I remember back around 1990, when psychedelics philosopher Timothy Leary first read Stewart Brand’s book The Media Lab, about the new digital technology center MIT had created in its architecture department. Leary devoured the book cover to cover over the course of one long day. Around sunset, just as he was finishing, he threw it across the living room in disgust. “Look at the index,” he said, “of all the names, less than 3% are women. That’ll tell you something.”,The tail command often gets used for watching a log file. This is due to the fact that the tail command has got an -f option, which stands for “follow”, that allows you to watch a file. This option will output appended data as the file grows. This means that log entries that get appended to the file will be displayed immediately.,But I’m just an author and media theorist, after all, not a scholar of catastrophe logistics. I like to think I’ve had some success identifying signals from the future, but looking back on the whole episode, I find it hard to believe this group of successful technology investors and entrepreneurs were really paying me for legitimate survival strategies so much as to serve as a kind of dungeon master for their fantasy role-playing session. The conversation was almost a form of theater dedicated to developing their collective, mutually reinforcing fantasy. These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.,I don’t think these prepper billionaires are aspiring to live in the world depicted in the Walking Dead because they’re horrible people. Or at least not just because they’re horrible people. They’re simply succumbing to one of the dominant ethos of the digital age, which is to design one’s personal reality so meticulously that existential threats are simply removed from the equation. The leap from a Fitbit tracking your heart rate to an annual full-body cancer scan or from a doorbell surveillance camera to a network of autonomous robot sentries is really just a matter of money. No matter the level of existential security, the Netflix shows we stream are the same.,It sounds idyllic. So much so that I can’t help but wonder if the threat of infection is less the reason for his newfound embrace of virtual insulation than it is the excuse.,But what if we don’t have to know about the chaos in the world? That’s the real promise of digital technology. We can choose which cable news, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels to stream — the ones that acknowledge the virus and its impacts or the ones that don’t. We can choose to continue wrestling with the civic challenges of the moment, such as whether to send kids back to school full-time, hybrid, or remotely. Or — like some of the wealthiest people in my own town — we can form private “pods,” hire tutors, and offer our kids the kind of customized, elite education we could never justify otherwise. “Yes, we are in a pandemic,” one pod education provider explained to the Times. “But when it comes to education, we also feel some good may even come out of this.”,The more advanced the tech, the more cocooned insularity it affords. “I finally caved and got the Oculus,” one of my best friends messaged me on Signal the other night. “Considering how little is available to do out in the real world, this is gonna be a game-changer.” Indeed, his hermetically sealed, Covid-19-inspired techno-paradise was now complete. Between VR, Amazon, FreshDirect, Netflix, and a sustainable income doing crypto trading, he was going to ride out the pandemic in style. Yet while VRporn.com is certainly a safer sexual strategy in the age of Covid-19 than meeting up with partners through Tinder, every choice to isolate and insulate has its correspondingly negative impact on others.,The pool for my daughter wouldn’t have gotten here were it not for legions of Amazon workers behind the scenes, getting infected in warehouses or risking their health driving delivery trucks all summer. As with FreshDirect or Instacart, the externalized harm to people and places is kept out of sight. These apps are designed to be addictively fast and self-contained — push-button access to stuff that can be left at the front door without any human contact. The delivery people don’t even ring the bell; a photo of the package on the stoop automagically arrives in the inbox. Like with Thomas Jefferson’s ingenious dumbwaiter, there are no signs of the human labor that brought it.,I get it. And if I had younger children and could afford these things, I might even be tempted to avail myself of them. But all of these “solutions” favor those who have already accepted the promise of digital technology to provide what the real world has failed to do. Day traders, for instance, had already discovered the power of the internet to let them earn incomes safely from home using nothing but a laptop and some capital. Under the pandemic, more people are opening up online trading accounts than ever, hoping to participate in the video game version of the marketplace. Meanwhile, some of the world’s most successful social media posses are moving into luxurious “hype houses” in Los Angeles and Hawaii, where they can livestream their lifestyles, exercise routines, and sex advice — as well the products of their sponsors — to their millions of followers. And maybe it’s these young social media enthusiasts, thriving more than ever under pandemic conditions, who most explicitly embody the original promise of digital technology to provide for our every need.,Now, pandemics don’t necessarily bring out our best instincts either. No matter how many mutual aid networks, school committees, food pantries, race protests, or fundraising efforts in which we participate, I feel as if many of those privileged enough to do so are still making a less public, internal calculation: How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world? And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone. After all, it’s an iPad, not an usPad.,Many of us once swore off Amazon after learning of the way it evades taxes, engages in anti-competitive practices, or abuses labor. But here we are, reluctantly re-upping our Prime delivery memberships to get the cables, webcams, and Bluetooth headsets we need to attend the Zoom meetings that now constitute our own work. Others are reactivating their long-forgotten Facebook accounts to connect with friends, all sharing highly curated depictions of their newfound appreciation for nature, sunsets, and family. And as we do, many of us are lulled further into digital isolation — being rewarded the more we accept the logic of the fully wired home, cut off from the rest of the world.,It’s certainly the message I got a couple of years ago when a few tech billionaires asked me to water test their doomsday bunker strategies. Ostensibly, they were worried about “the Event” — the war, climate catastrophe, or, yes, global pandemic that ends life as we know it and forces them to retreat to their high-tech fortresses in Alaska or New Zealand. We spent most of the session discussing potential flaws in their scenario planning, such as whether the human security forces they were intending to hire could be adequately controlled once cash no longer had value. If only they could work out these last few kinks, they could safely escape from the rest of us.,And so the New York Times is busy running photo spreads of wealthy families “retreating” to their summer homes — second residences worth well more than most of our primary ones — and stories about their successes working remotely from the beach or retrofitting extra bedrooms as offices. “It’s been great here,” one venture fund founder explained. “If I didn’t know there was absolute chaos in the world … I could do this forever.”,At the time, I saw all this paranoid prepping as misplaced guilt over what these fellows knew they were doing to the world. It seemed to me that they were in a trap, building heinously extractive companies in order to earn enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they were creating by earning money in that way. Instead of figuring out how to get away from the rest of us, I told them, they might want to focus on making the world a place from which they wouldn’t have to retreat.,He went on to explain his core problem with the Media Lab and the digital universe these technology pioneers were envisioning: “They want to recreate the womb.” As Leary the psychologist saw it, the boys building our digital future were developing technology to simulate the ideal woman — the one their mothers could never be. Unlike their human mothers, a predictive algorithm could anticipate their every need in advance and deliver it directly, removing every trace of friction and longing. These guys would be able to float in their virtual bubbles — what the Media Lab called “artificial ecology” — and never have to face the messy, harsh reality demanded of people living in a real world with women and people of color and even those with differing views.
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