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kottke.org posts about Ezra Klein

41 Questions We Should Ask Ourselves About the Technology We Use

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2021

In an issue of his newsletter, The Convivial Society, L.M. Sacasas posed 41 questions that we should ask ourselves about technologies to help us “draw out the moral or ethical implications of our tools”. Here are a few of the questions:

3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
12. What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
16. How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
22. What desires does the use of this technology generate?
35. Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?

Sacasas recently joined Ezra Klein on his podcast to talk through some of the answers to these questions for certain technologies.

EZRA KLEIN: I’m gonna group the next set together. So what was required of other human beings, of other creatures, of the earth, so that I might be able to use this technology? When you ask that, when you think of that, what comes to mind?

MICHAEL SACASAS: So I recently wrote a piece, and its premise was that sometimes we think of the internet, of digital life, as being immaterial, existing somewhere out in the ether, in the cloud, with these metaphors that kind of suggest that it doesn’t really have a material footprint. But the reality of course — I think as most of us are becoming very aware — is that it very much has a material reality that may begin in a mine where rare earth metals are being extracted in inhumane working conditions at great cost to the local environment.

But that’s very far removed from my comfortable experience of the tablet on my couch in the living room. And so with regards to the earth, the digital realm depends upon material resources that need to be collected. It depends on the energy grid. It leaves a footprint on the environment.

And so we tend not to think about that by the time that it gets to us and looks so shiny and clean and new, and connects us to this world that isn’t physically necessarily located anywhere in our experience. And so I think it is important for us to think about the labor, the extraction cost on the environment, that go into providing us with the kind of world that we find so amusing and interesting and comfortable.

The Conversation Has Never Been Wider

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2021

I am still listening to the excellent interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Ezra Klein Show, but I wanted to highlight this exchange right at the beginning of the interview because I think it’s relevant to a lot of our shared interests, especially if you’ve been online reading blogs or personal sites for 15, 20, or even 25 years:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.

[LAUGHING]

There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that — before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce it, but even I get a little — I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yes.

EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yup.

EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: That’s right.

EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm — we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

Look, as someone who benefitted hugely from it, I miss the golden age of blogging as much as anyone — productive discussions in comment threads, the community alchemy of Flickr, Google Reader, cross-blog conversations, the Open Web, small pieces loosely joined, etc. etc. etc. — but over the past few years, I’ve felt a lot less nostalgia for it for exactly the reasons McMillan Cottom & Klein are talking about here. Make the Internet Great Again is, in many important ways, as short-sighted, futile, and limiting as, well, you know.

Ted Chiang: Fears of Technology Are Fears of Capitalism

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 02, 2021

Writer Ted Chiang (author of the fantastic Exhalation) was recently a guest on the Ezra Klein Show. The conversation ranged widely — I enjoyed his thoughts on superheroes — but his comments on capitalism and technology seem particularly relevant right now. From the transcript:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to — is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off. It’s not that like all technology suddenly becomes benign in this world. But it’s like, in a world where we have really strong social safety nets, then you could maybe actually evaluate sort of the pros and cons of technology as a technology, as opposed to seeing it through how capitalism is going to use it against us. How are giant corporations going to use this to increase their profits at our expense?

And so, I feel like that is kind of the unexamined assumption in a lot of discussions about the inevitability of technological change and technologically-induced unemployment. Those are fundamentally about capitalism and the fact that we are sort of unable to question capitalism. We take it as an assumption that it will always exist and that we will never escape it. And that’s sort of the background radiation that we are all having to live with. But yeah, I’d like us to be able to separate an evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of technology from the framework of capitalism.

Echoing some of his other thoughts during the podcast, Chiang also wrote a piece for the New Yorker the other day about how the singularity will probably never come.

We’re all addicted to the smartphone slot machines in our pockets

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2018

In a new video series for Vox, Christophe Haubursin talks to Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, about how our phones and apps are designed to be addictive and some strategies for breaking their hold on us:

1. Turn off all non-human notifications.
2. Change your screen to grayscale.
3. Restrict your home screen to everyday tools.

Ezra Klein recently did an interview with Harris that includes more of his views on the ethics of technology, phones, and social media.

Silicon Valley is reckoning with having had a bad philosophical operating system. People in tech will say, “You told me, when I asked you what you wanted, that you wanted to go to the gym. That’s what you said. But then I handed you a box of doughnuts and you went for the doughnuts, so that must be what you really wanted.” The Facebook folks, that’s literally what they think. We offer people this other stuff, but then they always go for the outrage, or the autoplaying video, and that must be people’s most true preference.

The shifting meaning of the Second Amendment

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2012

Ezra Klein asked Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar, about the Second Amendment. Amar responded with two artworks that illustrate how the meaning of the Second Amendment has shifted over the years.

In a nutshell, almost everything ordinary Americans think they know about the Bill of Rights, including the phrase ‘Bill of Rights,’ comes from the Reconstruction period. Not once did the Founders refer to these early amendments as a bill of rights. We read everything through the prism of the 14th amendment — including the right to bear and keep arms.

The Fourteenth Amendment has a lot of parts, among them the definition of citizenship, Civil War debt, due process, and equal protection. Amar wrote more about the interplay between the 2nd and 14th Amendments for Slate in 2008.

But the 14th Amendment did not specifically enumerate these sacred privileges and immunities. Instead, like the Ninth, the 14th invited interpreters to pay close attention to fundamental rights that Americans had affirmed through their lived experience-in state bills of rights and in other canonical texts such as the Declaration of Independence and landmark civil rights legislation. And when it came to guns, a companion statute to the 14th Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1866, declared that “laws … concerning personal liberty [and] personal security … including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens.” Here, in sharp contrast to founding-era legal texts, the “bear arms” phrase was decisively severed from the military context. Women as well as men could claim a “personal” right to protect their “personal liberty” and “personal security” in their homes. The Reconstruction-era Congress clearly understood that Southern blacks might need guns in their homes to protect themselves from private violence in places where they could not rely on local constables to keep their neighborhoods safe. When guns were outlawed, only outlaw Klansmen would have guns, to paraphrase a modern NRA slogan. In this critical chapter in the history of American liberty, we find additional evidence of an individual right to have a gun in one’s home, regardless of the original meaning of the Second Amendment.

Facts about guns and mass shootings in the US

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2012

More facts about guns in America from Ezra Klein, beginning with the sad fact that “shooting sprees are not rare in the United States”.

If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

Six facts about guns and gun control

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 14, 2012

In the aftermath of the Aurora, CO shootings, Ezra Klein wrote six facts about guns, violence, and gun control.

1. America is an unusually violent country. But we’re not as violent as we used to be.

5. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.