(dystopic) utopianism...
November 29, 2018 6:24 AM   Subscribe

The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand's 'Whole Earth Catalog' - "Brand's generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy." ('We Are as Gods and Might as Well Get Good at It')

'General Magic' captures the legendary Apple offshoot that foresaw the mobile revolution - "A new documentary about the small company that was decades ahead of its time holds lessons for every entrepreneur."

How Silicon Valley Has 'Made Work Miserable For The Rest Of Us' - "Writer Dan Lyons says Silicon Valley values are spreading across the country and have made a lot of folks unhappy and stressed at work."

One of the fathers of AI is worried about its future - "Yoshua Bengio wants to stop talk of an AI arms race and make the technology more accessible to the developing world."

The internet age has allowed the perfection of this particular fraud - "Pay someone a dollar in customer-acquisition costs, have him pay you back a dollar in revenue, sell that dollar of revenue to investors for $8, and you're rich."

How A Mysterious Tech Billionaire Created Two Fortunes—And A Global Software Sweatshop - "Trilogy became the hot place for young coders to land in the late 1990s. Known for its testosterone-fueled work environment and an alcohol-infused mix of long hours, fast cars, gambling and sex, Trilogy served as the model for Silicon Valley's boys club. Its programmers were paid like rock stars and partied like them, too."

Bill Gates: If you want to understand Silicon Valley, watch Silicon Valley - "You can believe, as I do, that tech companies really are improving life with amazing tools and also admit that sometimes, who wins and who loses is pretty arbitrary."

A 1970s Essay Predicted Silicon Valley's High-Minded Tyranny - "'As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules', she wrote in the piece, published in Ms. magazine in 1973. 'Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.'"

The New Radicalization of the Internet - "Jihadists and right-wing extremists use remarkably similar social media strategies."

Has the modern nation state failed? - "As for those tech-friendly visions of self-organising democratic communities idealised by the geeks who founded Facebook and Google, the less said about them the better. The spectre of the totalitarian secret policeman still makes us shudder; but the surveillance capacities at the disposal of the modern state and its rulers make those historical ghouls look like amateurs. A century after the end of the first world war, we have, it seems, learned very little."

Why innovation isn't dead in Silicon Valley, according to this tech expert - "These digital-to-physical businesses have faced immense challenges in their quest to go beyond software bits. They've disrupted entire industries, but their growth has been slower than their predecessors, because their services come with large logistics and regulatory costs... Evans still believes that the next phase of innovation will be in blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and AI. But like the Internet in 2003, he said, it's hard to see all the possible applications and ways that these tools will be used."

The Next Great (Digital) Extinction - "I've been thinking about the GOE, the Cambrian Explosion, and the emergence of the mammals a lot lately, because I'm pretty sure we're in the midst of a similarly disruptive and pivotal moment in history that I'm calling the Great Digitization Event, or GDE."

Look at issuing digital currency, IMF head tells central banks - "Digitalization is reshaping economic activity, shrinking the role of cash, and spurring new digital forms of money. Central banks have been pondering wheter and how to adapt. One possibility is central bank digital currency (CBDC)-- a widely accessible digital form of fiat money that could be legal tender. This discussion note proposes a conceptual framework to assess the case for CBDC adoption from the perspective of users and central banks. It discusses possible CBDC designs, and explores potential benefits and costs, with a focus on the impact on monetary policy, financial stability, and integrity. This note also surveys research and pilot studies on CBDC by central banks around the world."

What Are We Learning about Artificial Intelligence in Financial Services? - "First, the Federal Reserve's 'Guidance on Model Risk Management' (SR Letter 11-7) highlights the importance to safety and soundness of embedding critical analysis throughout the development, implementation, and use of models, which include complex algorithms like AI. It also underscores 'effective challenge' of models by a 'second set of eyes'--unbiased, qualified individuals separated from the model's development, implementation, and use. It describes supervisory expectations for sound independent review of a firm's own models to confirm they are fit for purpose and functioning as intended. If the reviewers are unable to evaluate a model in full or if they identify issues, they might recommend the model be used with greater caution or with compensating controls. "

Break up Facebook (and while we're at it, Google, Apple and Amazon) - "Big tech has ushered in a second Gilded Age. We must relearn the lessons of the first, writes the former US labor secretary [Robert Reich]."

Nationalize Amazon - "Is this a realistic demand? Perhaps not yet, but that's the point."

How I changed the law with a GitHub pull request - "Washington DC has made GitHub the authoritative digital source for DC laws."

This city just approved a new election system never tried before in America - "Experimentation with a greater diversity of voting systems is one of the more hopeful nascent trends."

The City of the Future Is a Data-Collection Machine - "Soon enough, we'll have a smart city: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet, is building one 'from the internet up', with help from a series of private-public real-estate partnerships in the downtown Toronto neighborhood Quayside (pronounced Key-side). "

Overvalued - "A new short story about a future in which people can buy and sell shares in one another."

What's Stopping Human Capital From Becoming a Security? - "Stasenko's dystopian vision of a Prodigy Market is, in fact, akin to what the Chinese government is currently attempting to institute on a mass scale, with every citizen assigned a 'social score' that will determine everything from credit lines to job interviews to travel privileges. The metrics the state might use to ensure conformity and continued control may be somewhat different from those used by a hedge fund to determine profitability, but they have more in common than not. They also are now made possible by the vast amounts of data each of us leave of our daily lives on social media or as a byproduct of electronic transactions ranging from banking to Amazon purchases to booking travel and paying bills. We—all of us who have smartphones and bank accounts—leave a data trail that easily translates into a score that could be used for a range of purchases from the benign (points and perks) to the alarming (having our scores bought and sold and driven lower by financial intermediaries)."

Markets in almost nothing - "Remember, most of the things we actually care about can't be bought and sold in any market."

AI thinks like a corporation—and that's worrying - "Artificial intelligence was born of organisational decision-making and state power; it needs human ethics, says Jonnie Penn of the University of Cambridge."

Leave it to Silicon Valley to literally try and reinvent *phrenology* - "Today in shitty machine learning startups, this company claims to predict IQ, personality, and violent tendencies by applying deep learning to facial features and bone structure. That's phrenology. You just made the ML equivalent of a racist uncle."

Our Coming 19th-Century Future - "On the latest episode of 2038, Cowen predicts that over the next 20 years, 'this nation will go back to an earlier version of its politics, which were highly dysfunctional. You had plenty of people becoming president who probably should not have been. And yet at the same time we muddled through that era and emerged as modern America.'"

also btw...
I think we have this responsibility to continue to articulate a hopeful, positive vision of the future. I think if anything that’s more important now than it was when The Original Series came out... A positive vision of the future articulated through principles of tolerance and egalitarianism and optimism and the quest for scientific knowledge, to me that’s feels fresh nowadays.

Captain Picard is the hero we need right now. He exemplifies in some ways even more then James Kirk—and I’m not gonna get into the Kirk vs Picard argument because I love Captain Kirk, he was my first captain—but Picard is even more of an exemplar of everything that is best about Star Trek’s vision for the future.
posted by kliuless (32 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
California, at the end of America, gave us both The Californian Ideaology and Orange Country Republicanism, both based on the idea that there’s only people and forces not society and that the post war cease fire was the new normal.
posted by The Whelk at 6:59 AM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

From the first article:

“ ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff,” Brand said. “We didn’t know what government did. The whole government apparatus is quite wonderful, and quite crucial. [It] makes me frantic, that it’s being taken away.”

posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:11 AM on November 29, 2018 [42 favorites]

A newfound interest in history has helped to inform this relaxed approach to the future. “It’s been a long hard slog for women. It’s been a long hard slog for people of color. There’s a long way to go,” he said. “And yet you can be surprised by successes. Gay marriage was unthinkable, and then it was the norm. In-vitro fertilization was unthinkable, and then a week later it was the norm. Part of the comfort of the Long Now perspective, and Steven Pinker has done a good job of spelling this out, is how far we’ve come. Aggregate success rate is astonishing.”

Do you know why things have (arguably) gotten better? Because people fucking fought for a better future, instead of laying back and relaxing while other people did the work. Any actual student of history knows that it takes work to build a better future, and that there’s a lot of effort that gets smashed or co-opted or ignored.
posted by heurtebise at 7:15 AM on November 29, 2018 [17 favorites]

“ ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein..."

Well, there's your first problem right there
posted by NoMich at 7:24 AM on November 29, 2018 [14 favorites]


They are, but learning that isn't reinforced outside of that one very particular classroom gets forgotten quickly.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:33 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


Or as libertarians call it, violence!
posted by 1adam12 at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2018 [13 favorites]

How I changed the law with a GitHub pull request

This is only dystopic if you go by the article's (exaggerated) title alone. He fixed a typo in a link. And it's a great story of a 5 year-long effort to work *with* the government to empower them and members of the public. This wasn't some Silicon Valley disruption nonsense.

Here's a less jargony article about it.

Disclaimer: I've volunteered at Code for DC with Josh.


* You couldn't download a full copy of the the DC Code
* You couldn't link to specific laws in the Code
* You couldn't build an improved interface for browsing the Code
* LexisNexis/WestLaw owned the copyright on the complete digital copy of the Code
* The Council was near locked into their contract with LexisNexis/WestLaw and couldn't publish a full copy of the Code online themselves without risking copyright infringement
* The workflow for making changes to the Code was onerous for the government itself
* Changes to the Code would take half a year to be published somewhere visible to the public


* Anyone can freely download, link to, and make use of DC's laws
* It's easy to browse the law on the Council's website
* Codification and publishing no longer depend on for-profit legal vendors (taken over by the non-profit Open Law Library, which came out of a DC Council fellowship)
* It's all much simpler for the government to manage
posted by waninggibbon at 7:41 AM on November 29, 2018 [27 favorites]

Because people fucking fought for a better future, instead of laying back and relaxing while other people did the work

This seems like an opportune place to mention Jemisin's response to "Omelas," entitled "The Ones Who Stay and Fight," that I believe just came out in her new short story collection.
posted by PMdixon at 7:43 AM on November 29, 2018 [12 favorites]

Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace really digs into the California counterculture and the rise of extreme right wing patriarchy - growing up side by side at the same time they both shared a belief that government was unnecessary and that everything would eventually self regulate. It’s like neoliberalism of the soul.

It’s why we’ve basically had no political growth since then. As I mentioned before, we’re struggling to reinvent the concept of public spending.
posted by The Whelk at 7:47 AM on November 29, 2018 [11 favorites]

Speaking of civics education, a group of Rhode Island public school families sure think so: "Are Civics Lessons a Constitutional Right? These Students Are Suing for Them (NYT)."
posted by PhineasGage at 7:52 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Do you know why things have (arguably) gotten better? Because people fucking fought for a better future, instead of laying back and relaxing while other people did the work. Any actual student of history knows that it takes work to build a better future, and that there’s a lot of effort that gets smashed or co-opted or ignored.

The whole American-cum-libertarian ideology has to be overturned, though, and that ideology is practically a religion for a lot of people. One person is not going to change things for the better. Social change takes organization and a lot of people working together. One person maybe gets named in the lawsuit that goes to the Supreme Court; one person maybe gets into the news. But those things are the result of a lot of people throwing a lot of things against the wall and some of them sticking, so to speak. Those people, to be effective, are the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

Rosa Parks wasn't just one lady who sat down. She was part of a group of organizers who planned that demonstration. She was selected. That fact is left out of the narrative that I was taught and that I suspect a lot of people were taught. The prevailing narrative of social change is the hero's journey, in which one person hears the call and goes and does the heroic thing and changes the world. Without working together, the institutional powers that are arrayed against us will pick us off one by one.

(Aside: You can see how inapplicable the hero's journey narrative is to social change when you consider how the climaxes of those stories often work. The hero blows up the Death Star, or the pulsing brain that is controlling all the zombies, or whatever, and in that one stroke all of the lesser opponents are also felled. Social change doesn't work like that. If it did, your racist uncle would have stopped being racist the minute Strom Thurmond died.)
posted by gauche at 7:53 AM on November 29, 2018 [20 favorites]

The milieu during the Whole Earth's run was one of political assassinations, civil unrest, the draft, an overseas war killing millions (and US casualties larger than anything since) and increased environmental degradation (not to mention the every present threat of nuclear annihilation) Is it so surprising that one response to all that was looking towards individual empowerment, back to the land movements, and intentional communities? Using new tools and technologies to remove your dependence on a culture and government that appeared malevolent? The "We are as gods" line gets a lot of notice but how about the fact that the cover featured one of the early uses of the "blue marble" photo of Earth from space? Environmentalism and ecology were always a crucial element to Brand's philosophy-- and here we are 50 years later and it remains the most pressing issue to humanity, one that dwarfs the goings on in Silicon Valley.
posted by gwint at 8:09 AM on November 29, 2018 [17 favorites]

(As a side note, Brand has also done interesting work investigating urban architecture. His book "How Buildings Learn" was turned into a BBC series and is available on YouTube.)
posted by gwint at 8:13 AM on November 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


They are, but learning that isn't reinforced outside of that one very particular classroom gets forgotten quickly.

I mean, no they're not. I came out of school knowing less than nothing (that is to say, knowing more falsehoods than truths) about our system of government. Part of this is that I never actually had any classes remotely related to civics. (The closest was "history", I guess?)
posted by ragtag at 8:32 AM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

[Not to abuse the edit window:]

And, what's worse, I'm an owner of a well-respected tech startup. (I'm not going to say which one.)

That is to say, I'm very definitely part of the problem and I'm sorry about it. I'm trying my best to learn now but I feel like I have decades of catchup to do.
posted by ragtag at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Appreciate that you're trying.
posted by aleph at 9:00 AM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was at that 50th Anniversary event (I proofread a lot of Point Foundation publications over the years).

Brand's interview onstage with Salman Khan of Khan Academy was one of the more inspiring forward-looking moments. Brand commented cheerfully that Khan Academy online made the Catalog's way of educating people utterly obsolete.

I think the videos of the event would include that conversation.
posted by hank at 9:03 AM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I still have my copy of The Next Whole Earth Catalog but I'm still annoyed at Stewart Brand for vocally opposing the metric system.
posted by octothorpe at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Part of this is that I never actually had any classes remotely related to civics.

Well see how fast you forgot?

As a side note, school is like leading the horse to water. You can't make it drink. Just about every school is teaching. It's up to students to grab the learning while they can. I had reasonably good civics in HS. Judging by my former classmates I see on Facebook, it had no universal lasting effects.

It's amusing to see the kind of "fuck Brand/WEC because libertarianism" without remembering what government and the dominant culture was then. The problem is not only that Brand didn't know what government did. It's that he was paradoxically quite aware of what government was doing. It's always a perilous balancing act.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:44 AM on November 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

We're *always* going to get it wrong (even while, hopefully, doing better). I just hope we can learn some meta lessons about how to cope with that and build it into our institutions/society.
posted by aleph at 10:28 AM on November 29, 2018

Thanks for this - a lot to digest here.

I first encountered the WEC and CoEvolution Quarterly in the late 80s - around the same time I discovered punk - and the intertwined threads of Brand et al's version of DIY and those of its counterculture descendants, have been *huge* influences on my thinking and the course my life took afterward.

In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.

I still find Brand worth listening to, but have learned to wary of his quasi-libertarianism and seemingly bulletproof optimism about technological solutions to social and environmental problems. His blithe take on the threat posed by climate change in a recent interview with Rob Reid was particularly depressing. For the first time - and especially for someone that has long had his eye on the distant future - he sounded decidedly like a voice from the past *.

Brand has surprised me before, though, and - as the first article here also shows - still seems, even at 79, like someone who is relentlessly curious, open to admitting that he's wrong (if not always mindful enough of that possibility on the front end), and to changing his mind and direction. While he may tangentially-to-partially be related to some noxious developments in 70s/80s business culture that are now ubiquitous, I think it's wrongheaded to pin the failure of baby boomers to grapple with the many threats we're now confronted with on the mentality that the WEC fostered.

Brand may have been - and remain - far too optimistic about the potential for capitalism to do good or to correct its path, but he has also always been a critical and often prescient observer of it with a strong (if, to my mind, fatally technocratic) environmental consciousness. And, in any case, his influence over the broader culture pumping carbon into the atmosphere is so niche, or only important as a component of much larger cultural trends in the 60s and 70s, that I agree with his assessment that he's being used as a shorthand.

* Kevin Kelly's futurism has always struck me as even more blithe, privileged, and unreflective, though I did find the Cool Tools book interesting as an attempt to wed the "internet before the internet" WEC with the actual internet. For my money, the most consistently thoughtful and inspiring WEC alum remains Lloyd Kahn.

Two books worth checking out for anyone wanting to think more deeply about the legacy of the WEC are Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture and Andrew Kirk's Counterculture Green.

posted by ryanshepard at 10:36 AM on November 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

Civics class should involve picking an issue being argued by your local City Council, planning commission, county health system or whatnot, researching the different angles, attending meetings of the various impacted constituents, choosing a position, then speaking during the public comment period, writing a convincing letter to the relevant representative, or attending a demonstration to voice your perspective.

I'm Just a Bill, Sittin on Capital Hill is just not a meangful way to get young people engaged with civics.
posted by latkes at 10:40 AM on November 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

The constant media barrage of "naughty Silicon Valley" as a stand-in for "problems inherent to capitalism and the decline of labor" is such a boon for the elites.
posted by MillMan at 11:55 AM on November 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm Just a Bill, Sittin on Capital Hill is just not a meangful way to get young people engaged with civics.

I beg to differ. It's precisely what worked for me.

That is, it's precisely what worked to lay the foundation that later classes and voting-promotion campaigns built upon. "I'm Just A Bill" wasn't intended to teach "engagement", it was meant to teach the nuts and bolts. you have to learn what something is before you can learn how to be engaged with it, after all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:12 PM on November 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

My official civics education through high school remained at the level of emphasizing the founders and three branches of government. The only way we were told to engage was to vote, (which wasn't even especially emphasized). It's a debate about pedagogy but I think public education should be activating on the ground to build engaged adults.
posted by latkes at 12:37 PM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I learned so much more about how government really works from organizing against the Gulf War at that age than like, reading about executive branch powers. The reading is great too but I don't think it's activating.
posted by latkes at 12:39 PM on November 29, 2018

Yeah, I think the amount and quality of high school civics education varies dramatically depending on where you are. Mine was pretty good, but I took AP US Government. All students were required to take civics at my high school, but I don't know how in-depth the curriculum was for those taking the non-AP version. And I'm not sure the private schools in my city required any civics classes at all.

The dismantling of high-quality, free, public education for all is part of a long strategy to ensure that significant portions of the populace are too ignorant of how democratic government works and what it is for to effectively oppose (or even want to oppose) its destruction by the billionaires, zealots, and other would-be oligarchs who chafe under its restraints. The strategy has been very successful.
posted by biogeo at 1:35 PM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was really hoping that Golden, Colorado's ballot measure to extend local voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds would pass, but it didn't. If there's a better way to encourage students to take an interest in local government than to give them the ability to participate, I don't know what it could possibly be.
posted by asperity at 1:48 PM on November 29, 2018

WeWork's first school teaches math and science but yoga and farming, too - "The children are 'members' of WeWork's first school, WeGrow, where farming and agriculture is part of the curriculum. They are interacting with WeGrow employees browsing the goods: 'How many cucumbers would you like?' one girl asks. 'We take Apple Pay,' another shouts."

Google aims to transform US libraries into digital training hubs - "Starting in January, the tech giant's representatives will hold workshops at libraries in all 50 states, teaching local small business owners and job hunters of all ages how they can best use basic digital tools such as smartphones and spreadsheets. Google will also coach librarians, staff members and local nonprofit officials on tools and curriculum for year-round career training sessions."

If You Don't Think Today's Tech Giants Are Vicious, Just Ask Venture Capitalists - "Silicon Valley today resembles the deepest part of the jungle known as the triple canopy, where tall trees block out all the light and nothing can grow on the ground. Who knows how many good businesses are not funded because of the fear of the tech monopolies?"

Inside Tech's "Kill Zone": How to Deal With the Threat to Edge Innovation Posed by Multi-Sided Platforms - "Dominant tech platforms can exploit the vast amounts of user data available only to them to squash startups and independent providers. Hal Singer offers ways to protect against this threat to edge innovation."

Amazon to sell medical software that reads records, cuts costs - "Ultimately, this richness of information may be able to one day help consumers with managing their own health, including medication management, proactively scheduling care visits, or empowering them to make informed decisions about their health and eligibility."

Microsoft Wins $480 Million Army Battlefield Contract - "The contract, which could eventually lead to the military purchasing over 100,000 headsets, is intended to 'increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy,' according to a government description of the program."

The Oral History of 'San Junipero' - "How Black Mirror made its most hopeful story."

The Founder of Panera Bread Explains the Economic Forces That Led to Trump - "The fixation on short-term profits is jeopardizing the future of American business, and creating social instability that has contributed to our current state of political polarization."

Paul Volcker's Wisdom for America's Rigged Economy - "The common factors he identifies are self-dealing, shortsightedness, and a lack of public-mindedness."
posted by kliuless at 1:49 PM on November 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh good, another "blame the boomers" thread. I was a whole-hearted Whole Earther at the time, and I don't, in retrospect, identify anything libertarian in myself. My take was New Communities!. OF Committed, Generous and Caring People! In short, I was an idiot, but not that kind of idiot.

Brand is a man of enormous contradictions. A genius, of sorts, but engaging in a lot of late-life evasion tactics. The politics of that time were dreadful, and any way out, no matter how delusional, seemed appropriate. The politics of our time, this time, are fractionating. You don't have to run away, just pick whatever little sliver you find meaningful and go with it. There are lots of changes I'd still like to see, but sinking into the quagmire of market-speak ("framing!! "contexting!!", etc.), I just don't know ...
posted by Chitownfats at 2:43 PM on November 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

The dismantling of high-quality, free, public education for all is part of a long strategy to ensure that significant portions of the populace are too ignorant of how democratic government works and what it is for to effectively oppose (or even want to oppose) its destruction by the billionaires, zealots, and other would-be oligarchs who chafe under its restraints. The strategy has been very successful.

From Vietnam And other american fantasies. Destroying the free education system was entirely the point.
posted by The Whelk at 4:09 PM on November 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

I received the best civics education as a journalism student at Washington State University in the mid-70s. We had at least one class in how governments work, from the local to the national level, because as reporters that was the bread and butter of our daily work. I was supremely well prepared for my first (and only) journalism job in a small eastern Washington wheat town, where I covered city council, county council, school district, police, sheriff, county and municipal courts, sports, business...
posted by lhauser at 7:36 PM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

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