Otherwise–who knows?

I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor. The key word of this statement is competition. It may very well be a good thing for humanity to have the machine remove from it the need of menial and disagreeable tasks, or it may not. I do not know. It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save; and it is precisely the terms of the open market, the “fifth freedom,” that have become the shibboleth of the sector of American opinion represented by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Saturday Evening Post. I say American opinion, for as an American, I know it best, but the hucksters recognize no national boundary.

Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,’ was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise—who knows? […]

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

—Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1961 [orig. 1948]), The MIT Press, pp. 27-29


Sin and Evil

It is a very religious term, but it’s not, in fact, a Christian term, which is one of the oddities of so many people who are self-professed Christians using the term.

St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, fought battles with other religious figures in his time, like the Manicheans, who stressed evil so much that nothing was left to the proposition that God is good. The idea that God is good is a fundamental proposition of Christian theology.

There’s apparently a reluctance on the part of Christians to use the word “sin” in the public square—they’re much more likely to use the word “evil.” Using the word “sin” might remind Christians that this is something that can be overcome with God’s help, and there’s grace even for the biggest sinners if they find Jesus in their hearts. You can’t be irredeemably evil from a Christian theological perspective, because then there would be no salvation, and no role for Jesus. “Evil” is much more of a secular word than a religious word. “Sin” would be the religious word.

–Alan Wolfe, interviwed by Emma Green.

Marx sets the boundaries

I would say that 99% of the time, in the various sort of mentions of Marx, the implication is that this is a critique of the United States. In fact, I will argue that one of the reasons that Marx continues to be received in the United States, read in the United States, and an important what I call ‘alter ego’ in American political culture, is precisely for that reason. If you want to be critical of the United States it is a good source to turn to. But there have been really important theorists such as Marshall Berman who wrote this book called All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, in which he argues that Marx is this theorist of modernity and that American culture is as modern as it gets and so the two can be sort of read together. Berman was a Marxist so he was obviously critical of capitalism and American capitalism, but he is not seeing the two as antithetical. I am trying to think through where I stand relative to that, and it really is hard to think about an American identity that would embrace or incorporate Marx, and I think one of the reasons that Marx is important is that he sets the boundaries of what it means to be an American. There have been intellectuals throughout American history since Marx began to be received in the United States who have wanted to argue for an American Marx, but I think that is a pretty difficult proposition.

–Andrew Hartman, Marx in the United States: An Interview

“They’re going to get me fucked up.”

So let us now imagine all the forces arrayed against 19-year-old Tim Piazza as he gets dressed in his jacket and tie, preparing to go to his new chapter house and accept the bid the brothers have offered him.

He is up against a university that has allowed hazing to go on for decades; a fraternity chapter that has hazed pledge classes at least twice in the previous 12 months; a set of rules that so harshly punishes hazing that the brothers will think it better to take a chance with his life than to face the consequences of having made him get drunk; and a “checking system” provided by a security firm that is, in many regards, a sham. He thinks he is going to join a club that his college endorses, and that is true. But it is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t survive.

So here is Tim, reaching for his good jacket—in a closet that his mother will soon visit to select the clothes he will wear in his coffin—a little bit excited and a little bit nervous.

“They’re going to get me fucked up,” he texts his girlfriend, and then he pulls closed the door of his college apartment for the last time.

–Caitlin Flanagan, Death at a Penn State Fraternity

Another actual quote from our president:

Mick Mulvaney is here, and Mick is in charge of a thing called budget. I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack. We spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing. No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?


TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everyone around this table and everyone watching can be very proud of what’s taking place in Puerto Rico.

–transcript from Vox.

For what it’s worth, the official FEMA death toll from Katrina is 1,833. “Very proud,” indeed.

Behold the butterfly

Technique, which transforms culture into luxury, puts so many cultural modalities at the reader’s disposal that none of them has any more importance than any other; the customer becomes a butterfly dipping into whatever flower he chooses. … Technique erects a screen between the author and his readers. Miniature fireworks issue from the magic bottle, but not revolt. A few printed pages out of the deluge of printed matter will never make the butterfly revolutionary.

–Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1970), trans. John Wilkinson [originally published as La Technique l’enjeu du siécle, 1954]

The deceptive allure of binary choices

Coates writes that since among working-class Americans, 61 percent of whites—but only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks—supported Trump, only “whiteness” can be the culprit. But why did any percentage of working class blacks and Hispanics vote for Trump? Do they also secretly harbor white-supremacist viewpoints? Did they too inherit the all-powerful white heirloom? Or is it possible that all of these groups were motivated by a variety of factors, not least among them a visceral and uncompromising dislike of Hillary Clinton?

Beware the deceptive allure of binary choices that masquerade as arguments. Coates’s failure to imagine complexity in human motives yields the assumption that such complexity cannot possibly exist.

–Chloé Valdary, There’s No Single Explanation for Trump’s Election