The Ascent of Man

Jacob Bronowski’s magnum opus is an affectionate and literary hat-tip to our species. In the forward of the book, he shares the story by which the BBC contacted him to create a television companion piece to parrot concepts lovingly expressed in the book. Through this story, Bronowski offers a comparative lens through which ideas are deployed through television:

“Television is an admirable medium for exposition in several ways: powerful and immediate to the eye, able to take the spectator boldly into the places and processes that are described, and conversational enough to make him conscious that what he witnesses are not events but the actions of people.

“It is addressed to two or three people in a room, as a conversation face to face—a one-sided conversation for the most part, as the book is, but homely and Socratic nonetheless. The printed book has one added freedom beyond this: it is not remorselessly bound to the forward direction of time, as any spoken discourse is.”

Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

Technopoly

I woke up early this morning. Apparently, one of the doldrums of age is losing the ability to sleep in on the weekends. It’s a bit of a bummer, but not entirely worthless. So I decided to finish reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. It’s an excellent book piecing through and connecting the larger abstracts of modern day culture. Technopoly is an idea book with an entirely different form of narrative, ending on the following notes:

“Those who resist the American Technopoly are people:

– who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

– who have freed themselves from the belief of the magical power of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

– who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding.”

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Technopoly is written by Postman as a bit of a rallying cry. His primary concern is a peripheral cultural subversion by way of the inescapable drive towards technology. Even the technology of numbers. We often use statistical analysis to determine the direction towards success without often considering the myriad factors that co-opt that success. Numbers are the beginning of wisdom, not its end.

To illustrate this, Postman offers various examples, the most poignant of which involves politics. So enamored are politicians with polling that they often allow those numbers to drive decision-making (for a cogent example, refer to the 2016 United States election). If that is, in fact, the case why do we need politicians? We are electing them to lead society, yet the decision-making process has devolved into simple numbers assessments. Policy by polling. Where in this equation is the leadership? Where is the vision?

On Reading

“I had accidentally discovered one of the great disadvantages of books (a medium that is not exactly short on disadvantages at the moment). There is no team of brilliant and vaguely sinister engineers, cooking up ways to get you binge reading. There is no auto-play technology frictionlessly delivering you from one chapter of the novel you’re reading to the next.

There is only you, alone in the silence of your room with a chapter break before you and your phone cooing at you from the dresser.” 

Ben Dolnick, Author and Opinion Columnist, New York Times

“All Empires Vanish”

Wired’s Virginia Heffernan writes an excellent, concise brief on Sheryl Sandberg, the embattled Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of Lean In. Heffernan stages the piece in a interesting way1, focussing not on a #meToo angle or tangentially the feminist perspective though Sandberg’s brand effuses both. 

Instead, Heffernan posits Sandberg’s failure is one of vanity and hubris, not femininity. No single human can do what Sandberg is trying to do: capitalize on self-publishing within the framework of moral obligation.

Facebook has democratized publishing for the world. While there are a litany of technical challenges to this, two ideological problems stand out:

  1. The world is untrained in the importance of self-editing. Newspapers, though gasping and choking now, quickly learned the symbiotic importance between writing and editing.
  2. Capitalism is not good for democracy. Bad actors exploit self-publishing for financial and political gain. There are numerous financial incentives in doing so.

Facebook didn’t know what it was getting into. If it did, its leadership is sadly incompetent2. If it didn’t, its leadership is naive of the war-ravaged political and historical context of publishing. Facebook is not a service, as its marketing collateral unequivocally states. It is a publishing platform.

Act accordingly.


  1. Heffernan benefits from contributing articles to Politico, so she is keenly aware of the political lens through which stories can be viewed.
  2. It’s fashionable in the current media landscape to attack Facebook. It’s also fair to say that Facebook’s accomplishments are amazing from a technical standpoint. But there is historical context for the dangers posed by publishing. Adding the layer of publishing for an untrained everyone increases the complexity and severity of those dangers.

Driven

Alphabet’s Waymo division is testing driverless taxis within a limited operating area of Arizona. Apart from the overt business advantages of this technology, I’m still trying to understand how driverless vehicles make life better. I’m certain there are incredibly bright people working on this technology, but I often think that technology should fundamentally support that singular goal: improve life.

Major challenges remain, starting with technical hurdles. A Waymo One taxi tested by Reuters last week proved slow and jerky at times.

Alexandria Sage for Reuters

Slow and jerky is just a bug — a smaller experiential piece that can be addressed over time. The more alarming bit of Sage’s piece:

“Waymo is now accelerating … because if they wait two or three years longer they will get overtaken,” Froehlich said on the sidelines of last week’s Los Angeles auto show. “So they have to move early, even though that’s quite a risky thing for them.”

Klaus Froehlich, BMW’s global head of development

The race to be first to market when you have not only your business to consider but the lives of customers in your hands is disturbing. We’re living in a period of history wherein technology doesn’t necessarily work as prescribed. If you want to find at a plausible culprit for technological failure, I’d start with the rush to market.