The Unintended Consequences of Silicon Valley’s “Smart” Paternalism, Agatha Christie’s Politics, and Lin-Manuel Miranda Wasted Opportunity
What has Lin-Manuel Miranda done since Hamilton became a hit? Appear on a handful of talk shows and voice a duck for Disney.
Agatha Christie’s politics: “Christie’s satirizing of socialism should not be mistaken as an attack on strong political commitments generally. She defended the legitimacy, for example, of the inherited wealth which renders working superfluous. She thought nonsensical that one might reject its responsibilities and privileges in favor of a putative independence, especially since that independence left one working jobs under an employer’s control and often materially worse off. She was critical of the mid-twentieth century trend towards casual clothing. And in the late 1960s, she signed a letter to Pope Paul VI asking him to make some provision to continue the ancient form of the Roman Mass. Christie’s statement on feminism was even more definitive: ‘…the foolishness of women in relinquishing their position of privilege obtained after many centuries of civilization. Primitive women toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that state voluntarily.’”
Once again, no, Eskimos don’t have 50 words for snow. The phrase “became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”
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The liberal arts are all but dead: “Assaults on reason, privilege, and canonical knowledge have not ended and they could escalate. Original discourse and thinking might of necessity relocate to places where traditional definitions of quality and canonical knowledge are not ritually despised. But study and preservation of discredited artifacts and a despicable past are not likely to draw many patrons or top talent. The ars liberalis prevailed over theology in the 19th century and flourished at American colleges, designating the learning that free men required. This matrix of knowledge long informed the nation’s discourse, civic principles, and moral examples. Once, in better circles, and among U.S. statesmen, educators, and clergy, familiarity with classical and modern markers was simply expected. Whether minds so furnished will be sought in the future remains uncertain. The timeless might endure and the faddish fade away, but there are no guarantees.”
Essay of the Day:
Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” So why is the platform so effective at driving people apart? Blame Silicon Valley’s “smart” paternalism, Jon Askonas argues in The New Atlantis, which often has unintended consequences:
“Much of the politics of Silicon Valley is explained by this Promethean exchange: gifts of enlightenment and ease in exchange for some measure of awe, gratitude, and deference to the technocratic elite that manufactures them. Algorithmic utopianism is at once optimistic about human motives and desires and paternalistic about humans’ cognitive ability to achieve their stated preferences in a maximally rational way. Humans, in other words, are mostly good and well-intentioned but dumb and ignorant. We rely on poor intuitions and bad heuristics, but we can overcome them through tech-supplied information and cognitive adjustment. Silicon Valley wants to debug humanity, one default choice at a time.
“We can see the shift from ‘access to tools’ to algorithmic utopianism in the unheralded, inexorable replacement of the ‘page’ by the ‘feed.’ The web in its earliest days was ‘surfed.’ Users actively explored what was interesting to them, shifting from page to page via links and URLs. While certain homepages — such as AOL or Yahoo! — were important, they were curated by actual people and communities. Most devoted ‘webizens’ spent comparatively little time on them, instead exploring the web based on memory, bookmarks, and interests. Each blog, news source, store, and forum had its own site. Where life on the Internet didn’t follow traditional editorial curation, it was mostly a do-it-yourself affair: Creating tools that might show you what your friends were up to, gathering all the information you cared about in one place, or finding new sites were rudimentary and tedious activities.
“The feed was the solution to the tedium of surfing the web, of always having to decide for yourself what to do next. Information would now come to you. Gradually, the number of sites involved in one’s life online dwindled, and the ‘platform’ emerged, characterized by an infinite display of relevant information — the feed. The first feeds used fairly simple algorithms, but the algorithms have grown vastly more complex and personalized over time. These satisfaction-fulfillment machines are designed to bring you the most ‘relevant’ content, where relevancy is ultimately based on an elaborate and opaque model of who you are and what you want. But the opacity of these models, indeed the very personalization of them, means that a strong element of faith is required. By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am.
“In this process, users have gone from active surfers to sheep feeding at the algorithmic trough. Over time, platforms have come up with ever more sophisticated means of inducing behavior, both online and in real life, using AI-fueled notifications, messages, and default choices to nudge you in the right direction, ostensibly toward your own maximum satisfaction. Yet now, in order to rein in the bad behaviors the feeds themselves have encouraged — fake news, trolling, and so on — these algorithms have increasingly become the sites of stealthy intervention, using tweaks like ‘shadowbanning,’ ‘down-ranking,’ and simple erasure or blocking of users to help determine what information people do and don’t access, and thereby to subtly shape their minds.”
Photo: White Sands
Poem: Dan Sheehan, “The Phone Not Ringing”
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