Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Our Digital Overlords Speak

For some time, I've been promising a second half of the post I did about my ambivalence about returning to the U.S., and this isn't it. But the other day, I read a statement that seems bland enough on  its surface, but horrifies me and has unsettled me ever since I read it. It goes, I think, deep into what bothers me about returning to this country and points to a mind-set that is all too prevalent and deeply dangerous. And, of course, immensely popular in certain circles.

The May 18 issue of the New Yorker has a story by Tad Friend called "Tomorrow's Advance Man," a profile of Marc Andreessen, the man who essentially invented the web browser and is now a partner in a16z, a venture capital company that provides money to tech startups. Andreessen is odd-looking, with an almost perfectly egg-shaped head that doesn't show up in the Wikipedia image below because I think he has to be facing the camera for it to register. The New Yorker's picture is arresting, and so is the article, although having so little connection to what it's about I found it rocky enough reading that it took me three nights to plow through it.

Marc Andreessen: Satan or Savior? (Or just deluded guy?)
The quote that got me going is this, which Friend quoted from Andreessen's Twitter feed. "Posit a world in which all material needs are provided free, by robots and material synthesizers...Imagine six, or 10, billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences, culture and exploration and learning. What a world that would be."

You betcha. And I will fight to my last dying breath to see that it never happens.

My blood ran cold as I read that over and over. Does he really believe this? Yes, I believe he does. So do lots of other people, mostly people, like him, who are phenomenally wealthy and have made that wealth in the tech boom. It enables them to trample people in the name of making money to achieve this literally incredible world, because in the end, it's for your own good, helping to bring about your liberation via technology. Just work with for us a while. You'll see. It'll be great.

What this statement elides, of course, is the raw material you're working with. Increasingly, funds for education are drying up across the United States. The privatization of elementary and secondary education is, if not complete, rapidly becoming the default. In what public education still exists, things that I took for granted as a kid -- art and music classes, school band, athletics -- are, if they're even available at all, only available if parents can pay for them. What a discovery that was: my initial exposure to the wider world of music, besides what I heard in church and on the increasingly infequent times my mother played Chopin on the piano, was at school. I learned to play an instrument (badly) and then went on to play it (badly) in the school band, which was a very empowering and educational experience that has stayed with me through the 50 years since I graduated from high school. And athletics! The bane of my existence, but for a different sort of kid, a chance to show off another kind of talent, an excellence that could, under the right circumstances, lead to a professional career (as could music, of course). You mean to tell me that a potential NBA star might be lost because his parents couldn't afford to pay for him to be on his high school basketball team? (I've already had middle-school kids come by my house selling stuff to pay for their school band).

This non-education (you can read elsewhere about the horrors of the Texas school systems and some of the idiocy they pass off as history classes) produces, not to mince words, stupid people. Stupid people who consume and do nothing else are a danger to our republic, and that's who you'd get under Andreessen's dream society. They won't know how to do arts (and do we need more, instead of better, artists of all kinds? Doesn't the current boring state of pop music show us that we don't?), and they'll never be able to produce the kind of critical thinking necessary for science (leaving aside the matter of being taught junk science like climate change denial and creationism), let alone have access to educational institutions where vital science is being done. Culture? More cable TV and reality shows?  Exploration? Isn't that the same as science, or is it just inventing more apps? As for learning, that's just not possible when you don't know how to do it, and as long as ignorance keeps the status quo, it's not going to change.

I see this way of thinking every year at SXSWi, and I see the people who think it, so this profile wasn't quite the opening of a box of horrors that it might have been. But thinking that more apps are advancing human society is a deeply flawed idea. Okay: Facebook. That was something that really did change things. The reason we know Mark Zuckerberg's name is that he made something that a lot of people tried and failed to do. Google releases a Facebook-killer every couple of years: remember Orkut? Anyone figured out Google + yet -- and still use it? Wasn't there one between them that was just so insanely complicated that people abandoned it immediately? Remember Friendster and all those other ideas that cratered? So respect where respect is due. So now Uber and Lyft. Apps that make their owners money by hiring serfs to do the heavy lifting, perform the actual service. I've used each (once), and probably will again when I need to get to the Austin airport, because one of the many things Austin doesn't have and never did or will is workable public transportation. What if some Zuckerbergian kid comes along, analyzes the differences between Uber and Lyft and figures out a way to enhance the experience (say by working out the problem of insurance and finding a way to pay drivers better and perhaps incentivize them -- hey, I'm just making this up) and come up with another app, call it Ryyd, that takes off in a Facebookian way with the public? Uber and Lyft are, in short order, dust. That's the danger -- or, if you'd rather, risk -- of software.

Friend's article is full of these companies, established, emergent, and dead, which a16z has worked with or avoided investing in. A surprising amount of them, however, depend on underpaid grunt labor working without any health insurance or unemployment benefits and the like. When Friend pointed this out to Andreessen, he said "Maybe there's an alternate way of living, a free-form life where you press the button and get work when you want to." Except for having the button malfunction a lot, Marc, that's the way most of my circle are living now. A lot of them had jobs or occupations that the Digital Overlords destroyed: newspaper reporters or magazine journalists, musicians, record company executives, teachers, taxi drivers... But nobody's working on the button, because if they can invent the app, they can get rich quick, and that's what matters, right? Not the destruction of others' lives. That's called "disruption," and if you don't look at the faces of the people getting evicted, if you ignore that their kids are starving, it's way cool, right?

I'm also pretty sure it's too late to turn this around, at least in this country. With unfettered, well-funded, powerful forces in charge of our government, an utterly broken educational system teaching to the test, high culture no longer extant or solely about money, popular culture being made either by algorithms or people who can afford to work for nothing, print dead, our great cities dormitories for oligarchs, and endless war, the United States is a pretty horrifying place to behold.

Me, just before the ship I'd been on sank, I stepped onto a lifeboat labelled book contract, and I hope to use that to do more books and other things related to my writings until I can figure out a next move, which will likely be more writing, definitely not in Texas, and probably not in the U.S. That's a ways off, though, so I put one foot in front of the other and, like I say, live like the alcoholics, a day at a time, except I can have a beer in the evening. I'll avoid Austin as much as I can, having no particular reason to engage with it, and hope I wake up tomorrow as healthy as I was this morning. It beats pushing that button, hoping for a treat.
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