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]

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Committed to the label

I asked both Barber and Pope of Brigham Young what their thoughts on American politics are now that Trump has been in office eight months.

Pope argued in an email that there has been too much emphasis on polarization and not enough on partisanship.

While elites — elected officials and party activists — are ideologically polarized, the best the general public “can manage is a kind of tribal partisanship that does not really reflect the content of the elite discussion,” Pope wrote:

Citizens pick a team, but they don’t naturally think like the team leadership does. And when Trump tells Republicans to think in a new way, lots of people happily adopt that new position because they were never that committed to the old ideas anyway. They’re just committed to the label.

–Thomas B. Edsall, Trump Says Jump. His Supporters Ask, How High?

Introducing “iGen.”

From Jean M. Twenge’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

Twenge supplies a lot of correlated data that strongly link smartphone use to a number of generationally-distinct patterns in what she calls “iGen.” Among the more worrying data, she documents the rise of cyberbullying among young people, especially among girls. Then this:

Social-media companies are of course aware of these problems, and to one degree or another have endeavored to prevent cyberbullying. But their various motivations are, to say the least, complex. A recently leaked Facebook document indicated that the company had been touting to advertisers its ability to determine teens’ emotional state based on their on-site behavior, and even to pinpoint “moments when young people need a confidence boost.” Facebook acknowledged that the document was real, but denied that it offers “tools to target people based on their emotional state.”

At no time in human history have we possessed tools more finely-attuned to the art of manipulating the psychology of masses of people. These tools are supremely scalable. The same platforms that can target a demographic of heterogenous millions can individualize their content to reach, perhaps, a niche demographic of dozens. Taken in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s utopian manifesto from earlier this year, the existence of the “boost” document ought to give us serious pause.

Allow me to go one step further. Scientists based in Portland, Oregon, recently succeeded in using the gene-editing program CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the DNA of embryos to eliminate the development of a genetic mutation that would cause hypertrophic cardiomyapathy. This is an incredible victory for medical science. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. You should, too.

We have the tools to shape and reshape the human experience on a very literal level. On the genetic level, CRISPR is but the first feeble step toward technology whose power will enable us to program our own genetic makeup on scales previously imagined only in science fiction. Similarly, the algorithms of social media sites like Facebook have the potential to shape their users’ desires, feelings, and perceptions in ways that are simultaneously microscopically managed and macroscopically unpredictable. I strive to make these observations not in a spirit of alarm or histrionics but in the mindset of sober assessment. If, despite my attempts at sobriety, you feel alarmed… well, good.

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?”

Best practices.

In a still-influential paper from 1937 titled “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist and Nobel laureate Ronald Coase established himself as an early observer and theorist of corporate concerns. He described the employment contract not as a document that handed the employer unaccountable powers, but as one that circumscribed those powers. In signing a contract, the employee “agrees to obey the directions of an entrepreneur within certain limits,” he emphasized. But such characterizations, as Anderson notes, do not reflect reality; most workers agree to employment without any negotiation or even communication about their employer’s power or its limits. The exceptions to this rule are few and notable: top professional athletes, celebrity entertainers, superstar academics, and the (increasingly small) groups of workers who are able to bargain collectively.

Yet because employment contracts create the illusion that workers and companies have arrived at a mutually satisfying agreement, the increasingly onerous restrictions placed on modern employees are often presented as “best practices” and “industry standards,” framing all sorts of behaviors and outcomes as things that ought to be intrinsically desired by workers themselves. Who, after all, would not want to work on something in the “best” way? Beyond employment contracts, companies also rely on social pressure to foster obedience: If everyone in the office regularly stays until seven o’clock every night, who would risk departing at five, even if it’s technically allowed? Such social prods exist alongside more rigid behavioral codes that dictate everything from how visible an employee’s tattoo can be to when and how long workers can break for lunch.

–Miya Tokumitsu, The United States of Work

A formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity called the future

In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself.  “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.

Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.

–Sam Kriss, Watching the World Rot at the World’s Largest Tech Conference

I already wonder what Prof. Jacobs would have to say about Kriss’s provocative essay. This particular passage reeks of techno-determinism, albeit a pessimistic one. Kriss spends an entire paragraph laying out the case that “non-living objects” — our tools — “have their own strange form of life,” and that these tools have evolved (somehow) into an increasingly autonomous system with “less and less use for us–even as a moving part.” All of this suggests to me that Kriss views humanity as extraordinarily deprived of agency by its technological infrastructure.

Yet the following sentence–more of an aphorism, really–declares simply, “Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.” I emphasize those words because they suggest that we are actively moving–as opposed to being moved–toward self-annhilation.

To me, this rhetorical confusion is pretty significant. At the end of the essay, Kriss documents a meet-and-greet at a local watering hole. He laments that human sociality has been transmogrified into ever more affective labor.

A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.

But what or who, exactly, had done the transforming? The “logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented”? Kriss’s refusal to name names makes a sort of sense, given that a main theme of his essay is the way our society is increasingly a “system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.” This systemic opacity makes it impossible or difficult. Or perhaps, for his rhetorical purposes, it’s rhetorically undesirable to name openly and clearly. Look at that passage again. States, one by one, turn red, apparently of their own accord, as if the vote tallies themselves are “a grinning goblin.” Is Donald Trump the goblin? Or does Kriss simply fear to name the agent that is actually responsible for turning those states red: humanity? States don’t just turn red of their own accord, even on CNN election maps. Voters vote, and the color reflects their choice.

I honestly can’t tell if Kriss is being imprecise as a matter of rhetorical strategy or because he’s not carefully thinking through the implications of his premise. In a lot of ways, it seems politically easier to say, “The end of humanity had already arrived.” It lets us off the hook for having to take responsibility and a measure of control over our technosphere. It also gives people like Kriss persmission to dismiss and demean those people whose goals and purposes are opaque to him.

Kriss can’t understand why tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would choose to congregate in such a chaotic way. He doesn’t get the appeal of running a 90% chance of failure as an app innovator. The idea of using a social occasion as a milieu for professional networking appears vaguely insidious. Lurking behind it all is some Illuminati-esque entity called Technology (or maybe the Tech Industry?), whose agency and motives are obscure and sinister, possibly apocalyptic. And: surely real people could not choose to vote for Trump of their own volition. There must be something compelling them. Kriss (willfully?) ignores the fact that people and their choices remain utterly central to the maintenance of any and all tools that comprise our systems.

I’m largely sympathetic to Kriss’s critique, I think. Most of the systems that hold our social world together mystify me in many profound ways. People themselves constantly disappoint and mystify me, too. But I do think it’s a categorical error to ascribe agential vitality to “systems” or “technology” without doing at least minimal definitional work. Where does human agency end and systemic agency begin? What is the nature of this “strange form of life” posessed by non-living objects? Are all non-living objects possessed by the same, strange life-force, and do they all exert it the same way upon humanity? Is Kriss overwhelmed by The Tech Industry at the Web Summit, or is he primarily overwhelmed by the apparently chaotic society of its attendees–the people who’ve chosen to work there?

Most importantly, doesn’t Kriss fall into the ancient trap of self-fulfilling prophecy? Non-living systems built by people enervate human societies precisely to the extent that humanity cedes agential authority to its tools. When the crash happens, it’s often because people start thinking that their tools will take care of themselves. Worse, cataclysms often happen because people start confusing other people with tools. Kriss seems to lament that transformation; he also empowers and perpetuates it. Instead of trying to understand how and why people would be so gung-ho about valorizing their tools (rightly or wrongly), he speculates that the tools have simply gotten the better of their masters. And instead of trying to understand how and why people would choose to vote for a grinning goblin (rightly or wrongly), he intimates that they’ve simply already sacrificed their humanity. “Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come,” Kriss says, because society’s “structure is one of increasing chaos.” Perhaps. Probably. Or there’s a pattern there that Kriss can’t see because he refuses recognize it as an extension of his own humanity.

A hundred irrelevant issues at each election

Crises will come, as in the life of all nations and societies; but these will be happily surmounted, and the régime will continue, the stronger for its trial. A crisis of some moment will follow upon the large displacements of labor soon to result from the shutting up of needless factories and the concentration of production in the larger workshops. Discontent will spread, and it will be fomented, to some extent, by agitation. But the agitation will be guarded in expression and action, and it will be relatively barren of result. For most ills there is somewhere a remedy, if only it can be discovered and made known. The disease of sedition is one whose every symptom and indication will be known by rote to our social pathologists of to-morrow, and the possible dangers of an epidemic will, in all cases, be provided against. In such a crisis as that following upon the displacement of labor a host of economists, preachers, and editors will be ready to show indisputably that the evolution taking place is for the best interests of all; that it follows a “natural and inevitable law”; that those who have been thrown out of work have only their own incompetency to blame; that all who really want work can get it, and that any interference with the prevailing régime will be sure to bring on a panic, which will only make matters worse. Hearing this, the multitude will hesitatingly acquiesce and thereupon subside; and though occasionally a radical journal or a radical agitator will counsel revolt, the mass will remain quiescent. Gradually, too, by one method or another, sometimes by the direct action of the nobility, the greater part of the displaced workers will find some means of getting bread, while those who cannot will be eliminated from the struggle and cease to be a potential factor for trouble. Crises of other kinds and from other causes will arise, only to be checkmated and overcome. What the barons will most dread will be the collective assertion of the villeins at the polls; but this, too, from experience, they will know to be something which, while dangerous, may yet be thwarted. By the putting forward of a hundred irrelevant issues they can hopelessly divide the voters at each election; or, that failing, there is always to be trusted as a last resort the cry of impending panic.

—William J. Ghent, Our Benevolent Feudalism. NY: Macmillan, 1902. pp. 195-6

Alt-Left: the next generation?

A couple observations pulled from Michael J. Totten’s coverage of this year’s Democratic National Convention:

Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.

Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”

Bern feeling the burn:

His own delegates booed him.

Sanders seemed bewildered by the forces he had unleashed. He hadn’t just railed against Clinton during the primary campaign. He had told everyone in America that the economy is rigged, that they’re getting screwed by the system, that Clinton is a part of that system, and that what America needs is a socialist revolution. Perhaps for him, this was just rhetoric, but his most ardent supporters and delegates took it seriously. They will continue fighting without him, no matter what happens this year.

Outside the DNC police state:

I had dinner with six Sanders delegates from my home state of Oregon. They were friendly but suspicious of me, believing that most journalists are in the tank for Clinton. None wanted to be quoted by name, not only because they don’t trust the media but also because they don’t trust the Democratic establishment, which they feared would punish them for speaking their minds. “We’ll lose our credentials if we complain too much to the media,” one woman said. “We were told to just talk about unity.” I don’t know if she was right, but I did notice that the DNC made it easier to remove a delegate’s credentials than a journalist’s. I had a press pass that gave me access to the Convention Center and the Wells Fargo Center for the whole week, but the delegates had to get brand-new passes each morning. Pulling their credentials wouldn’t have been difficult.

“When any of us got up to use the bathroom, paid Hillary shills took our seats,” a woman said. “They want to push us so hard that we won’t come back.” She teared up at one point. I gently tried to steer the conversation toward something else.

“I don’t know how to talk about anything else.”

I asked them to tell me the biggest problem they had with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment, to narrow it down to one or two things. I got a variety of answers.

“Our biggest problem,” a young man said, “is her lack of integrity.” Everyone nodded. They had other complaints, though, that set them far apart from Clinton and the party’s establishment and placed them firmly in the camp of the alt-Left.

“The Democratic Party hasn’t gotten rid of patriotism yet.” This was a complaint.

“Chants of USA, USA were disturbing. I felt like I was in Germany in the 1930s.”

“They brought out the flag and sang the national anthem.”

“You have a problem with the national anthem?” I asked.

“It makes me uncomfortable.”

“Every country in the world has a national anthem,” I said. “It’s perfectly normal.”

“Just because something is normal doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Some surprised me again by agreeing with Trump’s lambasting of NATO. “These entangling alliances are going to get us into World War III.” At least two of these Sanders delegates said that the United States should completely disarm and have no military at all, like Costa Rica.

On the younger generation’s attitudes:

According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.

“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.

It can happen here.

By Andy Marlette.
By Andy Marlette.

Clinton was always going to have a tough time governing. Yes, the 2016 election gave her a narrow three-seat Democratic majority in the Senate, but the GOP held the House — and once Paul Ryan was deposed as speaker in a post-election coup and replaced by pro-Trump firebrand Dana Rohrabacher, there was no chance the incoming president would get anything done. Still, few predicted that people would look back at the inside-the-beltway dysfunction of the Obama years as a golden age of governing.

With three federal government shutdowns and a (failed) presidential impeachment trial in the last two and a half years, there has been no time to address the nation’s problems — above all the slow-motion collapse of the Affordable Care Act. With Trump and his on-air talent railing nightly against President Clinton and her Republican “lap dogs” for trying to fix HillaryCare (nee ObamaCare) rather than letting it die, Congress did nothing as hundreds of thousands and then millions were dropped from health insurance or faced a choice of devastating rate hikes or tax penalties for failing to maintain coverage.

It’s been appalling but also unsurprising. Republicans first experienced this kind of thing back in the 1990s, when Rush Limbaugh began to use his radio show to motivate thousands of listeners to barrage their representatives in Congress with phone calls and faxes, keeping them in line and ensuring they never compromised with Democrats. With Trump TV leading the charge every night of the week (with ratings double what the now-flagging Fox News once brought in), congressional Republicans have felt their feet held to a white-hot roaring fire. No wonder no one has dared to break from the lockstep march to bring down Crooked Hillary.
–Damon Linker, After Trump loses: An ominous American future imagined