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


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]

Our love affair with dissent

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

–Jefferson Cowie, How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

Not alone in the universe

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

–Clay Routledge, Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s

Routledge ends with this: “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?”

Who knew?

What is key though is to understand that this is not just ignorance. Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him. Those of us who are parents know the wonder of discovery experienced by small children. They find out there were things such as dinosaurs or close primate relatives called lemurs. As loving parents we indulge them, sometimes feigning ignorance of things we actually already knew to support a child’s joy in discovery.

But Donald Trump is a 70 year old man. And not a terribly nice man.

His ignorance is not endearing. We don’t need to lie to him to make him feel good about himself. Still it is good to understand his condition. Ignorance is just lack of information. But there’s something wrong with Trump’s brain – maybe cognitive, perhaps simple entitlement or just broad spectrum derp – which appears to make it genuinely impossible not to project his own ignorance onto everybody else.

–Josh Marshall, Trump and the Problem of Militant Ignorance

It’s worth asking the question: aren’t Trump voters just as ignorant as he is or as prone to projecting their own ignorance onto others? When Trump says, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” it’s easy to retort, “Everybody knew that health care was that complicated.” And you might even think that this is true. Who doesn’t know how nightmarishly complicated health care in America is? But I wonder.

When Trump projects his ignorance onto everyone else, it rankles those of us who already knew what he now knows. It’s vaguely offensive, and for many of the reasons Marshall describes. I mean, I know that I’m vastly too ignorant to be president of the United States, and it is a bit disconcerting to be offered daily evidence that I seem to know my history better than the man currently wielding the Tomahawk missiles. But then, I take seriously what William Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The only history Donald Trump cares about is his Twitter timeline.

In my experience, people who aren’t innately curious only educate themselves if they’re externally compelled to do so. A great many of them justify their ignorance by saying that whatever knowledge they don’t possess simply doesn’t matter in their own daily lives.

So I don’t think it’s entirely unfair for him to project ignorance onto others. The people who flocked to his rallies rewarded him for his ignorant expectorations with applause; the people who voted for him didn’t think his ignorance sufficient reason to disqualify him from the job that, thanks to them, he now holds. In other words, the people who made Donald Trump president are either as ignorant as he is or they don’t care terribly much about his militant ignorance. These are the people, I presume, of whom Trump speaks when he says things like, “But it’s not what you think.”

This isn’t “broad spectrum derp.” It actually makes intuitive sense. Why would the duly-elected president of the United States assume that the people who put him in office were more knowledgeable than he was? After all: if they knew better, why on earth would they have voted for him?

To betray our nature.

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

–Alan Jacobs, Anthropocene theology

The tortoise, the hare, and American science

“Put simply, privatization will mean that more ‘sexy,’ ‘hot’ science will be funded, and we will miss important discoveries since most breakthroughs are based on years and decades of baby steps,” said Kelly Cosgrove, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University. “The hare will win, the tortoise will lose, and America will not be scientifically great.”

–Adrienne Lafrance, Scientists Brace for a Lost Generation in American Research

It defies logic.

Arthur Herstein, 74, a writer from Bowie, Maryland, said he was frustrated by Obama’s “over-the-top” vacation and travel expenses.

Still, Herstein said he doesn’t believe it’s the case that Trump is on pace to spend more on vacation and travel. He waved away a Washington Post story held up on a reporter’s phone.

“I believe that the story exists,” Herstein said. “But the facts in it can’t possibly be right. That absolutely can’t be right. How did Trump spend $10 million in one month and Obama spent $11 million in a year? It defies logic.”

–Jeff Stein, Conservative activists refuse to believe Trump is spending more on travel than Obama

Curiosity over partisanship?

In other words, curiosity seems to be the pin that bursts our partisan bubbles, allowing new and sometimes uncomfortable information to trickle in. Nothing else works like curiosity does, the authors point out—not being reflective, or good at math, or even well-educated.

Instead, they write, it’s “individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected … [who] expose themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations.”

–Olga Khazan, How to Overcome Political Irrationality About Facts