Hi, folks, did you vote yet? Once you do, please wash your hands when you get home. Also, a quarantine wouldn’t hurt.
The Plain View
Maybe you’ve heard that we are staging an election in the United States next week. Every four years, when it’s time to choose a new president or retain one, we often hear that this decision will be the most important of our lives. This is an assessment that can be made only in hindsight. But I think it’s beyond question that this one will be right up there.
Four years ago, when Donald Trump won the Electoral College, a large proportion of the nation who live in cities and along the coastlines were stunned. I was at the time the editor of a small tech publication called Backchannel, which had recently moved from Medium to Condé Nast. My staff, like almost everyone in my circles—now exposed as overly cloistered—were frozen in disbelief. It suddenly felt like technology was beside the point. We weren’t alone: We later learned that, for instance, in many of the big tech companies like Google and Facebook, people came to work in tears.
I was headed to the West Coast that first day post-election and wrote a note to my tiny crew that I then published in our newsletter. It was called “The iPhone Is Bigger Than Donald Trump.” I expressed my belief that no matter how disruptive and historic the coming political events would be, the biggest story of our time would remain the epochal changes of technology. I cited earlier times that are important to us now not because of the kings and emperors who ruled then, but because of the scientific advances that changed us. “Who ran Italy when Galileo made his discoveries?” I asked. How was Italy even run back then? Who was king during the industrial revolution in England?” I re-upped my belief at the end of 2017, when Backchannel transitioned into WIRED.
Now, on the eve of an election campaign dominated by a figure whose impact was even more extreme than anyone expected, I’m ready to say this again. Yes, it makes a huge difference who runs a country and how it is run. We are now determining how to hold our current leader accountable for more than 200,000 people lost to a virus—dead, with devastated families left behind. This is obviously a dark time. I hope that people remember this. Still, in the long run, when all of us are gone, the mark we make will be in the science and technology that advances—or imprisons—our successors.
Just this week the Senate had a hearing, ostensibly about speech on internet platforms. But what the hearing was really about was our continuing inability to figure out what to do with a technological infrastructure that gives every single person on the planet the ability to broadcast their thoughts, whether illuminating or poisonous. We know that solutions are elusive, especially in the context of our current electoral issues. But this is actually one of the less vexing conundrums that technology has dropped on our lap. What are we going to do about Crispr? How are we going to handle artificial intelligence, before it handles us? A not-encouraging sign of our ability to deal with change: While we weren’t looking, smart phones have made us cyborgs.
Here’s another example of a change that might later look more significant than our current focus: Late last year, Google announced it had achieved “Quantum Supremacy, ” This means that it solved a problem with its experimental quantum computer that couldn’t be solved with a conventional one, or even a supercomputer.
It’s a forgone conclusion that quantum computing is going to happen. When it does, what we thought was a speed limit will evaporate. Nobody—nobody!—has an idea of what can come from this. I bet it might even be bigger than whatever Donald Trump will do in a second (or third or fourth) term, or the civil disorder that might erupt if he isn’t returned to the People’s House.
A few days after the election, on that same West Coast trip, I had a random street encounter with one of the most important leaders in technology. We spoke informally for maybe 15 or 20 minutes about what had happened. He seemed shattered by the outcome, but no more than pretty much everyone I knew. He told me that he asked himself, should I have done more? Like all of the top people in the industry, he has since had to make his accommodations with the Trump administration. But as with all his peers, he has not relented on his drive to create new technology that will continue the remarkable and worrisome transformation of humanity.
The kind of people who work for him will keep doing what they do. Maybe they will no longer want to work for a company that’s overly concerned about winning the favor—or avoiding the disfavor—of a president who they think is racist, a president who despises immigrants (wife and in-laws excepted), a president who encourages dictators and casts doubts on voting. If things get bad in this country, a lot of those engineers and scientists will leave, and a lot of other countries will welcome them. The adventure will continue. Even if the United States as we know it does not last another generation, scientists will continue advancing artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, and, of course, quantum computing. And that’s what our time will be known for.
Yes, a thousand years from now, historians will study the Donald Trump phenomenon and what it meant for our gutsy little experiment in democracy, as well as for the world at large. I am still confident, however, that historians will find more importance in learning about the moments in our lifetimes when science changed everything.
What I am not confident about is predicting how those future historians will do their work, and to what extent people of our time would regard those historians as human beings, or some exotic quantum Crispr-ed cyborgs. That’s something that Donald Trump will have no hand in. And why it’s so important, even as politics intrude on our everyday existence, to do the work of chronicling this great and fearsome adventure.
Here’s the opening to that 2016 column I referred to, written the day after election. My anxiety spikes just rereading it:
If there are two Americas—and why bother saying “if”?—the staff of Backchannel clearly belongs to the country now in shock—and frankly, terrified—at what this other country has thrust upon us. How can it be otherwise? We are five people, four of them women, all college educated, three with advanced degrees. We live in New York and San Francisco. We make our living from facts and reasoned ideas. We are cosmopolitan—I read recently that many of those in the other America rarely venture 200 miles from their home—and one of us flew to Lisbon as election results were tallied. I am currently on a plane to San Francisco. And we are doggedly optimistic about the future, and how technology, with all its black mirrors, will make life better. Last night, our optimism was shaken. We know that the other America has legitimate issues, but him? After our initial expressions of disbelief and grief, we began to contemplate whether we should publish our scheduled story for today. “The piece I’d prepared doesn’t seem appropriate at this moment,” one editor Slacked, and indeed how could any piece? I’m betting that all of our team felt like I did, reading posts from Facebook friends weighing which countries might provide asylum, or reading the doom-soaked takes from the Times and The New Yorker. And we’re going to act like the world is still on its axis, and do one more story about technology?
I think the answer to that has to be yes.
Ask Me One Thing
Gregory asks, “How much taxpayer money went to Donald Trump’s Covid-19 treatment, and could the average American get the same treatment? Would insurance cover it? Subtext: Why do politicians get better treatment than civilians?”
Thanks for asking, Gregory. It seems this week’s newsletter is getting pretty political! Anyway, I’ll put this in the category of questions that I’m not the most qualified to answer, but since I said ask me anything, I’ll give it a go. We haven’t had an accounting for what Trump’s treatment cost taxpayers. The New York Times said simply that it would have cost over $100,000, but that seems really low, since he had a team of about a dozen doctors, a hospital suite, helicopter rides, and access to an experimental drug that you or I would never have gotten. As they say in the commercial, priceless. But I actually believe that it’s justified to provide the leader of our country special treatment, including medicine unavailable to all. Presumably he’s valuable to us and we should pull out all the stops. (I also feel the president should acknowledge that his treatment was super deluxe and not take it as a sign that we’ve beaten Covid.) As for other elected politicians, I think it would be good for the country if the government did not provide them with a health care plan but instead gave them a reasonable sum to buy insurance available on the open market. That might lead to a system that offers other Americans better options.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle (Bonus Triple Play!)
Instead of working up some pandemic aid for a hurting nation, the United States Senate this week summoned three platform-owning CEOs to defend their use of an actual law passed by that very congress, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It was a rich time for those seeking apocalyptic signals, so here’s my top three:
Senator Ted Cruz tweets out a preview in the format of a cage match promo. Needless to say, his questioning of Jack Dorsey had all the sincerity of a professional wrestling contest, ending with the self-described “champion of free speech” shouting at Dorsey, “Who elected you?” a question that could be directed at any powerful head of a big corporation.
Senator Marsha Blackburn demands to know if Google CEO Sundar Pichai has done his duty and fired an engineer who once said “unkind” things about her. So, in a hearing where corporate leaders are charged for being biased in content decisions—which even if true, would not violate the First Amendment—this elected government official is pressuring a private corporation to terminate an employee, who she called out by name, for his political views. Which does violate the First Amendment!
I know it’s a cheap shot, but that moment when it was time for Facebook’s CEO to give his statement—and we saw only a blank screen. Mark Zuckerberg “is alone and attempting to connect with this hearing,” said the committee chair. Zuck quickly figured out how to unmute the video or whatever, but really—this guy has thousands of engineers working for him and owns more than a few data centers around the world, and he can’t get set up for a super-important appearance before Congress? We are all doomed, and thus Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to connect is this week’s top End Time. Whomp!
Last but Not Least
One of those big tech advances that make our time so important is the brain-machine-interface. Just this week, we learned that you can do this by connecting veins inside your head. It’s plug and play! Can you pronounce “stentrode”?
Gilad Edelman explains why the Section 230 hearing wasn’t about Section 230. Maybe the wrestling promo was a giveaway.
The most popular Netflix show is about chess. Amazingly, that’s why people love it.
Making computer games accessible to all will make games better.
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