The new search


Jenny Hendrix has a finely measured review of Sven Birkerts’s new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, in Boston Review. Toward the end, before calling for a new poetry, she writes:

The activity conducted in both church and marketplace is a kind of search, which is of course central to what this technology is for: not just Google, but GPS, dating apps, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon—all guide us toward what they think we want. The shift from cathedral to bazaar represents a shift from search as contemplation to search as a way for capitalism to extract value, exploiting information as an energy company might an oil well. … Birkerts’s response is to opt out to the extent that he can. But we might also confront these challenges by encouraging a change in the terms of the search. As I see it, the task of a new Transcendentalism would be less to actively oppose digital technology or save us from it than to, as Rilke put it, “change it into ourselves,” bringing to it the same kind of transformative, sustained attention that the Transcendentalists brought to the natural world.

“Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Emerson wondered in his introduction to the essay “Nature.” “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?” One might put the same question to the connected world of today. Most of us will have to use these tools, like it or not; why let someone else decide our relation to them? Transcendentalism was as much about resisting imposed structures of control and interpretation as it was about resisting a mechanized world. Perhaps the role of art now, the way it can best fill the spiritual voids left by our immersion in the digital, is to create for us an “original relation” to it.

The problem with tradition, as Emerson saw it, is that it too easily turns into a vintage clothing shop. We go in and pick up cheap readymades for our minds to wear. (“Why should we … put the living generation into masquerade out of [the past’s] faded wardrobe?”) The problem with escaping tradition is that it can leave us unmoored in the present, our course determined by the whims of the current. You tear down the cathedral only to find that the bazaar is a narrower prison. Before we can establish an original relation to digital technology, it strikes me, we’re going to have to reacquaint ourselves with the past that the technology has been designed to hide.

How social media is shaping the 2016 race


Here’s my original version of an essay on social media’s influence on politics that appeared, in a somewhat different form, in Politico Magazine earlier this month. I’ll be discussing the subject at an Institute of Politics Forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on October 8 and, on November 12, at Yahoo’s Digital Democracy Conference at Drake University in Des Moines.

The 140-Character Candidate

Barack Obama killed it on social media this summer. On August 14, a Friday, he kicked off a steamy Washington weekend by releasing a pair of playlists, one for the nighttime, one for the day, through the White House’s new Spotify account. The presidential mixes were predictable but pleasant, a smooth fusion of dad rock and dad soul. In an accompanying blog post, one of the administration’s digital functionaries promised that more playlists were in the works, including “issue-specific” ones.

Two weeks later, on the evening of August 31, Obama turned himself into the country’s Instagrammer-in-Chief. While en route to Alaska to promote his climate agenda, the president took a photograph of a mountain range from a window on Air Force One and posted the shot on the popular picture-sharing network. “Hey everyone, it’s Barack,” the caption read. “I’ll be spending the next few days touring this beautiful state and meeting with Alaskans about what’s going on in their lives. Looking forward to sharing it with you.” The photo was liked by thousands.

Ever since the so-called Facebook election of 2008, Obama has been a pacesetter in using social media to connect with the public. But he has nothing on this year’s candidates. Back in June, the Hillary Clinton campaign issued its own official Spotify playlist, loaded with on-message tunes (“Brave,” “Fighters,” “Stronger,” “Believer”). Ted Cruz live-streams his appearances on Periscope. Marco Rubio broadcasts “Snapchat Stories” at stops along the trail. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham produce goofy YouTube videos. Even grumpy old Bernie Sanders has attracted nearly two million likers on Facebook, leading the New York Times to dub him “a king of social media.”

And then there’s Donald Trump. If Sanders is a king, Trump is a god. Continue reading

Of drills and holes and Ronald Coase: the limits of sharing


“Why do people buy products?” asked Theodore Levitt, the celebrated Harvard Business School professor, at the start of his 1969 book The Marketing Mode. He suggested an answer:

Leo McGivena once said, “Last year one million quarter-inch drill bits were sold — not because people wanted quarter-inch drill bits but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.” People don’t buy products, they buy the expectation of benefits. People spend their money not for goods and services, but to get the value satisfactions they believe are bestowed by what they are buying. They buy quarter-inch holes, not quarter-inch drills. That is the marketing
view of the business process.

And so it began, this meme of drills and holes. Continue reading

Tech in schools: less is more


Although many educators and school administrators, including those working in the U.S. Department of Education, continue to push schools to invest heavily in computer technology, the evidence of any benefit from such investments remains elusive. The biggest beneficiaries of heavy spending on school technology are technology firms. Students, meanwhile, may actually be harmed by having too much tech in the classroom, particularly when spending on hardware and software leaves less money for hiring and training teachers and improving school facilities.

The latest evidence on the effect of computer use on learning, and some of the strongest to date, comes in a large, international study released today by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Called “Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection,” the study “shows that the reality in our schools lags considerably behind the promise of technology,” writes the OECD’s director of education and skills, Andreas Schleicher. Computers’ “impact on student performance is mixed at best.” He sums up the study’s findings this way: Continue reading

I left my <3 in San Francisco


In his revealing Q&A session in June, Mark Zuckerberg offered a peek into the future of interpersonal communication:

One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.

Wow. That’s really going to require some incredible impulse control. Your inner filter is going to have to kick in not between thought and expression, as it does now, but before the formation of the thought itself. I mean, would you really want to share your raw thought-stream with another person, even a friend? Or maybe the technology will somehow allow you to send out a new thought to retrieve and erase a prior thought before it hits the other person’s brain? Zuck may want instantaneous thought-sharing, but I’m thinking there’s going to have to be some kind of time delay built into the system. Otherwise, the interbrain highway is going to resemble something out of a Mad Max movie.

Helpfully, William Davies puts Zuckerberg’s words into context: Continue reading

Smartness is a zero-sum game


In her article “The Internet of Way Too Many Things,” Allison Arleff reviews some of the exciting new products on display at Target’s trendy Open House store in San Francisco. There’s Leeo, a night light “that ‘listens’ for your smoke detector to go off and then calls your smartphone to let you know your house might be on fire.” There’s Whistle, a $100 doggie dongle that “attaches to your pet’s collar and allows you to set a daily activity goal customized to your dog’s age, breed and weight.” And there’s Mimo, a web-enabled onesie that monitors your baby’s “body position” during the night. “When Mimo is connected to other devices in your home and discerns that your baby is stirring,” reports Arleff, “the lights turn on, coffee begins brewing and some Baby Mozart starts playing on the stereo.”

Welcome to Peter Thiel’s “innovation desert.” You’ll die of thirst, but at least the mirages are amusing.

There’s something else going on here, though, something deeper than the production of trinkets for neurotics. Each of these products is an example of a defining trend of our networked age:  the outsourcing of common sense to gadgetry. A foundational level of human perception and competence is being mechanized through apps and online services. The more mediated our lives become, the more we rely on media to make sense of the world for us. We can’t even trust ourselves to take Rover for a walk. Continue reading