Category: caitlin smith

Professor Benjamin Zeller was talking about the similarities between tech culture and religious thinking in this week’s Digital Human podcast, but his research on new religou and religious engagement with science is fascinating enough for it’s own series. 

In this video he talks about the Heaven’s Gate Cult, so be aware there will be potentially triggering conversation about suicide, particularly suicide as a religious act. It’s a captivating interview.

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

How Steve Jobs Turned Technology — And Apple — Into Religion:

An ancient Egyptian myth helps illuminate the perennial relationship between media forms and metaphysical belief systems. The Egyptian god Theuth visits King Thamus to show him that writing “once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory.” Thamus replies by admonishing Theuth that his affection for writing prevents him from acknowledging its pitfalls. Writing does not improve memory but makes students more forgetful because they stop internalizing information. Writing also exposes students to ideas without requiring careful contemplation, meaning they will have “the appearance of wisdom” without true knowledge.

The celebration of technological values in the Apple story requires a similar response. The technological values promoted by Apple are part of the Faustian bargain of technology, which both giveth and taketh away.

King Thamus’ anxieties about the new media of writing threatening wisdom have been resurrected in digital form. But Jobs confronted the technology paradox by imagining technology as a tool for* expanding* human consciousness rather than as a means of escape from it. The tension between technology and spirituality was not a zero-sum game for him.

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

Silicon Valley’s CEO worship problem:

“We see this all of the time in religions,” Benjamin Zeller, associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College, told Salon. “[Musk] has an ability to become associated with exciting ideas in which he becomes the spokesman for those ideas. People see these leaders as the personification of their ambitions, goals, hopes and desires.”

Zeller, who wrote about the cult of Apple shortly after Jobs’ death in 2011, says that the tech industry is particularly prone to creating these cults of personality because technology is perceived to offer solutions to many of the world’s problems. One could draw biblical comparisons: that renewable energy will rescue us from the great flood of global warming or that Mars could someday offer humanity an exodus from a dying planet.

“Also, technology can sometimes seem like magic,” Zeller said. “It’s something beyond our mortal understanding.”

And Silicon Valley is not short on these Silicon prophets who profess to be disrupting convention and making the world a better place for everyone.

There’s Rob Rhinehart, founder of the food-substitute beverage Soylent, who’s selling the idea of a more efficient way to deliver nutrients to the body. Uber founder Travis Kalanick wants to take over the global taxi and livery industry with robotic cars. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has built his reputation around radically reinventing the workplace and urban living. There are fallen angels, too, like Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, once the darling of hedge fund investors for her (since disastrously failed) attempt to diagnose a range of diseases from one drop of blood.

Charismatic leaders, whether they’re Silicon Valley billionaires, presidents, or the heads of actual cults, carefully craft their charisma, says Zeller. We know from court documents, for example, that Musk himself has gotten upset when the “difficult to control” media is perceived as downplaying his role at Tesla…  

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

When you read the book the Theranos story, how it managed to go for so long, is just incredible. Anyway, check out in depth interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Careyrou.

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

Check out the stunning artwork of Salina Marie Gomez, who we spoke to in today’s show. I love those falcons in particular.

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

The People Who Really, Really Love Mark Zuckerberg:

“Something funny is going on in these comments,” the NBC News reporter Ben Collins tweeted last Thursday, watching a Facebook live-stream of Mark Zuckerberg giving a speech at Georgetown University.

Zuckerberg’s talk was about the company’s commitment to “voice and free expression.” He elaborated on Facebook’s recent decision not to vet political ads for lies, before outlining the difference between Facebook’s policies and those of one of its main rivals, the Chinese company TikTok, which has been criticized repeatedly for censorship.

All the while, comments streamed down the side of the video, often so many at once it was hard to read them. They were nearly universally positive. Many were gushing. Almost all of them seemed to be about Mark Zuckerberg as a person—a great person!—and virtually none were even remotely related to the content of the speech. Not only had these people tuned in by the tens of thousands on a Thursday to watch a software company’s CEO discuss corporate policy, but they were blessing him with prayer-hand emoji and hearts, thanking him for his genius and his generous spirit, and occasionally, it seemed, trying to flirt with him.

“You’re looking very handsome and dashing …” one read, with a kissy-face emoji. “Looking very sweet and cute … Lots of love for you.” It ended with a fire emoji and a peace sign. “This man left an indelible footprint in the sands of time. Thanks a lot for this wonderful platform called FACEBOOK,” went another.

The replies to Collins’s tweet were full of suspicion. These had to be spam, or bots gravitating toward any video with sufficient engagement, or an astroturfing campaign organized by Facebook’s PR team. There could not possibly be this many people who love Mark Zuckerberg this much. Fast Company quickly published a piece that said the comments “sure look censored”; minutes later, Facebook was on the record with several outlets denying any interference. When a post or video has an extraordinarily high volume of comments, Facebook automatically sifts through them using “ranking signals” to filter out inauthentic or “low-quality” posts, a spokesperson told The Washington Post, but nothing was different for this particular stream.

Once the stream ended, it was easy to go back and find negative comments (“LIZARD,” “Liar,” “Oppressor of free will, free speech, and the king of manipulation of the weak-minded!”), as well as a fair amount of total gibberish, but it was also fairly obvious that the thousands-upon-thousands of super-positive comments were not from bots. They were too specific and strange not to be real.

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

Theranos and the cult of personality in science and tech | OUPblog:

lizabeth Holmes was a chemical engineering student who dropped out of Stanford to found Theranos: a silicon-valley start-up company that, at one point, was valued at US$9 billion. Her plan was to be another Steve Jobs and, for a while, it looked like that would happen. She made the cover of magazines like Forbes, Fortune, and even Glamour, wearing black polo-neck shirts and was touted as being the next big thing. Former President Clinton was a fan. Former Secretary-of-State George Schultz was an investor and on the Theranos board as were Henry Kissinger and James (Mad Dog) Mattis who stepped down as Secretary of Defense last year.

Today, she is facing fraud and other criminal charges.

It’s a long, fascinating story. Essentially, her technology was supposed to revolutionise health care: automatically performing hundreds of blood tests on a couple of drops of blood in just a few minutes. In reality, it was no more carefully thought out than an undergraduate research project. She lied to her staff, lied to her investors, lied to her board, and lied to her company’s potential customers. Her company claimed it was using new technology to perform blood tests when, in fact, it was using the same equipment as every other lab (except Theranos got poorer results because they did not have enough blood to do the tests properly).

All this is detailed in the book Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who broke the story with the help of whistle-blowers.

What fascinates me about this saga is how the scam was able to go on for so long: more than 10 years. In that time there was an incredible rate of staff turnover (including one suicide), endless lawsuits, countless missed deadlines, and a seeming inability to finish any serious studies that demonstrated the technology worked. At one stage, Holmes was even asked to step down by members of her board but managed to talk them out of it.

The cult of personality that grew up around Elizabeth Holmes accounts for both her success and failure. By all accounts she is an incredibly magnetic person and – at least to begin with – most people found her an inspiring leader and visionary. This is what made it possible to raise millions of dollars, get such prominent people on her board, and attract a lot of incredibly talented people to work with and for her.

Steve Jobs, of course, was famous for a similar kind of charisma and bullying (also an issue at Theranos), so perhaps it’s not surprising that the ‘reality-distortion field’ associated with him was present here too. But, of course, Steve Jobs wasn’t alone. He had Steve Wozniak, the technical brains that made Apple possible. Jobs could play the visionary, safe in the knowledge that Woz (and others that followed) would look after the details.

Elizabeth didn’t have that: in fact, the cult of personality built up around her made it impossible for her Woz to emerge…

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience:

Big Tech was supposed to be different. It was supposed to make the world a better place.

Then came Brexit, the 2016 election, and the Great Tech Backlash. “Donald Trump Won Because of Facebook,” a headline in New York declared. A law professor at Stanford published a paper that asked, “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Suddenly, a board with several Silicon Valley executives didn’t seem entirely unlike a board with several Atlantic City casino bosses. Even after it became apparent that Facebook posts were fuelling the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the company dithered for months before taking decisive action. Clearly, all was not in alignment.

Esalen seemed perfectly positioned to help. In 2017, the institute’s C.E.O. was Ben Tauber, a thirty-four-year-old former project manager at Google. “There’s a dawning consciousness emerging in Silicon Valley as people recognize that their conventional success isn’t necessarily making the world a better place,” he told the Times. “The C.E.O.s, inside they’re hurting. They can’t sleep at night.” If the tech tycoons were already going to Esalen for ethical and spiritual guidance, then perhaps Esalen could guide them toward a less rapacious business model. “How do we scale our impact as an organization?” Tauber continued. “We do it through impacting the influencers.”

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 5: Messiah

How ‘the Internet broke America’ with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz – TechCrunch:

When Elizabeth Warren took on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook earlier this week, it was a low moment for what New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz calls “techno-utopianism.”

That the progressive, populist Massachusetts Senator and leading Democratic Presidential candidate wants to #BreakUpBigTech is not surprising. But Warren’s choice to spotlight regulating and trust-busting Facebook was nonetheless noteworthy, because of what it represents on a philosophical level. Warren, along with like-minded political leaders, social activists, and tech critics, has begun to offer the first massively popular alternative to the massively popular wave of aggressive optimism and “genius” ambition that characterized tech culture for the past decade or two.

“No,” Warren and others seem to say, “your vision is not necessarily making the world a better place.” This is a major buzzkill for tech leaders who have made (positive) world-changing their number one calling card — more than profits, popularity, skyscrapers like San Francisco’s striking Salesforce Tower, or any other measure.

Enter Marantz, a longtime New Yorker staff writer and Brooklyn, N.Y. resident who has recently trained his attention on tech culture, following around iconic figures on both sides of what he sees as the divide of our time — not between tech greats whose successes make us all better and those who would stop them, but between the alternative figures on the “new right” and the self-understood liberals of Silicon Valley who, according to Marantz, have both contributed to “hijacking the American conversation.”

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 2: Uncomfortable

Digital Human, Series 18, Episode 2: Uncomfortable