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.
New justices usually take years to find their footing at the Supreme Court. For Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court in April, a couple of months seem to have sufficed.
His early opinions were remarkably self-assured. He tangled with his new colleagues, lectured them on the role of the institution he had just joined, and made broad jurisprudential pronouncements in minor cases.
.. When the case was argued in April, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined the court in 2006, said there was no clear answer to the question.
.. In dissent, he said the answer was plain, as some kinds of cases belong in one court and other kinds in another.
.. Justice Gorsuch’s only majority opinion of the term came in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA. It was about debt collection, and it was unanimous.
Here, too, Justice Gorsuch was ready to swing for the fences.
In a conference call on Monday with Barrett, Blair, D’Antonio and O’Brien, the biographers were unanimous in their assessment of what we are seeing: They are not surprised. Trump is who they thought he was. This, they said, is not a show. It is not an act. This is the man they wrote about.
.. He is, the biographers said, “profoundly narcissistic,” “willing to go to lengths we’ve never seen before in order to satisfy his ego”—and “a very dangerous man for the next three or four weeks.” And after that? “This time, it’s going to be a straight‑out loss on the biggest stage he’s ever been on,” one biographer predicted. And yet: “As long as he’s remembered, maybe it won’t matter to him.”
.. I think he’s always been a skirt chaser. I guess, you know, in that context, it didn’t surprise me. I think he’s always boasted about the things that he’s the most insecure about, which is his wealth, his intellect and his sex appeal.
.. They talk about this as if this is locker room bragging, and really, I was in a lot of locker rooms and I never heard anything like this. Men don’t brag about forcing themselves on women. They want to paint themselves as desirable, and, you know, he doesn’t look like a stud here. He looks like a predator.
.. This is boasting of something that shows your own weakness. It shows, you know, that a woman doesn’t want you; whereas, most boasts in these kind of scenarios are about women who do want you.
.. I did interview women who confirmed some pretty aggressive, if not violent—actually, I considered it violent sexual behavior—but no one will go on the record with this.
.. But it’s a very parallel circumstance with the tape because Melania is pregnant at the time of this tape, and Trump is talking about this kind of activity. And Marla Maples was pregnant when this incident, the first incident happened between Ms. Harth and Donald. And so it’s regardless of what his own home circumstances are, regardless of what’s going on in his personal life. In both instances, his wife‑to‑be in one case and actual wife in the other, was pregnant with his child, and he’s walking around either talking this way or actually behaving this way.
.. Erin Burnett went on CNN and told a very similar story, at least about the kissing part of it and the Tic Tacs, about a friend of hers.
.. But the problem with reporting all of these things is that the women involved often are afraid to go on the record. I know that his ex‑wives, when I was reporting, were very wary of being interviewed and running afoul of him by doing so, at least when they spoke with me.
.. Kruse: Do you all think he is driven more by lust or by fame?
Barrett: I think this is almost nothing to do with lust. This is subjugation.
O’Brien: Right. It’s acquisition.
Barrett: This has almost nothing to do with sex. This is a total power move if you’re talking about “I can plunge my tongue down any mouth I see. I just make my move quickly.”
.. he is popping Tic Tacs all the time, but it’s just the analog behavior to how he is with men in any room—looking to dominate, being competitive, looking for a way to be in charge. And for women, I think for him, there’s really only one way to be in charge, and that is to dominate, and if possible, you know, some physical aggression isn’t off the table.
O’Brien: I think he is just going to wage a scorch‑the‑earth campaign for the next three weeks. And if he loses, which I think he’s going to—I think he’s going to lose badly—he’s then going to come up with a scenario in which it was stolen from him, that the election was rigged, because he’s survived by creating alternate realities. And he’ll never say to himself he lost because he had a skeletal campaign operation, which he did; that he lost because he’s unappealing to a large swath of the voters; that he lost because he’s willfully ignorant about public policy; that he lost because he’s a nasty and unappealing bigot. He’ll never, ever acknowledge any of that. He’ll just come up with an alternate reality that said, “It was rigged against me.”
.. who would proceed knowing that he has all of these problems in his background, knowing how much audio and video exists, having been on “Howard Stern” and said horrible things? He just doesn’t seem to recognize his own issues and problems and how he’s perceived.
.. for the next three weeks, he’s going to be trying out, you know, Breitbart TV and proving to the masses that follow him that he’s as red in tooth and claw as he seems to be.
.. I was always kind of uncertain that he would really go for it, running for president, because he would have to do financial disclosures. What I didn’t realize was that he wouldn’t do the financial disclosures and would barrel ahead, and at least up until very recently, that he would seem to be getting away with it. So that all those tapes that are out there, he knew that, but he would just barrel over them—I think that has been his M.O. that we’ve seen in every other realm, so why wouldn’t it work in this one?
.. I think he didn’t enter into guaranteeing $900 million in personal loans in order to engineer a write‑off six or seven years later. I think he ended up getting a boost from the tax code, but that $916 million write‑off is an emblem of how abysmal his judgment is and what a bad deal‑maker he is.
.. And from the moment he got out there, he played the role of a victim. He now considers himself a victim of the national media, primarily, and a bit of the Republican establishment that abandoned him overnight
.. So I think that what is really dangerous is, over the course of the next few weeks, he’s going to push every button he can, and the primary button that he can push is racism.
.. he said he’s be quite happy to use the Department of Justice to settle scores with Hillary Clinton and, you know, by inference, anyone else who he would regard as a political opponent, and that gets back to an old kind of way of politicking
.. D’Antonio: Well, don’t you think this is a kind of thuggery, that this is a guy who is playing to a mob when he talks about how he can say these things, because he goes before crowds and they’re out for blood, and their anger and rage is the justification he has for saying these thuggish things? And now he’s going to plunge the whole country into an authoritarian dynamic because the mob is telling him to do so?
.. imagine if this was an African-American leader who is saying these kinds of things. I think that the Republican Party would be screaming for the man or woman’s arrest, but he gets cheered for saying these things.
.. the kind of rage he’s stoking is regional rage. And I think we’re going to live with that well beyond this election. He’s really served to solidify the divisions regionally and ideologically in the country, and I think he’s blown up the GOP.
.. he thought of himself as a victim in the downfall of 1990 and playing the victim card and being as angry at others as he was in the ’90s in the way in which he dealt with the bankers. It was very strikingly similar to that period of time.
.. He managed to survive in almost an unbelievable way when his empire collapsed, but managed to survive with the aid of the bankers.
.. during the primaries, with so many different people on the stage, that same M.O. worked. But only one other person on the stage for 90 minutes, it’s a totally different thing.
.. But because of his myriad flaws—you know, he’s financially undisciplined, he’s emotionally and intellectually undisciplined, and he’s incapable of building teams and leading other people, profoundly incapable of those things
.. I feel like I’ve learned more about the country by virtue of this exposure to the Trump virus than I’ve learned about Trump himself.
.. he’s truly the offspring of Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy. He’s more violent in his way of thinking than I understood him to be. He’s less attached to reality than I thought he was.
.. But the real thing that I’m taking away is that he’s actually been telling us the truth about himself all along, and that this is not a character he’s been playing. It’s the real Trump. And I think a lot of times, people have wasted lots of effort trying to figure out: Is he serious, does he really mean this, is this all just one big joke? And I don’t think it’s a big joke. I think that he really is this horrible creature, and he has no regard for anything but himself, and he’s willing to go to lengths we’ve never seen before in order to satisfy his ego.
.. we’ve learned about the country are that racism is still a deeply troubling and embedded feature of American life, and he’s exploited that. I think we’ve learned that American voters don’t really care if they have a leader who is wildly ignorant about foreign affairs and spins tales about foreign policy that don’t correlate with facts or reality. I think we’ve learned that sexism and chauvinism are alive and well
.. we’ve learned that the leadership of the GOP lacks courage
.. It’s not Stephen Colbert. This is not a persona that’s adopted for a performance. That’s really him. He thinks that’s still a winning possibility for him, that he is a success. I think he deeply believes that.
.. After the birther controversy, after he went after Mexico and Mexicans in his announcement speech and he didn’t get called on it, he only heard cheers—I think that was the, you know, that was the liftoff.
.. I don’t think he thinks. I don’t think that he is a guy who reflects on a long‑term goal. As Tim was saying, he doesn’t lead groups of people. He doesn’t know how to organize something complex.
.. If you look at some things that he says, a lot of them are the same things he said in the 1980s, and there’s this crazy language about race and “they’re laughing at us.” He’s used these terms since 1987,
.. He openly contradicted his own running mate about Putin. It’s the only issue on which he would do that, and it has everything to do with the WikiLeaks revelations, which is still, in my judgment, his hope for the remaining several weeks, that there is more power in that.
.. Alex Jones, Roger Stone’s sidekick. Roger had predicted that the WikiLeaks stuff would come out last Wednesday, and when it didn’t, Alex Jones went on his show and absolutely denounced WikiLeaks and Assange in the vilest terms. And then the next day, he went out—and you can see the video—and apologized profoundly to Assange and said Assange was a hero to all of the world.
.. I’ve been wondering who Trump’s brain is, whether it’s Roger Stone or Alex Jones, but it’s a pretty dark personality that’s driving all of this.
Barrett: It’s Roger.
.. when you saw him do the number with the four Clinton‑associated women last night, that is Roy Cohn orchestrated through Roger. Roger has been talking about this forever. What is so interesting about what happened in the debate last night with these women is that Roger is back running the show in the person of those four women, and this is exactly what Roger has wanted him to do.
.. I don’t think you can discount Ann Coulter’s role as an influence on his thinking in this either. You know, his language when he rolled down the escalator at Trump Tower, when he first announced, and his descriptions of the evils of immigration closely paralleled things Ann Coulter had written in the past. I think she had a big influence on themes and images that he used.
.. he never had a real relationship with him. And the people in the Kremlin are laughing at this guy because all of them are far more sophisticated and shrewd than he is, and they would love for him to become president, not because they have deep lending relationships with him and not because he’s got a deep relationship with Putin, but because they know that he could be their sock puppet because he’s ignorant and overconfident.
.. he hit millions of themes in that thing last night that appealed to the Breitbart coalition, and I think it’s a measure of what you’re going to see in months and years to come from him and that part of the Republican populous faction, that he’s channeling their anger and their imagery.
.. Well, don’t you kind of think that the media promoted this for ratings, especially—I mean, I’m talking almost exclusively about broadcasts and almost exclusively about CNN, that Jeff Zucker made a ton of money putting this guy on the air. And I actually think that people scared themselves, that at some point, they said, “Oh, wait a minute. We’re journalists. We better start reporting on this guy.”
.. I think broadcast media was, for the most part, an enabler for most of his run, and I think early on, both broadcast and print didn’t know how to handle him. I think they mistakenly took him for a zoo curiosity when the campaign began last year. I think by the time—it took almost him getting nominated for most of the media to take him seriously.
.. once big institutions like the Times and the Washington Post got their engines going, they really brought a lot of force to bear on him.
.. there were people like Brian Stelter and Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper who took strong shots and strong looks at him, even if CNN was an enabler, you know, and that went along with, I think, a really egregious mistake on CNN’s part to bring Corey Lewandowski in
.. I think his ability to harness attention through Twitter is a big piece.
And not just harness attention but demolish his opponents. He really used Twitter much more effectively during the primary season
.. he’s certainly used it during the primary season to label, diminish and then expel political opponents like Jeb Bush and then Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio with labeling and name‑calling.
.. I’m a big sports nut, and they basically have covered the campaign the same way they cover the NFL season, you know, promoting the game at all times to encourage ratings and advertisers.
.. Michael Kruse just wrote one about how Trump on 9/11, 15 years ago, started talking about how he now had the biggest building in downtown Manhattan, the very day that the bodies were still lying in the streets, and no one on television even mentioned the story. And so these great pieces of print journalism got no airtime and died
.. I think he’s going to start a media company, despite the fact that he said he won’t. I think he and Sean Hannity and the Breitbart crew and Roger Ailes will figure in that in some way, although Ailes has a non‑compete with Fox.
.. I think it’s going to be impossible for him to get advertising for it, except for maybe Viagra ads
.. But business people do not want to stay in a hotel and have someone call and hear the word “Trump” when they answer the phone. It’s really poisonous right now.
.. if he hadn’t run, he would have had a legacy of master promoter and a guy who pioneered publicity and converting publicity into cash. But now he may go down as the thing that he doesn’t want to be remembered for at all, and that is as a loser in a landslide election.
.. somebody who is likely to go down in history as having unleashed some very hateful forces in American life, and I think that’s what’s going to end up defining him.
.. I don’t think he realizes probably how badly it taints him and his family—I mean legacy. I think if he did realize it, he still wouldn’t feel ashamed of it because I think he’s incapable of feeling shame.
.. he’ll go on to have influence through his kids. You know, Don Jr. is an aggressive extremist, I think, who sees political aspirations of his own, and Ivanka is a budding entrepreneur and has her own businesses.
.. Jared Kushner. I think Kushner has launched on what is going to be a life worth tracking. News accounts from yesterday indicate that he helped put together the Clinton women thing last night, so he’s way out there.
.. He’s polished. He’s driven, and, you know, I think he’s a serious player.
.. Department of Justice action against the Trump organization in 1973 about not renting to African Americans, Roy Cohn filing the $100 million lawsuit the next day? I mean that aggressive counterpunch—all about racism.
.. he reaffirmed, as we all know, the guilt of the Central Park Five.
.. in the Apprentice tapes is that, supposedly, he uses the N-word. You know, that’s been hinted at in stories.
.. If Trump loses badly, it will be a repudiation by maybe even the majority of white Americans of that strategy. It could be a good day in America.