THINKING ABOUT SYSTEMS

Three on how we got here, featuring Fred Turner and Adam Curtis. 👀

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Silicon Valley Thinks Politics Doesn’t Exist

We think, “Sure, big systems may come along, but individual rebels always triumph.” That’s part of our deep cultural narrative. “And it’ll happen here, too.” It’s a way in which that same cultural narrative gets taken up by engineers – and you’ve just given me a fabulous example of that happening on stage – where these folks imagine themselves as the archetypal American frontierspeople. The nature of the frontier is to be conquered is irrelevant; it’s the conquering that matters. The actual westward push of Europeans stomped all over native peoples. Now, you see people like the founder you just described, quite happily, marching across our brain space as though it was just the latest in open, organic American fields to be conquered. We’re the natives in this story and that’s terrifying.

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The Antidote to Civilisational Collapse

“We live in a modern ghost story. We are haunted by our past behaviour played back to us through the machines in its comparison to millions of other people’s behaviour. We are guided and nudged and shaped by that. It’s benign in a way and it’s an alternative to the old kind of politics. But it locks us into a static world because it’s always looking to the past. It can never imagine something new. It can’t imagine a future that hasn’t already existed. And it’s led to a sense of atrophy and repetition. It’s “Groundhog Day”. And because it doesn’t allow mass politics to challenge power, it has allowed corruption to carry on without it really being challenged properly.”

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Utopias, Frontiers, and Brogrammers

“Engineering culture is about making the product. If you make the product work, that’s all you’ve got to do to fulfill the ethical warrant of your profession. The ethics of engineering are an ethics of: Does it work? If you make something that works, you’ve done the ethical thing. It’s up to other people to figure out the social mission for your object. It’s like the famous line from the Tom Lehrer song: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” So I think that engineers, at Facebook and other firms, have been a bit baffled when they’ve been told that the systems they’ve built—systems that are clearly working very well and whose effectiveness is measured by the profits they generate, so everything looks ethical and “good” in the Google sense—are corrupting the public sphere.”