Sunday, September 24, 2006

Politics and Silences in Chris Anderson’s World View

Thanks to BoingBoing, I came across Nick Gillsepie’s - editor-in-chief of Reason - fascinating interview with Chris Anderson. Anderson is the author of THE LONG TAIL (#16 on NYX Bestseller list) and editor of Wired. In it, we see limits of the libertarian, technocratic strain of thinking.

reason: Who’d you vote for in 2004?

Anderson: Oh, God, do we really need to talk about that? I hate politics.

reason: It’s always interesting.

Anderson: I didn’t vote.

reason: OK. What about 2000? Wired has been conducting something of a love affair with Al Gore of late; he was your May 2006 cover boy. You must have voted for Gore, a bete noire of most libertarians, in 2000, right?

Anderson: But I’m not proud of this. I wish the system would put forward politicians that I could vote for.

reason: Why are you uninterested in politics?

Anderson: I’m not. I’m interested. I’m de-focused [my emphasis].

reason: In what sense? You don’t see anybody up there who would represent your worldview?

Anderson: I think the process by which people are nominated by the two parties is so compromising that they end up taking positions that I can’t support. I think in fact they don’t believe it.

reason: So what is it that you like about Al Gore?

Anderson: I have a personal admiration for the man [my emphasis].

When I was in Washington, covering science in those early days [the late ’80s], I was an intern. Al Gore was the chairman of, I think, the Senate Science and Technology Subcommittee, and I was at those early hearings when he was talking about what was then called high-performance com-puting. He was having the people from the NCSA [National Center for Supercomputing Applications] at the University of Illinois come in to talk about this thing, and he’d have these guys showing these incredible technologies. They were generating unbelievable graphics and setting up work stations, and they were connected—and none of the other committee members bothered to show up. No one was there in the crowd. He’d come down and just sit there at the witness table and geek out over these things.

He had Larry Smarr, [the NCSA’s director and “the godfather of the Internet,”] talk. Remember, this was a time when a kid named Marc Andreessen was back in Larry’s labs dreaming up something that would later become Net-scape. So Al really was instrumental in recognizing the potential of the Internet and helping it along. He didn’t invent it, but he had a really important role in advancing it.

Most importantly, actually, those models, those computational models that they were doing, were climate models that were trying to quantify the extent of global warming and climate change at the time. So I guess I’ve seen Al Gore as smart and technical and passionate, funny, and I’ve seen him at his best.

reason: Sen. Gore also brought K. Eric Drexler, the nanotechnology visionary, to D.C. to talk to the Senate.

Anderson: Absolutely.

reason: Is there a contradiction between Gore’s interests in something like, say, the Internet, which is decentralized and founded upon distributed intelligence, and his support for things like the Communications Decency Act, a Clinton administration law that would have extended federal regulation over much speech on the Internet? Or the Kyoto Protocol? Kyoto is very much an old-style, command-and-control regulatory policy.

Anderson: One thing about Kyoto, although I’m not in favor of all its aspects, is that it would have at least set up a market-based system for trading carbon emissions. That’s something I can get behind [my emphasis].

You know, Gore’s a complicated character. His interest in superhighways is very much inspired by his father’s interest in the national highway system, which was both a distributive network and a command-and-control infrastructure. I think he understands that there’s a place for government-created infrastructure if it enables individuals to do their own thing, which is very much what the highway system does.

Do I agree with him 100 percent on everything? No. I think his recognition of climate change as a problem turned out to be prescient and right.

reason: What about other political figures? Republicans, Democrats, it doesn’t really matter to you?

Anderson: I guess I like individuals[my emphasis]. I like Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York. I like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in many ways…..

Towards the end of the interview, the tone and subject matter becomes more personal as Anderson is asked about being a father:

reason: You're the parent of four children, aged four to nine. How has that affected your politics, your journalism, your worldview?

Anderson: I'll tell you what being a parent has done for me, and this may not be the answer you were expecting or even want. I think it’s made me a better boss—and I had a lot of room for improvement. I think what I now understand is as a parent, you understand very clearly what your kids need. Your kids need clarity. They need consistency. They need sup-port. They need encouragement. [my emphasis]. I’m the classic geek and I don’t have a strong empathy gene. I've actually been able to people through my children in a sense. Of course, all people need clarity, support, firm rules, consistency, etc. So I think that in many ways because the kids are such a kind of a raw version of people and because you have such a clear duty and obligation to get it right and you think about it all the time, that just thinking about how to be a better parent has helped me think about being a better guide to everybody.

Wow. Forget love. Forget cultivating your kid’s creativity, their sense of wonder, their empathy with others.

Cancel those things. KIDS NEED CLARITY. And consistency and support and oh yeah, some encouragement.

Anderson and Gillsepie’s exchange prioritizes the consumer view of society above all else. So don’t forget parents, KIDS NEED CLARITY. Above all else. What could be a more impoverished view of politics and the public space. Politics descends into consumer preferences.

How will children be raised in such a mediated, consumerist global world? Are we committed to raising the next generation of children to become such uncritical consumers? Or, do we hope to cultivate other human strengths such as curiosity about the world, empathy for others, humility in the face of such vast technological power?

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