160128-flint-drinking-water-pipes-yh-0357p_5ee6fbfc6af1099161e690c66b6ba389.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

By now I think most people know what happened in Flint, Michigan. An unelected “emergency manager” –appointed and reporting directly to Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder– switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit municipal water to untreated Flint River water. The river water had a higher salinity than Detroit’s water which caused metalic pipes to corrode and leach toxic levels of lead into an entire city’s water supply. This happened back in 2013 and it is still an unresolved problem. The solution for Flint is straightforward: replace all the pipes and provide the kind of lifetime care needed for children and other vulnerable populations that have irreprable neurological damage from lead poisoning. What is less straightforward is how to prevent these kinds of problems from happening in the future. Because while this happened under a terrible governance structure, similar ongoing disasters are occurring in places that still have some form of elected, local governance still in tact. This is as much a problem of science and technology as it is an issue of governance and accountability. What is to be done?

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist who was one of the loudest whistle blowers regarding the Flint water crisis had a refreshingly blunt response to this problem when he was interviewed in the Chronicle:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.

He goes on to note that the government agencies that would normally fund scientists’ research into the problem were, themselves, the problem which makes it nearly impossible for any scientist to do life-saving work if they have any desire to be employed the next day or funded next year.

This dynamic has been a known problem among science and technology studies scholars for a long time but little structural change has been accomplished. If any long-lasting good can come from the Flint water crisis, it may be a significant change in how science is funded in this country. Back in 2014 I had an essay that ran in Tikkun Magazine suggested one possible solution to a problem like Flint. I’ll conclude this short essay by block quoting that proposed solution:

The New Deal programs that started life as direct assistance to the poor but have since morphed into command-and-control structures (some privatized) that do more to monitor and sanction people than feed and house them should be left to wither on the vine. Leftists can ill afford to spend the money and effort in reforming these social and technological systems. In their place we must form networks of locally run organizations that treat people with dignity and respect.

The beginning of this process might look like the block grants to state and local governments that were popular under Carter but disappeared under Reagan and never came back. Large sums of money must be remitted directly to communities without unfunded mandates for metrics and sampling. The measure of success should begin and end with the communities that receive the money: it requires a massive amount of trust. The sort of trust that can only come from treating fellow citizens like compassionate and loving whole persons. For this to succeed where it is needed the most, large leftist organizations must identify and federate with organizations doing good work in more conservative regions of the country. This process starts with basic resource assessments and a revitalization of civic institutions in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana; Immokalee, Florida; and countless other towns and cities ravaged by capitalism.

Free education should be available to all, but nothing changes if newly minted experts continue to work for malevolent corporations and/or detached universities. Therefore, in addition to providing no-strings-attached block grants, the government should pay an array of experts to put themselves up for hire by communities to help solve problems in a collaborative and deliberative way. Imagine a clearinghouse of sociologists, water chemists, lawyers, economists, and geologists all fully paid by the federal government and willing work with a community to solve problems identified by its residents.

David is on twitter.

Image source: NBC News.

Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, consisting of 75,000 cable ties combined in a beautiful 3D network, somehow resembling neural net of the brain. Credit
Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, made up of 75,000 cable ties combined to resemble the human brain. Source

 

Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 14:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

 

You sick fuck why did you do that?

 

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 13:14:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

i know it hurts and i’m so sorry. i love you i love you i love you. but i know this is what its gonna take. we’re not wrong. if it makes you feel any better (i know it won’t) my shoulder hurts like a son of a bitch. i had no idea… i don’t think something healed quite right. maybe nerve damage. i’m typing this lying on the floor in my apartment. my lower back hurts something fierce too. looks like i’m literally gonna take this lying down. hope the cops that find me are feeling their own injuries. i bet every cop out there has a torn rotator cuff and one tumor for every bullet in the chamber by now. haha. i love you and will miss you so much. -s

 


Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 11:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Just thought I should let you know.. I checked the news and it doesn’t look like they found you yet. Fuck this hurts. It came backk 20 min ago. Its faded a little and I found some stuff in my desk that’s really old and dry but is taking the edge off. Either they’ve gotten worse or I just forgot what they felt like. Staring at this screen is helping a little but maybe that’s just because i’m distracted. Everything is blurry..

I guess I understand why you did it but I don’t know if I can forgive you. You wouldn’t have done this if you’d seen my mother in that bed. All those tubes and machines. Getting rid of this network isn’t going to mean less machines I can tell you that.

Hope thiss made it to you ok. I know your good at getting text through. Hell if you can get a piece of paper half way across a continent you can probably get some bits out there. I’ll visit you if Apothecary or my head lets me. Love you so much in spite of yourself

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea

 


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 9:04:55.9

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

you might be right but i still believe in what we did. this is for the greater good, i know it. Wish I could hear your voice but they’ve already shut off every voice app i have. love -s

 


 

Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/26/2073 8:50:07.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Jesus Christ Sarah what have you done? Do you really think “we’re going to experience it together?” I still forget sometimes how young you are and what you haven’t experienced. all the violence is hidden behind walls and asterisks for you isn’t it? The rich will keep healthy while the rest of us suffer for what you’ve done. Thats the way these sorts of things always go. You used to be able to see the pain in people’s eyes. Used to see what poverty did to people. How it physically beat you down and changed you. Now it’s all hidden. Maybe you did show us that. But at what cost Sarah? Who are you to make that decision for everyone? To just turn off something that has benefited billions of people for nearly a decade? I did check my Apothecary profile and sure enough I’ll probably get one of those old headaches sometime today or tomorrow. They seem to be fairly regular. I will always love you but god damnit you had no right. No right.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea

 


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/26/2073 7:35:45.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

i hope you read this before 9 today. look i know we disagree about pain management stuff but i don’t think you know how much i care about this. i went to the open house last night but i went to do something kind of drastic. there’s a couple of us and we really think this is the best way to go. nothing is going to get done about these poisons unless we feel the effects of them. all of us. the network will experience a cascade failure in about an hour and a half when the server resets. all of the tumors all of the nerve damage, we’re going to experience it together and hopefully get through it together.

the other message you got was one of billions. i added a quick note to yours but everyone with an active apothecary account just got their own information too. we found a way to dump the confidential database through the share function.

i wish i could tell you this in person, or at least on paper, but this is the only way i can right now. they have weird names for everything in the confidential db but its pretty straight-forward: conditional activators are what’s causing the pain that the apothecary device suppresses. i looked it up and i think cyclohexa-1,3,5-triene is benzene. it gets in your blood. the estimated service span is how long they predict you will live. the numbers go years months and days. i’m so sorry i really wish i could be there with you. wish we could have done this somewhere closer. but it had to be done soon, before stuff gets even worse.

i should tell you i also did this because i want a little magic in the world. that’s weird to say isn’t it? but i dunno, there used to be a time when bad knees told the weather and back aches were massaged away by lovers. i want to experience that, maybe just for a little while. i want to feel something painful in my body and not know why. i want to feel the relief when it goes away on its own. because i took care of myself. because my body healed itself the way it is supposed to. that’s the way we’re supposed to live. not like this.

hope you find some place comfortable to lie down. those headaches only came about twice a month right? who knows maybe you have a week or so before you feel anything. check your apothecary profile while it is still up and see when your last headache was reported. kyle reminded all of us before we set out last night that apothecary is fully insured… you know what that means. i probably won’t see you again. we couldn’t figure out how to mask our entry point to the network so i’m expecting some angry visitors in riot gear in a couple of hours. i’m sorry and i love you. -s

 


 

Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks

11/26/2063 01:42:00

THE ROMANTICS Just Shared a Health Stat with You!

OrgKey: g4gsu45TRUST77sdg

Hello,

THE ROMANTICS wanted to show you the progress she’s made in the following:

PATIENT: Langson, Douglas

CONDITIONAL ACTIVATORS: Cyclohexa-1,3,5-triene

SUPPRESSORS: cytochrome P450 2E1 compiler

ESTIMATED SERVICE SPAN: 02 11 231

Comments:

 

will send another message soon. love you.

 


 

Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 14:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Have fun tonight! I hear those parties can be really raucous. Brilliant marketing when you think about it: get the young ones to party hard in a geo-fenced Complete Care package so when they leave the party the next morning they think long and hard about spending the extra money to never feel a hangover again. I was always an ecstasy and weed man myself… You feel really drained in the morning but at least you don’t want to claw your eyes out.

I’m sorry, I know you don’t like to hear about an old man’s escapades. But sometimes it seems as though I have to describe parties the way I have to describe the taste of tuna or full highways. Its funny, you think those things will be around forever, if not grow bigger. As if, one day, adolescence will end at midlife crises and each highway will be seven lanes of stop and go. But people your age are so stern. You seem to think just because we can manage our pain we’ve lost some kind of grand perspective. I’d say its almost the opposite– none of you expect anything to last! You’d be nostalgic for tomorrow’s breakfast if I described it to you well enough.

And I really can’t believe you’ve never known the joys of eating tuna from a metallic pouch. It sounds ridiculous but it was really remarkable when you think about it. There’d be a news story now or then that mentioned mercury and of course pregnant women weren’t supposed to eat it but you could pick it up at the register next to batteries and candy bars! It was everywhere and somehow I guess that made it feel like it was, I dunno, beyond safe. We liked to call things “too big to fail” back in the day. I guess it was kind of like that. Or at least we hoped it was.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea

 


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 14:06:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

omg angry aches! i couldn’t even talk to you when you had your headaches. you were like a different person! so mean! and yeah i know it’s good that people don’t waste away trying to poison tumors and stuff but it totally lets governments take their time on the plastics sequestering. in some places its even voluntary. you know i’m not cool with officers coming into homes and shit but pvc is everywhere and i don’t trust people to know what needs to be taken away. and private dumps not doing anything about their plastic is just nuts. and of course no one is taking it seriously when all we can track is the average life span. i don’t buy the whole “client confidentiality” thing. there’s nothing wrong with just saying how many people died from what disease. they have that information, its how they can turn off pain in the first place!

today i saw someone fall out of a chair right in the middle of eating a sandwich. they were screaming about how much their body hurt all over. their friend didn’t even touch them. they just grabbed their phone and altered their friend’s apothecary account status. doesn’t that creep you out?! that we don’t comfort bodies anymore, we just change some settings?

i get that the olds need some relief but i’m sill unconvinced that a global proprietary data network is really the only way to solve it. there were some really promising old-school pharma trials back in the 20s that i read about. seems like some funding could go to that instead of all these subsidies to apothecary. but maybe i’ll be convinced. i’m actually gonna go to one of those fancy-pants open houses of theirs this evening to meet kyle. I want to try out can<>free on this ankle. -s

 


 

Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 13:35:22.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Sarah,

You screamed and screamed about that broken shoulder. I bet you would have signed up for Apothecary in an instant if you could have back then! And yeah, older people like me would be in a world of pain without their services. The way I see it, pain management networks don’t get in the way of the plastics sequestering projects and maybe no one is living to 85 or 90 the way my parents did but I remember stories of people living the whole last decade of their lives in beds and on dozens of medications that’d make Apothecary look like a basic media stream subscription. Why not put the mute button on the joint pain? I’m okay with trading 20 years of my life so long as all 60 years are good ones. I certainly don’t miss those headaches I used to get. What did you call them? Angry Aches?

And “watered down” seems a little disingenuous don’t you think? We’re codifying what my generation did and why not. You Romantics always think we’re taking something away from you! All you’re missing are confusing medical bills and people complaining about gluten. Oh, and some really great parties.

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea

 


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 12:44:08.7

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

she did always have a hard time getting over stuff. its like she’s not even paying attention to her own ridic headlines about those “innovative” states offering indefinite unions alongside marriage contracts. how can you be pissed about a divorce and love the idea of watered-down marriage contracts?!?!?!?

anyway, i know you worry but these companies are so stupid! like, i get that without apothecary i would have had probably three or four surgeries by now and that would have sucked but that’s what doing dangerous things is about. sometimes you lose big time! when I broke my collar bone and apothecary service wasn’t in montana yet it hurt a lot but i kinda learned something from it…? i dunno. it all just seems so unnatural now. like we’re living with too few consequences, disconnected from our own bodies. i know there’s all those people your age with dioxin poisoning but shouldn’t we be getting rid of all that plastic stuff instead of paying some company to monitor our bodies and change what we feel? i don’t want to check a profile anymore. maybe those magazines are right and my generation is too romantic for its own good! will keep an eye on those estimated pain averages. -s

 


 

Douglas Langston [langston@levitshaw.oceanea]

11/25/2073 11:38:52.4

RE: ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

Sarah,

Ha! That might be my favorite yet! You should really keep your medical history clean though. Would if something happened to you? Do you want an EMT going through your phone looking for your conditions to find a bunch of jokes or life saving information? You’ll be lying on the pavement bleeding and they won’t know your median brain swelling figures. You’d probably think that was funny though, wouldn’t you?

In all seriousness, hope your ankle gets better. I did get your letter (I opened it near a trash can that had what must have been a two-day old chicken sandwich so I wasn’t smelling much else, sorry) and I distinctly remember those vivid photos you sent me. Your ankle looks like a freakin’ bag of plums. Yuck. Take good care of yourself, remember to check your profile. Read today that you should really ease up after you average 30 network connections. And you thought my “stop at 45!” was draconian!

Just saw your mother at the work lounge on Pearl. She seemed happy up until the part where she saw me! We’re gonna be just fine though. I think the hardest part is going to be seeing someone that looks so much like my daughter staring at me with contempt. You were so quick to find better targets for your distain than dear old dad.

Love,

Douglas Langston

Associate Contracted Operations Manager

Levit//Shaw Cloud Services

45a: @Doug_Langston

t: langston@levitshaw.oceanea

 


 

sarah caldana [sara_c@thread.fuck]

11/25/2073 11:19:20.7

ugh these adverts FWD: Claim The Life You Want

can you believe this kitsch horseshit? I told you that clinic that lets you edit your own patient notes would result in some primo lulz tho.

how are you doing btw? did you get my letter? i know you think it costs a lot to go pick up a real piece of paper from fedex but trust me its worth it. you can almost smell the person that sent it. its really cool.

in it you’ll see some printed out photos of my most recent roller derby trophy. haha, i’m really thinking of getting six free months of pain relief on this thing. its just easier than telling a pharmacist that you actually want acetaminophen. you used to be able to just buy that anywhere, right? you lived in a better time!

-s

 

——-

 

Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks

11/21/2073 5:15:00

Claim The Life You Want

OrgKey: g4gsu45TRUST77sdg

 

sarah,

 

In only ten short years our team and Founding Allies have changed the lives of billions of people. Together we enable people to live full lives for as long as nature will let them. It has been tremendously rewarding work and we are humbled by the messages we receive day in and day out telling us how children who would have spent short lives in beds were given the opportunity to live the life of a child. New, life-extending medications are coming out every day and together we can achieve something that the human race has sought since the first harvest: a long and pain-free life.

 

Today we are contacting you because of a new service we are offering that we call CAN<>FREE. After a full six months of research, development, and human-equivalent testing we have extended our patented chronic pain neutralization technology to muscular tissues in the knee all the way down to your smallest extensor digitorum brevis muscles. We heard from your dedicated clinic specialist that just four months ago your $hit kicker needed attention due to a repeat stress injury caused by kicking the greed out of old money fascists. CAN<>FREE might be able to help you.

 

As an existing member, your National Health Credit Account covers the first six months of a CAN<>FREE subscription. On the seventh month we will add this new product to your existing rolling allowance so you can pay at your convenience!*

 

Apothecary is dedicated to eliminating pain and discomfort for the billions of people that suffer from undiagnosed environmental disorders, syndromes, and repetitive stress injuries. We have already prevented nearly a quarter of a trillion micro-surgeries to date with just one simple implantable device. No more knives, no more complicated medications with side-effects. Just pain-free living.

 

Message us today on any major platform and a specialist will activate CAN<>FREE on your account. You could be living pain-free in as little as two hours. So go ahead and Claim The Life You Want.

 

-Your Friends at Apothecary

 

*National data rates apply. First 100gb at $0.25 and $5.00 per 1,000 connections. Federal reporting requirements require us to disclose the following: We send balance sheets to collections and enforcement bureaus after an unpaid balance of $10,000 or more is sustained for six months or balance reaches $100,000, whichever comes first. Apothecary™ Stimuli Management Networks Incorporated is licensed and insured for capital punishment penalties and is a member of the Bonds & Parole Providers LLC.

IMG_0099

Even some of Silicon Valley’s biggest boosters will cop to the fact that they think technology can solve social problems and that big decisions should be left to meritocracy, not democracy. More subtly, it really does seem we are much more comfortable talking about new inventions more than new governmental structures. We’ve seen self driving cars and pocketable computers go from science fiction to everyday annoyance within less than a decade and yet when was the last time you heard of a revolutionary new democratic decision-making tool? The Shakers of 19th century New England operated on consensus so General Assemblies don’t count.

So-prevalent-they-are-invisible suppositions are rarely young and this one can be traced back to Plato who famously called for philosopher kings. The more modern vision of the technocratic ideal starts to reveal itself during the French revolution. It’s also easy to put the Republican primary in this tradition, where political acumen is less favorable than business experience. Here is Langdon Winner, in his 1977 book Autonomous Technology talking about the origins of technocratic western thought:

In many instances utopian and historical speculations have been combined. The demise of a political system is seen as an opportunity for the building of a technological society ruled by a technically competetnt aristocracy. This was the outlook of Henri Comte de Saint-Simon at a time when the ancien regime was being dismantled and a new system constsructed in its place. Saint Simon’s criticism of the French Revoltuion was that its efforts were overly poltical and did not take into account the realities of the new mode of social organization taking shape at the same time. “The men who brought about the Revoltuion,” he observed, “the men who directed it, and the men who, since 1789 and up to the present day, have guided the nation, have committed a great political mistake. They have all sought to improve the governmental machine, wehreas the y should have subordinated it and put administration in the first place.” True progress was located in the development of the new instruments of technology and techniques of governmental administration. This required, Saint-Simon argued, a system of expert management by industrialists, scientists, and technicians.
The precise form of the proposed government was one that now seems very traditional indeed. Saint-Simon placed the members of his technical elite in a parliment with three houses: the Chamber of Inventions, The Chambers of Review, and Chamber of Deputies. The Chamboer of Inventions, composed of two hundred engineers and a scattering of poets, painters, architects, and musicians, would decide the basic plan for all of France. The Chamber of Review, made up of mathematicians and pure scientists, would judge programs devised by the Chamber of Inventions and serve as a control over its policies. Completing the arrangement of checks and balances, the Chamber of Deputies, composed of practicing industrialists, would serve as an executive body to implent the plan. Notably absent from Saint-Simon’s scheme is any trace of equality or electoral democracy. The members of the parliment were to be chosen according to professional competence alone and not elected by the populace at large. The ascendance of scientific and industrial classes could take place only at the expense of a total neutralization of the political role of the majority of men and women, benighted souls, who did not possess higher knowledge and skill. “A scientist, my friends, is a man who predicts,” Saint-Simon announces. “It is because science has the means of prediction that it is useful, and makes scientists superior to all other men.”
Winner, Langdon. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control As A Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Henri_Maillardet_automaton,_London,_England,_c._1810_-_Franklin_Institute_-_DSC06656

In the past few years, a subgenre of curiously self-referential feature stories and opinion pieces has begun to appear in many prominent magazines and newspapers. The articles belonging to this subgenre all respond to the same phenomenon – the emergence of natural language generation (NLG) software that has been composing news articles, quarterly earnings reports, and sports play-by-plays – but what they really have in common is a question on the part of the writer: “Am I doing anything that an algorithm couldn’t be doing just as well?” In some instances, titles like “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?” and “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?” place the author’s uniqueness in question from the outset; sometimes the authors of these pieces also force their readers to wonder whether the text they are reading was written by human or machine. In a New York Times Sunday Review essay from last year, for instance, Shelley Podolny subjects her readers to a mini-Turing Test, presenting two descriptions of a sporting event, one written by a software program and one written by a human, and asking us to guess which is which. (On the Times website, readers can complete an interactive quiz in which they deduce whether a series of passages were composed by automated or human authors.)

The two major companies involved in the development of algorithmic writing, Automated Insights and Narrative Science, have been around since 2007 and 2010, respectively. Narrative Science’s flagship software product is called Quill, while Automated Insights’s is called Wordsmith: quaint, artisanal names for software that seems to complete the long process that has severed the act of writing from the human hand over the past century and a half. The two companies initially developed their programs to convert sports statistics into narrative texts, but quickly began offering similar services to companies and later started expanding into data-driven areas of journalism. Such data-based reporting is what NLG software does well: it translates numerical representations of information into language-based representations of the same information. And while NLG programs have existed for several decades, they were mostly limited to producing terse reports on a limited range of subjects, like weather events and seismic activity. According to Larry Birnbaum, one of Quill’s architects, “Computers have known how to write in English for years. The reason they haven’t done so in the past is they had nothing to say, lacking access to a sufficient volume of information.”

As Birnbaum explains it, the new natural language generation software has been made possible – or rather, necessary – by the advent of Big Data. The prior limitations on the topics software programs could write about are disappearing, as all realms of human activity become subject to data processing. Joe Fassler notes in The Atlantic that “the underlying logic that drives [algorithmic writing] – scan a data set, detect significance, and tell a story based on facts – is powerful and vastly applicable. Wherever there is data . . . software can generate a prose analysis that’s robust, reliable, and readable.” Hence, automated journalism will continue to expand into less obviously data-driven realms of reporting as new sources of data become available for processing. Meanwhile, the Associated Press and Forbes, to name a few, are already publishing thousands of software-written articles.

Business and technology reporters were the first to cover the new startups shortly after their appearance, and technology critics soon followed up with articles attempting to gauge the implications of robo-writing. Self-appointed scourge of Silicon Valley Evgeny Morozov was onto the story back in 2012 with a Slate essay entitled “A Robot Stole My Pulitzer!”; Google-booster Steven Levy published an enthusiastic profile of Narrative Science at Wired a few weeks later. It did not take long for journalists to start publishing their anxious reflections on yet another trend destined to deprive them of their jobs. And unlike, say, the decline of advertising revenue, this is not a contingent threat but one that strikes at the core of what writers do, converting their hard-acquired skills into instant formulas. Nevertheless, most published responses to algorithmic text generation, whether critical, anxious, or enthusiastic, present writing as only one technological activity among many for which the direct intervention of a human operator seems to be becoming obsolete. Once this assumption is granted, the discussion becomes subsumed into existing debates about automation: can computers do everything humans can do, or are there limits? Who will lose their jobs? What adverse social consequences might result? By most accounts, then, the automation of writing differs from the automation of aviation or medical diagnosis in the details, but not in its essence.

Yet historically and culturally, writing is not one human activity among many, but one with a uniquely ambivalent place in the history of ideas about technology. Podolny, writing in the New York Times, relies upon the longstanding view of writing as a uniquely human capacity when she asserts that the new algorithmic writing forces us ask: “What does ‘human’ even mean?” But she does not acknowledge that writing has long had the paradoxical status of being regarded both as a manifestation of inalienable human attributes, and as a technological prosthesis radically alien to, and separable from, the human person.

This paradoxical status has occasioned a series of famous intellectual scandals, of which Plato’s critique of writing in the dialogue Phaedrus is the locus classicus. For Podolny, computerized writing forces us to reconsider the definition of the human; for Plato, it was writing itself that threatened to undermine the human subject of knowledge by outsourcing its most fundamental attribute – what he describes as “the living, breathing discourse of the man who knows” – to an uncanny simulacrum that “you’d think was speaking” yet remains “solemnly silent.” Fassler, writing in the Atlantic, finds the “eerily humanlike cadence” of Narrative Science’s products unsettling; Plato noted a similar eeriness in the way in which written texts mimic the flow of live human speech, yet stand at a disembodied remove from their origin. French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s project of “grammatology” traced the continuation of Plato’s polemic against the subversive power of writing throughout Western philosophy and literature. Western metaphysics, Derrida claims, has been constitutively phonocentric, locating truth and authenticity in the voice and regarding the written word as a degraded, mindless simulacrum of speech. While one hears echoes of Plato in recent articles that describe the “humanlike” qualities of algorithmically generated texts as “eerie” or “creepy,” what is lost is a sense that writing was already, for millennia, a distressing site of the technological uncanny.

Precisely because of writing’s status as a decentering, destabilizing supplement to human subjectivity, the post-structuralist thinkers of the heroic age of literary theory took the declaration of the autonomy of writing as the starting point for a dismantling of the modern bourgeois myth of Man. Hence we find Roland Barthes, in his polemical essay “The Death of the Author,” affirming precisely what Plato feared: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where the subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” He goes on: “to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality . . . to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me’.” For Barthes and his successors, writing already forces the radical questioning of human essence that recent observers have linked to the impact of algorithmic text generation.

Yet as media theorist Friedrich Kittler has argued, technological shifts in the practice of writing helped make the theoretical revolution declared by Barthes more plausible. In Kittler’s account, the early modern Europe dominated by alphabetic literacy – what Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy – accorded to the handwritten word much of the metaphysical prestige reserved by Plato for the voice. For centuries, handwritten script was the visible trace of the soul, its “energetic and ideally uninterrupted flow” validating the presence and wholeness of a self: “the alphabetized individual had his ‘appearance and externality’ in this continuous flow of ink or letters.” For Kittler, the self-confident individual, who emerged out of the Enlightenment endowed with a rich sense of “interiority” (Innerlichkeit), found substantiation in script, which accorded to the ineffable self a material being communicable to the outer world by means of the hand.

The crisis of this well-defined individual, Kittler claims, emerged in tandem with the first technology that inserted a complex mechanism between the human producer of text and its product: the typewriter. Unlike the printing press, which only intervened in the distribution of already composed texts, the typewriter situated itself at a text’s point of production. As Kittler writes, “[i]n standardized texts, paper and body, writing and soul fall apart. Typewriters do not store individuals; their letters do not communicate a beyond . . . Standardized letters were no longer to transmit . . . inner forms, but rather a new and elegant tautology of technicians.” For Kittler, then, the typewriter’s mechanization of literary production, which “undermines Man’s delusion of possessing a ‘quality’ like ‘consciousness’” is a prerequisite for anti-humanist celebrations of writing, like that of Barthes, and also for the modern avant-garde project of “automatic writing,” which was supposed to release literature from the bourgeois expectations of sense and meaning. Kittler derives his argument in part from Martin Heidegger (a key influence on post-structuralism), who asserted that the typewriter had “transform[ed] . . . the relation of Being to man.” As Heidegger explains this transformation: “[t]he typewriter veils the essence of writing and of the script. It withdraws from man the essential rank of the hand, without man’s experiencing this withdrawal appropriately and recognizing that it has transformed the relation of Being to his essence.”

If the written word could be separated from the human hand, it could also be dissociated from the human mind – thus revealing, perhaps, that it always was so, much as Plato suspected. In this sense, for blogger Sam Kriss, the recent triumph of machine language completes the avant-garde and post-structuralist agendas. Kriss writes: “Machine language inhabits a pure textuality, in which the sense-making function of language, if it appears at all, is subservient to its general function as data, as text . . . Value comes from penetrative reach, not any kind of hermeneutic potentiality.” Yet at the same time, machine language renders the avant-garde obsolete by confirming that writing was always already automatic writing: “machine language is essential . . . It’s not a deviation or a disfigurement, it is language itself, in its most elemental form. Its decoding and imitation is a stripping away. The association of machine language with actual machines is purely contingent; it just so happened that computers and computer networks are what we invented to make the central truth of language reveal itself. As Gertrude Stein showed, it can be done without them.” The mechanistic fulfillment of Plato’s prophecy reveals that what Plato called the “living, breathing discourse of the man who knows” was always illusory. For Kriss, therefore, machine language is a restoration of the long sought-after Ursprache, the “language of God”: as he wryly declares, “celestial speech, the original language in the Garden of Eden, where words correspond to things exactly under the holy semiotic of the Lord, was composed of free screensavers, sales patter for impotence pills, and dubious offers from Nigerian princes.”

Kriss’s parodic theology of writing echoes the theological terms of the polemic on writing that began with Plato. For Barthes, as for Derrida and for the surrealists who pioneered automatic writing as an avant-garde practice, the death of the author was closely linked to the Nietzschean “death of God”: the liberation of writing from the conscious human subject was also, as Barthes proclaimed, a liberation from the understanding of the text as “a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God).” It is surprising, then, that while algorithmic writing seems to demote what Kriss calls the “sense-making function of language” to a vanishingly insignificant role, NLG software’s creators and promoters account for its impact in terms that suggest the exact opposite. Here, for example, is Narrative Science’s description of Quill: “Every data-set, every database, every spreadsheet has a story to tell . . . Our advanced NLG platform, Quill, analyzes data from disparate sources, understands what is important to the end user and then automatically generates perfectly written narratives to convey meaning from the data for any audience, at unlimited scale.” It goes on: “There is a clear and immediate opportunity to bridge the gap between data and the people who need to understand it. That bridge is the power of a story. A story explains data, making it more understandable, meaningful and actionable.” Automated Insights’s slogan is in the same spirit: “Let your data tell its story.” “A line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning” would appear to be precisely the product on offer.

We must keep in mind, however, that the possible implications of available technologies of writing are one thing, while the dominant ideological construction of those technologies is another. For Plato, handwritten script threatened to undermine the self-contained autonomy of human consciousness, yet within the ideological framework of the Gutenberg Galaxy, as Kittler reveals, handwritten script was an essential attribute of human consciousness. The same technology that once seemed to threaten human essence ultimately came to ratify it; what Derrida called “logocentrism” can equally repudiate writing or fetishize it. It is therefore not inconsistent with Kriss’s conclusions that the developers of NLG software explain its significance in terms that suggest not the final eclipse of the “Author-God,” but the emergence of a new theology of writing and a new ideology of authorship, the creation of mechanisms to fix and constrain meaning, and the reinforcement of the reader’s passive status as receiver of that meaning. Such paradoxes, as this brief account has suggested, haunt the history of ideas about writing from the outset.

Algorithmic writing, then, is not only writing untethered from the Author-God of old, but also writing in the service of the alleged neutrality and omniscience of Big Data. In this sense it does indeed, to borrow Kittler’s phrase, “communicate a beyond.” This “beyond” is not the ineffable interiority of the “Author-God,” but what Will Davies has called the “Data Sublime”: expanding realm of digital information that produces awe and exceeds human comprehension through its sheer vastness and the forbidding opacity of its zeros and ones. Algorithmically generated text is the handwriting of this new God and a locus of His revealed Word. Its architects are not Kabbalistic theologians, but positivistic Protestant ones: for them, language is, or should be, a pellucid medium of unambiguous, univalent facts, optimized and customized for the “end user’s’’ maximally efficient access. Claude Lévi-Strauss, another key figure in the intellectual history of the scandal of writing, asserted that the emergence and spread of alphabetic writing “seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment.” The real question raised by algorithmic writing is not, as some observers have claimed, what “the human” now means, but what new God or gods we are being asked to serve.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University, and sometimes tweets at @daily_barbarian.    

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“Aren’t you glad you’re not there right now?” This is, if personal experience is any indication, the state-mandated response Floridians must give to anyone that claims to be visiting from anything north of the state line. It doesn’t matter the context —a bartender on Hollywood beach, an emergency room physician in North Miami— they are all very happy that you found your way to Florida this winter. The phrase has a wide range of registers though, that go from outright smugness to a thinly veiled request to validate one’s decision to settle down in 2,300 square feet of something called Flamingo Palisades. “Please,” they seem to say, “tell me this is as good as it gets.”

I grew up just north of Miami and even though I have little desire to live on whatever is left of it after the seas rise to their predicted heights, I value the perspective it has given me. Florida sensitizes you to the effort humans put in to turning spaces into places. Florida’s economy is based on the constant re-invention of its own brand, always changing for different demographics and markets. Florida’s cities are the sociocultural equivalents of GMO corn: equal parts science and marketing, growing out of an artificial substrate of designer chemicals and excrement. They are bland and immensely profitable by design. They don’t conform to existing economies of scale, they make their own.

The Sunbelt, that stretch of Post World War II development that became desirable for modern, full-time habitation only after the advent of the air conditioner, isn’t so much a geographic feature as it is an historic anomaly. It is undergirded by cheap fossil fuels, leisure time, a guaranteed (for some) retirement age, and modern architecture. The winters are warm and prices for goods are generally kept at a libertarian low but the car-based transportation system doesn’t really let most people enjoy either of these qualities. Most of your time is spent burning expensive gas in an air-conditioned Hyundai on a gridlocked highway.

Living in one’s car, albeit among a very different set of conditions, was the focus of a recent essay in Fusion by Malcolm Harris. In exploring his titular question “Where Should a Good Millennial Live?,” he reveals that some of the more trendy alternative housing options pitched to younger generations are substantial reductions in the quality of life: houses not much bigger than a box truck or actually living in a box truck in the parking lot of your employer, are being marketed to young adults as the American Dream of the 21st Century. In addition to living in tiny houses and cars, Millennials are also being encouraged to rehab the leftovers of the post-industrial economy. If you’re not willing to live in something impossibly small, you can always own lots of property laced with lead and asbestos.

Unlike tiny houses or a truck in the parking lot however, the Rustbelt may hold some liberatory potential. Before we get to that though, I would like to sort out all of the promises and fanfare that has surrounded Rustbelt living and describe why the most publicized reasons for moving to the Rustbelt are not what makes it so interesting.

If the Sunbelt represents the promise of a comfortable retirement after a lifetime of dedication to corporate life, then the Rustbelt –the region that has suffered a half-century of depression since the fallout of American industry—represents the recent erasure of work/play divide that previous generations had enjoyed. Instead of buying into the scientifically pre-manufactured paradise of the Sunbelt, The Rustbelt offers an experience akin to Burning Man: the place is kind of boring if no one participates in the construction of shared community spaces. Work is a prerequisite for play. One must take on enormous risk and debt to make a burned-out building a home or chic bar and only after all of that work can anyone begin to play. The “Rustbelt Chic” boosters cast this dynamic as the latest incarnation of the American dream. It’s a place where authenticity is as plentiful as the brick and anyone with the right coffee house theme can plant a solid, tattooed foothold in the middle class. The latest generation’s middle class will be rusty or it will be bullshit.

The Rustbelt and the Sunbelt are not so much opposites as matching ventricles in a continental cultural pulmonary system. One exists as a foil of the other, but their differences are only skin deep. The two belts are counter-posed in a way that completely ignores the actual movement of people and their money. One is not winning out over the other, there is no mass exodus and under present conditions one is not significantly more “sustainable” to live in than the other.

It is almost like the story is too good to fact-check. I would like to dispense, right up front, with the idea that, all else being equal, storing your stuff and your body in Pittsburgh or Schenectady is fundamentally and empirically better than keeping it all in San Diego or Orlando. Writers like Richard Florida and James Howard Kunstler have made their living articulating the metrics and intangible benefits of eschewing the Sunbelt’s suburban sprawl and learning from the Rustbelt’s exemplary walkable downtowns. Those that are concerned about the environmental impacts of suburban sprawl see a move back to the Rustbelt as a good thing. Higher densities mean more people living in walkable neighborhoods, that are much more compatible with mass transit. While it is widely recognized that urban density is one of the best ways to reduce per capita carbon, making people live closer to one-another under global capitalism just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. No amount of trolley cars or wide sidewalks will make capitalism compatible with the Earth’s biome. All of the gains also remain theoretical, as cash-strapped municipalities are incapable of building public transit worth choosing to ride and private companies are too distracted by self-driving cars and rocket ships.

But even if Rustbelt living were as green as the boosters say it is, it wouldn’t really matter since Florida is about to overtake New York as the third most-populated state (thanks to retiring baby boomers) and Rustbelt cities, as a whole, are still shrinking according to 2011 census bureau numbers compiled by the Wall Street Journal. Even if you look at people aged 20-35 who moved to and from larger Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, there are marginally more Millennials leaving than arriving. So where is the idea of a Rustbelt Renaissance coming from and whom does it affect? Who benefits? Who loses?

Part of the answer comes from the renaissance’s inverse relationship to Ruin Porn; a genre of photography that portrays abandoned buildings and interiors as modern ruins. The photos are intriguing to look at because, as Sarah Wanenchak observes,

…the construction of the unruined past becomes the imagining of the ruined future. Ruins serve as a kind of spatial memento mori for people embedded in a culture marked by production and consumption (and prosumption) of the new and by the invisibility of the discarded: They are gentle reminders of our own transience.

To arrest or even rebuild the ruined is a deep commitment to abating the contradictions of capitalism. It can reaffirm the idea that the market is self-correcting: That if entire cities have been laid waste by one form of production, it is only a matter of time before that very tragedy can produce its own kind of value. Or, as John Patrick Leary writes in Guernica,

Detroit [as a city in and of itself, as well as a metonym for the rest of the Rustbelt] figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the one-hundred-dollar house and community garden of their dreams.

Perhaps then, much of the Rustbelt Renaissance can be written off as feel-good consumerism. Opening up a coffee shop in the San Francisco or Austin is just a business. Opening it up in Cleveland is a righteous calling or, at the very least, you’re making sure these beautiful Queen Annes don’t go to waste.

Rustbelt cities’ own municipal governments are more than happy to help bohemians exchange their liberal guilt and student loans for a business owner’s pragmatic realism and delicious, delicious property taxes. Planning departments realize that the key to a bustling downtown is harnessing the gentrification power of the college-educated Millennial precariat. The biggest problem since the Great Recession however, is that the traditional first wave gentrifiers (e.g. artists and students) can barely afford to do the dirty work anymore. A $20,000 brownstone is no longer a blank canvas for 20-something young couples. Student loan debt, uncertain job prospects, and well-earned skepticism of homeownership in general has forced local municipalities to get creative in their efforts to use the young to clear out the forgotten. Niagara Falls, New York for example is now offering to pay off student loans if young creative types will rent or buy homes in their “revitalized” downtown. Business improvement districts and residential revitalization zones in thousands of small and midsize pre-World War II towns are also looking to parlay student loans into business loans and mortgages. An organization in Detroit is teaching carpentry and construction skills to “at risk” youth but it is not their parents that get to live in those homes a la Habitat For Humanity. Instead, they are given away to writers.

Dayton, St. Louis, and Pittsburg are opting to do something decidedly un-American in this day and age—advertising themselves and even offering grants and loans to immigrants who move into abandoned city centers. It’s an incredibly sardonic twist on the American dream: untouched land and major cities are for rich people so we’ll give you this rotted-out husk of a downtown to make-do with.

City governments are relying on the young and freshly immigrated to not only rebuild the physical infrastructure necessary for capitalist production, but to package up whatever bits of local culture they can find and sell it on the market. Despite developers’ and city governments’ rhetoric of discovery and frontiersmanship, these cities are not empty. Indeed, the wilderness metaphors might be too apt, given the aforementioned government programs that will probably displace people of color by giving land to whites. Those who have stayed in these towns and cities have been stewarding a local culture that is ripe for the picking. The culture of a place is one of the few things left in late capitalism that can still be monopolized by wealthy capitalists and subsequently rented out to people who want that Sunbelt-style branded living arrangement. David Harvey, in his latest book Rebel Cities describes the process:

“…monopoly rent is a contradictory form. The search for it leads global capital to value distinctive and local initiatives— indeed, in certain respects, the more distinctive and, in these times, the more transgressive the initiative, the better. It also leads to the valuation of uniqueness, authenticity, particularity, originality, and all manner of other dimensions to social life that are inconsistent with the homogeneity presupposed by commodity production.

The truly innovative and unique atmospheres expertly curated by transplanted artists or carefully maintained and riffed on by third generation natives are more valuable than gold. The contradiction of valuing uniqueness so that it may be turned into a globally accessible commodity is at the heart of the Rustbelt Renaissance. The very idea that there is some single entity called “The Rustbelt” belies an underlying desire to market a kind of aesthetic. That aesthetic might not be uniform the way cul-de-sacs in Tucson look exactly like cul-de-sacs in Pompano Beach, but it is definitely “a thing.” A new sort of civic engagement made of equal parts burner radical self-reliance and color-blind gentrification are what’s going to make Niagara Falls cool again. Or, at least that’s what the city governments are counting on.

The Rustbelt’s future —using the urban precariat to produce monopoly rent by instituting and funding permanent burner encampments— cannot possibly be more economically or environmentally sustainable than building brand new subdivisions on drained swamp. At best it is a marginally more sustainable arrangement of the same old consumerism. As Leary puts it, “If Detroit is really so full of possibilities, why do so many of the possibilities so closely resemble a cut-rate version of what western Brooklyn already looks like?” The Rustbelt does have possibilities —perhaps more than most regions of North America for reasons I will outline shortly— but those potentialities do not rely solely in brownstones or buffalo wings. The promise of the Rustbelt comes from the scale of its existing physical plant and the lack of trust in municipal government.

Anarchists have long been interested in the material requisites for social justice. Or, phrased as a question: What material conditions make a vastly better world possible? Some of the earliest city planners like Ebenezer Howard, considered themselves anarchists and saw what they were doing as inventing built environments that could support equality. Howard realized that settlements of about 30,000 were the perfect size to efficiently produce food from a hinterland and distribute it to industrial communities. Given that most of the Rustbelt was built before refrigeration, they are still the best positioned to establish local food production at the scale of the city. While some of the more well-known cities are too large, most of the Rustbelt is comprised of towns of about the right size. Each town is also small enough that a group of no less than a dozen people could influence thousands.

Mid-sized towns are the perfect proving ground for a diversity of political tactics. David Graeber, in his 2009 ethnography of direct action communities, outlines the challenge facing most radicals:

A revolutionary strategy based on direct action can only succeed if the principles of direct action become institutionalized. Temporary bubbles of autonomy must gradually turn into permanent, free communities. However, in order to do so, those communities cannot exist in total isolation; neither can they have a purely confrontational relation with everyone around them. They have to have some way to engage with larger economic, social, or political systems that surround them.

Whereas in a big city a temporary bubble of autonomy —the bike shop, the squat— can hide in the anonymity of the masses, a politically minded collective in a medium-size city can be seen and heard by huge swaths of the community. Radical collectives are typically faced with the choice of adopting either total isolation or pure confrontation with the larger political apparatus but at these scales many more strategies are practical.

Rebuilding cities without gentrifying them generally means doing it outside of land markets to the extent possible. It means decoupling the real estate market from any increase in the livability of the neighborhood. Quite often, living one’s politics and being a good neighbor are at odds with one-another but in the case of the Rustbelt, they might be quite complimentary. Land banks, alternative currencies, and municipalized city services are all doable (and indeed have been done) in these towns.

Hannah Dobbz, writing about squatters across North America noticed something unique about Rustbelt squats. Even though vacant properties are abundant and therefore cheap, few squatters bother to get the official title to the property. “[Rustbelt squatters] seem more interested rehabbing their houses and riding them out as long as they will stay standing—since sometimes it is likely that their squats would collapse before they are evicted anyway.” These places are also uniquely off-grid, having their own water catchment and heating systems. While some squats will be left to fall apart, many are stabilized and improved.

Each mid-size city and town that comprises the Rustbelt is an opportunity to think deeply and radically about new modes of governance. The Brookings Institute reported in 2011 that over the course of the last decade concentrated poverty nearly doubled in the Midwest portions of the Rustbelt. As the situation gets more desperate, people are willing to try or support a wider range of governance structures. The authoritarian strains of American political culture have already discovered this and have been implementing stricter control mechanisms for years. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder is able to single-handedly suspend elected leaders in cities and towns and replace them with “emergency mangers” answerable only to him. As a result, over half of black Michiganders currently live under and unelected official. Flint has declared a state of emergency since their governor-appointed manager switched their water supply to saltier river water, resulting in corrosion of the city’s lead-soldiered pipes, which then leached into the water supply.

If government has given up on maintaining even the faintest semblance of democracy (representative or otherwise) it is the perfect time to establish radical alternatives. Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociologist of social movements at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview with Joshua Stephens noted that the Arab Spring was able to spread so quickly because of “an increased disjuncture between society and state.” Mutual aid networks that developed over forty years provided for the daily needs of the lower and middle classes. This exists partially in the American Rustbelt but there needs to be more.

Movements need a home turf. They need a place that is both a literal retreat away from their adversaries and an actually existing example of their politics at work. The Rustbelt provides a confluence of ideal conditions that, given enough attention, could provide a safe place for building a post-capitalist movement. The crucial ingredient is solidarity with those that have lived in these towns during the lean years and building new institutions for distributing the successes. This is possible, probably more so than anywhere else on the continent, because of the scale and current political climate. If done right we could build a movement that is adaptable enough to grow roots in Youngstown but still thrive in the artificial substrate of the Sunbelt.

David is on twitter.

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I have not seen the new Star Wars but ambient levels of Star Wars have reached such a peak that I feel eminently qualified to review it without actually seeing the film or even reading a plot synopsis. In all honesty I probably will not watch it until I can assure that I will see a high definition version for free through whatever means comes to my disposal. What I have seen, the cross-promotions, the essays, and the toys, tells me everything I need to know to assess it as a piece of culture. Star Wars is not a movie, it is a platform for media and a financial vehicle. Star Wars has plot like America has elections. It’s almost a formality, the official pomp heralding in a new wave of characters, theories, and controversies. If we black box the film itself and instead look at all of the culture that spews out from its unknown (to me) depths, I think we get a much more cohesive (I’d even go so far as to say honest) assessment of the entire event.

R2-D2 and Chewbacca are the best characters a movie executive could ever ask for. Not only are Star War’s non-speaking characters the best characters in terms of personality, they are also the easiest to merchandize and the cheapest to keep around. Puppets and computer-generated characters do not require residuals or a nice trailer. They do not age out of their characters. BAHH-WEEP-DRROOP does not have to be translated for international markets. Talking characters have catch phrases that have to stick every time without being too corny, you have to pay the actor to do voice work, and if you are going to make a toy or a video game that has these catch phrases in the actor’s voice then you have to install the more expensive voice box in the doll or record more complex audio into your video game.

Of course recording and playing back audio in video games and in toys has become much more sophisticated since the last trilogy came out, so studios have a little more wiggle room now. Instead of a series of beeps, you could have a computerized voice playable by nearly anyone. Judging from the trailer, a few promotional videos, and some tweets, I know there is a new robot character called BB-8 that is comprised of an R2-D2 dome-head thing on top of a matching yoga ball. This is excellent. Such a robot design is both fun to watch and, once turned into a toy, is both technically impressive and takes advantage of the gyroscopic balancing technology that is so hot right now. It should come as no surprise that Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger personally “found the technology” that makes it possible to have a physical robot instead of pure CGI creation. Presumably this technology has also made it into the dozens of licensed toys of BB-8 as well.

One of the biggest stories about the new Star Wars movie when it was still in production was that Abrams had chosen to use props and puppets instead of completely relying on CGI. Abrams told the Guardian that this decision made “the film have a tangible, sort of authentic quality that you believed that these things were actually happening in a real space.” The decision to use props may do this but it also invests the R&D necessary to make tangible toys that look and function like what you see on screen. If BB-8 were all CGI there would be no miniature BB-8 that you control with your iPhone.

The perfect Star Wars movie would be a movie comprised solely of non-speaking characters who would shepherd the audience from one evocative experience to the next. The non-speaking characters utter their own leitmotif: they produce the sounds that connote their role and present state of being. They are ruthlessly efficient in telling audiences how to react and they do not demand or expect exposition of any kind. They are something for the camera and plot to focus on: the only thing keeping the most mainstream movie canon ever conceived firmly within the realm of the accessible and not spiraling out into some Jodorowsky-esque series of thematically connected scenes. The perfect Star Wars movie would require no sets and no characters; only a series of visually striking images scientifically chosen to elicit emotion in the shape of the standard five act story arc. Science and law permitting, a future Star Wars trilogy will come in the form of a psychoactive drug.

None of which, I should say explicitly, is an indictment of the franchise or the universe. To dislike Star Wars because it is all emotion and no contemplation would be like calling a roller coaster bad public transportation. Judging Star Wars on its own terms means evaluating how easy it is to ignore the Industrial so that you might feel the Light and Magic. Such a balancing act necessitates heightened ambient levels of acceptance into the universe. Just like Christmas, observers of Star Wars have to wade slowly into the world not because a sudden jump would be jarring, but because the movie is but a launch point for a kind of frenetic Star Wars celebration that spans media and time.

Abrams and crew have been masterful on this front by releasing the movie on Christmas (somehow the first feature-length Star Wars movie to do so) and foregoing the invariably terrible co-released video game. Instead, Star Wars is sprinkled throughout Disney’s properties and the pre-existing Star Wars gaming universe. They have to be perfect at crafting these stable and porous universes because stories have to be agnostic to media these days. Despite Star Wars’ box office success Disney stock is still falling due in no small part, according to Matthew Yglesias, to ESPN and the larger decline of cable. Instead of relying on the stable forms of comic book or sports cable channel, Disney is buying entire universes like Star Wars and Marvel with the intention of distributing them through whatever way humans are consuming media these days.

All indications also point to the fact that this Star Wars also hit the right note when it comes to the secondary market of media that reviews, critiques, and generally responds to media. Unlike the “Is it feminist?” conversations that surrounded Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year, The Force Awakens has been at the center of a much more nuanced conversation about whether or not she is a Mary Sue and all of the increased expectations audiences put on female leads. As Robin James wrote on the blog in July, “Something cannot ‘be’ feminist. It can assist or impede our ongoing reproduction of patriarchy–it can do things.”

What’s difficult to ascertain is whether there is something inherent in the movie that encouraged this fractionally better conversation or if the state of the discourse has improved. It is most accurate to say a little of both are at play given that the making of movies and the digitally mediated discussions of movies do not occur in separate bubbles. The decision to cast a black man and a white woman at all would have nearly doubled the representation of those demographics in the franchise already, but casting them as the lead was (unfortunately) a risk that seems to have awarded more mainstream praise than derision. It may be the height of cynicism to claim that The Force Awakens has the lead actors that it does because of a desire to successfully navigate ensuing commentary, but as Jia Tolentino has boldly argued this might be the biggest possible win given the state of mainstream feminist discourse. This may have more to do with how far a larger dominant discourse is willing to “let in” feminism and anti-racism, we get discussions of representation and no more, the point remains the same: Star Wars is future-proofing itself for a new decade where women and people of color must be more than tokens. It also doesn’t hurt that installing lead actors of color or women has been shown to actually increase box office earnings, not lower them.

It feels obscene to talk about representation in film this way but the people behind Star Wars, a franchise that defines the state of the art of not just movie making but of universe creation, certainly have a fiduciary responsibility to think in this manner. The fact that it is just the right thing to do is a bonus.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a movie that excels in all of the important metrics that a business must succeed at. It is a successful investment vehicle dressed up as a blockbuster movie. If there is any misstep it is that the seams are starting to show: there may not be enough light and magic to hide just how industrial this process is. Even AdWeek has called the co-branding push for this movie “unprecedented” (see: Star Wars themed oranges) and while I do not think anyone is laboring under the assumption that Star Wars is anything other than a money-making venture, one has to be careful when building business transaction upon a media object that is unremittingly nostalgic. The whole thing is in danger of becoming profane. If the marketing continues unabated there is the slimmest chance that viewers might look back at the movie and realize that they have mapped their emotions onto a heartless and contrived thing. A generic action movie dressed up in Jedi robes and Storm Trooper helmets.

David is on Twitter.

A screenshot of NGP VAN's VoteBuilder
A screenshot of NGP VAN’s VoteBuilder

Too few people are concerned that a national political party has the technical ability to pull the plug on a campaign whenever it wants. When news broke that the DNC had indefinitely revoked the Sanders’ campaign’s access to essential voter data the story quickly coalesced around the facts of the data breach and the reaction by the campaigns and the party. At no point though, have we stopped and asked why or even how the Democratic National Committee controls the data that goes through the tools built and maintained by their private vendor NGP VAN.

This is a classic politics of technology moment. Not only is this a clear example of a technology that was built to maintain a certain kind of power hierarchy, it also seems to be ensconced in organized ignorance. VoteBuilder, what is usually referred to in the media as simply “voter data”, is actually an entire suite of tools used to collect, organize, and view who a campaign has spoken to and who they have yet to meet. VoteBuilder has been an indispensible tool for over a decade, having been used by small town city council races right up through presidential elections, and yet it does not even have a Wikipedia page. I’ve had some limited first hand experience with the software but for the most part this technology is a black box: its inner workings are a total mystery to me and, I suspect, most Americans.

It is besides the point that the Sanders campaign regained access to their data within 24 hours. The ability to totally shut out a campaign from the kind of information that has been rightly and repeatedly called “the lifeblood of campaigning” has to be designed into the software. At some point a DNC executive decided that it may be necessary to immediately revoke a campaign’s access to voter files. This should be terrifying on its own merrits but it is particularly concerning given that journalists are coming back from early primary states saying “it was hard to tell where the Democratic Party’s office ended and the Clinton office began.

A lot has been said about the Republican race. In fact, the Republicans have been so thouroughly covered by the media that now the disparity between them and the Democrats has become a major story. And while Trump’s media savy has a lot to do with the “push” toward more Republican covereage there is also an active “pull” that drags Democrats out of the spotlight. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Shultz has barely tried to hide the fact that she is doing everything possible to make Clinton’s candidacy look and feel inevitable, which has included shortening the debate calendar from 26 in 2008 to six in 2016, and hiding those six on weekends and far away from actual primaries. Even if Shultz were replaced, as so many petitions over the weekend have demanded, the establishment left is still contained within a party that installs kill switches on campaigns. That is a structural problem that comes before, and is much larger than, Shultz or any one chairperson.

I’ll just end here with a request that we look at how technologies like VoteBuilder have centralized the authority of political parties (Republicans have a similar system called Voter Vault) and strong actors in ways that are both more powerful, but less noticeable than the old Tammany Hall machine politics of the early 20th century. We may want to bring to bear the wealth of knowledge on algorithms catalogued here by Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective and add to the relative dearth of knowledge specifically about voter databases. Last week there was a major display of undemocratic power weilded on a popular campaign and we run the risk of not even noticing the means by which that power was exercised.

David is on Twitter.

 

A cupcate with red icing that makes it look like a brain.

Barring some extreme changes in the political climate the following will be true of the American electorate in 40 years: There will be no living memory of a time when real income rose for anyone but the super wealthy. No one, save the oldest citizens will have had a post-9/11 adulthood with all of the normalization of war that entails. Schools will be understood as prime targets for extreme acts of violence even as rates of property and violent crime fall in the aggregate. The total lack of confidence in all established institutions with the exception of police, military, and small business will continue as major cities are washed away as governments look on and refuse to invest in any kind of infrastructure. This will also be happening as America reaches a major demographic milestone: whites (as we presently define them) will no longer be a statistical majority.

Given this sort of potential future, we should take a look at how younger people, respond to the kind of political rhetoric that is endemic to crisis, uncertainty, and fear: fascism. Everyone from Jeb Bush to your favorite anarchist barista knows and has said in no uncertain terms that Donald Trump is a fascist. One might be heartened to see that younger voters have not responded well to Trump’s campaign. According to RealClearPolitics, less than 2 percent of Trump’s supporters are under 30. According to Pew, only a third of millennials identify as Republicans while half identify as Democrats. An optimist might see this as a younger, more politically progressive electorate rejecting hate and fear mongering but I am more skeptical. Afterall, there is not a whole lot of ideological space between Trump’s “ban all muslim immigrants” and Democratic candidates’ universal agreement around the continued bombing of muslims using flying robots. Would if it’s just the messaging that turns Millennial away?  Would if people who have spent most of their lives in the 21st century, do not respond the same way to 20th century authoritarianism? Any surprise at the popularity of the Trump brand is rooted in a willful ignorance of widespread, explicit white supremacy. What is more terrifying still, is that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands millions of Americans that think Trump does not go far enough. Even if Trump loses this time, we should take note of what his campaign reveals: a nascent and likely growing nationalist movement in America. One that I suspect will be fully baked and equipped with more effective messaging by the time post-millenial generations make up the majority of the voting public.

At its core fascism is reactionary in the face of uncertainty while more radical or simply progressive responses seek to find new and creative solutions to even the scariest or most dangerous circumstances. Whereas a radical left response to the trends I described above are difficult to predict because they are, by definition, a result of creative thinking brought to bear on the root causes of problems, a reactionary hard right response is tragically predictable: It tells a story of embattlement wherein an elite group is besieged by inferior outsiders and salvation is only possible through the prioritization of the collective nation over any one individual, especially the ones marked as part of the problem. Such a narrative will require significant alterations if it is to appeal to a nation with no clear national ethnic majority.

Whiteness, I should say, is negotiable. It is completely possible that race politics shift in the next half a century to include a particular complexion or national identity such that the newly expanded category stays in the demographic majority. Such was the case for southern European immigrants a hundred years ago. Whiteness is always willing to let a few more people in, in exchange for continued domination.

It is possible though, that whiteness cannot morph fast enough, in which case fascist hopefuls of the future may instead look to apartheid-era South Africa for historical examples of how a white racial minority was capable of holding power for nearly half a century. However, given the massive size and historical differences between the two countries even this playbook might be outmoded. Instead, I suspect Millennial fascism will look a lot like what Tom Whyman, described in The Guardian last year as “Cupcake Fascism.” Whyman posits that the overt racism and dramatic iconography of 20th century fascism would not work today…

But you could get a huge mass of people to participate in a reactionary endeavour if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cupcakey imagery, and persuaded everyone that the brutality of your ideology was in fact a form of niceness. If a fascist reich was to be established anywhere today, I believe it would necessarily have to exchange iron eagles for fluffy kittens, swap jackboots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled ditties on ukuleles.

This seems fairly spot-on, albeit only half of a potential strategy. Such a dramatic shift from using displays of masculine strength in response to manufactured fear to galvanize support; to the velvety, paternalistic persuasion of state-sponsored concern trolling, may not survive a one-to-one replacement. Whereas I can scare a stranger just by convincing them that an obviously dangerous thing is out to get them, I may have a harder time comforting a stranger. Therefore, the future Millennial fascist will need to employ a highly adaptive messaging system enabled by what Zeynep Tufekci has called “computational politics”.

Computational politics allows political leaders to portray themselves very differently depending on whom they are talking to. By using finelytuned algorithms fed by enormous databases of our past decisions, leaders will find a way to promise exactly what matters to you. Hitler may have been limited to a single message of strength but future fascist will be capable of deploying multiple messages of softer and more comforting propaganda. Instead of a single, one-size-fits-all message of brute strength, cupcake fascism will find what makes you feel comforted.

Cupcake fascism augmented by computational politics is not just different wrapping on the same rhetorical structure. It dispenses with the unitary collective all together and asks you to embrace a juiced up but well-worn brand of uniquely American individualism. It can offer the palliatives of a Tumblr featuring hot drinks on cold nights in a safe and clean home. It can serve up promises of new applications for masculine discipline, courage, and strength even as war and industry are increasingly automated. It can make up a hundred more emotionally evocative messages that all end in a promise that theses promises can be real if this single candidate is elected.

Trump will probably not be president. His domination of a crowded field of Republican candidates only proves that his campaign has done excellent job of monopolizing the nationalist narrative that the Republican Party has been cultivating for decades. We should, however, take this as a warning that America is ready for a fascist leader. A future fascist, one that appeals to the unique challenges faced by post-millennial Americans may choose instead to employ a kinder, sweeter sort of state paternalism that plays off of a widespread desire of stability and safety without appealing to overt displays of strength. Rather than depict a single group with an unbroken history that needs a champion, cupcake fascism will appeal to individuals’ personal histories and promise a platform upon which you can accomplish your own goals. What will remain hidden of course will be the backs upon which that platform sits.

David is on Twitter.

Headline image source.

 

SpecialGameProtagonistScreenshot

Fallout 4 tells me that I am special.

At the start of the game, I am prompted to assign point values to Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck (yes, that spells SPECIAL) as an initial step towards the crafting of my customized protagonist. These statistics form the foundation of my character’s abilities, skills, and know-how. I will build on them and further specify them in the course of my play.

But Fallout 4 tells me that I am special in other ways, namely through the ways that it positions my protagonist within its narrative. My character is the lone survivor of a fallout shelter following a devastating nuclear war. She is cryogenically frozen, but wakes from her sleep long enough to witness her husband murdered and her infant son kidnapped. When she emerges from the vault 200 years after first entering it, she’s on a mission to find her son, despite having no knowledge of when the kidnapping happened.

Somehow, though, the local populace of wasteland Boston quickly determines that she exhibits exceptional leadership and combat skills. So they name her General, task her with the responsibility of restoring a floundering militia group, and put her at the head of rebuilding a new settlement and ultimately uniting the Commonwealth. Thus, immediately after emerging from a 200-year sleep during which time the world as she knew it was destroyed, my affluent-professional-suburban-Boston-wife-mother character is able to navigate a hostile irradiated wasteland, find resources on her own, master a particular fighting prowess, and then convince a straggling group of survivors to make her their leader. Soon enough she’s binding other settlements to her cause and gradually seizing power over the Commonwealth.

It’s absurd. Yet, it’s a setup that will likely be familiar and unquestioned for many players of video games. It’s a persistent trope: the player-character abruptly thrust from ordinariness into extraordinariness. At first, a humble and unassuming civilian—moments later, a military commander, a leader, a hero, the one hope for world salvation. Video games use this scenario very, very frequently. Especially AAA games like Fallout 4.

It’s a trope that, understandably, has come under some criticism. Nick Capozzoli’s comment sparked a conversation on Twitter that illustrates a number of concerns with this narrative model, as well as other similar coddling from the AAA industry. In the replies, Capozzoli noted that AAA games allow players to become anything they want and reward them for doing so. Others that took part in the conversation griped that the ability to get what one wants, do what one wants, and become what one wants is infantilizing. They accused games of treating these situations immaturely and in ways disconnected from reality.

Inanity and childish wish fulfillment aren’t the only criticisms leveled at the archetype of the unassuming-yet-exceptional player-hero. There’s also ideology at work. For instance, as Mattie Brice has remarked,

To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system.

As Brice indicates, these storylines can be read as enshrining and reproducing hegemonic American cultural values. Fallout 4, for example, could be interpreted as embracing rugged individuality; the capacity to rise to power through hard work; masculine potency; peace enforced through armed combat; and a will to leadership, among others. One could also read this narrative of specialness as an attempt to appeal to the sensibilities of millennials, if one buys into the myth of their entitlement and narcissism.

While ideological critiques such as these are invaluable for uncovering the assumptions of many video games, I think many of them overlook their own starting point: a prevailing male-centric outlook. Such androcentrism is not only at the core of much of game design, but also in the angles and approaches of games criticism itself. A great deal of games criticism assumes that, since games are made with a male audience in mind, the values that they sanction are those with a specific appeal to men. Although Capozzoli’s comment comes from his male subject position, it also evinces the notion that a game like Fallout 4 is speaking to special boys. Likewise, Brice examines and condemns the ideologies of games from the assumption that their players are male.

But do these narratives and mechanics have the same implications when experienced from the perspectives of women or marginalized identities? Are the game’s only meanings those that apply to a presumed target audience?

For me, Fallout 4’s narrative of specialness provides opportunities to experience subject positions that I am not able to enjoy outside of its confines. While the game’s story and character development are utterly unrealistic, there are aspects of this unreality that are empowering to me. The game places my character—a woman, of my own choosing—into a leadership position that is not once called into question on the basis of her gender identity or her body. There are no misogynistic comments that cast her worthiness into doubt. No one tells her that she is not fit for combat. Only nameless enemies dare to call her a bitch—only to meet their messy deaths moments later.

I don’t entirely care about the game’s poor storytelling. I have every opportunity to ignore the quest to find my character’s lost son and even the shallow conflict about humanity’s abuses of technology. Instead, I can explore, build my settlements, and craft the world to my own liking. I can overlook the lack of explanation behind my character’s formidable capabilities and map a story of my own liking onto her: She is a woman who has gone through unimaginable tragedy and turmoil. But she has picked herself up and found a strength of her own that is answerable to no one. She goes it alone, with her dog as her only companion—and she not only survives, but thrives and conquers.

Through the woman character that I have created and that I embody in my gameplay, I can feel in possession of opportunities that do not exist for me, a woman, outside of the game. I can be a direct, firm, confident leader, a ruthless combatant, a cunning negotiator that makes alliances with competing factions to consolidate her rule. I can be a benevolent dictator who provides for settlers even while investing scarce resources in the creation of her own giant mansion in the middle of town. I don’t have to be nice. I face no pressure to perform in the feminine ways expected of me in my lived reality. No one holds against me that I am not maternal, nurturing, pliant, or agreeable. I don’t feel like I must apologize for my successes or my power. So I don’t care if Fallout 4’s narrative of specialness is disconnected from reality—sometimes, I want to experience subject positions for which my reality refuses to allow or that may be in direct contradiction to the kind of person I usually try to be.

Certainly, these appeals still fall into those narrative tropes and ideological issues that so many critics find distasteful. Everything that I have said could also just as easily be said by a white male who believes himself to be disempowered and who wishes to also have the experiences of being an indomitable fighter and a selfish, capitalist tyrant. However, that does not prevent my experience of Fallout 4 from being meaningful to me in ways that criticism often overlooks, due to my position as a woman and the opportunities afforded to me by playing as a woman protagonist of my own determination. Thus, even as they may appear to reproduce patriarchal structures from some angles of criticism, many video games nevertheless may offer opportunities for experiences outside of or in opposition to the oppressive binds that shape the daily lives of many players.

While we could dismiss the hackneyed and overused special-hero structure, condemn it, and call for its absolute eradication from the gaming landscape, I don’t think that this would be an entirely thoughtful approach (although this doesn’t mean that the AAA industry couldn’t cut back on its use). Instead, I think we could reevaluate the potentialities of these experiences for those that occupy marginalized positions. We should continue calling for the further blasting-open of these subject positions in video games, to allow them to be experienced by those who are often denied power. One way of approaching this goal is to not limit our criticisms of these structures to the import that they may have for hegemonic subjectivities. We must open our criticism to the possibilities for alternative, resistant forms of play and experience.

Stephanie Jennings is a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She can be found on Twitter @stephaniejngs.

image credit
image credit: Darwin Bell

Sometimes it is worth it to follow a bad idea down, as far as it goes, and pull back up the contorted, gross, and contradictory thing that it has latched onto. That’s important because sometimes that bad idea is attached to a value or belief that you yourself hold. It’s just worth knowing what your values and beliefs are capable of, when applied in extreme degrees or to cases you would not necessarily apply them to. This week dozens of state governors and Republican presidential candidates have come out to say that they, even though they have no legal standing to do so, would not allow Syrian refugees into the states they govern. They usually couch their declarations in terms of risk evaluation. For example, Florida governor Rick Scott told reporters he couldn’t possibly let Syrians into the state “without an extensive evaluation of the risk these individuals may pose to our national security.” If we were to put aside the obvious –that this is nothing more than naked xenophobia dressed up as national security concern trolling– and draw out a cost benefit analysis, (the only language bureaucracies understand) could we possibly find a suitable “good enough” scenario?

First we have to look at the current system that they claim is inadequate. From Slate,

It takes anywhere from 18–24 months for a Syrian refugee to be cleared to live in the United States. First he or she must be registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. This agency interviews refugees, conducts background checks, takes their biometric data, and establishes whether they belong to one of roughly 45 “categories of concern” given their past lives and work history in Syria. Typically, the applicants are women and children. If anything looks amiss, they are pulled from consideration. Then the U.S. government begins its own vetting. The applicants are interviewed again, and their names and particulars are run through terrorism databases. They receive additional screening when they arrive in the United States and then again after their first year in the country.

The US’s own vetting process requires crosschecks between the Departments of defense, state, and homeland security. Refugees’ names are compared to the ever-expanding and secret lists of terrorists that is maintained and checked by 19 intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Once in the United States a recent immigrant is subject to all of the typical agencies that monitor and harass the poor, all the way down to local police. All of this, according to many elected officials, still presents unacceptable levels of risk.

If we are to come up with something better, we’ll have to find some sort of model security procedure and make the kind of crass cost-benefit comparison bureaucrats make all the time: How much are we willing to spend to protect future human life from potential terror threats? The U.S.’s Office of Management and Budget, since 2004, has told the rest of the federal government that they should value human life somewhere between one and ten million dollars. That fairly wide range is used to justify everything from the cost of FAA-mandated airplane part replacement schedules, to the methods the FDA requires for drug testing trials. The higher the “value of statistical life” (or VSL as it is called in actuarial circles), the more an agency is justified in demanding. It is no surprise then, that while the Environmental Protection Agency is busy defending its $7.4 million figure from loopholes, the department of defense is barely tethered to such a calculation.

Computing a VSL is fairly complicated but the general idea is fairly simple. The University of Pennsylvania’s law school maintains a blog on regulations (fun read) and describes VSL calculation this way:

When the purported goal of a new rule, such as one addressing worker safety or the environment, is to save lives, the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) recommends measuring that rule’s benefits by using the value of a statistical life (VSL). OIRA defines the VSL as individuals’ “willingness to pay for reductions in risks of premature death.” For example, if people are willing to pay $10 to reduce their risk of death by one in a million, the VSL would be $10 million.

Statisticians back in 2012 claimed that after looking at the frequency and distribution of terror attacks since the 60s ”the likelihood of another 9/11 is between 20 and 50 per cent” by 2022. At the low range is an assumption of increased stability in the region, but we get closer to 50 per cent as power vacuums open up and resources like food and water get tight. If we were to assume that campaigns like the War on Terror help us increase stability (I don’t think this but plenty of government officials do and we are trying to stay internal to their own logic here) then how much more money do we need to add to what is already a $1.6 trillion price tag?

For the sake of argument lets use fiscal year 2008, the most expensive year of the War on Terror, as our VSL. That makes sense given that so many conservative politicians blame our relatively reduced military presence in the Middle East for the rise of ISIS and the whole point of the War on Terror (among other more abstract goals) is to prevent Americans from dying at the hands of terrorists. It also seems likely that any increased costs of screening refugees would get passed through defense spending so that such a system would avoid intentional government shutdowns and austerity measures. Despite the alramingly high probability of another major attack within a decade, the likelihood of an American dying from any kind of terrorist attack (and this includes domestic white supremacist terrorists!) is about 1 in 20 million. Presumably this is not good enough so lets say we wanted to decrease that likelihood to the level of bee and wasp sting deaths: approximately 25 million to 1. That would mean people would have to be willing to pay $39,000 to decrease odds that are already substantially lower than all assaults by firearms (24,974 in 1) or literally just walking (54,538 to 1).

Of course, just as we do not hand over a specific amount of money to the EPA for statistically-less-likely-to-kill-you air and water, no one will actually pay this $39,000 figure. Instead, it will be used to justify increased taxes and decreased spending in other departments. I will admit that, as a qualitative social scientist, I may have gotten this wrong but I am certainly in the ballpark. Even a trained economist who does these sorts of calculations for a living would have to add an asterisk about all of the factors that complicate their VSL calculations. The depreciating value of war machines, the relative effectiveness of any given campaign or program, and many other things could cause the VSL to rise or fall. In any case it is safe to say that given the high absolute price we have paid in the past for anti-terror tactics, and the relatively insignificant likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack, we are more than willing to spend ourselves to ruin. And this is precisely the stated, long-term tactic of non-state combatants. While terror is the existential weapon they wield, their blows always lead to a bleeding of money.

We tend to think of acts of terror as unique, discreet events that we might foil through gathering intelligence on specific plans carried out by identifiable individuals. Social scientists that study disasters and risk call these “discreet accidents” and, in the words of prominent disaster studies scholar Charles Perrow [paywall], casting accidents as discreet means that they can be prevented in the future by dissecting exactly what went wrong and correcting it. The 9/11 Commission report did just that: it pointed to a failure in intelligence sharing among several agencies and now those organizations circulate information more than ever before. But critics of that report, from presidential candidates to conspiracy theorists, continue to define 9/11 as a discreet accident: Someone is to blame, something went wrong, and ultimately 9/11 was preventable.

The terrifying truth is that politically motivated violence is inevitable given our present condition. Terrorism is what Perrow would call a “normal accident,” one that “emerges from the characteristics of the systems themselves.” Normal accidents are unavoidable not only because all human endeavors are prone to error (e.g. someone won’t catch the bomb in the suitcase or a crucial piece of intelligence won’t make it to the right desk in time), but also because the complexity of systems always produce an infinite combination of errors that are not recognizable as dangerous until the accident occurs. Perrow calls this “negative synergy” because the accident is always worse than the sum of the errors that produced it. The only solution Perrow provides is replacing complex, “tightly coupled” systems with decentralized “loosely coupled” systems so that when errors inevitably occur, they cannot spread, iterate, and produce a cascade effect that leads to disaster. This seems imminently applicable to things like electrical grids (e.g. smart grids of decentralized solar panels instead of nuclear power plants) but less imaginable when it comes to geopolitics. That is, of course, if you cannot fathom a world without borders.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.