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]

Abundance within limits

In any consideration of agrarianism, this issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms — and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits.

This is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.

–Wendell Berry, The Agrarian Standard

A demagogue’s playbook

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.

The above excerpt is from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925/26). Richard J. Evans quotes it in The Coming of the Third Reich (2003; p. 168), along with this: “The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling.”

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.

Neither savage nor barbarian

Clara broke in here, flushing a little as she spoke: ‘Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living? — a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — “nature”, as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind another. It was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make “nature” their slave, since they thought “nature was something outside them.’

‘Surely,’ said Morsom; ‘and they were puzzled as to what to do, till they found the feeling against mechanical life, which had begun before the Great Change amongst people who had leisure to think of such things, was spreading insensibly; till at last under the guise of pleasure that was not supposed to be work, work that was pleasure began to push out the mechanical toil, which they had once hoped at the best to reduce to narrow limits indeed, but never to get rid of, and which, moreover, they found they could not limit as they had hoped to do.’

‘When did this new revolution gather head?’ said I.

‘In the half-century that followed the Great Change,’ said Morsom, ‘it began to be noteworthy; machine after machine wa quietly dropped under the excuse that the machines could not produce works of art, and that works of art were more and more called for. Look here,’ he said, ‘here are some of the works of that time — rought and unskilful in handiwork, but solid and showing some sense of pleasure in the making.’

‘They are very curious,’ said I, taking up a piece of pottery from amongst the specimens which the antiquary was showing us; ‘not a bit like the work of either savages or barbarians, and yet with what would once have been called a hatred of civilization impressed upon them.’

–William Morris, News from Nowhere, or an epoch of rest, being some chapters from a utopian romance. Edited by James Remond, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 154-55. (1890)


“Turn water off.”

4DX falls squarely within — and furthers — this tradition. It jostles your seat, which is larger and more like something you might buy at Brookstone than your typical movie theater seat, and sends you bumping along as Vin Diesel and his Furious co-stars race through the streets of various global metropolises. When the camera tilts, the seats often tilt with it, and an early set of shots of the blue ocean waves is accompanied by a gentle rocking motion that made me a little sleepy.

Every so often, little puffs of air burst by your face to accentuate, say, gunfire or a big explosion. On your 4DX armrest, there’s an option to “turn water off,” but Fate of the Furiousis not an especially wet movie, so I did not get sprayed once. But other effects are also possible: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 director James Gunn has promised “snow and bubbles” for his film when screened in 4DX.

–Todd VanDerWerff, How can movie theaters compete with your living room? By building a better living room.

This sounds horrible. Why in the name of everything holy would I want to go to a cinema, of all places, and have to figure out how to “turn water off?” A bidet belongs in a bathroom, not movie theater. No doubt the “turn water off” option will be available exclusively on a smartphone app. I’d have to ask someone from the “smartphone section” to hack my seat for me. Ugh.

VanDerWerff gets it right at the end of his article: “There’s still something potent about sitting down, in the dark, with your loved ones, and forgetting everything but what’s onscreen. You don’t need your seat to move around for that.” When I go to Six Flags, I want a Six Flags experience. When I go to the cinema, I want a cinematic experience. Instead of asking themselves how to make going to the movies more than a moviegoing experience, theater owners should be asking themselves how to make it more of an moviegoing experience. 

You won’t get privacy on the Republican party line.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, there are also serious implications for security: If ISPs look to sell consumer data, “internet providers will need to record and store even more sensitive data on their customers, which will become a target for hackers.” Even if they anonymize your sensitive data before they sell it to advertisers, they need to collect it first—and these companies don’t exactly have a perfect track record in protecting consumer data. In 2015, for example, Comcast paid $33 million as part of a settlement for accidentally releasing information about users who had paid the company to keep their phone numbers unlisted, including domestic violence victims.

This is all made much more difficult for consumers by the dearth of broadband competition. More than half of Americans have either one or even no options for providers, so if you don’t like your ISP’s data collection policies, chances are you won’t be able to do much about it, and providers know that. It’s highly unlikely that providers, particularly the dominant companies, will choose to forego those sweet advertising dollars in order to secure their customers’ privacy, when they know those customers don’t have much choice. […]

All is not completely lost. Your ISP still has to allow you to opt out of having your data sold, so you can call them or go online to find out how to do that. (If you do that, let us know how it went.) But today’s news is devastating for privacy overall. Consumers could have had more control over their privacy; your data could have been safer. Things could have been better, if Congress had done what it usually does and done nothing. Instead, they made things worse for anyone who doesn’t run an internet company or an advertising agency.

–Libby Watson, Congress Just Gave Internet Providers the Green Light to Sell You Browsing History Without Consent


From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?

The faceless inflexibility of platforms

A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting.

–Alan Jacobs, platforms and institutions