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Days of Being Wired

Reading Hari Kunzru’s recent column [“Broken Links,” Easy Chair, May], I related to the “sheer wonder” he associates with the internet of the Nineties. In 1994, I was wandering through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry with my mom, looking for rockets and astronaut ice cream, when we found the computer room. Inside was something called the internet. I sat down in front of a chunky white monitor and typed “Star Trek” into a search engine. Within seconds, it returned thousands of results. Gone were all thoughts of ice cream; we stayed in the computer room for the rest of the day.

Kunzru was older and doing more worthwhile things—reading war dispatches on a Croatian mailing list while I was looking up the width of the USS Enterprise. But we were each, in our different ways, taking the same pleasure in abundance. Back then, there was a luxuriousness to having more information than one could possibly absorb. Surfing was the main metaphor for the activity, and it conveyed the feeling well. Anyone who learns to surf spends most of the time drowning, but somehow it’s still fun.

Of course, in its early days, the internet was small and slow and fixed in place. In the Nineties, it wasn’t mobile enough to help one avoid getting lost or bored; neither was it fast or sophisticated enough to offer instantaneous access to millions of songs and films. I could look at the websites of punk labels to mail-order their records, but couldn’t stream their music. I could find directions on MapQuest, but I had to print them out. There were unnetworked minutes of the day, hours not yet subsumed by our devices. I’m not a nostalgic person, but perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from an era in which the internet was useful but bounded, a sidekick rather than a sovereign. One could log on and then log off. Being online was not coextensive with being alive.

Ben Tarnoff
Cambridge, Mass.

 

Slot Machines

Can robots help us tackle loneliness? Sam Lipsyte’s beautifully written investigation [“Ghosting the Machine,” Letter from Las Vegas, May] raises this key question. While researching this topic for my book The Lonely Century, I came across numerous examples of people who had formed genuine connections with machines. I learned about elderly women who knit bonnets for their AI caregivers and sexbot owners whose primary reason for purchase was a desire for company. Robot companions present a uniquely egalitarian solution to loneliness; they offer affection to all, regardless of physical appearance or age.

Yet despite these benefits, there is cause for concern. Sex robots like Emma, the doll at the heart of Lipsyte’s piece, risk cementing problematic gender stereotypes. Similar to Alexa and Siri, such robots are docile, submissive, and designed to please. A doll like “Frigid Farrah,” programmed to be “reserved and shy,” should ring alarm bells. According to the website that sells her, Farrah would not be “appreciative” if you “touched her in a private area.”

While technology can play a useful role in the growing loneliness crisis of the twenty-first century, it’s essential that we acknowledge its dangers and limits. Most importantly, we should look to advances in social robotics and AI as a challenge to care more about those around us, to be more empathetic and loving, and to push ourselves to be more human.

Noreena Hertz
London

 

Beat of Power

Andrew Cockburn accomplished something rarely seen these days: serious coverage of how government actually works [“Power Failure,” Letter from Washington, May]. At a time when White House correspondents are often willing to engage in stenography to power, and when what passes for “investigative journalism” is frequently no more than a rehashing of calculated leaks from the powerful, Cockburn reminds us where the real power lies.

What makes the article particularly necessary is its attention to the shadowy corners of Washington where the will of the people is so often thwarted. It’s not just that corporate interests and political donors tend to benefit most from decisions that are made in the dark. The problem is that legacy media has, for the most part, given up on thorough coverage of the regulatory state, and new media organizations generally lack the resources and constituencies for such reporting.

Twenty years ago, newspapers across the country had large Washington bureaus with reporters on multiple beats. Regional dailies tended to focus on agencies and departments that were of interest to locals. These newspaper bureaus created a web of reporting that paid significant attention to appointees, regulators, and technocrats. But as media ownership has been consolidated and cost-cutting measures have taken effect, these bureaus have largely disappeared. By 2016, twenty-one states had not a single newspaper with a dedicated reporter in Washington, D.C.

Nowadays, vast swaths of the federal government get little to no meaningful coverage. That’s fine as far as the Big Pharma lobbyists, defense contractors, and billionaires seeking tax advantages are concerned. But, as Cockburn reminds us, that’s lousy for the great mass of Americans who are growing increasingly frustrated with a government that they see as very big but not very beneficial.

John Nichols
Madison, Wis.