At the same time that science and technology have vastly improved human lives, they have also given certain visionaries the means to transform entire societies from above. Ominously, what was true of Soviet central planners is true of Big Tech today: namely, the assumption that society can be improved through pure “rationality.”CAMBRIDGE – Digital technology has transformed how we communicate, commute, shop, learn, and entertain ourselves. Soon enough, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data, and the Internet of Things (IoT), could remake health care, energy, transportation, agriculture, the public sector, the natural environment, and even our minds and bodies.
Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable – and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.
For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivization in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism.”
An ideology as dangerous as it is dogmatically overconfident, high modernism refuses to recognize that many human practices and behaviors have an inherent logic that is adapted to the complex environment in which they have evolved. When high modernists dismiss such practices in order to institute a more scientific and rational approach, they almost always fail.
Frontier technologies such as AI, Big Data, and IoT are often presented as panaceas for optimizing work, recreation, communication, and health care. The conceit is that we have little to learn from ordinary people and the adaptations they have developed within different social contexts.
The problem is that an unconditional belief that “AI can do everything better,” to take one example, creates a power imbalance between those developing AI technologies and those whose lives will be transformed by them. The latter essentially have no say in how these applications will be designed and deployed.
The current problems afflicting social media are a perfect example of what can happen when uniform rules are imposed with no regard for social context and evolved behaviors. The rich and variegated patterns of communication that exist off-line have been replaced by scripted, standardized, and limited modes of communication on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the nuances of face-to-face communication, and of news mediated by trusted outlets, have been obliterated. Efforts to “connect the world” with technology have created a morass of propaganda, disinformation, hate speech, and bullying.
But this characteristically high-modernist path is not preordained. Instead of ignoring social context, those developing new technologies could actually learn something from the experiences and concerns of real people. The technologies themselves could be adaptive rather than hubristic, designed to empower society rather than silence it.
Two forces are likely to push new technologies in this direction. The first is the market, which may act as a barrier against misguided top-down schemes. Once Soviet planners decided to collectivize agriculture, Ukrainian villagers could do little to stop them. Mass starvation ensued. Not so with today’s digital technologies, the success of which will depend on decisions made by billions of consumers and millions of businesses around the world (with the possible exception of those in China).
That said, the power of the market constraint should not be exaggerated. There is no guarantee that the market will select the right technologies for widespread adoption, nor will it internalize the negative effects of some new applications. The fact that Facebook exists and collects information about its 2.5 billion active users in a market environment does not mean we can trust how it will use that data. The market certainly doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be unforeseen consequences from Facebook’s business model and underlying technologies.
For the market constraint to work, it must be bolstered by a second, more powerful check: democratic politics. Every state has a proper role to play in regulating economic activity and the use and spread of new technologies. Democratic politics often drives the demand for such regulation. It is also the best defense against the capture of state policies by rent-seeking businesses attempting to raise their market shares or profits.
Democracy also provides the best mechanism for airing diverse viewpoints and organizing resistance to costly or dangerous high-modernist schemes. By speaking out, we can slow down or even prevent the most pernicious applications of surveillance, monitoring, and digital manipulation. A democratic voice is precisely what was denied to Ukrainian and Tanzanian villagers confronted with collectivization schemes.
But regular elections are not sufficient to prevent Big Tech from creating a high-modernist nightmare. Insofar as new technologies can thwart free speech and political compromise and deepen concentrations of power in government or the private sector, they can frustrate the workings of democratic politics itself, creating a vicious circle. If the tech world chooses the high-modernist path, it may ultimately damage our only reliable defense against its hubris: democratic oversight of how new technologies are developed and deployed. We as consumers, workers, and citizens should all be more cognizant of the threat, for we are the only ones who can stop it.
Historically, high-modernist schemes have been most damaging in the hands of an authoritarian state seeking to transform a prostrate, weak society. In the case of Soviet collectivization, state authoritarianism originated from the self-proclaimed “leading role” of the Communist Party, and pursued its schemes in the absence of any organizations that could effectively resist them or provide protection to peasants crushed by them.
Yet authoritarianism is not solely the preserve of states. It can also originate from any claim to unbridled superior knowledge or ability. Consider contemporary efforts by corporations, entrepreneurs, and others who want to improve our world through digital technologies. Recent innovations have vastly increased productivity in manufacturing, improved communication, and enriched the lives of billions of people. But they could easily devolve into a high-modernist fiasco.
Dr. Doom lives up to his moniker
.. Roubini pointed to the ongoing U.S.-China trade conflict as the likeliest trigger of the next crisis. “There is a cold war between the U.S. and China,” he said. “We have a global rivalry . . . about who is going to be controlling the industries of the future: artificial intelligence, automation, and 5G.”
Because the standoff has evolved into a one about national security and geopolitics, Roubini predicted that “there will be a trade and tech war between the U.S. and China that’s going to get worse.”
Roubini dismissed the trade truce declared by U.S. President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng over the weekend as mere talk, though stock market investors appeared to think otherwise this week. The S&P 500 index SPX, -0.05% closed at a record high Monday, while the Dow Jones Industrial AverageDJIA, -0.09% and Nasdaq Composite index COMP, -0.11% also gained to be within 1% of their record closes.
The uncertainty that the standoff has created is forcing businesses to delay or cancel plans to make additional investments, Roubini added. “There’s already been, in the data, a collapse in [capital expenditures] and once capex is down, industrial production is down, and then you have the beginning of a global recession that starts in
- tech, then spreads to
- manufacturing, then to
- industry and then it goes to
- services,” he said.
The Sino-American trade dispute will have even further consequences than just triggering the next recession, as it will cause “a complete decoupling of the global economy” as private entities and countries will have to choose whether to do business with China or the U.S., and it will lead to a reconstruction of “the entire global tech supply chain,” which will be a drag on economic growth going forward.
He compared the predicted U.S.-China “cold war” with that between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the last century, arguing that the coming war will be more disruptive. “This divorce is going to get ugly compared to the divorce with the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” because there was little economic integration between America and Russia prior to the conflict.
BERN, Switzerland — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a weeklong trip to Europe where he is raising sensitive issues with national leaders — from Iranian missiles to Chinese technology to the economic collapse of Venezuela — but the most colorful conversations could take place this weekend out of public earshot in a secretive conclave at a Swiss lakeside resort.
In Montreux, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, political and business leaders from Western nations are gathering for the 67th Bilderberg Meeting, an annual forum in which participants agree not to reveal exactly what was said or who said it. It is a shadow version of Davos, the elite annual winter conference in the Swiss Alps that President Trump has attended once but has also criticized.
The State Department has not even put the Bilderberg Meeting on Mr. Pompeo’s public schedule, though a senior official confirmed he was attending Saturday.
.. No doubt those culinary treats will be on hand at venues in Montreux, to fuel discussion on 11 central topics now hotly debated in countries around the globe:
- the future of capitalism,
- the weaponization of social media,
- artificial intelligence,
- Russia and so on.
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, is another top administration official planning to attend. The 130 or so participants also include King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands; Stacey Abrams, the American politician; Henry Kissinger, the former senior American foreign policy official; Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google; and David H. Petraeus, the retired general. Some top bank executives are on the list, too.
On at least one subject, climate change, many of the participants are expected to have radically different views than Mr. Pompeo. In early May, the American secretary, speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, praised the changes caused by the melting of ice in the Arctic Circle.
“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Mr. Pompeo said, while noting the abundance of undiscovered oil and gas, uranium, rare-earth minerals, coal, diamonds and fisheries in the Arctic.
What Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Kushner and the other Bilderberg attendees actually say to each other will be a mystery to most of the public, thanks to the meeting’s use of the Chatham House Rule, which states that although attendees can tell the public what was discussed, generally, participants must not reveal who said what.
A two-hour podcast interview in February with Joe Rogan, a stand-up comedian, television host and mixed martial arts commentator, put Yang on the map. Rogan boasts an audience of millions — particularly young men — and has a devoted following on Twitter and Reddit, where some fans have half-jokingly referred to his show as “Oprah for Dudes.”
After the Rogan podcast, Yang’s Twitter followers jumped eightfold — going from roughly 34,000 to 287,000 in a little over a month. Online fans started creating thousands of memes and videos on Facebook, Instagram and other social media, spreading his campaign further.
.. In substance and in style, Yang presents himself as a candidate relentlessly of the future. He warns that the United States is on the brink of a major job apocalypse, spurred by an increasing use of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace that ultimately will eliminate the need for human employees.
“What we did to the manufacturing workers we are now going to do to the retail workers, the call center workers, the fast-food workers, the truck drivers, and on and on through the economy,” Yang declared at a rally in Chicago in March. “This is a crisis.”
.. Yang has particularly fixated on the plight of truckers. Speaking at a recent rural issues forum in Stuart, a tiny town in western Iowa, a state where the trucking industry employs an estimated 98,000 drivers, Yang pointed to an incident in February in which scores of truck drivers snarled traffic on Indianapolis-area highways in protest of mandated electronic monitoring devices that track their hours.
“What are the truck drivers going to do when the robot trucks come and start driving themselves?” Yang asked.
A murmur went through the audience of about 200 people. An older man in jeans and a trucker cap shook his head at the thought. “Chaos,” the man said.
This is where Yang’s “Freedom Dividend” comes in. The $12,000 given annually to every U.S. adult up to age 64 would be funded in part by a 10 percent “value added tax” on technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, which he estimates would generate roughly $800 billion a year. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
.. “You could call this the tech check,” Yang said. He has dismissed critics who say the money, paid out regardless of an individual’s income or employment status, would encourage people not to work. He argues that the added financial security will spur people to create businesses or go back to school, or take risks they might not otherwise take. “This isn’t about people being lazy,” he said.
He has also pitched the concept, for which he has not stipulated an overall cost, as a pro-business, pro-economic development idea that could potentially revive dying small towns.
“Some of [that money] would float up to Amazon. You’d buy an extra toaster or something, but most of it would stay right here because you would be investing in car repairs you had put off, and then tutoring for your kids, the occasional night out, trips to the hardware store,” Yang said in Iowa.
To prove his point, Yang decided to use his own money to give $1,000 a month to two people for a year — someone in New Hampshire, the other in Iowa, the first voting states. In late December, Yang began sending a monthly check to the Fassi family in Goffstown, N.H.
In 2017, just as his daughter Janelle was beginning her freshman year at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Charles Fassi was laid off from his job as a manager at a small chemical services company. Fassi, 49, said he felt suicidal, wondering how he could support his family.
While Fassi is now back at work, the family still struggled financially. Janelle met Yang at a Young Democrats of New Hampshire event and submitted an application for her family to be a test case for the monthly payments. After interviewing the family, Yang presented the first $1,000 check on New Year’s Eve. Fassi said the money has been mainly used to help pay for Janelle’s tuition, but Fassi said he and his wife are thinking of starting their own business.
“One thing I like about Andrew is that throughout all of this, he’s never asked us to vote for him. He’s never asked us to do anything for his campaign. He’s never tried to tell us what we can tell the media or anybody about this,” Fassi said. “When he came to our house, he said he was just trying to start a conversation. It wasn’t about him becoming president.”
That was enough to land Yang in the “top tier” of 2020 candidates that Fassi is considering voting for, though he is wary of the idea that people might think Yang is trying to buy his support. “I want to see how far he can go,” Fassi said, adding that he wasn’t comfortable backing a “fringe candidate.” He added that he likes Sen. Elizabeth Warren of neighboring Massachusetts, and soon he and his family will house a staffer working for another Democratic candidate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. “I was like, ‘Why not? I like Kamala Harris,’ ” he said.
Yang has yet to pick the Iowa recipient — his campaign is taking applications — but after the Des Moines Register questioned the legality of his spending, Yang’s campaign told the paper he would amend his Federal Election Commission report to list the $4,000 in checks he had written so far as gifts.
A native of Schenectady, N.Y., Yang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants who came to America in the 1960s. Yang recalled that he and his older brother were two of the only Asian American students at the local public school and were picked on. Later, as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, he was a self-described nerd and goth kid.
He studied political science and economics at Brown University before graduating from Columbia Law School. After briefly working at a big law firm, Yang joined a test-prep start-up, which was later sold and earned him “some number in the millions” that gave him enough to quit his job and launch his White House bid.
The fact that Yang is unabashedly noting his Asian ancestry makes it all the more strange that his candidacy has found fans in the alt-right, many of whom have reframed his pitch on universal basic income as a quest to save white America. White nationalist Richard Spencer has tweeted approvingly of Yang, describing him as “the most grounded presidential candidate of my lifetime.”
Yang has repeatedly disavowed the support, even as his campaign has found it difficult to eradicate the racist memes spread by some of his fringe backers in chat rooms where Yang’s campaign has tried to mobilize supporters. “I honestly don’t get it,” Yang said. “I don’t look like a white nationalist, so I am sort of surprised that anyone who’s in that camp would be like, ‘Ooh, that’s my candidate.’ ”
Indeed, Yang’s crowds are notable for their diversity. Darrin Lowery, a 51-year-old social worker from Chicago, turned out after hearing Yang make his pitch to black voters on “The Breakfast Club” radio show. His warning about the dangers of automation had hit home with Lowery.
“The Kmart is closed, the Sears is closed. All these different businesses are closing, and I wonder what these people who don’t have advanced degrees are going to do?” said Lowery, who is black. “I do think he’s a long shot, but the more people hear him, I wonder.”
Angie Shindelar, a 53-year-old math teacher from Greenfield, Iowa, came to hear Yang speak in Stuart at the behest of her children. “Everything feels like it’s about bashing Trump or reacting to Trump instead offering some vision looking forward,” Shindelar said. “He’s the first person I’ve really heard that is looking forward and has vision in a way that can maybe overcome some of that division.”
Andy Stern, a former president of the Service Employees International Union who is friendly with Yang, cautioned that Yang needs “a breakout moment.”
“I don’t think people are looking at Andrew yet and say he’s someone who can win,” said Stern, who, like Yang, is an evangelist for a universal basic income.
Yang believes his moment could be the debates, and he’s already thinking of how much time he’ll have to make an impression.
“I’ve done the math, and I’ll have approximately 12 minutes of airtime . . . 10 to 12 minutes to introduce myself to the American people,” Yang said, probably exaggerating the time any candidate onstage is likely to have. “They are going to say, ‘Who’s that person standing next to Joe Biden?’ And hundreds of thousands of people are going to go Google ‘Andrew Yang’ or ‘Asian presidential candidate’ or whatever. . . . And then they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Andrew Yang.’ ”