If Then

There are many books that I admire and love that I never for a moment dream I could have written. Right now I’m reading an old favorite, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, to my wife, and as I do so I am every minute aware that I could not write this book if you gave me a million years in which to do so.

But every now and then I encounter an admirable book that I wish I had written, that (if I squint just right) I see that I could have written. I had that experience a few years ago with Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, and I’m having it again right now as I read Jill Lepore’s If Then. What a magnificent narrative. What a brilliant evocation of a moment in American history that is in one sense long gone and in another sense a complete anticipation of our own moment. Oh, the envy! (Especially since if I had written the book it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is.)

We are afflicted by our ignorance of history in multiple ways, and one of my great themes for the past few years has been the damage that our presentism does to our ability to make political and moral judgments. It damages us in multiple ways. One of them, and this is the theme of my book Breaking Bread with the Dead, is that it makes us agitated and angry. When we, day by day and hour by hour, turn a direhose of distortion and misinformation directly into our own faces, we lose the ability to make measured judgments. We lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies and celebrate with an equally unreasonable passion those we deem to be our allies. We lack the tranquility and the “personal density” needed to make wise and balanced judgments about our fellow citizens and about the challenges we face.

But there is another and still simpler problem with our presentism: we have no idea whether we have been through anything like what we are currently going through. Some years ago I wrote about how comprehensively the great moral panic of the 1980s – the belief held by tens of millions of Americans that the childcare centers of America were run by Satan worshipers who sexually abused their charges – has been flushed down the memory hole. In this case, I think the amnesia has happened because a true reckoning with the situation would tell us so much about ourselves that we don’t want to know. It would teach us how credulous we are, and how when faced with lurid stories we lose our ability to make the most elementary factual and evidentiary discriminations. But of course our studied refusal to remember that particular event simply makes us more vulnerable to such panics today, especially given our unprecedentedly widespread self-induced exposure to misinformation.

Even more serious, perhaps, is our ignorance – in this case not so obviously motivated but the product rather of casual neglect — of the violent upheavals that rocked this nation in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians and pastors and podcasters and bloggers can confidently assert that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of social mistrust and unrest, having conveniently allowed themselves to remain ignorant of what this country was like fifty years ago. (And let’s leave aside the Civil War altogether, since that happened in a prehistoric era.) Rick Perlstein is very good on this point, as I noted in this post.

All of this brings us back to Jill Lepore’s magnificent narrative about the rise and fall of a company called Simulmatics, and the rise and rise and rise, in the subsequent half-century, of what Simulmatics was created to bring into being. Everything that our current boosters of digital technology claim for their machines was claimed by their predecessors sixty years ago. The worries that we currently have about the power of technocratic overlords began to be uttered in congressional hearings and in the pages of magazines and newspapers fifty years ago. Postwar technophilia, Cold War terror, technological solutionism, racial unrest, counterculture liberationism, and free-market libertarianism — these are the key ingredients of the mixture in which our current moment has been brewed.

Let me wrap up this post with three quotations from If Then that deserve a great deal of reflection. The first comes from early in the book:

The Cold War altered the history of knowledge by distorting the aims and ends of American universities. This began in 1947, with the passage of the National Security Act, which established the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and turned the War Department into what would soon be called the Department of Defense, on the back of the belief that defending the nation’s security required massive, unprecedented military spending in peacetime. The Defense Department’s research and development budget skyrocketed. Most of that money went to research universities — the modern research university was built by the federal government — and the rest went to think tanks, including RAND, the institute of the future. There would be new planes, new bombs, and new missiles. And there would be new tools of psychological warfare: the behavioral science of mass communications.

The second quotation describes the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool — perhaps the central figure in If Then, one of the inventors of behavioral data science and a man dedicated to using that data to fight the Cold War, win elections, predict and forestall race riots by black people, and end communism in Vietnam — on that hero of the counterculture Stewart Brand:

Few people read Pool’s words more avidly than Stewart Brand. “With each passing year the value of this 1983 book becomes more evident,” he wrote. Pool died at the age of sixty-six in the Orwellian year of 1984, the year Apple launched its first Macintosh, the year MIT was establishing a new lab, the Media Lab. Two years later, Brand moved to Cambridge to take a job at the Media Lab, a six-story, $45 million building designed by I. M. Pei and named after Jerome Wiesner, a building that represented nothing so much as a newer version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. Brand didn’t so much conduct research at the Media Lab as promote its agenda, as in his best-selling 1987 book, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. The entire book, Brand said, bore the influence of Ithiel de Sola Pool, especially his Technologies of Freedom. “His book was the single most helpful text in preparing the book you’re reading and the one I would most recommend for following up issues raised here,” Brand wrote. “His interpretations of what’s really going on with the new communications technologies are the best in print.” Brand cited Pool’s work on page after page after page, treating him as the Media Lab’s founding father, which he was.

And finally: One of Lepore’s recurrent themes is the fervent commitment of the Simulmatics crew to a worldview in which nothing in the past matters, and that all we need is to study the Now in order to predict and control the Future:

Behavioral data science presented itself as if it had sprung out of nowhere or as if, like Athena, it had sprung from the head of Zeus. The method Ed Greenfield dubbed “simulmatics” in 1959 was rebranded a half century later as “predictive analytics,” a field with a market size of $4.6 billion in 2017, expected to grow to $12.4 billion by 2022. It was as if Simulmatics’ scientists, first called the “What-If Men” in 1961, had never existed, as if they represented not the past but the future. “Data without what-if modeling may be the database community’s past,” according to a 2011 journal article, “but data with what-if modeling must be its future.” A 2018 encyclopedia defined “what-if analysis” as “a data-intensive simulation,” describing it as “a relatively recent discipline.” What if, what if, what if: What if the future forgets its past?

Which of course it has. Which of course it must, else it loses its raison d’être. Thus the people who most desperately need to read Lepore’s book almost certainly never will. It’s hard to imagine a better case for the distinctive intellectual disciplines of the humanities than the one Lepore made just by writing If Then. But how to get people to confront that case who are debarred by their core convictions from taking it seriously, from even considering it?

on not owning my turf

When I bought this domain name I joked that the “.org” in this case stands for “organism,” because of course I’m not an organization. But that may not matter to the private equity firm that wants to buy the whole .org domain.

I have to confess: I didn’t know that this was possible. I thought the various domains were administered by the consortium that runs the whole Web — I didn’t know that entire top-order domains were for sale on the open market. I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog and elsewhere counseling the wisdom of owning your own turf, but this is a strong reminder to me that of course I don’t own my turf — I only have use of the domain name for as long as I am willing and able to pay whatever a private equity firm (should the sale go through) decides I ought to cough up. If they tell me that I can keep ayjay.org for $5000 a year, then this won’t be my turf any more.

It’s sobering. Similarly — and this I did know — if my hosting company, or any other hosting company I might use, decided that as a Christian I am an intolerable bigot who cannot be allowed to sully their good name, then I might still have temporary title to the domain name but would be unable to make any of my writings public.

I have written against the walled gardens of social media and in favor of tending the digital commons, but maybe “commons” was a bad metaphor. Maybe the open web is more like a public park that the city government might at any time sell to developers who plan to turn it into a high-rise. Absence of walls is not presence of public ownership.

I own my computer and the files on its hard drive. That may be all, in the digital world, I own.

obliviousness

Radiolab just re-posted a 2017 episode on technologies for creating fake audio and video, and I noticed something this time that I missed when I first heard it. The Radiolab reporters say that the people creating such technologies “aren’t worried” about its potential abuse, but that’s not quite accurate. They haven’t thought about it. Listening to them try to answer questions about such potential — actually, inevitable — abuse, you can tell that the subject has never crossed their minds. 

Tim Cook’s master plan

One of the fascinating subplots of Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars trilogy — though it’s not so much a subplot as an evolving context — relates to the rise of what KSR calls the transnationals: vast international corporations that possess wealth and power exceeding that of all but a few countries. They’ve even taken over the running of many former nations. I’m thinking of the transnationals right now as I contemplate the ongoing crises in California, and the response of certain corporations to them. 

Here’s the title of an Apple news release from earlier this week: ”Apple commits $2.5 billion to combat housing crisis in California.” Wow, $2.5 billion! But let’s put this in context: How much cash on hand does Apple have? Not their investments, just the cash on hand, what they’ve tossed into that jar on the bedside table. That would be two hundred and six billion bucks. So $2.5 billion is just a drop in the bucket… or would be it better to think of it as a down payment? 

Consider this scenario: At some point in the next couple of years, Tim Cook meets behind closed doors with Governor Gavin Newsom and and a handful of other political leaders. Here’s what he says: 

“Friends, you know as well as I that this state is in a mess. The electricity in this part of the state is provided by a company whose idea of dealing with wildfires is to take away people’s power so the old and uninsulated lines won’t shoot out sparks. Many Californians have come to think it perfectly normal to step over homeless people — sometimes sick or even unconscious homeless people — on the way to work each day. Housing costs have forced thousands and thousands of people who work in our cities to live dozens of miles away, increasing the already infamous congestion on our roads. 

“And you all have played a role in this. You have constrained the budgets of PG&E because you don’t dare raise people’s taxes. You won’t support affordable-housing initiatives because you fear that the NIMBYs will vote you out of office — and you’re exactly right to fear that. You know what needs to be done to fix things; you also know that the fixes are politically impossible. You have kicked the can down the road again and again and again, but now the road has dead-ended. 

“We’re here to help. I’ve been authorized to speak on behalf of some of California’s other major tech companies, including Google, Oracle, and Intel. We’re all famous for getting things done, for innovating our way out of some very tight situations. We have massive resources of data, computing power, engineering expertise, and, above all, creativity. What we don’t have is a free hand to address the problems we see. 

“And that’s where you come in. We’re willing to work with the California State Legislature and the Governor’s office to come up with, and then promote, a plan that would turn over much of the responsibility for fixing these problems to us. We will of course need legal authorization that goes beyond what private companies have been allowed to do in the past — authorization of considerable control over the energy grid, for instance, and to, let’s say, cooperate with local police forces. But we’re not going to ask taxpayers to pay any more than they’re already paying: the rest will come out of our pockets. We’re trusted in this state — if I may be honest, trusted more than you are. Your willingness to take advantage of our public-spirited competence will surely reflect well on you. And if anyone complains about the decisions we make, well, we’ll take the heat for that. You have us to insulate you from any anger. I won’t pretend that we’ll get no benefit from this; we will. But what we’ll chiefly get is a better environment in which to live and work — and all Californians will benefit from that

“It’ll require some careful crafting of laws, and a strong PR campaign. But we’ve been working on all that, and are eager to share our ideas with you. What do you say?” 

And thus the reign of the transnationals will begin. 

all fears unwarranted

Social Media Has Not Destroyed a Generation:

Anxiety and panic over the effects of new technology date back to Socrates, who bemoaned the then new tradition of writing things down for fear it would diminish the power of memory.

Well, it wasn’t Socrates, in was a character in a story he told, but anyway, was he wrong? 

Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson both warned that communal relationships would suffer as industrial societies moved from rural to urban living.

Were they wrong?

Radio, video games and even comic books have all caused consternation.

Was the consternation justified? 

Television was going to bring about the dumbing down of America.

Did it? 

our airport future

NewImage

Two quotes from this interview with Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon. One:

SD: The airport is where different promises of the modern world are concentrated: the promise of moving freely around the globe, the promise of unlimited shopping, the promise of a completely rational organisation and the promise of a perfect surveillance. It embodies the desire of mastering the world. Yet, it is also the place where these promises meet their limits and their contradictions.

And two: 

GW: The airport is an archetypal place, in terms of both space and behaviour. In the book, we have a chapter about what we call “Cultural LCD”, which can be defined as the Least Common Denominator of world cultures. A universal code that would be as neutral as possible, a standardized interface that allows different individuals or cultural groups to communicate with each other. However, the airport model is expanding further and further and contaminating railway stations, institutions, monuments, stadiums, concert halls, museums, international hotels, malls and urban duty-free shops, restaurants, museums, schools, universities, offices, motorway service areas, etc.

This is fascinating and … horrifying. 

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.

where citizens were, there shall users be

Farhad Manjoo:

The real problem is that [the scooters] just appeared out of nowhere one day, suddenly seizing the sidewalks, and many citizens felt they had no real agency in the decision. They were here to stay, whatever nonusers felt about them.

Which was all by design. The scooter companies were just following Travis’s Law. In Santa Monica, Bird’s scooters appeared on city streets in September. Lawmakers balked; in December, the city filed a nine-count criminal complaint against Bird.

Bird responded with a button in its app to flood local lawmakers with emails of support. The city yielded: Bird signed a $300,000 settlement with Santa Monica, a pittance of its funding haul, and lawmakers authorized its operations.

If you love the scooters, you see nothing wrong with this. But there was a time, in America, when the government paid for infrastructure and the public had a say in important local services. With Ubers ruling the roads, Birds ruling the sidewalks, Elon Musk running our subways and Domino’s paving our roads, that age is gone.

the Aspen Tech Solutionism Festival

I have long loved the Atlantic and am proud of my association with it, but every time the Aspen Ideas Festival rolls around my inner Unabomber emerges and wants to burn the entire endeavor to the ground. It’s the only time of year when reading posts in the Atlantic makes me so angry I want to go kick something.

I think I would be okay with it if the shindig had a more accurate name, like the Ideas from Our Technocratic Overlords Festival. Often it seems that there are no ideas at the Aspen Ideas Festival that don’t serve to consolidate transnational technocracy, even the ones that seem to be offering critiques.

Maybe Code for America is reconsidering some of its priorities but it’s still Code for America and its “solutions” inevitably involve deepening people’s dependence on Big Tech. (“We can give you a texting tool that allows you to text with people and it’s been shown to decrease the rates of failure to appear.”)

Is there a crisis of affordable housing in Silicon Valley? Indeed there is. So let’s see what Google can do about it!

This is how it goes, session after session, year after year.

My recommendation: stop calling it an Ideas festival until at least two or three ideas featured there don’t defer to, appeal to, or consolidate the authority of, the world’s biggest technology corporations.

I’m exaggerating, of course. There are always a few sessions about “sustainable development” and “rethinking nutrition” and “civic engagement.” But nine times out of ten there’s an app for that — and, probably, an accelerated Master’s degree at a mid-tier university for only $80,000, please click through to apply for a loan.

For those of us who think there are interesting non-smartphone-connected ideas to be had about family, or faith, or poetry, Aspen is the one place you don’t want to be this summer, or any other.

meritocracy, schmeritocracy

David Brooks:

The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.

All his other points are excellent also, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the damage done to our culture by the trust we place in people simply because they score very high on texts designed to measure g. That’s how you end up with a world run by functionally sociopathic technocrats.

And if you want to know what I mean by “functionally sociopathic,” here you go.