culture

The Atlantic‘s new “You Are Here” series explores the [social] science behind everyday life. The “How the Internet is Changing Friendship” episode asks, “Wherever your friends are, you can always check up on them with social media. But does that mean that we’re keeping friendships alive past their natural expiration date, or are virtual connections actually making friendships stronger?” Very interesting question!

The Atlantic‘s CityLab website has a fascinating story about multiracial defenders of confederate memorials in New Orleans. One would initially think that all of the defenders are White, but, as usual, race in America is more complex and nuanced than meets the eye….

The Atlantic magazine has published an interesting article: “Building Social Change From the Bottom Up.” The subtitle reads, “In an era of polarization and distrust, these local innovators—from a team of urban planners to a kids’ baseball coach—show that individuals can still better their communities.” Their stories are inspiring!

“Remember when Luke’s running the trench in the Death Star, and he’s about to fire his fateful shot, and at the last minute he decides to turn off the targeting computer and use the Force instead?” So begins an article that references a scene from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope to argue that “machines can now see into the future, and we ignore them at our peril.” The article continues, “We romanticize that moment—not just because it represents Luke’s coming into his own as a Jedi, but because to us, the decision to trust an intuition born deep in nature and honed over billions of lifetimes instead of some newfangled tech seems somehow right and good. The irony, of course, is that in our galaxy, technology is the Force. Increasingly, it’s computers that train our intuition. It’s computers that help us perceive beyond our senses.”

The article provides several examples of technology enhancing human intuition and performance, such as chess players using software to expand their abilities, and doctors using CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs instead of knives to explore the innards of patients. The article concludes with this prediction: “we’ll use computers to explore possible futures, and over time we’ll learn how to see those futures for ourselves, almost to feel them, to the point where it’ll seem to those not in the know that we have command of an arcane force.” That may be a bit far-fetched…I hope.

Dr. Lawrence Quill is an SJSU Professor of Political Science who often provides commentary on technology news (such as in a recent Financial Times op-ed: “Tech companies are doing what oil and steel companies have been doing for decades, but they have a halo around them.”). I asked him for his take on the article. He notes:

That article, it seems to me, is talking about augmented reality. Pokemon Go was an app that applied that in a trivial fashion. But Google Glass was a more sophisticated version.

Economists suggest that this way of thinking about the relationships between computer and human labor is the best version of a future that will be dominated by machines and information. Work with machines, they say, rather than against them.

I guess we’ll see.

But if we return to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars and Luke, I think the author of the Atlantic piece has omitted something important. For Luke, and the audience, the force was something without and within. A person looked inside in order to harness the power of the Force all around them. Technology is not the Force. Technology is always external and never ‘within’ – unless we take Elon Musk’s advice and become cyborgs, of course!

The ‘inside’ to which I’m referring is that ‘spiritual’ inside, the West’s inheritance from Christianity. Augustine’s interior space provided the foundation for Western concepts like free will and, more broadly, free agency; concepts that are fundamental to how we have come to understand politics and what it means to be human.

It is that space that is collapsing (and freedom with it). There are a few reasons for this:

1) The assault on religious thinking especially since Darwin but more broadly as a result of Modernity
2) The twentieth century equivalence (post-Turing) of mind and machine (and information)
3) Paradoxically, the quasi-religious desire to free ourselves from the body in order to download consciousness so that we may become immortal – you never really escape from Christianity’s influence. It just becomes a mash up!

Elon Musk’s comment should be taken against the background of the ideas (1-3) above. His cyborg future, which may become reality, is a kind of protest against an uncontrolled future of AI where human agency disappears. The message is simple: become a cyborg or be a human slave. Augmented reality or bust.

The Atlantic article channels the same message. Those who use The Force (technology) will leave the rest behind in their wake. How curious that the author would use a modern myth of techno-spirituality (Star Wars) to make the point.

This sounds like technological determinism and it is. But while the myth of human freedom remains, I will probably keep on saying that the present, and the future, could be different. It could be more humane (?). We could imagine a future where AI and robotics serves human (?) ends, rather than the other way around.

I am not especially hopeful, however, as neither policy-makers, nor the public, nor any other group are providing us with the key ideas of a human future that embraces technology for human ends. Instead, we must turn to William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) style corporations and Hollywood which, for now at least, seems obsessed with a dystopian eventuality.

I am a little bit more hopeful that we can escape dystopian ends. Keeping Professor Quill’s commentary in mind can help us to try to journey in a more positive direction.

On my two-hour afternoon commute home from campus I frequently listen to audiobooks from Audible. They have created an interactive map of some of the listening habits of their members. They note, “We took a look at how some of your favorite genres play out across the country. You might be surprised where you and your fellow listeners cross paths.” Indeed!

The CityLab website has an interesting story about American megaregions, complete with a link to an interactive map. It appears that I now live in “Goldengate” (the SF Bay Area + Sacramento). I’ve also resided in “Laurentide” (Minneapolis-St. Paul area), “Winnebago” (Milwaukee area), “Twain” (St. Louis), “Tecumseh” (Indianapolis area), “Roanoke” (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), “Catalpa” (Charlotte), and “Peachtree” (Atlanta). Interesting!

Every weekday (and usually also on Sundays) I commute to work via the Amtrak Capitol Corridor train from Oakland to San José. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes each way. Adding time to get to or from the stations in Oakland and San José plus allowing extra time for potential traffic delays, my commute is about two hours each way…four hours per day (!). According to the short documentary Train Life, however, my Capitol Corridor commute is pretty normal. Train Life was made in 2004, and is composed of interviews of passengers on the Sacramento-Berkeley leg of the Capitol Corridor. Someone should remake it to focus on the Oakland-San José leg. If I were the filmmaker I’d also add interviews with the conductors, and ask folks about their use of technology while on the train [I’m a bit surprised that this did not come up in the interviews.] I’d be a lot less happy, for example, without my iPad, Internet access via free Wi Fi, and wireless headphones…

Super Bowl LI returned to using Roman numerals after a one-year hiatus. It marked the fourth year of the end of my 20-year tradition of taking notes about Super Bowl commercials. Today, however, I’m continuing another long practice: checking out the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. I was happy to see that two of the ads with strong sociological themes did extremely well, landing in the top five most popular commercials: Audi’s “Daughter” at #3, and Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” at #4. “Born the Hard Way” commented on current U.S. immigration debates, as did 84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins” (29th of 66 commercials rated.). “The Journey Begins” is generating lots of interest to see the completion of the journey started in the ad. Hopefully good discussions will ensue after folks watch the entire 84 Lumber commercial.

I recently discovered the Atlas Obscura, a website that helps us “discover curious places—in your neighborhood and around the world.” The listing for Hidden Oakland has 21 entries for “weird attractions and unusual things to do in Oakland, California.” I have only experienced three of these places, so I need to get out more!

 

The January/February 2017 issue of Pacific Standard magazine includes a sobering infographic about the current state of homelessness in the United States. The infographic is also online, and a thumbnail is below:

homeless