Information overload is nothing new

Alan Jacobs putting forward some theses for disputation:

Francis Bacon, in the essay “Of Studies,” provided a stringent model for how to narrow our attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” In her wonderful book Too Much to Know, Ann Blair explains that Bacon in this essay offered instruction in the skills of intellectual triage for people afflicted by information overload. Blair points out that one of the most common complaints of literate people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the proliferation of stuff to read. Cried Erasmus in 1525, “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?”

And many of those books were simply not good — not good for you, lacking nutrition. Therefore Bacon recommends that we begin with tasting; and in many cases that will be sufficient. It is unhealthy to read worthless books “with diligence and attention.”

YouTube, dodgy content and the advertising business

There’s much hoo-hah about major corporations suddenly being scandalised by the discovery that their digital advertising appears alongside all kinds of objectionable YouTube videos. A sceptic might ask: what took them so long to realise this? One answer might be that most corporate executives don’t ever look at the kind of stuff on YouTube that kids watch. But, anyway, now they have discovered what’s been going on and they are reacting like scandalised Victorian spinsters who have just caught a glimpse of a naked ankle.

And they’re withdrawing their ads. As the NYT reports this morning:

But the technology underpinning YouTube’s advertising business has come under intense scrutiny in recent days, with AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and other deep-pocketed marketers announcing that they would pull their ads from the service. Their reason: The automated system in which ads are bought and placed online has too often resulted in brands appearing next to offensive material on YouTube such as hate speech.

On Thursday, the ride-sharing service Lyft became the latest example, removing their ads after they appeared next to videos from a racist skinhead group.

Google, sensing that this is going to turn into a PR nightmare, is responding in textbook fashion. Soothing noises, promises of technological fixes, plus gentle chiding of advertisers for apparently not being aware that they are not using the ‘tools’ that Google provides for decreasing the likelihood of their ads being seen in undesirable company.

The big question, of course, is whether this fuss is likely to do real damage to the company. Lots of investment analysts are crawling all over this. Here’s one assessment from RBC Capital Markets:

We built a very simple analysis based on the following assumptions: YT [YouTube] is roughly $14B of Revenue in 2017, and GDN [Google Display Network] is $4.8B (GOOG does not disclose so these are very rough ests); GDN pays 70% TAC; YT & GDN have roughly the same Net margins as our estimates for Alphabet as a whole (26.7% GAAP NI margins on Net Revenue). With this as a backdrop, a 10% hit to YT and GDN revenue in 2017 would be a 1.7% reduction to Net Revenue / GAAP EPS ($1.5B / $0.59) and a 2% hit would be 0.3% reduction ($309MM / $0.12).

If that’s right, this controversy is relatively small beer as far as Google is concerned. My conclusion: expect more soothing PR-speak and very little action.

The ideology behind the gig economy

Jia Tolentino has a very good piece in the New Yorker about the ideology that underpins the gig economy. The piece opens with the story of Mary, a Lyft driver in Chicago who kept accepting rides even though she was nine months pregnant – and even kept going when her contractions began!

In the end, it ended well. Mary had a customer who only needed a short ride, so she was able to drive herself to hospital after dropping him off. Once there, she gave birth to a baby girl — who appears on the company blog wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.

The point of the company blog post is to laud the spirit of workers like Mary. But, writes Tolentino,

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

Quite so. Lyft drivers in Chicago earn about $11 per trip.

Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances.

Spot on.

The next war

Interesting snippet from Tom Ricks:

I interviewed Eric Schmidt of Google fame, who has been leading a civilian panel of technologists looking at how the Pentagon can better innovate. He said something I hadn’t heard before, which is that artificial intelligence helps the defense better than the offense. This is because AI always learns, and so constantly monitors patterns of incoming threats. This made me think that the next big war will be more like World War I (when the defense dominated) than World War II (when the offense did).

Bob Silvers: getting it right

“In one of my first articles, I used the phrase ‘in terms of.’ He insisted on deleting it, because, he explained, writers used it as filler when they thought there was some relation between A and B but did not know what the relation was.”

Robert Darnton, remembering Bob Silvers, founder of The New York Review of Books, who has died after a short illness.

Caesar’s view of politics

From Christian Meier’s 1982 biography of Caesar:

“Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions . . . , but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . In Caesar’s eye’s no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. . . . The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight.”

Remind you of anyone?
HT to Eric Schliesser

Testosterone rules OK!

Hmmm… Interesting column by David Brooks about why Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological counsellor who has a big influence on his speeches, has apparently zero impact on the policies (such as they are) that have emerged from the White House.

Why is Bannonism being abandoned? One possibility is that there just aren’t enough Trumpians in the world to staff an administration, so Trump and Bannon have filled their apparatus with old guard Republicans who continue to go about their jobs in old guard pseudo-libertarian ways.

The second possibility, raised by Rich Lowry in Politico, is that the Republican sweep of 2016 was won on separate tracks. Trump won on populism, but congressional Republicans won on the standard cut-government script. The congressional Republicans are better prepared, and so their plans are crowding out anything Bannon might have contemplated.

The third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.

He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.

But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.

Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.

The Trump health care and budget plans will be harsh on the poor, which we expected. But they’ll also be harsh on the working class, which we didn’t.

The big question — as Brooks says — is what happens when the people who voted for Trump realise the extent to which they have been betrayed?

Timothy Snyder: post-truth is pre-fascism

Sobering interview with the Yale historian who has recently published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The interview was conducted by Steven Rosenfeld (SR in the transcript). Two segments in particular stand out.


We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use, democracy, and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense, even after the system had fundamentally changed.

Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. That is, if people believe that the votes are going to be counted and they are counted. If they believe that there’s a judiciary out there that will make sense of things if there’s some challenge. If there isn’t rule of law, people will be afraid to vote the way they want to vote. They’ll vote for their own safety as opposed to their convictions. So the thing we call democracy depends on the rule of law. And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. Law functions 99 percent of the time automatically. It functions because we think it’s out there. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. So there’s a mechanism here. You can get right to heart of the matter if you can convince people that there is no truth. Which is why the stuff that we characterize as post-modern and might dismiss is actually really, really essential.

The second thing about “post-truth is pre-fascism” is I’m trying to get people’s attention, because that is actually how fascism works. Fascism says, disregard the evidence of your senses, disregard observation, embolden deeds that can’t be proven, don’t have faith in God but have faith in leaders, take part in collective myth of an organic national unity and so forth. Fascism was precisely about setting the whole Enlightenment aside and then selling what sort of myths emerged. Now those [national] myths are pretty unpredictable, and contingent on different nations and different leaders and so on, but to just set facts aside is actually the fastest catalyst. So that part concerns me a lot.

And then this:

SR: I want to change the topic slightly. You cite many examples from Germany in 1933, the year Hitler consolidated power. So what did ordinary Germans miss that’s relevant for ordinary Americans now? I know some of this is the blurring of facts. But when I have talked to Holocaust survivors, they often say, nobody ever thought things would be that bad, or nobody thought the Germans would go as far as they did.

TS: The German Jews then, and people now, don’t understand how quick their neighbors will change; don’t understand how quickly society can change. They don’t understand the fact that a life that’s been predictable for a long time, doesn’t mean that it will be predictable tomorrow. And people like to think that their experience is exceptional. German Jews might have thought, “Well, there were pogroms [ethnic cleansing] in Russia, but surely nothing like that could happen here.” That’s what many German Jews thought. So one issue is people need to realize how quickly things can change.

The second thing that German Jews were not aware of, or Germans were not aware of, was how new media can quickly change conversations. In that way, it’s not exactly the same, but radio at that time often ended up being a channel for propaganda. There are parallels with the internet now, where there were hopes that it would be [primarily] enlightening. But in fact, it turns out that with presidential tweets, or with bots, or isolated habits of viewing, it isn’t necessarily enlightening. It’s the opposite. A lot of us were blindsided by the internet in much the same way that people could be blindsided by radio in the 1930s.

But here’s the other view. The one that we have that German Jews didn’t have in 1933 is we have their experience. That’s the premise of the whole book; the premise is that the 20th century showed us what can happen, and there’s lots of wonderful scholarship by German historians and others, which breaks down what can happen and how. And so, one of the first things that we should be doing is taking advantage of the one opportunity that we really have that they didn’t, which is to learn from that history. And that’s the premise of the book.