Tuesday 21 July, 2020

A bridge to the Folly

From our walk this afternoon.

Click on the image for a larger version.

Quote of the Day

“Who was that transistor salesman?”

  • President de Gaulle, after meeting Hayato Ikeda, Prime Minister of Japan in 1962.

(HT to Benedict Evans)

Joe Biden on foreign interference in US elections

From his statement:

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin’s interference in past elections represented “only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.” Despite the exposure of Russia’s malign activities by the U.S. Intelligence Community, law enforcement agencies, and bipartisan Congressional committees, the Kremlin has not halted its efforts to interfere in our democracy. In Senate testimony on July 23 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that Russia was “absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And on March 27, 2020, the State Department held a briefing describing how Russia was recklessly spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia is not the only foreign actor seeking to interfere in our democracy. Increasingly, other states have shown an interest in copying Russia’s tactics.


In spite of President Trump’s failure to act, America’s adversaries must not misjudge the resolve of the American people to counter every effort by a foreign power to interfere in our democracy, whether by hacking voting systems and databases, laundering money into our political system, systematically spreading disinformation, or trying to sow doubt about the integrity of our elections.

That is why, today, I am putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice. If elected president, I will treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government. I will direct the U.S. Intelligence Community to report publicly and in a timely manner on any efforts by foreign governments that have interfered, or attempted to interfere, with U.S. elections. I will direct my administration to leverage all appropriate instruments of national power and make full use of my executive authority to impose substantial and lasting costs on state perpetrators. These costs could include financial-sector sanctions, asset freezes, cyber responses, and the exposure of corruption. A range of other actions could also be taken, depending on the nature of the attack. I will direct our response at a time and in a manner of our choosing.

Isn’t it strange that any American politician has to even say this? It’s a measure of the Republic’s decay.

Mary Trump’s book sold 950,000 copies on its first day

So CNN is reporting anyway. Good luck to her.

Andrew O’Sullivan leaves New York magazine

Andrew Sullivan officially left New York Magazine on Friday, claiming that the culture of the magazine and its new parent company, Vox Media, had become increasingly hostile to conservative voices like his.

It’s not entirely clear whether he was fired or has simply quit. Here he is in his own words:

I’m just no longer going to be writing for a magazine that has every right to hire and fire anyone it wants when it comes to the content of what it wants to publish.

The quality of my work does not appear to be the problem. I have a long essay in the coming print magazine on how plagues change societies, after all. I have written some of the most widely read essays in the history of the magazine, and my column has been popular with readers. And I have no complaints about my interaction with the wonderful editors and fact-checkers here — and, in fact, am deeply grateful for their extraordinary talent, skill, and compassion. I’ve been in the office maybe a handful of times over four years, and so there’s no question of anyone mistreating me or vice versa. In fact, I’ve been proud and happy to be a part of this venture.

What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.

I’m baffled by this, or at any rate by the attitudes he describes — and attributes to his former colleagues. I’m no conservative, but I’ve always enjoyed and admired Sullivan’s writing. In fact I’ve never really thought of him as a conservative. Nor, in a way, does he.

And maybe it’s worth pointing out that “conservative” in my case means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.

The good news is that he’s not going silent. In fact he’s reviving his old blog — The Dish. And he’ll be running it on Substack, on which the daily version of this blog is published. I look forward to continuing to read him.

Look what came though my letter-box today

George Dyson’s new book. It’s out in the UK in less than a month. He’s one of the most interesting and original writers I know. I found his Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence one of the most stimulating resources to draw on when I was writing my history of the Internet many moons ago. In his new book he asks how we ended up with a world in which humans co-exist with technologies that we can no longer fully control or understand. Good question. I look forward to his answer.

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Friday 26 June, 2020


In our garden, this morning. One of my favourite plants, which has really thrived this year, for reasons unknown. Trouble is, it makes me nostalgic for County Kerry, which has more fuchsia hedges than anywhere else in the known world (IMHO).

Grandparents are critical workers too

Interesting long read (estimated reading time 15 minutes) in De Correspondent, a journalistic outfit to which I subscribe.

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, “by our willingness to stand together”.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

I know it sounds like special pleading (I’m a grandfather) but I’ve been struck time and again — and not just in the pandemic — about this. I come from a rural culture where (just like parts of Italy, say) there’s always been extensive extended-family groups living in close proximity. But when socially-mobile or ambitious children leave that kind of environment — to live and work, say, in large urban conurbations far away — and then themselves start to have children, suddenly the conflicts between the demands of work and those of childcare become acute. My wife and I both brought up broods without any help whatsoever from our parents, and it made life much more demanding in all kinds of ways. State childcare provision in the UK is abysmal and inadequate by Continental European standards, and so families with young children have much less flexibility when both parents need to be out of the house. Way back in the Ireland I grew up in, that problem didn’t exist. The kids would simply wander round to Granny and Grandad’s place.

The figure of £7B is just an estimate of what parents in the Uk would have to fork out for childcare if their parents weren’t helping. I suspect it’s a huge under-estimate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t downsides to extended families living close together. Apart from the privacy aspects, there’s also the fact that initial impact of the Coronavirus seemed higher in cultures where multiple generations live together.

How to report the spread of a pandemic

The New York Times has produced a terrific animated-graphic-plus-succinct-narrative account. It’s a very good example of how to use digital tools to visualise and communicate a dynamic process.

Well worth a visit. Give it time.

The history of the humble (and not so humble) door handle

A doorknob is a key part of the user-interface of a building. Yet until Covid-19 I’d never given much thought to it — except sometimes in exasperation when realising that a handle is better than a knob for many people and many purposes. And it never occurred to me that it might have an interesting history. Which, of course it has. And it’s had some famous designers in its time. For example:

Arguably the most influential, although not necessarily familiar, door handle was designed not by an architect but by a philosopher – albeit one with an engineering degree. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s handle for the house he designed for his sister in Vienna in 1928 is a simple bent metal bar with one of the pair kinked to accommodate a portion of frame for the French doors it was designed for. It apparently took him a year to design (he spent two years on the radiators), but that simple bent bar morphed into the bent tube which is perhaps the most ubiquitous and generic of all modern designs.

And, needless to say, that reminds me Of an old schoolboy joke: “Was Handel a crank?”

Zoom Hell

Lovely New Yorker cartoon.

Is Digital Contact Tracing Over Before It Began?

Sobering post by Jonathan Zittrain. The momentum towards contact-tracing seems to be on the wane, he thinks.

The work on planning and standing up contact tracing is being overtaken by a public sensibility that the disease has been sufficiently managed for things to more or less return to normal. Where before, the question of voluntary participation in a tracing and isolation scheme was seen as how to get from, say, 50% participation up to 70% or more by the general public, the question now is whether nearly anyone would bother to install or use contact tracing tools at all — or, apps aside, change their behavior should they receive a call indicating that they’ve been exposed by someone who has tested positive. In New York, contract tracers are having a hard time completing interviews. And in Massachusetts, a mixed bag: on the one hand, so many contact tracers were admirably stood up so quickly that there isn’t enough work to go around. On the other hand, most of the cases being diagnosed haven’t been identified beforehand through contact tracing — which means that transmission chains can’t be pruned.

Contact-tracing requires testing. And testing capacity in parts of the US is currently being overwhelmed. On the tech front, Zittrain sees “a plateau in visible activity on the tech side of the ledger since the May 20, 2020, launch of the Apple/Google exposure notification framework”. And it doesn’t seem that any state has yet approved or launched an exposure notification app based upon the framework.

Efforts outside of the United States have made a little more progress. Switzerland has led the charge, piloting an app that implements the Apple/Google framework within hospitals, government agencies, and the military. Other nations — many of them among the 22 granted access to the Apple/Google framework in May — are developing and deploying apps of their own. We’ve also seen the emergence of a number of apps not based on the Apple-Google framework, including in Singapore and Australia.

So it’s all incredibly patchy. So much for tech ‘solutionism’ in this crisis.

So what now? Zittrain sets out two possibilities: the Swedish model and what he calls the ‘Company Town’ model.

The Swedish model is basically to

re-open all but the most high-spreading services and events; ask people to exercise social distancing where they can; have people wear cloth masks to minimize the spread of the moisture in their breath to others; and try to make available testing so that people who wish to know if they’re infected can find out and then self-isolate if they test positive or show worrisome symptoms.

The other option is interestingly different:

It’s one in which some big companies and institutions decide to implement their own test/trace/isolate regimes as employees return to workplaces. A company whose employees don’t physically interact much with the public during the day — an insurance company, or a tech firm like Facebook or Google — might require its employees to undergo regular testing, and then cease coming to work if they test positive. Such a company could stand up its own tracing program, and use data from company-issued devices, with notice to employees and no permitted opt-out, to assist in that tracing. Those who are deemed to have been exposed can also be required not to come to work. Universities might choose to require much the same for their faculty, staff, and students.

The overall regime may thus remain nominally a voluntary one, with respect to government coercion, but participation in private regimes like this will be by choice only in the sense that employees can quit their jobs, or students can choose to drop out of school, if they don’t want to participate in their institutions’ programs. And it of course leaves most people behind: if you don’t work for an institution that can pull off its own internal testing and tracing, you won’t directly benefit from such a program.

It looks as though this latter option is what Cambridge University will adopt — to name just one non-corporate example — because it now has the capacity to do all of that stuff.

But when you look at the bigger picture, this ‘company town’ approach would be a disaster for inequality, and maybe even for democracy. A bit like neoliberalism, in fact.

There’s no substitute for state capacity here, rigorously, competently and fairly administered. And the big questions for us is: can the UK actually do it?

Quarantine diary — Day 97


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Wednesday 3 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

Participle physics

Another wickedly sharp column from Marina Hyde.

I’ve no time for this theory that the government doesn’t care about having the worst death toll in Europe, based on the fact that they only robotically acknowledge it once a day by confirming how many people “have sadly died”. They do care, but just slightly shy of the amount required to tell a civil servant to visit thesaurus.com. The repeat formulation gives the impression of being governed by a Grammarly template, or perhaps an automated phone system. “You are currently number –” “SADLY” “– in the queue.”

On Sunday, it was Robert Jenrick’s turn on the sadface, with the housing and communities secretary released briefly for the press conference. He normally lives in a stock photo about online banking. Unfortunately, that environment seems not to have prepared Robert for questions about why the government is easing lockdown when they themselves said they would not do so until the official alert level was 3. “The alert level is changing,” Jenrick handwaved. “We are still at level 4 but we are transitioning to 3.” Is this like when I still haven’t done the ironing but I am transitioning to having done it? Have I, at that moment, done the ironing? No. Of course I haven’t. But I WILL have. Scientifically, it’s a hugely interesting space to be in. I call it participle physics – which is like particle physics, except Robert Jenrick can do it.

The case of bookcases

Lovely short essay by sociologist David Beer. Noting that the background of many people on Zoom involves book cases, he writes,

I’d probably aim for the same type of scenery, if I could. My video calls are backed by a blank wall. This is no proclamation and nor is it a choice. It is by no means an attempt to subvert or make a statement on the selfconsciously-situated bookcase. I have only a small number at home: my book collection is almost entirely housed in my work office. Locked in. Limited space at home and an attempt to demarcate home and work space have kept me in the habit of only bringing a book or two home at any one time. My book collection exists only at work – a space that I imagined would always be accessible. Those many images of crammed shelves remind me of my books.

I sometimes, in the moments of daydreaming, imagine my office. Empty and dark. The walls lined with my books. The tools of the trade, left unused. It’s a small and inconsequential problem, but it does make me think of how work has been transformed now and possibly in the future.

It’s limiting without them – and not just because I lack a visual representation of my cultural capital to adorn my moments of remote social contact. Planning a lecture, doing some writing, checking and cross-checking some idea. I wrote before about the difficulty of writing at the moment; as the focus starts to return, steadily, I’m now seeing the separation from my books will make things difficult (and that’s without even beginning to contemplate libraries staying shut).

Beer also has a thoughtful post about the difficulty of writing serious (i.e. scholarly) stuff at the moment which resonates with me.

Scott Galloway on the post-pandemic future of (US) universities

If you thought the Wired piece about UK universities that I blogged yesterday was scary, then this interview with Scott Galloway could make your flesh creep. He’s flamboyant but smart. And he knows the tech and Higher Education industries well. It’s a fascinating interview from start to finish, but if you’re busy here’s the summary:

In 2017, Scott Galloway anticipated Amazon’s $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods a month before it was announced. Last year, he called WeWork on its “seriously loco” $47 billion valuation a month before the company’s IPO imploded. Now, Galloway, a Silicon Valley runaway who teaches marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, believes the pandemic has greased the wheels for big tech’s entrée into higher education. The post-pandemic future, he says, will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities. MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook. According to Galloway, these partnerships will allow universities to expand enrollment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education. Galloway, who also founded his own virtual classroom start-up, predicts hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.

At the same time, more people than ever will have access to a solid education, albeit one that is delivered mostly over the internet. The partnerships he envisions will make life easier for hundreds of millions of people while sapping humanity of a face-to face system of learning that has evolved over centuries. Of course, it will also make a handful of people very, very rich. It may not be long before Galloway’s predictions are put to the test.

So Greece is opening up again? Er, up to a point, and cautiously

Here’s the official story

In summary (via Tyler Cowen):

Phase 1 – Until 15 June International flights are allowed only into Athens airport. All visitors are tested upon arrival and are required to stay overnight at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Phase 2 – Bridge phase- 15 June to 30 June International flights are allowed into Athens and Thessaloniki airports. If your travel originated from an airport not in the EASA affected area list (https://www.easa.europa.eu/SD-2020-01/Airports#group-easa-downloads), then you are only subject to random tests upon arrival. If you originate from an airport on the EASA affected area list, then you will be tested upon arrival. An overnight stay at a designated hotel is required. If the test is negative then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Hmmm… I wasn’t planning to go, anyway. But if I were…

The French contact-tracing app

Just got this from a French reader (to whom merci bon):

The French Stop-Covid app went live yesterday and from this users perspective its most serious flaw may not be privacy but battery life. In less than five hours it has depleted the fairly new battery on my iPhone 6s from near 100% to it’s current 10%. Even the French government website admits that users may find the need for a supplementary charge during the day. Many give too little thought to data privacy but all of us dislike badly-engineered apps that rapidly deplete battery life.

Agreed. I’d be mightily pissed-off by an app that did that. Presumably it’s not using the Apple API.

Quarantine Diary — Day 74


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Thursday 30 April, 2020

Lilac blossom

In our garden, this evening.

So even the omnipotent French state lacks capacity

All my life I’ve assumed that there was one state in Europe with consummate capacity. As a student visiting Paris in the Autumn of 1968 in the aftermath of les eventments, for example, I was struck by the grip that the police and the military had reimposed on the city. This was in the aftermath of an episode of demonstrations and disruption that had, temporarily, even caused President de Gaulle to contemplate fleeing. But in the end, authority was restored — with a vengeance. This was a state, I concluded, with formidable capacity even in peacetime.

But the Coronavirus may have exposed that as a bit of a myth. At any rate there’s an interesting piece in today’s New York Times suggesting that that fabled state capacity may not be what it was.

While France’s vaunted health care system has staved off disaster, France has suffered the world’s fourth-biggest death toll — now at 23,660 official deaths, behind the United States, Italy and Spain — a consequence, critics say, of the central government’s failure to anticipate the onslaught of the contagion.

That failure and a critical shortage of masks and testing kits — also resulting from gaps in state policies — led to the virus’s rapid early spread, prompting France to impose one of the word’s strictest nationwide lockdowns, now in its seventh week.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a tentative plan on Monday to gradually reopen the country starting on May 11. Schools and businesses would start reopening, though not restaurants or cafes. He urged companies to keep their employees working at home. And he promised that masks and testing would be made sufficiently available. But it was not clear that those steps would halt what polls show is declining confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Sacre Bleu!

The existential sadness of virtual tours of deserted museums

Earlier this month the New Yorker carried a touching and thoughtful piece by the magazine’s Art Critic, Peter Schjeldahl. Once we are again free to wander museums, he argues, the objects won’t have altered, but we will have, and the casualties of the coronavirus will accompany us spectrally.

We will have so much to say to one another when the coronavirus crisis is over: distillations from solitude, in cases like mine. At seventy-eight, with bad lungs, I’m holed up with my wife at our country place until a vaccine is developed and becomes available. It’s boring. (Remember when we lamented the distracting speed of contemporary life?) On the scale of current human ordeals, as the pandemic destroys lives and livelihoods, mere isolation hardly ranks as a woe. It’s an ambivalent condition that, among other things, affords time to think long thoughts. One of mine turns to the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online “virtual tours” add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted. Purely by existing, they stir associations and precipitate meanings that may resonate in this plague time.

The gap between the painters we call “the old masters” and our recent selves is that they lived in the shadow of mortality, or at least a sense of the proximity of death in a world without medicine and prone to pestilence and war. For a long time, though, modernity and science excavated a moat between their sensibility and ours. “But right now”, he writes, “we have all convened under a viral thundercloud, and everything seems different.”

At the heart of the essay is an extended meditation on Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas” (1656), which, says Schjeldahl, “is the best painting by the best of all painters”. Last December he had gone to Madrid (where the painting in in the Prada), believing that he would never see it again. (He has cancer, but has been granted an extension by immunotherapy.)

It’s a lovely, moving piece, worth reading in full. _____________________________________________________________________________ 

Another by-product of the Coronavirus crisis

There’s nothing that this blasted virus doesn’t touch.


Evgeny Morozov’s The Syllabus

Evgeny Morozov (whom God preserve) has launched a characteristically ambitious project: The Syllabus. Think of it as intelligent curation on steroids. It hoovers up the torrents of stuff published online and intelligently distils from it stuff that is worth noticing, reading, listening or viewing. The weekly output consists of curated syllabi featuring pieces that cut across text, video and audio. Curation runs either along thematic lines – e.g. technology, political economy, arts & culture – or by media type such as Best of Academic Papers, Podcasts, Videos. Subscribers can also build their own personalised syllabus centered around your interests.

The approach uses a mix of algorithmic and human curation: each week, algorithms detect tens of thousands of potential candidates – and not just in English. And then a team of human editors, led by Morozov, select a few hundred worthy items.

Maurits Martijn has written an illuminating account of how the project came to be.

Clay Shirky famously said decades ago that “there is no such thing as information overload; there is only filter failure”. Which is why one of the most valuable services people can provide on the open web (outside of the walled gardens of social media) is intelligent curation. That’s why services like Kottke.org, The Browser, Charles Arthur’s The Overspill and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery are so useful. But all of these are curated by people who cannot read everything. Morozov’s idea is to use technology to survey an unimaginably wider range of stuff that might conceivably be worth our attention, and then filter that using human judgement.

What I love about this project is its sheer ambitiousness. I’ve been a subscriber from its early days.

Why Trump’s press conferences should continue to be broadcast live

Interesting take from Olivia Nuzzi in NYmag:

What a lot of Trump critics miss is that the biggest threat to his presidency isn’t the pandemic and the collapse of the global economy. It’s Trump. The more we see him — rambling, ranting, casually spitballing about bleach and sunlight — the clearer that becomes. But that’s not the media’s problem, and taking the spotlight off of him as he displays the full extent of his inadequacies would only serve to help him and to make the public less informed about what the federal government is doing — or not doing.

Watching Trump dangerously improvise is, in itself, information. It’s pure access to his thoughts and ideas and emotional state, presented to the world in real time. Trump’s presence at the briefings is not valuable if what we hope to get from them is factual information about the pandemic. But if we want to learn more about what the government is doing, and why it’s doing what it’s doing, what could be better than this? We should think of the briefings as opportunities to observe the president and gauge his level of understanding of, and interest in, the crisis each day — to watch the reality show of his relationships with the members of his task force play out before our eyes, rather than reported on later through palace-intrigue stories informed by anonymous sources who half the country doesn’t believe exist.

Spot on. The point is that these performances provide a compelling insight into what might loosely be called Trump’s mind. They reveal how stupid and unhinged he is. (He always reminds me of the saloon-bar drunks I used to observe as a student.) As the Guardian‘s Australia Editor observed

When Trump’s words are processed through the media, the effect is that Trump sounds more coherent than he is. “I realized how much of the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect.” Taylor said she was left wondering “whether the editing does our readers a disservice.”

Quarantine diary — Day 40


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A new crypto journal

An unexpected development. It’s called Nakamoto. Here’s the pitch

When Satoshi Nakamoto invented Bitcoin, he solved an unsolved problem in computer science, developed the foundation for a new digital theory of property rights, and gave birth to a $100B industry.

Yet much of what we see in the news and on social media about cryptocurrency and blockchain doesn’t convey the pace of technological progress and commercial traction that people in the space perceive. And there’s even less discussion of the philosophical principles that motivated Satoshi Nakamoto, or the society that he wanted to build.

That’s why we’re launching Nakamoto. We want to create a venue for quality technical, philosophical, and cultural writing that is of general interest to the crypto community as a whole, for beginner and expert alike.

Our feudal present

In late August, a black-sailed ship appeared in the harbor carrying a 16-year-old visionary, a girl who had sailed from the far north across a great sea. A mass of city-dwellers and travelers, enthralled by her prophecies, gathered to welcome her. She had come to speak to the nations of Earth, to castigate us for our vanities and warn us of coming catastrophe. “There were four generations there cheering and chanting that they loved her,” the writer Dean Kissick observed. “When she came ashore, it felt messianic.”

Thus begins “In 2029, the Internet Will Make Us Act Like Medieval Peasants”, a lovely essay by Max Read on what tech is doing to us.

“Looking around lately”, he writes,

I am reminded less often of Gibson’s cyberpunk future than of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical past, less of technology and cybernetics than of magic and apocalypse. The internet doesn’t seem to be turning us into sophisticated cyborgs so much as crude medieval peasants entranced by an ever-present realm of spirits and captive to distant autocratic landlords. What if we aren’t being accelerated into a cyberpunk future so much as thrown into some fantastical premodern past?

Wonderful stuff. Worth reading in full.

Silicon Valley ideology in a nutshell

The proprietor of N-gate is an engineer who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in high-performance computing. He agreed to exchange e-mails on condition of anonymity. “Almost every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see.”

From a terrific New Yorker essay on the task of moderating Hacker News.