Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

back in action (sort of)

Greetings, readers. I’m back from a visit to my old friends in Wheaton, and aside from seeing those old friends, possibly the best aspect of the trip — which I took by automobile, covering around 2500 miles all told — was the escape it offered from the relentless stimulus/response operant conditioning of social media, so much of which these days is Trumpcentric. I joked with some friends that I’m thinking of just driving around the country until we have a new President.

A few notes:

1) I spent some of the driving time mulling over this idea of Anthropocene theology, and in the next few days I’ll try to write up a kind of summary of where the project has come so far, as much for my benefit as yours. Then I may fall rather quiet about these matters for a while, as I have much reading to do. Also, at the beginning of next month I’ll be leading a faculty seminar at Biola University on technology and theology, so I am sure the people there will give me some responses and challenges. (Prep for and participation in that seminar will slow down my blogging, however.)

2) As part of my reading, I’m revisiting Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood, by my friend and former colleague Christina Bieber Lake. It’s a really superb book, and re-reading it in light of this new project makes me realize how much of the necessary work Christina has already done. So thanks to her!

3) It’s really great to see my friend Alexis Madrigal back writing on technology (and other things) for The Atlantic, starting with this post on how the internet has changed since he started writing about it a decade ago:

“Products don't really get that interesting to turn into businesses until they have about 1 billion people using them,” Mark Zuckerberg said of WhatsApp in 2014. Ten years ago, there were hardly any companies that could count a billion customers. Coke? Pepsi? The entire internet had 1.2 billion users. The biggest tech platform in 2007 was Microsoft Windows and it had not crossed a billion users.

Now, there are a baker’s dozen individuals products with a billion users. Microsoft has Windows and Office. Google has Search, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Android, Chrome, and Play. Facebook has the core product, Groups, Messenger, and WhatsApp.

All this to say: These companies are now dominant. And they are dominant in a way that almost no other company has been in another industry. They are the mutant giant creatures created by software eating the world.

And it is this unprecedentedly massive — and unprecedentedly concentrated — collecting, analyzing, and selling of our personal data that has created the baseline “digital insecurity” that Steven Weber and Betsy Cooper write about:

The surprise is not that the frequency of such attacks is accelerating; it’s that it took so long. There are at least three reasons for this acceleration. First, the internet has a fundamentally insecure infrastructure that was initially made for interoperability among a small number of trusted parties, but is now being used by billions who do not know and should not trust one another.

The second reason is that increasingly inventive criminals have become today’s most ambitious internet entrepreneurs. Their work has been made easier by the theft of powerful hacking tools created by and for state security agencies but now available for sale.

Third is the commercial innovation imperative. Consumer demand for digital devices and services keeps pushing companies to the limits of what is technically possible, and then pressing them to go even a little bit further, where security often becomes nice to have but not a necessity.

Alexis is right, I think, to point out that this transformation of the internet from a largely non-commercial place of safety to the most powerful engine of commerce, and engine of insecurity for its users, ever made dates from the debut of the iPhone ten years ago. Ten years! Ten years that have turned a few billion humans’ worlds upside-down. The fastest economic transformation in history, and we haven't seriously begun to come to terms with it.

4) Finally: In London a couple of months ago Adam Roberts moderated a conversation between Kim Stanley Robinson and Francis Spufford about their recent novels, both set in New York City, but separated in time by several hundred years. I was there, and wrote about the conversation, and the books, for Education and Culture.


  • You've been "nonline" to use Patrick Rhone's neologism (http://bit.ly/2qCjYDR).

    On the anthropocene, have you seen Andrew Chignell's work on hope and the anthropocene? For example, http://faith.yale.edu/sites/default/files/expectation_and_hope_0.pdf

    - Tim Lindgren

  • Thanks for this, Tim -- I'm really glad to know about Andrew's piece. And it's good to hear from you!

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