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?
In this weekend’s CounterPunch, Jason Hirtler masterfully dissects the bankruptcy of the (neo)liberal world order, in which Trump’s policies are bad, bad, bad even when they hardly differ substantively from those of Obama or any other president.
That America’s policies foreign and domestic scarcely vary from one administration to the next seems beyond the mass media’s myopic ken, but doesn’t escape the clear-eyed Mr. Hirtler. His well-chosen words both sting and entertain.
Read his analysis of the Democrat’s duplicity and overreaching and let us know if you think he’s off the mark or not. And while you’re over there, please chip in, because CounterPunch is entirely a reader-supported enterprise, and one of the few fearless publications willing to speak truth to power. A world without such blowback would be unthinkable, and perhaps uninhabitable.
Democratic Socialism is awful as a slogan and catastrophic as a policy. And “social democracy”—a term that better fits the beliefs of ordinary liberals who want, say, Medicare for all—is a politically dying force. Democrats who aren’t yet sick of all their losing should feel free to embrace them both.
~ Bret Stephens, “Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” New York Times op-ed, 7/7/19, p. A19.
So much for my false hopes for a progressive renaissance. Bret Stephens, the Great Gray Lady’s newest white male conservative columnist hath spoken. He came on board a little over a year ago, straightaway from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. When he was hired, NYT’s Editorial Page Editor James Bennet gushed “Bret, who won the 2013 Pulitzer prize for commentary, brings to the job profound intellectual depth, honesty and bravery – the qualities our audience expects from a Times columnist. He’s a beautiful writer who ranges across politics, international affairs, culture and business, and, for The Times, he will bring a new perspective to bear on the news.”
It’s universal. We all gripe about how news media—TV and radio network news, newspapers, and Internet news sites—intentionally distort and selectively oversimplify reality, and we like to say so in letters to the editor and online comments. Complaints about media bias are as old as the town crier, and today are institutionalized online. A bunch of watchdog groups, such as FAIR and Media Matters on the left (progressive foes of corporate media) and Media Research Center to the right (whose “sole mission is to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media”), specialize in skewering the press. They’re all worth considering if a balanced view is what you aspire to.
Both sides regularly take aim at the same targets for different reasons. One of them is NPR (National Pubic Radio), criticized by the right as a card-carrying member of the “liberal media” conspiracy and by the left as a corporatist sell-out. While it tends to steer left of and does more investigative reporting than our TV networks, its political liberalism stops just to the left of David Brooks. (Speaking of whom, should it appeal and you can spare $15, you can buy a roll of toilet paper printed with his visage and quotations. Monies fund The Baffler magazine’s crankiness.) Continue reading “Pity the Immigrant Warrior”
Every nation worth its salt has a deep state, a loose network of rich and powerful players who ratify, veto or formulate state social, economic and military policies. Whether monarchy, dictatorship, or constitutional republic, no government worthy of the name lacks for a shadowy unelected élite with hands on the tiller and in the till, influential persons with inherited or recent wealth, upper crust social connections, and old school ties, often found sitting on boards of directors and golf carts in isolated settings.
Like Sand Hill Cranes, they are rare and difficult to spot in their habitats, seamlessly blending as they do with their inaccessible surroundings. Amongst themselves, however, they are highly convivial. Partial to receptions, they bibulate and circulate as they joust over canapés. Not to worry they are but degenerates just killing time, important things get done under the buzz. Small talk can have big consequences and decadent environs make deal-making a sport. Continue reading “Deep State 101: A primer and prescription”
It is considered bad form for journalists to refer to the US government as a “regime.” Apparently, that moniker is reserved for our country’s enemies, of late Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Maybe Myanmar too; that’s still being sorted out. But what is a regime, really, and is it really true that we don’t have one here? Continue reading “One Regime to Rule them All”
Former Google EC Dr. Eric Schmidt has called for intelligence agencies to stop illegally prying into personal information and has been doing his best to convince the government to pay Google to do it legally instead. That said, in 2009 he was widely rebuked for telling CNBC:
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it’s important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities. ~ Dr. Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, 2009
Schmidt didn’t add that Google is obliged to turn over email content under court order and not tell users it did so. He didn’t have to. We all know about FISA and PATRIOT. Same goes for Hotmail, AOL, or any US email provider, only Google has much more to give. Continue reading “The Net’s Good Old Boys (3)”
In her five-minute interview with Ursula Wilder, a CIA psychologist whose job there involves counseling returning spies, NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly (their alleged National Security Correspondent) went over what makes someone who reveals state secrets tick. Kelly failed big-time to probe Wilder about whether she ever thought an insider might ever have a patriotic motivation to inform the public of illegal behavior on the part of the agency. Based on Wilders’ profile of leakers, the answer would surely have been No, but it sure would have been nice to ask.