The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future

Our new robot overlords:

Are computers taking our jobs?

Our new robot overlords: The terrifying uncertainty of our high-tech future
(Credit: Ociacia, MaraZe via Shutterstock/Salon)
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Last fall economist Carl Benedikt Frey and information engineer Michael A. Osborne, both at the University of Oxford, published a study estimating the probability that 702 occupations would soon be computerized out of existence. Their findings were startling. Advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence and other technologies could, they argued, put 47 percent of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the years ahead. Loan officers, tax preparers, cashiers, locomotive engineers, paralegals, roofers, taxi drivers and even animal breeders are all in danger of going the way of the switchboard operator.

Whether or not you buy Frey and Osborne’s analysis, it is undeniable that something strange is happening in the U.S. labor market. Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. At the same time, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product increased from around 5 to 11 percent, while compensation of employees as a share of GDP dropped from around 47 to 43 percent. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both business researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, call this divergence the “great decoupling.” In their view, presented in their recent book “The Second Machine Age,” it is a historic shift.

The conventional economic wisdom has long been that as long as productivity is increasing, all is well. Technological innovations foster higher productivity, which leads to higher incomes and greater well-being for all. And for most of the 20th century productivity and incomes did rise in parallel. But in recent decades the two began to diverge. Productivity kept increasing while incomes—which is to say, the welfare of individual workers—stagnated or dropped.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they are creating them. They cite research showing that so-called routine jobs (bank teller, machine operator, dressmaker) began to fade in the 1980s, when computers first made their presence known, but that the rate has accelerated: between 2001 and 2011, 11 percent of routine jobs disappeared.



Plenty of economists disagree, but it is hard to referee this debate, in part because of a lack of data. Our understanding of the relation between technological advances and employment is limited by outdated metrics. At a roundtable discussion on technology and work convened this year by the European Union, the IRL School at Cornell University and the Conference Board (a business research association), a roomful of economists and financiers repeatedly emphasized how many basic economic variables are measured either poorly or not at all. Is productivity declining? Or are we simply measuring it wrong? Experts differ. What kinds of workers are being sidelined, and why? Could they get new jobs with the right retraining? Again, we do not know.

In 2013 Brynjolfsson told Scientific American that the first step in reckoning with the impact of automation on employment is to diagnose it correctly—“to understand why the economy is changing and why people aren’t doing as well as they used to.” If productivity is no longer a good proxy for a vigorous economy, then we need a new way to measure economic health. In a 2009 report economists Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, Amartya Sen of Harvard University and Jean-Paul Fitoussi of the Paris Institute of Political Studies made a similar case, writing that “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.” An IRL School report last year called for statistical agencies to capture more and better data on job market churn—data that could help us learn which job losses stem from automation.

Without such data, we will never properly understand how technology is changing the nature of work in the 21st century—and what, if anything, should be done about it. As one participant in this year’s roundtable put it, “Even if this is just another industrial revolution, people underestimate how wrenching that is. If it is, what are the changes to the rules of labor markets and businesses that should be made this time? We made a lot last time. What is the elimination of child labor this time? What is the eight-hour workday this time?”

 

The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Moroder on starting his DJ career at age 74, working with Daft Punk, and the evolution of club culture

Meet the godfather of electronic dance music: Giorgio Moroder’s spectacular return to the spotlight

Meet the godfather of electronic dance music: Giorgio Moroder's spectacular return to the spotlight
Giorgio Moroder (Credit: AP/Barry Brecheisen)

In the ’70s and ’80s, Giorgio Moroder — the Italian-born, L.A.-based godfather of electronic dance music — reeled in three Oscars (for scoring “Midnight Express” and for songs from “Flashdance” and “Top Gun”) and three Grammys. He produced the likes of Blondie and David Bowie, and pushed dance music into the synthesizer era alongside Donna Summer on “I Feel Love.” Now, at 74, he’s first starting a career as a DJ, spinning his tracks for fans who weren’t born when he originally recorded them.

Moroder credits Daft Punk for rebooting his music in the popular consciousness with last year’s track “Giorgio by Moroder,” but today’s Electronic Dance Music scene owes a huge amount to his work.

The day after playing a set at London’s Wireless Festival this month, a dapper, youthful Moroder – his moustache downsized and whiter than in its handlebar heyday, but still presiding over a mischievous smile – sat down with a fizzy water in a hotel bar to discuss the evolution of dance music, the trials involved in working with stars in 2014 and why he has only now started to visit nightclubs.

Considering that Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder” sets an interview about your life to new music, is it weird to have been thrust back into the spotlight by your own history?

Yeah, well I was quite emotional when I heard it. The guys told me a year before in Paris to tell my story, and I was just blabbering and blabbering for two hours, and I didn’t have any idea what they’d do with it. I thought maybe they’d cut up some words and make some effects. When they played it to me, I loved it. It was emotional because the music too is like the transition from disco into all the different styles [I’ve done].

As I understand, before this, you had been playing a lot of golf –

It’s true.

Was it that no one had approached you to do music?

First of all, six or seven years ago, DJ-ing was not a great job to do, so I thought to myself, “No no, I’m a composer; I’m a producer. I’m not the guy who puts the records on.” But then, Kim Jones, the designer, wanted me to write 12 minutes [to soundtrack a Louis Vuitton fashion show]. I said, “This is quite easy, actually. I just play my songs!” And then I did a little bit of a DJ [set], which was a bit of a mess, in Cannes for Elton John. Then the Red Bull Academy asked if I could talk to the students about music and said, “How about if we do a disco evening?” And I said, “Great!” That was the same day when Daft Punk came out – the 21st of May last year, and from there I went to Japan, Sweden, Mexico, around the world.



People know me a little bit, and the young kids go on the Internet, listen to the songs. They want to hear “What is the guy doing?” Sometimes I have three generations: young guys, 18-20, then the 40-year-olds, then the older ones who grew up with my music. Yesterday we had only young kids, and some knew every word of the hits like “Hot Stuff,” “Take My Breath Away.”

Are you playing updated versions of your hits?

Yeah, I have a good remix of a song which I kind of forgot, Japan’s “Life in Tokyo.” I have a remix of “I Feel Love,” ’cause the original is by far too slow today. The remix I did is not 128 [beats per minute], but it’s still faster.

Do you have a sense of why dance music is faster now?

Well, I could ask, why are the movies now so fast-paced? And the videos are incredible – they got faster and faster, so I guess attention spans are getting shorter. Steven Spielberg has a formula which says, every seven minutes, something big has to happen. And Adrian Lyne came in with “Flashdance,” and he cut it almost like a video. The songs I write are always the same: You cannot really cut a song too much, but now for the DJ-ing, I just do two and a half minutes of songs, because I think, “People want to hear the next one.” That’s one of the reasons why EDM works so well. Dr. Luke, I think, said that he wants a change of sound or tracks every eight bars, while the traditional way is to have an intro, like, eight bars, and then a verse, 16, and then the chorus, and that’s 32 — but with EDM, you have all that very staccato stuff.

You’ve mentioned before that you find some EDM disjointed. Is that what you’re referring to?

If you talk musically in the bigger sense, [EDM songs] are not that great. I can tell you a very good example: I recorded a song about a month ago with a relatively famous act, so I gave her the tracks, and so she said, “OK, give me the first eight bars,” which was kind of the verse, so she sang it, then she said, “OK, now give me the 16 bars or whatever of the chorus,” so she learned it and sang it. She did it piece by piece – in her mind, I don’t know if she really heard the verse going into the chorus. She would end the verse up there [Moroder sings a note], and then start the chorus at the same level. I know I can – I don’t say the word “repair,” but that one’s relatively easy because I just add a harmony on top, so instead of continuing flat, the background goes up.

The way the guys in EDM compose is totally different from the traditional way. Now they have three studios ready – three producers, three composers, and it’s almost a selection: You give me three mixes, and I say, “OK, I want this part, which is great, and this, and this.” That’s why some EDM songs are so catchy, because there are no rules. Every section is a little bit of a hit, although it’s not really joined that well, but it sounds good. I think that the tendency now is going more to the analog way, where you have songs with verse, chorus, bridge …

Nowadays when you work with artists, do they say, “I want this to sound like such-and-such a song you’ve already done?”

I don’t really know exactly what they want because most of the time it’s their manager who talks to my manager. Right now, to have direct contact with an act is almost impossible. Every act is so protected . … Maybe they want a little disco influence. The great thing was that Daft Punk really revived disco with “Get Lucky,” where they have electric drums with bass and real drums – that’s what people want, and that’s what I do.

Trent Reznor asked you to remix a Nine Inch Nails song …

He asked me about six months [ago] if I wanted to do a remix, but then I was listening to the song, and I said, “It’s so well done – what would I add?” Trent is a genius; he doesn’t need me to improve his stuff, and to be honest, I was a little scared. If the original is so good, the guy who does the remix has to be a genius to make it better.

 A lot of people would say that you’re a genius.

Oh yeah, that’s true! [laughs]. But I would really have to work hard even to change [the song] – and then with him you would never know how much can you change or how much he wants the original. With Coldplay [on a remix of “Midnight”], I had one version which was good but they said, “No, we need a little more Moroder,” whatever that is, so I went back in the studio and they loved it. For the first time, they said, all four guys even listened to a remix. Because those big groups, they couldn’t care less about remixes.

And adding the strings and all those layers – it’s almost a trademark. Your productions sound really expensive. You also helped design a sports car and a cognac bottle – is that the Moroder brand, to make something luxurious?

With computers today [laughs] … This would be absolutely expensive if I had used real strings! I noticed lately the luxury sound doesn’t work in the discotheques as a DJ, because you have to have great drums, great bass, and the voice, of course, and the rest is not that important. For example the “Midnight” remix doesn’t sound really good [in a club] because everything is so loud, and when the strings come in, you lose the bass and you lose the drums – you lose a little bit of that tempo feel. If I’m thinking to play that song more often, I would do a remix of my remix.

As far as your own work goes, it’s been reported that you’re going to be working with Lana Del Rey.

I don’t know. She is such a lovely girl, and first of all, I think she works like crazy. She’s on tour now in Europe somewhere. If there’s a chance to meet in the same city one day, we’ll do something. I love what she’s doing. She has her style, which is so unique. I think she’s darker than me in terms of lyrics – I don’t understand them, but I’ve read that her lyrics are really down, right? Whatever lyrics are good, I like, but the sounds – I don’t think they are that dark. Obviously she has a lot of strings, and a lot of delay and echoes … I don’t have a clue what I would do, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen; if it is, I’m going to be happy.

I understand you’ve been recording with Kelis?

Am I? There are so many rumors out – oh God! I’m supposed to do Madonna. I don’t have a clue who came up with that! And unfortunately nobody has [put out] a rumor of Rihanna, which I really would like, but it’s still all the names you hear or read – some may have a little bit of truth; some have nothing at all, so it’s all in the air. But from what I sense [my new album] is going to be good. Ideally it would have one or two big names, then maybe three or four good but not “top,” then some young, new guys – even groups of people who don’t sell a record but who are really into the new music, new – not experimental but unusual new stuff.

In the meantime, you’re out on the road. There was so much hedonism in the disco lifestyle back in the ’70s; do you find a big difference in atmosphere between dance clubs then and now?

I think the main thing is the DJ. I was at Studio 54 only once or twice, and the DJ would just play his songs. Now if you go to a club, the DJ is up there building up the audience, and especially at festivals, the DJ is an act. I saw Mixmaster Mike – that guy was mixing from one track to the other in a matter of seconds, and I thought, “a genius!” Then after, I said, “How on Earth do you remember the probably 2000 pieces you did in an hour and a half?” He said, “I have a memory like a computer. You play me two bars of a song and I tell you.” That’s an art. I think the difference is now that the DJ is the animator of the evening instead of just putting records on.

It sounds like the disco era was fun in a different way.

Yeah, although don’t ask me because I never went to discos anyway.

Really?

No, in Munich [where Moroder lived for most of the 1970s] I went from time to time – whenever I had a new song, I would give it to a friend of mine who was a DJ, and he would play it and I would see the reaction. If everybody would leave the dance floor, that was a sign that I should throw it away. There’s a club now called Giorgio’s in Los Angeles; we go because it’s [run by] a friend of ours; I stay 10 minutes and [my wife] dances all through the night.

So basically you manage to make records that thousands of people would dance to without going to dance clubs at all.

Yeah, because I cannot dance. That’s why I don’t go to discos, because I’m embarrassed! The so-called disco king comes in and doesn’t know – [laughs] So I cannot tell you what happened – I know from reading what’s going on. But it’s quite different from what I remember. Now you have the DJ who is really in charge.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/21/meet_the_godfather_of_electronic_dance_music_giorgio_moroders_spectacular_return_to_the_spotlight/?source=newsletter

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

by

“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (b. September 21, 1934) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originality, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[...]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[...]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/07/15/leonard-cohen-paul-zollo-creativity/

THE BULLSHIT MACHINE

Here’s a tiny confession. I’m bored.

Yes; I know. I’m a sinner. Go ahead. Burn me at the stake of your puritanical Calvinism; the righteously, thoroughly, well, boring idea that boredom itself is a moral defect; that a restless mind is the Devil’s sweatshop.

There’s nothing more boring than that; and I’ll return to that very idea at the end of this essay; which I hope is the beginning.

What am I bored of? Everything. Blogs books music art business ideas politics tweets movies science math technology…but more than that: the spirit of the age; the atmosphere of the time; the tendency of the now; the disposition of the here.

Sorry; but it’s true. It’s boring me numb and dumb.

A culture that prizes narcissism above individualism. A politics that places “tolerance” above acceptance. A spirit that encourages cynicism over reverence. A public sphere that places irony over sincerity. A technosophy that elevates “data” over understanding. A society that puts “opportunity” before decency. An economy that…you know. Works us harder to make us poorer at “jobs” we hate where we make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from our souls to sell to everyone else who’s working harder to get poorer at “jobs” they hate where they make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from their souls.

To be bored isn’t to be indifferent. It is to be fatigued. Because one is exhausted. And that is precisely where—and only where—the values above lead us. To exhaustion; with the ceaseless, endless, meaningless work of maintaining the fiction. Of pretending that who we truly want to be is what everyone believes everyone else wants to be. Liked, not loved; “attractive”, not beautiful; clever, not wise; snarky, not happy; advantaged, not prosperous.

It exhausts us; literally; this game of parasitically craving everyone’s cravings. It makes us adversaries not of one another; but of ourselves. Until there is nothing left. Not of us as we are; but of the people we might have been. The values above shrink and reduce and diminish our potential; as individuals, as people, societies. And so I have grown fatigued by them.

Ah, you say. But when hasn’t humanity always suffered all the above? Please. Let’s not mince ideas. Unless you think the middle class didn’t actually thrive once; unless you think that the gentleman that’s made forty seven Saw flicks (so far) is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock; unless you believe that this era has a John Lennon; unless you think that Jeff Koons is Picasso…perhaps you see my point.

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

The more we do, the more passive we seem to become. Compliant. Complaisant. As if we are merely going through the motions.

Why? We are something like apparitions today; juggling a multiplicity of selves through the noise; the “you” you are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder…wherever…at your day job, your night job, your hobby, your primary relationship, your friend-with-benefits, your incredibly astonishing range of extracurricular activities. But this hyperfragmentation of self gives rise to a kind of schizophrenia; conflicts, dissocations, tensions, dislocations, anxieties, paranoias, delusions. Our social wombs do not give birth to our true selves; the selves explosive with capability, possibility, wonder.

Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine.

And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could.

Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am.

Good for you.

Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.

Brazil, Defeat and the High Cost of Hosting the World Cup

Bidding for Trouble

http://static.goal.com/329400/329457.jpg

by ANDREW KENNIS

Rio de Janeiro. 

While smoking his tobacco pipe in front of his small cinder block home toward the top of his native Vidigal, a sprawlingfavela  overlooking some of Rio de Janeiro’s most luxurious neighborhoods, Jamil Jorge offered his thoughts on Brazil hosting the World Cup in the midst of the tournament: “The World Cup only benefits people and institutions with money, not people like me.”

Jamil had just finished meditating during a breezy ocean-side night at one of the many stunning lookouts that Vidigal offers. The public viewpoint lies at the foot of one of the many homes of none other than David Beckham–reflective of the uneven and volatile development Brazil has undergone over the last decade alone. Recent years have brought tens of millions into the middle class but left plenty of others behind, as suggested by a low 85th ranking in the United Nations Human Development index.

When asked about the FIFA (International Federation of Football Association, in English) and its motives in relation to the Cup, Jorge grinned and then made the universal gesture for money with his hands. “Someone is profiting from this World Cup, but it isn’t me … or our favela.”

Seven years ago when Brazil was announced as FIFA’s selected host country for this year’s World Cup, Brazilians celebrated in the streets. The country’s then forward-looking President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was in the midst of an economic boon that had catapulted the Brazilian economy into seventh place among the world’s largest economies. During the same time FIFA officials were greeted by what they proudly described to the media as “spontaneous celebrations” by Brazilians, polls revealed nearly eighty-percent support for the hosting of the Cup.

The subsequent announcement in 2009 that the Olympics would also be held in Brazil two years after the 2014 World Cup only compounded the excitement. By all accounts, Brazil was abuzz with anticipation.

In this election year, however, support for both hosting the Cup and the incumbent President Rousseff, who hails from the same Worker’s Party (PT) as her popular predecessor, have plummeted to low levels. Contrary to nearly anyone’s expectations, polls have demonstrated that most people in the very country that has enjoyed more World Cup victories than any other no longer wanted to host the tournament whose final match played out July 13.
Why the drastic change in public opinion, over a game Brazilians clearly adore?

Collapsing Promises

“It was like an earthquake. The ground shook violently,” Daniel Magalhaes told reporters huddling around the scene of an accident. “I heard a deafening sound. I looked and saw the collapsed overpass.”

Headlines around the world were instantly posted in the news media on July 3 when a bridge located in the host city of Belo Horizonte and near the Mineirao Stadium where World Cup matches were held collapsed on top of a bus and passenger cars in a gruesome scene captured by video. Hanna Cristiana Santos, a bus driver, and Charlys do Nascimento, aged 24 and 25 respectively, were instantly killed. Almost two dozen more people were injured. The construction company, the city announced, would pay for the funeral arrangements for the two families.

The Belo bridge collapse was not the only thing that collapsed. The very next day, Colombia’s defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga recklessly jumped into the air for a loose ball and came crashing directly down on none other than Neymar Jr., Brazil’s great hope for the World Cup. Neymar told his teammate, “I cannot feel my legs,” after suffering Zúñiga’s blow.

For many Brazilians, their hopes of Brazil winning the World Cup were significantly dented if not dashed altogether with Neymar’s and Silva’s exit. As it turned out, theseleção wound up suffering a historic defeat in the World Cup’s most lopsided knockout round loss ever. The Germans, who ultimately won took home the Cup trophy, mercilessly pounded against a brittle Brazilian defense and won 7-1. Adding to the cruel irony was that the defeat occurred in Belo Horizonte–the same place where the bridge collapsed.

The subsequent third place match added to the pain, as Brazil was humiliated again 3-0 at the hands of Holland. The match was played in Brasilia, a city that doesn’t even have a first division Brazilian soccer team and rarely can attract attendance to second division matches of more than a thousand people. Now the capital will have to struggle to find a use for the FIFA-standard stadium.

Many observers before the World Cup agreed that one of the few ways that FIFA and the Brazilian government could salvage a losing public relations front when it came to hosting the event, was for Brazil to win the Cup on its home turf and in the same stadium where it suffered its most stinging historic defeat. Brazil lost to Uruguay in the 1950 final (known as the “maracanaço” to Brazilians, a reference to Rio’s Maracanã stadium, which then had a capacity to hold almost two hundred thousand people). But alas, there would be no final in Rio. Instead, Brazilians rioted in the city’s streets, where mass robberies were reported especially in the famous Copacabana beach district.

While no Brazilian expected the trouncing the team suffered against Germany, probably few Brazilians were surprised that one of the unfinished infrastructure projects promised for completion by the World Cup’s start wound up literally killing several of its own people. Fewer than 10 of the 56 infrastructure projects racking up billions of dollars in public expenses were completed on time for the tournament.

“Nearly nothing about hosting this World Cup surprises me anymore,” says Leonardo Silva, a 59 year-old cab driver who has long been working in Natal, a tourist-driven beach city that hosted the Me xico and United States matches.

On FIFA’s Terms
Before the World Cup started, the atmosphere in many cities in Brazil was noticeably dialed down from what one would have expected in 2007. One after another, local press accounts described the pre-tourney atmosphere as “lackluster” and “way less supportive than in previous World Cups hosted abroad.”

Widespread protests, attracting millions of angry people raging into the streets in cities across Brazil, surged a full year before the World Cup even began. International press coverage largely focused on a bus fare hike as what sparked the protests. Gil Castello Branco, the director and founder of Open Accounts, a Brasilia-based NGO that serves as a budgetary watchdog group over the Brazilian government, pointed out that the issues ran deeper than the bus fare hike and included the World Cup.

“You saw the protests last year, right, Andrew?” asked an impassioned Castello the day after the bridge collapsed. “The Brazilian people were demanding to get public benefits out of the event. They said they wanted FIFA-standard schools to be built for Brazilian children, just like the stadiums.”

The nation’s youth, who showed up in droves to protests last year and at the start of the tournament, continue to be a glaring developmental hole for Brazil. While close to 40 million Brazilians have left poverty during Brazil’s rapid developmental climb since the turn of the century, the youth are often left out of this picture when it comes to long-term and stable employment. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, close to 42% of young people have to depend on the precarious informal economy for a livelihood.

“Promising 12 stadiums in 12 cities to FIFA was too much to offer. These stadiums, especially in Manaus, Brasilia, Cuiaba and Natal, won’t ever be used to their capacity,” said Castello.

Other experts, such as Claudio Weber Abramo, the Executive Director of Transparency Brazil, echoed Castello’s sentiments. “FIFA makes its demands and then they arranged to have twelve different places to hold games. This was simply too much. In some of these cities, like Manaus, there was no professional football there whatsoever. It is ridiculous.”

Apparently, Brazilian officials did not pay heed to the words of one of Brazil’s most famous icons–singer, song-writer and poet Chico Buarque–who warned, “You cannot place your faith in a football stadium – that’s the lesson that sunk in after 1950.” He was referring to the belief that a shiny new stadium filled with Brazilian fans would lead the team to victory. His statement could be applied to the politics of hosting mega-sports events as well.

As early as the Confederations Cup, the World Cup warm-up tournament held in the host country the year before the big event, the press began reporting on worker fatalities and construction delays with cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Millions of Brazilians seemed to remember Buarque’s words when they took to the streets. Neymar, who rarely voices any political sentiments, announced on Facebook that, “From now on, I will enter the field inspired by this movement,” explaining further that he desired to see a, “Brazil that is more just, safer, healthier and more honest, which is the obligation of the government.”

Even the face of Brazilian football, the legendary Pelé, expressed sympathy with the protests and criticized the way public funds have been spent. “Money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals,” Pelé told the press this past May. “Brazil needs it. That’s clear. On that point, I agree with the protests,”

Plans to erect a 300-kilogram statue of Pelé before the start of the World Cup in front of the Maracanã stadium also stalled. The frustrated artist commissioned to finish the piece explained to the Times of India that the project was “politically abandoned” a few days after Pelé’s remarks.

As the tournament got underway, the rap sheet of World Cup-related problems was already lengthy. Neil de Mause, co-author of Field of Schemes and a specialist in public spending utilized for private sports stadiums published an article online shortly after the World Cup began that highlighted the worst social and political problems caused by the World Cup:

• Spending on World Cup preparations ballooned to $15 billion, swallowing entire regions’ development budgets and helping spark widespread strikes over low wages.

• An estimated 200,000 people were evicted from their homes, either to make way for World Cup construction projects or because their neighborhoods were designated “high-risk” areas.

• Eight workers were killed in construction accidents during the rush to have new stadiums ready in time for the cup — despite which the stadiums were still decidedly not ready.

• Planned new schools, hospitals and other public projects that were initially promised fell off the construction agenda once the budget ran dry.

• The government spent an additional $900 million on police technology, including surveillance drones, to ensure that anyone upset about all this didn’t cause too much of a ruckus.

De Mause explained that these problems were part and parcel of a “sports model designed to socialize all of your costs so that you can privatize all of your profits. It is a lot easier to make a whole lot of money if someone else is paying your costs. That’s something you see whether it is the New York Yankees or the World Cup.”

Should these problems have been anticipated? Chris Gaffney’s answer is an adamant “yes.” Gaffney, a visiting Professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense, has been living in Brazil for a half a decade and studies the way mega-events, such as the World Cup, are run and managed.

“Public officials could have demanded FIFA to ask for more from their corporate patrons,” Gaffney explained. “But this isn’t about wise use in public money. It’s an extractive business model in which FIFA articulated its business interests and found willing partners among Brazilian governmental and economic elites.”

The picture of an “extractive” business model that Gaffney paints is similar to how Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, another specialist on mega-events, from the Oxford School of Business, describes in his research findings. Particularly when it comes to Olympic and World Cup spending, Flyvgjerg said that, “costs wind up being significantly higher than what was initially estimated… while on the benefits size, we found the opposite. We found that the actual benefits are lower. So you get this double whammy with higher costs and lower benefits, which any businessman would say is not a good situation.”

Flyvgjerg added, “We find in general that politicians like to build flashy monuments and certainly something like expensive FIFA-inspired World Cup stadiums are an example of that. Unfortunately, we find that it is very difficult for officials to find a sensible use for these stadiums after the World Cup is over.”

Not a good situation for the public, in particular, added Weber. FIFA “says I want this and that. That is their role. And they get what they ask for, at the cost of the public.”

The bidding and negotiating process behind what is offered, asked for and agreed-upon remains clouded in mystery and secrecy. Weber noted, “Everything is confidential. FIFA and the Brazilian organizing committee can and did hide whatever they wanted.”

That is the reason why, as Gaffney explained, “The bid book for Brazil hosting the World Cup has never seen the light of day. The bid was given by disgraced former FIFA Vice President, Ricardo Texeira, to FIFA chief Sepp Blatter in 2007 and the document never surfaced publicly.

What has surfaced since FIFA awarded Brazil the bid and the government began the preparations has been FIFA-related public spending and projects.

In 2007, Lula made lofty promises and voiced high expectations of public-private partnerships in the aftermath of Brazil being chosen as a host country. He promised, “Stadiums will be completely built with private money. Not one cent of public money will be spent.” During the same time, excited officials from the Brazilian Football Federation echoed Lula’s claim. However, because of the failure of public-private plans to ever come to fruition, public spending exploded and a significant paper trail followed, one that Weber and Castello have been closely following.

In the case of the country’s capital, Brasilia, a municipal auditor’s court released a 140-page report detailing over $275 million in over-spending for a $900 million stadium-building project for the World Cup host city. The stadium is the world’s second most expensive among soccer venues,standing in sharp contrast to the lack of a professional team to fill the seats there after the Cup ends.

For Weber, even with the revelations of the scathing Brasilia audit report, there are still sharp limits to what is known thus far. “The actual totals on over-spending on stadiums and corruption related to it is already bad and it will be much worse than what people know and think right now.

Carol Campos, a 22 year-old Brazilian woman who attended many of the protests against the Cup, railed against another lavish stadium built for the Cup up in Natal. She asserts that the expensive arena will have no clear use after the Cup.

“It really is a beautiful stadium, if you see it from the sky, it looks like a sand dune, which are typical here in Natal. But the thing is, it’s a crazy situation. They built a whole stadium for four games. Four games!”

Bidding for Trouble?

The bid for the 2014 World Cup, which by FIFA rules had to be held in Latin America this year, had one entrant: Brazil.

Some experts speculate that the reason why Brazil had no competition on the bid for the Latin America-designated FIFA rotation is that there’s a political cost for politicians wanting to build flashy monuments bearing their name, in addition to the economic costs. In political terms alone, and certainly in Brazil’s case, hosting mega-events has proven to be risky and unpredictable. The way matters are shaping up for President Rousseff as of late is a strong case in point.

Brazil’s close association with FIFA and its slowing economy have not won political points for President Dilma Rousseff. During the current World Cup, FIFA has stirred controversy. After being booed in a Confederation Cup appearance with President Rousseff, its president NAME decided not to even participate in the opening ceremony CHECK. Scandals regarding reports on bribery being a factor in Qatar’s successful attempt to win the 2022 World Cup bid. The awarding to Qatar raised the eyebrows of football observers the world over, in no small part because of the scorching desert-like temperatures in Qatar during the summer months the Cup is held. Other scandals included one where a FIFA official was implicated in a Brazil-based ticket-scalping ring that reaped millions of dollars in resale profits, and an alleged match-fixing scandal, implicating players and possibly officials from the Cameroon squad.

In Brazilian politics, an Associated Press investigation published last month revealed that companies receiving publicly funded and FIFA-related construction projects turned around and raised their election campaign donations to the same public officials who awarded those contracts. In some cases, donations leaped by over 500% higher than their previous donations.

President Rousseff’s approval rating fell to a paltry 38% in April 2014 and at the start of the World Cup, was hovering around 34%. Nevertheless, Rousseff’s closest challenger for the October presidential election is still many percentage points behind her in terms of how they are polling.

While President Rousseff may be able to weather her lowered popularity in the face of a disastrous World Cup, governments – particularly those of newly developing or under-developed economies – may now think twice about hosting the World Cup.

Such second thoughts may be particularly weighty if the people in the host nation have any political decision-making power over the decision.

Andrew Kennis writes for America’s Program, where this story originally appeared.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/15/brazil-defeat-and-the-high-cost-of-hosting-the-world-cup/

 

“Alive Inside”: Music may be the best medicine for dementia

A heartbreaking new film explores the breakthrough that can help severely disabled seniors: It’s called the iPod VIDEO

"Alive Inside": Music may be the best medicine for dementia

One physician who works with the elderly tells Michael Rossato-Bennett’s camera, in the documentary “Alive Inside,” that he can write prescriptions for $1,000 a month in medications for older people under his care, without anyone in the healthcare bureaucracy batting an eye. Somebody will pay for it (ultimately that somebody is you and me, I suppose) even though the powerful pharmaceutical cocktails served up in nursing homes do little or nothing for people with dementia, except keep them docile and manageable. But if he wants to give those older folks $40 iPods loaded up with music they remember – which both research and empirical evidence suggest will improve their lives immensely — well, you can hardly imagine the dense fog of bureaucratic hostility that descends upon the whole enterprise.

“Alive Inside” is straightforward advocacy cinema, but it won the audience award at Sundance this year because it will completely slay you, and it has the greatest advantages any such movie can have: Its cause is easy to understand, and requires no massive social change or investment. Furthermore, once you see the electrifying evidence, it becomes nearly impossible to oppose. This isn’t fracking or climate change or drones; I see no possible way for conservatives to turn the question of music therapy for senior citizens into some kind of sinister left-wing plot. (“Next up on Fox News: Will Elton John turn our seniors gay?”) All the same, social worker Dan Cohen’s crusade to bring music into nursing homes could be the leading edge of a monumental change in the way we approach the care and treatment of older people, especially the 5 million or so Americans living with dementia disorders.

You may already have seen a clip from “Alive Inside,” which became a YouTube hit not long ago: An African-American man in his 90s named Henry, who spends his waking hours in a semi-dormant state, curled inward like a fetus with his eyes closed, is given an iPod loaded with the gospel music he grew up with. The effect seems almost impossible and literally miraculous: Within seconds his eyes are open, he’s singing and humming along, and he’s fully present in the room, talking to the people around him. It turns out Henry prefers the scat-singing of Cab Calloway to gospel, and a brief Calloway imitation leads him into memories of a job delivering groceries on his bicycle, sometime in the 1930s.



Of course Henry is still an elderly and infirm person who is near the end of his life. But the key word in that sentence is “person”; we become startlingly and heartbreakingly aware that an entire person’s life experience is still in there, locked inside Henry’s dementia and isolation and overmedication. As Oliver Sacks put it, drawing on a word from the King James Bible, Henry has been “quickened,” or returned to life, without the intervention of supernatural forces. It’s not like there’s just one such moment of tear-jerking revelation in “Alive Inside.” There might be a dozen. I’m telling you, one of those little pocket packs of tissue is not gonna cut it. Bring the box.

There’s the apologetic old lady who claims to remember nothing about her girlhood, until Louis Armstrong singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” brings back a flood of specific memories. (Her mom was religious, and Armstrong’s profane music was taboo. She had to sneak off to someone else’s house to hear his records.) There’s the woman with multiple psychiatric disorders and a late-stage cancer diagnosis, who ditches the wheelchair and the walker and starts salsa dancing. There’s the Army veteran who lost all his hair in the Los Alamos A-bomb test and has difficulty recognizing a picture of his younger self, abruptly busting out his striking baritone to sing along with big-band numbers. “It makes me feel like I got a girl,” he says. “I’m gonna hold her tight.” There’s the sweet, angular lady in late middle age, a boomer grandma who can’t reliably find the elevator in her building, or tell the up button from the down, boogieing around the room to the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” as if transformed into someone 20 years younger. The music cannot get away from her, she says, as so much else has done.

There’s a bit of hard science in “Alive Inside” (supplied by Sacks in fascinating detail) and also the beginnings of an immensely important social and cultural debate about the tragic failures of our elder-care system and how the Western world will deal with its rapidly aging population. As Sacks makes clear, music is a cultural invention that appears to access areas of the brain that evolved for other reasons, and those areas remain relatively unaffected by the cognitive decline that goes with Alzheimer’s and other dementia disorders. While the “quickening” effect observed in someone like Henry is not well understood, it appears that stimulating those undamaged areas of the brain with beloved and familiar signals – and what will we ever love more than the hit songs of our youth? — can unlock other things at least temporarily, including memory, verbal ability, and emotion. Sacks doesn’t address this, but the effects appear physical as well: Everyone we see in the film becomes visibly more active, even the man with late-stage multiple sclerosis and the semi-comatose woman who never speaks.

Dementia is a genuine medical phenomenon, as anyone who has spent time around older people can attest, and one that’s likely to exert growing psychic and economic stress on our society as the population of people over 65 continues to grow. But you can’t help wondering whether our social practice of isolating so many old people in anonymous, characterless facilities that are entirely separated from the rhythms of ordinary social life has made the problem considerably worse. As one physician observes in the film, the modern-day Medicare-funded nursing home is like a toxic combination of the poorhouse and the hospital, and the social stigma attached to those places is as strong as the smell of disinfectant and overcooked Salisbury steak. Our culture is devoted to the glamour of youth and the consumption power of adulthood; we want to think about old age as little as possible, even though many of us will live one-quarter to one-third of our lives as senior citizens.

Rossato-Bennett keeps the focus of “Alive Inside” on Dan Cohen’s iPod crusade (run through a nonprofit called Music & Memory), which is simple, effective and has achievable goals. The two of them tread more lightly on the bigger philosophical questions, but those are definitely here. Restoring Schubert or Motown to people with dementia or severe disabilities can be a life-changing moment, but it’s also something of a metaphor, and the lives that really need changing are our own. Instead of treating older people as a medical and financial problem to be managed and contained, could we have a society that valued, nurtured and revered them, as most societies did before the coming of industrial modernism? Oh, and if you’re planning to visit me in 30 or 40 years, with whatever invisible gadget then exists, please take note: No matter how far gone I am, you’ll get me back with “Some Girls,” Roxy Music’s “Siren” and Otto Klemperer’s 1964 recording of “The Magic Flute.”

“Alive Inside” opens this week at the Sunshine Cinema in New York. It opens July 25 in Huntington, N.Y., Toronto and Washington; Aug. 1 in Asbury Park, N.J., Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia; Aug. 8 in Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Palm Springs, Calif., San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Vancouver, Canada; Aug. 15 in Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix; and Aug. 22 in Atlanta, Dallas, Harrisburg, Pa., Portland, Ore., Santa Fe, N.M., Seattle and Spokane, Wash., with more cities and home video to follow.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/alive_inside_music_may_be_the_best_medicine_for_dementia/?source=newsletter

The universe according to Nietzsche

Modern cosmology and the theory of eternal recurrence

The philosopher’s musings on the nature of reality could have scientific basis, according to a prominent physicist

The universe according to Nietzsche: Modern cosmology and the theory of eternal recurrence

Friedrich Nietzsche (Credit: AP/Salon)

Excerpted from “The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos.” It originally appeared as a speech given by Steinhardt at an event in 2002.

If you were to ask most cosmologists to give a summary of where we stand right now in the field, they would tell you that we live in a very special period in human history where, thanks to a whole host of advances in technology, we can suddenly view the very distant and very early universe in ways we haven’t been able to do ever before. For example, we can get a snapshot of what the universe looked like in its infancy, when the first atoms were forming. We can get a snapshot of what the universe looked like in its adolescence, when the first stars and galaxies were forming. And we are now getting a full detail, three-dimensional image of what the local universe looks like today. When you put together this different information, which we’re getting for the first time in human history, you obtain a very tight series of constraints on any model of cosmic evolution.

If you go back to the different theories of cosmic evolution in the early 1990s, the data we’ve gathered in the last decade has eliminated all of them save one, a model that you might think of today as the consensus model. This model involves a combination of the Big Bang model as developed in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s; the inflationary theory, which Alan Guth proposed in the 1980s; and a recent amendment that I will discuss shortly. This consensus theory matches the observations we have of the universe today in exquisite detail. For this reason, many cosmologists conclude that we have finally determined the basic cosmic history of the universe.

But I have a rather different point of view, a view that has been stimulated by two events. The first is the recent amendment to which I referred earlier. I want to argue that the recent amendment is not simply an amendment but a real shock to our whole notion of time and cosmic history. And secondly, in the last year I’ve been involved in the development of an alternative theory that turns the cosmic history topsy-turvy: All the events that created the important features of our universe occur in a different order, by different physics, at different times, over different time scales. And yet this model seems capable of reproducing all the successful predictions of the consensus picture with the same exquisite detail.



The key difference between this picture and the consensus picture comes down to the nature of time. The standard model, or consensus model, assumes that time has a beginning that we normally refer to as the Big Bang. According to that model, for reasons we don’t quite understand, the universe sprang from nothingness into somethingness, full of matter and energy, and has been expanding and cooling for the past 15 billion years. In the alternative model, the universe is endless. Time is endless, in the sense that it goes on forever in the past and forever in the future, and in some sense space is endless. Indeed, our three spatial dimensions remain infinite throughout the evolution of the universe.

More specifically, this model proposes a universe in which the evolution of the universe is cyclic. That is to say, the universe goes through periods of evolution from hot to cold, from dense to under-dense, from hot radiation to the structure we see today, and eventually to an empty universe. Then, a sequence of events occurs that cause the cycle to begin again. The empty universe is reinjected with energy, creating a new period of expansion and cooling. This process repeats periodically forever. What we’re witnessing now is simply the latest cycle.

The notion of a cyclic universe is not new. People have considered this idea as far back as recorded history. The ancient Hindus, for example, had a very elaborate and detailed cosmology based on a cyclic universe. They predicted the duration of each cycle to be 8.64 billion years—a prediction with three-digit accuracy. This is very impressive, especially since they had no quantum mechanics and no string theory! It disagrees with the number I’m going suggest, which is trillions of years rather than billions.

The cyclic notion has also been a recurrent theme in Western thought. Edgar Allan Poe and Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, each had cyclic models of the universe, and in the early days of relativistic cosmology Albert Einstein, Alexander Friedmann, Georges Lemaître, and Richard Tolman were interested in the cyclic idea. I think it’s clear why so many have found the cyclic idea to be appealing: If you have a universe with a beginning, you have the challenge of explaining why it began and the conditions under which it began. If you have a universe that’s cyclic, it’s eternal, so you don’t have to explain the beginning.

During the attempts to try to bring cyclic ideas into modern cosmology, it was discovered in the 1920s and ’30s that there are various technical problems. The idea at that time was a cycle in which our three-dimensional universe goes through periods of expansion beginning from the Big Bang and then reversal to contraction and a Big Crunch. The universe bounces, and expansion begins again. One problem is that every time the universe contracts to a crunch, the density and temperature of the universe rises to an infinite value, and it is not clear if the usual laws of physics can be applied.

Second, every cycle of expansion and contraction creates entropy through natural thermodynamic processes, which adds to the entropy from earlier cycles. So at the beginning of a new cycle, there is higher entropy density than the cycle before. It turns out that the duration of a cycle is sensitive to the entropy density. If the entropy increases, the duration of the cycle increases as well. So, going forward in time, each cycle becomes longer than the one before. The problem is that, extrapolating back in time, the cycles become shorter until, after a finite time, they shrink to zero duration. The problem of avoiding a beginning has not been solved; it has simply been pushed back a finite number of cycles. If we’re going to reintroduce the idea of a truly cyclic universe, these two problems must be overcome. The cyclic model I will describe uses new ideas to do just that.

To appreciate why an alternative model is worth pursuing, it’s important to get a more detailed impression of what the consensus picture is like. Certainly some aspects are appealing. But what I want to argue is that, overall, the consensus model is not so simple. In particular, recent observations have forced us to amend the consensus model and make it more complicated. So, let me begin with an overview of the consensus model.

The consensus theory begins with the Big Bang: The universe has a beginning. It’s a standard assumption that people have made over the last fifty years, but it’s not something we can prove at present from any fundamental laws of physics. Furthermore, you have to assume that the universe began with an energy density less than the critical value. Otherwise, the universe would stop expanding and recollapse before the next stage of evolution, the inflationary epoch. In addition, to reach this inflationary stage, there must be some sort of energy to drive the inflation. Typically this is assumed to be due to an inflation field. You have to assume that in those patches of the universe that began at less than the critical density, a significant fraction of the energy is stored in inflation energy so that it can eventually overtake the universe and start the period of accelerated expansion. All of these are reasonable assumption, but assumptions nevertheless. It’s important to take into account these assumptions and ingredients, because they’re helpful in comparing the consensus model to the challenger.

Assuming these conditions are met, the inflation energy overtakes the matter and radiation after a few instants. The inflationary epoch commences, and the expansion of the universe accelerates at a furious pace. The inflation does a number of miraculous things: It makes the universe homogeneous, it makes the universe flat, and it leaves behind certain inhomogeneities, which are supposed to be the seeds for the formation of galaxies. Now the universe is prepared to enter the next stage of evolution with the right conditions. According to the inflationary model, the inflation energy decays into a hot gas of matter and radiation. After a second or so, there form the first light nuclei. After a few tens of thousands of years, the slowly moving matter dominates the universe. It’s during these stages that the first atoms form, the universe becomes transparent, and the structure in the universe begins to form—the first stars and galaxies. Up to this point, the story is relatively simple.

But there is the recent discovery that we’ve entered a new stage in the evolution of the universe. After the stars and galaxies have formed, something strange has happened to cause the expansion of the universe to speed up again. During the 15 billion years when matter and radiation dominated the universe and structure was forming, the expansion of the universe was slowing down, because the matter and radiation within it is gravitationally self-attractive and resists the expansion of the universe. Until very recently, it had been presumed that matter would continue to be the dominant form of energy in the universe and this deceleration would continue forever.

But we’ve discovered instead, due to recent observations, that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. This means that most of the energy of the universe is neither matter nor radiation. Rather, another form of energy has overtaken the matter and radiation. For lack of a better term, this new energy form is called dark energy. Dark energy, unlike the matter and radiation we’re familiar with, is gravitationally self-repulsive. That’s why it causes the expansion to speed up rather than slow down. In Newton’s theory of gravity, all mass is gravitationally attractive, but Einstein’s theory allows the possibility of forms of energy that are gravitationally self-repulsive.

I don’t think either the physics or cosmology communities, or even the general public, have fully absorbed the full implications of this discovery. This is a revolution in the grand historic sense—in the Copernican sense. In fact, if you think about Copernicus—from whom we derive the word “revolution”—his importance was that he changed our notion of space and of our position in the universe. By showing that the Earth revolves around the sun, he triggered a chain of ideas that led us to the notion that we live in no particular place in the universe; there’s nothing special about where we are. Now we’ve discovered something very strange about the nature of time: that we may live in no special place, but we do live at a special time, a time of recent transition from deceleration to acceleration; from one in which matter and radiation dominate the universe to one in which they are rapidly becoming insignificant components; from one in which structure is forming in ever larger scales to one in which now, because of this accelerated expansion, structure formation stops. We are in the midst of the transition between these two stages of evolution. And just as Copernicus’ proposal that the Earth is no longer the center of the universe led to a chain of ideas that changed our whole outlook on the structure of the solar system and eventually to the structure of the universe, it shouldn’t be too surprising that perhaps this new discovery of cosmic acceleration could lead to a whole change in our view of cosmic history. That’s a big part of the motivation for thinking about our alternative proposal.

With these thoughts about the consensus model in mind, let me turn to the cyclic proposal. Since it’s cyclic, I’m allowed to begin the discussion of the cycle at any point I choose. To make the discussion parallel, I’ll begin at a point analogous to the Big Bang; I’ll call it the Bang. This is a point in the cycle where the universe reaches its highest temperature and density. In this scenario, though, unlike the Big Bang model, the temperature and density don’t diverge. There is a maximal, finite temperature. It’s a very high temperature, around 1020 degrees Kelvin—hot enough to evaporate atoms and nuclei into their fundamental constituents—but it’s not infinite. In fact, it’s well below the so-called Planck energy scale, where quantum gravity effects dominate. The theory begins with a bang and then proceeds directly to a phase dominated by radiation. In this scenario you do not have the inflation one has in the standard scenario. You still have to explain why the universe is flat, you still have to explain why the universe is homogeneous, and you still have to explain where the fluctuations came from that led to the formation of galaxies, but that’s not going to be explained by an early stage of inflation. It’s going to be explained by yet a different stage in the cyclic universe, which I’ll get to.

In this new model, you go directly to a radiation-dominated universe and form the usual nuclear abundances; then go directly to a matter-dominated universe in which the atoms and galaxies and larger-scale structure form; and then proceed to a phase of the universe dominated by dark energy. In the standard case, the dark energy comes as a surprise, since it’s something you have to add into the theory to make it consistent with what we observe. In the cyclic model, the dark energy moves to center stage as the key ingredient that is going to drive the universe, and in fact drives the universe, into the cyclic evolution. The first thing the dark energy does when it dominates the universe is what we observe today: It causes the expansion of the universe to begin to accelerate. Why is that important? Although this acceleration rate is 100 orders of magnitude smaller than the acceleration thatone gets in inflation, if you give the universe enough time it actually accomplishes the same feat that inflation does. Over time, it thins out the distribution of matter and radiation in the universe, making the universe more and more homogeneous and isotropic—in fact, making it perfectly so—driving it into what is essentially a vacuum state.

Seth Lloyd said there were 1080 or 1090 bits inside the horizon, but if you were to look around the universe in a trillion years, you would find on average no bits inside your horizon, or less than one bit inside your horizon. In fact, when you count these bits, it’s important to realize that now that the universe is accelerating, our computer is actually losing bits from inside our horizon. This is something that we observe.

At the same time that the universe is made homogeneous and isotropic, it is also being made flat. If the universe had any warp or curvature to it, or if you think about the universe stretching over this long period of time, although it’s a slow process it makes the space extremely flat. If it continued forever, of course, that would be the end of the story. But in this scenario, just like inflation, the dark energy survives only for a finite period and triggers a series of events that eventually lead to a transformation of energy from gravity into new energy and radiation that will then start a new period of expansion of the universe. From a local observer’s point of view, it looks like the universe goes through exact cycles; that is to say, it looks like the universe empties out each round and a new matter and radiation is created, leading to a new period of expansion. In this sense it’s a cyclic universe. If you were a global observer and could see the entire universe, you’d discover that our three dimensions are forever infinite in this story. What’s happened is that at each stage when we create matter and radiation, it gets thinned out. It’s out there somewhere, but it’s getting thinned out. Locally, it looks like the universe is cyclic, but globally the universe has a steady evolution, a well-defined era in which, over time and throughout our three dimensions, entropy increases from cycle to cycle.

Exactly how this works in detail can be described in various ways. I will choose to present a very nice geometrical picture that’s motivated by superstring theory. We use only a few basic elements from superstring theory, so you don’t really have to know anything about superstring theory to understand what I’m going to talk about, except to understand that some of the strange things I’m going to introduce I am not introducing for the first time. They’re already sitting there in superstring theory waiting to be put to good purpose.

One of the ideas in superstring theory is that there are extra dimensions; it’s an essential element to that theory, which is necessary to make it mathematically consistent. In one particular formulation of that theory, the universe has a total of eleven dimensions. Six of them are curled up into a little ball so tiny that, for my purposes, I’m just going to pretend they’re not there. However, there are three spatial dimensions, one time dimension, and one additional dimension that I do want to consider. In this picture, our three dimensions with which we’re familiar and through which we move lie along a hypersurface, or membrane. This membrane is a boundary of the extra dimension. There is another boundary, or membrane, on the other side. In between, there’s an extra dimension that, if you like, only exists over a certain interval. It’s like we are one end of a sandwich, in between which there is a so-called bulk volume of space. These surfaces are referred to as orbifolds or branes—the latter referring to the word “membrane.” The branes have physical properties. They have energy and momentum, and when you excite them you can produce things like quarks and electrons. We are composed of the quarks and electrons on one of these branes. And, since quarks and leptons can only move along branes, we are restricted to moving along and seeing only the three dimensions of our brane. We cannot see directly the bulk or any matter on the other brane.

In the cyclic universe, at regular intervals of trillions of years, these two branes smash together. This creates all kinds of excitations—particles and radiation. The collision thereby heats up the branes, and then they bounce apart again. The branes are attracted to each other through a force that acts just like a spring, causing the branes to come together at regular intervals. To describe it more completely, what’s happening is that the universe goes through two kinds of stages of motion. When the universe has matter and radiation in it, or when the branes are far enough apart, the main motion is the branes stretching, or, equivalently, our three dimensions expanding. During this period, the branes more or less remain a fixed distance apart. That’s what’s been happening, for example, in the last 15 billion years. During these stages, our three dimensions are stretching just as they normally would. At a microscopic distance away, there is another brane sitting and expanding, but since we can’t touch, feel, or see across the bulk, we can’t sense it directly. If there is a clump of matter over there, we can feel the gravitational effect, but we can’t see any light or anything else it emits, because anything it emits is going to move along that brane. We only see things that move along our own brane.

Next, the energy associated with the force between these branes takes over the universe. From our vantage point on one of the branes, this acts just like the dark energy we observe today. It causes the branes to accelerate in their stretching, to the point where all the matter and radiation produced since the last collision is spread out and the branes become essentially smooth, flat, empty surfaces. If you like, you can think of them as being wrinkled and full of matter up to this point, and then stretching by a fantastic amount over the next trillion years. The stretching causes the mass and energy on the brane to thin out and the wrinkles to be smoothed out. After trillions of years, the branes are, for all intents and purposes, smooth, flat, parallel, and empty.

Then the force between these two branes slowly brings the branes together. As it brings them together, the force grows stronger and the branes speed toward one another. When they collide, there’s a walloping impact—enough to create a high density of matter and radiation with a very high, albeit finite, temperature. The two branes go flying apart, more or less back to where they are, and then the new matter and radiation, through the action of gravity, causes the branes to begin a new period of stretching.

In this picture, it’s clear that the universe is going through periods of expansion and a funny kind of contraction. Where the two branes come together, it’s not a contraction of our dimensions but a contraction of the extra dimension. Before the contraction, all matter and radiation has been spread out, but, unlike the old cyclic models of the 1920s and ’30s, it doesn’t come back together again during the contraction, because our three dimensions—that is, the branes—remain stretched out. Only the extra dimension contracts. This process repeats itself cycle after cycle.

If you compare the cyclic model to the consensus picture, two of the functions of inflation—namely, flattening and homogenizing the universe—are accomplished by the period of accelerated expansion that we’ve now just begun. Of course, I really mean the analogous expansion that occurred one cycle ago, before the most recent Bang. The third function of inflation—producing fluctuations in the density—occurs as these two branes come together. As they approach, quantum fluctuations cause the branes to begin to wrinkle. And because they’re wrinkled, they don’t collide everywhere at the same time. Rather, some regions collide a bit earlier than others. This means that some regions reheat to a finite temperature and begin to cool a little bit before other regions. When the branes come apart again, the temperature of the universe is not perfectly homogeneous but has spatial variations left over from the quantum wrinkles.

Remarkably, although the physical processes are completely different and the time scale is completely different—this is taking billions of years, instead of  10-30 seconds—it turns out that the spectrum of fluctuations you get in the distribution of energy and temperature is essentially the same as what you get in inflation. Hence, the cyclic model is also in exquisite agreement with all of the measurements of the temperature and mass distribution of the universe that we have today.

Because the physics in these two models is quite different, there is an important distinction in what we would observe if one or the other were actually true—although this effect has not been detected yet. In inflation when you create fluctuations, you don’t just create fluctuations in energy and temperature but you also create fluctuations in spacetime itself, so-called gravitational waves. That’s a feature we hope to look for in experiments in the coming decades as a verification of the consensus model. In our model, you don’t get those gravitational waves. The essential difference is that inflationary fluctuations are created in a hyperrapid, violent process that is strong enough to create gravitational waves, whereas cyclic fluctuations are created in an ultraslow, gentle process that is too weak to produce gravitational waves. That’s an example where the two models give an observational prediction that is dramatically different. It’s just difficult to observe at the present time.

What’s fascinating at the moment is that we have two paradigms now available to us. On the one hand, they are poles apart in terms of what they tell us about the nature of time, about our cosmic history, about the order in which events occur, and about the time scale on which they occur. On the other hand, they are remarkably similar in terms of what they predict about the universe today. Ultimately what will decide between the two is a combination of observations—for example, the search for cosmic gravitational waves—and theory, because a key aspect to this scenario entails assumptions about what happens at the collision between branes that might be checked or refuted in superstring theory. In the meantime, for the next few years, we can all have great fun speculating about the implications of each of these ideas and how we can best distinguish between them.

Paul Steinhardt is a  theoretical physicist, an Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University and coauthor (with Neil Turok) of “Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang.” This piece originally appeared as a speech by Steinhardt at an event in 2002. It has been excerpted here as it appears in “The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos.” Copyright © 2014 by Edge Foundation Inc. Published by Harper Perennial

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