What will happen to America?

10Q, Volume 4

Hello y’all,

as you may have realized (or not), this newsletter is currently on a lighter schedule. And as some of you know, this has to do with us being busy: We are currently packing because we are preparing for our move back to Germany… which is this weekend! The boxes are piling up, as is the weird feeling leaving the United States after five years (good Californian memories pictured above). At the same time we are looking forward to re-discovering Germany and connect with old and new friends. It’s been a while.

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter around once a month (yes, I changed that to accomodate my schedule).

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. What will become of the United States?

So this is a personal question, isn’t it? Obviously, we have learned to like a lot about this country and its people. And we have learned to like European things like healthcare for all or Europe being a pretty gunless zone. Probably I won’t miss running into someone with a cowboy hat and a colt in his holster at the gas station. Or riding my bike past a murder scene during daylight in New Orleans.

But I will miss the optimism, the can-do and the possibilities regarding change.

Which is the thing that you always have to take into account: This country is permanently changing, demographically as well as culturally, more than any other Western nation. Germany now won’t be much different from Germany in ten years, probably. But the U.S.? You never know, and nowadays you have a lot of kids who have an altruistic tendency.

Keeping your altruism isn’t easy here, it is all about hustle and competition, real one or fake. The biggest American lie concerns meritocracy, everyone being able to make it just by talent and hard work. It occasionally happens, but not as often as the myth makes you believe. In the end, it is all about money. Nothing drives this country more than money, sometimes it is about pure survival, sometimes about simple accumulation or greed. Especially outside money in politics is a poison. A poison that won’t go away anytime soon, thanks to the American Supreme Court and its conservative leanings.

So what can we expect? Political stagnation, no matter who occupies the White House. More activity on the level of cities and States. This will be interesting to watch. An endless political marketing war about what really makes America great. A cold civil war between the two parties, with Republicans being the ones who have long left the common ground of decency and representative democracy. Continued mergers between megacompanies. Continued segregation between the haves and the have-nots, rhetorically and socially often along ethnical identities (this has gotten worse, I can tell you). And the hope that everything might change. Because it might. A lot of people are working on it. This is an empire in decline, for sure. But not yet in free fall.

2. Are we worrying too much about global population growth?

Paul Morland has written a book about global population growth, and he is not shying away from cinematic metaphors: “Demographic development is like a film playing at different times in different cinemas; although the screening has yet to finish at a number of venues, we know how it ends.” Spoiler: It ends with fewer children, as urbanization, growth of wealth and better education for women leads to less fertility.

This resonates with the regular criticism about the United Nations projections: According to the UN, 11.2 billion people will inhabit the planet in the year 2100. But the calculation doesn’t factor in economic development. As it stands, there are a lot of unknowns - especially climate change, which could change things either way.

Slower population growth would be good news. Not on a national level, as far as retirement systems in Germany or China are concerned, but on a planetary and ecosystemic scale (read: individual access to clean water).

And for Mr. Morland, it is good news for peace, as well. He argues: Older societies (hey Germany!) tend to be less dynamic and innovative, but also more peaceful. Because they actually do not have enough young people to send to war, at least before robots solve that problem. Which could be pretty soon, actually, though I suppose Bundeswehr robots would melt in the sun.

3. What should we make of the new European industry policy?

The EU parliament ratified the Copyright Directive this week. The debate was more heated than a group of Franconians arguing about who gets the last sausage on the Schlachtplatte.

But I don’t want to dwell on the details, you can read my German take over there. What I found interesting is the Economist’s interpretation: The reform as another example for the French-German-led “Europe that protects” with interventionist policies for key industries.

If Germany and France are destined to become (more) interventionist, this is something that will be felt beyond the European border. And obviously, it would not have been possible with a U.K. that stays in the E.U. as a counterweight.

But will it lead to good outcomes? I am open to expect surprises, especially as far as multinational taxation is concerned. But the history shows that France and Germany tend to favour incumbents, not innovation. There is a French saying: “Trop de choix tue le choix” (“Too much choice kills the choice”), but there is a difference between fending off Chinese acquisition attempts and pushing the same old industries because they’ve always had a seat at the table.

4. Will we call our current financial age a scam?

Profitability - at least in the near future - used to be a thing. Not so much since the financial crisis, though: Lyft has IPOed with $24 billion valuation and Uber will soon, but they might never be profitable - except one of them catches the whole market and will be able to raise prices. Same thing for Fracking: It has been kept afloat by large credit lines when oil was cheap, because banks were afraid to go under when the fracking companies collapse. But even when oil reaches $100 a barrel, the frackers will not be able to make returns on their large investments.

Another example: As I recently found out via Justin Rogers-Cooper, American telecommunications giant AT&T is probably the most indebted company in history. Its only way to become profitable beyond being able to pay billions of interest each year: Become a monopoly, raise prices. If this all sounds zombiesque… it is. We are living in a post-financial-crisis-world. I am not sure waking up (or being the sucker who will pay the bill) will be pleasant.

5. Can Southern Louisiana be saved?

When we lived down in New Orleans, driving to Plaquemines Parish was weird. It is the closest you can come to the Mississippi Delta, but the area is mostly devoid of people now. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita (both 2005) and Isaac (2011) flooded everything and the next storm will surely come. A lot of people just left and never returned.

"Plaquemines has the distinction of being among the fastest-disappearing places on Earth. Every hour and a half, Louisiana sheds another football field’s worth of land. Every few minutes, it drops a tennis court’s worth”, Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her feature about the attempts to save the land from the rising sea levels swallowing it.

She is also going into the details of engineering artificial landmass by pumping mud from the Mississippi and spreading it on the land next to it. But the ground is becoming marshland, and the marshland is becoming water quickly. This may be Ground Zero for climate change in North America, but the ground is disappearing.

(Aerial Photo: Kris Krüg, Flickr, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

6. Will we take a pill to forget?

Remember this term: “Therapeutical forgetting”. Or take a pill and forget about it. This is what scientists have been working on for a couple of years. What sounds great in trauma therapy & PTSD has ethical implications. Remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey: Running into your ex becomes even more complicated when you’ve erased your memories!

But on a more serious note: What a victim of a crime could use, the proprietor of a crime could use as well. Obviously. And what good is forgetting the shame of vomiting on your friends drunkenly in a cab, when there definitely exists a video nowadays? And of course, many of your memories do not belong to yourself alone, they exist in the complicated realm of eyewitnesses, situations, society. Memories… they are decentralized, just like the blockchain!

7. Will we DJ in code?

I am in an age now where I am easy prey for bouncers who have to fulfill a quota for turning people away from nightclubs. But I would be highly interested to find out whether “Algoraves” are truly a thing - or just a consequence of all DJs having moved away from the expensive & technoid Bay Area, where this trend allegedly is from.

Algoraves means not a DJ are making music, but somebody who is massaging algorithms to get different sound textures. Kind of like synthesizers, but with bells, whistles and lines of code, not coke. It seems to be a logical rebirth of DJs who have been relegated to queue up MP3s in many cases. Though I actually don’t know because, as I mentioned, I won’t be allowed anywhere near a dancefloor, let alone a DJ booth.

8. Are we overdoing dystopia?

Dystopia is having a field day: It is on TV, in our political commentary, in our nightmares about the future. And in literature it is having another Renaissance, too.

There are arguments that we are mixing things up here: An awful situation doesn’t equal dystopia. And dystopia normally refers to a utopia gone bad. Yes, we will have a lot of discussions about the semantics.

One question that sticks out to me is: Would we be even able to recognize a dystopia? “We” in this case means the privileged ones who do not have to bear most consequences of money-extracting capitalism, waste, pollution and regular hot-earth natural disasters? And will empathy be enough in the face of disaster, dystopian or not?

9. Can cryptocurrencies recover?


10. Has pot become too strong?

Yes, I am looking at you as Example A (from the camera in your brain)! I am kidding, but the problem is real, according to a new study: Regular use of cannabis with more than 10% THC increases the risk of developing psychosis five-fold. Girl Scout Cookies is not as innocent as it sounds.

It is still early, but the availability of American stoners will make it easy to do more testing. We could come to a point where we have mandatory maximum potency, just like we have with alcohol in beer and wine.

That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading and see you on the other side of the ocean!

Is politics becoming our new religion?

10Q, Volume 3

Hello y’all,

I admit I skipped an edition mid of January, but I was travelling. The journey was of the inspiring kind, so I don’t regret it (though I apologize to those who clicked refresh night and day, waiting for this delivery). Being back always feels weird, though the person in the picture above isn’t me, but some weird future guy out of a futuristic and deeply weird fashion video.

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter twice a month. If all goes well.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Is politics becoming our new religion?

If you dare to open political Twitter these days, you will find - among other things - many phenomenons that strangely remind you of religion: Different sects and their preachers, a chorus of Likes and Retweets. Heresy, fundamentalism, intolerance. And rituals that don’t resemble so much debates, but attempts to convert somebody (or preach to the choir of your own peer-group). It’s like Judaea in year zero!

All of this makes John Gray the philosopher of the hour. His book “Seven Types of Atheism” has been received with great interest here in the U.S.. In it, Gray makes the argument that Western atheists are still using a religious mindset - often substituting theism with the idea of progress that includes a linear path to a final, perfect state of being: Communism, a world ruled by science, a world of liberated individualism, a libertarian world, etc. Redemption, my friends!

All of this is political, and a current poll comes to a related conclusion: Non-religious Americans, who are normally Progressives, show the highest enthusiasm for political engagement.

As you can guess, Gray is a light conservative and thinkers before him like Christopher Lasch have criticised this religious (but often empty) vision of progress as well. In 2019, it seems timely again: History hasn’t ended; climate change, the success of the authoritarian mindset and inequality not only challenge our idea of progress, but at the same time make the fight against all three phenomenons an urgent necessity to act. But is this a search for redemption or are we truly in survival-mode?

One punchline of Gray’s thinking is that we might solve problems, only to find them returning the next day in different form. We are not coming closer to a goal, but live through slightly changing landscapes in repeating seasons. Acceptance of this is the basis of the conservative belief-system; for Progressives, this acceptance would mean nihilism. No wonder we get all religious about it.

2. Are we making progress, anyway?

Last year’s thinker of the hour, Stephen Pinker, has been thoroughly deconstructed in the last couple of weeks. Progress is not only hard to measure, it is unevenly distributed and your judgement also depends on your mindset: Are you an optimist? A pessimist? A possibilist? Grand narratives often don’t apply. At least not without footnotes.

The anthropologist Jason Hickel surely is not an optimist, but he’d probably consider himself a realist with a left perspective. He recently attacked Pinker and Bill Gates, arguing that poverty is up, not down. And he has also been suggesting to follow the suggestion of Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge: “Pogge argues that the morally relevant metric of progress against poverty is neither absolute numbers nor proportions, but rather the extent of global poverty compared to our capacity to end it.”

Hickel makes this calculation: “In 1990, it would have cost 10.5% of world GDP to lift everyone above the poverty line.  In 2013, it would have cost only 3.3%.  Our capacity to end poverty has improved by a factor of 3.18.  Meanwhile, the poverty rate has improved only by a factor of 1.23.” Meaning: “Morally, we are failing worse than back then.”

Well, obviously this is a damning verdict. And obviously, GPD and capital are important factors to get a complex picture - and one could include many others (for example the fact that a lot of labor, mostly done by women, still isn’t paid at all, nowhere).

3. Is the age of Slowbalisation upon us?

2018 was the year when the coming trade wars took shape, when governments curbed foreign investments in some sectors and multinational companies started to reorganize their supply chains. 2019, a word for the bigger picture makes it into mainstream: Slowbalisation, a new phase that is reshaping globalisation.

The Economist made a funky move (funky Brits!) and put Slowbalisation on the cover. The magazine names several causes: Trading has stopped getting cheaper, cheap labour is becoming less important because production gets automated, services are growing and can’t be internationalized as easily (just ask doctors about the paperwork necessary to work in another country). I can definitely see slowbalisation becoming snowball-like, leading into further distress: the services-sector is very automatable and always prone to cost-cutting, and the renationalisation of supply chains away from China can be interpreted as pre-war-measures. Or maybe we are just living through a re-regionalisation of trade and commerce.

4. Are we colonizing the future?

Is short-terminism civilization’s greatest threat? That’s the question Richard Fisher is asking in an excellent essay. It is a well-thought argument about how we can’t see our longterm responsibility, because we are only acting on recent news. We are not living and acting like we’ll have descendants. Which is an irresponsibility, taking into account how many will still follow us on earth:

The philosopher Roman Krznaric uses a drastic concept: “We treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk.” The weird thing to me is that we imagine the consequences of climate change as a kind of apocalyptic moment, the end of the world. But the world will continue, and humans will continue to exist. The question is, in what kind of circumstances.

5. Will makeup for men become a regular feature?

To a lighter topic, an obituary: Remember the metrosexual? He’s dead, as grooming has become a regular feat of male existence.

I admit I’ve had my share of lotions and contribute to the market-growth of male beauty products (which is projected to hit $60 billion in the United States by 2020). But I am already being left behind, as male makeup is becoming a thing. More and more companies are launching their own cosmetics line. Eyeliner, meet guyliner! The trend has been coming out of Korea’s K-Pop-universe, now China is catching on. As trends globalize, and as we want to become like our best Instagram-filter-self and as gender has become multiple-choice, this seems to be a new, hot market. But let me warn you, fellow European men: To get the famous “chok-chok”-look of fresh radiance, it is not enough to simply wear cold cream!

6. Will we ever stop freaking out about objects in space?

People tend to anthropomorphize (giving objects & animals human traits). Maybe nowhere more so than in space, which reminds me of the one night many years ago when I was seeing Beethoven’s face on the moon (recreational Marihuana was involved).

The latest example is going far beyond hallucinating, though: The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is so elegantly shaped that there’s a serious discussion (and a lot of clickbait-articles) about whether it could have been designed by aliens. Astronomer Steve Desch is keeping his cool and offers a reality-check: “‘Oumuamua is simply the latest object onto which we have pareidoliacally projected our hopes and desires”, he reckons, using a word (pareidoliacally) that even Google has problems finding. But the bottom line is: We see a face on Mars and Beethoven in the moon and it is a beautiful thing - human beings love mystery and long for connecting with the extraterrestrial.

7. Are we looking for the ideal astronauts in the wrong places?

The dream of space, or rather leaving our soon uncomfortable earth to populate Mars, is taking the fascination to another level. And it has been catching on, even though nothing except complete destruction could make earth less inhabitable than Mars…

But who is best suited to make it into space, anyway? Rose Eveleth makes the argument that people with disabilities are the ideal astronauts, as they are used to adapting to environments that are not suited for them: Blind astronauts would be able to navigate after the lights shut down inside the spacecraft. Amputees are used to moving their body in unison with a piece of technology. You get the idea. Constraints can be assets!

8. Another wave of internet blackouts?

In January, the governments of DR Congo and Gabon temporarily shut down the internet. For political reasons, not because they read the German Feuilleton or Professor Manfred Spitzer. The island of Tonga was more or less offline for two weeks because of a torn underwater cable.

Justin Sherman argues that we are going to see more blackouts this year, as nations like China, Russia and Iran lead the efforts to establish an internet with national borders. Sherman also warns about attacks on internet-infrastructure via turning connected devices into botnets. Your smart lightbulbs, fridges etc. that you never wanted to buy anyway. A quick reminder: We don’t have common security standards for the “Internet of things”, nor for the new 5G mobile network. This mixture of neglect and international inwardness might come to haunt us.

9. Will ageing societies get a “deliberately-criminal-seniors”-problem?

Something is going on in Japan, as this graphic tells us:

According to the BBC, more and more Japanese pensioners are living in jail. The reasons? One group wants to retire in prison, as the combination of loneliness and measly basic state pensions make growing old in the “real world” hard. Therefore they deliberately commit small crimes like shoplifting or bike-theft. The other reason: Judges are handing out tougher sentences for such petty crimes. The risk of poverty is a constant factor in all ageing societies, and it is breaking the promise of living in an industrialized nation. The Japanese case is not only cruel, but weird. Imagine getting to know other inmates and asking them: “Are you here serving time or retiring?”

10. How will we cope with automated early diagnosis?

If you know you are going to get Alzheimer’s disease, even though the first symptoms are years away: What would you do? This is the question a successful project by the University of California in San Francisco is raising. They used prediction machines (also known as “Artificial Intelligence”, AI) to analyse brain scans. The software was able to spot Alzheimer six years ahead of the first clinical diagnosis by human doctors. Which opens the possibility for early treatment (though Alzheimer’s is incurable as of now), but also the perspective of patients having some bad years by just knowing their memory is going to fade soon. Automated early diagnosis is expected to be a regular feature of medicine soon, and with it comes better treatment, but also the burden of knowledge (similar to genetic diseases that kick in later or get passed on to your kids).

That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading!

Is environmentalism only for the rich?

10Q, Volume 2

Hello y’all,

welcome to another edition of “10 Questions For the Future”, my newsletter. Or should I say “newsletter magazine”, because it sounds cooler and takes into account the length?

Anyways, as I am writing this on the last weekend of the year, we are trying to identify the differences between Gray Foxes and Coyotes out here in Texas. An animal that could be both has been showing up in our neighborhood, looking like a mixture between a wolf and an oversized German shepherd dog (remember: everything is bigger in Texas). The key difference: Coyotes eat pets, while gray foxes prefer to climb trees to prey on birds. You are supposed to spot the difference by looking at the tail. It is all very wild out here (I recently blogged about the neighborhood wildlife if you want to share my joy about these encounters).

But on to this edition. In case it’s the first time you’re reading this, some info:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► See this more like a small magazine if you don’t find time right away. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter in 2019.

► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Is environmentalism only for the rich?

There has been an interesting secondary discussion going on about the Yellow Vest protests in France. As you might remember (or not, because it is all rather confusing), their reason for taking to the streets in the first place was the higher gasoline tax, which has been postponed for now. Such a climate-tax affects you more if you live in rural and peri-urban areas and/or have a lower income.

The American sociologist Neil Gross suggests that the protests symbolise how deeply environmentalism is stuck, as such taxes lead to the perception that it is a project of the rich:

“Contrary to the theory of postmaterialism, the well-off aren’t the only ones who care about climate change and the environment. Yet in many of today’s capitalist democracies, class and status resentments, fostered by rampant inequality and whipped up by opportunistic politicians, have developed to such an extent that issues like the environment that affect everyone are increasingly seen through the lens of group conflict and partisan struggle.”

As a commenter under the article notes, inequality is also continuingly contributing to climate change. In unequal societies, people want to catch up with the better off. And the only accepted method to structurally solve poverty is economic growth, which is connected to higher CO2-emissions.

This obviously means that degrowth (an economy that is not based on rising output) cannot work without tackling inequality. Enter Branko Milanovic, my favourite researcher-firebrand. He uses the French climate-tax to attack ideas about degrowth and climate-protection that lack details and substance.

“Proponents of degrowth and those who argue that we need to do something dramatic regarding climate change are singularly coy and shy when it comes to pointing out who is going to bear the costs of these changes.” 

That is pretty much on point and you don’t have to wear a yellow vest to agree (though I have recently seen people wearing yellow vests when they walk their dogs around the neighborhood).

2. Is Organic Farming harming the planet?

The New England Skeptical Society (which I was disappointed to find out are not Freemasons in lab-outfits) has been arguing against organic farming for a long time. The current validation of this argument comes from a new study that was published in Nature. In short: It is all about land-use.

To calculate the CO2-emissions, the scientists (who didn’t declare any conflicts of interest, in case you wonder) included opportunity cost. What does that mean? Well, organic farming is less productive than conventional farming, so we need more farmland, which means less forests and meadows that can catch carbon. And, surprise:

The authors of the paper in Nature conclude: “A finite global land area implies that fulfilling these strategies requires increasing global land-use efficiency of both storing carbon and producing food.”

In all fairness, this equation is not completely fair and conventional agriculture itself brings a lot of problems regarding the effects of pesticides as well as soil degradation. But it is clear that the combination of a growing world population and climate change necessitates a systemic solution (probably starting with repairing the soil that has already made one third of the farmland worldwide unproductive).

3. Will Urban Farming become sustainable?

Speaking of farming: Urban farming has become something like a cultural movement recently, bringing with it countless stereotypes about city hipsters in Latzhosen talking to their tomatoes. But is this kind of agriculture effective? Well, not yet, says a study from Australia that Ars Technica explained. The study is only a limited snapshot, but makes the argument to better link urban farms to existing systems. By using compost from city resources instead of buying it, for example, or by storing rainwater (which some municipalities do not allow). Actually, I thought this already was being done!

A lot of inefficiency is also hidden in the labor that’s necessary, though it is a hobby for most gardeners, I suppose. Well, at least from the “carbon and land-use”-angle could say that urban gardens should only be done on top of buildings. And of course, vertical farming will be much more interesting as far as efficiency is concerned. Though less hip, I suppose.

4. What does reality mean in the internet-age?

Max Read recently listed all the things that have become fake on the internet. Fake clicks, fake people, fake content, fake influence. For god’s sake, even aspiring Instagram influencers are posting fake sponsored content to get real sponsorship deals. Oh and about those thousands of video-views…

(btw: how do they route the IP-addresses?)

You can laugh about it, but it would be funnier if it wasn’t this complicated to fix it. But it is. Traffic and influence measurement has been following the same shady metrics that the advertising industry always has been known for. Networks have become too big, content works too deeply with emotional triggers. Disinformation has become a business model.

So this involves different corners to look for a solution, like auditing (advertising), antitrust (companies), realism about the long tail (in a world of near endless content it’s hard to build something steady), media-awareness (becoming fluent in building networked knowledge) and questioning individualism (placing authentic personalities above what they say & feeling like as human beings we deserve an audience). And there is a role the government has to play regarding disinformation, but it has to be a measured one, or we are going to find ourselves in censorship- and surveillance-territory, especially as social media is becoming more private (groups, chats).

I am still trying to figure out a unified theory about this, so if you don’t hear from me again, my head has probably exploded while doing so.

5. Will truth survive or succumb?

This is obviously related to the above. I can recommend this primer by Jonathan Rauch about how we’ve been creating knowledge and identifying truth since the enlightenment. It is incredibly long, but I appreciate the optimistic conclusion, especially after another year of madness and disorientation.

The complex, professional evidence-based enterprises are still around (like science, jurisprudence, academia, and yes, even journalism - don’t mention Mr. Relotius). What they need is an update to make their methods transparent, as well as even more importantly time and the right incentives to do a proper job. Especially the time-factor has been underestimated, methinks.

6. Is dating without context a good idea?

It has been five years since Tinder launched, and the app has “changed the history of romance”, as Ashley Fetters suggests. One thing that stands out in her analysis is the loss of context that mobile dating has brought about: No context about who the other person hangs out with (like you have when you meet somebody in a social context) or who you both know, not even common interests like classic dating-websites shared.

Which is good, because this means you meet people from different walks of life. And bad, because no context means no social punishment for being rude. And to me, it appears there is always the context of Tinder itself: What people are using it for (don’t start looking for platonic friendships) and certain strategies to impress or appear more likeable.

7. How powerful is the impact of social media movements?

I finally found time to read a recent XXL-interview with the British filmmaker Adam Curtis, who has always been challenging how we construct society and reality. You get and idea of his aesthetic by watching the trailer to “HyperNormalisation”, his latest documentary.

Curtis says many smart things, but I want to quote him about the internet/social-media movements:

“I have this working theory that the internet is the HR [human resources] department for the world. I know because I work for a big corporation [the BBC]. If somebody behaves badly HR swoops in, your desk is cleared and you’re booted out of the building within hours. They never question the system that made that person behave badly. The HR people would never do that. And that’s exactly what the internet is doing at the moment. It identifies bad peoples, swoops in and ejects them. What it never does is question the system and in that way the internet reflects the corporatism of the people who invented it.”

Which kind of fits into my theory that the early 21st century will be known as an age where most people have been trained to focus on symptoms, while conveniently ignoring the roots of our problems. Though I would happy to see this as being a phase we will grow out of.

8. Will vegetarians eat lab-grown meat?

In 2019, lab-grown meat is said to hit supermarkets in the United States. “Lab-grown” means the tissue is made by synthetically replicating meat-cells. But would this make it “meat” as in “something a vegetarian/vegan would not eat?”. As people who know me can guess: As a vegetarian I would very much like to know this myself.

This is why I was happy to find philosopher Michael LaBossiere tackling the existential question: What is meat? Which is pretty similar to the question “Is golf a sport?”, as one commenter noted. But only more complicated!

I won’t replicate LaBossiere’s thoughts, as they are worthwhile reading, but it comes down to what I was kind of suspecting: You have to find out what happened to the original animal. If a cow was killed for the cells of a meatless steak, you are strictly eating the cow, though in an abstract way. The tricky thing is how you morally handle this abstraction (which LaBossiere covers in “The metaphysics of meat”). I suppose vegans won’t eat it anyway because the cells were deviated from an animal. And I guess it would be cheating for me to first taste and then decide, right?

9. Will technology billionaires rule the Democrats?

America’s parties are weak and have always been so. This is why since 2016 there has been a quiet push by some actors in the technology industry to become more influential in the Democratic party (beyond donating millions).

To achieve this, Reid Hoffman (who founded LinkedIn, among other things) and Mark Pincus (Zynga) founded a political umbrella organisation called WTF in 2017, and now Hoffman has been getting into the voter-data-business. If you have granular voter data and can decide who to give it to, this makes you an important player - and it weakens the central party organisation (DNC).

Politico reports that some people in the DNC are freaking out about this, and you can easily imagine Hoffman becoming a kingmaker down the road, though obviously there are many factors involved (including torches and pitchforks, as far as the relationship between left-wing Democrats and the tech industry is concerned).

Everybody who has followed city politics in San Francisco know that the political emissaries of big tech like to play dirty, and as the NYT reports, Hoffman was using “similarly deceptive tactics [like the 2016 “Russian operations”] to divide Republican voters ahead of the Alabama Senate race in 2017. This is pretty creepy and could become even more interesting.

10. Are regular TV antennas making a comeback?

In the U.S., they apparently do. You get around five to two dozen channels with a digital antenna. Not much, compared with cable television. But do you need any more in a time when you can stream almost everything and cable is costing you around 80+ Dollars, internet not included? The fun thing about this kind of unbundling has been that choice can be interpreted as a menace, as we only have 24 hours each day. Or rather: 36-40 hours if you include multitasking and casual media-consumption.

That’s it for this edition. This week’s cover picture is from the HBO-series Succession. I hope everyone of you will have a great and healthy 2019. See you on the other side!

The End Of Hypocrisy?

10Q, inaugural edition

Hello y’all,

you are the (self-)chosen few first subscribers of “10 Questions For the Future”, my new newsletter. Thank you for opening this!

This is how the format will roll:

► This newsletter includes ten topics I’ve been stumbling upon and have been thinking about. As the title suggests, more questions with context than direct answers.

► It starts with a technology focus and goes on to cover a broader range of issues once you get closer to number ten. Feel free to skip what’s not your cup of tea or read on later. It will still matter tomorrow, hopefully.

► I will send this newsletter every 10-15 days.

► My name is Johannes, I am located in Austin, Texas. And I am happy to talk about these questions or anything else, here or @kopfzeiler (German) @johakuhn.

Here we go.

1. Will hypocrisy become impossible?

The Hyprocalypse is coming! At least this is what Robin Hanson has been proclaiming in one of the more original futurist ideas this year. The argument goes like this: Your face doesn’t lie and we will live to meet technology that is excellent at reading your feelings in real-time (for example via Augmented Reality). Thus, technology and hypocrisy are on a collision course in a couple of decades, surfacing secret crushes on office-mates or giving you trouble with that angry guy in the bar who recognises that you think he’s an idiot.

To be honest, when I first heard the term I thought Hyprocalypse was describing the impossibility to fool yourself about whether you lead a moral life. All the infos about your ecological footprint, the impact of things you do and products you use are becoming readily available. No way to pretend you live sustainably. But I guess that’s me, feeling the crushing guilt about climate change coming for humanity.

But let’s stick with Robin’s idea: This field of emotion recognition is called “affective computing”. A former engineer in this field commented under the blog, calling the scenario “SkyNet”-like. Which means ridiculous. Computers suck at recognising emotion, and probably will continue to do so. Which to me doesn’t mean that the tech might not be used, if “only” for interrogations or in small-scale surveillance. Technology moves gradually and there are countries and circumstances where this would be found acceptable. Maybe - and this is a big maybe - even to the point of even becoming a consumer product like the one Hanson describes in his scenario.

Sure enough, reports about this kind of emotion mining in a workplace context have already surfaced from China - though the medium is not visual recognition, but brainwave-tracking via a helmet, apparently used in factories to “design the workflow”. In authoritarian capitalism, hypocrisy consists of not working enough, I suppose. I always treat such reports with a healthy dose of scepticism; not the existence of such a program, but whether it shows anything useful. And that’s the double bind: Such technologies might not work and still be used - maybe leading to faulty decisions because of faulty recognition. Or just intimidating people enough to blend in a little bit more, to think what you are supposed to think until you won’t recognise the difference between your own thoughts and those superimposed on you.

2. Should we take note of the term “Streambait”?

Analysis on how Spotify is changing music has become a genre of its own this year, and I find it a very enjoyable one. Liz Pelly has written some of the most insightful pieces about it for the Baffler and now she is dropping the term “streambait” on us: Clickbait! But for streaming. Music that is made for easy consumption & Spotify singles. Not risky, but fine-tuned for being a background soundtrack with a hook.

“These sounds and strategies all have streambait tricks embedded within them, whether they aim to wedge bits of a song into our skulls or just angle toward the inoffensive and mood-specific-enough to prevent users from clicking away.”

This sounds a bit like the soulless stuff Major labels released for decades, though with no technological sophistication and pattern analytics back then. And as Liz Pelly notes, now it is models, Reddit-celebrities and Ed Sheeran’s girlfriend who are recording songs that sound like Lana del Rey. Unlike in the 1980s I suppose, when it was models, nightlife-celebrities and the young girlfriend of a label-executive recording songs that sound like Madonna.

But indeed Liz Pelly is on to something. I have a suspicion that “streambait” is a key motivator for Netflix to keep “Friends” in its catalogue for $100 million: A series that for many Americans offers a warming familiarity, forgoes any disturbing plot-shockers and allows you to do your painting, cooking or to just turn off your brain while watching.

3. A second paradigm for “AI”?

As some of you know, Prediction Machines (to use a less loaded term than “Artificial Intelligence”) are currently using layers of computer nodes that work together to find patterns in data. The fantastic Karen Hao recently caught up with David Duvenand from the University of Toronto. He and his team have been trying out an alternative method that gets rid of the layer-concept altogether and uses: equations. The system has the name “ODE solver” with ODE meaning “ordinary differential equations”. In this field, I appreciate the dull name. Or whatever else keeps the marketers and Ted-talkers at bay!

Karen does a great job of explaining the details, what stood out for me was the idea that equations absolve you from choosing how many layers you use on the training data and that they can handle fuzzy data points better. Right now ODE is in a very early phase, but with billions pouring into the field, it is a good time to try out new ideas.

4. Are sports drones becoming tools of war?

Well, if the Pentagon has its way, they probably will: It is currently trying to convince drone producers to update their consumer models for military use. They will be used to monitor battlefields from above, at least that’s the promise of “Project Phoenix”. Actually, I was surprised twofold: For once, the spendthrift U.S. military seems to look to reduce spending. And I would have imagined they already have similar types of drones.

What is interesting is the argument that the DoD is making to the tech companies. It goes like this: China and the U.S. are replaying the cold war between the Soviets and the U.S., but this time in cyberspace. You better help. Yes, you remember correctly: A consumer-friendly version of this was used by Mark Zuckerberg in his Senate-hearing - if you regulate us, China will have all the important tech breakthroughs. My guess is you will hear different versions of this all over the world in the years to come and it will collide with the “let’s talk about ethical tech”-narrative that has been gaining traction since 2017.

5. What if transhumanists lack fantasy?

If you read this, you are probably as tired of Ray Kurzweil as any sane person should be. But obviously, like any decent science-fiction-genre, transhumanism won’t go away anytime soon. But what are we actually trying to achieve? Enter the Anglican Archbishop, poet and philosopher Rowan Williams who has a suspicion: Gene editors and transhumanists alike will face the reality that they are running into a problem that software developers have been criticised for - that is, designing a pattern that mirrors your own biases.

“What kind of human beings do we want to generate, to nurture? What worries me most is that we have the capacity, but an alarmingly deficient imagination of what that might be. We have tools for the ‘enhancement’ of our human experience which, at the far end of the spectrum, takes us to post-humanism, the idea that there’s something of our humanity which could survive in non-organic form. So, will you breed out certain kinds of human experience and existence? If you know that you are able to select against X, Y and Z, how far does that extend? And I think that’s where we do face a real imaginative challenge which we’re very ill-equipped to manage, because people speak, again, as if the answers were obvious, somehow.”

Well, it is too early to see how far we will go (CRISPR) or be able to come close to anything that’s not simply an annoying chatbot imitating your deceased husband (transhumanism). The good thing is that these issues are being discussed. The bad thing is it might not matter. There is a distinct possibility mankind will come back to some kind of Übermensch-pattern, and be it just because you (you being rich enough to afford it) want your child to become a famous athlete or the future Apple CEO or yourself be more or less immortal. But even if we found gene-combinations for bad traits, like being prone to starting fights (I know this is not realistic, but y’all let me finish), it would not morally justify switching them off. And switching “good” things on and “bad” things off seems to be exactly the lack of fantasy Mr. Williams reminds us about.

6. Will we see Scooters slowly disappear?

Okay, I have to admit this is kind of personal. Being a pedestrian has become pretty annoying here in Austin, as the city does not have clear rules for scooters, which means you are fair game on the sidewalk. This report by the WSJ suggests that investors are cooling towards Scooter-startups because… vandalism & bad hardware that make the business more expensive. Just ask the volunteers who are scooter-fishing in Oakland’s Lake Merritt, pulling out dozens.

The scooters are mostly made by the Chinese company Ninebot , which has been scaling up like crazy, obviously leading to the usual quality problems. And now the Center for Disease Control is heading to Austin to do a study about scooter-related injuries. What I’ve heard and seen on the streets, it won’t be pretty (and as a German I haven’t failed to notice that nobody is wearing the required helmet). This looks to me like it will take a lot of hype out of the scooter-phenomenon, though popularity on the ground seems to hold for now (in cities with mild winters, at least).

7. Will “technical co-founders” be able to skip the line?

Christopher Mims recently stated the obvious (though some German sceptics would probably call him oblivious for that): Every company is now a tech company($). Technology has been creeping in from the machine room through the backend to being the core of the product. Christopher looks at some acquisitions, especially Walmart buying Jet.com (that was founded to be an exit play anyway) and how Jet-people now roam the C-suites in Walmart’s headquarters. Obviously this goal is not for everyone, many acquihires leave once their stock options have matured. But planning your career and taking a short-cut via your own startup and its minimal viable product could definitely become a thing in the next few years (or is it already?).

8. How will we look back on philanthropy?

Philanthropy has become a huge factor, especially in the U.S. But cracks are starting to show. Bill Callahan was the first to bundle the criticism in his book “The Givers” last year, this summer Anand Giriharadas showed the Davos-set his middle-finger with “Winners Take All - The Elite Charade of Changing the World”. Now it is Robert Reich’s turn, former Secretary of Labor and personification of old Democratic policies. He recently published “Just Giving - Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better”. Well, you get the pattern, and to me this criticism deeply resonates: It’s tempting to bypass dysfunctional institutions to solve problems that you care about… but doesn’t this resemble the famous “just let a startup take care of it?” technology solutionism we’ve become weary of? Sure, there are different breeds of philanthropy, but spending multimillions on pet-projects, getting a tax break for it and still being able to come out richer than before because no work is paid as generously as letting massive amounts of capital work for you… this all seems like a bad deal.

9. Are politics becoming our new religion?

In the case of the United States, Andrew Sullivan seems to think so. Inspired by John Gray’s recent book he makes the argument that the current tribalism is a substitute for religion, and that it has therefore become full of orthodoxies. There has already been some pushback against him, especially against his portrait of America’s political past as tribe- and harmless.

What I like about Sullivan is his ability to annoy both progressives and reactionaries, often in the same paragraph. In doing that, he often nails the truth. Sometimes, he is just a hammer looking for a nail. In this case, he oversimplifies. But of course Sullivan is articulating an old observation (that I blogged about some time ago): Enlightened mankind is stuck halfway between Jerusalem (religion and ideology) and Athens (reason). No way back to the metaphysics and utopias of Jerusalem, but Athens offers no transcendence or even a fundament, just further rational doubt. Thus if politics is becoming our new religion, we might be up for some serious disappointment.

10. Is the word “genocide” counterproductive to genocide-prevention?

Closing with a somber reminder: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur… all these names (and more) are testament of a dark reality. We’ve not been able to prevent genocide since 1945. Not often enough, at least. Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer, recently suggested a counterintuitive reason to the Economist: Introducing the crime of genocide itself raised the bar for acting. “When the perceived lesser horrors occur, there is no reaction, and when it gets to genocide it is too late.” Besides, it is hard for prosecutors to prove genocidal intent.

Sands proposes a smart fix: Fuse “genocide” with “crimes against humanity” as one general concept for mass atrocities. This would enable earlier deescalation. There is always a question about the political will and the instruments to do so, but a lower bar to act makes sense. The hard part is changing definitions that have been in place for 70 years, especially as in the current political climate there is a risk you will lose more than you bargained for.

That’s it for this episode - thank you for reading. The cover picture is from “Let Go”, a science fiction graphic novel I can warmly recommend. See you next issue!

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