H. Brandt Ayers: Do digits have a soul?
Jun 16, 2013 | 3769 views |  0 comments | 218 218 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Prepping myself to read the much-lauded book by George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of America, I downloaded it to my Kindle, and then did an old-fashion thing: I read his long essay printed in The New Yorker.

If the essay is a preview of the book, his thesis is that the Information Age has been as transformative as the Industrial Revolution was, but not in as generally positive ways.

Packer uses his hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., as a metaphor for the drastic changes rendered by the Digital Revolution.

In 1978 when he graduated from high school, houses cost an average of $120,000 and he rode his bike through streets dotted with discount stores, sports shops, your average middle-class shopping environment.

“Thirty five years later, the average house in Palo Alto sells for more than two million dollars. The Stanford Shopping Center’s parking lot is a sea of Lexuses and Audis and their owners are shopping at Burberry and Luis Vuitton.”

The white middle-class is gone; squeezed out, too, by the cost of housing have been the few black residents and Hispanics.

But life is a dream for the super-bright, inventive people with access to capital; it is a seamless life where there is no waiting, always an effortless alternative for any situation such as high-end restaurants booked up.

Here’s how one entrepreneur described a “dream” evening:

“San Francisco is a place where you can go downstairs and get in an Uber (a chauffeured car) and go to dinner where I got reservations halfway there. And, if not, we could go to my place and order takeout food from my favorite restaurant on Postmates (an app), and a bike messenger can go and pick it up for me. We’ll watch it happen on the phone…”

Written out of this script is contact with any normal human being, with the exception of the doorman who would take care of the bike messenger, send him on his way and direct a porter to bring up the dinner.

At Facebook, employees can eat sushi or burritos, lift weights, get a haircut, have their clothes dry cleaned and see a dentist all without having to leave work.

Apple is building a $5 billion impenetrable ring of fortresses as its headquarters. Packer observes, “These inward-looking places keep tech workers from having even accidental contact with the surrounding community.”

In this impersonal society there is no more shame than there was among the titans of the earlier gilded society. A single digital CEO is rumored to have thrown a $1.4 million birthday party with the theme, “Let Him Eat Cake.”

The transformation that Packer describes is neither the first nor the best. For all its excesses, the Industrial Revolution from the 1830s to the 20th century could win the competition for the best.

Railroads stretching west to tie the country together required a vast steel industry for the rails and for the new cities springing up, which were reached by autos powered by internal combustion pouring out of assembly lines.

The flexing of our adolescent economic muscles meant not only that we surpassed the older economies of Europe, but it created an enormous American middle-class that could afford Mr. Ford’s machines and were the stabilizers of democracy.

In our native region, the civil rights revolution was transformative in a happy way: it created for the first time in Southern history a large, black middle-class and it displaced a civilization that supported a moral evil, legal segregation.

Feudal China has leapt in a few years into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, pulling millions of peasants out of poverty and giving them a path to the middle-class.

Grim, gray Russia, since being touched by the Midas wand of a market economy, now sports streets and malls that look more like Paris.

But neither China nor Russia has developed institutions that allow freedom of expression to its people, not much of an improvement over Benito Mussolini’s fascist 1940s Italy, where “the trains ran on time.”

The reigning emperors of the soulless digital revolution may be beginning to wander outside where the people live and ask themselves, “What is the meaning of our creations to our society?”

It may come as a shock to them that they have created an unfeeling world where there is little laughter and few tears. Apparently, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has discovered the real world.

He is urging his digital brothers to enter the real world of clashing interests where real decisions are made starting with support for reasoned immigration legislation. I will leave the benediction to George Packer:

“If Silicon Valley’s idea of itself as a force for irresistible progress is running up against the unlovely reality of current American politics, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might mean that the industry is growing up.”

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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