Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.
“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”
“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.
“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”
The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.
If you visited a tech blog in the past two years, you will have undoubtedly noticed: no topic has been generating more buzz than non-real-reality (virtual, mixed, augmented—pick your flavor).
One of the more fascinating aspects of this tidal wave of excitement (and venture capital) is its obliviousness to its own history — a rich tradition of gamers, tech geeks, and scientists building and hyping virtual worlds. At Backchannel, a reprint of “Being in Nothingness” by John Perry Barlow, a seminal essay from 1990, shows the uncanny similarties between our current conversations and the obsession over “cyberspace” 30 years ago. It also brings home a crucial point: that cutting-edge technology is not only about slick, robot-filled futures; it’s fueled just as much by our undepletable nostalgic longings.
The list of possibilities is literally bounded only by the imagination. Working bodies for the damaged. Teleconferencing with body language. Virtual surgery. Hey, this is a practical thing to do!
And yet I suspect that something else altogether, something not so practical, is at the root of these yearnings. Why do we really want to develop Virtual Reality? There seems to be a flavor of longing here which I associate with the desire to converse with aliens or dolphins or the never-born.
On some level, I think we can now see the potential for technology, long about the business of making the metaphorical literal, of reversing the process and re-infecting ordinary reality with luminous magic.
Or maybe this is just another expression of what may be the third oldest human urge, the desire to have visions. Maybe we want to get high.
We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones.
It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.
Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can be buried only in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”
Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.
Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.
Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery. Read more…
In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:
In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.
From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.
Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.
In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.
Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, has studied our relationship with technology for decades. While some of her earlier works highlighted the ways in which technology could help us construct self-identities, her more recent writing warns that we are overinvesting in our devices and underinvesting in ourselves and each other.
In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published in 2011, Turkle explored the implications of replacing real intimacy with digital connection. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, continues that thread. Turkle uses Thoreau’sthree chairs—one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society—as a framework, describing how our devices disrupt conversation and healthy development at every stage. When we turn to our phones constantly, we deny ourselves the capacity for solitude and identity development. This, in turn, blunts our ability to form healthy relationships. And vice versa: when we text instead of talk, or look at our devices instead of each other, we diminish our abilities to relate to other people as well as ourselves. Turkle ends the book with a discussion of what it means that we have begun to relate to machines as sentient beings when, in fact, they have no feelings, no experiences, no empathy, no idea what it means to be human.
Turkle—a psychoanalytically trained psychologist who founded and directs theMIT Initiative on Technology and Self—is no Luddite. But she argues for moderation, and for a deep look at how over-invested we’ve become in new technology. She is also optimistic that we are at just the right moment for this rceexamination, and for a return to conversation, reflection, and real intimacy. Turkle and I began our phone conversation by hailing that old thing, the landline.
Hi, this is Jessica Gross, calling from Longreads. Is this Sherry Turkle?
Yes, it is. I’ve been looking forward to hearing from you. But let me have you call back on a landline. I think the fidelity would be better and it’d just be easier. [Ring, ring.] Here I am. I love this old technology. I’m at a seaside cabin with this 1950 phone that works perfectly. [Laughter]
I got my own landline recently and it’s been really delightful.
I mean, there’s this thing where calls never get dropped, where you can hear in perfect fidelity! [Laughter] And it goes on even if the Wi-Fi is down! Read more…
In the summer of 2013, a New York yuppie lost her iPhone in the Hamptons. A few months later, she got an alert saying that her phone had been turned on in Yemen, and then candid pictures of a Yemeni family started filling her iCloud account. The phone was soon updated under the name of its new owner, a teenager boy named Yacoub. In this essay for The Atlantic, Will McGrath writes about the saga of his friend’s lost phone, guns, shared humanity, and how the photos provided his friend with a strange keyhole into another world:
Flipping through these pictures is like watching Yacoub muddle through adolescence in time-lapse. He is deep into the age of identity-building, trying to document and establish his place in the world. He travels through the countryside taking landscape shots: stunning mountains with verdant terraced fields, clusters of houses that stair-step down toward a valley floor. Now he is at a construction site looking supercool behind the wheel of a forklift.
Another picture has him posing before a shuttered storefront with an AK-47 (the safety is on and the gun’s stock is folded under so he can’t touch the trigger). In late August Yacoub writes the Shahada—the standard Muslim declaration of faith—in the phone’s Notes app, where Maura discovers it while making her IKEA shopping list. There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God. He writes cheesy love poetry into the Notes app (How does the heart forget you, the taste of sugar that is lost?), he tries to visit Sex.com, he takes selfies with qat wadded in his cheek, he is every teenager in the history of teenagers.
They have astonishingly well-paid jobs that they don’t like. Some plan to stay only until their options are vested. Then they will move on to their “actual” careers. This population of the possessed waiting to be dispossessed spends an inordinate amount of time comparing the gourmet kitchens of different website headquarters. The top digital companies in the Bay Area are famed for putting on lavish buffets and encouraging employees to invite friends from rival firms to join the feasts. The company cafeteria has arguably become the preeminent battleground in local corporate bragging rights. For many young workers in the internet industry, San Francisco is a salaried vacation between college and their careers, a well-earned break before starting their adult lives. So what do they do with their free time during this purgatory? They eat.
—Theodore Gioia writing in Virginia Quarterly Review about the food culture that has emerged in San Francisco, fueled by tech money, youth, a sense of transiency and free time, and built on the foundation of conscious-eating laid by people like Alice Waters.
When we think about futurism, more often than not it’s robots and hoverboards that spring into our minds. Writing for the Atlantic, Rose Eveleth wonders if our limited vision of the future is a result of white, male geeks dominating the field. What questions would futurism ask were it to become more inclusive?
There are all sorts of firms and companies working to build robotic servants. Chrome butlers, chefs, and housekeepers. But the fantasy of having an indentured servant is a peculiar one to some. “That whole idea of creating robots that are in service to us has always bothered me,” says Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author. “I’ve always sided with the robots. That whole idea of creating these creatures that are human-like and then have them be in servitude to us, that is not my fantasy and I find it highly problematic that it would be anyone’s.”
Or take longevity, for example. The idea that people could, or even should, push to lengthen lifespans as far as possible is popular. The life-extension movement, with Aubrey de Gray as one (very bearded) spokesman, has raised millions of dollars to investigate how to extend the lifespan of humans. But this is arguably only an ideal future if you’re in as a comfortable position as his. “Living forever only works if you’re a rich vampire from an Anne Rice novel, which is to say that you have compound interest,” jokes [futurist Madeline] Ashby.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that many tech workers in San Francisco turn to psychics for a glimpse of the future. Or that psychics, in turn, are rebranding themselves as spiritual therapists, executive coaches, and corporate counselors. The trend is common enough to be spoofed on HBO’s Silicon Valley, where the show’s fictional tech CEO confers with a spiritual guru. Meanwhile, real-life tech execs are increasingly candid about their spiritual hygiene: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff endorses yoga; LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner advocates mindful meditation; and the late Steve Jobs, a student of Buddhism, was mentored by a Zen priest.
The San Francisco Yellow Pages list 128 psychics and mediums in the city; there are 141 listings for astrologers (with some overlap between the categories). In the Bay Area at large, psychics are keen to cash in on tech’s spiritual awakening.
Grégoire Chamayou | A Theory of the Drone | The New Press | January 2015 | Translated by Janet Lloyd | Originally published in France as Théorie du Drone by la Fabrique Editions, Paris, 2013 | 28 minutes (7,693 words)
Below are four chapters excerpted from the book A Theory of the Drone, by French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Enemy leaders look like everyone else; enemy combatants look like everyone else; enemy vehicles look like civilian vehicles; enemy installations look like civilian installations; enemy equipment and materials look like civilian equipment and materials.