Author Archives: Nick

I left my <3 in San Francisco

hill

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

blue

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

Dawn of the automatic age

laboranonymous

It’s Labor Day. To mark the occasion, here’s a brief excerpt from The Glass Cage that describes the origins of automation after the Second World War:

The word automation entered the language only recently. It was first uttered in 1946, when engineers at the Ford Motor Company needed a new term to describe the latest machinery being installed on the company’s assembly lines. “Give us some more of that automatic business,” a Ford vice president reportedly said in a meeting. “Some more of that — that — ‘automation.’”

Ford’s plants were already famously mechanized, with sophisticated machines streamlining every job on the line. But factory hands still had to carry parts and subassemblies from one machine to the next. The workers still controlled the pace of production. The equipment installed in 1946 changed that. Machines took over the material-handling and conveyance functions, allowing the entire assembly process to proceed automatically. The alteration in work flow may not have seemed momentous to those on the factory floor. But it was. Control over a complex industrial process had shifted from worker to machine.

That the new Ford equipment arrived just after the end of the Second World War was no accident. It was during the war that modern automation technology took shape. When the Nazis began their bombing blitz against Great Britain in 1940, English and American scientists faced a challenge as daunting as it was pressing: How do you knock high-flying, fast-moving bombers out of the sky with heavy missiles fired from unwieldy antiaircraft guns on the ground? The mental calculations and physical adjustments required to aim a gun accurately — not at a plane’s current position but at its probable future position — were far too complicated for a soldier to perform with the speed necessary to get a shot off while a plane was still in range. The missile’s trajectory, the scientists saw, had to be computed by a calculating machine, using tracking data coming in from radar systems along with statistical projections of a plane’s course, and then the calculations had to be fed automatically into the gun’s aiming mechanism to guide the firing. The gun’s aim, moreover, had to be adjusted continually to account for the success or failure of previous shots.

As for the members of the gunnery crews, their work would have to change to accommodate the new generation of automated weapons. And change it did. Artillerymen soon found themselves sitting in front of screens in darkened trucks, selecting targets from radar displays. Their identities shifted along with their jobs. They were no longer seen “as soldiers,” writes one historian, but rather “as technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world.” Continue reading

The Donald and The Swarm

In a tweeted response to my Politico essay on social media’s influence on the 2016 campaign, The Atlantic‘s political editor, Yoni Appelbaum, suggests that cable TV, rather than social media, is the real driver of the Trump phenomenon. He offers a chart as backup:

I think Appelbaum may be mistaking effect for cause. Yes, Trump has dominated cable coverage over the last month. But Trump has dominated all coverage over the last month. Pull together the same chart for, say, print news or radio news — perhaps even for TheAtlantic.com — and you’ll almost certainly see a similar picture. The news media is a swarm organism. No individual medium operates in isolation.

Raw measures of media coverage, in other words, reveal who’s getting covered, but they don’t say much about why coverage is playing out the way it is.  Continue reading

The coming of the Snapchat candidate

nixon

In Western politics, we no longer get to experience the fun of a revolution, but at least we get the occasional media revolution. In an essay out today at Politico, I argue that we’re at the start of the third big media makeover of modern political campaigns. First came radio in the twenties, then TV in the sixties. Now it’s social media that’s changing the tone and tenor of elections. The Donald may burn out soon, but the inability of both the press and his adversaries to make sense of the Trump campaign suggests that the rules have changed. The tidy narratives of TV campaigns are yesterday’s news.

Here’s a bit from the piece:

What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works — one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.

Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye. In something of a return to the pre-radio days, the fiery populist now seems more desirable, more worthy of attention, than the cool wonk. It’s the crusty Bernie and the caustic Donald that get hearted and hash-tagged, friended and followed. Is it any wonder that “Feel the Bern” has become the rallying cry of the Sanders campaign?

Emotional appeals can be good for politics. They can spur civic involvement, even among the disenfranchised and disenchanted. And they can galvanize public attention, focusing it on injustices and abuses of power. An immediate emotional connection can, at best, deepen into a sustained engagement with the political process. But there’s a dark side to social media’s emotionalism. Trump’s popularity took off only after he demonized Mexican immigrants, playing to the public’s frustrations and fears. That’s the demagogue’s oldest tactic, and it worked. The Trump campaign may have qualities of farce, but it also suggests that a Snapchat candidate, passionate yet hollow, could be a perfect vessel for a cult of personality.

Here’s the rest.

Image: Dick Nixon reacts to the arrival of the TV era.

Logical fantasies

From Tim Hwang and Madeleine Clare Elish’s “The Mirage of the Marketplace,” in Slate:

When you open the Uber app as a rider, you see a map of your local pickup area, with little sedans around that appear to be drivers available for a request. While you might assume these reflect an accurate picture of market supply, the way drivers are configured in Uber’s marketplace can be misleading. According to Rosenblat and Stark, the presence of those virtual cars on the passenger’s screen does not necessarily reflect an accurate number of drivers who are physically present or their precise locations. Instead, these phantom cars are part of a “visual effect” that Uber uses to emphasize the proximity of drivers to passengers. Not surprisingly, the visual effect shows cars nearby, even when they might not actually exist. Demand, in this case, sees a simulated picture of supply. Whether you are a driver or a rider, the algorithm operating behind the curtain at Uber shows a through-the-looking-glass version of supply and demand.

From Edward Moore Geist’s “Is Artificial Intelligence Really an Existential Threat to Humanity?,” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Continue reading