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The Art of Work in the Age of AI Production

I enjoyed Ezra Klein’s podcast conversation with Nilay Patel, the editor of The Verge. They talked about media and AI mostly.

(First of all, anyone who says they’re trying to “revolutionize the media through blog posts” is a-ok in my book.)

Anyway, here’s Patel on the limitations of AI and where humans shine:

But these models in their most reductive essence are just statistical representations of the past. They are not great at new ideas.

And I think that the power of human beings sort of having new ideas all the time, that’s the thing that the platforms won’t be able to find. That’s why the platforms feel old. Social platforms like enter a decay state where everyone’s making the same thing all the time. It’s because we’ve optimized for the distribution, and people get bored and that boredom actually drives much more of the culture than anyone will give that credit to, especially an A.I. developer who can only look backwards.

Later he talks more specifically about why curation will grow more important in a world inundated with aggressively mid AI content:

And the idea is, in my mind at least, that those people who curate the internet, who have a point of view, who have a beginning and middle, and an end to the story they’re trying to tell all the time about the culture we’re in or the politics we’re in or whatever. They will actually become the centers of attention and you cannot replace that with A.I. You cannot replace that curatorial function or that guiding function that we’ve always looked to other individuals to do.

And those are real relationships. I think those people can stand in for institutions and brands. I think the New York Times, you’re Ezra Klein, a New York Times journalist means something. It appends some value to your name, but the institution has to protect that value. I think that stuff is still really powerful, and I think as the flood of A.I. comes to our distribution networks, the value of having a powerful individual who curates things for people, combined with a powerful institution who protects their integrity actually will go up. I don’t think that’s going to go down.

Yeah, exactly. Individuals and groups of like-minded people making things for other people โ€” that stuff is only going to grow more valuable as time goes on. The breadth and volume offered by contemporary AI cannot provide this necessary function right now (and IMO, for the foreseeable future).

And finally, I wanted to share this exchange:

EZRA KLEIN: You said something on your show that I thought was one of the wisest, single things I’ve heard on the whole last decade and a half of media, which is that places were building traffic thinking they were building an audience. And the traffic, at least in that era, was easy, but an audience is really hard. Talk a bit about that.

NILAY PATEL: Yeah first of all, I need to give credit to Casey Newton for that line. That is something โ€” at The Verge, we used to say that to ourselves all the time just to keep ourselves from the temptations of getting cheap traffic. I think most media companies built relationships with the platforms, not with the people that were consuming their content.

I never focused on traffic all that much, mainly because for a small site like, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do, vis-ร -vis Google or Facebook, to move the needle that much. But as I’ve written many times, switching to a reader-supported model in 2016 with the membership program has just worked so well for the site because it allows me to focus on making something for those readers โ€” that’s you! โ€” and not for platforms or algorithms or advertisers. I don’t have to “pivot to video”; instead I can do stuff like comments and [new thing coming “soon”] that directly benefit and engage readers, which has been really rewarding.

See also Kyle Chayka’s recent piece for the New Yorker: The Revenge of the Home Page.

Perhaps the platform era caused us to lose track of what a Web site was for. The good ones are places you might turn to several times per day or per week for a select batch of content that pointedly is not everything. Going there regularly is a signal of intention and loyalty: instead of passively waiting for social feeds to serve you what to read, you can seek out reading materials-or videos or audio-from sources you trust. If Twitter was once a sprawling Home Depot of content, going to specific sites is more like shopping from a series of specialized boutiques.

I’m going to get slightly petty here for a sec and say that these “back to the blog / back to the web” pieces almost always ignore the sites that never gave up the faith in favor of “media” folks inspired by the former. It’s nice to see the piece end with a mention of Arts & Letters Daily, still bloggily chugging along since 1998. /salty

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“What Relationships Would You Want if You Believed They Were Possible?”

I listened to the latest episode of the Ezra Klein Show while driving last night then spent the second half of the drive thinking about it. So I guess I’d better tell you to go and listen to it. Klein interviews Rhaina Cohen, who is the author of the forthcoming book The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center (out Feb 13). They talked about loneliness, the changing definition of friendship (and family) throughout history, polyamory, co-parenting, and lots more.

How do we imagine many other possibilities for parenting, for aging, for intimacy, for friendship, for romance than what we have right now? Because the idea that what we have right now is a working norm and everything else should be understood as some deviation is wrong. It is factually untrue.

It is not a norm. It is a wild experiment in the history of human existence. We have never done this before for any period of time. It’s not how we raised children. It is not how we have met each other. It is not how we have lived together.

And it’s not working for a lot of people. So this is an experiment, and we should be trying more. And what Cohen’s book is about is these experiments, is looking at things people are already doing, and, in a sense, making clear that there are more relationships happening right now in the world around you, more forms of relationship, than you could possibly imagine.

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The Difficulty of Living in Exponential Time

In a piece about how the pace of improvement in the current crop of AI products is vastly outstripping the ability of society to react/respond to it, Ezra Klein uses this cracker of a phrase/concept: “the difficulty of living in exponential time”.

I find myself thinking back to the early days of Covid. There were weeks when it was clear that lockdowns were coming, that the world was tilting into crisis, and yet normalcy reigned, and you sounded like a loon telling your family to stock up on toilet paper. There was the difficulty of living in exponential time, the impossible task of speeding policy and social change to match the rate of viral replication. I suspect that some of the political and social damage we still carry from the pandemic reflects that impossible acceleration. There is a natural pace to human deliberation. A lot breaks when we are denied the luxury of time.

But that is the kind of moment I believe we are in now. We do not have the luxury of moving this slowly in response, at least not if the technology is going to move this fast.

Covid, AI, and even climate change (e.g. the effects we are seeing after 250 years of escalating carbon emissions)…they are all moving too fast for society to make complete sense of them. And it’s causing problems and creating opportunities for schemers, connivers, and confidence tricksters to wreck havoc.

41 Questions We Should Ask Ourselves About the Technology We Use

In an issue of his newsletter, The Convivial Society, L.M. Sacasas posed 41 questions that we should ask ourselves about technologies to help us “draw out the moral or ethical implications of our tools”. Here are a few of the questions:

3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
12. What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
16. How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
22. What desires does the use of this technology generate?
35. Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?

Sacasas recently joined Ezra Klein on his podcast to talk through some of the answers to these questions for certain technologies.

EZRA KLEIN: I’m gonna group the next set together. So what was required of other human beings, of other creatures, of the earth, so that I might be able to use this technology? When you ask that, when you think of that, what comes to mind?

MICHAEL SACASAS: So I recently wrote a piece, and its premise was that sometimes we think of the internet, of digital life, as being immaterial, existing somewhere out in the ether, in the cloud, with these metaphors that kind of suggest that it doesn’t really have a material footprint. But the reality of course โ€” I think as most of us are becoming very aware โ€” is that it very much has a material reality that may begin in a mine where rare earth metals are being extracted in inhumane working conditions at great cost to the local environment.

But that’s very far removed from my comfortable experience of the tablet on my couch in the living room. And so with regards to the earth, the digital realm depends upon material resources that need to be collected. It depends on the energy grid. It leaves a footprint on the environment.

And so we tend not to think about that by the time that it gets to us and looks so shiny and clean and new, and connects us to this world that isn’t physically necessarily located anywhere in our experience. And so I think it is important for us to think about the labor, the extraction cost on the environment, that go into providing us with the kind of world that we find so amusing and interesting and comfortable.

The Conversation Has Never Been Wider

I am still listening to the excellent interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Ezra Klein Show, but I wanted to highlight this exchange right at the beginning of the interview because I think it’s relevant to a lot of our shared interests, especially if you’ve been online reading blogs or personal sites for 15, 20, or even 25 years:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, I’m always asking for us to bring back blogging.


There is a nostalgia, oftentimes, among people who came up in it, for the internet of the aughts.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Yeah. The old internet.

EZRA KLEIN: Do you think that’s nostalgia, or do you think something was lost?

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Hmm. OK. So I now work with a lot of internet people. I’m in an information school at a university. And so a lot of my very good friends are those people, so I want to tiptoe carefully. I do think that there was a clubbiness and a camaraderie, even among people who politically disagreed. There was a class of thinkers, a class of writers who came up in that web 2.0 that does feel like, yeah, we lost something there.

There was a humanity there for good or for bad. Humanity is messy, but there was a sense that those ideas were attached to people, and there were things driving those people, there’s a reason they had chosen to be in that space before it all became about chasing an audience in a platform and turning that into influencer and translating that into that โ€” before all that happened, the professionalization of it all. And that’s what I think we’re missing when we become nostalgic for that web 2.0. I think it’s the people in the machine.

Having said that, I am very resistant to nostalgia as a thing because usually what we are nostalgic for is a time that just was not that great for a lot of people. And so what we were usually really nostalgic for is a time when we didn’t have to think so much about who was missing in the room, who wasn’t at the table. So when I talk to friends, and especially younger people coming up behind us either in the internet or in writing spaces, we’re like, that time was horrible for young queer people.

They talk about looking for little safe pockets of space in web 2.0 world where it was still very OK to be homophobic, for example, in those spaces and our casual language and how we structured that kind of thing. And they love being able to leave that part behind in this new world of whatever the web is now, both a consolidated and a disaggregated new web.

That’s why I’m like resistant to nostalgia. At the same time, I’m like, yeah. I also laugh and go, I really miss having a blog. In some ways, coming back to the newsletter, and Substack was kind part of that. It’s me being nostalgic for having a place where I could put thoughts that didn’t fit into any other discourse or genre, and I wanted a space where I could talk to people who were actually interacting like real people. They weren’t acting like bots, or trolls, or whatever your internet persona is.

So, I mean, I say I’m resistant to nostalgia. I just try not to reproduce it, but even I get a little โ€” I’ll always have a soft spot for Blogger, which is coincidentally my first “where I state” space on Blogger.

EZRA KLEIN: Yup. Me too.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: [LAUGHS] I’ll always be a little romantic about it.

EZRA KLEIN: But I think you’re right about that criticism of it, too. Something that, for all that I can tip into nostalgia, something that I think is often missed in today’s conversation is the conversation has never been wider.


EZRA KLEIN: People talk all about things they can’t say, but it has never been wider.


EZRA KLEIN: There’s never been a larger allowable space of things you could say.


EZRA KLEIN: And people have also never been more pissed about how it feels to participate in it. I don’t want to say never, but broadly, there is an intensity to that conversation that is distinct, and I don’t think those things are unrelated, right? I think it is the wideness of the conversation and the fact that there are so many people you might hear from that make you feel cautious and insecure and unsafe, and the good of it is the bad of it.

TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Exactly. One of the things I like to say to people is that we think that broadening access in any realm โ€” we do this with everything, by the way. It’s such an American way to approach the world. We think that broadening access will broaden access on the terms of the people who have benefited from it being narrowed, which is just so counterintuitive.

Broadening access doesn’t mean that everybody has the experience that I, privileged person, had in the discourse. Broadening it means that we are all equally uncomfortable, right? That’s actually what pluralism and plurality is. It isn’t that everybody is going to come in and have the same comforts that privilege and exclusion had extended to a small group of people. It’s that now everybody sits at the table, and nobody knows the exact right thing to say about the other people.

Well, that’s fair. That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

Look, as someone who benefitted hugely from it, I miss the golden age of blogging as much as anyone โ€” productive discussions in comment threads, the community alchemy of Flickr, Google Reader, cross-blog conversations, the Open Web, small pieces loosely joined, etc. etc. etc. โ€” but over the past few years, I’ve felt a lot less nostalgia for it for exactly the reasons McMillan Cottom & Klein are talking about here. Make the Internet Great Again is, in many important ways, as short-sighted, futile, and limiting as, well, you know.

Ted Chiang: Fears of Technology Are Fears of Capitalism

Writer Ted Chiang (author of the fantastic Exhalation) was recently a guest on the Ezra Klein Show. The conversation ranged widely โ€” I enjoyed his thoughts on superheroes โ€” but his comments on capitalism and technology seem particularly relevant right now. From the transcript:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

Let’s think about it this way. How much would we fear any technology, whether A.I. or some other technology, how much would you fear it if we lived in a world that was a lot like Denmark or if the entire world was run sort of on the principles of one of the Scandinavian countries? There’s universal health care. Everyone has child care, free college maybe. And maybe there’s some version of universal basic income there.

Now if the entire world operates according to โ€” is run on those principles, how much do you worry about a new technology then? I think much, much less than we do now. Most of the things that we worry about under the mode of capitalism that the U.S practices, that is going to put people out of work, that is going to make people’s lives harder, because corporations will see it as a way to increase their profits and reduce their costs. It’s not intrinsic to that technology. It’s not that technology fundamentally is about putting people out of work.

It’s capitalism that wants to reduce costs and reduce costs by laying people off. It’s not that like all technology suddenly becomes benign in this world. But it’s like, in a world where we have really strong social safety nets, then you could maybe actually evaluate sort of the pros and cons of technology as a technology, as opposed to seeing it through how capitalism is going to use it against us. How are giant corporations going to use this to increase their profits at our expense?

And so, I feel like that is kind of the unexamined assumption in a lot of discussions about the inevitability of technological change and technologically-induced unemployment. Those are fundamentally about capitalism and the fact that we are sort of unable to question capitalism. We take it as an assumption that it will always exist and that we will never escape it. And that’s sort of the background radiation that we are all having to live with. But yeah, I’d like us to be able to separate an evaluation of the merits and drawbacks of technology from the framework of capitalism.

Echoing some of his other thoughts during the podcast, Chiang also wrote a piece for the New Yorker the other day about how the singularity will probably never come.

We’re all addicted to the smartphone slot machines in our pockets

In a new video series for Vox, Christophe Haubursin talks to Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, about how our phones and apps are designed to be addictive and some strategies for breaking their hold on us:

1. Turn off all non-human notifications.
2. Change your screen to grayscale.
3. Restrict your home screen to everyday tools.

Ezra Klein recently did an interview with Harris that includes more of his views on the ethics of technology, phones, and social media.

Silicon Valley is reckoning with having had a bad philosophical operating system. People in tech will say, “You told me, when I asked you what you wanted, that you wanted to go to the gym. That’s what you said. But then I handed you a box of doughnuts and you went for the doughnuts, so that must be what you really wanted.” The Facebook folks, that’s literally what they think. We offer people this other stuff, but then they always go for the outrage, or the autoplaying video, and that must be people’s most true preference.

The shifting meaning of the Second Amendment

Ezra Klein asked Akhil Reed Amar, a constitutional scholar, about the Second Amendment. Amar responded with two artworks that illustrate how the meaning of the Second Amendment has shifted over the years.

In a nutshell, almost everything ordinary Americans think they know about the Bill of Rights, including the phrase ‘Bill of Rights,’ comes from the Reconstruction period. Not once did the Founders refer to these early amendments as a bill of rights. We read everything through the prism of the 14th amendment โ€” including the right to bear and keep arms.

The Fourteenth Amendment has a lot of parts, among them the definition of citizenship, Civil War debt, due process, and equal protection. Amar wrote more about the interplay between the 2nd and 14th Amendments for Slate in 2008.

But the 14th Amendment did not specifically enumerate these sacred privileges and immunities. Instead, like the Ninth, the 14th invited interpreters to pay close attention to fundamental rights that Americans had affirmed through their lived experience-in state bills of rights and in other canonical texts such as the Declaration of Independence and landmark civil rights legislation. And when it came to guns, a companion statute to the 14th Amendment, enacted by Congress in 1866, declared that “laws … concerning personal liberty [and] personal security … including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens.” Here, in sharp contrast to founding-era legal texts, the “bear arms” phrase was decisively severed from the military context. Women as well as men could claim a “personal” right to protect their “personal liberty” and “personal security” in their homes. The Reconstruction-era Congress clearly understood that Southern blacks might need guns in their homes to protect themselves from private violence in places where they could not rely on local constables to keep their neighborhoods safe. When guns were outlawed, only outlaw Klansmen would have guns, to paraphrase a modern NRA slogan. In this critical chapter in the history of American liberty, we find additional evidence of an individual right to have a gun in one’s home, regardless of the original meaning of the Second Amendment.

Facts about guns and mass shootings in the US

More facts about guns in America from Ezra Klein, beginning with the sad fact that “shooting sprees are not rare in the United States”.

If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.

Six facts about guns and gun control

In the aftermath of the Aurora, CO shootings, Ezra Klein wrote six facts about guns, violence, and gun control.

1. America is an unusually violent country. But we’re not as violent as we used to be.

5. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.