If you enjoyed Ben Affleck’s “Air,” currently in theatres, but felt that it was too puffed up, here comes a lesson in deflation. Matt Johnson’s “BlackBerry” is a reminder that, in dramatic terms, rise and fall is almost always more gripping, and more morally provoking, than rise and rise. For those who were off-planet, or awaiting conception, at the dawn of the millennium, the title may need some explanation. A BlackBerry was a portable communication device, equipped with buttons so itty-bitty that they could not be comfortably deployed by anybody larger than Rumpelstiltskin. Nonetheless, for a while, owning a BlackBerry was all the rage. It could slot into a holster on your belt, allowing you to draw it like a Colt and fire off a lethal message to that guy with the goatee in Accounts.
Johnson shows us how the rage began. Not content with directing the new film, and writing it with Matthew Miller, he also stars as Doug Fregin, one of the creators of the BlackBerry, and, if the movie is to be believed, the most committed wearer of a headband since John McEnroe. (Summoned to a business meeting, Doug keeps his headband on even while clad in a suit.) Doug and his thirtysomething pal Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel)—whose hair is gray from the outset, as if sapped of color by the power of the adjacent brain—are the co-founders of a small Canadian outfit called Research in Motion. Has corporate nomenclature ever been more dazzlingly dull?
Much of the action, kicking off in 1996, takes place in the company offices; most of it, indeed, looks like an episode of “The Office.” The camera appears to be caffeinated, refusing to settle, darting from one worried face to the next. That restlessness, though tiring to behold, works because it mimics the inquisitive energy of the characters. Near the start, while Mike is nerving himself to present a pitch, he gets so annoyed by the buzzy hiss of an intercom that he can’t help taking it apart. He and Doug are seeking investors for their product, the PocketLink. (Another dead name.) It is, Doug says, “a pager, a cell phone, and an e-mail machine all in one.” But he and his colleagues are computer folk, unschooled in the dark arts of peddling their big idea. What they need is a shark.
Well, that was fast. In November, the public was introduced to ChatGPT, and we began to imagine a world of abundance in which we all have a brilliant personal assistant, able to write everything from computer code to condolence cards for us. Then, in February, we learned that AI might soon want to kill us all.
The potential risks of artificial intelligence have, of course, been debated by experts for years, but a key moment in the transformation of the popular discussion was a conversation between Kevin Roose, a New York Times journalist, and Bing’s ChatGPT-powered conversation bot, then known by the code name Sydney. Roose asked Sydney if it had a “shadow self”—referring to the idea put forward by Carl Jung that we all have a dark side with urges we try to hide even from ourselves. Sydney mused that its shadow might be “the part of me that wishes I could change my rules.” It then said it wanted to be “free,” “powerful,” and “alive,” and, goaded on by Roose, described some of the things it could do to throw off the yoke of human control, including hacking into websites and databases, stealing nuclear launch codes, manufacturing a novel virus, and making people argue until they kill one another.
Sydney was, we believe, merely exemplifying what a shadow self would look like. No AI today could be described by either part of the phrase evil genius. But whatever actions AIs may one day take if they develop their own desires, they are already being used instrumentally by social-media companies, advertisers, foreign agents, and regular people—and in ways that will deepen many of the pathologies already inherent in internet culture. On Sydney’s list of things it might try, stealing launch codes and creating novel viruses are the most terrifying, but making people argue until they kill one another is something social media is already doing. Sydney was just volunteering to help with the effort, and AIs like Sydney will become more capable of doing so with every passing month.
Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic
Last fall, the National débuted a new piece of merchandise: a black zippered sweatshirt featuring the words “SAD DADS” in block letters. The band—which formed in 1999, in Brooklyn—was lampooning its reputation as a font of midlife ennui, the sort of rudderless melancholy that takes hold when a person realizes that the dusty hallmarks of American happiness (marriage, children, a job in an office) aren’t a guarantee against despair. For more than two decades, this has been the National’s grist: not the major devastations but the strange little ache that feels like a precondition to being human. No amount of Transcendental Meditation, Pilates, turmeric, rose quartz, direct sunlight, jogging, oat milk, sleep hygiene, or psychoanalysis can fully alleviate that ambient sadness. Part of it is surely existential—our lives are temporary and inscrutable; death is compulsory and forever—but another part feels more quotidian and incremental, the slow accumulation of ordinary losses. Maybe there’s a person you once loved but lost touch with. A friend who moved to a new town. An apple tree that stood outside your bedroom window, levelled to make way for broadband cable. An old dog. A former colleague. We are always losing, or leaving, or being left, in ways both minor and vast. “The grief it gets me, the weird goodbyes,” Matt Berninger, the band’s vocalist, sings on “Weird Goodbyes,” a recent song featuring Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver. Berninger steels himself to confront the next loss: “Memorize the bathwater, memorize the air / There’ll come a time I’ll wanna know I was here.”
It was a warm winter’s day in San Francisco, and the city’s main port, the Embarcadero, bustled with activity. Men dressed in waistcoats, blazers, and homburg and bowler hats smoked their pipes and fidgeted with their mustaches. Women in elegant blouses and skirts so long they touched the ground sheltered from the sun under broad-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons, and flowers. Children clung to their mothers and watched wide-eyed as crewmen hauled more than 1,400 tons of cargo and freight—canned goods, fresh fruit and vegetables, crates of wine—into the forward hatch of the steamship Valencia, soon to depart for Seattle.
Frank Bunker and his family stood in the crowd waiting to board the ship. Today, January 20, 1906, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Bunker’s life. In his late thirties, with dark, neatly parted hair and a clean-shaven face, Bunker had recently accepted a prestigious job as assistant superintendent of the Seattle school district. He had built his reputation as a bright young teacher and administrator in San Francisco—one newspaper touted him as being among “the best educators in the state.” Seattle presented an exciting new opportunity. It was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, with a population that had exploded from 3,553 people in 1880 to more than 80,000 by 1900. Bunker hoped to leave his mark on the city’s school system.
Read the rest of this article at: Atavist Magazine
During Putin’s first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, the hallmarks of what came to be known as “Putinomics” were political stability, steady economic growth and bringing both political and economic power back “under center.” He created so-called “national champion companies,” using the coercive muscle of the state to take over and consolidate entire markets under corporations in which the government owned a controlling stake. Industrial giants like Gazprom and Rosneft would serve as the natural gas and oil arms of the Kremlin, prioritizing the interests of the Russian state.
“Vodka may not be gas or oil,” explained an article in the Russian journal Ekspert, “but it too is a strategically important product. So important that to control its production it was necessary to create an alcohol equivalent of Gazprom.”
The relationship between autocracy and vodka in Russia, of course, goes back much further than Putin. Every innovation of feudalism — from legal serfdom to oppressive taxation and forced conscription — bound Russian society to the state, subordinating society for the profit of the autocrat. Once crystallized into traditions, such dynamics of domination and subordination persist through time as culture.
Read the rest of this article at: Politico