Random finds (2018, week 8) — On the tyranny of convenience, maintaining the freedom of our cities, and leading people down hateful rabbit holes

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

The tyranny of convenience

Convenience is probably the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies, says Tim Wu in The Tyranny of Convenience.

“[It] has the ability to make other options unthinkable. Once you have used a washing machine, laundering clothes by hand seems irrational, even if it might be cheaper. After you have experienced streaming television, waiting to see a show at a prescribed hour seems silly, even a little undignified. To resist convenience — not to own a cellphone, not to use Google — has come to require a special kind of dedication that is often taken for eccentricity, if not fanaticism.”

But given the growth of convenience — as an ideal, a value, a way of life — it is well worth asking what our fixation with it is doing to us and to our country, Wu writes. This doesn’t mean that convenience — making things easier — is a force for evil. “On the contrary, it can open up possibilities that once seemed too onerous to contemplate, and it typically makes life less arduous, especially for those most vulnerable to life’s drudgeries.

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.”

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Illustration by CreditHudson Christie for The New York Times.

However mundane it may seem to us, convenience once was a utopian ideal. “By saving time and eliminating drudgery, it would create the possibility of leisure. And with leisure would come the possibility of devoting time to learning, hobbies or whatever else might really matter to us. Convenience would make available to the general population the kind of freedom for self-cultivation once available only to the aristocracy. In this way convenience would also be the great leveler.”

“The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work,” Wu writes. “But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits. Perhaps this is why, with every advance of convenience, there have always been those who resist it. They resist out of stubbornness, yes (and because they have the luxury to do so), but also because they see a threat to their sense of who they are, to their feeling of control over things that matter to them.”

But despite the utopian promise, the first convenience revolution began to sputter in the late 1960s. It no longer seemed like society’s greatest aspiration. “Convenience meant conformity. The counterculture was about people’s need to express themselves, to fulfill their individual potential, to live in harmony with nature rather than constantly seeking to overcome its nuisances.” So, it was perhaps “inevitable that the second wave of convenience technologies — the period we are living in — would co-opt this ideal. It would conveniencize individuality.”

This time, its promise was not, like the first convenience revolution, to make life and work easier for you, but to make it easier to be you. New technologies were catalysts of selfhood. They conferred efficiency on self-expression, and it all started with the advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979. “With the Walkman we can see a subtle but fundamental shift in the ideology of convenience,” Wu argues.

Almost forty years into this second convenience revolution, task after task has become easier and the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. “We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you can skip the line and buy concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who have never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote).”

Again, Wu doesn’t deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, like giving us many choices where we used to have only a few or none. “But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?,” he wonders.

The cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. “Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides.

[…]

We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others. Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are.”

Maintaining the freedom of our cities

Joel Kotkin, described by The New York Times as ‘America’s uber-geographer,’ is an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends. In a recent article for Daily Beast, From Disruption to Dystopia: Silicon Valley Envisions the City of the Future, he writes, “The tech oligarchs […] want to fashion our urban future in a way that dramatically extends the reach of the surveillance state already evident in airports and on our phones. Redesigning cities has become all the rage in the tech world, with Google parent company Alphabet leading the race to build a new city of its own and companies like Y Combinator, Lyft, Cisco, and Panasonic all vying to design the so-called smart city.”

Kotkin views these plans as “the latest expansion of the Valley’s narcissistic notion of ‘changing the world’ through disruption of its existing structures and governments and the limits those still place on the tech giants’ grandest ambitions. This new urban vision negates the notion of organic city-building and replaces it with an algorithmic regime that seeks to rationalize, and control, our way of life.”

“It goes without saying,” he writes, “this is not a matter of merely wanting to do good. These companies are promoting these new cities as fitter, happier, more productive, and convenient places, even as they are envisioning cities with expanded means to monitor our lives, and better market our previously private information to advertisers.”

But the drive to redesign our cities isn’t the end of the agenda of those who Aldous Huxley described as the top of the “scientific caste system.” They have also worked to make our personal space — our homes — ‘connected’ “to their monitoring and money machines. […] Both the city and house the future may owe more to Brave New World than Better Homes and Gardens.”

This new urban form is an extension of a notion shared by most top internet founders that their industry will exacerbate inequality between the rich and the middle class, while eradicating abject poverty by making cheap essential goods. Companies prosper in this model by avoiding the messy reality of paying higher wages through automating ever higher-end functions.

As the hoi polloi cluster in small apartments, the choice spots will be left for the extremely wealthy workaholics who create technologies. Everyone else will enjoy leisurely prosperity — playing with their phones, video games, and virtual reality in what Google calls ‘immersive computing.’”

“What is occurring in Silicon Valley, being proposed in Toronto [where Google is working to create a new, ‘smart’ neighborhood in an undeveloped 12-acre portion of Toronto called Quayside], and now implemented in China all points toward efforts by tech companies and governments to create new dense and data-driven cities that shape what the British academic David Lyon calls a ‘surveillance society,’ where all of our data is shared with the governments and companies that use it to control us. In many ways these ‘cities’ will be the opposite of the real thing, driven by a technological culture that, as David Byrne has suggested, substitutes spontaneous human interaction — the glory of the traditional city — with machine-driven interfaces.”

“To maintain the freedom of the city requires that citizens, not the oligarchy, drive its development. Anything else undermines the very idea of democracy. When a city manager suggests that changes are dictated by data collected by the smart city operators, rather than popular sentiment, democracy itself has been unplugged. This is the time to reclaim cities suited to human aspiration. We need to do this before control is ceded to a small tech elite that profits by shaping our future, stealing our privacy and nudging us toward a new era of mass serfdom.”

Leading people down hateful rabbit holes

In ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth, Paul Lewis explores how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, the single most important engine of YouTube’s growth, has evolved to promote more disturbing content, and what this is doing to our politics.

“Those are not easy questions to answer. Like all big tech companies, YouTube does not allow us to see the algorithms that shape our lives. They are secret formulas, proprietary software, and only select engineers are entrusted to work on the algorithm. Guillaume Chaslot, a 36-year-old French computer programmer with a PhD in artificial intelligence, was one of those engineers.” Lewis writes. “YouTube is something that looks like reality,” he explained to Lewis when they met in Berkeley, California, “but it is distorted to make you spend more time online. The recommendation algorithm is not optimising for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.”

Since Chaslot was fired by Google 2013 (“ostensibly over performance issues. He insists he was let go after agitating for change within the company, using his personal time to team up with like-minded engineers to propose changes that could diversify the content people see”), he built a computer program to investigate the bias in YouTube content promoted during the French, British and German elections, global warming and mass shootings. The software program simulates the behaviour of a user who starts on one video and then follows the chain of recommended videos tracking data along the way. It was especially designed to provide the world’s first window into YouTube’s opaque recommendation engine. And although the results of each study are different, research suggests YouTube systematically amplifies videos that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial, Lewis writes.

“[Chaslot] believes one of the most shocking examples was detected by his program in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. As he observed in a short, largely unnoticed blogpost published after Donald Trump was elected, the impact of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm was not neutral during the presidential race: it was pushing videos that were, in the main, helpful to Trump and damaging to Hillary Clinton.”

“Wherever you started,” he explained to Lewis, “[…] from a Trump search or a Clinton search, the recommendation algorithm was much more likely to push you in a pro-Trump direction.” The database he sent to Lewis contained more than 8,000 videos — every single one detected by his program appearing ‘up next’ on 12 dates between August and November 2016, after equal numbers of searches for ‘Trump’ and ‘Clinton.’

Lewis sifted through 1,000 of the top-recommended videos one by one to see whether the content was likely to have benefited Trump or Clinton. “[A] third of the videos were either unrelated to the election or contained content that was broadly neutral or even-handed. Of the remaining 643 videos, 551 were videos favouring Trump, while only only 92 favoured the Clinton campaign.”

Lewis’ sample suggested that Chaslot’s conclusion was correct: “YouTube was six times more likely to recommend videos that aided Donald Trump than his adversary. YouTube presumably never programmed its algorithm to benefit one candidate over another, but based on this evidence, at least, that’s exactly what happened.”

In its response to these finding, a YouTube spokesperson “seemed to be saying that its algorithm was a neutral mirror of the desires of the people who use it — if we don’t like what it does, we have ourselves to blame,” Lewis writes. But aren’t the videos people choose to watch influenced by what YouTube shows them? Are those in-the-moment impulses a true reflection of the content we want to be fed?

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A voter in Ohio. Trump won the election by just 80,000 votes spread across three swing states. (Photography by Ty Wright/Getty Images)

According to Zeynep Tufekci, a widely respected sociologist and technology critic, YouTube’s “search and recommender algorithms are misinformation engines.” She adds: “The question before us is the ethics of leading people down hateful rabbit holes full of misinformation and lies at scale just because it works to increase the time people spend on the site — and it does work.”

She compares it with an autopilot cafeteria in a school that has figured out children have sweet teeth, and also like fatty and salty foods. “So you make a line offering such food, automatically loading the next plate as soon as the bag of chips or candy in front of the young person has been consumed,” she says. Once that gets normalised, what is fractionally more edgy or bizarre becomes novel and interesting. “So the food gets higher and higher in sugar, fat and salt — natural human cravings — while the videos recommended and auto-played by YouTube get more and more bizarre or hateful.”

“But why would a bias toward ever more weird or divisive videos benefit one candidate over another? That depends on the candidates. Trump’s campaign was nothing if not weird and divisive. Tufekci points to studies showing that ‘field of misinformation’ largely tilted anti-Clinton before the election. ‘Fake news providers,’ she says, ‘found that fake anti-Clinton material played much better with the pro-Trump base than did fake anti-Trump material with the pro-Clinton base.’”

And also this …

The New Yorker published an article about the German cultural theorist and philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has spent decades railing against the pieties of liberal democracy. “Now his ideas seem prophetic,” Thomas Meaney writes.

“In the academy, [Sloterdijk] is still regarded with suspicion. The English philosopher John Gray argued, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books [Blowing Bubbles, October 2017; paywall], that, sentence by sentence, much of his output is simply incomprehensible. It’s a common reaction among Anglophone readers, who are often baffled by the scale of his reputation. This is in part because his metaphorical, image-addicted style of philosophy has been in short supply in English since Coleridge. But in Europe it finds a ready audience. His writings, abstruse yet popularizing, have made him an uplifting guru for some and a convenient devil for others — the crucial fact being that he is never ignored. ‘The most interesting thing about Sloterdijk may not be anything particular he has written,’ the Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay told me, ‘but simply the fact that he exists.’”

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The German cultural theorist and philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, has emerged as his country’s most controversial public intellectual. (Illustration by Mikkel Sommer for The New Yorker)

“[Sloterdijk] is known not for a single grand thesis but for a shrapnel-burst of impressionistic coinages — ‘anthropotechnics,’ ‘negative gynecology,’ ‘co-immunism’ — that occasionally suggest the lurking presence of some larger system. Yet his prominence as a public intellectual comes from a career-long rebellion against the pieties of liberal democracy, which, now that liberal democracy is in crisis worldwide, seems prophetic. A signature theme of his work is the persistence of ancient urges in supposedly advanced societies. In 2006, he published a book arguing that the contemporary revolt against globalization can be seen as a misguided expression of ‘noble’ sentiments, which, rather than being curbed, should be redirected in ways that left-liberals cannot imagine. He has described the Presidential race between Clinton and Trump as a choice ‘between two helplessly gesticulating models of normality, one of which appeared to be delegitimatized, the other unproven,’ and is unsurprised that so many people preferred the latter. Few philosophers are as fixated on the current moment or as gleefully ready to explain it.”

Thomas Meaney’s A Celebrity Philosopher Explains the Populist Insurgency is a ‘must read’ (the written article is accompanied by an audio version) about a man whose “comfort with social rupture has made him a contentious figure in Germany, where stability, prosperity, and a robust welfare state are seen as central to the country’s postwar achievement.”

“No space is left for consumers to exhibit ‘imagination and spontaneity’ — rather, they are swept along in a succession of predictable moments, each of which is so easy to digest that they can be ‘alertly consumed even in a state of distraction’. And if, as [Theodor] Adorno believes, in the wider world we are under ever-increasing pressure to conform, to produce, and to pour our energies into our work, this loss of a place where we can think freely, imagine, and consider new possibilities is a deep and harmful loss. Even in our freedom from work, we are not free to truly take the kind of free and spontaneous pleasure that might help us recognise and reject the harmful lack of pleasure we find in our working lives,” Owen Hulatt writes in Against popular culture.

“Our lack of aesthetic freedom, then, also helps to build an obstacle to the realisation of social freedom. If popular culture puts us to work even in our leisure — if we are nowhere given space to think and experience freely and unpredictably — then we will lose sight of the possibility of a world not completely dominated by work. We will have increasingly less space to consider such a thing; and increasingly less experience of anything different to what work demands.”

“Labor-saving devices […] are invested with a halo of their own. This may be indicative of a fixation to a phase of adolescent activities in which people try to adapt themselves to modern technology by making it, as it were, their own cause… It seems that the kind of retrogression highly characteristic of persons who do not any longer feel they are the self-determining subjects of their fate, is concomitant with a fetishistic attitude towards the very same conditions which tend to be dehumanizing them. The more they are gradually being transformed into things, the more they invest things with a human aura. At the same time, the libidinization of gadgets is indirectly narcissistic in as much as it feeds on the ego’s control of nature: gadgets provide the subject with some memories of early feelings of omnipotence.” — Theodor Adorno on the psychology of ‘gadgeteering’

In this lecture at The Royal Institution, the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll ties together the fundamental laws of physics governing the workings of the cosmos with the everyday human experience we all share. He takes you on a breath-taking journey from the origin of the Universe, through the evolution of life and consciousness, to the eternal question of what it all really means.

Moscow’s modernist buildings were denounced by Stalin and then neglected. But they are being restored by a new generation of architects with a different view of history, writes Noah Sneider in Reconstructivism.

“Activists and preservationists have worked tirelessly to promote the period’s art and design, helping to shift perceptions. For a new post-Soviet generation, constructivism looks less like a failed experiment than a potential point of pride. ‘We need an overarching idea to generate patriotism,’ says Airat Bagautdinov, founder of Moscow Through the Eyes of an Engineer, a tour company that specialises in constructivist buildings. ‘The main national ideas have been the Great Victory in the second world war, and perhaps our great literature. We believe that architects and engineers can stand in one line as heroes, that the avant-garde could become one of our national ideas.’”

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Diamonds in the rough — The studio at the Melnikov House in Moscow.

The Moscow city authorities have also begun to embrace the avant-garde. Yet, caution is in order as the city does not always put its money where its mouth is. “Narkomfin has moved forward thanks to private owners, a group called Liga Prav, while the work at the Melnikov House relies on a grant from the Getty Foundation, an American arts organisation.” Many other constructivist buildings still face dilapidation and destruction, including the Shukov Radio Tower.

“Nonetheless, [Alexei Ginzburg, a Russian architect whose grandfather, Moisei Ginzburg, designed Narkomfin in 1928] is feeling hopeful for the first time in years. Narkomfin’s new owners plan to sell the restored apartments, and return the communal block to its original function with a café or restaurant. ‘It’s a real-estate development project, but at the same time, it’s a restoration,’ says Garegin Barsumyan, Liga Prav’s head representative. ‘We are probably among the first to attempt to formulate and realise the model of a commercial project in an object of cultural heritage.’ They hope that the building’s enduringly modern design and rich history will attract deep-pocketed buyers. ‘We aren’t offering square metres in the centre of Moscow, but a unique product that should sell like contemporary art,’ Ginzburg says. ‘These apartments should interest collectors like a Rothko painting.’”

“Canadian studio Omar Gandhi Architect has created a remote vacation home in Nova Scotia, with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide sweeping views of the sea,” writes Jenna McKnight. The residence, called Lookout at Broad Cove Marsh, “is defined by a single-loaded corridor running parallel to the length of the property, with a series of open and private spaces overlooking the cliff.”

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Omar Gandhi Architect perches glass-walled cabin on rocky cliff in Nova Scotia. (Photography by Doublespace Photography)

“I don’t have a dystopian view of AI. I don’t see killer robots. I’m so much more focused on the narrow applications, and I think that if you look at every single one of those narrow applications there is a chance that it negatively affects women. I don’t think artificial intelligence is the issue here; it’s the additional issue rather than the cause. We’re talking about the risk that our unconscious sexism or unconscious racism seep into the machines that we’re building. How do we get anyone who’s building AI to think about these things? We need to have consumers demand ethical AI. Not enough people are seeing this as more than just a gender issue; this is an actual, fundamental product issue.” — Tabitha Goldstaub in The Dangers of Tech-Bro AI

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