May 2, 2013
“The ubiquity and power of the computer blur the distinction between public and private information. Our revolution will not be in gathering data — don’t look for TV cameras in your bedroom — but in analyzing information that is already willingly shared.”
Are these the words of a 21st century media critic warning us about the tremendous quantity of information that the average person shares online?
Nope. It’s from a 1985 article for the Whole Earth Review by Larry Hunter, who was writing about the future of privacy. And it’s unlikely Mr. Hunter could have any more accurately predicted the Age of Facebook — or its most pervasive fears.
Hunter begins his article by explaining that he has a privileged peek into the computerized world that’s just over the horizon:
I live in the future. As a graduate student in Artificial Intelligence at Yale University, I am now using computer equipment that will be commonplace five years from now. I have a powerful workstation on my desk, connected in a high-speed network to more than one hundred other such machines, and, through other networks, to thousands of other computers and their users. I use these machines not only for research, but to keep my schedule, to write letters and articles, to read nationwide electronic “bulletin boards,” to send electronic mail, and sometimes just to play games. I make constant use of fancy graphics, text formatters, laser printers — you name it. My gadgets are both my desk and my window on the world. I’m quite lucky to have access to all these machines.
He warns, however, that this connectedness will very likely come with a price.
Without any conspiratorial snooping or Big Brother antics, we may find our actions, our lifestyles, and even our beliefs under increasing public scrutiny as we move into the information age.
Hunter outlines the myriad ways that corporations and governments will be able to monitor public behavior in the future. He explains how bloc modelling helps institutions create profiles that can be used for either benign or nefarious purposes. We can guess that credit service companies beginning to sell much more specific demographic information to credit card companies in the early 1980s generally falls into the nefarious column:
How does Citicorp know what your lifestyle is? How can they sell such information without your permission? The answer is simple: You’ve been giving out clues about yourself for years. Buying, working, socializing, and traveling are acts you do in public. Your lifestyle, income, education, home, and family are all deductible from existing records. The information that can be extracted from mundane records like your Visa or Mastercard receipts, phone bill, and credit record is all that’s needed to put together a remarkably complete picture of who you are, what you do, and even what you think.
And all this buying, working and socializing didn’t even include through mediums like Facebook or Twitter in 1985. Hunter explains that this information, of course, can be used in a number of different ways to build complex pictures of the world:
While the relationship between two people in an organization is rarely very informative by itself, when pairs of relationships are connected, patterns can be detected. The people being modeled are broken up into groups, or blocs. The assumption made by modelers is that people in similar positions behave similarly. Blocs aren’t tightly knit groups. You may never have heard of someone in your bloc, but because you both share a similar relationship with some third party you are lumped together. Your membership in a bloc might become the basis of a wide variety of judgements, from who gets job perks to who gets investigated by the FBI.
In the article Hunter asks when private information is considered public; a question that is increasingly difficult to answer with the proliferation of high-quality cameras in our pockets, and on some on our heads.
We live in a world of private and public acts. We consider what we do in our own bedrooms to be our own business; what we do on the street or in the supermarket is open for everyone to see. In the information age, our public acts disclose our private dispositions, even more than a camera in the bedroom would. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should bring a veil of secrecy over public acts. The vast amount of public information both serves and endangers us.
Hunter explains the difficulty in policing how all of this information being collected might be used. He makes reference to a metaphor by Jerry Samet, a Professor of Philosophy at Bentley College who explained that while we consider it an invasion of privacy to look inside someone’s window from the outside, we have no objection to people inside their own homes looking at those outside on the public sidewalk.
This is perhaps what makes people so creeped out by Google Glass. The camera is attached to the user’s face. We can’t outlaw someone gazing out into the world. But the added dimension that someone might be recording that for posterity — or collecting and sharing information in such a way — is naturally upsetting to many people.
Why not make gathering this information against the law? Think of Samet’s metaphor: do we really want to ban looking out the window? The information about groups and individuals that is public is public for a reason. Being able to write down what I see is fundamental to freedom of expression and belief, the freedoms we are trying to protect. Furthermore, public records serve us in very specific, important ways. We can have and use credit because credit records are kept. Supermarkets must keep track of their inventories, and since their customers prefer that they accept checks, they keep information on the financial status of people who shop in their store. In short, keeping and using the kind of data that can be turned into personal profiles is fundamental to our way of life — we cannot stop gathering this information.
And this seems to be the same question we ask of our age. If we volunteer an incredibly large amount of information to Twitter in exchange for a free communications service, or to Visa in exchange for the convenience of making payments by credit card, what can we reasonably protect?
Hunter’s prescription sounds reasonable, yet somehow quaint almost three decade later. He proposes treating information more as a form of intangible property, not unlike copyright.
People under scrutiny ought to be able to exert some control over what other people do with that personal information. Our society grants individuals control over the activities of others primarily through the idea of property. A reasonable way to give individuals control over information about them is to vest them with a property interest in that information. Information about me is, in part, my property. Other people may, of course, also have an interest in that information. Citibank has some legitimate interests in the information about me that it has gathered. When my neighbor writes down that I was wearing a red sweater, both of us should share in the ownership of that information.
Obviously, many of Hunter’s predictions about the way in which information would be used came true. But it would seem that there are still no easy answers to how private citizens might reasonably protect information about themselves that’s collected — whether that’s by corporations, governments or other private citizens.
Chillingly, Hunter predicted some of our most dire concerns when Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t yet even a year old: “Soon celebrities and politicians will not be the only ones who have public images but no private lives — it will be all of us. We must take control of the information about ourselves. We should own our personal profiles, not be bought and sold by them.”
What do you think? Does our age of ubiquitous sharing concern you? Do you think our evolving standard of what is considered private information generally helps or hurts society?
February 12, 2013
In the early 1950s, many people speculated that the average American’s body would look dramatically different by the early 21st century. Some thought that the average woman of the year 2000 might be over six feet tall, incredibly athletic and just as strong as the average man. Others believed that modern conveniences like the automobile would have disastrous effects on the human body of the 21st century, creating a society of fat weaklings and scrawny depressives. You can place Earnest A. Hooton in the latter school of thought.
The January 1950 issue of Redbook magazine included the predictions of Hooton, a pioneering and often controversial anthropologist who advocated eugenics as a solution to many of America’s ills. As Hooton saw it, the progressive trends of the first half of the 20th century had only served to produce humans less fit for survival:
The human animal has undergone astonishing bodily changes during the last half century. The physical features of our population in 2000 A.D. can be predicted with grim assurance unless present trends are corrected by a science of man.
Changes in the physiques of Americans through more than fifty years are recorded in the gymnasium records of universities and colleges, in successive surveys of soldiers during two wars, of immigrants, delinquents and other elements of the population. Among the best data are those on Harvard sons and fathers and corresponding information from four Eastern women’s colleges.
Harvard sons are bigger than their fathers in twenty-seven of thirty measurements. Notably, they are more than one and one-third inches taller, more than ten pounds heavier, longer in the legs relative to trunk length, larger in breadths and girths of the torso and longer in the forearms and lower legs. Girls differ from their mothers similarly, but have much narrower hips. These bigger dimensions sound well until studies are made of individual body types from photographs as well as measurements. Then it appears that short, broad, muscular builds are decreasing, along with the stubby, strong but fat types. On the contrary, long, taper-legged, obese types of inferior structure are on the increase, and, above all, the tall, weak “stringbeans.” With increased stature, heads are getting narrower, faces longer and narrower, palates more pinched, teeth less regular, noses more razor-backed.
Hooton believed that criminals were biologically different than non-criminals, coming down firmly on the side of nature in the “nature versus nurture” debate. He also believed that things like body type were closely tied to one’s temperament. In this vein, artist Abner Dean produced an illustration (above) for the piece which showed off the humans of the future — the happy rotund man, the depressed skinny man, and the tall, slender and largely content woman of tomorrow.
Different body types are associated with distinct kinds of temperaments and well-defined physical and social aptitudes and disabilities. Broad, muscular men (usually short) tend to be aggressive, domineering, insensitive, practical and unimaginative, military and political but not intellectual and artistic leaders. Fat types are generally easy-going, kindly, “fond of the good things of life,” sociable, admirable in family relations, etc. The tall and skinny are commonly shy, nervous, repressed, emotionally unstable, intellectual and idealistic, but difficult in social relations.
The auto has made walking obsolete (witness the poorly muscled modern legs). Work requiring strenuous muscular exertion is no longer usual for growing youth and for most adults. Sports and physical education hardly compensate for the sedentary habits that have sapped the stamina of the masses in our nation.
Infant and juvenile mortality has decreased astoundingly through improved medical care and sanitation. The upsurge of the tall and skinny among adults is probably due in part to the preservation of elongate, fragile babies who now live to reproduce their kind. The proportion of the aged, too, has increased enormously, partly because of better medical care, but also because of easy living. So we have more of those too weak for work because of youth or age.
As Nicole Rafter notes in her 2004 paper on the biological tradition in American criminology, Hooton believed that financial aid to the poor was hindering the progress of the human race: “The welfare programs of the New Deal seemed to Hooton to coddle an already weak segment of the population that might better be allowed to die off; unwittingly, government policies were encouraging regressive trends in human evolution. Deeply disturbed by the apparent downward rush of civilization, Hooton predicted social, political and genetic doom.”
This description of Hooton is in line with his distaste for the “reckless breeding of the unfit” (terminology that largely fell out of fashion in academia after WWII).
There can be little doubt of the increase during the past fifty years of mental defectives, psychopaths, criminals, economic incompetents and the chronically diseased. We owe this to the intervention of charity, “welfare” and medical science, and to the reckless breeding of the unfit.
In 2000, apart from the horde of proliferating morons, the commonest type of normal male will be taller and more gangling than ever, with big feet, horse-faces and deformed dental arches. The typical women will be similar—probably less busty and buttocky than those of our generation. These spindly giants will be intelligent, not combative, full of humanitarianism, allergies and inhibitions—stewing in their own introspections. Probably they will be long-lived; the elongated shrivel and buckle, but hang on.
There will also be a strong minority of towering heavyweights—melon-shaped, with knock-kneed shanks, small hands and feet and sociable dispositions. Ultimately this type may lead, because it is philoprogenitive, if not overly prolific. The lean and hungry Cassii and Cassandras propagate briefly and parsimoniously, then separate and sulk in celibacy.
The stubby, bone-and-muscle Mr. Americas of today seem doomed to disappear or to be reduced to the ranks of institutionalized malefactors (judging from studies of present types of juvenile delinquents), instead of becoming dictators, they will be outlaws, since with attenuation of body-build the temperaments of the masses will probably change, so that idealism and intelligence will not be enslaved by brutishness.
Sex illusions will persist. Men will still think women beautiful; women will still regard men as brainy and virile; reproduction will go on. But a science of man could intervene to effect a real improvement of the human animal within the next half-century.
Hooton passed away just four years after publication of this article at the age of 66. He remained an advocate of eugenics until his death.
January 15, 2013
There are many different ways to talk about the future, but few are more self-centered than guessing how the generations of tomorrow may judge you and yours.
Some of Keillor’s observations ring true for those of us here in the year 2013: he predicts that the future of air travel will only become more and more cumbersome and he imagines that Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with stagnant wages may become an issue. But the vast majority of the piece reads as cranky “get off my lawn” nostalgia. Which is to say, he’s romanticizing a past that never existed in the service of bemoaning a future that will never arrive. He begins by calling contemporary culture “trash” (being careful to clarify that the New York Times doesn’t qualify as such) and pretty much goes downhill on the future of humanity from there.
But it’s his vision of the media landscape of the future that’s most interesting to me. Maybe because in many ways he didn’t go far enough (only 1,000 movies available on the Internet?) and bizarrely longs for some antiquated version of celebrity that he implies is somehow more pure. But his dominant fear — that the way we consume media would be rapidly changing into the 21st century — was one prophecy fully realized. It’s just up to those of us living in “the future” to decide whether any of those changes are a good thing.
Even just holding this 1996 issue of The New York Times Magazine in my hand makes me acutely aware of how much has changed in the world of publishing since then. The magazine is thick at 216 pages and bursting at the seams with slick colorful ads — a sign of healthy profits for any media outlet in the mid-90s. But as more and more eyeballs (and ad dollars) have shifted to the digital realm, it’s hard to judge a mag by its deadtree count.
Keillor writes about the death of the newspaper and frustrations with getting Internet images to load:
People are going to miss it a lot — they’ll think: What a wonderful thing a newspaper was! You opened it and there it was, you didn’t have to wait three minutes for the art to download, and when your wife said, “Give me a section,” you did.
Of course, few Americans in the year 2013 are waiting three minutes for an image to load online but I personally identify with those who would stubbornly cling to something like the deadtree Sunday Times; something most easily enjoyed (and more importantly shared) over a cup of coffee with some pulp and ink on your fingers. You have no idea how much it pains me to identify with Mr. Guy Noir himself in this case.
Later in the piece Keillor romanticizes the celebrity of the past — the “real” ones — like Frank Sinatra. He worries that in the future we won’t have any common language with which to talk around the water cooler or the dinner table. And Keillor shudders to think about the overwhelming amount of media (10,000 CDs on the Internet, oh my!) future generations will have at their disposal:
People will feel nostalgia for celebrities, real ones, like there used to be back when there were three TV networks and Americans watched the same shows at the same time and talked about them the next day at work. Television was common currency. Sunday afternoons you watched the NFL game with your dad on the couch and then you went to the table and ate pot roast and mashed potatoes. Everybody else did the same thing.
Every American knew Sinatra by sight and by voice, but when you scattered the audience among 200 cable-TV channels and 1,000 movies you could watch on the Internet and 10,000 CDs you could download, there weren’t many true celebrities anymore. People will miss them. There will be new celebrities, thousands of them, but not many people will know who they are.
Like I mentioned, I share some of Keillor’s strange nostalgic notions about deadtrees and sharing a newspaper over breakfast. But what’s most interesting to me is not so much his premature nostalgia for 1996 but his rather stereotypical nostalgia for the 1950s. For a man whose art has focused almost exclusively on the idyllic past that never was, I suppose this makes perfect sense.
NYTimes.com doesn’t seem to have the article digitized but you can read the piece in its entirety at Deseret News. Amy Crehore‘s 1996 oil painting “Nostalgia Man” appeared alongside Keillor’s original article and is republished here with permission.
November 16, 2012
Interest in the life of legendary inventor Nikola Tesla has seen a tremendous resurgence in the past two decades. And with good reason. The man was a genius who was able to take so many of the ideas swirling around in the 19th century ether and turn them into fantastic new inventions — both real and imagined. Tesla’s wondrous imagination made him quite the futurist and here at the Paleofuture blog we’ve looked at some of his remarkably prescient predictions over the past few years.
But the 21st century’s rather fashionable interest in Tesla has had some disturbing side effects. Specifically, people want to canonize the man (sometimes literally) and turn his personal and professional struggles into a sort of morality tale involving clearly delineated characters: some ostensibly good and others ostensibly evil.
Tesla boosters of the 21st century will tell you that Tesla was the embodiment of all that is good in the world — Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal did just that in one of his more recent comics, “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” They’ll tell you that Tesla’s struggles against professional adversaries like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse (both of whom Tesla worked for at various points in his life) were the most pure examples of good versus evil. This past year, people have been crowdfunding museums and films and any number of other events in an attempt to raise Tesla’s profile and are constantly couching his work in moralistic terms. But I hope that with this renewed excitement for the life’s work of a great inventor people don’t lose sight of one thing: he was a brilliant man, but he was just a man.
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough. He believed that by the year 2100 eugenics would be “universally established” as a system of weeding out undesirable people from the population.
The February 9, 1935 issue of Liberty magazine includes many other fascinating predictions by Tesla for the future of humanity, which we’ll no doubt look at in the weeks ahead. But for the time being I’ve transcribed only the eugenics portion of Tesla’s predictions below, to remind us that we should be cautious when making gods of men:
The year 2100 will see eugenics universally established. In past ages, the law governing the survival of the fittest roughly weeded out the less desirable strains. Then man’s new sense of pity began to interfere with the ruthless workings of nature. As a result, we continue to keep alive and to breed the unfit. The only method compatible with our notions of civilization and the race is to prevent the breeding of the unfit by sterilization and the deliberate guidance of the mating instinct. Several European countries and a number of states of the American Union sterilize the criminal and the insane. This is not sufficient. The trend of opinion among eugenists is that we must make marriage more difficult. Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny. A century from now it will no more occur to a normal person to mate with a person eugenically unfit than to marry a habitual criminal.
The ideas behind eugenics would become substantially less popular after World War II, for obvious reasons. I doubt that Tesla understood the scope of the atrocities that were being committed in Europe (and at the hands of the California eugenics movement) at the time. But again, his ideas were clear: the world should be rid of so-called undesirables. However unpleasant the idea of eugenics is to reasonable people on its surface, this notion seems particularly strange coming from a man like Tesla, whose own mental illnesses would have likely put him in the “undesirable” category under any authoritarian regime.
September 6, 2012
Futurist thinkers have rarely been kind to New York City. In fact, writers and artists have spent the better part of two centuries destroying the Big Apple. Whether by flood or fire, nuclear explosion or alien invasion, New York more than any other city bears the brunt of our most apocalyptic futures. And perhaps no historian understands this better than Max Page.
In 2001, University of Massachusetts-Amherst history professor Max Page started work on what was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted project. Working with the New York Historical Society, Page was assembling an exhibit proposal about the various ways New York had been destroyed in various works of fiction. He put the finishing touches on his proposal on September 10, 2001. Of course, the very next day real world terrorists would put some of futurism’s most horrific visions of destruction to shame.
Years later, Page realized that his exploration of apocalyptic New York was still a worthwhile endeavor — it would simply require a more reverent touch. His book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction was published in 2008.
I reached Mr. Page by phone and asked him what it is about New York City. Why New York? Why not Chicago, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Tulsa… what is it about New York that compels us to see it destroyed in fiction over and over again?
“It’s interesting because there are disaster fantasies about lots of different places. Los Angeles has got its share, especially in the film world of the 20th century. And there’s fantasies of Paris and London and Tokyo, of course. What I was struck with is that New York has remained the predominant focus for literally close to two centuries,” Page said.
“It came to be the symbol of the city — not just the American city, but the city itself — with skyscrapers in the early 20th century. It remains the most important American city despite the rise of Chicago at one point, and Los Angeles and D.C. At least for economics and for culture, New York is still the capital and has been, really from the 1830s onward,” he said. As an Angeleno, I’m reluctantly inclined to agree with him.
“And then, there’s the simple aesthetics. Destruction looks better in New York.” Perhaps this is the real clincher. Aesthetically, New York is a gorgeous city; a city of steel and glass reaching toward the sky in a decidedly 20th century American ode to modernism. But the destruction of New York almost always has a purpose, political or otherwise. It’s rarely just a jangling of the keys distraction or traditional disaster movie extravagance like in the screenshot from the 1998 film Deep Impact above.
Take, for instance, the 1890 novel Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly. The story takes place in the futuristic world of 1988 and New York is destroyed by a terrorist/”liberation” group called the Brotherhood of Destruction. In this case, the destruction is political and hateful, as Donnelly’s anti-semitism is apparent when the Brotherhood states its purpose of destroying a Jewish-led oligarchy that controls every aspect of New York life.
From Caesar’s Column: “The shops had all been broken into; dead bodies lay here and there; and occasionally a burned block lifted its black arms appealing to heaven. As we drew near Union Square a wonderful sight — such as the world had never before beheld — expanded before us. Great blazing bonfires lighted the work; hundreds of thousands had gathered to behold the ghastly structure, the report of which had already spread everywhere.”
The past two centuries have seen New York destroyed in an almost cyclical manner. Fire, flood, monsters, revolution, aliens, rinse, repeat. But there is one method of destroying New York that only saw rise in the mid-20th century: the nuclear bomb.
Max Page explains to me the unique method of destruction brought by new technology as distinct from the more historically relatable stories of floods: “The climate change film in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow, that is partly about a flood. And then we have flood stories back in the teens and we have flood stories back in the late 19th century. Obviously some things, like nuclear disaster, is one of the main methods that obviously relied on new technology.”
This new technology was on spectacular display in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the 1950s. As I’ve written about before, the August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s displayed in vivid detail a haunting mushroom cloud over Manhattan. The accompanying article, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, gives a breathless account of an Associated Press reporter on any-given-Tuesday who is trying to learn about the devastating destruction of New York City.
The uncomfortable fact is that there’s something almost beautiful about these horrific visions. Divorced of the real world pain and suffering, we’re drawn to the most powerful weapon in the futurist’s arsenal — naked, unapologetic spectacle. In fact, I have that Hiroshima issue of Collier’s framed in my apartment right next to a mid-1960s nuclear power propaganda pamphlet called “The Atom, Electricity and You.” It may be an achingly obvious joke about the conflict between our fear and hope in futuristic technology, but even stripped of context these images are somehow objectively beautiful in their scale, aesthetic and hubris.
Reveling in destruction is, of course, a rather macabre affair. Made all the more unseemly when such fantastic, unbelievable devastation has reached our shores. But we can’t help it. Watching the destruction of the Twin Towers was surreal, but not unimaginable. And of course we couldn’t look away. I remember turning on the television on September 11th and seeing surreal images of the first Tower smoldering, while CNN talked with Tom Clancy over the phone. His 1994 novel Debt of Honor included a character who flew a commercial plane into the U.S. Capitol building. Life was somehow imitating the darkest of art.
Max Page explains, “That day [on September 11, 2001] we had the sense that we had seen this already in a movie.”
Indeed we had. And we’ll likely see it again in movies, TV and books for many generations to come.