Hello again. America may be restarting, but this newsletter has never stopped. And it’ll keep coming, because I’m still not leaving the house.
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The Plain View
They say that every story ever told—in books, movies, TV shows, and tales over the campfire—draws on one of six basic plots. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Vermont even documented this, analyzing 1,700 novels and unearthing but six plotlines, or “archetypes.”
Six is actually a lot. I’ve been writing stories about the tech world for what seems like eons, and at one time, I would have told you there were many different kinds of stories. But now, as I examine my literary quiver, I am startled to find not a half-dozen projectiles but rather one single arrow that I use over and over again.
Yep, there’s pretty much only one story in tech. And this is it:
Idealistic founder(s) has crazy idea suddenly made possible by tech advances → things turn out weird/wrong/disastrous
My impetus for this reflection was an exchange on Twitter this week that has entranced not only the Twittersphere but also the popular imagination. It began with Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose, who seldom shares thoughts with his 1.2 million followers, venturing out of his quarantine with a tweet. (It may be coincidental, but Rose had actually slipped into the news the previous day when a bare-faced Donald Trump toured a mask factory as the Guns N’ Roses version of “Live and Let Die” blared over the loudspeakers.) Apparently inspired by a television appearance in which treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin urged Americans to explore the country in this pandemic, Rose wrote, “It’s official! Whatever anyone may have previously thought of Steve Mnuchin he’s officially an [a**hole].”
One might have thought it would end there. Lots of people tweet unkindly. And lord knows politicians routinely get nailed on the platform, especially if they pose with their spouses like second-rate Bond villains. But for some reason Mnuchin decided to respond: “What have you done for the country lately?”
In a classic doofus misstep, Mnuchin punctuated his tweet with a flag emoji apparently intended to display his patriotism. But he chose the flag of Liberia, which, in fairness, is similar to Betsy Ross’ original work. He quickly deleted and reposted, but by then his original had been seen and preserved as a springboard for mockery. Done in by Jack Dorsey’s refusal to allow us to edit tweets!
Thousands of people commented on the exchange thereafter, including many affirming that Rose’s feisty oeuvre was indeed a boon to America. Rose’s response to Mnuchin was to mention the 70,000-and-counting Covid-19 deaths that have occurred under the current administration.
The spectacle was greatly entertaining. But was it edifying? Of course not. The tweets were just an unusually bizarre display in our ongoing bitter pageant of divisiveness.
Some years ago, Peter Thiel famously griped, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” For years my reaction to that was to say 140 characters (now 280) on Twitter was way better than some vehicle inspired by a cartoon. Much more valuable than a quicker commute, Twitter embodies the internet’s ability to allow almost anyone in the world to instantly broadcast a thought to millions of people. That is historically mind-blowing.
But we all know now that this superpower has also proved corrosive to public discourse. Plus, it’s an easy way for horrible people to target women with vulgar attacks. And I won’t even get into the stink bombs launched by our president. “Liberate Michigan”? Really?
That’s where the single-story theory kicks in. Jack Dorsey had no idea what he was getting us into when he thought of a way for people to use SMS to report what they were having for lunch. (For the record, he confirms that he never imagined he would be triggering Guns N’ Mnuchin-gate.) And so it goes for almost every single big tech company you can think of—they began with great ideas, many of which still deliver real value to people, but left their now-billionaire founders trying to fix all the unintended consequences. Airbnb guts real estate markets. Amazon has closed countless local outlets. And so on. I recently used that one well-worn arrow in my quiver to publish more than 500 pages about how some of Mark Zuckerberg’s lofty ambitions didn’t work out so smoothly.
I get it—we all got smiles from the spat between the singer and the secretary. I got a huge kick out of it myself. And, hey, free speech is messy. But at a certain point the ugliness gets overwhelming. Or at least seeing it get amplified so much does.
Recently, I read that Charlie Brooker, the creator of the Black Mirror series, is holding off on a sixth season. The plot of every Black Mirror episode, of course, is that same one about How Innovation Goes Wrong that I and my colleagues keep telling again and again. Brooker told Radio Times that he didn’t think people could stomach the story any more, and he’s shifting to lighter fare.
Here’s to happy endings.
In a WIRED feature in October 2009, I tried to decode the decisions that made Twitter what it is:
[One] key decision was crucial: creating asymmetry between writers and followers. They didn’t need to be “friends” or in any way on equal footing. Anyone could read a writer’s updates, and that was powerfully liberating. “One thing I didn’t like about social networks was that awkwardness of friend requests,” [Cofounder Evan] Williams says. He wanted Twitter to be more like blogging, where readers pay attention to whatever they like. “That frees up creators, because they can do anything they want,” he says.
The implications were profound—and unexpected. No one thought people would want to follow strangers, or that celebrities would use Twitter to apprise fans of their activities, or that businesses would use Twitter to announce discounts or launch new products. Allowing unrestricted following eventually meant that P. Diddy could share the progress of a tantric sex session with a hundred thousand followers, and the Kennedy family could use Twitter to keep the public informed about developments in Uncle Teddy’s funeral. It obliterated the line between confidant and audience.
Ask Me One Thing
Geoff of Belmont, Massachusetts, wants to know why what he calls the “digitization of life” had to come to pass. He asks, “Was it inevitable in the sense that evolution demanded we start to de-corporalize? Weren’t there commercial and governmental organizations who shaped it in the ways we see today? What were their motivations? Let’s keep asking why our lives are being buffeted this way until we get to the bottom of things.”
Geoff, I take it from your context that the “digitalization of life,” as you put it, has been somehow hatched by a multipronged conspiracy to force it on the public. I can understand why you might think that, in particular because of the huge financial incentives to get us to literally buy into this vision. But I actually do think it’s somewhat evolutionary—not in our genes but in the way that our scientific and technical advances bootstrapped themselves until it was inevitable that our lives would be changed by the digital revolution. It’s very similar to the way that mechanical advances kicked off the industrial revolution a few hundred years ago. As I note in this week’s Plainview essay, it’s certainly fair to describe our lives as “buffeted” by the unwelcome consequences of chips, big data, and the internet. But we have adopted all this gear willingly, and are loathe to give up our phones, our Amazon deliveries, and those stupid dances on TikTok. If there’s a conspiracy, we’re all in on it.
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
The eels living in the aquarium of a Japanese office building are accustomed to humans, so they don’t hide when people stare at the tank. But now that the building is empty, officials are worried that the eels will forget what humans are like. So they set up tablets near the tanks where people can log in and show their faces to the eels. These visitors are encouraged to talk to the creatures.
Last but Not Least
Two years after Mark Zuckerberg decided to establish a Supreme Court-style oversight board for Facebook’s content moderation, the board finally has members. Now we see if it can make a difference. I’m still predicting that it could knock down Zuckerberg’s misguided political ad policy, especially since a couple of members seem ready to take on the controversy.
For 60 years, aerospace engineers have been brainstorming rocket engines that propel themselves, and their day may have finally arrived. (Though compared to the nuke-powered rocket imagined by Freeman Dyson in the ’50s, the “rotating detonation engine” described here is relatively tame.)
An examination into the invention of the wheel. Made more difficult because of the shambles of prehistoric patent law.
This remarkable profile of a heroic surgeon is the latest installment in what is shaping to be an unforgettable series of reports from a Michigan hospital during the pandemic.
That’s this week’s view. Now to retrieve that arrow…
Stay safe, Steven
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