In 1969, Playboy published a long, freewheeling interview with Marshall McLuhan in which the media theorist and sixties icon sketched a portrait of the future that was at once seductive and repellent. Noting the ability of digital computers to analyze data and communicate messages, he predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings. “The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness,” he said. “Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.” He acknowledged that such centralized control raised the specter of “brainwashing, or far worse,” but he stressed that “the programming of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically.”
The interview appeared when computers were used mainly for arcane scientific and industrial number-crunching. To most readers at the time, McLuhan’s words must have sounded far-fetched, if not nutty. Now they seem prophetic. With smartphones ubiquitous, Facebook inescapable, and wearable computers like Google Glass emerging, society is gaining a digital sensing system. People’s location and behavior are being tracked as they go through their days, and the resulting information is being transmitted instantaneously to vast server farms. Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that “big data,” many sociologists and statisticians believe, we’ll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick….
Deciphering people’s behavior is only the first step. What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people’s behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways. If people react predictably to social influences, then governments and businesses can use computers to develop and deliver carefully tailored incentives, such as messages of praise or small cash payments, to “tune” the flows of influence in a group and thereby modify the habits of its members. Beyond improving the efficiency of transit and health-care systems, Pentland suggests, group-based incentive programs can make communities more harmonious and creative. “Our main insight,” he reports, “is that by targeting [an] individual’s peers, peer pressure can amplify the desired effect of a reward on the target individual.” Computers become, as McLuhan envisioned, civic thermostats. They not only register society’s state but bring it into line with some prescribed ideal. Both the tracking and the maintenance of the social order are automated….
Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan’s day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice…. Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around…. What big data can’t account for is what’s most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.
The U.S. Intelligence Community has “reached a consensus” on a recommendation to lift a restriction that forbids U.S. commercial satellite imagery manufacturers from releasing imagery with resolution of less than 0.5 meters.
The proposal “bodes well for industry,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience at the 10th annual Geoint conference here. Clapper says the intelligence community has forwarded the recommendations to an interagency group for review.
DigitalGlobe, the only U.S. commercial satellite imagery provider, is launching its WorldView–3 spacecraft in August that will be capable of 31-cm. resolution products. Ball Aerospace manufactured the satellite.
Satellites capable of collecting images at higher resolution must now be degraded for commercial release. DigitalGlobe last year appealed to the Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the issue, for relief. The company claims the restriction is inhibiting its business by allowing foreign companies such as Astrium to release imagery of equal or higher quality. DigitalGlobe’s request is to release imagery as low as 25 cm in resolution, and the intelligence community endorses that request, according to Letitia Long, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency director.
Thanks to the world’s largest retailer, another large block of space in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, will go on the market at a time when there is generally too much supply. The problem is especially pronounced in the city’s premium office market. Hangzhou’s Grade A office buildings at the end of 2013 had, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, an average occupancy rate of 30%.
The real weakness, however, is Hangzhou’s residential sector. The cause is simple: massive overbuilding. Sara Hsu of the State University of New York at New Paltz writes that Hangzhou faces burgeoning swaths of empty apartment units.
Hangzhou’s market has not yet collapsed. There are still secondary sales, for instance. [Yet] the city has become the symbol of a market in distress. China Central Television on the first of this month devoted a segment to the problems of the unstoppable price decrease” in Hangzhou property in its Economic 30 Minutes show, and discounts in that city, the Wall Street Journal notes, could be a signal of broader market weakness ahead.
The real estate market in Hangzhou looks like it has just passed an inflection point. It is not so much that fundamentals have deteriorated—they have been weak for some time—as that people’s mentality has changed… .
China is at the point where problems are feeding on themselves. Pessimism about property, which accounts for about 15% of China’s gross domestic product, is beginning to affect the broader economy. Declining property values look scary, despite cheery statements from government officials who assure us the property bubble is not big” or analysts who say that the problems are not systemic. ”But the Chinese don’t look like they are buying either of those views. If this continues, it will have immense impact on the whole Chinese economy,” says an unidentified Hangzhou real estate salesman on Economic 30 Minutes. Without question, everyone thinks there is a bubble. ”
The People’s Republic in the reform era” has not suffered a nationwide property crash. Analysts say the problems in Hangzhou are regional,” but now fundamentals and market sentiment either are or will be pushing markets down across the People’s Republic… . . Premier Li Keqiang has a few tools at his disposal, but they look insufficient to stop a general collapse of property prices across the country. The problems, deferred from late 2008 with massive state spending, have simply become too large. And we must remember that he works inside a complex, collective political system that is generally unable to meet challenges swiftly.
Among the many striking displays at the recent Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition was this marvel — an amphibious warfare ship adapted for Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), with three times the radar size and missile capacity of current BMD vessels, as well an electromagnetic rail gun that can launch shells to the edge of space….
Forward of the superstructure, you see what looks like a standard five inch gun, the kind one finds on the Ticos and Burkes. But an engineer responsible for this design explains that’s not what it represents. In fact, it’s an electromagnetic rail gun.
At least two other companies at the Expo exhibited their work on rail guns. The contractors speak of equipping surface combatants with 30+ mega joule (MJ) systems sometime in the 2020s. Elevated for maximum range, those barrels can throw shells a hundred miles away. Elevated higher, they can shoot projectiles to the edge of the atmosphere and possibly beyond.
That capability has caught the attention of missile defense thinkers because the shells might be able to intercept incoming warheads from ballistic missiles. With muzzle velocities of Mach 7, shells accelerated by 30MJ weapons would retain enough speed to engage re-entry vehicles as they fall back into the atmosphere, and possibly enough to chase maneuvering re-entry vehicles (MaRVs) trying to dodge them.
They’re also relatively cheap. Part of the difficulty of missile defense is economic. BMD interceptors like SM-3 often cost several times more than the missiles against which they defend. Using rail guns for BMD could flip that ratio, allowing multiple rounds to be economically expended on a single target. Even if a MaRV has greater kinetic energy than each round – which would confer a maneuvering advantage – it would face difficulty avoiding multiple interceptors while maintaining a course that ends at its target. This is particularly true if when the rounds approach they explode into clouds of hypersonic shards, which is what Boeing has in mind….
Unfortunately, there’s not enough money in the budget right now even for a handful. Too bad. It’s a fascinating concept, but in today’s fiscal environment, that’s probably all it’ll ever be … that, and the world’s coolest key chain.
Now that vision of Europe is imperiled once more. “I see Ukraine and Crimea in a bigger context,” Mr. Rasmussen says. “I see this as an element in a pattern, and it’s driven by President Putin’s strong desire to restore Russian greatness by re-establishing a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.”
Destabilizing Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus is a pillar of the Kremlin’s strategy. “It’s in Russia’s interest to see frozen, protracted conflicts in the region, such as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Crimea,” Mr. Rasmussen says of regions where Moscow has asserted control. “If you look at a map, you will see why it’s of strategic importance for Russia.”…
The Kremlin needs modern weapons systems and well-trained forces to realize its vision, and Mr. Rasmussen is alarmed by the improvements he has seen in the Russian military during the past few years. Contrasting Russia’s military action against Georgia in 2008 with its invasion of Crimea this year, he says, “we have seen an incredible development of the Russian ability to act determinedly and rapidly. We have seen better preparation, better organization and more rapid action. They have also invested in more modern capabilities. We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of the Russian armed forces.” Now 40,000 of those troops are massed on the border of eastern Ukraine.
Moscow boosted military spending by 79% in the past decade, according to a Brookings Institution estimate, and military spending amounted to 4.5% of Russian gross domestic product in 2012, according to the World Bank. Most Western European states, by contrast, began cutting defense long before the recession and have kept doing so even as their economies have stabilized. France spent 1.9% of its GDP on defense in 2013; Denmark spent 1.4%; Germany, 1.3%; and Spain, 0.9%.
"We in Europe have disarmed too much, for too long," Mr. Rasmussen says. "We can’t continue to cut defense budgets deeply while Russia is increasing her defense budget… . It has created a growing gap across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe. Today the U.S. spends around 75% of the overall NATO defense investment. I’m concerned that in the long run it will weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance if this trend continues."
Then there is Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas.
Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.
Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”
No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s C.E.O., Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements Mozilla and Brandeis released…..
What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.
The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.
This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y. L. Korn.
Ever since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008 a common assumption has been that the crisis happened because the state surrendered control of finance to the market. The answer, it follows, must be more rules. The latest target is American housing, the source of the dodgy loans that brought down Lehman. Plans are afoot to set up a permanent public backstop to mortgage markets, with the government insuring 90% of losses in a crisis. Which might be comforting, except for two things. First, it is hard to see how entrenching state support will prevent excessive risk-taking. And, second, whatever was wrong with the American housing market, it was not lack of government: far from a free market, it was one of the most regulated industries in the world, funded by taxpayer subsidies and with lending decisions taken by the state.
Back in 1856 one of this newspaper’s editors, Walter Bagehot, blamed crashes on what he called “blind capital”—periods when credulous cash, ignoring risk, flooded into unwise investments. Given not only the inevitability of such moments of panic but also finance’s systemic role in the economy, a government had to devise some special rules to make finance safer. Bagehot invented one: the need for central banks to rescue banks during crises. But Bagehot’s rule had a sting in the tail: the bail-out charges should be punitive. That toughness rested on the view that governments should as far as they could treat financiers like any other industry, forcing bankers and investors to take as much of the risk as possible themselves. The more the state protected the system, the more likely it was that people in it would take risks with impunity….
In many cases the rationale for the rules and the rescues has been to protect ordinary investors from the evils of finance. Yet the overall effect is to add ever more layers of state padding and distort risk-taking.
This fits an historical pattern. As our essay this week shows, regulation has responded to each crisis by protecting ever more of finance. Five disasters, from 1792 to 1929, explain the origins of the modern financial system. This includes hugely successful innovations, from joint-stock banks to the Federal Reserve and the New York Stock Exchange. But it has also meant a corrosive trend: a gradual increase in state involvement.
Circa 1911, from the panoramic series “Washington from Washington Monument.” Landmarks include the State, War & Navy Building at left; the White House and Ellipse; and U.S. Treasury. (8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company; via Shorpy)
Blood of Angels — Brown Bird
you could be right
they might come for me at night
in angry mobs with torches bright outside my door
for all my spite
I might never win the fight
but I will rage against the light forever more
I am so sad to learn that Dave Lamb of Brown Bird died of leukemia last Saturday. Salt for Salt is a wonderful album, one that rewards repeated listening, and I’d hoped to hear new songs from them for a long time to come. All my sympathy to his friends and family. (via HearYa)
“ [O]f course Mozilla has the right to purge a CEO because of his incorrect political views. Of course Eich was not stripped of his First Amendment rights. I’d fight till my last breath for Mozilla to retain that right. What I’m concerned with is the substantive reason for purging him. When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society. ”
Andrew Sullivan, who I rarely agree with these days, but definitely do on this point.