Emily Badger

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Larry Page long promised to keep the more anarchic elements of Google discrete from mainstream society. In 2013, he openly pined for a patch of America which his company could employ as a lawless laboratory—a Burning Man of sorts in which the fire could really run wild. From a Verge article of that year:

“There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.” Google is already well-known for coming up with some pretty interesting ideas — the idea of seeing what Page could come up with in this lawless beta-test country is simultaneously exciting and a bit terrifying.•

Of course, Page’s promise was always an empty one. Eric Schimdt was more forthcoming three years earlier when he wrote that the Internet was the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” Since Google was the biggest search engine by far, it’s place in this brave new world was central. Our gamble on an interconnected, unregulated global village played out astoundingly badly over the last calendar year as weaponized Russian bots were deployed on the lane-less highways of Google, Facebook and Twitter to disrupt important elections in the UK and USA. The interference led to Brexit and President Trump, so the Kremlin was elated, but it wasn’t without a backup plan should it fall short of those gargantuan goals: Simply fomenting a race war would have also been acceptable. That Google nearly a year after America’s Election Day is still publishing obvious misinformation for profit suggests the perilous experiments which have played out on Main Street in broad daylight will continue to do so as long as there’s money to be made.

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As for Google getting a barren stretch of remote land to use as its physical testing grounds, the dream has been changed and upgraded. Why settle for the sticks when you can get a place downtown? Once of Ray Bradbury’s worst ideas, which he discussed in 1996, was that “enlightened corporations” could take over cities. Along those lines, Google aims to have its Sidewalk Labs build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto. Not to say that Page, Brin, Schmidt et al., want to detonate explosives on Spadina or bring flying cars to Yonge, but that a scenario in which billionaire technologists are allowed control over a city or even a few city blocks is in and of itself a dangerous experiment.

The opening of Emily Badger’s New York Times piece “Google’s Founders Wanted to Shape a City. Toronto Is Their Chance.“:

Google’s founders have long fantasized about what would happen if the company could shape the real world as much as it has life on the internet.

“Years ago, we were sitting there thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities?” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (now Google’s parent company), said Tuesday. “And our founders got really excited about this. We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”

That is, of course, an outlandish idea. “For all sorts of good reasons, by the way, it doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Schmidt acknowledged. But there he was standing Tuesday before an array of Canadian flags, in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario officials, to announce the closest thing anyone has seen to a tech company that takes the reins in a major city.

Toronto has about 800 acres of waterfront property awaiting redevelopment, a huge and prime stretch of land that amounts to one of the best opportunities in North America to rethink at scale how housing, streets and infrastructure are built. On Tuesday the government and the group overseeing the land announced that they were partnering with an Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, to develop the site.

They want it to embody the city of the future, a technological test bed for other communities around the world, “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”•



The election was all about the economic downfall of Caucasian males, or maybe it wasn’t. Analysts disagree.

Some (like me) view it as an ugly expression of identity politics by white Americans who fear a more diverse future that has all but arrived, and that includes Trump voters in big cities as well as small hamlets, the ones who are dismayed that the nation has become too “politically correct,” which is essentially a complaint that they can’t use slurs anymore without consequence. Others see the stomach-turning election results as an expression of frustration by forgotten voters who wanted to rage against the machine, though it’s difficult to accept that anyone believes Trump will “drain the swamp” when he’s flanked by Gingrich and Giuliani, two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve been feasting on a corrupt system the majority of their adult lives.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, though the dormant racial and xenophobic hatred awakened by Trump, which has expressed itself repeatedly in words and deeds, was always there and it can’t be explained away by economic fears. It’s heartbreaking that so many of us pulled the lever for a candidate who ran a shameful, fascistic campaign of bigotry, full of anti-Muslim rhetoric, misogynistic insults and anti-Semitic memes.

An amoral enabler like Peter Thiel supported and emboldened such a disgraceful figure–and one who’s wholly unprepared for the job–because of his fealty to his idiotic theories, and anyone who labels him a “winner” of the election defines that word differently than I do. As part of the new administration’s transition team, he has a lot of work to do, but so did Hitler’s secretary. That many consider him a serious intellectual because of his billions and contrarian “ideas” is appalling.

The clearest view in the wake of the election is that we’re still exceptionally divided, with Hillary Clinton set to win the popular vote by probably more than two million while losing the election overall. Outside of racial lines, the fissure is probably strongest in geography, with those on the coasts now being referred to as “elites” who don’t listen to what Sarah Palin used to call the “real America.”

When Charles Murray and Thiel rail against so-called liberal elites, I have to laugh. Having grown up in a very blue-collar background, it’s hard to accept those who’ve spent their whole lives in the halls of power posturing as if they’re horse whisperers to the poor. They’re not; they’re opportunists in love with ideology far more than people. 

The idea that tone-deaf people in NYC, SF, DC and LA selfishly make decisions that effect the lives of those in the middle of the country is maddening, because those same folks choose congresspeople, senators and Presidents without calling the coasts first, and no one expects them to. Those decisions impact citizens living in major metropolises in a real way and not always for the better. We’re all living in bubbles now, and that may cause problems, but that’s on all of us, not just some.

Culturally and economically, however, it does appear urban and rural Americans have different needs, a situation growing more extreme. Two excerpts follow.

From “The Election Highlighted a Growing Rural-Urban Split,” by Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui and Adam Pearce of the New York Times:

The widening political divergence between cities and small-town America also reflects a growing alienation between the two groups, and a sense — perhaps accurate — that their fates are not connected.

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer, the author of The Politics of Resentment, described what this looked like during years of field research in Wisconsin in an insightful interview with Jeff Guo at The Washington Post. The people she met across a state that Mrs. Clinton ultimately lost felt deeply disrespected (and suspicious of a white-collar academic from uber-blue Madison). “They would say, ‘The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us,’ ” Ms. Cramer said. “ ‘They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.’ ”

Cities, for their part, are easily branded with some dissonance as embodying either professional elites or poor people who don’t deserve benefits (thus both Madison and Milwaukee, two very different places, come in for equal resentment within Wisconsin). Many of the young Democratic voters who live in blue cities like these, as Alec MacGillis has noted, have gravitated away from redder parts of the country from which they felt alienated. “There’s just nothing to do in Ohio,” lamented one voter who grew up there but now lives in Los Angeles. “The jobs are limited, but it’s not just the jobs and the industries that are in Ohio, it’s the mind-set that I didn’t gravitate to.”

As the relationship between density and partisanship has grown stronger over the last half-century, the structure of the economy has also changed in ways that reinforce the divide.•

From Patrick Thornton’s Roll Call essay “I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America“:

To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.

We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.

We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.

If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.•

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Earlier this week, Elon Musk made this provocative comment about a future in which autonomous automobiles have been perfected: “People may outlaw driving cars because it’s too dangerous.” A good deal more work needs to be done before robocars are finished, but as Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, no such legislation would be required in Musk’s scenario. An excerpt:

What Musk hasn’t considered, though, is that the importance of public safety here will no doubt bump up against another equally prized American value: individual freedom. And when the two conflict, we don’t always chose the former. We chose, for instance, to allow widespread private gun ownership in America, despite its costs in gun violence and the prevalence of accidents.

Your right to drive a car isn’t protected by a constitutional amendment. But it’s a form of freedom that’s deeply engrained in American culture. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers ever taking it away, even in the face of persuasive safety data. Like with vaccines, driverless cars may one day create a kind of herd effect short of 100 percent adoption, and maybe we’ll live with that. Maybe the cars that will be driven by computers will be able to compensate for the bad decisions of cars driven by humans.

All of this is a case for why lawmakers probably won’t ban human driving. But that doesn’t mean the private market won’t effectively do the same. Fifty years from now, if you still want to drive your vintage 2021 Camry onto a highway humming with autonomous cars, you may have a very hard time finding insurance to do that — that is, if you can still find the car.•

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While Grover Norquist is baking his Libertarian ass at Burning Man, he’s simultaneously planning for Republicans to win back urban American by bogarting the Uber, riding the sharing economy to voting-booth victory. Of course, as Emily Badger pointed out last month in the Washington Post and Andrew Leonard expands on today in Salon, this economic disruption isn’t really staying within traditional Right and Left lanes. From Leonard’s piece:

“The semiotics of the announcement of David Plouffe’s hiring by Uber are fascinating. For example, consider how Plouffe used the word ‘inexorable’ in an interview with the New York Times.

‘We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,’ said Plouffe. Which translates as: Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley’s innovative disrupters are going to conquer us all in the long run, so we might as well just get used to it and stop throwing roadblocks in their way.

Beware! When a company with a name like ‘Uber’ is associated with ‘inexorable,’ resistance is obviously futile. And it’s worth recalling, this isn’t just about crushing existing taxi ‘cartels.’ Uber has made no secret of its ambitions to become a logistical hub that will compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx and Hertz, that will deliver groceries, as well as human beings, more efficiently than any other company. Uber’s algorithm is what’s inexorable. And an algorithm doesn’t boast any particular party identification: It’s just there to make consumers happy.

But fast on inexorability’s heels comes the issue of what the word ‘progressive’ really means. As Emily Badger reported, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, supported Uber’s hire by saying that Plouffe will bring the same ‘progressive approach’ to campaigning for Uber as has been demonstrated by Colorado’s ’embrace of innovation and disruptive technology.’

When you pull your phone out of your pocket, click a couple of buttons, send a signal that bounces off a satellite, and a car-for-hire magically appears in front of you in a few minutes, it certainly feels like we are living in an age of technological progress. But the jury is still out on whether this kind of innovation is truly socially progressive. A society that puts consumers first has obvious disadvantages for workers.”

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