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”
A Dystopian Time Machine from 1909: Sunday 1/19/2020
It was in 1909, before he had published any of his novels, that E. M. Forster flung himself into the far future to epitomize the hole he believed humanity was digging itself into—literally—in his novella The Machine Stops. Although he seems to have forgotten or ignored it as most others have done, he lived long enough (passing in 1970) to seen the stirrings of the technological mousetrap he depicted in that tale of an estranged mother and son cocooned in subterranean air-conditioned private vaults designed and maintained by forces beyond their ken. How we have come to dwell is different in detail but not in essence, and the polarities of acceptance and rejection of our fate echo those of Forster’s protagonists.
In a way, The Machine Stops turns H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) on its head. Instead of Wells’s Eloi, innocents dwelling on the earth’s surface who are at the mercy of the subterranean beasts, the Morlocks, Forster’s characters live deep below the surface in warrens fashioned long ago by men driven to escape the environmental catastrophes their own inventions had wrought. But neither book ends well for its protagonists.
None of Forster’s later works entered such territory. In his novels of marriages and mores, he went on to chronicle the intimate travails of bourgeois Brits, expressed as modernist realism rather than science fiction. But by 1940, modern life had burdened him so that he could never find relevance in such period pieces.
What his novella meant for Forster and what it signifies for us today I have tried to puzzle out ina commentary online in The Technoskeptic Magazine, accompanied by a few editorial excerpts from it. The entire novella has been republished online n several places, such as this PDF version. If you have never read it, doing so will make you think twice before logging on anywhere.
The Next Debate Needs More Mud: Wednesday 10/16/2019
The Democratic presidential debates are getting too predictable and too carefully scripted to slant coverage the way media barons and their CIA minders want. It has come time for presidential aspirants to get down and dirty (Don and dirty?) And so, for the next nationally televised debate (hopefully over the air as well as on cable news), here’s what I’d like to see:
Live mud wrestling onstage, narrated by a Howard Cowell impersonator!!!
Picture, if you will and can, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders facing off in a sea of mud, clad only in Titleist shorts, tripping, poking eyes, and body-slamming their opponent. Picture too Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris in Speedos tearing at each others’ hair (advantage Warren) or slipping through holds (advantage Harris). Let’s pair off all the others and make a ladder of mud until the final encounter, mano a mano, wrestles the top contenders to their inevitable (if the DNC has its way) political death.
Then and only then will we know what these people are made of. My prediction of who will take the final round is…
National Guard reservist and in-shape Iraq veteran Tulsi Gabbard.
Issue with Contact Forms Fixed: Wednesday 6/19/19
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I Support Tulsi: Monday 6/10/19
And here’s some good reasons why you should too, win or lose.
If you share only one thing about Tulsi with your friends and family, make it this video. Over six minutes, this raw and emotional exchange encapsulates the reason she is running for president. #Tulsi2020pic.twitter.com/BaB3RxrKIq
Here’s prematurely alopeciated Jeff Bezos, proudly displaying Amazon wares looking part goofball, part nerd, and part used car salesman. The photo of the now-richest human being is undated, but I place it in the late 1990s.
One clue is that book he’s holding, Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought, 1st Edition, by Douglas Hofstadter, published in 1996 and currently selling for $20.17 at Amazon.
Amazon’s blurb for it reads: “Driven to discover whether computers can be made to ‘think’ like humans, Hofstadter and his colleagues created a variety of computer programs that extrapolate sequences, apply pattern-matching strategies, make analogies, and even act ‘creative.’ As always, Hofstadter’s work requires devotion on the part of the reader, but rewards him with fascinating insights into the nature of both human and machine intelligence.”
Well gosh, isn’t that just what young Jeff went on to do? Amazon’s AI inference engines are among the best in the biz. Everything you do on the site is tracked to predict what you will want next and put up for sale to assorted merchants and data brokers. All that shopping and just clicking around made Jeff a media plutocrat by giving people what they were urged to want, but also by selling their souls. We might have gotten the hint then, but who was paying attention to all that profiling or knew AI would come after us with it? My advice: resist one-click shopping.
Childfree Doesn’t mean Carefree: Saturday 3/30/19
WIRED this week features a rather joyless essay, Why Don’t You Want Kids? Because Apocalypse! that makes a case for the Childfree movement, as is evidenced on Reddit and in several recent or forthcoming books and academic articles. I can relate to these young folks who spurn parenthood; newly married in my mid-twenties, I decided I didn’t want to have any kids. Now the childfree folks say its to spare potential offspring from one or more coming collapses. Back then, Vietnam, Nixon, assassinations, and civil disturbances, not to mention overpopulation, made bringing a child into the world seem risky, if not futile. But the real reason I didn’t want to was that I had decided I did not want my wife to be the mother of my children. That was a problem, and after three years together we sensibly broke up.
It took many relationships and 30 years for me to change my mind, and now my only child, my special daughter, is about to enter college. Of course I’m glad we had her, and gratified that she’s plotting a career to fight for environmental quality justice. We—and she—know her path won’t be easy, but we wouldn’t have it otherwise.
Now, many of today’s childfreebies may have staggering loads of student debt, which wasn’t so much of a problem when I graduated from college. No doubt, having a baby when one is under such a financial cloud can feel daunting. But even if they manage to pay off their own college and grad school obligations, they’ll still need to save the money they might have spent to educate their unborn. That’s because, come the time when they grow old and feeble, they’ll need to pay for support that adult children typically provide ageing parents; such services don’t come cheap and may go on for a number of years, if not decades. Are they prepared to put their money where their mouth is, their faith in the kindness of strangers, and their fates in underpaid hands, or have they already decided that the world will soon end and take them with it? If so, good for them. Who needs another generation of nihilists?
Just when a consensus—including certain Republican and cabinet officials—is emerging that electing Donald Trump was a big mistake, a new book shows up to tell us how to make more mistakes like it. It’s from the creator of Dilbert and his crew of corporate miscreants and details how one won the 2016 presidential election. But Scott Adams’ Win Bigly is more than that; it’s sort of a Machiavelli for Dummies meets Fortunetelling for Dummies. It purports to demonstrate how readers can forecast outcomes, as he did of the 2016 election (emphasis his):
On August 13,2015, I predicted that Donald Trump had a 98 percent chance of winning the presidency based on his persuasion skills.
He proceeds to explain the way he came to that conclusion, including the number, and—Sad—how he suffered personally for having done that. Although, he asserts, Blogging and tweeting of The Donald’s inevitability cost him street cred, new licensing deals and speaking engagements, and half his friends, he stuck to his guns.
Out of repression has emerged one of the world’s most interesting experiments in democracy. And by democracy, what is meant is not the formal capitalist variety of elections every few years in which consumption of consumer products is substituted for participation in societal decisions.
Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces intent on destroying them, in a part of the world that Western pundits claim can only be ruled by dictators, the Kurds of Syria are intent on creating a society more democratic than any found in North America or Europe. This is not simply a matter of creating institutions of direct and communal, as opposed to representative, democracy but, most importantly, democratizing the economy. In the words of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, “In self-government, an alternative economic system is necessary, one that augments the resources of society rather than exploiting them, and in that way satisfies the society’s multitude of needs.”
The many sides of that equation are explored in detail in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan,* a study of Rojava’s experiment in radical democracy by three activists who spent months in Rojava studying the society being constructed, and who themselves have been involved in Rojava in various capacities. One of the authors, Anja Flach, spent two years in the Kurdish women’s guerrilla army. Her co-authors are Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer, and Michael Knapp, a historian. Although the three authors make clear their sympathies for the Rojava revolution, their book is not hagiographic, but rather a serious analysis of a developing process.
See the full article here. A version of it also appears on today’s edition of CounterPunch.