John Lanchester

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Prior to dropping out of Harvard to turn Facebook into the most populous “state” on Earth, one that dwarfs even China, Mark Zuckerberg was a double major. One of those areas of study, unsurprisingly, was computer science. As John Lanchester reminds in his excellent London Review of Books essay about the social network, the other concentration, psychology, is at least as vital in understanding how the entrepreneur was so successful in executing the McLuhan nightmare of a Global Village well beyond what anyone else had been able to accomplish.

Zuckerberg didn’t really invent anything, as Friendster was already on the map. But his predecessor quickly faded while he’s developed the fastest growing service in the global history of business. His corporation’s amazing boom was and is driven primarily by three factors: The entrepreneur was at the right age to understand the trajectory of the market, he used his copious venture capital money to attract brilliant engineers, and he willfully exploited a hole in our psyches. An Lanchester succinctly puts it: Zuckerberg had a keen understanding of the “social dynamics of popularity and status.”

That’s permitted the company to “hire” 2,000,000,000 people to create free content for the platform each month, which would make Facebook by far the largest sweatshop in the annals of humanity, except even those dodgy operations pay some small wage. All you get for your efforts from Zuckerberg are “friends” and “likes,” which may be an even more lopsided return than receiving some strings of shiny beads in exchange for Manhattan.

The company might not have gone anywhere, however, had it not be for early seed money from Peter Thiel, the immigrant “genius” who was sure there were WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a great President. It seemed at one point that Thiel had a moral blind spot to rival the one exhibited by Hitler’s secretary, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s actively a morally dubious figure. What attracted the investor to the peculiar product was his reading of René Girard ideas on “mimesis,” which asserted that all human desires are borrowed from other people and we have an innate need to copy one another. The philosopher viewed this tendency as a human failing with sometimes grave consequences. Thiel saw it as an opportunity. 

The blinding success of social media enriched Zuckerberg and Thiel, but is it good for individual users and society on a wider scale? This question is one that the Facebook founder has probably never even entertained. His offspring can’t be a bad seed because he’s too deeply invested in it. Instead, after Facebook was deluged with criticism for its non-response to those who used the platform as a repository for Fake News during the 2016 Presidential election, Zuckerberg proposed a “solution” in his “Building Global Community” manifesto, one that essentially doubled down on the elements of his brainchild (extending connectedness and building “communities”) that are among the very problems. Certainly it benefits the company to downplay rather than neutralize Fake News, since Facebook, an advertising company, profits handsomely from such bullshit content.

The still-young businessman might have another dubious plan to cure what ails America politically. Having publicly renounced atheism, embarked on a 50-states listening tour to pose for photo ops milking cows and hired Hillary Clinton’s pollster, Zuckerberg seems to have his eye on the White House. It’s a wonder why he would accept a demotion to leading a nation of such a relatively puny size. One thing is sure: If he does run, Zuckerberg will appear to be what he thinks we want him to be while promising to bring us together. That’s nothing new on the campaign trail, though it’s attended by a fresh ominousness considering the source.

An excerpt:

Zuckerberg’s news about Facebook’s size came with an announcement which may or may not prove to be significant. He said that the company was changing its ‘mission statement’, its version of the canting pieties beloved of corporate America. Facebook’s mission used to be ‘making the world more open and connected’. A non-Facebooker reading that is likely to ask: why? Connection is presented as an end in itself, an inherently and automatically good thing. Is it, though? Flaubert was sceptical about trains because he thought (in Julian Barnes’s paraphrase) that ‘the railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid.’ You don’t have to be as misanthropic as Flaubert to wonder if something similar isn’t true about connecting people on Facebook. For instance, Facebook is generally agreed to have played a big, perhaps even a crucial, role in the election of Donald Trump. The benefit to humanity is not clear. This thought, or something like it, seems to have occurred to Zuckerberg, because the new mission statement spells out a reason for all this connectedness. It says that the new mission is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.

Hmm. Alphabet’s mission statement, ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, came accompanied by the maxim ‘Don’t be evil,’ which has been the source of a lot of ridicule: Steve Jobs called it ‘bullshit’.​1 Which it is, but it isn’t only bullshit. Plenty of companies, indeed entire industries, base their business model on being evil. The insurance business, for instance, depends on the fact that insurers charge customers more than their insurance is worth; that’s fair enough, since if they didn’t do that they wouldn’t be viable as businesses. What isn’t fair is the panoply of cynical techniques that many insurers use to avoid, as far as possible, paying out when the insured-against event happens. Just ask anyone who has had a property suffer a major mishap. It’s worth saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ because lots of businesses are. This is especially an issue in the world of the internet. Internet companies are working in a field that is poorly understood (if understood at all) by customers and regulators. The stuff they’re doing, if they’re any good at all, is by definition new. In that overlapping area of novelty and ignorance and unregulation, it’s well worth reminding employees not to be evil, because if the company succeeds and grows, plenty of chances to be evil are going to come along.

Google and Facebook have both been walking this line from the beginning. Their styles of doing so are different. An internet entrepreneur I know has had dealings with both companies. ‘YouTube knows they have lots of dirty things going on and are keen to try and do some good to alleviate it,’ he told me. I asked what he meant by ‘dirty’. ‘Terrorist and extremist content, stolen content, copyright violations. That kind of thing. But Google in my experience knows that there are ambiguities, moral doubts, around some of what they do, and at least they try to think about it. Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’.

That might sound harsh. There have, however, been ethical problems and ambiguities about Facebook since the moment of its creation, a fact we know because its creator was live-blogging at the time.•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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John Lanchester, who wrote one of my favorite articles of the year with “The Robots Are Coming in the London Review of Books, returns to that same publication to think about more tinkerers and their machines, namely the Wright brothers and Elon Musk.

The occasion is a dual review of David McCullough’s new work about the former and Ashlee Vance’s of the latter. As the piece notes, the aviation pioneer Wrights were ignored, disbelieved and mocked during their first couple of successful flights, the press too skeptical to accept what was clear as the sky if only they would open their eyes.

Puzzlingly, Lanchester is of the notion that the SpaceX founder Elon Musk is less than a household name, which is a curious thing since the Iron Man avatar is one of the most famous people on Earth, receiving the type of wide acclaim before coming close to Mars that was denied the Wrights even after they successfully took flight in Kitty Hawk. Just strange.

Otherwise it’s a very well-written piece, and one that astutely points out that tinkerers today who want to do more than merely create apps often need a planeload of cash, something the Wrights didn’t require. Perhaps 3-D printers will change that?

A passage in which Lanchester compares the siblings to their spiritual descendant:

When David McCullough’s book came out, it went straight to the top of the US bestseller list, taking up a position right next to Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. At which point you may well be asking, who he? The answer is that Musk is the South African-born entrepreneur who runs three of the most interesting companies in America, in the fields of clean energy and interplanetary exploration: SolarCity (solar batteries), Tesla (electric cars), and SpaceX (commercial spaceflight). It’s the third of these companies which is the maddest and most entertaining. Where most corporate mission statements are so numbing they’d be useful as a form of medical anaesthesia, SpaceX’s is ‘creating the technology needed to establish life on Mars’. ‘I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future,’ Musk explained to Vance. ‘“If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multiplanetary species with a self-sustaining civilisation on another planet – to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness – then,” and here he paused for a moment, “I think that would be really good.”’

There are a number of suggestive parallels between Musk and the Wrights, beyond the obvious ones to do with an interest in flight. The bishop had very high standards and set no limits on the intellectual curiosity he encouraged in his children; Musk’s father had the same standards and the same insistence on no limits, but was (is) a tortured and difficult presence, ‘good at making life miserable’, in Musk’s words: ‘He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad.’ The Wrights were poorish, the Musks affluentish, but both grew up with an emphasis on learning things first-hand. ‘It is remarkable how many different things you can get to explode,’ Musk says about his childhood experiments. ‘I’m lucky I have all my fingers.’ One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.

The Wrights took calculated risks. Musk does the same.•

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In a belated London Review of Books assessment of The Second Machine Age and Average Is Over, John Lanchester doesn’t really break new ground in considering Deep Learning and technological unemployment, but in his customarily lucid and impressive prose he crystallizes how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades. Two passages follow: The opening, in which he charts the course of how the power of a supercomputer ended up inside a child’s toy in a few short years; and a sequence about the way automation obviates workers and exacerbates income inequality.

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In 1996, in response to the 1992 Russo-American moratorium on nuclear testing, the US government started a programme called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The suspension of testing had created a need to be able to run complex computer simulations of how old weapons were ageing, for safety reasons, and also – it’s a dangerous world out there! – to design new weapons without breaching the terms of the moratorium. To do that, ASCI needed more computing power than could be delivered by any existing machine. Its response was to commission a computer called ASCI Red, designed to be the first supercomputer to process more than one teraflop. A ‘flop’ is a floating point operation, i.e. a calculation involving numbers which include decimal points (these are computationally much more demanding than calculations involving binary ones and zeros). A teraflop is a trillion such calculations per second. Once Red was up and running at full speed, by 1997, it really was a specimen. Its power was such that it could process 1.8 teraflops. That’s 18 followed by 11 zeros. Red continued to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world until about the end of 2000.

I was playing on Red only yesterday – I wasn’t really, but I did have a go on a machine that can process 1.8 teraflops. This Red equivalent is called the PS3: it was launched by Sony in 2005 and went on sale in 2006. Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

The force at work here is a principle known as Moore’s law. This isn’t really a law at all, but rather the extrapolation of an observation made by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the computer chip company Intel. By 1965, Moore had noticed that silicon chips had for a number of years been getting more powerful, in relation to their price, at a remarkably consistent rate. He published a paper predicting that they would go on doing so ‘for at least ten years’. That might sound mild, but it was, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their fascinating book, The Second Machine Age, actually a very bold statement, since it implied that by 1975, computer chips would be five hundred times more powerful for the same price. ‘Integrated circuits,’ Moore said, would ‘lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment’. Right on all three. If anything he was too cautious.•

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Note that in this future world, productivity will go up sharply. Productivity is the amount produced per worker per hour. It is the single most important number in determining whether a country is getting richer or poorer. GDP gets more attention, but is often misleading, since other things being equal, GDP goes up when the population goes up: you can have rising GDP and falling living standards if the population is growing. Productivity is a more accurate measure of trends in living standards – or at least, it used to be. In recent decades, however, productivity has become disconnected from pay. The typical worker’s income in the US has barely gone up since 1979, and has actually fallen since 1999, while her productivity has gone up in a nice straightish line. The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

That is a worrying trend. Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple, about which my robot colleague wrote so evocatively. Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit. Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said that these numbers are ‘hard to comprehend’. He’s right: it’s hard to process the fact that the company sold 34,000 iPhones every hour for three months. Bravo – though we should think about the trends implied in those figures. For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.•

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In the New York Review of Books, John Lanchester takes on Michael Lewis’ new volume about the global economic meltdown, Boomerang. A passage about the apocalyptic view of fund manager Kyle Bass:

“His first interlocutor, Kyle Bass, is a classic example. Bass is a fund manager who made a fortune ‘shorting’ toxic mortgage assets, and then became preoccupied by the subject of global debt levels. Bass is, to put it very mildly, a pessimist on the subject of sovereign debt:

Spain and France had accumulated debts of more than ten times their annual revenues. Historically, such levels of government indebtedness had led to government default. ‘Here’s the only way I think things can work out for these countries,’ Bass said. ‘If they start running real budget surpluses. Yeah, and that will happen right after monkeys fly out of your ass.’

The prognostications that ensue from Bass’s analysis are gloomy, and form the basis of Boomerang‘s big-picture overview. ‘The financial crisis of 2008 was suspended only because investors believed that governments could borrow whatever they needed to rescue their banks. What happened when the governments themselves ceased to be credible?’

Bass thinks that the only reliable investments are guns and gold, and has just bought twenty million nickels, because the metal in a five-cent nickel is worth 6.8 cents, and they are going to be a stable source of value when things go wrong.”

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