Tech Fascination Capture


A somewhat cheeky line connects the many points along what I’ll call our Tech Fascination Capture. Describing that line can be tricky, but that’s what blogs are for, so here goes.

Interpretive problems that computers cannot solve, or rather those they can solve that aren’t the important ones, are at the center of a cognitive gap that is only increasing – and doing so fueled by our gaze and awe. We can’t seem to figure out why or how Russian troll farms might have swayed the most recent U.S. presidential election, if not others. Will artificial intelligence and the occupations lost to robots be good/a net value/desired? Self-driving cars – will we get there safely?

Much of this mystery is obscured by the need for a single answer to any one question, of course. But we are also frightened by the prospect of a single answer to multiple questions. This fear is a sort of disbelief itself, based on our own uncertainty about what we know from what we’ve learned, plus this more recent tendency to fall back on what everyone knows to be true. I’m actually unsure about the origin of that dynamic, though I am unafraid to speculate.

But, one thing is certain (and demanding of emphatic, if parenthetical, punctuation!): the answers lie in the questions themselves.

On social media misinformation, we don’t seem to want to contemplate the very top-level tradeoff: is the ability to connect with people worth the price of manipulation? That is, transmission of information and disinformation flow through the same tube – whether we believe one is sacred and the other profanely immoral or not is of not consequence whatsoever. There is one tube/portal; these are its uses; do you want to play?

Will robots kick us to the curb and take our places? Who programs what robots can do? What will machine learning do about the should question? Is there such a thing as robot creativity, outside of MFA programs, that is?

Self-driving cars: so few startups and new products have anything to do with actual technology anymore that this one – which does – should (ha!) be attached with a free-rider proviso. The billions of dollars and pixels that accrue to its pursuit all ignore the same problem with driverless cars: unanticipated events. If a couple, holding hands, is jay walking and a young mother is in the crosswalk with her carriage on the same section of a street simultaneously, who gets run over? It all happens in an instant, plus bikes, buses, other cars (are there bad self-drivers?), weather, darkness… the idea that these variables can be solved is an answer to a solution, not a problem.

This is not to suggest understanding our capture is simple. But let’s think about it.

A Nobel gesture

Congratulations to Richard Thaler on his 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics. The professor took some hardly veiled shots at the Preznit, but also offered some “gee, I just can’t figure it” about the stock market:

“His ratio of certitude to knowledge is nearing record highs,” Thaler said on Bloomberg Radio with Tom Keene and David Gura. “We all need a lot of humility, and especially about the economy.”
Thaler also expressed surprise that the stock market is returning good performance with few disruptions during what he sees as uncertain political times. Congress is grappling with a tax reform proposal, but infighting among Republicans has called into question whether a package will ultimately pass.

“Who would have thunk that the stock market would just continue to go up” during “what has to be the most uncertain times of my lifetime,” Thaler said. “Surely it can’t be based on the certitude that there will be a massive tax cut, given the seeming inability of the Republican Congress to get their act together. So I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

Well, who knows? If you read PK, he seems clear headed about it, if full of Robert Hughes allusions. But how about this: Maybe the indices keep going up, despite the uncertainty and turmoil, because as a set of money-making wagers, they actually feed on that level of chaos. Maybe as a ruse, or cover, for the Ponzi nature of the games being plied and played. The ‘it’s all so complex and confusing, who knows how it works’ absolutely accrues to the benefit of some. See the bankster/fraudsters of 2008 and how they have ascended to far more dizzying heights in the time since, and the extent to which questions about all this convenient success equal nothing more than conspiracy theories. They don’t even bother with calling people Commies anymore.
Quite a trick.

“I’m in love with that song.”


Finally caught the awesome Big Star documentary the other night, even though I was and remain a Replacements fan and have loved their song “Alex Chilton” for many moons; know some of the people involved with the Big Star reunions; and have been being yelled at by friends to watch the documentary for years. Sometimes I’m slow. It’s okay.
But it’s so good – most everything about Chilton and Memphis, but also the stuff about guitarist Chris Bell is just so weird.

By the mid-1960s, Memphis was teeming with teenage musicians captivated by their hometown’s role in birthing rock and roll, then the most dominant cultural expression of the era. Chilton had acquired no small amount of musical sophistication and talent just by virtue of parental osmosis. Well, that and he had a somewhat gimmicky ability to sing like soul-singers much darker and older than an upper-middle class white kid had any right to do. After a high school talent competition, Chilton was asked to join a local group of older musicians that eventually came to be called The Box Tops. Like Big Star, that name doesn’t mean much beyond music obsessives, but the band’s first single sold a few million copies and remains one of the most recognizable hits of the sixties. When “The Letter” hit number one, Chilton was just 16 years old.

The Box Tops churned out a number of minor hits after that, and Chilton, who had dropped out of school, went on tour with the band and partook in the usual rock and roll carousing. He partied with The Doors, and with The Box Tops’ brief career winding down, he even moved out to California to live with Brian and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. (It was there that he once crashed on the same couch with Charles Manson.) With The Box Tops breaking up, he largely abandoned the pursuit of fame. He taught himself to play guitar, worked on writing his own songs, and moved to New York where he became a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene. Along the way he got married, had a child, and divorced not long after. After briefly connecting with Chris Bell, a visionary musician from his teenage days in Memphis, Chilton moved back home to join his band. Big Star recorded and released their first album, the ironically titled #1 Record.

All this happened by the time he was 21. At an age when most of us were still trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives, Chilton had lit the fuse on a bomb that’s still sending shockwaves through pop music. But by the time we get to Chilton’s involvement with Big Star, well, here’s where George-Warren’s book, with its exhaustive details and an impressive authorial command, departs from the traditional rock and roll narrative. (And I do mean exhaustive—the book’s opening chapter traces the Chilton family history back to 11th century Normandy. If you want to know which houseguest Chilton’s mother showed how to make homemade mayonnaise, well, it’s all in here.)

Here’s a heavily abbreviated version of what happened: After a too brief and brilliant career, Big Star simply collapsed. Despite some positive critical notices, they remained largely unknown for a decade afterwards. Big Star’s music was so undeniably good that, over time, critical consensus simply reached critical mass. The resurrection of Big Star in the 1980s was a heartening and surprising event that’s almost unique in rock history.

Anyway… Here’s to tangents, slowness, weird great music, friends.

The outer edges fuel the storm


Though tropical cyclones can also gain strength over land, we have seen and experienced elections decided at the outer bounds of rationality, not to mention national borders. And the same goes for scandals. When the two are one and the same, we reach a distinct crossing over into all manner of non-metaphorical winds, downed trees, powerlessness, looting even.
Still it’s important to realize that the fundamental strength of the storm comes from good old warm water in open ocean, just as the current, inspired presidenting comes from heartland voters and good christians everywhere. Sure, climate change and the Russians probably had something to do with the current disasters. But really they were only helping fuel the storm.

Simply Amazing Tools

So fB is headed for a showdown with the Mueller investigation, or at least the inauguration of a new transparency czar for the social media advertising publishing juggernaut. For all their community building and connectingness of a bringing a world closer togetherness(tm), it’s still just a website with a business model – and that business model is your attention:

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

The whole concept of ‘paid social’ is far more preposterous than anyone seems willing to admit. If you/they have created the perfect mechanism for connecting people with (only) the stories and issues they care most about, you/they have also created a tool for manipulation that is so precisely anonymous and disfiguring that it can, has and will again be used to undermine governments with very little actual effort beyond basic IT competence and price of a starter home in the ‘burbs. The naiveté of the hubris is just staggering, as are the pleas of innocence and well-meaning. Deciding that you will not make any editorial decisions is disingenuous – but also an editorial decision!
We are our own enemies, and our willingness to be manipulated and use such a ‘free’ product is a tale that is being told to us, right before our eyes, to which we only insist on contributing further rationales.
Also, Orwell was a piker.

The green silk bomber

Tucked inside the shallowness, an essential truth about the power of commodity:

But there is more going on here, and it’s being ignored by detractors and defenders alike. The problem is not that Melania Trump wore an unsuitable, blithely out-of-touch outfit, although she did. The problem is that this administration turns every event — no matter how dire — into a kind of anesthetized luxury fashion shoot, which leads us to some disturbing political truths.

Fashion-magazine layouts have a particular feel to them. We know it well: stylized, blank, alluring in an anonymous way, suggestive of sex, but devoid of sensuality or personal emotion. The photographs draw us in, but the models don’t return our gaze. Instead, they tend to wear a kind of frozen, faraway gaze, a look that frees us to gawk unashamedly, without fear of being caught staring. Fashion models feign ignorance of the camera lens in order to signal that we are not their interlocutors, but rather voyeurs whose desires are roused only to be rechanneled toward the items for sale (clothes, jewels, handbags, etc.).

Such photos exist to cast the fetishizing spell of the commodity over us. They create, that is, a dissociative relationship with the viewer. And while Melania Trump was known to have been somewhat stiff as a model, she has clearly mastered that squinty, middle-distance gaze, which she regularly employs as First Lady.

Just so. The disassociation creates allowances for so much – what it takes to make what we use/eat/wear; what happens to the packaging – 40 seconds of use, 75 years in a landfill (or ocean); where does the gas/electricity comes from; what those processes are doing to the planet. We allow ourselves to be cut off from these things, conforming to a genre of existential hypnosis such that we cannot sense who we are and instead access an affinity for emptiness repackaged as fulfillment. Fearing anything that might soil our golden view, we reach for something far more depressing. And all the while, so much of this can be easily fixed. What are your associations?

Impervious surfaces

Include our brains. This report about Houston from last year outlines how unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming more frequent and severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

We must learn to do better, but long-term thinking tends to challenge us more than anything.

Slaves built your house

When it all began is as clear of a question as when it might end. Actual Nazis on violent parade (is there another kind of Nazi parade?) in a public square has brought the question of white supremacy out of the shadows for the time being. Hopefully the moment lasts a while longer to permit for force the reckoning it begs. Original, unrepented, institutionalized sin remains our bedrock foundation and WE continue to allow ourselves to benefit from it. Every ‘safe’ street and every ‘good’ school in every boring suburb was constructed on advantages denied to black, brown and red people in the name of God and country. We can continue to exist but we cannot continue to exist in this way.
The descendants of slaves will never not hold the moral high ground. All the beatings, whippings, killings, and arbitrary cruelty that was slavery now looks back from every set of eyes through the fence. The perpetuation of white domination without reckoning with the past is illegitimate, predicated on the keeping the book of history a sealed volume. The longer this goes on, the stronger the scent of fear and defensiveness about who we are. By ignoring this history all around us, we perpetuate a crime against those who built this country without ever enjoying its rights and advantages, the shelter they built. We all remain in the storm, but some of us are now flinching at the slight discomfort of the metaphorical version.
All American institutions, and let us note the special case of the South, now sit upon the remnants of the slave power. As we celebrate the past, as citizens do of all nations with buildings and monuments, while not recognizing the contributions and implications of enslaved people, we remain blinded to our own story, our true selves, ignorant of who we are and what brought us to the present moment.

All difficulties of the reckoning – the statues, the street names, the building names, the towns and town squares – none of them compare to the reality upon which they were built. We have tried so desperately to stomp out all traces of this memory that it is remarkable that any exist; yet they still crop up in accidental discoveries – bodies buried, markers uncovered, genealogy traced. The Pavlovian reactions and knee jerk resistance are understandable; it is better if we don’t think about it. But the reaction is also wrong. We need to think about it. We need to know who we actually are. To assume that everything is fine now, equal, fair, is a lie. Pulling down statues should be just the beginning.
Image: From an amazing animation at Slate. Wow – most of the confederate monuments didn’t come until later. I wonder why?

Entry into the school of your choice ™

It’s back to school time! Lunch pails and school slates may have given way to Uber eats and iPads, but one anachronism that remains is the ability for donors to get their kids into the best schools. With the Trump Justice Department launching a dubious new project targeting discrimination against white students in university admissions policies, I’m not going to explain why a diverse population in any university is not just a nice thing, but inarguably a crucial component in a country or society’s progress. Straight-up affirmative action cannot even be used college admissions, and yet still the white kids suffer.
But I do wonder how all Harvard (or any college where this happens) students and alumni are not diminished when a rich guy can make a large donation to assure admission for his under-achieving offspring? Maybe this clumsy attempt to mollify the persistent mythology of oppressed white students will accidentally put the spotlight on just how uneven admissions processes – and other, nefarious types of preference – in the round remain. There is something rigged about the process, just not probably what is commonly believed.

The Plastocene

The Graduate is a great film, with an enduring effect on our culture. But one scene in the film called out a phenomenon that will have an even more enduring effect on our planet: “Just one word

In the first global analysis of plastic production and use, the true weight of the world’s most flexible material has been brought to light. By 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. Of that, 6.3 billion is waste, with just nine per cent of it recycled. The majority, 79 per cent, is piled-up in landfills.

To put this staggering quantity in perspective, 8.3 billion metric tons is the same weight as 80 million blue whales, or 822,000 Eiffel Towers, or one billion elephants. The research was conducted by the University of Georgia, the University of California and others and is published in the journal Science Advances.

The scene in question:

Now, do you think you could stop buying plastic bottles? Like right away? Today? What does half-life mean? And… scene.