The Original Sin

These are the opening and closing paragraphs of a review in The New York Review of Books (the review is “Uncanny Planet” by Mark O’Connor; the book is Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich):

In the opening lines of the Bible, having brought forth the world and everything in it, God makes his inaugural address to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful, and multiply,” he tells them, “and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” God’s first, foundational decree explicitly casts the relationship between humanity and nature as one of separation and control. The whole sorry business with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the banishment doesn’t come about for another two chapters, but if you were in the mood for a little heretical revisionism you might argue, just for fun, that the true original sin can be located not in man’s first disobedience, but in God’s first command.

The attitude toward nature that He defines and sanctifies with those words is, after all, precisely the attitude that led human beings to exploit nature so ruthlessly, and for so long, that the planet is now in danger of becoming unlivable for vast numbers of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Our adherence to this view of the world and our place within it, in other words, has amounted to its own kind of Fall. . . .

[The first line of Stewart Brand’s original Whole Earth Catalog — “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it” —] recalls Francis Bacon’s characterization of his scientific work, and by implication that of the scientific method itself, as rescuing humanity from its fallen state. Bacon saw science and technology as the means by which we could reclaim our former oneness with the divine. The “true ends of knowledge,” he wrote, were in

a restitution and reinvesting (in great part) of man to the sovereignty and power (for whensoever he shall be able to call creatures by their true names he shall again command them) which he had in his first state of creation.

The path of knowledge that led us out of Eden will, if we follow it long enough, eventually lead us back. . . . 

Though Rich’s book is hardly what you’d call a polemic, the stories in it gather toward an argument, which could be seen as a less nakedly utopian version of Bacon’s aims. There are over 7.5 billion of us on a rapidly warming planet; the seas are rising, the forests are burning, and every year hundreds of species go the way of the passenger pigeon. There is no reversing the Fall. There is no going back to whatever might be meant by “nature.” We must become “as gods,” not in order to return to a state of prelapsarian wholeness, but to move forward to some kind of livable future.

The Data Priests

On June 15, Matthew Crawford of The New Atlantis testified at a hearing on smart home technology held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights. This is from his opening statement:

I have no expertise in antitrust. I come to you as a student of the history of political thought.

The convenience of the smart home may be worth the price; that’s for each of us to decide. But to do so with open eyes, one has to understand what the price is. After all, you don’t pay a monthly fee for Alexa, or Google Assistant.

The Sleep Number bed is typical of smart home devices, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It comes with an app, of course, which you’ll need to install to get the full benefits. Benefits for whom? Well, to know that you would need to spend some time with the sixteen-page privacy policy that comes with the bed. There you’ll read about third-party sharing, analytics partners, targeted advertising, and much else.

Meanwhile, the user agreement specifies that the company can share or exploit your personal information even “after you deactivate or cancel” your Sleep Number account. You are unilaterally informed that the firm does not honor “Do Not Track” notifications. By the way, its privacy policy once stated that the bed would also transmit “audio in your room.” (I am not making this up.)

The business rationale for the smart home is to bring the intimate patterns of life into the fold of the surveillance economy, which has a one-way mirror quality. Increasingly, every aspect of our lives — our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations and intellectual predilections — are laid bare as data to be collected by companies who, for their own part, guard with military-grade secrecy the algorithms by which they use this information to determine the world that is presented to us, for example when we enter a search term, or in our news feeds. They are also in a position to determine our standing in the reputational economy. The credit rating agencies and insurance companies would like to know us more intimately; I suppose Alexa can help with that.

Allow me to offer a point of reference that comes from outside the tech debates, but can be brought to bear on them. Conservative legal scholars have long criticized a shift of power from Congress to the administrative state, which seeks to bypass legislation and rule by executive fiat, through administrative rulings. The appeal of this move is that it saves one the effort of persuading others, that is, the inconvenience of democratic politics.

All of the arguments that conservatives make about the administrative state apply as well to this new thing, call it algorithmic governance, that operates through artificial intelligence developed in the private sector. It too is a form of power that is not required to give an account of itself, and is therefore insulated from democratic pressures.

In machine learning, an array of variables are fed into deeply layered “neural nets” that simulate the binary, fire/don’t-fire synaptic connections of an animal brain. Vast amounts of data are used in a massively iterated (and, in some versions, unsupervised) training regimen. Because the strength of connections between logical nodes is highly plastic, just like neural pathways, the machine gets trained by trial and error and is able to arrive at something resembling knowledge of the world. The logic by which an AI reaches its conclusions is impossible to reconstruct even for those who built the underlying algorithms. We need to consider the significance of this in the light of our political traditions.

When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. He grounds the decision in law, precedent, common sense, and principles that he feels obliged to articulate and defend. This is what transforms the decision from mere fiat into something that is politically legitimate, capable of securing the assent of a free people. It makes the difference between simple power and authority. One distinguishing feature of a modern, liberal society is that authority is supposed to have this rational quality to it — rather than appealing to, say, a special talent for priestly divination. This is our Enlightenment inheritance. It appears to be in a fragile state. With the inscrutable arcana of data science, a new priesthood peers into a hidden layer of reality that is revealed only by a self-taught AI program — the logic of which is beyond human knowing.

The feeling that one is ruled by a class of experts who cannot be addressed, who cannot be held to account, has surely contributed to populist anger. From the perspective of ordinary citizens, the usual distinction between government and “the private sector” starts to sound like a joke, given how the tech firms order our lives in far-reaching ways.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have established portals that people feel they have to pass through to conduct the business of life, and to participate in the common life of the nation. Such bottlenecks are a natural consequence of “the network effect.” It was early innovations that allowed these firms to take up their positions. But it is not innovation that accounts for the unprecedented rents they are able to collect, it is these established positions, and the ongoing control of the data it allows them to gather, as in a classic infrastructure monopoly. If those profits measure anything at all, it is the reach of a grid of surveillance that continues to spread and deepen. It is this grid’s basic lack of intelligibility that renders it politically unaccountable. Yet accountability is the very essence of representative government.

Mr. Zuckerberg has said frankly that “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” If we take the man at his word, it would seem to raise the question: Can the United States government tolerate the existence of a rival government within its territory?

In 1776, we answered that question with a resounding “No!” and then fought a revolutionary war to make it so. The slogan of that war was “Don’t tread on me.” This spirited insistence on self-rule expresses the psychic core of republicanism. As Senator Klobuchar points out in her book Antitrust, the slogan was directed in particular at the British Crown’s grant of monopoly charters to corporations that controlled trade with the colonies. Today, the platform firms appear to many as an imperial power. The fundamental question “Who rules?” is pressed upon this body once again.

What’s Their Deal With Health Insurance Anyway?

It feels odd to write about anything else now that a senseless, malevolent being has taken control of the White House, but here goes anyway:

Four years ago, Dr. Ben Carson, who is expected to be the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the new administration, compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery:

“You know, Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” Carson … said … in remarks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. “And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control…”

“And why did [the Obama administration] want to pass it so badly? Well, as I said the other night on television, Vladimir Lenin … said that socialized medicine is the keystone to the establishment of a socialist state.”

As we might expect, there is no evidence that Lenin said any such thing. The “socialized medicine” quote attributed to him by Carson and others was fabricated for a 1949 brochure issued by the American Medical Association. That’s back when the AMA was fighting President Truman’s proposal for national health insurance (and years before they opposed Medicare). But Carson telling that tall tale helps explain why the Republican Party is so opposed to the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA requires individuals to have health insurance (or pay more income tax) and employers of a certain size to offer health insurance to their employees (or pay more income tax). It also requires that health insurance plans meet specific requirements in order to qualify as health insurance for purposes of the law. So that’s one reason Republicans want to repeal the ACA. The law requires that we do something for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. It limits our freedom to do whatever the hell we want. That makes it a prime example of government overreach, or what the right-wing calls the “Nanny State”.

But since Republicans are forced to buy insurance for their houses and cars without making a fuss (let alone bringing up slavery or Nazi Germany), being forced to buy insurance for their bodies (or their employees’ bodies) can’t be the only reason they’re against the ACA.

A second reason is simply political. After decades of trying, a Democratic President finally got a bill passed that takes us closer to universal health insurance. But whatever Obama was for, the Republicans were against. They immediately labeled the ACA as “Obamacare” to help convince right-wingers to oppose the law, even if they didn’t know what the law did (and even if the law would improve their own lives). 

That’s despite the fact that the ACA adopted the conservative approach to universal healthcare that Republicans had been advocating since the 1970s. It’s pretty amazing. A letter to the editor in The Chicago Tribune tells the disheartening story:

Obamacare is virtually the same privatized mandate plan [the Republican Party] pushed since President Richard Nixon first proposed the National Health Strategy in 1971, then again in 1974. Then the GOP revived its privatized mandate plan again in 1993 with … the [HEART] act … an alternative to the [Clinton] single-payer plan… 

Obama — as a compromise to have basic health reform passed — used this same GOP blueprint with one significant change: adding a public option alongside the GOP’s privatized mandate plan … 

Eventually the public option was stripped out of the 2010 ACA bill as a further compromise to attract bipartisan support for the bill, leaving in its place the very plan that the GOP wanted and pushed for decades. Unfortunately, the ACA did not receive a single vote from the Republican Party that created the plan’s primary concepts as an alternative to a single-payer — “Medicare for all” — type of system.

No wonder the Republicans have had so much trouble coming up with a replacement for “Obamacare”. The law they’re so against is the law they used to be for.

A third reason the Republicans oppose the ACA is that it’s the kind of Robin Hood economic redistribution Republicans hate. It takes from the rich and gives to the poor. Paul Krugman explains in a blog post called “Health Care Fundamentals”:

Providing health care to those previously denied it is, necessarily, a matter of redistributing from the lucky to the unlucky. And, of course, reversing a policy that expanded health care is redistribution in reverse. You can’t make this reality go away.

Left to its own devices, a market economy won’t care for the sick unless they can pay for it; insurance can help up to a point, but insurance companies have no interest in covering people they suspect will get sick. So unfettered markets mean that health care goes only to those who are wealthy and/or healthy enough that they won’t need it often, and hence can get insurance….

The thing is, however, that guaranteeing health care comes with a cost. You can tell insurance companies that they can’t discriminate based on medical history, but that means higher premiums for the healthy — and you also create an incentive to stay uninsured until … you get sick, which pushes premiums even higher. So you have to regulate individuals as well as insurers, requiring that everyone sign up — the mandate. And since some people won’t be able to obey such a mandate, you need subsidies, which must be paid for out of taxes…

What [the Republicans] are left with is … voodoo: they’ll invoke the magic of the market to somehow provide insurance so cheap that everyone will be able to afford it whatever their income and medical status. This is obvious nonsense [but] it’s all they’ve got.

The redistribution is related to a fourth reason they’re against the ACA and it might be their biggest reason of all. Not only did the ACA impose fines in the form of tax increases on taxpayers who wouldn’t buy health insurance, it included a separate, relatively large tax increase on the richest Americans. As everyone knows, that‘s anathema to Republican politicians. Repealing the ACA, therefore, would mean a big tax cut for the Republicans’ favorite people. From Slate:

One of the core, very simple things [the ACA] did was raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund subsidized health care for more Americans. Couples earning more than $250,000 saw a 0.9 percent increase in their top Medicare tax rate, as well as a new, 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on investment income.

If Republicans have their way and successfully repeal the Affordable Care Act, those two taxes will be toast—which will mean a substantial break for some of the country’s wealthiest families. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that millionaires would see 80 percent of the benefits from those tax reductions. Based on the most recent IRS data, the think tank roughly projects that the 400 highest income households—which earned an average of more than $300 million each in 2014—would see a $2.8 billion annual tax cut, worth about $7 million on average per filer.

So that’s at least four reasons why Republicans want to scrap the Affordable Care Act:

1) It’s what they call the “Nanny State” in action. 

2) It was an important Obama accomplishment.

3) It’s the kind of redistribution Robin Hood was for and the bad guys were against.

4) It raised taxes, especially for the rich.

In conclusion, Republicans don’t necessarily want millions of Americans suffering and dying without medical treatment. Being concerned about that kind of thing is simply low on their list of priorities.

Learning to Deal with the Modern World (you know, the www)

Many years ago I created a Yahoo email account with an alias. I thought that was the wise thing to do in order to protect my privacy (as I said, it was many years ago). I still use it for junk email. For example, I give it to websites that don’t seem to deserve a lasting relationship.

Last week, I tried to look at the account and couldn’t. I was sure I had the correct password but Yahoo didn’t agree.

Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me reset my password using any of the standard online methods. The reason given was that they thought my account might have been “compromised”.  Hence, I was told to contact Yahoo Customer Care.

Unfortunately again, the only contact information they provide is a phone number. If you have some time to kill, you can call it yourself (it’s 1-800-318-0612). The first recording you hear is the usual one about “heavy call volume”, but it goes on to say that the volume is so heavy that they may not be able to answer your call. Ever, I guess. 

If you choose to wait, you hear the usual announcements, including one that suggests that if you’re having a password problem, you might visit https://help.yahoo.com/identity, where you’ll be able to fix the problem and get on with your life. Being an optimist, I tried that, thinking it might be a special password handling page. The end result, of course, was that they told me to call 1-800-318-0612 (the “we may not be able to answer your call” number). This is the kind of thing you could do to a rat if you were a really mean psychologist and wanted to drive it crazy. 

What Yahoo means by “not being able to answer your call” is that after a while, if you haven’t hung up already, they hang up on you. 

But today I was invited to leave my phone number so they could call me back. They said there were 289 calls in front of me, but the average wait time was only 20 minutes and they’d keep my place in line. Since I’ve used the call-back feature with other companies and found it to be relatively pleasant, I gave it a try.

Unfortunately yet again, four hours passed and they didn’t call. I was beginning to think that Yahoo doesn’t really care about “Customer Care”.

Then I did what I should have done earlier: use Google (not Yahoo?) to search for “Yahoo email password problem”. It turns out they’ve had a few. But among the sad stories was a link to the famous Get Human site. Yet something else I should have done before! Why didn’t I remember to use Get Human?

Among Get Human’s helpful suggestions was to contact Yahoo via Facebook or Twitter. This is an option that hadn’t occurred to me at all. First, I went to Facebook. Although I didn’t try to get in touch with them that way, I did read some of the emotional messages people have left on Yahoo’s page. “I can’t get access to Yahoo email and we use it for our business and you don’t have an email address and never answer the phone!” and “I would use some other email but hundreds of sites already have my Yahoo address!” and “You should rot in hell!” (or words to that effect). One person even made the ultimate complaint: “Yahoo’s customer service is even worse than Comcast’s!”.

I then visited Twitter. Easily locating the official Yahoo Mail Team page (@yahoomail), I quickly fired off my own (brief) cry for help, being polite but not supplying any personal details, since I didn’t know where my tweet would appear.

Well, it was quite a surprise when someone on the Yahoo Mail Team responded within the hour. They sent a very nice message, inviting me to visit a certain link that would allow me to submit an incident report to their technical support group. Which I did.

Whether I ever hear from Yahoo or not, this experience wasn’t a total waste of time. First, I reminded myself to try Get Human as soon as things go bad this way. Second, I learned that big companies like Yahoo apparently pay more attention to the relative few who contact them by Facebook or Twitter than the hundreds of poor souls who call them up and then sit on hold listening to lame music, “Your call is very important to us” and, in Yahoo’s case, the occasional “Yahoo-oo-oo!” rebel yell. 

Lastly, I was reminded that our dependence on these massive companies for so much leaves us vulnerable. You can get an email address in a minute or two without spending a dime, build much of your life around it, and then have it disappear with no warning and for no apparent reason. Or keep lots of stuff on your hard drive or in the cloud and have that be “compromised” or become suddenly unavailable. People are working on better internet security methods, but there’s still a lot to be said for storing stuff the old-fashioned way, like on paper, and also for keeping your eggs in more than one basket.

Update: Ok, they sent an email with a temporary password to my main Yahoo account. I clicked on the link and tried to create a new password. They didn’t like it because they said it was too similar to my account name. In fact, it wasn’t similar at all, except for sharing a few letters of the alphabet that were arranged differently. So I get past that hurdle and create a new password and then discover that I’ve now changed the password for my main account, not the account I was having trouble with. So I logged off that account and went to the troubled account and repeated the process, starting with the temporary password. That was easy. 

On Carrying a Camera Everywhere

There have probably been a billion words written on how most of us are now carrying a little camera with us everywhere and how that’s changing our lives for better or worse. 

But think of all the events that could have been photographed if everyone had a cellphone in decades past. We’d have more pictures of UFOs (but not flying saucers). We’d have more photographs of the Kennedy assassination and more views of Marilyn Monroe on that subway grate. From certain decades, we’d have many more pictures of people looking at themselves in their bathroom mirrors.

There was a story in the news today about an actress being handcuffed in Southern California after she apparently refused to identify herself to police officers. She wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time and wasn’t arrested. There are photographs of her in tears standing next to a cop, but not of what happened earlier. We’ll probably have to wait a while before it’s common to film every moment of every event that seems like it might be worth filming.

Anyway, I was walking into the grocery story this evening and stopped to take a picture with my phone. Future historians can study it if they want:

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