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Questioning Silicon Valley

Time magazine’s Rana Foroohar says my new book, Utopia Is Creepy, “punches a hole in Silicon Valley cultural hubris.” The book comes out on September 6, the day after Labor Day, but you can read an excerpt from the introduction at Aeon today.

“Computing is not about computers any more,” wrote Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. “It is about living.” By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley was selling more than gadgets and software: it was selling an ideology. The creed was set in the tradition of U.S. techno-utopianism, but with a digital twist. The Valley-ites were fierce materialists – what couldn’t be measured had no meaning – yet they loathed materiality. In their view, the problems of the world, from inefficiency and inequality to morbidity and mortality, emanated from the world’s physicality, from its embodiment in torpid, inflexible, decaying stuff. The panacea was virtuality – the reinvention and redemption of society in computer code. They would build us a new Eden not from atoms but from bits. All that is solid would melt into their network. We were expected to be grateful and, for the most part, we were.

Our craving for regeneration through virtuality is the latest expression of what Susan Sontag in On Photography described as “the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine.” What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet. We would like to see this project as heroic, as a rebellion against the tyranny of an alien power. But it’s not that at all. It’s a project born of anxiety. Behind it lies a dread that the messy, atomic world will rebel against us. What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. The screen provides a refuge, a mediated world that is more predictable, more tractable, and above all safer than the recalcitrant world of things. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.

Read on.

Solitaire as symbol and synecdoche

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“When a man is reduced to such a pass as playing cards by himself, he had better give up — or take to reading.” –Rawdon Crawley, The Card Player’s Manual, 1876

Big news out of the Googleplex today: the internet giant is offering a free solitaire game through its search engine and its mobile app. “When you search for ‘solitaire’ on Google,” goes the announcement on the company’s always breathless blog, “the familiar patience game may test yours!”

Pokémon Go, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Farmville, Minesweeper, Space Invaders, Pong: computer games come and go, offering fleeting amusements before they turn stale.

But not solitaire. Solitaire endures.

Invented sometime in the eighteenth century, the single-player card game made a seamless leap to virtuality with the arrival of personal computers in the early 1980s. The gameplay was easy to program, and a deck of cards could be represented on even the most rudimentary of computer displays. Spectrum Holobyte’s Solitaire Royal became a huge hit when it was released in 1987. After Microsoft incorporated its own version of the game into the Windows operating system in 1990, solitaire quickly became the most used PC app of all time.

“Though on its face it might seem trivial, pointless, a terrible way to waste a beautiful afternoon, etc., solitaire has unquestionably transformed the way we live and work,” wrote Slate’s Josh Levin in 2008. “Computer solitaire propelled the revolution of personal computing, augured Microsoft’s monopolistic tendencies, and forever changed office culture.”

Google is late to the party, but it’s a party that will never end.

Microsoft had ulterior motives when it bundled solitaire into Windows — the game helped people learn how to use a mouse, and it kept them sitting in front of their Microsoft-powered computers like, to quote Iggy Pop, hypnotized chickens — and Google, too, is looking to accomplish something more than just injecting a little fun into our weary lives. “A minor move like putting games in search means that users – especially mobile users – will turn to the Google search app at a time when a lot of the information we need is available elsewhere on our devices,” reports TechCrunch.

It’s a devious game these companies play. We are but deuces in their decks.

Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that solitaire is a perfect microcosm of personal computing, particularly now, in our social media age? In “The Psychology of Games,” a 2000 article in Psychology Review, Mark Griffiths pointed out that games are a “world-building activity.” They offer a respite from the demands of the real. “Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games,” Griffiths wrote. “He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality which reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active.” We love games because they “offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.”

Solitaire, a game mixing skill and chance, also provides what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement.” Every time a card is revealed, there is, for the player, the possibility of a reward. The suspense, and the yearning, is what makes the game so compelling, even addictive. “Basically,” wrote Griffiths, “people keep playing in the absence of a reward hoping that another reward is just around the corner.” Turning over an ace in solitaire is really no different from getting a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. We crave such symbolic tokens of accomplishment, such sweet nothings.

Shuffle that deck again, Google. This time I’m going to be a winner.

“All that is solid would melt into their network”

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It’s my longest, funniest book yet — granted, the competition was not exactly fierce on either count — and it is now printed, bound, and on its way to a bookstore near you. The title is Utopia Is Creepy . . . and Other Provocations, and the book collects my favorite posts published here at Rough Type since the blog launched in 2005, along with a selection of essays, aphorisms, and reviews that appeared over the same period. It also features a couple of new pieces, including one on transhumanism called “The Daedalus Mission.”

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As I was pulling the collection together over the last year, I began to see it as an alternative history of recent times, from the founding of Facebook to the rise of @realDonaldTrump. It is, as well, a critique of Silicon Valley and its cultural powers and pretensions. Here’s a peek at the introduction:

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Utopia Is Creepy is out on September 6. More information, including those all-important preorder links, can be found here.

Thanks to all who have read Rough Type over the years.

Tesla and the glass cockpit problem


When news spread last week about the fatal crash of a computer-driven Tesla, I thought of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a top computer scientist at Google. We were talking about some recent airliner crashes caused by “automation complacency” — the tendency for even very skilled pilots to tune out from their work after turning on autopilot systems — and the Google scientist noted that the problem of automation complacency is even more acute for drivers than for pilots. If you’re flying a plane and something unexpected happens, you usually have several seconds or even minutes to respond before the situation becomes dire. If you’re driving a car, you may have only a second or a fraction of a second to take action before you collide with another car, or a bridge abutment, or a tree. There are far more obstacles on the ground than in the sky.

With the Tesla accident, the evidence suggests that the crash happened before the driver even realized that he was about to hit a truck. He seemed to be suffering from automation complacency up to the very moment of impact. He trusted the machine, and the machine failed him. Such complacency is a well-documented problem in human-factors research, and it’s what led Google to change the course of its self-driving car program a couple of years ago, shifting to a perhaps quixotic goal of total automation without any human involvement. In rushing to give drivers the ability to switch on an “Autopilot” mode, Tesla ignored or dismissed the research, with a predictable result. As computer and car companies push the envelope of automotive automation, driver complacency and skill loss promise to become ever greater challenges — ones that (as Google appears to have concluded) may not be solvable given the fallibility of software, the psychology of human beings, and the realities of driving.*

Following is a brief excerpt from my book about the human consequences of automation, The Glass Cage, that describes how, as aviation became more automated over the years, pilots flying in so-called glass cockpits grew more susceptible to automation complacency and “skill fade” — to the point that the FAA is now urging pilots to practice manual flying more often.

Premature death was a routine occupational hazard for even the most expert pilots during aviation’s early years. Lawrence Sperry died in 1923 when his plane crashed into the English Channel. Wiley Post died in 1935 when his plane went down in Alaska. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died in 1944 when his plane disappeared over the Mediterranean. Air travel’s lethal days are, mercifully, behind us. Flying is safe now, and pretty much everyone involved in the aviation business believes that advances in automation are one of the reasons why. Together with improvements in aircraft design, airline safety routines, crew training, and air traffic control, the mechanization and computerization of flight have contributed to the sharp and steady decline in accidents and deaths over the decades.

But this sunny story carries a dark footnote. The overall decline in the number of plane crashes masks the recent arrival of “a spectacularly new type of accident,” says Raja Parasuraman, a psychology professor at George Mason University and one of the world’s leading authorities on automation. When onboard computer systems fail to work as intended or other unexpected problems arise during a flight, pilots are forced to take manual control of the plane. Thrust abruptly into a dangerous situation, they too often make mistakes. The consequences, as the 2009 Continental Connection and Air France disasters show, can be catastrophic. Over the last thirty years, dozens of psychologists, engineers, and human factors researchers have studied what’s gained and lost when pilots share the work of flying with software. They’ve learned that a heavy reliance on computer automation can erode pilots’ expertise, dull their reflexes, and diminish their attentiveness, leading to what Jan Noyes, a human-factors expert at Britain’s University of Bristol, calls “a deskilling of the crew.”

Concerns about the unintended side effects of flight automation aren’t new. They date back at least to the early days of glass cockpits and fly-by-wire controls. A 1989 report from NASA’s Ames Research Center noted that as computers had begun to multiply on airplanes during the preceding decade, industry and governmental researchers “developed a growing discomfort that the cockpit may be becoming too automated, and that the steady replacement of human functioning by devices could be a mixed blessing.” Despite a general enthusiasm for computerized flight, many in the airline industry worried that “pilots were becoming over-dependent on automation, that manual flying skills may be deteriorating, and that situational awareness might be suffering.”

Studies conducted since then have linked many accidents and near misses to breakdowns of automated systems or to automation complacency or other “automation-induced errors” on the part of flight crews. In 2010, the FAA released preliminary results of a major study of airline flights over the preceding ten years which showed that pilot errors had been involved in nearly two-thirds of all crashes. The research further indicated, according to FAA scientist Kathy Abbott, that automation has made such errors more likely. Pilots can be distracted by their interactions with onboard computers, Abbott said, and they can “abdicate too much responsibility to the automated systems.” An extensive 2013 government report on cockpit automation, compiled by an expert panel and drawing on the same FAA data, implicated automation-related problems, such as a complacency-induced loss of situational awareness and weakened hand-flying skills, in more than half of recent accidents.

The anecdotal evidence collected through accident reports and surveys gained empirical backing from a rigorous study conducted by Matthew Ebbatson, a young human-factors researcher at Cranfield University, a top U.K. engineering school. Frustrated by the lack of hard, objective data on what he termed “the loss of manual flying skills in pilots of highly automated airliners,” Ebbatson set out to fill the gap. He recruited sixty-six veteran pilots from a British airline and had each of them get into a flight simulator and perform a challenging maneuver—bringing a Boeing 737 with a blown engine in for a landing during bad weather. The simulator disabled the plane’s automated systems, forcing the pilot to fly by hand. Some of the pilots did exceptionally well in the test, Ebbatson reported, but many performed poorly, barely exceeding “the limits of acceptability.”

Ebbatson then compared detailed measures of each pilot’s performance in the simulator—the pressure exerted on the yoke, the stability of airspeed, the degree of variation in course—with the pilot’s historical flight record. He found a direct correlation between a pilot’s aptitude at the controls and the amount of time that pilot had spent flying without the aid of automation. The correlation was particularly strong with the amount of manual flying done during the preceding two months. The analysis indicated that “manual flying skills decay quite rapidly towards the fringes of ‘tolerable’ performance without relatively frequent practice.” Particularly “vulnerable to decay,” Ebbatson noted, was a pilot’s ability to maintain “airspeed control”—a skill crucial to recognizing, avoiding, and recovering from stalls and other dangerous situations.

It’s no mystery why automation degrades pilot performance. Like many challenging jobs, flying a plane involves a combination of psychomotor skills and cognitive skills—thoughtful action and active thinking. A pilot needs to manipulate tools and instruments with precision while swiftly and accurately making calculations, forecasts, and assessments in his head. And while he goes through these intricate mental and physical maneuvers, he needs to remain vigilant, alert to what’s going on around him and able to distinguish important signals from unimportant ones. He can’t allow himself either to lose focus or to fall victim to tunnel vision. Mastery of such a multifaceted set of skills comes only with rigorous practice. A beginning pilot tends to be clumsy at the controls, pushing and pulling the yoke with more force than necessary. He often has to pause to remember what he should do next, to walk himself methodically through the steps of a process. He has trouble shifting seamlessly between manual and cognitive tasks. When a stressful situation arises, he can easily become overwhelmed or distracted and end up overlooking a critical change in circumstances.

In time, after much rehearsal, the novice gains confidence. He becomes less halting in his work and more precise in his actions. There’s little wasted effort. As his experience continues to deepen, his brain develops so-called mental models—dedicated assemblies of neurons—that allow him to recognize patterns in his surroundings. The models enable him to interpret and react to stimuli intuitively, without getting bogged down in conscious analysis. Eventually, thought and action become seamless. Flying becomes second nature. Years before researchers began to plumb the workings of pilots’ brains, Wiley Post described the experience of expert flight in plain, precise terms. He flew, he said in 1935, “without mental effort, letting my actions be wholly controlled by my subconscious mind.” He wasn’t born with that ability. He developed it through hard work.

When computers enter the picture, the nature and the rigor of the work change, as does the learning the work engenders. As software assumes moment-by-moment control of the craft, the pilot is relieved of much manual labor. This reallocation of responsibility can provide an important benefit. It can reduce the pilot’s workload and allow him to concentrate on the cognitive aspects of flight. But there’s a cost. Psychomotor skills get rusty, which can hamper the pilot on those rare but critical occasions when he’s required to take back the controls. There’s growing evidence that recent expansions in the scope of automation also put cognitive skills at risk. When more advanced computers begin to take over planning and analysis functions, such as setting and adjusting a flight plan, the pilot becomes less engaged not only physically but also mentally. Because the precision and speed of pattern recognition appear to depend on regular practice, the pilot’s mind may become less agile in interpreting and reacting to fast-changing situations. He may suffer what Ebbatson calls “skill fade” in his mental as well as his motor abilities.

Pilots are not blind to automation’s toll. They’ve always been wary about ceding responsibility to machinery. Airmen in World War I, justifiably proud of their skill in maneuvering their planes during dogfights, wanted nothing to do with the newfangled Sperry autopilots. In 1959, the original Mercury astronauts rebelled against NASA’s plan to remove manual flight controls from spacecraft. But aviators’ concerns are more acute now. Even as they praise the enormous gains in flight technology, and acknowledge the safety and efficiency benefits, they worry about the erosion of their talents. As part of his research, Ebbatson surveyed commercial pilots, asking them whether “they felt their manual flying ability had been influenced by the experience of operating a highly automated aircraft.” More than three-fourths reported that “their skills had deteriorated”; just a few felt their skills had improved. A 2012 pilot survey conducted by the European Aviation Safety Agency found similarly widespread concerns, with 95 percent of pilots saying that automation tended to erode “basic manual and cognitive flying skills.”

Rory Kay, a long-time United Airlines captain who until recently served as the top safety official with the Air Line Pilots Association, fears the aviation industry is suffering from “automation addiction.” In a 2011 interview with the Associated Press, he put the problem in stark terms: “We’re forgetting how to fly.”

What the aviation industry has discovered is that there’s a tradeoff between computer automation and human skill and attentiveness. Getting the balance right is exceedingly tricky. Just because some degree of automation is good, that doesn’t mean that more automation is necessarily better. We seem fated to learn this hard lesson once again with the even trickier process of automotive automation.

*UPDATE (7/7): The Times reports: “Experiments conducted last year by Virginia Tech researchers and supported by the national safety administration found that it took drivers of [self-driving] cars an average of 17 seconds to respond to takeover requests. In that period, a vehicle going 65 m.p.h. would have traveled 1,621 feet — more than five football fields.”

After math

Will Davies cuts through the prevailing emotionalism in dissecting the Brexit vote:

The Remain campaign continued to rely on forecasts, warnings and predictions, in the hope that eventually people would be dissuaded from ‘risking it’. But to those that have given up on the future already, this is all just more political rhetoric. In any case, the entire practice of modelling the future in terms of ‘risk’ has lost credibility, as evidenced by the now terminal decline of opinion polling as a tool for political control. …

In place of facts, we now live in a world of data. Instead of trusted measures and methodologies being used to produce numbers, a dizzying array of numbers is produced by default, to be mined, visualised, analysed and interpreted however we wish. If risk modelling (using notions of statistical normality) was the defining research technique of the 19th and 20th centuries, sentiment analysis is the defining one of the emerging digital era. We no longer have stable, ‘factual’ representations of the world, but unprecedented new capacities to sense and monitor what is bubbling up where, who’s feeling what, what’s the general vibe. …

As the 23rd June turned into 24th June, it became manifestly clear that prediction markets are little more than an aggregative representation of the same feelings and moods that one might otherwise detect via twitter. They’re not in the business of truth-telling, but of mood-tracking.

The global village of violence

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We assume that communication and harmony go hand in hand, like a pair of flower children on a garden path. If only we all could share our thoughts and feelings with everyone else all the time, we’d overcome our distrust and fear and live together peaceably. We’d see that we are all one. Facebook and other social media disabuse us of this notion. To be “all one” is to be dissolved — and for many people that is a threat that requires a reaction.

Eamonn Fitzgerald points to a recently uploaded video of a Canadian TV interview with Marshall McLuhan that aired in 1977. By the mid-seventies, a decade after his allotted minutes of fame, McLuhan had come to be dismissed as a mumbo-jumbo-spewing charlatan by the intelligentsia. What the intelligentsia found particularly irritating was that the mumbo jumbo McLuhan spewed fit no piety and often hit uncomfortably close to the mark.

Early on in the clip, the interviewer notes that McLuhan had long ago predicted that electronic communication systems would turn the world into a global village. Most of McLuhan’s early readers had taken this as a utopian prophecy. “But it seems,” the interviewer says, with surprise, “that this tribal world is not very friendly.” McLuhan responds:

The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There is no evidence of that in any situation that we have ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage and impatient with each other. [Man’s] tolerance is tested in those narrow circumstances very much. Village people are not that much in love with each other. The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends:

Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers — these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

That’s simplistic — to a man with a media theory, everything looks like a media effect — but it’s not wrong.

People in all times have been this way. In our time, when things happen very quickly, there’s very little time to adjust to new situations at the speed of light. There is little time to get accustomed to anything.

With perfect communication comes perfect surveillance, McLuhan goes on to say, and that, too, tends to dissolve private identity:

We now have the means to keep everybody under surveillance. No matter what part of the world they are in, we can put them under surveillance. This has become one of the main occupations of mankind, just watching other people and keeping a record of their goings on. … Everybody has become porous. The light and the message go right through us.

At this moment, we are on the air. We do not have any physical body. When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on T.V., you don’t have a physical body — you’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. I think this has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their identity.

Anticipating Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, McLuhan also ties the dissolution of personal identity to culture’s turn toward nostalgia:

By the way, one of the big parts of the loss of identity is nostalgia. So there are revivals in every phase of life today. Revivals of clothing, of dances, of music, of shows, of everything. We live by the revival. It tells us who we are or were.

Everyone needs to be someone, for better or worse.

The explainable

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Signature has an interview with Denis Boyles about his new book on the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Everything Explained That Is Explainable. The title of Boyles’s book was one of the marketing slogans used to sell the encyclopedia when it went on sale in 1910 and 1911. In the interview, Boyles talks about how the monumental reference work was very much a reflection of its time:

Signature: It was a period of great change. The 11th was essentially published in the heart of the Progressive Era.  How did that impact its success?

Boyles: That really is the subject of the 11th. When considered as a book, it’s something like forty million words, but the topic is a singular one: progress. It tells you all the different ways progress can be seen. And it was secular, overwhelmingly so. The 11th was all about what could be measured, what could be known.  And that made progress essentially the turf of technicians and scientists and technical and scientific advances became confused with progress. The latest idea was the best idea. Now, we’re far enough into this to realize that the “latest idea” is just another idea. It may be good, it may not. We’re more weary [sic] as a society, but largely still as secular.

I sense that that last bit, about how we’ve moved beyond the assumption that the latest idea is the best idea, may be wishful thinking on Boyles’s part, or at least a reflection of the fact that he lives in Europe. Here in the U.S. we seem more than ever convinced that progress is “essentially the turf of technicians and scientists.” We see the newness of an idea as the idea’s validation, novelty being contemporary American culture’s central criterion.

Boyles points out that the Britannica’s eleventh edition underpins Wikipedia, and in Wikipedia we see, more clearly than ever, the elevation of and emphasis on measurement as the standard of knowledge and knowability. Wikipedia is pretty good, and ambitiously thorough, on technical and scientific topics, but it’s scattershot, and often just flat-out bad, in its coverage of topics in the humanities. Wikipedia’s editors, as Edward Mendelson has recently suggested, are comfortable in documenting consensus but completely uncomfortable in exercising taste. The kind of informed subjective judgment that is essential to any perceptive discussion of art, literature, or even history is explicitly outlawed at Wikipedia. And Wikipedia, like the eleventh edition of the Britannica, is a reflection of its time. The boundary we draw around “the explainable” is tighter than ever.

“Technical and scientific advances became confused with progress,” says Boyles, and so it is today, a century later.