Motoring Becomes Electric, Redux

We tend to think of electric cars as futuristic but for our great-great grandparents, they were a thing. Who knew so many of the private automobiles sold up until the 1920s were electric-powered or that they and their styles ranged so far and wide? They were easier to start and maintain than cars propelled by internal combustion engines and had no gears to shift through, noise to suffer through, or smoke to choke through. Motor Magazine’s 218-page catalog of all cars marketed in the US in 1907 featured something like 800 models, including 75 electric vehicles (EVs) from dozens of manufacturers offering buggies for under $1000 to limousines at $4000 or more.[1] Pretty expensive for back then, but gas and steam cars cost a lot too until after 1910 and the Ford Model T. But before that…

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Where the Wild Things Once Were

Life is already too short to waste on speed.
~Edward Abbey

So, what does footloose communing with nature mean for you?

Harper’s Magazine published this bucolic scene of camping in New York’s  Adirondacks by up-and-coming artist Winslow Homer in 1874.  It’s one of many illustrations he turned out in competition with Currier & Ives in the mid-to-late 19th century for magazines and newspapers, most depicting Americans comporting themselves out-of-doors in cities, towns, villages, and beyond, in an age unmarred by automobiles, aircraft, telephones, and digitalia.

But even by then, the accelerating pace of progress had decimated the vast Adirondack region in its voracious demand for lumber, paper, and charcoal. In the mid-1880s, after much environmentalist agitation and corporate opposition, New York’s legislature designated the area as a forest preserve. Ten years hence, after the preserve’s stewards were exposed as corrupt, the state constitution was amended to protect the 6.3M-acre region “forever.” The amendment was all of two sentences, but it did the trick:

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Coming Down with Contactitis

It’s a drag, but can be cured

Every website needs a way for visitors to send a message to its proprietors. Some sites provide an email address, but typically they have a form on a page that tends to be called Contact. That’s what I did when I set up a website for my publishing imprint, Perfidy Press. Having put together several sites already, I should have known better than to set up a contact page that wasn’t protected against robots, but gave it no thought. Naively, I presumed that only people who cared about my content would bother to contact me. That seems to have been the case for the first six months it was online, when one or two responses a week got dumped into my inbox, but in the last two months it’s been more like one or two a day, and they keep getting more bizarre.

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Undoing Dystopia

Douglas Rushkoff Wants Us to Rewind

Buy Team Human from an indie bookstore

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.

The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together. Continue reading “Undoing Dystopia”

Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword Is So Hard to Swallow

 

“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble…We are going to continue to support the DOD and I think we should.”

~ Amazon founder and DoD contractor Jeff Bezos at the WIRED25 summit

The world’s wealthiest individual went on to acknowledge, “Technologies always are two-sided. There are ways they can be misused.” Convinced that they are being misused, Google employees mounted a protest that caused Alphabet (Google’s parent company) to step back from a contract to develop AI pattern recognition technology for targeting military drones, worrying the Pentagon. Continue reading “Why High Technology’s Double-Edged Sword Is So Hard to Swallow”

Yes, Virginia, there are conspiracies—I think

You know those little green-and-white USDA Organic labels you find on organic produce? What if someone told you that their adhesive transmits a powerful drug into the edible that over time can render humans sterile? It’s true, they say; they’ve seen the lab reports, and go on to assert that this is a plot by USDA and agribusiness interests to decimate nutritionally savvy people as a way boost sales of poison-laden GM food products.

Insidious beyond belief, you think. You’re pretty sure it’s a crock, but your doubt gene says “What if…?” and you decide to check it out. You email people to ask if they’ve heard it and some of them do the same. Someone finds a truther blog with a long discussion thread about it and lets you know. Alleging scientific credentials, certain discussants proceed to hypothesize about the chemistry and physiology of the attack vector and argue about that. Others point to connections between certain USDA political appointees and Big Food. The rumor has become a thing, and even if you post refutations that get shot down, you’re now part of it. Continue reading “Yes, Virginia, there are conspiracies—I think”

Unsafe Sex with Your Webcam

It’s only the second week of the month, but I feel we already have a winner for October’s spam contest. Not only is it semi-literate, its author kindly apologizes for the broken English, but then goes on to kindly request 850 euro be deposited in his or her bitcoin account. Even if I had euros I wouldn’t know how to do that. Should I go to my bank with cash, ask for it in euros and tell them to change them into bitcoins? I’ve never had any bitcoins; have no idea what they even look like.

The message ostensibly came from a user named Janine at a tax consultancy, but Janine’s address may have been spoofed. To preserve my privacy, I’ve changed my address to “whomever,” but the actual address my extortionist sent this to is a mailbox I dedicate to receiving mailings from adobe.com that has only been used by them, up until now. See, way back in 2013 hackers purloined data for some 8 million credit card and 30 million email addresses from Adobe. The info was most likely put up for auction on the Dark Web. It took five years for that s!*t to hit the fan, but that’s not unusual. Yet another reason not to do business with those price-gouging bloodsuckers, but I digress. Continue reading “Unsafe Sex with Your Webcam”

When Momma Ain’t Happy

Downsides of Innovation Mania

(Revised and expanded July 4th, 2018. Happy Independence from Consumerism Day!)

You probably sense as I do that normality isn’t what it used to be, even a few years ago. I’m talking not about Trump or politics but of the magnificent panoply of digital technologies we are immersed if not drowning in. The speed at which technologists are shoving stuff at us has bugged me for quite some time. Understanding innovation mania has caused me to spend years puzzling out what’s driving the complexification of nearly everything and how the new ways we are obliged to adopt might transform concepts of what human nature is.

Why, I wonder, is everything possible being digitized as quickly as possible? I hate to use the phrase, but might there be some “intelligent design” that drives humans to churn out technology, faster and faster? More importantly, whom or what are we serving with our clever innovations, especially those that render what once was tangible into bits? Continue reading “When Momma Ain’t Happy”

Innovators, Mind Your Mother

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress, titled The Silica Papers: Who Technology Is and What She Wants. Silica is the name I have given to the technosphere—the totality of human artifacts constructed over eons by human beings that allows us to survive and improve our lot. Except that things don’t necessarily get better in every way. To underscore how technology drives us as much as we drive it, I have personified Silica as sort of a demigod-in-waiting, a female force of nature I also call Stepmother Earth, who’s not quite sentient but quickly becoming so.
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Guest post: How Cambridge Analytica wants to bend your mind

If you are upset that in behalf of Trump’s campaign, Cambridge Analytica siphoned  personally identifying information on 50 million Americans from Facebook to microtarget voters, chances are that you may be missing the point about what they do and what it signifies. They are involved in psy-op electioneering on at least five continents similar to their efforts for Trump. Their data revelations are consulted in military and intelligence operations around the planet and their gluttony for personal data knows no bounds.

To get a handle on how these machinations play out, take a look at Roberto Gonzales’ (chair of the anthropology department at San José State University) recent article in CounterPunch, which shines a light on how CA and its parent company operate; by no means a complete accounting of the technologies or aims involved but enough to make you lose a few hours of sleep.

The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections

Read it, and let me know how happy you are now to expose yourself to social media. The task ahead for the citizenry, as I see it, is to immunize ourselves to behavioral manipulations, regardless of source or intent.