Writers, the Library, and the Persistence of Geography

I’m getting to work on a new book. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about vaguely for a while – a book about, at this early stage, the complex consequences of transportation. I wasn’t able to get seriously down to work on it, though, until I discovered my new favorite thing – the Queens Public Library.

My fiancée and I moved to New York four months ago for our careers – hers in art, mine in letters – but mostly in my mind that had to do with jobs, with networking, with collaborators. I didn’t for a second think about the vast differences in public resources there would be between St. Petersburg and New York.

I’ve been thinking about this project for years, you see, but it never seemed to go anywhere. To be fair, there were many reasons for this. But one that I had barely registered was that whenever I tried to get my hands on an even vaguely obscure book related to my topic, the St. Petersburg Public Library didn’t have it. I would file the title away for later, but ultimately I would never get back to it.

Of course, I could have gotten nearly any of them from Amazon. But I, like most writers and researchers, read a LOT. In my grad school days, I’d have a stack of thirty or forty or fifty books in my office at any one time. Most of them, I scanned for a few relevant passages. Some, I read all the way through, taking meticulous notes – but from that point on, only the notes were important to me. Only a scant handful of works – maybe a dozen – did I come back to again and again during the research for my first (as yet unpublished) book.

You simply can’t do that by digging on Amazon, unless you’re willing and able to spend $300 or $500 a month on books that are mostly going to be wrong for your needs, or only very marginally useful, and end up in the trash heap. The Queens library – and note, I haven’t even needed to venture to the Brooklyn system, much less Manhattan, which I’m sure would each open up yet more dizzying vistas of knowledge – allows me, for free, the omnivoracious reading style that produces real, rounded knowledge, makes sparks fly, gets the blood boiling.

That’s not something that most people using a library system need, or even want, so when I compare it to a library system like St. Pete’s, my point isn’t that St. Petersburg is failing its citizens’ intellectual needs. They have a good system, for readers. But it’s not a system that’s sufficient for serious writers, at least of nonfiction, and probably of fiction, too. The access afforded by the internet can substitute for what I have here, but only partially – and only for the fairly privileged.

It’s all a stark lesson in the persistence of geography, the persistence of history, and the power of cities. Being in New York is a huge advantage for people in many fields, giving them access to the concentrated and accreted power of generations. Some of the books I’m digging out of the libraries here may not have moved for decades, but they’re there for me, now. I’m standing on the shoulders, not just of their authors, but of their previous users, their custodians, and their funders. It’s a privilege.

It feels like waking up.

Deep Trump (Part 1)

Well, that was unexpected – I’ll admit, I went into last night blithely confident we’d have a President Clinton. And I believe that Donald Trump is unstable and, most importantly, inexperienced enough that we’re in for at best a very chaotic few years, and possibly some real long-term damage to American power and prosperity.

But ultimately, I think it’s important to remember that Trump has connected with voters – real voters, most of whom are neither ignorant nor dupes, most of whom probably held their noses as they pushed the button for him (just as much as many liberals held theirs while voting for Hillary). Both the Trump surge as a whole, and last night’s surprise win, represent not just inarticulate rage, but several clear and subtle ongoing trends.

The Democrats Are No Longer the Party of Workers

Bill Clinton’s legacy is now profoundly tarnished. It was he who strategically shifted the Democrats away from protecting workers and ushered in the era of global neoliberalism. Manufacturing’s decline is a complex thing, and free trade deals are not the devil. But the Dems did little or nothing of substance to care for those harmed by the transition to a globalized world. They were asleep at the switch for a quarter century, with the possible exception of Obamacare.

Now the unions are gutted, service workers have few protections, and many voters are deeply, deeply desperate. They need help yesterday, and Hillary Clinton seemed completely oblivious to that. Of course, it’s unlikely Trump has any real answers, and he was ‘listening’ only out of a deep insecurity that drives him to pander – but at least he seemed like he was listening.

The Polls Are Broken

Between Brexit and Trump, pollsters clearly don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe this is a fixable problem – maybe we just need better outreach to rural voters, or better statistical models. Maybe it’s a one-time thing – both Brexit and Trump were stigmatized enough that people just didn’t want to admit they would vote for him to another human being. Maybe the massive shakeup of party lines he represents means people had a hard time getting a bead on their own feelings.

But there are always strange curveballs out in the world. It should be the job of poll-takers to identify and account for them. I suspect they’ve gotten used to just calling a thousand people, asking them questions, and dumping the numbers into a press release. That’s not enough.

America is America

Which is to say, we live in a deeply racist country. We literally invented apartheid. And for all the economic grievances that Trump effectively catered to, his xenophobia should have still been disqualifying, if we lived in the America that both many liberals and conservatives would like to believe we do. But in fact, we live in the America that rounded up and interned Japanese-Americans just two generations ago, and which is still engaged in a barely-covert war against black people in the guise of drug enforcement.

The danger of Trump is that the endorsements by the KKK and the like make it seem like his supporters are all white-hooded monsters. But racism is quieter, more complex, and more deeply systematic than that. We’ve done almost nothing as a nation to work to change that over the last ten years. Now any progress will stop, and there will be renewed, probably systematized forms of racism against Latinos and Middle Easterners.

(Oh, and the sexism, too).

And again, liberals can thank Bill Clinton for all of it.

The Sort – City States – Elites

On a personal level, I’m not tremendously worried about Trump. There may be economic chaos and social backsliding – but I live in New York. It’s a wildly segregated city with deep educational injustice, but it’s still a fundamentally multicultural place, where Trump is deeply loathed. And economically, New York can coast through even a catastrophic Trump Presidency on the fumes of its 25-year winning streak.

And that’s a big problem.

Cities like New York, Dallas, Austin, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and maybe even Chicago are now drastically different than either rural America or, perhaps more importantly, the hollowed-out cities of the Rust Belt. They are islands of prosperity, good education, and positive energy, where exurbs and small towns and Gary, Indiana are mired in drug addiction and despair. That isolation explains much of the failure of pollsters and journalists in understanding this election.

It also helped fuel Trump – ironically, since he’s a New Yorker. I’m projecting, here, but I think it’s a safe bet that many Trump voters deeply resent urban elites, and equated them with Clinton.

Education is Broken

This is the big one, the underlying dynamic that gave Trump a wide lane. Americans as a whole are poorly educated, because American schools are poorly and haphazardly funded and administered. What’s worse, they know they’re very poorly educated, because they’re constantly being told they need to go to college to get a good job – which, callback, is a reality Democrats didn’t do anything to insulate people from.

I taught until fairly recently at a state school with lots of unprepared and first-generation college students, and saw firsthand the struggles those kids face. Lots of them drop out. Meanwhile, they continue hearing how important education is, and how it’s their responsibility to get it, a message they hear from a very well-educated, privileged ruling class who have done relatively little to improve everyone else’s chances (because why would they, really?). That can’t help but make people deeply bitter.

That’s how you end up with not only resentment of elites, but a dangerously deep-seated anti-intellectualism. When people can’t have something, they are pretty likely to simply reject it and rearrange their values around that rejection. So you get a double whammy – people haven’t been given the tools to identify the flaws and inconsistencies and total absences in Trump’s explanation of his plan for America. And they positively embrace their incomprehension.

Again, we saw this in a milder form with GWB in 2000 – at least in terms of his incoherence, he was a proto-Trump. And Barack Obama wasn’t able to do much to make college more affordable to all the people who needed it to get out of their desperate, dead-end situations. (His AG managed to shut down many for-profit colleges, which is in fact pretty huge, but that’s hard to communicate).

And Hillary had almost nothing to say about education whatsoever.

This educational gap, by the way, isn’t new. But it’s newly relevant because of economic restructuring, and it’s newly impactful on politics because of the internet, which is a perfect home for incoherent and/or hateful memes, and for the self-reinforcement of people able to share their sentiments with each other directly, rather than through the media.

All of this is, obviously, very deep-seated stuff. It’s long-term. It’s a country, at least from one perspective, paying the price for neglecting people who can feel they’re being neglected and ignored and marginalized. I honestly think that’s more fundamental than the xenophobia, which is really just a particular channel/outgrowth of economic anxiety – it’s a lot easier for people to get along, in general, when there’s enough food to go around.

Now the question is how we actually fix all of this. Because while Trump may wind up actually making some good economic policy decisions – he’s not bad on infrastructure and the minimum wage, for example – we can’t have a continuing slide into indiscipline, incoherence, crudity, and anger. Whatever you believe on substance, that’s no way to have a country.

Is Anti-Globalization Inevitably Fascist? Thoughts on Brexit.

Probably the wisest thing I heard today was from a BBC Newshour man-on-the-street respondent.

“I won’t be sad to see the back end of the capitalist European Union. But I’m sorry it had to be on such right-wing terms.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that just about sums up the duality of Brexit. On the one hand, the motives behind it are real, not sentimental. Globalization has been almost uniformly terrible for the working and even middle classes of the developed world. Disentangling global systems, including not just the EU but trade agreements such as NAFTA and the rapidly-approaching Trans-Pacific Partnership, is at least theoretically a way to regain national control of things like wages and working standards.

It also, of course, robs everyone, working and middle classes included, of the real benefits of global trade flows, which increase the total sum of global wealth by spurring innovation, specialization, and efficiency. There’s a reason globalization has been accompanied by a broad and real reduction in global poverty.

But that argument simply doesn’t have much sway for those who supported the Brexit, or for their counterparts in other countries. Check out a map of Brexit results and you’ll see a very clear division between London, which has benefited hugely from globalization and broke hard for Remain, and the rest of England – the U.K. equivalent of American ‘flyover country,’ where workers have been hurt worst by free trade.

And that’s the rub – globalization may not be a zero-sum game, but those who have benefited the most from it have been grossly negligent in managing its negative impacts. And now those chickens are coming home to roost, globally.

But, back to that initial quote. There is an undeniable legitimacy to those who oppose the EU and free trade. But those legitimate beefs have been channeled into hatred-shaped containers lined with reactionary sentiment. Those praising the Brexit referendum as a “victory for democracy” on the international airwaves today were almost uniformly representatives of groups with, to put it politely, reputations for racist and fascistic rhetoric. Marine le Pen of the Front Nationale has been perhaps the most rapid and vocal to applaud the Brexit, along with other damn-near-literal Nazis like Geert Wilders and the BNP’s Nick Griffin.

Also pro-Brexit has been Alternative for Germany, which, despite its best efforts to exclude them, has at the very least been widely praised by its country’s far right. An Alternative spokesperson on the BBC today argued that it was unfair to characterize wanting to control one’s own immigration and trade policies as “nationalist.” In the current environment, that’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t even think there’s a word for a pro-nation state mindset that doesn’t come part-and-parcel with a disdain not just for immigration, but for immigrants, and, seemingly automatically, for gay and nonwhite people, to boot.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump, who also loudly praised the Brexit result, and whose own protectionist nationalism is more than spiced with race-baiting, personality cultism, and a fondness for authoritarian violence. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t have much of a chance in the U.S., because the contingent of nationalists is smaller, and shrinking (like Trump’s constituency, pro-Brexit voters skewed much older than Remainers).

Is there a way to separate anti-globalization from fascism? The far-left anti-WTO protests of the late nineties failed to ignite a mass movement, arguably because they didn’t connect with the cultural sensibilities of those with the most directly at stake. And now, even the most anti-fascist of the anti-globalization groups can’t quite keep their nose clean. American Libertarians in the Rand Paul mold have come the closest, I’d argue, but their domestic policies are abysmal.

I’d say for right now, things look pretty hopeless. There is no third way.

But there is a potential bright side to Brexit – two, in fact. I hold out hope that, first, Brexit becomes a global wake-up call for political elites, a finally really concrete consequence of the decades-long failure to reckon with the consequences of economic liberalization. And second, I hope that by sharply foreshadowing the consequences of isolationism – we are going to start hearing a lot about British job losses and economic chaos – it sobers up just enough people to slow down similar forces elsewhere.

That might be wishful thinking. Trump and the Front National are clearly feeling emboldened right now. But one of the most revealing bits of tape to surface today was that of a British voter whose entire family apparently instantly regretted their Leave votes.

Britain probably won’t get a do-over. It would be as destructive as, say, trying to deny Donald Trump the Republican nomination (parallels within parallels, eh?). But the rest of the world can, perhaps, look at that regret, at the far-reaching, already-catastrophic effects of isolationism, and maybe, just maybe, think twice.

Open Access and Ivory Rot

Recently, Phil Cohen, a sociologist studying families, highlighted a statement by the American Sociological Association more or less defending the current academic publishing model against open access, in part because it generates revenue for disciplinary organizations like theirs. As Phil points out (and I’m definitely putting words in his mouth here), that’s utter crazytalk, because it prioritizes internal disciplinary stuff over the mission of spreading knowledge.

That argument – economics vs. mission – is an important one. But I wanted to make a semi-related point based on my (now three years in the past, thankfully!) time in academia. Which is that I don’t think all the logical advocacy for a new system is going to make as much of a dent as it should, because so many academics are invested in another aspect of the current journal system:

They will never say it, but many academics like the fact that nobody can see their work.

 (Note: What I’m about to write is based on my experience in the social sciences. If it resonates further, fine, but I’m not extending the claims).

I’ll cite just three quick experiences to support that assessment, though there are more.  The first came in my third or fourth year of grad school. At Iowa, we had a weekly department seminar where grad students and faculty shared rough drafts of their works in progress, to an audience of other grads and profs.

I’d later find out that even this was a remarkably open setup – many academic departments don’t have any formal collaboration or sharing process at all. But it occurred to me that encouraging undergrads to attend the seminar might help open their eyes to some of the bigger stakes of the field, particularly since many of them picked Communications as a kind of vanilla default, unaware that it was actually a big and robust intellectual tradition. I made a suggestion publicly that we should do things like put up flyers around the department, and encourage students in our classes to attend the seminar.

This was met with a wave of withering scorn and venom that it still pains me to recall to this day, with long email rants about how undergrads weren’t prepared to process what we were doing, would ruin the atmosphere of the seminar, etc. Very condescending stuff. It was hard for me to understand why grad students at an elite program – who I should remind you are adult professional teachers – would not want to draw out their students, push them, and learn from them. But there was clearly a sense that sharing our work outside of a very select circle was extremely intimidating to many.

And this isn’t just a mindset shared by graduate students. Several years later, I was tangentially involved in organizing a conference. A suggestion had been made (this time, not by me) that the proceedings should be recorded and provided online for those who couldn’t make it to the event.

Cue a stream of invective almost identical in tone to my earlier encounter. This time, there was a slightly more valid point being made – that publicizing the proceedings of a conference violated a safe zone of intellectual exploration. But in retrospect, even that seems like a silly, fearful objection – a lot of professional conferences are made public, some VERY public, and there is at once a sense of exploration and a sense of responsibility for what is said. And people who are willing to speak their minds still do.

For me, both of these cases felt like a group of professionals rising up in resistance to what is their basic social function – to create and spread knowledge. My most generous interpretation is that academics tend to think that the ‘final’ form of their knowledge – a journal article – is the extent of their responsibility to that calling.

The less generous interpretation is that many academics don’t actually want anyone to see their work, in progress or complete, at all, because they have no confidence in its inherent worth.

One final example helps illustrate why this feeling may actually be perfectly rational. At a conference on globalization, I was lucky enough to hear an unimpressive little man, an assistant professor at an unspectacular but perfectly respectable school, outline his so-far-successful strategy for career success.

“You just take something someone else has written, and you find a problem with it. And you write a paper about that. Or you take someone else’s big idea, and you break it down into a dozen little parts, and you publish a paper on each one.”

I was gutpunched. At that point I was a postdoc, and I’d published I think three big papers, each one an attempt to tackle a large question head-on, dive deep, and come up with not just something new and significant to say, but a complex array of related things to say. I had spent upwards of a year on each one, and I had, according to a guy who outranked me, been wasting my time. It was maybe one of the most stomach-churning exchanges I ever had as an academic.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the approach he describes, not just as a career path, but intellectually – sometimes problems are small but interesting. But that’s not an approach for a 25 or even 15 page, densely-cited and heavily peer-reviewed journal article. That’s something that needs to be public, part of an ongoing dialogue, part of the path towards something bigger.

But (and I know this has been said before) the structure of journals and academic careers discourage that public, collaborative approach. Journals themselves are so little read even by academics that nothing resembling a dialogue emerges from them. And guys like my unimpressive interlocutor are happy for that, because in that setting the content of their work matters not a tiny bit. All that matters is that they can write it into their C.V.

The whole thing is a giant waste of some genuinely gifted minds.

So, open access journals wouldn’t just be a financial boon for university libraries, and they wouldn’t just give the public more access to the work they are, after all, paying for. They would change the tenor of academic work by making it available – and thus accountable – to an indefinite but large audience.

While there are many vocal academics pushing for open access, there is pretty clearly a silent majority doing nothing to make them happen. And when I think about that, I think about all the people I’ve met over the years who are very happy to have a “PhD” next to their name, without ever having to show their work to anyone beyond a roomful of conference attendees and a half-dozen editors.

And it’s not these people’s fault, per se. They’ve been born and bred into that insularity. In fact, they’re victims here, because really successful academics don’t tend to fall into their camp – people who really love their work, and therefore truly excel at it, also tend to look for opportunities to spread their ideas around, get them dirty, mix it up.

Open access journals would make doing that more normal, and bit by bit, less frightening. Would work be misconstrued and misused by the media? Almost certainly. And then academics would have to engage with that misuse, publicly defend themselves, help people understand.

I know – the horror.

I’m being snarky, but of course I do understand that this fear is real, and justified. I now write a huge amount, for a large national publication, and making mistakes in that context is gut-wrenching, terrifying, tear-jerking. But the fact is that everyone makes mistakes, and honest mistakes rarely end careers. It’s part of the social contract when you’re part of an ongoing dialogue – you’re allowed to get things wrong. But that’s not how academics think now, or are trained to think by their context. Because there is no dialogue, everything has to be final and perfect and right before anybody sees it, and so there is no dialogue.

And round and round forever.

Place in Knowledge, Knowledge in Place

“There was no personal or world problem whose solution did not exist in some hexagon.”

-Borges, “The Library of Babylon”

The 19th century was defined by transportation innovation – the locomotive, the automobile, the airplane. Of course, most of those innovations didn’t reach their full potential until the 20th century, and communication technology, in the form of the telegraph, itself had profound effects on things like the U.S. Civil War and westward expansion. But in the 20th century, as much as people loved their cars and planes, it was information – an overwhelming flood of information, from radio to television to cable to satellites to the Internet – that truly and fundamentally transformed the world.

Now, we’re entering a new century – one that I’ve argued will be largely defined by the confluence of information and transportation. Vehicles with smart telemetry connected to global wireless data networks – a category that already includes not just cars, but trains, planes, and buses – are going to be ubiquitous in a matter of a decade.

But figuring out why this matters, and more importantly, what it will feel like, is a tall order. Vehicles will be where they’re expected and needed, increasingly without active human intervention. By extension, that means both people and things will increasingly be where they are needed, or where they want to be, without applying the level of physical effort, or even the level of conscious will, that we now have to exert simply to move.

Now, if you were to explain that scenario to, say, a leading futurist in the early 1990s, their likely response might be some variation of “so what?” That’s because the dominant intellectual paradigm of that time – just as the Internet was emerging – held that information would eliminate the relevance of space. That we would live wherever we wanted, and still have access to the whole breadth of human experience. That we would consume fewer physical goods, and spend more time in virtual worlds.

That, clearly, has not happened.

I say this from a place of real experience. I live in Florida, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is, by most measures, high. I work, primarily, for an organization based in New York City. I consume media from around the world, and order anything I could possibly want online.

You could say I have the best of all possible worlds – and yet I’m planning on moving to New York fairly soon. Given the absolute explosion in urban real estate over the last 20 years, I’m obviously far from alone in believing that “being there” is crucial to living richly.

To understand why space still matters – maybe more than ever – it’s worth turning to a strange story by the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. The story, titled “The Library of Babel,” is on the one hand the sort of gnomic, mind-bending fantasy that I spend time obsessing about over on my other blog, Blown Horizonz. It is also an amazing metaphor for the intersection of information and transportation.

The premise of the story is simple, though bizarre. In the world described by the story’s narrator, all of human existence takes place within an infinite library, extending in all directions, its books containing every possible scrap of human knowledge.

The hangup is that, unfortunately, the library is entirely random – not just the arrangement of the books, but the arrangement of the letters within the books. The library contains every possible configuration of the 25 symbols of basic written Roman script.

When the infinite nature of the library is discovered, there is a brief period of elation, fueled by a sense that all knowledge is simply there for the taking – a direct mirror of the most optimistic takes on the Internet (even though Borges was writing in the 1950s). Borges also predicted the inevitable fallout of this revelation of total knowledge: the inquisitors who journey the halls of the library seeking answers are soon enough reduced to shells of their former selves, their hope and optimism extinguished after years of wading through randomness, discovering little or nothing of use.

Of course, it’s trite by now to say that the internet is a cesspool of bad information, and to reiterate it would be missing Borges’ point. There is a much more specific failure of the mythical Library of Babel that make it such a mind-bending vision, such an acute tragedy – and such a touchstone for the promise of intelligent transportation.

The library is a failure not of knowledge, but of organization, which Borges depicts as a failure of location. None of the books are where they should be – they are randomly scattered, and so might as well not exist. Even in a society that is understandably book-centric, this keeps any community from forming around bodies of knowledge. The only communities that grow from Borges’ totally disorganized knowledge are nihilistic doomsday cults.

The greatest imaginable library lacks the relatedness and context that give information its value (hence the title’s allusion to Biblical incomprehension). To really know something also means to know who else knows it, and to know what you can accomplish with your knowledge. Without human communities organized around and acting on knowledge, the librarians soon resort to suicide. (That also basically sums up my reasons for leaving academia, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Even in a world of total information, location remains vital. Knowledge is everywhere, as omnipresent as water or air. But it is the people who interpret that information that actually give it meaning, who embody it through what they do with it, with each other.

And that “doing with” is often anchored in the physical, in building, in gathering, in making, in nourishing. McLuhan wrote of media as “the extensions of man,” but they are obviously only one of man’s extensions, and at least on the surface a fairly ephemeral class. The more obviously substantive extensions of man are machines – trains, boats, threshers, grinders.

But if knowledge floating in space is maddening, physical power undirected by knowledge is equally pointless. By giving the library to machines, we are also give machines to the library – giving physical form to the abstract encoding of our own accumulated wisdom. And after that uploading (and/or offloading) our consciousness, the possibilities are limitless.

Why Transportation Will Be the Technology Revolution of the 21st Century

Okay, I’m simplifiying – biotech will be huge, too – but I just came back from the Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend in College Station. And what I saw and heard there leaves me more convinced than ever that I made the right choice when, a little over a year ago, I decided I wanted to really focus on writing and thinking about transportation.

The event convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt of one crucial thing:

Transportation is clearly what excites today’s nerds.

And by nerds, I mean the passionate and selfless, those who do things out of love and fascination more than ambition. This weekend’s event – the first ever public gathering of an underground network of Hyperloop buffs that has blossomed over the last two years – had a truly electric energy. It drew 120 teams of college students from 20 countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Japan, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

Some of those teams payed their own way directly, while others, perhaps even more impressive, angled their way into corporate sponsorships. They put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and when the 23 advancing to the next round were announced, the crowd and teams reacted as if they’d won Oscars. (And that was before Elon Musk showed up).

This, in short, was a project that triggered emotions in people – wonder, excitement, even love.

By contrast, the Internet as an object of emotional attachment and fascination is over. It’s all about commerce now – getting rich, not transforming the world. (With the possible exception of Bitcoin, which is just as much of a passion project – though it’s also about getting rich).

Transportation fascinates nerds because it’s where the action will be.

It’s where the action will be because:

The Horizon for Physical Technology Has Shifted.

I am not an engineer, but it’s clear that many, many new possibilities have opened up over the last century, creating conditions for a fundamental change in how transportation works. The underlying desires are not new – to move people and things quickly, cheaply, and safely. To eliminate the distances that separate us.

But we’re ready to take a leap forward, as big as the leap that the train and automobile were in the long 19th century.

The new technological horizon is being opened up by four basic shifts:

  • Information: We’re not leaving the internet behind, at all – we’re giving it a body. It’s called the Internet of Moving Things. The proliferation of wireless communication standards for a variety of applications allows the tracking and sharing of mobility data – fleet location, scheduling data, vehicle repair states, and passenger needs. We can put vehicles and their payloads in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, vastly increasing system efficiency.
  • Automation: Artificial intelligences are not just learning to drive cars, but to pick routes and manage fleets. Transportation of physical goods will become as human-light as information packet-switching is now. Dispatchers will be the telephone operators of the 21st Century.
  • Electrification: Batteries are still the biggest obstacle to most electrified transportation solutions, and the changes will be slower than in other areas. But the fundamentally superior efficiency of electric motors will kill internal combustion for many, and probably most, applications. This is not about politics anymore – it’s about physics.
  • Levitation: Yes, I said it. Trains are our most efficient form of transportation because they have the least relative contact with the ground. Mag-lev trains are – as one of the leaders of Hyperloop Tech so elegantly put it to me over the weekend – and intermediary technology between trains and what’s next. Though levitation is energy-hungry, there is now hard data [http://www.popsci.com/hyped-up-startups-race-hyperloop-life] showing that eliminating friction can more than make up for the cost. Possibly even without a Hyperloop tube.

There are other factors, of course, that don’t fit neatly into the above categories – advanced materials being one – and, I’d guess, some other big things I haven’t thought of.

But what it all adds up to is simple. We have within our reach a variety of transportation solutions that will be more efficient and faster than what we have now. Some will fit into the infrastructure we currently have, but the best of them, including not just the Hyperloop but Skytran and ET3, will require at least some infrastructure construction and reconsideration of how our cities are laid out.

That means they won’t become large-scale quickly without major, and likely public, involvement. And, unfortunately, it seems unlikely that they’ll come fast enough to have a short-term impact on climate change, a problem I’ll leave for another post. But they are coming, and they are where the best talent and a lot of resources will be concentrated, soon, and for decades to come.

How to Give Your Brain An Edge – and a Point.

For the past week or so, I’ve been experiencing something very rare for me – ennui. Directionlessness. Lassitude. Call it what you will. This is so unusual that I almost immediately became fascinated by the phenomenon, and began to deconstruct what was going on (a mental habit that basically explains why it’s such a rare feeling in the first place).

The end of the holidays are definitely part of it. I also just finished a major personal project (a rough draft of a screenplay), so I’m slightly postpartum. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’m at the four and a half year mark of being in Tampa Bay, and the relative lack of intellectual stimulation is starting to wear on me. (Sorry, Tampa).

But the real fundamental cause is much deeper. Two and a half years ago, I set out on a crazy-ass quest to remake my career, to get off the sinking (or at least rat-infested) ship of academia, and figure out an alternate way of being. About five months ago, I finally truly arrived at that goal: I’m making my living as a writer. I have steady work that I genuinely enjoy. I am, arguably, more secure now than I was as an academic, because I’ve learned to live by my wits.

Obviously, that’s a great thing. But it also means that the main activity of my last two years – not so much doing work, but figuring out how to do work, and moreover, how to get work – has been taken off the table. The last four or five months, if I’m being honest, have been pretty blissfully lazy (by my standards – it’s all relative), as I’ve enjoyed the simple pleasure of having, in whatever small sense, arrived at my destination.

But this feeling of directionlessness was my signal – now that I’ve arrived, and taken a bit of a rest, it’s time to build something in this new land. Part of the goal is to look for more challenging work in the world of words – editorial, most likely. But that’s not going to be enough to keep me alive and attentive for the next six months, or however long I have to spend searching.

So, it’s time to come up with some weapons against complacency (otherwise I’ll just be playing video games for the next six months). This post is, mostly, an announcement that this blog is going to be an important part of that. For the last couple of years, it has been a random repository of occasional thoughts about academia and my career transition. From here on out, it’s going to be the platform for a much more ambitious project.

That project is, in an extremely awkward nutshell, an examination of the deep implications of information technology and electrification for transportation. We have passed through a century almost entirely centered on innovation in communication – even the automobile was invented in the 19th century. There was a sense, especially in the 1990s, that all of this communication technology would render distance, the body, location, and geography useless appendages of history.

But that has proven to be, at best, half-prescient. I’m one of the lucky ones – I work, from home, for employers wide, but mostly far. That would have been much more difficult 20 years ago. But the larger trends show that that’s not common – for many people, place matters more than ever. Cities are swelling around the world, as people seek opportunity. Inequality is still place-inflected. Then of course there’s the environment – a huge part of how we, practically speaking, will fight carbon emissions is through efficiency, in transportation as much as in lighting and everything else.

These questions are the subtext of my work at Fortune, but I haven’t made much effort to really sketch out the intellectual framework. And that’s what I want this blog to become – a sketchpad, a place to put thoughts. A blog. And, hopefully, a place where I can start conversations.

Oh, and to the title – the way to give your brain both an edge and a point, obviously, is through conscious, directed reading. I’m always trying to balance my rigorous intellectual side with my creative space-cadet side, but really, I’ve just been doing a disproportionate amount of reading for pleasure lately. I cut that streak by getting Freidrich Kittler’s Gramaphone Film Typewriter yesterday. It’s the kind of book I haven’t made the time to read over the last couple of years, to my detriment.

Here’s to turning all of that around, and deep-sixing the ennui forever.



Working at Amazon Sounds Exactly Like Grad School. Is There Anything Wrong With That?

In reading Friday’s New York Times piece on Amazon’s workplace environment, some elements seemed Orwellian and grim – particularly, the use of numbers to track performance metrics with exceptional granularity.

But other parts of life at Amazon seem almost warmly familiar. The company’s culture apparently “stokes employees’ willingness to erode work-life boundaries,” and encourages employees to be vocally critical of one another, and even of themselves. They work on weekends, late nights, and holidays. For some, the pressure leads to quick burnout and departure, while other employees were actively pushed out when management didn’t see them performing.

I found myself reading it and nodding my head.

Because that’s exactly what a high-level PhD program is like.

Amazon employees apparently experience “anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews,” in which they’re expected, every week, to defend their performance. “Explanations like ‘we’re not totally sure’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ are not acceptable,” reports the Times.

But is it as unacceptable as telling your seminar professor that you don’t have a well-informed take on the evolution of Marx’s definition of labor power between the Grundrisse and Das Kapital? Is a harsh review as anxiety-provoking as a dismissive snort or a condescending “Okay, let’s hear if someone can help you out . . . “?

I had always, frankly, assumed that life in a large, successful corporation was at least as much of a boiler room as a graduate program. That employees were expected to sacrifice themselves for a larger mission, keep their eye on the ball, constantly interrogate what they were doing, innovate and implement, use their brains and sleep under their desks. When I read the Amazon story, it frankly struck me as a trumped-up non-story, with employee “anxiety” now somewhere in the same ballpark as child labor.

NBC called the report ‘scathing,’ Geekwire described it as ‘brutal’. I’m not sure whether that’s how a lot of people saw it, or just how media wanted to spin it. But clearly, at least a good number of folks are glad to get huffy about an innovative company holding its employees to extremely high standards, and leaving behind those who can’t keep up.

It makes me think I’m just not on the same page as a lot of Americans. Okay, maybe my ambition isn’t to sell 10% more chenille curtains this quarter – but aren’t we supposed to be hard workers, with big dreams and big ambitions? That means sacrifice, that means grind, that means maybe facing your own inadequacies and taking some risks every once in a while.

And at least the people at Amazon are getting paid well to do it – those of us going to the mat for philosophy or social science or literature are lucky if we don’t go into debt for the privilege of frying our nervous systems and having our self-esteem pummeled on a weekly basis for years on end.

So, my initial temptation is to say – if you can’t take the heat, why would you even try to work at Amazon?

But then I’m reminded of a much different aspect of my experience in the doctoral meat-grinder. I am a person who’s extremely privileged in a lot of ways, from my stable family background to my white male heteronormativity. There were several significant and very powerful scrums during my time in grad school that, more or less, amounted to some students pushing back against the culture of insanely high standards and overwork.

At the time, my first response was similar – suck it up, buttercup. This shit is hard because it’s hard. You can’t read Lacan just once and hope to get anything out of it.

But as those discussions and fights continued, I started to see the other side. Regardless of identity, some students weren’t as prepared as I was. That was around when I realized that not everyone was reading Kierkegaard in high school. Not everyone got to study Nietzsche with that philosophy professor from Waking Life.

On top of that, not everyone was willing or able to sacrifice themselves at the altar of the Word the way I was. Some people had families, some people had actual relationships (as opposed to whatever the hell it was I was doing with women back then).

And the thing is, I didn’t have these advantages because I was exceptional – at least not primarily. I had these advantages thanks mostly to circumstance. I had parents who kept lots of books around. I went to a pretty decent, college-oriented public high school, where the German teacher led a philosophy club. I had a support system that made it easier to handle the pressure.

There are some relatively simple arguments for making these demanding structures open to people who might not immediately click with them.  Our society hinders a lot of people in a lot of ways, and we would all benefit from trying to compensate for that. I think anything like affirmative action turns potentially poisonous once you transition from an undergraduate learning environment to a performance-oriented professional environment, whether a PhD program or a corporation. But there are and should be programs to recognize and support, for instance, talented minority scholars – thinks like incentive fellowships. Evidence shows pretty strongly that Silicon Valley has yet to come up with a successful model to do anything similar. But greater support and recruitment has nothing to do with lowering standards. Lowering standards is not a way of being ‘supportive’ – it’s just a way of lowering standards.

But the episodes of discontent during my grad program opened my eyes to a more tricky concept – that you may actually need people who aren’t a perfect fit. Sure, you need the high achievers, maybe you even need a plurality of them. But a community made up of people like me would have been absolutely hateful. That seems maybe to be what’s going on at Amazon – the peak performers don’t have much use for anyone with more complex lives and backgrounds than theirs.Which might ultimately weaken a company that’s trying to serve all of America.

But then again, I clearly have no idea what America is like.

Google’s Alphabet Dance and the Inversion of Capitalism

A quick note: I’ll be blogging here more, now that I’ve got some time and headspace after my weird adventure. Hopefully, this’ll become a place not just for contemplating and chronicling post-academic life, but for speculative extensions of the writing I do elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking about something for a while, and yesterday’s announcement about Google’s restructuring helped me focus it a bit. Gizmodo gets the basics right – that Alphabet is about putting innovative and world-changing products like driverless cars, connected homes, and whatever the next iteration of Google Glass is. The revenue-driving stuff – basically, search and associated advertising – will become a segment of a more obviously diverse company.

But that doesn’t change the fact that little of that speculative stuff tends to make money. And certainly, not compared to advertising. This strikes me as part of a larger, long-term trend that I still need to contextualize historically, but that I’m not sure anyone has really identified. That is, there are motives much more complex (though not necessarily more subtle) than profit driving a lot of the activity at certain future-oriented technology companies, including not just Google, but also Elon Musk’s enterprises.

These organizations spend a lot of money, well, not making money. It’s tempting to be cynical – that a company like Google is being simply strategic when it experiments with driverless cars, wearable computers and the like. They might be just, a) experimenting to see if something hits. Google Glass, in theory, could have been the next Android. Who knows. And Tesla certainly seems on track to make money.

But way more interesting, on the cynicism front, is the idea that this is some kind of ‘techwashing’ – that the profile of Google is being consciously cultivated by these experiments, which can be thought of as, more or less, a marketing expense. Certainly, search dominance is about mindshare. We all think Google when we think search. And how much of that is due to the constant headlines generated by Google’s more experimental work?

But finally, I think the most interesting interpretation of all is one that moves beyond cynicism. Certainly, Elon Musk seems unquestionably to be a manically creative guy with huge dreams and ambitions for reshaping the world. And I’ve recently been writing about some companies with similarly public-spirited, not terribly profit-driven projects – bike shares, and, coming up soon, carpooling.

In all of this (and here I’m being really, really general) we’re seeing at least a little bit of takeover of what in a different time would have been public government projects. And these aren’t nonprofit companies, or even, by and large, Benefit Corporations with explicitly social goals.

Depending on your perspective, these are companies making really, really long bets – or they’re just experimenting and innovating for its own sake, because their principals think it’s cool.

I’m not sure to what extent it’s novel for a revenue stream as powerful as Google’s, or a fortune as huge as Elon Musk’s, to become a platform for fierce experimentation and innovation. Old-school titans of industry (aka robber barons) often sunk their profits into public works – libraries, universities. At least intuitively, I don’t think it was as common for them to use their leverage to continue developing new and highly speculative technology.

The only really clear example I can think of is Howard Hughes. I’m sure there are others, but it’s illustrative that Hughes is the one that pops into my head – and he’s well known for being nuts. By the standards of a previous era, when resources were more scarce, the kinds of risks being taken by an average startup (and its funders) would have been (rightly or wrongly) considered foolhardy.

There’s another aspect to this, which is investment. Investors, partly because they’re having a harder and harder time getting good returns, are increasingly willing to throw money at people with big ideas, whether those ideas are best judged as innovative, half-baked, or outright crazy. And after that, they’re willing to keep throwing money at people with big ideas that get a little bit of traction, but haven’t turned a profit (yet).

It’s a weird, pervasive, but probably productive mindset. We have individuals willing and even eager to take big risks. And we’ve got people who want to be part of that, the same way producers used to pay a high price of admission to be part of the movie business. And I’m beginning to suspect that, on some level, nobody is really all that focused on profits. Profits are somehow less important than creativity.

Maybe we’re living in a world of convenient (and even productive) fiction – we have ‘stocks’, we have ‘earnings reports,’ we have ‘projections.’ But what if that’s all some kind of fig leaf, and Amazon is basically just one big crowdfunding project?