nowadays wonder what will replace capitalism, but I believe capitalism will be just fine.

You and me, however, we’re fucked.

The problem is that an uber technologized version of capitalism may not require as many of us or value as highly those who’ve yet to be relieved of their duties. Perhaps a thin crust at the very top will thrive, but without sound policy the rest may be Joads with smartphones. In this scenario, we’d be tracked and commodified, given virtual trinkets rather than be paid. Our privacy, like many of our jobs, will disappear into the zeros and ones.

While the orange supremacist was waving his penis in America’s face during the campaign, the thorny question of what to do should widespread automation be established was left unexplored. That’s terrifying, since more and more outsourcing won’t refer to work moved beyond borders but beyond species. Certainly great investment in education is required, but that won’t likely be enough. Not every freshly unemployed taxi driver can be upskilled into a driverless car software engineer. There’s not enough room on that road.

Miller, a reporter who understands both numbers and people in a way few do, analyzes how outsourcing will increasingly refer to work not moved beyond borders but beyond species.

39) “Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself(Sasha Von Oldershausen, Texas Monthly)

Surveillance is a murky thing almost always attended by a self-censorship, quietly encouraging citizens to abridge their communication because perhaps someone is watching or listening. It’s a chilling of civil rights that happens in a creeping manner. Nothing can be trusted, not even the mundane, not even your own judgement. That’s the goal, really, of such a system–that everyone should feel endlessly observed.

The West Texas border reporter finds similarities between her stretch of America, which feverishly focuses on security from intruders, and her time spent living under theocracy in Iran.

40) “Madness” (Eyal Press, The New Yorker)

“By the nineties, prisons had become America’s dominant mental-health institutions,” writes Press in this infuriating study of a Florida correctional facility in which guards tortured, brutalized, even allegedly murdered, inmates–and employed retaliatory measures against mental health workers who complained. Prison reform is supposedly one of those issues that has bipartisan support, but very little seems to get done in rehabilitating a system that warehouses many nonviolent offenders and mentally ill people among those who truly need to be incarcerated. It seems a breakdown of the institution but is more likely a perpetuation of business as it was intended to be. Either way, the situation needs all the scrutiny and investigation journalists can muster.

41) It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien(Susan Schneider, Nautilus)

Until deep into the twentieth century, most popular dreams of ETs usually centered on biology. We wanted new friends that reminded us of ourselves or were even cuter. When we accepted we had no Martian doppelgangers, a dejected resignation set in. Perhaps some sort of simple cellular life existed somewhere, but what thin gruel to digest.

Then a new reality took hold: Maybe advanced intelligence exists in space as silicon, not carbon. It’s postbiological.

If there are aliens out there, maybe they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for beings like us to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. 

Soon enough, that may be true as well on Earth, a relatively young planet on which intelligence may be in the process of shedding its mortal coil. Another possibility: Perhaps intelligence is also discarding consciousness.

Schneider’s smart article asserts that “soon, humans will no longer be the measure of intelligence on Earth” and tries to surmise what that transition will mean.

42) “Schadenfreude with Bite(Richard Seymour, London Review of Books)

The problem with anarchy is that it has a tendency to get out of control.

In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the most perplexing of Googlers, wrote (along with Jared Cohen) the truest thing about our newly connected age: “The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.”

Yes, indeed.

California was once a wild, untamed plot of land, and when people initially flooded the zone, it was exciting if harsh. But then, soon enough: the crowds, the pollution, the Adam Sandler films. The Golden State became civilized with laws and regulations and taxes, which was a trade-off but one that established order and security. The Web has been commodified but never been truly domesticated, so while the rules don’t apply it still contains all the smog and noise of the developed world. Like Los Angeles without the traffic lights.

Our new abnormal has played out for both better and worse. The fan triumphed over the professional, a mixed development that, yes, spread greater democracy on a surface level, but also left truth attenuated. Into this unfiltered, post-fact, indecent swamp slithered the troll, that witless, cowardly insult comic.

The biggest troll of them all, Donald Trump, the racist opportunist who stalked our first African-American President demanding his birth certificate, is succeeding Obama in the Oval Office, which is terrible for the country if perfectly logical for the age. His Lampanelli-Mussolini campaign also emboldened all manner of KKK 2.0, manosphere and neo-Nazi detritus in their own trolling, as they used social media to spread a discombobulating disinformation meant to confuse and distract so hate could take root and grow. No water needed; bile would do.

In the wonderfully written essay, Seymour analyzes the discomfiting age of the troll.

43) “An American Tragedy(David Remnick, The New Yorker)

It happened here, and Remnick, who spent years covering the Kremlin and many more thinking about the White House, was perfectly prepared to respond to a moment he hoped would never arrive. As the unthinkable was still unfolding and most felt paralyzed by the American embrace of a demagogue, the New Yorker EIC urgently warned of the coming normalization of the incoming Administration, instantly drawing a line that allowed for myriad voices to demand decency and insist on truth and facts, which is our best safeguard against the total deterioration of liberal governance.

44) “This Is New York in the Not-So-Distant Future” (Andrew Rice, New York)

Some sort of survival mechanism allows us to forget the full horror of a tragedy, and that’s a good thing. That fading of facts makes it possible for us to go on. But it’s dangerous to be completely amnesiac about disaster.

Case in point: In 2014, Barry Diller announced plans to build a lavish park off Manhattan at the pier where Titanic survivors came to shore. Dial back just a little over two years ago to another waterlogged disaster, when Hurricane Sandy struck the city, and imagine such an island scheme even being suggested then. The wonder at that point was whether Manhattan was long for this world. Diller’s designs don’t sound much different than the captain of a supposedly unsinkable ship ordering a swimming pool built on the deck just after the ship hit an iceberg.

Rice provides an excellent profile of scientist Klaus Joseph, who believes NYC, as we know it, has no future. The academic could be wrong, but if he isn’t, his words about the effects of Irene and Sandy are chilling: “God forbid what’s next.”

45) “The Newer Testament” (Robyn Ross, Texas Monthly)

A Lone Star State millennial using apps and gadgets to disrupt Big Church doesn’t really seem odder than anything else in this hyperconnected and tech-happy entrepreneurial age, when the way things have been are threatened at every turn. At Experience Life in Lubbock, Soylent has yet to replace wine and there’s no Virtual Reality confessionals, but self-described “computer nerd” Chris Galanos has done his best to take the “Old” out of the Old Testament with his buzzing, whirring House of God 2.0. Is nothing sacred anymore?

46) “The New Nationalism Of Brexit And Trump Is A Product Of The Digital Age” (Douglas Rushkoff, Fast Company)

“We are flummoxed by today’s nationalist, regressively anti-global sentiments only because we are interpreting politics through that now-obsolete television screen,” writes Rushkoff in this excellent piece 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.

47) “The Incredible Fulk(Alexandra Suich, The Economist 1843)

The insanity of our increasingly scary wealth inequality is chronicled expertly in this richly descriptive article, even though it seems in no way intended as a hit piece. The title refers to Ken Fulk, Silicon Valley’s go-to “lifestyle designer,” who charges billionaires millions to create loud interiors, rooms stuffed with antique doors from shuttered mental institutions and musk-ox taxidermy, intended to “evoke feelings” or some such shit.

As the article says: “His spaces, when completed, have a theatrical quality to them, which Fulk plays up. Once he’s finished a project he often brings clients to their homes to show them the final product, a ceremony which he calls the ‘big reveal.’ For the Birches’ home in San Francisco, he hired men dressed as beefeaters to stand outside the entrance and musicians to play indoors. For another set of clients in Palm Springs, he hired synchronized swimmers, a camel and an impersonator to dress up and sing like Dean Martin.” It’s all good, provided a bloody revolution never occurs.

Fulk acknowledges a “tension between high and low” in his work. Know what else has tension? Nooses.

48) “Truth Is a Lost Game in Turkey. Don’t Let the Same Thing Happen to You.(Ece Temelkuran, The Guardian)

Nihilism is sometimes an end but more often a means.

Truth can be fuzzy and facts imprecise, but an honest pursuit of these precious goods allows for a basic decency, a sense of order. Bombard such efforts for an adequate length of time, convince enough people that veracity and reality are fully amorphous, and opportunities for mischief abound.

Break down the normal rules (written and unwritten ones), create an air of confusion with shocking behaviors and statements, blast an opening where anything is possible–even “unspeakable things”–and a democracy can fall and tyranny rise. The timing has to be right, but sooner or later that time will arrive.

Has such a moment come for America? The conditions haven’t been this ripe for at least 60 years, and nothing can now be taken for granted.

Temelkuran explains how Turkey became a post-truth state, a nation-sized mirage, and how the same fate may befall Europe and the U.S. She certainly shares my concerns about the almost non-stop use of the world “elites” to neutralize the righteous into paralysis.

49) “Prepping for Doomsday: Bunkers, Panic Rooms, and Going Off the Grid” (Clare Trapasso, Realtor.com)

Utter societal collapse in the United States may not occur in the immediate future, but it’s certainly an understandable time for a case of the willies. In advance of the November elections, the bunker business boomed, as some among us thought things would soon fall apart and busied themselves counting their gold coins and covering their asses. In a shocking twist, the result of the Presidential election has calmed many of the previously most panicked among us and activated the fears of the formerly hopeful.

50) “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future” (Caroline Winter, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.

Winter traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write this smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.” Well, he’s had a good run.•

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Familiarity breeds contempt, as the Internet Age has taught us. 

That medium has shrunk the world in ways Marshall McLuhan couldn’t fully imagine when he was panicking about television ushering in the Global Village, which now seems positively halcyon by comparison. In this decentralized age, we all got drunk and hooked up, but not everyone is sure they want to move in together.

Luckily for the skittish, the new tools contain no center but instead multitudes, with ways to personalize and edit feeds to eliminate friction, so it’s possible for me to sing the song of myself, to disappear into an echo chamber. There’s no need to even think about it: It’s all automated.

A perplexingly large segment of us want to force the physical world to follow suit, to build an actual wall that buffers and protects life a firewall. It seems impossible, but some are willing to die trying.

From Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent Primer Stories essay “The New Nationalism“: 

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. Analog media such as radio and television were continuous, like the sound on a vinyl record. Digital media, by contrast, are made up of many discrete samples. Likewise, digital networks break up our messages into tiny packets, and reassemble them on the other end. Computer programs all boil down to a series of 1’s and 0’s, on or off.•

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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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Guaranteed Basic Income has become a serious topic of discussion in think tanks and Silicon Valley boardrooms, among some conservatives and libertarians as well as liberals, but, if instituted, it could wind up being more a pain than a panacea. If used as a Trojan horse by those looking to pull away social safety nets, it could be devastatingEven done with the best of intentions, it really wouldn’t be a better life than a good job with a chance for advancement. It could wind up an anodyne, part of a means to quiet the masses with bread and Kardashians.

Or maybe, possibly, it would free us to be creative beyond our wildest dreams in a post-scarcity society, building spaceships in our garages with cheap 3D printers. But I would have to bet the under on that one.

In a Vice “Motherboard” Q&A conducted by Alex Pasternack, Douglas Rushkoff speaks to his fears about GBI as a mere palliative. An excerpt: 

The thing that surprised me—the thing I’m working through now—is this whole idea of guaranteed minimum income. I make a pretty strong case for it in the book: In a society with abundant resources, people deserve food, housing, and medical care. We have gotten to a place where people need jobs not because we need all that work done, but because we need an excuse to let them have the food and housing which is already in abundance. That’s ass-backward. So just let them have it.

But I spent some time at Uber, and I heard my guaranteed minimum income argument come back to me but from their lips, and it sounded different. They were telling me how they understood that Uber drivers don’t get paid a living wage—but that once the government instituted a guaranteed minimum income, then it wouldn’t matter that the drivers don’t get paid enough to live! Or that their jobs were replaced by machines. At least they’d have enough money to hire Uber cars when they need to get somewhere!

So guaranteed minimum income doesn’t really empower anybody. It just creates more cash for people to spend as consumers. It doesn’t give the workers any more ownership of the “means of production” than they had before.

And I’m still working on this problem, since I believe that food, housing, and medical care are basic human rights for which you shouldn’t need a job, but I don’t like how guaranteed minimum income becomes an excuse for more exploitation of those at the bottom, and a new two-tiered society.•

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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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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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There’s an obvious question without an easy answer of whether traditional economic systems will be able to service the needs of the 21st century, at least the needs of those people who aren’t, in Romney-speak, corporations. Early in the Industrial Age, capitalism’s brutish excesses were curbed by labor unions and newspaper muckrakers and tax codes. In the Digital Age, many of those safety nets have come undone, and it’s not clear if they would have on their own been adequate to deal with the gathering storm.

The Uber business model produces some good at high costs, destabilizing businesses and replacing solid jobs with piecework. AI’s continued development will likely bring exceptional benefits to us but also further hollow out the middle. Even if some plans for automation fall by the wayside, enough will probably succeed to upset Labor, causing industries to rise and fall with shocking speed.

If, for example, driverless autos can be perfected in the next 20 years and proliferate, tens of millions of jobs will quickly be gone from every developed country in trucking, taxis, delivery, etc. In fact, a driverless taxi fleet needn’t even have an owner. The cars could “own” themselves, using the fares to automatically pay for repairs and purchase new vehicles. The operation could entirely run itself. Prices for trips from such outfits will be cheap, which is a good thing, since you might not have a job. 

From Antony Funnell’s smart Radio National’s Future Tense piece about the question of capitalism in the Digital Age:

University of Maryland legal academic Frank Pasquale, who focuses on the ethical, legal and social implications of information technology, calls them the ‘Silicon Valley oligarchs’.

‘I think the fundamental problem is that people don’t like to face up to the reality of monopolisation,’ says Pasquale, speaking about the global rise of Uber, Airbnb and other so-called sharing economy companies. ‘It’s much more convenient to believe the comforting myth that these markets are always contestable.

‘A firm like Uber is an appeal to venture capitalists—speculative capital—that wants to see massive returns via monopolisation. Let’s not mistake the business model here. The model here is for one of these firms to come in and to take over various aspects of commerce, to take over the rides that are in an area, to take over availability of non-hotel rooms to sleep in, et cetera. I think that this is really a perversion of the original aspirations of the sharing economy.’

The perils of corporate capitalism ‘running on digital steroids’

For Pasquale, the rise of the oligarchs signals lost potential—the opportunity to enhance genuine sharing and competition through the use of new technologies. But leading US media theorist Douglas Rushkoff goes one step further. In his newly released book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, he warns that the promise of the digital age is being hijacked by a rampant form of old-style capitalism, a modus operandi akin to that of the robber-barons of the 19th century.•

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In the passage I posted from his recent Reddit AMA, Douglas Rushkoff, who’s just published Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, engaged in an esoteric exchange about possible economic outcomes in our newly wired world. In a FiveThirtyEight podcast hosted by Jody Avirgan, the author notes that corporations collecting metadata, part of our paranoid-making contemporary financial reality, is creepy even if it studies us as parts of groups rather than as individuals. An excerpt:

Jody Avirgan:

We obsess about the creepiness of a corporation or a government kind of knowing about us as individuals, but you say that the part that creeps you out the most is the metadata notion — to think of yourself as grouped, not as an individual.

Douglas Rushkoff:

When people think of privacy, they think of the content rather than the context. So the privacy is like, “Oooo, does Coca-Cola know that I masturbated?”

Jody Avirgan:

I don’t know why Coca-Cola would want to know that, but I bet someone in Coca Cola is trying to figure it out.

Douglas Rushkoff:

And they do. And they do. Believe me, statistically they know.

Jody Avirgan:

I will never be able to forget that notion.You’ve just implanted that in my head.

Douglas Rushkoff:

[Laughs] That’s the social programming of the activist in media trying to plant memetic constructs that slowly deteriorate our brand imagery. It’s not the specific thing that they’re going to find out, it’s the groups that you’re in, it’s the metadata. So that, when you see the study that Facebook knows with 80 percent accuracy whether an adolescent boy is going to [come out as] homosexual in the next six months — that’s weird. Companies know things about you that you don’t yet know yourself, and they only know them in terms of probability. The world that you see is being configured to a probable reality that you haven’t yet chosen.•

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I don’t have to tell you that we’re living in a new and strange economy. The star of a film franchise that makes more than a billion dollars globally is paid six figures and has no real leverage to demand more, whereas Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid reportedly earn in that ballpark just for putting a single post on Instagram. Of course, all of the above are lottery winners in this post-collapse world of flat wages and vulnerable workers.

In his recent Reddit AMA, Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, engaged in an esoteric give-and-take about where the economy may be heading. He believes restoring the middle class through micropayments unlikely (and it is!), thinking tomorrow will need a better system. Despite the noble thought projects Rushkoff mentions, I can guarantee you the future isn’t TV-less Tandy computers. An excerpt:

Question:

Within a decade we could see mainstream VR/AR with eye-tracking that would lead to complete compartmentalization, observation, and memorization of pretty much all Hierarchical interactions between individuals in all levels of a growing society.

With innovative social networking tools like Synereo, which is pretty much a decentralized Facebook that turns ‘Likes’ into attention-derived cryptocurrency, do you think we’re headed into a digital economy that’s vastly different than today, or are things going to be relatively the same?

Douglas Rushkoff:

We could go in some bizarre new direction like you’re describing. And it would be interesting. It’s a bit like Lanier envisions, where we start getting all sorts of data-mining activities back on the books, and pay people in micro currencies. But I’m thinking it’s likely easier to go in the other direction. I’m interested in getting things off the books. Building connections between people. I don’t like building a society based on the premise that everyone is trying to game the system.

True – right now, almost everyone is trying to game the system. Finance itself is gamified commerce. Derivatives and algorithms gasify that, and so on and so on. Startups are gamified Wall St.

So these new micro-transactional social networks mean to reprogram the value extraction to our own benefit. I just don’t know where the marketers are who are going to support all this in the end. Marketing has never made up more than 5% of GDP. And that’s being generous. I don’t think it can support the entire economy.

I’d rather see communities develop currencies for people to take care of one another, and for us to use those locally, and then use long distance money to buy our iPhones or whatever.

Question:

“I don’t like building a society based on the premise that everyone is trying to game the system.”

This exactly. I don’t mean to sound anti-capitalist, but that’s one of its major flaws – that exploiting people’s weaknesses for financial gain is a good thing.

Douglas Rushkoff:

One horrific factoid I’ve been working on is what would be the cost of an iPhone if it didn’t use the equivalent of slave labor and blood rare-earth minerals. We get these things so relatively cheaply, and it feels as if making these technologies cheaper somehow breaks down the digital divide. But it really just externalizes it to somewhere we don’t see.

It’s a strange project – but I’m wondering if it’s really appropriate to make our tech cheaper at their expense? And wonder if the older stuff we used to use – like my Tandy computer – can do things like this AMA, how is getting TV over my computer really important?•

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The above quote comes from an excellent WTF podcast interview that Marc Maron conducted with writer and theorist Douglas Rushkoff. I don’t agree with everything that Rushkoff has to say about technology, social media and economics, much of which comes from his new book, Present Shock, but all of it made me think. In addition to his remark about the offline migration of the very counterculture that was the early adapter of the Internet, the other point he made that interested me is that a society heavily dependent on robotics may not be compatible with traditional capitalism.

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Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock, discussing the anarchic nature of the flow of time in the Digital Age in a New York Times interview conducted by Quentin Hardy:

Question:

You say we have ‘a new relationship with time.’ What is it, and why is that a bad thing?

Douglas Rushkoff:

What we’ve done has made time even more dense. On Facebook, your past comes into your present when someone from your second grade class suddenly pops up to send you a message, and your future is being manipulated by what Facebook knows to put in front of you next. Present shock interrupts our normal social flow.

It didn’t have to be this way. When digital culture first came along, it was supposed to create more time, by allowing us to shift time around. Somehow instead we’ve strapped devices to ourselves that ping us all the time.

Question:

Hasn’t time been collapsing for centuries? We moved from the rhythm of seasons to living by the clock in the Industrial Age. We’ve paced in front of the microwave for decades.

Douglas Rushkoff: 

Yes, but it has hit a point where we have lost any sense of analog time, the way a second hand sweeps around a clock. We’ve chosen the false ‘now’ of our devices. It has led to a collapse of linear narratives and a culture where you have political movements demanding that everything change, now. The horrible truth is we are linear beings; we can’t multitask, and we shouldn’t keep interrupting important connections to each other with the latest message coming in.

Question:

It’s a funny thing: the counterculture used to talk about ‘Be here now,’ and the need to chase after self-awareness by seeking the eternal present. What is the difference between that world of the “now” and this one?

Douglas Rushkoff:

People are seduced by signals from the world, but that is manipulation, not reality. Computers have learned more about us than we’ve learned about them.•

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At Rob Walker’s Yahoo! blog, he interviews technology critic Douglas Rushkoff about his new book, Present Shock, an updating of sorts of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. An excerpt about adaptation strategies in our brave new world:

Qusetion:

The book addresses what you’re calling ‘present shock,’ referencing Alvin Toffler’s idea of ‘future shock,’ and (if I can oversimplify) suggesting that we’re now living in Toffler’s future, and we’re not coping all that well. How might we respond to ‘society without narrative context’?

Douglas Rushkoff:

Present Shock is the panicky reaction to this always-on, real-time society in which we have found ourselves. But there are definitely ways to adapt and thrive in a ‘presentist’ world. So, take the collapse of narrative. We live in a world where it’s really hard to tell a story. People don’t have patience, they have interactive devices that encourage them to break up or leave a story in progress, and they don’t really think about things as having beginnings, middles and ends. We are in the now, and not looking forward to long-term goals anymore. This is as true for kids playing endless adventure games like World of Warcraft as it is for derivatives traders hoping to make money not off long-term investments but on the trades themselves. 

So on the one hand, we get the scary stuff: movements with long-term goals are increasingly unpopular. Political parties are hated. The notion of a career path or a commitment to (and from) an employer seems ludicrous. On the other hand, we begin to see some people attempting to live in a more ‘steady state.’ We don’t have to fight and win wars so much as deal with our problems in a more ongoing way. Global warming is not something we fight against and ‘win,’ but a chronic problem we can only face with sustainable solutions. We don’t need to yearn for endings—unless of course we really want to bring about the apocalypse. Instead, we must grow beyond the simple stories on which we were raised, and learn to live in a never-ending kind of story, in which we are the living players. 

This is what Occupy was groping toward, in its own way. They don’t have demands or goals so much as approaches. They are attempting to model a way of living. When asked how the movement is supposed to ‘end,’ they say, “Why should it end?'”

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In HiLoBrow, Peggy Nelson conducts an excellent interview with media ecologist Douglas Rushkoff, which covers currency, corporations and how the word “home” was gradually redefined to have an isolating effect. An excerpt:

Rushkoff: From the 1920s to the 1970s an iconography was developed that turned corporations into our heroes. Instead of me buying stuff from people I know, I actually trust the Quaker Oat Man more than you. This is the result of public relations campaigns, and the development of public relations as a profession.

Nelson: Did the rise of PR just happen, or did they have to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control?

Rushkoff: They had to do that in order to prevent things from getting out of control. The significant points in the development of public relations were all at crisis moments. For example, labor movements; it’s not just that labor was revolting but that people were seeing that labor was revolting. There was a need to re-fashion the stories so that people would think that labor activists were bad scary people, so that people would think they should move to the suburbs and insulate themselves from these throngs of laborers, from  ‘the masses.’ Or to return to the Quaker Oats example, people used to look at long-distance-shipped factory products with distrust. Here’s a plain brown box, it’s being shipped from far away, why am I supposed to buy this instead of something from a person I’ve known all my life? A mass media is necessary to make you distrust your neighbor and transfer your trust to an abstract entity, the corporation, and believe it will usher in a better tomorrow and all that.

It got the most crafty after WWII when all the soldiers were coming home. FDR was in cahoots with the PR people. Traumatized vets were coming back from WWII, and everyone knew these guys were freaked out and fucked up. We had enough psychology and psychiatry by then to know that these guys were badly off, they knew how to use weapons, and — this was bad! If the vets came back into the same labor movement that they left before WWII, it would have been all over. So the idea was that we should provide houses for these guys, make them feel good, and we get the creation of Levittown and other carefully planned developments designed with psychologists and social scientists. Let’s put these vets in a house, let’s celebrate the nuclear family.

Nelson: So home becomes a thing, rather than a series of relationships?

Rushkoff: The definition of home as people use the word now means ‘my house,’ rather than what it had been previously, which was ‘where I’m from.’My home’s New York, what’s your home?’

Nelson: Right, my town.

Rushkoff: Where are you from? Not that ‘structure.’ But they had to redefine home, and they used a lot of government money to do it. They created houses in neighborhoods specifically designed to isolate people from one another, and prevent men in particular from congregating and organizing — there are no social halls, no beer halls in these developments. They wanted men to be busy with their front lawns, with three fruit trees in every garden, with home fix-it-up projects; for the women, the kitchen will be in the back where they can see the kids playing in the back yard.

Nelson: So you don’t see the neighbors going by. No front porch.

Rushkoff: Everything’s got to be individual, this was all planned! Any man that has a mortgage to pay is not going to be a revolutionary. With that amount to pay back, he’s got a stake in the system. True, he’s on the short end of the stick of the interest economy, but in 30 years he could own his own home.” (Thanks Longform.)

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“And now my bags are packed for travelin’ / Glass, concrete, and stone / It’s just a house, not a home”:

“Here’s your ticket, pack your bag / Time for jumpin’ overboard / Transportation is here / Burning down the house”:

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Has the rise of the machines made widespread enployment in America a thing of the past? That’s the question Douglas Rushkoff asks at the CNN site. An excerpt:

“New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures — from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs.

We like to believe that the appropriate response is to train humans for higher level work. Instead of collecting tolls, the trained worker will fix and program toll-collecting robots. But it never really works out that way, since not as many people are needed to make the robots as the robots replace.

And so the president goes on television telling us that the big issue of our time is jobs, jobs, jobs — as if the reason to build high-speed rails and fix bridges is to put people back to work. But it seems to me there’s something backwards in that logic. I find myself wondering if we may be accepting a premise that deserves to be questioned.

I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.”

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“All with the push of a button”:

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