News


Search News:



Amor Mundi, June 19th 2016

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Judging Speech

Free speech is an unpopular value; we only speak of free speech when the words in question are offensive. All the more reason why we need to understand why free speech matters and when to invoke the freedom of speech—and when not to.

For example, when students at Yale last year called for the dismissal of a professor for her views in an email, their call itself was an exercise of free speech. They were wrongly criticized for violating free speech, when in fact they were exercising their freedoms. That the students were wrong in their call to censor and punish a professor for her opinions doesn’t deprive them of their rights. Had Yale caved to their demands and dismissed the professor, however, that would indeed run afoul of the ethos of free speech. We must always recall that the overriding point of freedom of speech is to encourage and protect political argumentation, even political arguments like those that the students made, arguments that are wrong and offensive.

With that in mind, it is worth considering Daniel Sieradsk’si argument in a New York Times Op-Ed this week. Sieradski argues that Governor Mario Cuomo violated the First Amendment when he issued an executive decision to prevent NY State agencies spending taxpayer money to do business with entities boycotting Israel.

Read More..

 

amor mundi signup

Force Multiplier

Alex Massie, in the Spectator, remembers English Parliamentarian Jo Cox, who was murdered earlier this week, perhaps because of her support for the REMAIN position in that same upcoming Brexit vote, and he contemplates how it got to this point:

“We know that even lone lunatics don’t live in a bubble. They are influenced by outside events. That’s why, when there is an act of Islamist terrorism, we quite rightly want to know if it was, implicitly or explicitly, encouraged by other actors. We do not believe – at least we should not – in collective guilt or punishment but we do want to know, with reason, whether an individual assassin was inspired by ideology or religion or hate-speech or any of a hundred other possible motivating factors. We do not hold all muslims accountable for the violence carried out in the name of their prophet but nor can we avoid the ugly, unpalatable, truth that, as far as the perpetrator is concerned, he (it is almost always he) is acting in the service of his view of his religion. He has a cause, no matter how warped it may be. And so we ask who influenced him? We ask, how did it come to this?

So, no, Nigel Farage isn’t responsible for Jo Cox’s murder. And nor is the Leave campaign. But they are responsible for the manner in which they have pressed their argument. They weren’t to know something like this was going to happen, of course, and they will be just as shocked and horrified by it as anyone else.

But, still. Look. When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.”

 

Back To The Land

English Farmlands

With Britain’s vote on whether or not to leave the UK, known, cutely, as the ‘Brexit,’ looming, James Meek takes to the London Review of Books to write about the nation’s farms and farmers:

“To the traveller passing at speed, even to the hiker or dog-walker, farmed fields are anonymous elements that contribute to a pattern. It’s the landscape the eye seeks, not any of the fields making it up. Most fields have no individuality to a stranger; at best, a fine oak in the middle, or a pretty horse grazing. Few can tell crops apart, or estimate a field’s size in acres. Visitors to the countryside see farms without seeing them. They see the odd farmyard, and they see a mass of fields. A passer-by can’t connect a field to a particular farm.

Besides, in Britain, a walk in the country is a constrained experience. Most fields – that is, most bits of the lowland countryside – are forbidden to outsiders, by legal, physical and practical barriers. The biggest barrier is purposelessness: even where a right of way exists, why use it? To walk from one village to another? We have roads and cars for that. Few who live in ‘the country’ – that is, in villages – stray from metalled roads except along a handful of known paths for ramblers and dog-walkers, often through woods or along waterways. Most of the vast mosaic will never be entered by any human being except the farmer, a trickle of contractors and, once in a while, a government official. Not that such people are often to be seen. Away from the roads, the space between human habitations in lowland Britain has acquired a ghostly quality. It is rare to visit the countryside or travel through it and see someone at work in a field; the occasional tractor, no more.

But the work gets done. The chequered pattern changes colour and texture, season by season. It’s surprising that we treat this epic, continual, land-defining endeavour as if it were both inevitable and eternal. The colliery tunnels have fallen in, the steel furnaces are winking out, the fishing fleets have gone for scrap; Britain’s trains are Japanese, its cars German, its clothes from China. And yet Britain still produces three-fifths of its own food. Farmers still raise livestock, plough fields, sow and harvest crops, at the mercy of the weather. They use technology unrecognisable to their forefathers, but the deep processes go back to the Stone Age and the first farmers. How is this possible? How have so many thriving practices fallen to the globalisation formula of ‘other countries do what you do better/more cheaply, so you might as well give up,’ while farming, an activity thousands of years old, continues to have mastery of the British lowlands, at a time when the world is awash with cheap (at least for rich countries) food?”

 

Goodnight and Good Luck

Donald Trump illustration

At The Baffler, Chris Lehmann has some ideas for how to report on Donald Trump:

“Trump is a career loudmouth and bully, and the last thing that loudmouths and bullies care about is a stand of principle. Indeed, they count on such postures as an effective way of quarantining their more principled opponents from their deeply compromised natural habitats. Surely there must be a way to give the thug a potent dollop of his own medicine. And the time to act is clearly now, with Trump reportedly positioning himself to launch his own Berlusconi-like career as a media potentate after the election.)

It’s tempting, of course, to adopt a simple retaliatory stance: If Trump is going to turn press access into a spoil of power, then journalists can subject Trump’s campaign to a blackout. No more wall-to-wall coverage of Trump rallies on cable. No more candidate call-ins to political chat shows permitting the candidate to gargle a few more base-inflaming lies, and then move on blithely to the next media hit. But logistical obstacles aside, this approach lacks a certain Edward R. Murrow-style grandeur. And to greet a strategy of starved-out press coverage with more starved-out press coverage doesn’t really get at the root of the problem….

My modest media proposal is that the press continue to cover Trump, but with a series of visual and verbal consumer advisories indicating that readers and viewers are encountering a toxic public figure. Again, CNN has helped show the way forward here by displaying chyrons announcing that Trump is baldly misrepresenting the facts during his speeches and press events. That’s a good start, but how about broadcasting Trump’s visage with a black bar across his eyes (or better yet, his mouth) at all times, to signal his standing as a destructive bigot? True, in our louche digital day and age, the classic tabloid black bar is chiefly employed to cover up naughty bits, but a robust case can be made that Trump’s mouth is an obscene body part. Still, the black bar may be too retro for our edgy new millennial mediasphere, in which case, TV news outlets could readily use a pixelated version of the Trump countenance, as they do routinely in their broadcasted testimony from all sorts of disgraced or law-breaking characters.”

amor mundi signup

Whence Gun Control

guns in America

In Salon, Alex Gourevitch considers the complicated racial politics of the gun control debate:

“There is an unrecognized gap between the justification for gun control and its most likely effect. There is no reason to expect fair enforcement of gun control laws, or even that they will mainly be used to someone prevent these massacres. That is because how our society polices depends not on the laws themselves but on how the police – and prosecutors and courts – decide to enforce the law. Especially given how many guns there are in the U.S., gun law enforcement will be selective. That is to say, they will be unfairly enforced, only deepening the injustices daily committed against poor minorities in the name of law and order.

It is hard to imagine any feasible gun control laws doing much to decrease mass shootings. But it is easy to see how they will become part of the system of social control of mostly black, mostly poor people. There are already too many crimes, there is too much criminal law, and there is far too much incarceration — especially of black people. To the degree that all that is part of the “dark chapter in our history,” given the deep injustice of our society, and especially its policing practices, the actual practice of gun control will continue that dark chapter, not resolve it.

Of course, a reasonable gun control regime is logically possible. We can imagine one in our heads. But it is not politically possible in the United States right now. And it is a great error to think that gun control is the path to racial justice. More likely, it is the other way around. Racial justice is a precondition for any reasonable gun control regime.”

 

Translation as Close Reading

Translator Gregory Rabassa

Famed translator Gregory Rabassa, who is probably most well know for interpreting Gabriel Garcia Marquez, died this week aged 94. In a 1978 interview, Rabassa described his process:

“I am not sure that I have any technique. I certainly have no strategy (I ammore of a tactician, if it comes to that) and I am not sure whether I have an approach or not. It is really very simple: I just sit down with paper and a dictionary handy and go to work. About the only preliminary effort expended was a reading of the book. Sometimes this had taken place a while back so that it is all a bit hazy. This might be to the good, if my experience is any example.I must confess, and I have confessed to Julio, that I translated Hopscotch as I read it. I did have to go back and change some things, but only a snippet here and there, nothing important. I think that this bears out my contention that a translation is nothing but a close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible. When I do a book I go along as fast as I can, trying to get the meaning down so that I can use this first draft with confidence. If a phrase resists me I put it down in some awkward but accurate form to be dealt with later. More to give myself a break in routine than anything else (although it enables me to ship chunks of translation off to the author periodically), I will stop after twenty or thirty pages of manuscript text and go back over it for the re-write. Here I work more slowly and check out words I could not find in the dictionary and find a smooth solution for the rough passages I have left in the raw. More often than not this is the final draft. Here and there are some queries for the author which are duly marked so that he can answer them when he sees his copy. They are so few, as are his suggestions, that I can easily incorporate them into the final copy. People often ask me who types my material. A typist would be handy but also it would make the whole process slower. My main reason for typing my own copy, however, is that there are any number of changes I make as I do that final copy. Naturally I think they are all for the best, but often as I look over the rough draft and the changes I will go back to what I had in the first place. I think this may have to do with the day I am working. From academic influence no doubt, I have a sneaking suspicion that there are Mon-Wed-Fri words and Tu-Th-Sat words. I work pretty much the same on all books. If it is a technique, it is a technique I have fallen into through pragmatic habit, so it is quite comfortable. I find that one must be quite comfortable when translating (the same as with writing), as there are enough discomforts in the work itself.”

 

Blackout

Youtube slide from Blackout video (Sarah Hepola book)

Terry Gross interviews Sarah Hepola about her new memoir, “Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget,”

“And I’ve just noticed in talking about this book that a lot of people don’t know what blackouts are, and so if I could just take a moment to…

GROSS: Please I was – yeah. I was going to ask you to do that. I’m glad you’re bringing it up.

HEPOLA: Well, I’ve just noticed that this is a word that a lot of us use, but we don’t necessarily know what it means. So a blackout is very different from passing out, and a lot of people conflate the two. Passing out is when you drink so much that you fall asleep unconscious on the couch and you’re snoring. But in a blackout, you remain interacting with the world. You know, basically you drink so much that your long-term memory shuts down. So you’re still walking and talking and interacting with people, but the recorder in your brain isn’t going. And it can last for a few minutes. It can go in and out – that’s something called a fragmentary blackout. And there’s something called an en bloc blackout. It’s a French word – B-L-O-C. And it’s these large swaths of time that are just gone, and you don’t have any memory of them. And these happened to me quite frequently, especially as I got older.

And what happens is that you can present during that time as having it together. Like, I performed in front of, like, 300 people once in a blackout, and I don’t think they knew that I was in a blackout, and I didn’t know I was in a blackout. But later, I had no memory of that event. You know, the experience that you described in the Paris hotel room, you know, where, like, all these things happen and I have no memory of them. I meet this guy. I guess I go back to his room. I – but all I know is I come out of this blackout. It’s like your brain kind of gets punted back online. And I’m in the middle of the most intimate act there is, which is sex, with this person. I don’t know where he came from. It’s the strangest thing that ever happened to me in my drinking life. You know, but your question was about, did I see the irony? I don’t think I did. I think I learned that the hard way, which was with a mouthful of gravel, you know? Like, how many times did I fall down the stairs? And I thought that was funny…

GROSS: You raise a really interesting question in your book about what is the meaning of consent in a sexual relationship when the woman is in a blackout. And you write, (reading) in my life, alcohol often made the issue of consent very murky. And you almost describe a blackout as giving yourself a roofie…

HEPOLA: I think this is a really important point. And this is something that – really when I started to think about this was when the conversation around campus sexual assault exploded about three or four years ago. And we’d been going through a national conversation, and a lot of the things we’ve talked about is alcohol and consent. It was really striking to me, by the way, that I drank for 25 years and I don’t remember anybody ever saying to me during those 25 years, were you too drunk to give consent? Like, I don’t – I just – I don’t remember that question ever being asked of me. It was like, yeah, hell yeah. You rocked it – or whatever. Like, there were always – these stories were always kind of spun as triumphs. Then when this conversation about campus sexual assault came up and I was reading these stories about alcohol and consent, I started to think about how blackout plays out in that. It’s a really gray area of consent. And I think it’s something that all of us would do better to understand a little bit better, you know? And you’ve already put your finger on one of the most important things, which is the person that you’re with doesn’t necessarily know that you’re in a blackout. Now having said that, there are a few red flags. One of them is that people in a blackout tend to repeat what they’ve already told you. You know, my friend calls this, getting caught in drunkard’s loop. You know, where you are talking to somebody and you’re like, do you not know you just said that 10 minutes ago? And it’s really jarring. And it’s because their long-term memory isn’t working, so they don’t remember that they said it. And the other thing that – I had a boyfriend that used to tell me, when you’re in a blackout, your eyes go dead like a zombie. And he said I always had this creepy, unplugged look.

Can We Doubt Too Much?

popeyeDaniel Engber at Five Thirty Eight writes about the incredible persistence of non-facts.

“Popeye loved his leafy greens and used them to obtain his super strength, Arbesman’s book explained, because the cartoon’s creators knew that spinach has a lot of iron. Indeed, the character would be a major evangelist for spinach in the 1930s, and it’s said he helped increase the green’s consumption in the U.S. by one-third. But this “fact” about the iron content of spinach was already on the verge of being obsolete, Arbesman said: In 1937, scientists realized that the original measurement of the iron in 100 grams of spinach — 35 milligrams — was off by a factor of 10. That’s because a German chemist named Erich von Wolff had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870, and the goof persisted in the literature for more than half a century. By the time nutritionists caught up with this mistake, the damage had been done. The spinach-iron myth stuck around in spite of new and better knowledge, wrote Arbesman, because “it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.” Arbesman was not the first to tell the cautionary tale of the missing decimal point. The same parable of sloppy science, and its dire implications, appeared in a book called “Follies and Fallacies in Medicine,” a classic work of evidence-based skepticism first published in 1989.1 It also appeared in a volume of “Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics,” a guide to “The Practice of Statistics in the Life Sciences” and an article in an academic journal called “The Consequence of Errors.” And that’s just to name a few. All these tellings and retellings miss one important fact: The story of the spinach myth is itself apocryphal. It’s true that spinach isn’t really all that useful as a source of iron, and it’s true that people used to think it was. But all the rest is false: No one moved a decimal point in 1870; no mistake in data entry spurred Popeye to devote himself to spinach; no misguided rules of eating were implanted by the sailor strip. The story of the decimal point manages to recapitulate the very error that it means to highlight: a fake fact, but repeated so often (and with such sanctimony) that it takes on the sheen of truth. In that sense, the story of the lost decimal point represents a special type of viral anecdote or urban legend, one that finds its willing hosts among the doubters, not the credulous. It’s a rumor passed around by skeptics — a myth about myth-busting. Like other Russian dolls of distorted facts, it shows us that, sometimes, the harder that we try to be clear-headed, the deeper we are drawn into the fog.”

Engber discusses a lifelong and confirmed sceptic, Mike Sutton, who uncovered the spinach myth and also now argues that Darwin knowingly stole the theory of natural selection from the forest management expert Patrick Matthew. Why is that those who claim the mantle of skepticism themselves fall prey to urban legends? Engber suggests “that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them. It lowers their defenses, in the same way that the act of remembering sometimes seems to make us more likely to forget. Could it be that the more credulous we become, the more convinced we are of our own debunker bona fides? Does skepticism self-destruct? Sutton told me over email that he, too, worries that contrarianism can run amok, citing conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers as examples of those who “refuse to accept the weight of argument” and suffer the result. He also noted the “paradox” by which a skeptic’s obsessive devotion to his research — and to proving others wrong — can “take a great personal toll.” A person can get lost, he suggested, in the subterranean “Wonderland of myths and fallacies.”” It is thus no small irony that Sutton’s most controversial debunking—his claim that Darwin stole the theory of natural selection—is one that many scientists and scholars insist that Sutton gets wrong.

Martin Heidegger famously thought that René Descartes and other skeptics doubted too much. To build a philosophy on doubt is to ignore and even deny common sense. Arendt offered her own critique of Cartesian doubt in The Human Condition. Descartes seeks to save reality from doubt by arguing that at least doubt is real: “If everything has become doubtful, then doubting at least is certain and real. Whatever may be the state of reality and of truth as they are given to the senses and to reason, “nobody can doubt of his doubt and remain uncertain whether he doubts or does not doubt.”” But as Arendt sees, Descartes’ act of salvation transforms the common world of common sense into the radically subjective world of introspection: “The very ingenuity of Cartesian introspection, and hence the reason why this philosophy became so all-important to the spiritual and intellectual development of the modern age, lies first in that it had used the nightmare of non-reality as a means of submerging all worldly objects into the stream of consciousness and its processes. The “seen tree” found in consciousness through introspection is no longer the tree given in sight and touch, an entity in itself with an unalterable identical shape of its own. By being processed into an object of consciousness on the same level with a merely remembered or entirely imaginary thing, it becomes part and parcel of this process itself, of that consciousness, that is, which one knows only as an ever-moving stream. Nothing perhaps could prepare our minds better for the eventual dissolution of matter into energy, of objects into a whirl of atomic occurrences, than this dissolution of objective reality into subjective states of mind or, rather, into subjective mental processes.”

In other words, the turn towards excessive doubt is connected to the retreat from the world to our individual minds. “What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds, and this they cannot have in common, strictly speaking; their faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody.” The tragic danger of such a removal of the world and the elevation of man’s reason is that the limits of the factual world—that common world into which we are thrown and against which we must struggle—are dissolved into rationalizations and subjective ideas. The doubt that leads to the doubting of a common world means the rise of a knowing without limits. It is the death of humility insofar as we accept as true only that which we know and make for ourselves. —RB


A Spoon Full Of Sugar Helps The Demagogue Rise Up

Gage Skidmore – https://www.flickr.com/search/?user_id=22007612%40N05&view_all=1&text=trump

Andrew Sullivan celebrates American democracy, even as he diagnoses it as the cause of the rise of the political Donald Trump: “Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet, blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist, defeating the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary and later his Republican opponent (both pillars of their parties’ Establishments and backed by moneyed elites). In 2012, the fund-raising power behind Mitt Romney — avatar of the one percent — failed to dislodge Obama from office. And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites. Sanders, who is sustaining his campaign all the way to California on the backs of small donors and large crowds, is, to put it bluntly, a walking refutation of his own argument. Trump, of course, is a largely self-funding billionaire — but like Willkie, he argues that his wealth uniquely enables him to resist the influence of the rich and their lobbyists. Those despairing over the influence of Big Money in American politics must also explain the swift, humiliating demise of Jeb Bush and the struggling Establishment campaign of Hillary Clinton. The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics.”


Afterimages

afterimagesTeju Cole relates the story of a friend who collects other people’s old photographs and who found one of the subjects of his collection when he uploaded them to Facebook and the algorithm took notice: “The photos Zun Lee collected, digitally scanned and put out in public, have had a different life from the photos in my collection. He wrote back to the man who was tagged in some of them and suggested meeting. After all, he did not consider himself the owner of the photos, only their custodian. Perhaps, Lee offered, he might fly to Los Angeles and hand the photos over in person. The man said no. Lee was disappointed but sympathetic. He said he’d already been thinking about how databases and tags are not neutral, how they can wind up being hostile toward communities of color. “I completely understood,” Lee told me. “This man was saying, ‘We are not willing participants.’ The black body is used as a commodity, as something that is surveilled. The man was telling me, ‘No, you’re not welcome, this is not art, get the hell out of our lives.’ And I understood it.” People have a right to be skeptical about the encounter between the analog experience of life and the futuristic algorithms that often prioritize what is possible over what is desirable. Already there are reports of churches scanning worshipers’ faces to determine who attends regularly, the better to know whom to ask for donations. Shops match your face to a database so that they can greet you by name — or identify you as a potential shoplifter. Black people in particular, against the historical backdrop of surveillance and state hostility and corporate disregard, have a right to doubt these technologies. There was a recent report of Google’s photo app automatically tagging a photo of two black people as “gorillas” — another instance of machines replicating the nastier prejudices of their human teachers.”


How Little We Know

digital-humanitiesDaniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette and David Golumbia put the digital humanities in historical and political context: “Advocates position Digital Humanities as a corrective to the “traditional” and outmoded approaches to literary study that supposedly plague English departments. Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Silicon Valley today, this discourse sees technological innovation as an end in itself and equates the development of disruptive business models with political progress. Yet despite the aggressive promotion of Digital Humanities as a radical insurgency, its institutional success has for the most part involved the displacement of politically progressive humanities scholarship and activism in favor of the manufacture of digital tools and archives. Advocates characterize the development of such tools as revolutionary and claim that other literary scholars fail to see their political import due to fear or ignorance of technology. But the unparalleled level of material support that Digital Humanities has received suggests that its most significant contribution to academic politics may lie in its (perhaps unintentional) facilitation of the neoliberal takeover of the university.… What Digital Humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities. It is, instead, about the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge…[because] purported technical expertise trumps all other forms of knowledge, including critique of the uses to which such expertise is put. (What counts as “expertise,” however, turns out to be highly variable. For example, most of the senior scholars mentioned here — Moretti, Liu, McGann, Drucker, and Smith — openly disclaim any ability to code, even as other major figures in the field insist on this as a minimum qualification.)”


A-Z

Raymond_Queneau

Six years ago, French mathematician Michele Audin began attending Oulipo meetings: “The meeting starts at six o’clock. Today it’s at A’s house. For ten minutes, B, C, and D (including me), who are always early, wait in front of the door. Once everyone has entered and settled in, the President draws up the agenda, noting the names of those present and those excused (but only among the living Oulipians, the others are definitively excused “for reason of death”), including E and F who don’t come very often. We help ourselves to pre-dinner drinks. As in a family, we share our news with each other (illnesses, joys, deaths). G makes a play on words. We quiet down while the President signs Oulipians up for the “Creation” section: the rule says that, if no one signs up for this section, the meeting is cancelled. In March 2016, we’re up to the 665th meeting, and this has never happened… H and I, who are always late, arrive. J doesn’t drink alcohol, K prefers root beer, everyone has a glass in hand. The meeting begins. L is the one presenting a creation. Tradition requires that we continually interrupt the presentation to complain about the presenter’s never-ending sentences. A discussion follows.”


Free Passes

silicon-valley

Nick Bilton chronicles the role the technology press had in the rise of the massively valued blood test tech start up Theranos, and the way that same attention (or, really, the lack thereof) played in its downfall: “The system here has been molded to effectively prevent reporters from asking tough questions. It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely. Outlets that write negatively about gadgets often don’t get pre-release versions of the next gadget. Writers who ask probing questions may not get to interview the C.E.O. next time he or she is doing the rounds. If you comply with these rules, you’re rewarded with page views and praise in the tech blogosphere. And then there’s the fact that many of these tech outlets rely so heavily on tech conferences. “If you look at most tech publications, they have major conferences as their revenue,” Jason Calacanis, the blogger and founder of Weblogs, told me. “If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space.” In fairness to tech media, there’s also the very real hope that they are illuminating a company that really is going to change the world. Holmes was, after all, everything they were looking for: smart, ambitious, Jobsian, and, unlike most companies in Silicon Valley, Theranos wasn’t some pizza-delivery app. It was truly endeavoring to make “the world a better place.” What the tech press didn’t seem to realize, however, was that by not asking those questions, they became culpable, too, and proved to be an integral factor in creating the currently deflating tech bubble.

In Austin, where I live, we went to the polls this weekend to vote on an ordinance that would require ridesharing services Uber and Lyft to change the way they do background checks. In this election, though, the actual ins and outs of the policy are more or less irrelevant; the ridesharing services threw a tantrum in response to the proposed changes and have threatened to leave town if they don’t get their way. It seems unlikely they will do so; they’ll leave too much money on the table and Austin is a hip tech town that such companies love to be associated with, although Lyft did leave Houston under similar circumstances. Such small numbers of people show up for these special elections that the only people who cared enough to show up would have voted for the ordinance. But, instead of sitting tight, the campaigners doubled down with a canvassing and flyering blitz that hit some of my neighbors as many as six times in a single day last week, and now the measure might fail simply because the community feels the political process has been insulted. Of the myriad problems of the tech world, Uber, Lyft and Theranos are demonstrating just one, the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that they come to believe in the transformative power of their own products so completely that the reporters and others who push back are threatened, almost as heretics challenging the coming of the messiah. By the time you read this, the results of the election in Austin may well be known, but as I write this the outcome could go either way. Either way, we’re going to see more fight like this. —JK


Posted on 19 June 2016 | 8:00 pm

Back to News