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A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How Silicon Valley enabled the forces that put Donald Trump in the White House

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Jason Tanz writes in Wired:

TWO YEARS AGO, journalist Anand Giridharadas took the stage at the TED Conference and told the attendant techno-solutionists that they were, in fact, part of the problem. Literally, that’s what he said. Here, I’ll quote him directly:

“If you live near a Whole Foods, if no one in your family serves in the military, if you’re paid by the year, not the hour, if most people you know finished college, if no one you know uses meth, if you married once and remain married, if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on and you may be part of the problem.”

Seen from today, as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president, Giridharadas’ message joins “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” as one of the great unheeded warnings of the 21st century. That socioeconomic despair was profitably channeled to elect a president who—beyond his politics—represents a threat to most of the values the technocracy holds dear: transparency; multiculturalism; expertise; social progress. And, in the greatest of ironies, he used the tools and language of the technocracy to do it.

At least since the 1960s, the computer—and, beyond that, the Internet–has been a symbol and tool of personal liberation. Stewart Brand called the computer revolution “the real legacy of the sixties”–—an outgrowth of the “counterculture’s scorn for centralized authority.” The ideology was codified by WIRED alum Steven Levy in his 1984 book Hackers, in which he summarized the Hacker Ethic:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority—promote decentralization.
  4. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  5. Computers can change your life for the better.

These precepts inspired a worldview that saw institutions and middlemen as malign forces that mostly constrained human potential, and that placed unlimited faith in unshackled individuals to improve the world and their own lives. For much of the past three decades, that philosophy has borne out. It has become an unspoken truism of corporate and civic life.

But Trump’s inauguration provides a damning counterargument, an example of how each of those ideas can be exploited to advance the very values they were created to oppose. Universal access to computers created a greater audience for Trump’s culture-jamming Twitter feed. An outpouring of free information sowed confusion and created cover for half- and untruths. Trump used anti-authoritarian rhetoric to sow mistrust of the very institutions that might have provided a firewall against his own authoritarian tendencies. Democratizing the tools of creative production created not just ennobling art but a million shitposts and Pepe memes.

In the wake of the election, some despairing technologists have wondered how to improve the products and systems that led to this result. “There are things we were optimizing for that had unintended consequences,” says Justin Kan, a venture capitalist at Y Combinator and co-founder of Twitch. In designing to maximize engagement, social networks inadvertently created hives of bias-confirmation and tribalism.

Or consider the effect innovation in computing has had on employment. “Thirty or 40 years ago, you could have a good, steady paying job without a college education,” says Ben Parr, cofounder of Octane AI and author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention. “There aren’t as many of those jobs any more, and a large part of that is because tech has changed the world over the last 40 years, and Silicon Valley played a big part in that.”

No doubt. But it might be time to ask even bigger questions. Questions like: Is technology always an ennobling force? Questions like: Does allowing humanity untrammeled access to one another always result in a better world? Questions like: Are individuals capable of processing all the information that they once relied on institutions to process for them? Questions like: After people free themselves from their social and cultural shackles, then what?

If it’s any consolation,Trump-era Americans will not be the first to ask themselves these questions. During the Second World War, psychologist Erich Fromm asked in Escape From Freedom why, despite an overarching trend toward greater personal freedom, large chunks of the western world had embraced authoritarianism. It was tempting, he argued, to consider this an aberration, the fault of a few madmen who “gained power over the vast apparatus of the state through nothing but cunning and trickery,” and who rendered their constituents “the will-less object of betrayal and terror.” But Fromm argued against this attempt to shift blame. There was something inherent in humanity that feared true freedom, that preferred to be dominated. In other words, Fromm thought this was a feature of human nature, not a bug.

o explain this tendency, Fromm distinguished between two kinds of freedom: negative freedom, casting off the shackles of social, political, and cultural restrictions; and positive freedom, finding a truer expression of self and identity. When the former occurs without the latter, he wrote, “the newly won freedom appears as a curse; [mankind] is free from the sweet bondage of paradise, but he is not free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.”

This distinction might sound familiar to students of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring—when dictators, toppled in the name of “freedom,” gave way to chaos, power vacuums and warlordism. It also might help explain Trump’s ascendance. In casting off many of the middlemen, sclerotic corporations, and bureaucracies that throttled human accomplishment, people have achieved negative freedom. But without the tools or power to forge a more meaningful society—a positive freedom—some have plunged back into the comforts of authoritarianism and domination.

This is the world the tech industry now faces, a world—at least in part—of its own creation. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2017 at 9:17 pm

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