All posts filed under: Tech

Culture War Churn and the YouTube Rabbit-Hole

The New York Times recently profiled a man named Caleb Cain who had been radicalized by far-Right videos on YouTube. It’s easy to dramatize this familiar story with statements like, “I fell down the alt-right rabbit-hole” and “I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this…” and ultimately, “I was brainwashed.” But the brainwashing didn’t stick. Cain was eventually de-radicalized. The NYT, and most other commentators besides, painted Cain’s journey as a redemption story and a cautionary tale about the dangerous influence of YouTube algorithms. However, it’s worth lingering on the fact that Cain is not the only person who was radicalized and then de-radicalized in relatively quick succession. In reality, Cain’s story is simply one case study in the context of an overlooked phenomenon: churn in the culture wars. Churn is the business concept that some percentage of service subscribers will fall away after a certain period of time. In order for a business to grow its clientele, it must have a higher client acquisition rate than a client loss rate. This concept maps …

Age of Amnesia

We live, as the Indian essayist Saeed Akhter Mirza has put it, in “an age of amnesia.” Across the world, most notably in the West, we are discarding the knowledge and insights passed down over millennia and replacing it with politically correct bromides cooked up in the media and the academy. In some ways, this process recalls, albeit in digital form, the Middle Ages. Conscious shaping of thought—and the manipulation of the past to serve political purposes—is becoming commonplace and pervasive. Google’s manipulation of algorithms, recently discussed in American Affairs, favors both their commercial interests and also their ideological predilections. Similarly, we see the systematic “de-platforming” of conservative and other groups who offend the mores of tech oligarchs and their media fellow travellers. Major companies are now distancing themselves from “offensive” reminders of American history, such as the Nike’s recent decision to withdraw a sneaker line featuring the Betsy Ross flag. In authoritarian societies, the situation is already far worse. State efforts to control the past in China are enhanced by America’s tech firms, who are …

Fully Automated Luxury Communism—A Review

A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, Verso, 288 pages (June, 2019) In one of the opening chapters of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani cites a famous passage from the Communist Manifesto: The bourgeoisie […] has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian Pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. This quote conveys a sense of Karl Marx’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism. Disgusted as he most famously was by capitalism’s excesses, he was clearly also impressed by its immense productive potential. He reconciled these conflicting impulses by dreaming up a theory of history in which capitalism represented a necessary but transient stage in the story of human progress. Marx believed that capitalism was a powerful engine of economic development up to a point. But beyond that point, it would increasingly become a hindrance. Understood in this way, there is no contradiction between acknowledging—or even marvelling at—the …

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown. ~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit. Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the …

A Black Eye for the Columbia Journalism Review

Ideological polarization has become a growing problem in many sectors of society. But it is especially corrosive to public discourse when it infects organizations whose traditional role has been to hold everyone else to account for the integrity of their reporting. We need those organizations to act as a sort of referee when journalists of any description—including those at Quillette—fail to exhibit high standards. This becomes impossible when they instead act as combatants in the culture wars. Earlier this month, for example, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), which describes itself as “the national voice of Canadian journalists,” “committed to protecting the public’s right to know,” and “dedicated to promoting excellence in journalism,” signed on to the claim that Canada is perpetuating an ongoing “genocide” against Indigenous people, and encouraged journalists to take on an activist role by promoting “decolonizing approaches to their work [and] publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls & 2SLGBTQQIA people.” It hardly needs pointing out that this sort of explicit activist agenda—however well-intentioned—is completely incompatible with …

The Fallacy of Techno-Optimism

When the telegraph revolutionized communication in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau was scornful. “We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he wrote, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau, it turned out, was wrong, but his skepticism of an invention that would ultimately prove beneficial has been a common response to change, both in the past and the present. A fascinating collection of these responses exists on a podcast called Pessimists Archive, the episodes of which catalogue the unjustified fear that greeted innovations like the telephone (blamed at the time for degrading social life), the bicycle (blamed for various health maladies), and the novel (blamed for corrupting youth). The podcast presents these overreactions as cautionary tales for those who would question the fruits of Silicon Valley in the present, and its message has famous fans: Steven Pinker tweeted that the podcast is “invaluable in putting today’s tech moral panics in historical perspective.” Pessimists Archive is invaluable in putting today’s tech moral …

Against Big Tech Viewpoint Discrimination

This week, YouTube decided American conservative “shock jock” commentator Steven Crowder broke the rules of their Partner Program. Since YouTube is privately owned, shouldn’t principled free market advocates support the company’s right to purge videos Silicon Valley finds triggering, even if a disproportionate number are created by conservative commentators such as Crowder? Well, imagine electric companies stood up for progressive values by cutting off power to homes with pro-Trump yard signs. Even staunch supporters of free markets would likely object to these restrictions on expression by privately owned enterprises. When we examine why power companies shouldn’t be able to make service contingent on not violating political sensibilities, we see that analogous arguments should stop social media giants from exiling political dissidents. If Burger King won’t sell you a hamburger, so what—buy one from McDonald’s. Competition among businesses normally protects you from harm if one refuses you service. Some markets, however, are characterized by “bigger is better” where size bestows advantage. It’s much cheaper on average to hook up electric power lines to homes if the …

A Single Global Standard for Internet Content Regulation Is a Recipe for Censorship

This is a contribution to “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. “If governments are to retain a firm hold of authority and not be compelled to yield to agitators, it is imperative that freedom of judgment should be granted, so that men may live together in harmony, however diverse, or even openly contradictory their opinions may be. In a democracy…everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason.” So wrote Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in his Theological Political Treatise of 1670. At the time, most rulers and thinkers believed that a policy of free speech would lead to bloodshed, sedition and atheism. Spinoza, on the other hand, argued that freedom of conscience and speech were necessary preconditions for pluralism, tolerance and liberty. The Portuguese-born Jewish philosopher wasn’t blind to the potential harms of free speech, but thought that they were outweighed by the benefits. “I confess that from such freedom [of speech], inconveniences may sometimes arise,” he wrote. …

The Moral Panic Behind Internet Regulation

This is a contribution to “Who Controls the Platform?”—a multi-part Quillette series. Submissions related to this series may be directed to pitch@quillette.com. In the present era of growing polarization, one thing that people from across the political spectrum now agree on is their dislike of Big Tech. The political Left complains that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon have become “monopolies.” They also blame global technology platforms for Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and white nationalism. It is much easier, after all, to blame online manipulation for the downfall of the center-left than acknowledge the disconnect between the intelligentsia and the working-class voters that the Left once represented. Meanwhile, critics on the Right blame Big Tech for a comparable shopping list of evils, including being biased against conservatives, giving a platform to terrorists, enabling pedophiles to groom children and distribute indecent images, and boosting populist figures on the Left and Right who threaten the center-right’s own electoral base. This is mixed, particularly in the U.K., with a traditional conservative refrain of “Please, won’t someone think of the …

Sexualization in Gaming: Advocacy and Over-Correction

Even before its April 2019 release, the eleventh installment of the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat was generating waves for its presentation of female characters. But the grumblings are not what one might expect. After years of being criticized for sexualizing female characters, Mortal Kombat is now under fire from fans—including women—for not allowing the female characters to be sexy enough. Did Mortal Kombat’s developer overshoot the mark? Or are we beginning to see a reassessment of concerns that sexualized games are responsible for sexist attitudes toward women—an argument that increasingly became a mantra of progressive games criticism? Historically, games have catered to male audiences, even as increasing numbers of women and girls have joined the ranks of gamers. Given the rapidly changing gamer demographic, it was perhaps inevitable that games would eventually come in for criticism for under-representing playable female characters, and for presenting them as hyper-sexualized images when they were available. Much of this criticism was deserved, particularly the lack of alternative options featuring strong, less-sexualized playable characters. Indeed, I am on record …