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.
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.
“ [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.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that inexorable population growth would eventually surpass our planet’s ability to sustain humanity, leading to widespread famine, disease, and privation. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong now, though there is no shortage of latter-day Malthus acolytes. Yesterday the New York Times wondered, “Might Thomas Malthus be vindicated in the end?” as it covered a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…
[T]he Gray Lady gives the Reverend Malthus entirely too much credit—and humanity too little—when she says that “Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit.” But this limit is not fixed; it’s elastic. And recent data suggest that this carrying capacity is not strictly a function of natural confines, but rather is dependent on humanity’s ability to innovate.
Malthusianism is one of the most persistent delusions out there. It fails to grasp that people don’t just add cost—they add creativity and ingenuity. Population Bomb adherents think of people as bacteria on a petri dish that only eat their food supply, reproduce, and die. But people don’t just consume; they create. That creativity can never be predicted or measured in advance, which is why many projections into the future look like Malthusian doom scenarios. But thanks to adaptability and creativity, the human race always finds another way to thrive.
We aren’t prepared to say that human creativity is infinite, but there aren’t many signs that we’ve yet glimpsed its limit…. Malthusianism is what you get when intellectuals lose touch with humanism, and forget just how creative and remarkable human beings are.
A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value. In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so. The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens. The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned that this could happen. “The natural progress of things,” Jefferson wrote, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” He knew that no government could possibly run citizens’ lives for the better. The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means.
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
Rather than try to understand my vision for a free society or accurately report the facts about Koch Industries, our critics would have you believe we’re “un-American” and trying to “rig the system,” that we’re against “environmental protection” or eager to “end workplace safety standards.” These falsehoods remind me of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
… Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished….
Instead of fostering a system that enables people to help themselves, America is now saddled with a system that destroys value, raises costs, hinders innovation and relegates millions of citizens to a life of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. This is what happens when elected officials believe that people’s lives are better run by politicians and regulators than by the people themselves. Those in power fail to see that more government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American. Love of liberty is the American ideal.
Fire Dragon festival in Macau. (by Chi Hung Cheung, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards; via In Focus)
The showstopper is a Viking warship whose surviving timbers are on display for the first time. One hundred twenty-one feet from prow to stern, the boat was capable of carrying 100 troops at speed. It was discovered by chance in 1996, about a lance throw from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. “Warships of this kind are comparatively rare finds, and this is the largest known,” says Neil Price, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It serves as a symbol of the Viking raids, and also an indicator of the sophistication of the societies that launched them.”
Lithe, narrow longships, praised in sagas, allowed the Vikings to enter countries through rivers, and it’s this access that enabled them to make lightning attacks on unsuspecting coastal hamlets and plunder parts of three continents. With sailing ships and their capability to beat to windward, the whole world was brought within reach. No wonder British Museum director Neil MacGregor has said the exhibition’s centerpiece is an “11th-century weapon of mass destruction.”…
Vikings were a Germanic bunch made up of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Gauls who, during the late eighth century, swept south across the Baltic Sea in search of land, slaves, gold and silver. They were pagans in a Christian Europe, replete with gruesome rituals. In their world, power and influence were tribal, and rule was sustained though clan, trade and military might.
In the Old Norse language, Viking may have meant “men of the bays”— sheltered coves were where they lay in ambush of merchant ships. Price likens them to 17th- and 18-century pirates—an idea that could radically change how we see the beginnings of the great raids, and how they reflect what was happening in Scandinavia at the time.
He argues the first brigands were communities in their own right. In time, the small parties of a few men and a couple of ships expanded into massive fleets of several hundred vessels and thousands of Vikings. “We do not really understand how this escalation took place,” says Price, “nor where these men actually came from in organizational or social terms.” In those days before nation states, Vikings lived in small regional clusters under petty kings and chieftains. “There is no sense that these were ‘national’ armies, so what were they?” Price asks. “And how did they operate for decades at a time in hostile territory?”
While Attkisson is just one reporter and CBS has long since ceased being a dominant force in the national media, this may be a crucial moment in the history of American journalism. It was assumed that any major news outlet would regard aggressive coverage of all administrations as a given. But that ceased to be the case when Barack Obama entered the White House. If Attkisson is being shown the door at CBS it is not because her work is not highly regarded but because she has violated the prime directive of liberal media insiders: thou shalt not report on Obama in the same way that you reported on George W. Bush or even Bill Clinton. The liberal bias that conservatives have long complained about is out of the closet.
While most journalists have been reliably liberal in their politics for decades, the culture of the profession has always valued an “agin’ the government” mentality in which all politicians are viewed with cynicism. So long as even liberal journalists regard it as their duty to ferret out stories about corruption, mismanagement and failure within the government, we can feel safe that no administration, even one that is favored by the left, will escape the scrutiny necessary to provide accountability.
But there is little doubt that this has begun to change since Obama came to office. After the media hammered both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush throughout their presidencies, Obama has had it relatively easy. Part of it is due to the special hold that this historic president has over liberals. The growing bifurcation of American society in which the country has been divided between those who read the New York Times, listen to NPR and watch mainstream networks and MSNBC and those who read the Wall Street Journal, listen to talk radio and watch Fox News, has also affected journalists who should know better. The culture at CBS and like-minded outlets is to see any aggressive reporting about the president and his policies as evidence of wrong thinking rather than part of their obligation to ask uncomfortable questions and speak truth to power.
There was some hope last year that the spying on the AP and James Rosen would, especially when combined with other scandals involving the IRS and Benghazi, motivate the liberal media to start doing its job with regard to this administration. But the ouster of Attkisson combined with the relative lack of interest on the part of most of the press to follow up on those scandals while treating those involving Republicans — like Chris Christie’s Bridgegate — as the second coming of Watergate, means that partisanship has prevailed over integrity in much of the mainstream media.
Two years ago I argued that, despite the end of the Cold War, the United States should still see Russia as a hostile great power. I cited the 2008 invasion of Georgia, said that we should “look for the sequel in Ukraine,” and argued that Putin would be happy to let a foreign crisis spiral dangerously to win nationalist plaudits at home. For a similar argument, I was criticized in the pages of Foreign Affairs for my “alarmist, worst-case scenarios.”
How is it that some got this so wrong? Many foreign policy analysts (like everyone) are the victim of self-imposed intellectual blinders. We use intellectual concepts to help us organize ideas and fit them into simple categories out of necessity. There are too many data in the world for us to absorb or make sense of, so we invent schemes to help us sift information quickly. The problem is that these inventions distort and simplify as much as they clarify and reveal. Sometimes, they are simply wrong.
The intellectual schemes that foreign policy analysts donned after the Cold War are wrong. The world is not safer. States are not declining. Great power war is not unthinkable. History has not ended. Europe is not a solved problem. Russia is not a democracy. Trade ties do not guarantee peace. Liberal internationalism — the belief that all states enjoy a harmony of interests and can join together in collective security mediated through intergovernmental organizations — is naive, simplistic, utopian, dangerous, and wrong.
That doesn’t mean strict realism is the appropriate response.
A Politico report calls it “a crisis that no one anticipated.” The Daily Beast, reporting on Friday’s US intelligence assessment that “Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine,” quotes a Senate aide claiming that “no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”
Op-eds from all over the legacy press this week helped explained why. Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and “5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea” weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.
Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.
How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.
We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media…. Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As far as we can tell, the default assumption guiding our political leadership these days is that the people on the other side of the bargaining table (unless they are mindless Tea Party Republicans) are fundamentally reasonable people who see the world as we do, and are motivated by the same things that motivate us. Many people are, of course, guided by an outlook not all that dissimilar from the standard upper middle class gentry American set of progressive ideas. But some aren’t, and when worlds collide, trouble comes.
“This is pretty unprecedented,” Thornberry tells National Defense in a recent interview. “There are Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, plus [officials] in the Obama administration and in industry who have all agreed to work together on this.”
All parties have committed to help flick through giant stacks of procurement regulations and laws, and identify the points of failure. The task is daunting, at best, Thornberry says. “It doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree on every proposal. But having everybody on the same page in this day and age is significant.”
The goal is to identify the most pressing issues that need reform and include them in next year’s defense authorization bill. Congress is going to have to fight the urge to write massive pieces of legislation that keep piling up over existing laws and don’t really fix the root causes of military procurement failures, says Thornberry.
“We are determined to not just pass a new law, or create another oversight office or new regulations,” he says. “We are going to take time to understand what the problems are and why previous efforts have not been successful.”
Informal surveys have confirmed what Thornberry and other lawmakers already suspected: Reforms will never work unless procurement managers in the mid-level bureaucracy are incentivized to make smart decisions and are also held accountable for those decisions. Thornberry would support giving program managers more flexibility to make decisions, but he would also expect them to be held accountable when they make bad ones.
It seems as if everywhere you turn these days there are studies claiming to show that America has lost its upward mobility for people born in the lower socioeconomic levels. But there is a sharp difference between upward mobility, defined as an opportunity to rise, and actually having risen.
That distinction is seldom even mentioned in most of the studies. It is as if everybody is chomping at the bit to get ahead and the ones who don’t rise have been stopped by “barriers” created by “society.”
When statistics show that sons of high-school dropouts don’t become doctors or scientists nearly as often as do the sons of Ph.D.s, that is taken as a sign that American society is not “fair.”
If equal probabilities of achieving some goal is your definition of fairness, then we should all get together — people of every race, color, creed, national origin, political ideology, and sexual preference — and stipulate that life has never been fair, anywhere or at any time in all the millennia of recorded history.
Then we can begin at last to talk sense.
I know that I never had an equal chance to become a great ballet dancer like Rudolf Nureyev. The thought of becoming a ballet dancer never once crossed my mind in all the years when I was growing up in Harlem. I suspect that the same thought never crossed the minds of most of the guys growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Does that mean that there were unfair barriers keeping us from following in the footsteps of Nureyev?
… All groups, families, and cultures are not even trying to do the same things, so the fact that they do not all end up equally represented everywhere can hardly be automatically attributed to “barriers” created by “society.”
Barriers are external obstacles, as distinguished from internal values and aspirations — unless you are going to play the kind of word games that redefine achievements as “privileges” and treat an absence of evidence of discrimination as only proof of how diabolically clever and covert the discrimination is…. Those who preach this counterproductive message will probably never think that the envy, resentment, and hopelessness they preach, and the welfare state they promote, are among the factors keeping people down.