Tesla’s newly launched Model SD electric car could be “summoned” by owners to pick them up autonomously using the car company’s new Autopilot function, potentially eliminating the need for taxi services.
By integrating a number of safety technologies, Tesla‘s Autopilot system could eventually enable its electric cars to drive and collect passengers without anyone at the wheel, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Drivers could command their cars to pick them up using their phones, or by pre-programming a calendar.
“You’ll be able to summon the car and it will come to wherever you are,” explained Musk. “It can even go a step beyond that… if you have your calendar turned on, it’ll meet you there”.
Under existing regulations, drivers will be able to use the Autopilot mode on private land for a number of functions including self-parking.
“When you get home, you’ll actually be able to just step out of the car and have it park itself in your garage,” said Musk.
The car will be able to steer itself to stay within a lane and change lanes as well as manage its own speed by “reading” road signs. According to Tesla, it will take “several months” for all Autopilot features to be completed and uploaded to the cars.
“Tesla’s Autopilot is a way to relieve drivers of the most boring and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel – but the driver is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car,” explained a statement released by Tesla.
The vehicle’s safety features, which have enabled its Autopilot functionality, include a forward-looking radar system that can detect potential collision risks even in poor weather conditions.
A camera located at the front has been programmed to distinguish road features such as traffic lights and safety barriers, as well as pedestrians and cyclists.
Twelve sensors have also been positioned around the vehicle to form a “safety cocoon”, which detects hazards in blind spots.
The system can activate a digitally controlled electric braking system and give tactile feedback through the steering wheel, alerting the driver to perceived risks.
In addition to enhanced safety features and Autopilot, the Model SD has managed to match the acceleration performance of the iconic McLaren F1 sports car, reaching 60 miles per hour from a standstill in just 3.2 seconds.
The power is generated from two electric motors, which are located on the front and rear axels respectively. Each motor is digitally and independently controlling torque to the front and rear wheels, making minor adjustments to effectively translate its power to the road without loss of traction and wheel-spinning.
“We’re going to have an option in the settings whereby you’ll actually be able to choose from three settings,” explained Musk. “Normal, sport and insane.”
Carrying two iPhones that beep out assignments throughout the day, Lyons works for four different app-enabled bike-courier services: WunWun, UberRush, Zipments and Petal by Pedal. He does about 25 to 30 deliveries per day, which adds up to about 50 miles, including the commute.
When he first got started last year, Lyons tried working for traditional bike-courier services where he would make $3 per delivery. “It was outrageous,” he says. “They treat you like an animal.”
Some of the newer services Lyons works for are subsidized. When it first started, Uber was giving away free courier service for its UberRush local delivery trial. Lyons says that demand has dropped a bit since the initial promos wore out.
WunWun — which has the insane premise of deliveries from any store or restaurant in Manhattan within an hour, for free — keeps Lyons the busiest.
Lyons claims WunWun’s system of working for tips, which are suggested within the app at 30 percent, somehow actually works. “You never really get snubbed out on a tip,” he says.
By literally working his butt off, Lyons thinks he will make between $45,000 and $60,000 this year.
“If people wanted it so badly, why did it not exist?” he says. “It was too darned expensive, and it was not sustainable. Even in 2010, a business like ours would be incredibly difficult to start because not enough sections of the population had smartphones.”
Still, Xu will admit that Palo Alto might not be the most representative test market in the world. As we drive to pick up the delivery, we pass three Teslas parked in a row in the shopping-center parking lot. “Only in Palo Alto,” he says.
But it’s bigger than Palo Alto. It’s bigger than San Francisco or New York. Take all these stories together and the larger point is: The business of bringing people what they want, when they want it, is booming.
A decade ago, we got iTunes, and the ability to buy a song bought and delivered with the push of a button. Then Facebook helped us stay in touch with our spread-out friends and family from the comfort of our couch. Then Netflix DVDs started coming over the air instead of to our mailboxes. Now it’s not just Web pages that we can load up instantly, it’s the physical world.
Not to neglect the important historical contributions of pizza joints and Chinese restaurants, but the groundwork for what you might call the instant gratification economy was laid by Amazon, which spent years building up its inventory, fulfillment infrastructure and, most importantly, customer expectations for getting whatever they want delivered to their doors two days later.
Then Uber came along and established the precedent of a large-scale marketplace powered by independent workers and smartphones. After that started to work, every pitch deck in Silicon Valley seemed to morph overnight into an “Uber for X” startup.
On the one hand, this is a positive development. As startups merge online expectations with offline reality, the Internet is becoming more than a glowing screen drawing us away from the real world. On the other hand, instant gratification tempts us to be profoundly lazy and perhaps unreasonably impatient.
As for whether there’s demand, forces are converging to fulfill the notion of what some pundits label “IWWIWWIWI.” That is, “I want what I want when I want it.” It’s not the easiest acronym to get your tongue around — but it’s pretty to look at, and it’s right on the money.
Yarrow thinks we’ve become conditioned for impatience by technology like Internet search and smartphones. “Today, we have almost no tolerance for boredom,” she told me. “Our brains are malleable, and I think they have shifted to accommodate much more stimulation. We’re fascinated by newness, and we desire to get the new thing right away. We want what we want when we want it.”
Someone had told me the day before that one way to think about all this instant gratification stuff is that it basically brings rich-people benefits to the average person.
In his view, the magic of Uber and services modeled on Uber is that they help you value your time the way a rich person would, without spending your money the way a rich person would.
For decades, books and TV shows planted seeds of desire for instant gratification in impressionable minds. But across many of these stories about suburban genies and witches, magic wands and technology of the future, there’s a shadow side to getting what you want when you want it. The princesses always seem to run out of wishes before they get what they really need. Their greed is their doom.
“Don’t care how, I want it nooow,” sings greedy little Veruca Salt, right up until she falls into Willy Wonka’s garbage chute, never to be seen again.
In Pixar’s wistful animated sci-fi story “Wall-E,” the people of the future zoom around in hovering chairs in a climate-controlled dome, with robots refilling their sodas. Their bodies are so flabby they can’t even stand. It’s the ultimate incarnation of the couch potato.
The most important reason that this is happening now is that workers have smartphones. After a briefer-than-brief application process, companies like Uber hand out phones to workers — or just give them an app to download onto their personal devices — and suddenly, for better or worse, they’ve got a branded on-demand service.
Over and over again, startups in the instant gratification space tell me that the most crucial part of their arsenal is an app to help remote workers receive assignments, schedule jobs and map where they are going.
In large part because they are powered by a mobile workforce, instant gratification startups avoid much of the hassle and expense of building physical infrastructure.
“Remote controls for real life” is how venture capitalist Matt Cohler described mobile apps like Uber and the food-delivery service GrubHub two years ago — because their simple interfaces summon things to happen in the physical world.
Today, that real-life remote control feels even more like a magic wand. At a lunch meeting, investor Shervin Pishevar pulls out his phone, opens the Uber app and sets his location to Japan. “If I push this button right now,” he marvels, “I’m going to move metal in Tokyo.”
He describes this as a boomerang back to a village economy. After years of trends toward suburbs, big-box stores and car ownership, smartphones could be helping us get back to where we came from. The combined forces of urbanization, online commerce and trust mean that people can efficiently share goods and services on a local level, more than ever before.
Caviar, which was founded on the premise that “no good restaurants in San Francisco deliver,” became profitable within three months of launching. It has a much snazzier list of restaurants than GrubHub, including Momofuku in New York and Delfina in San Francisco.
Caviar CEO Jason Wang says his startup plans to soon drop delivery fees to $4.99 from $9.99. It pays drivers $15 per delivery and takes a cut of up to 25 percent of each order, depending on the restaurant. Even after the price cut, “We’ll still make money, because our margins are very good,” Wang says.
Uber is a company that owns nothing. It connects available drivers and their cars to people who want to be their passengers. By juicing supply with surge pricing and demand with discounts, Uber is able to create — out of thin air — a reliable service that exists in 140 cities around the world.
Without fail, instant gratification startups say they will win because they are smart at logistics.
Describing his business, Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta says, “It really is a data-science problem masked into a consumer product.”
DoorDash’s Xu describes his purpose as a machine-learning problem: Discovering “the variance of the variance” so his algorithm can reliably estimate prep and delivery time based on factors like how long a type of food stays warm, what a restaurant’s error rate is (the norm is 25 percent) and how fast a particular driver has been in the past.
Uber aims to match up a driver and passenger as quickly as possible. Food delivery is more complicated, according to Xu.
“It’s almost never the driver that’s closest to the restaurant when the order is placed,” Xu says.
a mobile medical-marijuana delivery startup called Eaze launched in San Francisco. Not only was Eaze open for business, it was open for business 24 hours a day.
it can be too easy to forget that people make “instant” happen. And, generally, these people are not a traditionally stable workforce. They are instead a flexible and scalable network of workers — “fractional employees” — that tap in and tap out as needed, and as suits them.
The smartphone is at the center of the sharing economy. Every company mentioned in this series on the instant gratification economy runs on worker smartphones. GPS, texting and mobile-app notifications are the ways to make flexible work actually work.
It’s very common for people to pick up gigs from multiple services — in the morning, grab some grocery orders on Instacart; then when you get tired of lifting large bags, run a shift during Sprig’s prime lunch hours; then when you get lonely from ferrying around inanimate objects, sign into Lyft to interact with an actual person.
NYU business school professor Arun Sundararajan’s summer research project is counting the number of jobs created by the sharing economy. He doesn’t have an estimate yet, but he points out that the U.S. workforce is already 20 percent to 25 percent freelance.
Sundararajan says he sees a lot of good in the sharing economy. “It will lead people to entrepreneurship without the extreme risks.” He thinks of platforms like Uber as gateways. “It’s even easier than finding a full-time job, which is easier than freelance.”
Redefining delivery for a new era of customers who want everything right away requires rethinking operations. By focusing attention on creating a powerful logistical system, and tying into the “sharing economy,” many of the new crop of startups in the on-demand space are trying to offer faster service at a much lower operational cost.
And so the young players in the instant gratification economy are ferrying cargo across town via crowdsourced workers.
Usually, these are independent contractors, who decide when they want to work, drive their own vehicles, receive directions about where they need to be via smartphone — and cover the cost of their own parking tickets. The new buzzword for this is “fractional employment.”
Deliv is trying to do deliveries of almost anything and everything later that day, for as little as $5.
Crowdsourced drivers pick up batches of orders, and then take them out to people’s homes.
“I don’t own trucks, I don’t pay for drivers I don’t use, I don’t pay for hubs,” Carmeli says. “The malls are my hubs.”
Amazon said last year that more than 20 million members signed up for its two-day delivery service, Prime, which now costs $99 per year. While that’s a small number in the grand scheme of things, the high-spending habits of the group — estimated to be more than twice as much as regular Amazon customers — are having a magnetic effect on the rest of the industry.
A skunkworks team at Google developed what became Google Shopping Express last year, by putting the Amazon Prime model under a microscope. According to a source familiar with the project, the biggest lesson was that it’s worth investing ahead of where the market might be today.
Which is to say, many people still don’t know they want same-day delivery, because today they think same-day delivery means fuss, friction and expense. But if you make something fast and easy, consumers will come to appreciate it — and maybe even pay for it. So the upfront investment is worth it.
“It’s better to build volume first, than to launch with a ‘gotcha,’” the source says.
That’s the hypothesis, anyway.
And Google isn’t testing the last part of that hypothesis — charging people money — yet.
It is currently subsidizing six-month trials of unlimited free delivery. In fact, the company is throwing something like $500 million at Google Shopping Express.
Competing with that kind of budget is a scary prospect for startups.
The scrum now includes two Ubers for home cleaning, a few Ubers for handypeople, at least three Ubers for massages, five Ubers for valet parking, a couple of Ubers for laundries, an emerging group of Ubers for hair and makeup, and so very many Ubers for food.
Could you actually make a business out of offering same-day delivery — for free? Permanently, not as a promotion.
WunWun, promises to buy anything from any store or any food from any restaurant in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn and the Hamptons, and deliver it to any place in that same zone. It’s free.
Hnetinka was inspired by an April 2013 investment memo from Jefferies called “Same-Day: The Next Killer App,” which made two big points: 1) Free shipping has become a “must-have” in e-commerce. Half of consumers abandon online shopping carts without it; and 2) there’s the opportunity to improve on that service by making it same-day.
For today, WunWun is making money by taking a slice of tips, and by getting discounts from retailers it spends a lot of money with that it doesn’t pass along to customers.
Tomorrow, WunWun will try to create the offline equivalent of search advertising, Hnetinka says.
Stores will be able to bid to be the supplier for WunWun orders, whether tennis balls, ChapStick or Yankees hats.
“That’s when WunWun really starts to make a lot of money,” Hnetinka says. “We have created the largest demand funnel. We’ve brought together convenience of ordering online with immediacy of offline. So we’re not talking about profitability margins, we’re talking about marketing budgets.”
at that moment in time, it seemed like all you had to do was pick a noun, add “.com,” and you were in business.
As a sign of the times, one company called Computer.com spent half its $5.8 million in venture capital airing Super Bowl ads on the day it launched a site purporting to teach people about using computers.
And there were parties, legendary parties, where the likes of Elvis Costello and Beck and the B-52s played, sponsor banners bedecked the walls, and many of the revelers collected their mountains of swag while having no idea which company was even throwing that night’s bash.
Even if Kozmo and its cohort had a chance at a business model that worked, they were all spending more money than they could possibly earn on advertising and parties and weird promotional tie-ups to return movies at Starbucks.
As we all know, that boom went bust in 2000. The period’s most famous flameouts — Pets.com, Urbanfetch, Kozmo, Webvan, even Computer.com, somehow — were all gone by 2001. What’s left — a cautionary tale and some mascot dolls for sale on eBay.
Same-day service is the single-biggest wave in e-commerce, Wainwright says. The single best experience she had shopping online was when she forgot to pack a certain special black cashmere sweater before flying to New York for a business trip.
Wainwright says she realized the sweater was missing at 11 pm, when she unpacked her bag at the hotel. But it was still posted on the online retailer Net-A-Porter, where she originally bought it, so she placed another order and it was delivered to her office at 10:30 the next morning by a deliveryman in a bellboy suit bearing an iPad for her signature.
“It was absolutely the most amazing thing,” Wainwright says. “It was like $25, it was nothing. Now, the sweater wasn’t cheap — but it was the exact same sweater I had left on my bed.”
Jennings has set up a virtual Google Voice number attached to his doorbell so he can let people into his entryway from his phone when he’s not home.
“Say you run out of toothpaste in the morning, you can order it, and then it’s ready for when you brush your teeth at night,” he says.
“The majority of the time, there’s no interaction,” Jennings says, meaning he doesn’t have to say hello to a delivery person or sign for a package.
And in the future, people may be taken out of the delivery equation altogether.
That future is coming sooner than you think. Two years ago, the geek world went wild for an idea called Tacocopter. “Flying robots deliver tacos to your location,” said its website. “Easy ordering on your smartphone.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see that the regulations that now limit such uses of drone technology will almost certainly remain in effect much longer than the technological limitations remain a hurdle,” wrote Mike Masnick.
Eight months ago, Amazon upped the Tacocopter stakes with a promo video for Amazon Prime Air, showing a hovering robotic aircraft depositing a package on a suburban patio. It was a marketing stunt designed to jumpstart the holiday shopping season.
Or was it?
In July, Amazon wrote to the FAA asking for permission to test flying commercial drones outside at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The company said it hopes to deliver packages weighing five pounds within 30 minutes of orders being placed.
“A lot of things fundamentally change,” he says. “Does the architecture of homes change because there’s more space when you don’t need garages and kitchens? Do you really need a grocery store? You shouldn’t use all that real estate in a city for giant parking lots, you should push a button and be able to get what you want delivered, like Instacart.”
He continues. “And then you argue, is there a world where you have Munchery [another San Francisco food creation and distribution service] delivered to a restaurant that’s not really a restaurant, but it’s a … it’s a front-end. It’s a beautiful spot with a beautiful view, and it doesn’t need a kitchen, just have a few tables for a sit-down dinner.”
This train of thought has taken him to a new place. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that,” Pishevar says. “It’s just a … a distributed table. And then someone would come serve you.”
A popular justification for all this food-startup fundraising is frequency: Most people eat three times a day, at least.
No, really, that’s what every venture capitalist will remind you. This market is an opportunity because it ties into existing daily habits. People eat more often than they need to Uber across town. And so, the biggest opportunity in “instant” is food.
Sure, making food is not novel. The innovation here is making food that ties into smart logistics systems that match supply and demand, and coordinating crowdsourced workers so that meals arrive so fast it seems like magic.
“We’re mass-producing the same meal for all these people. We get economies of scale that no restaurant will ever have because of the physical location. Whereas, we can serve the whole Bay Area with the same supply.”
This is not just a restaurant, says Tsui. Combining the core mobile functions of location and real-time makes for a fundamental shift beyond what other mobile apps — besides Uber — are doing.
Especially for those who live in the cities well served by these services, it’s probably time to start thinking about what deserves to be slowed down, and what things we’d prefer to wait for and savor. Either that, or the inexorable march toward convenience will bring us ever closer to fulfilling the prophecy of those shapeless “Wall-E” couch potatoes, who have trouble standing up after sitting on the couch for so long.
But beyond instant — what comes next?
It’s probably making those brilliant on-demand logistics systems even more brilliant, anticipating our wants and needs before we even have them, and starting to send things our way before we push the button.
And maybe then Veruca Salt would just calm down.
Vannevar Bush’s ‘memex’ — short for ‘memory index’ — a primitive vision for a personal hard drive for information storage and management.
“At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.”
One of his most fascinating and important points has to do with our outsourcing of memory — or, more specifically, our increasingly deft, search-engine-powered skills of replacing the retention of knowledge in our own brains with the on-demand access to knowledge in the collective brain of the internet. Think, for instance, of those moments when you’re trying to recall the name of a movie but only remember certain fragmentary features — the name of the lead actor, the gist of the plot, a song from the soundtrack. Thompson calls this “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” and points out that, today, you’ll likely be able to reverse-engineer the name of the movie you don’t remember by plugging into Google what you do remember about it.
“Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.”
“Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.”
Thompson reminds us of the anecdote, by now itself familiar “to the point of banality,” about Socrates and his admonition that the “technology” of writing would devastate the Greek tradition of debate and dialectic, and would render people incapable of committing anything to memory because “knowledge stored was not really knowledge at all.” He cites Socrates’s parable of the Egyptian god Theuth and how he invented writing, offering it as a gift to the king of Egypt,
“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
That resistance endured as technology changed shape, across the Middle Ages and past Gutenberg’s revolution, but it wasn’t without counter-resistance: Those who recorded their knowledge in writing and, eventually, collected it in the form of books argued that it expanded the scope of their curiosity and the ideas they were able to ponder, whereas the mere act of rote memorization made no guarantees of deeper understanding.
Ultimately, however, Thompson points out that Socrates was both right and wrong: It’s true that, with some deliberately cultivated exceptions and neurological outliers, few thinkers today rely on pure memorization and can recite extensive passages of text from memory. But what Socrates failed to see was the extraordinary dot-connecting enabled by access to knowledge beyond what our own heads can hold — because, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, “we can only connect the dots that we collect,” and the outsourcing of memory has exponentially enlarged our dot-collections.
With this in mind, Thompson offers a blueprint to this newly developed system of knowledge management in which access is critical:
“If you are going to read widely but often read books only once; if you going to tackle the ever-expanding universe of ideas by skimming and glancing as well as reading deeply; then you are going to rely on the semantic-memory version of gisting. By which I mean, you’ll absorb the gist of what you read but rarely retain the specifics. Later, if you want to mull over a detail, you have to be able to refind a book, a passage, a quote, an article, a concept.”
This, he argues, is also how and why libraries were born — the death of the purely oral world and the proliferation of print after Gutenberg placed new demands on organizing and storing human knowledge. And yet storage and organization soon proved to be radically different things:
“The Gutenberg book explosion certainly increased the number of books that libraries acquired, but librarians had no agreed-upon ways to organize them. It was left to the idiosyncrasies of each. A core job of the librarian was thus simply to find the book each patron requested, since nobody else knew where the heck the books were. This created a bottleneck in access to books, one that grew insufferable in the nineteenth century as citizens began swarming into public venues like the British Library. “Complaints about the delays in the delivery of books to readers increased,” as Matthew Battles writes in Library: An Unquiet History, “as did comments about the brusqueness of the staff.” Some patrons were so annoyed by the glacial pace of access that they simply stole books; one was even sentenced to twelve months in prison for the crime. You can understand their frustration. The slow speed was not just a physical nuisance, but a cognitive one.”
The solution came in the late 19th century by way of Melville Dewey, whose decimal system imposed order by creating a taxonomy of book placement, eventually rendering librarians unnecessary — at least in their role as literal book-retrievers. They became, instead, curiosity sherpas who helped patrons decide what to read and carry out comprehensive research. In many ways, they came to resemble the editors and curators who help us navigate the internet today, framing for us what is worth attending to and why.
“The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now. With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different. Quickly pulling up [the answer to a specific esoteric question] on Google seems different from looking up a bit of trivia in an encyclopedia. It’s less like consulting a book than like asking someone a question, consulting a supersmart friend who lurks within our phones.”
And therein lies the magic of the internet — that unprecedented access to humanity’s collective brain. Thompson cites the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, who first began exploring this notion of collective rather than individual knowledge in the 1980s by observing how partners in long-term relationships often divide and conquer memory tasks in sharing the household’s administrative duties:
“Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you begin to realize that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. So you begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to these devices, because what we lose in accuracy we make up in speed.
Wegner called this phenomenon “transactive” memory: two heads are better than one. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter — expanding our ability to understand the world around us.”
This very outsourcing of memory requires that we learn what the machine knows — a kind of meta-knowledge that enables us to retrieve the information when we need it. And, reflecting on Sparrow’s findings, Thomspon points out that this is neither new nor negative:
“We’ve been using transactive memory for millennia with other humans. In everyday life, we are only rarely isolated, and for good reason. For many thinking tasks, we’re dumber and less cognitively nimble if we’re not around other people. Not only has transactive memory not hurt us, it’s allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone.”
Outsourcing our memory to machines rather than to other humans, in fact, offers certain advantages by pulling us into a seemingly infinite rabbit hole of indiscriminate discovery:
“In some ways, machines make for better transactive memory buddies than humans. They know more, but they’re not awkward about pushing it in our faces. When you search the Web, you get your answer — but you also get much more. Consider this: If I’m trying to remember what part of Pakistan has experienced many U.S. drone strikes and I ask a colleague who follows foreign affairs, he’ll tell me “Waziristan.” But when I queried this once on the Internet, I got the Wikipedia page on “Drone attacks in Pakistan.” A chart caught my eye showing the astonishing increase of drone attacks (from 1 a year to 122 a year); then I glanced down to read a précis of studies on how Waziristan residents feel about being bombed. (One report suggested they weren’t as opposed as I’d expected, because many hated the Taliban, too.) Obviously, I was procrastinating. But I was also learning more, reinforcing my schematic understanding of Pakistan.”
“The real challenge of using machines for transactive memory lies in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work — where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. You can certainly learn how they work and develop a mental model of Google’s biases. … But search companies are for-profit firms. They guard their algorithms like crown jewels. This makes them different from previous forms of outboard memory. A public library keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms; a search engine keeps many. On top of this inscrutability, it’s hard to know what to trust in a world of self-publishing. To rely on networked digital knowledge, you need to look with skeptical eyes. It’s a skill that should be taught with the same urgency we devote to teaching math and writing.
Thompson’s most important point, however, has to do with how outsourcing our knowledge to digital tools actually hampers the very process of creative thought, which relies on our ability to connect existing ideas from our mental pool of resources into new combinations, or what the French polymath Henri Poincaré has famously termed “sudden illuminations.” Without a mental catalog of materials which to mull and let incubate in our fringe consciousness, our capacity for such illuminations is greatly deflated. Thompson writes:
“These eureka moments are familiar to all of us; they’re why we take a shower or go for a walk when we’re stuck on a problem. But this technique works only if we’ve actually got a lot of knowledge about the problem stored in our brains through long study and focus. … You can’t come to a moment of creative insight if you haven’t got any mental fuel. You can’t be googling the info; it’s got to be inside you.”
“Evidence suggests that when it comes to knowledge we’re interested in — anything that truly excites us and has meaning — we don’t turn off our memory. Certainly, we outsource when the details are dull, as we now do with phone numbers. These are inherently meaningless strings of information, which offer little purchase on the mind. … It makes sense that our transactive brains would hand this stuff off to machines. But when information engages us — when we really care about a subject — the evidence suggests we don’t turn off our memory at all.”
“In an ideal world, we’d all fit the Renaissance model — we’d be curious about everything, filled with diverse knowledge and thus absorbing all current events and culture like sponges. But this battle is age-old, because it’s ultimately not just technological. It’s cultural and moral and spiritual; “getting young people to care about the hard stuff” is a struggle that goes back centuries and requires constant societal arguments and work. It’s not that our media and technological environment don’t matter, of course. But the vintage of this problem indicates that the solution isn’t merely in the media environment either.”
“A tool’s most transformative uses generally take us by surprise.”
“How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?
Think of harder questions.”
Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures—both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe—a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food—with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.
The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad’s centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld’s centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic—or so I will argue.
Four imperatives make up the dynamic of McWorld: a market imperative, a resource imperative, an information-technology imperative, and an ecological imperative. By shrinking the world and diminishing the salience of national borders, these imperatives have in combination achieved a considerable victory over factiousness and particularism, and not least of all over their most virulent traditional form—nationalism. It is the realists who are now Europeans, the utopians who dream nostalgically of a resurgent England or Germany, perhaps even a resurgent Wales or Saxony. Yesterday’s wishful cry for one world has yielded to the reality of McWorld.
THE MARKET IMPERATIVE. Marxist and Leninist theories of imperialism assumed that the quest for ever-expanding markets would in time compel nation-based capitalist economies to push against national boundaries in search of an international economic imperium. Whatever else has happened to the scientistic predictions of Marxism, in this domain they have proved farsighted. All national economies are now vulnerable to the inroads of larger, transnational markets within which trade is free, currencies are convertible, access to banking is open, and contracts are enforceable under law. In Europe, Asia, Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas such markets are eroding national sovereignty and giving rise to entities—international banks, trade associations, transnational lobbies like OPEC and Greenpeace, world news services like CNN and the BBC, and multinational corporations that increasingly lack a meaningful national identity—that neither reflect nor respect nationhood as an organizing or regulative principle.
The market imperative has also reinforced the quest for international peace and stability, requisites of an efficient international economy. Markets are enemies of parochialism, isolation, fractiousness, war. Market psychology attenuates the psychology of ideological and religious cleavages and assumes a concord among producers and consumers—categories that ill fit narrowly conceived national or religious cultures. Shopping has little tolerance for blue laws, whether dictated by pub-closing British paternalism, Sabbath-observing Jewish Orthodox fundamentalism, or no-Sunday-liquor-sales Massachusetts puritanism. In the context of common markets, international law ceases to be a vision of justice and becomes a workaday framework for getting things done—enforcing contracts, ensuring that governments abide by deals, regulating trade and currency relations, and so forth.
Common markets demand a common language, as well as a common currency, and they produce common behaviors of the kind bred by cosmopolitan city life everywhere. Commercial pilots, computer programmers, international bankers, media specialists, oil riggers, entertainment celebrities, ecology experts, demographers, accountants, professors, athletes—these compose a new breed of men and women for whom religion, culture, and nationality can seem only marginal elements in a working identity. Although sociologists of everyday life will no doubt continue to distinguish a Japanese from an American mode, shopping has a common signature throughout the world. Cynics might even say that some of the recent revolutions in Eastern Europe have had as their true goal not liberty and the right to vote but well-paying jobs and the right to shop (although the vote is proving easier to acquire than consumer goods). The market imperative is, then, plenty powerful; but, notwithstanding some of the claims made for “democratic capitalism,” it is not identical with the democratic imperative.
THE RESOURCE IMPERATIVE. Democrats once dreamed of societies whose political autonomy rested firmly on economic independence. The Athenians idealized what they called autarky, and tried for a while to create a way of life simple and austere enough to make the polis genuinely self-sufficient. To be free meant to be independent of any other community or polis. Not even the Athenians were able to achieve autarky, however: human nature, it turns out, is dependency. By the time of Pericles, Athenian politics was inextricably bound up with a flowering empire held together by naval power and commerce—an empire that, even as it appeared to enhance Athenian might, ate away at Athenian independence and autarky. Master and slave, it turned out, were bound together by mutual insufficiency.
The dream of autarky briefly engrossed nineteenth-century America as well, for the underpopulated, endlessly bountiful land, the cornucopia of natural resources, and the natural barriers of a continent walled in by two great seas led many to believe that America could be a world unto itself. Given this past, it has been harder for Americans than for most to accept the inevitability of interdependence. But the rapid depletion of resources even in a country like ours, where they once seemed inexhaustible, and the maldistribution of arable soil and mineral resources on the planet, leave even the wealthiest societies ever more resource-dependent and many other nations in permanently desperate straits.
Every nation, it turns out, needs something another nation has; some nations have almost nothing they need.
THE INFORMATION-TECHNOLOGY IMPERATIVE. Enlightenment science and the technologies derived from it are inherently universalizing. They entail a quest for descriptive principles of general application, a search for universal solutions to particular problems, and an unswerving embrace of objectivity and impartiality.
Scientific progress embodies and depends on open communication, a common discourse rooted in rationality, collaboration, and an easy and regular flow and exchange of information. Such ideals can be hypocritical covers for power-mongering by elites, and they may be shown to be wanting in many other ways, but they are entailed by the very idea of science and they make science and globalization practical allies.
Business, banking, and commerce all depend on information flow and are facilitated by new communication technologies. The hardware of these technologies tends to be systemic and integrated—computer, television, cable, satellite, laser, fiber-optic, and microchip technologies combining to create a vast interactive communications and information network that can potentially give every person on earth access to every other person, and make every datum, every byte, available to every set of eyes. If the automobile was, as George Ball once said (when he gave his blessing to a Fiat factory in the Soviet Union during the Cold War), “an ideology on four wheels,” then electronic telecommunication and information systems are an ideology at 186,000 miles per second—which makes for a very small planet in a very big hurry. Individual cultures speak particular languages; commerce and science increasingly speak English; the whole world speaks logarithms and binary mathematics.
Moreover, the pursuit of science and technology asks for, even compels, open societies. Satellite footprints do not respect national borders; telephone wires penetrate the most closed societies. With photocopying and then fax machines having infiltrated Soviet universities and samizdat literary circles in the eighties, and computer modems having multiplied like rabbits in communism’s bureaucratic warrens thereafter, glasnost could not be far behind. In their social requisites, secrecy and science are enemies.
The new technology’s software is perhaps even more globalizing than its hardware. The information arm of international commerce’s sprawling body reaches out and touches distinct nations and parochial cultures, and gives them a common face chiseled in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue, and in Silicon Valley. Throughout the 1980s one of the most-watched television programs in South Africa was The Cosby Show. The demise of apartheid was already in production. Exhibitors at the 1991 Cannes film festival expressed growing anxiety over the “homogenization” and “Americanization” of the global film industry when, for the third year running, American films dominated the awards ceremonies. America has dominated the world’s popular culture for much longer, and much more decisively.
This kind of software supremacy may in the long term be far more important than hardware superiority, because culture has become more potent than armaments. What is the power of the Pentagon compared with Disneyland? Can the Sixth Fleet keep up with CNN? McDonald’s in Moscow and Coke in China will do more to create a global culture than military colonization ever could. It is less the goods than the brand names that do the work, for they convey life-style images that alter perception and challenge behavior. They make up the seductive software of McWorld’s common (at times much too common) soul.
Yet in all this high-tech commercial world there is nothing that looks particularly democratic. It lends itself to surveillance as well as liberty, to new forms of manipulation and covert control as well as new kinds of participation, to skewed, unjust market outcomes as well as greater productivity. The consumer society and the open society are not quite synonymous. Capitalism and democracy have a relationship, but it is something less than a marriage. An efficient free market after all requires that consumers be free to vote their dollars on competing goods, not that citizens be free to vote their values and beliefs on competing political candidates and programs. The free market flourished in junta-run Chile, in military-governed Taiwan and Korea, and, earlier, in a variety of autocratic European empires as well as their colonial possessions.
THE ECOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE. The impact of globalization on ecology is a cliche even to world leaders who ignore it. We know well enough that the German forests can be destroyed by Swiss and Italians driving gas-guzzlers fueled by leaded gas. We also know that the planet can be asphyxiated by greenhouse gases because Brazilian farmers want to be part of the twentieth century and are burning down tropical rain forests to clear a little land to plough, and because Indonesians make a living out of converting their lush jungle into toothpicks for fastidious Japanese diners, upsetting the delicate oxygen balance and in effect puncturing our global lungs. Yet this ecological consciousness has meant not only greater awareness but also greater inequality, as modernized nations try to slam the door behind them, saying to developing nations, “The world cannot afford your modernization; ours has wrung it dry!”
Each of the four imperatives just cited is transnational, transideological, and transcultural. Each applies impartially to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists; to democrats and totalitarians; to capitalists and socialists. The Enlightenment dream of a universal rational society has to a remarkable degree been realized—but in a form that is commercialized, homogenized, depoliticized, bureaucratized, and, of course, radically incomplete, for the movement toward McWorld is in competition with forces of global breakdown, national dissolution, and centrifugal corruption. These forces, working in the opposite direction, are the essence of what I call Jihad.
Jihad, or the Lebanonization of the World
OPEC, the World Bank, the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the multinational corporation…there are scores of institutions that reflect globalization. But they often appear as ineffective reactors to the world’s real actors: national states and, to an ever greater degree, subnational factions in permanent rebellion against uniformity and integration—even the kind represented by universal law and justice. The headlines feature these players regularly: they are cultures, not countries; parts, not wholes; sects, not religions; rebellious factions and dissenting minorities at war not just with globalism but with the traditional nation-state. Kurds, Basques, Puerto Ricans, Ossetians, East Timoreans, Quebecois, the Catholics of Northern Ireland, Abkhasians, Kurile Islander Japanese, the Zulus of Inkatha, Catalonians, Tamils, and, of course, Palestinians—people without countries, inhabiting nations not their own, seeking smaller worlds within borders that will seal them off from modernity.
A powerful irony is at work here. Nationalism was once a force of integration and unification, a movement aimed at bringing together disparate clans, tribes, and cultural fragments under new, assimilationist flags. But as Ortega y Gasset noted more than sixty years ago, having won its victories, nationalism changed its strategy. In the 1920s, and again today, it is more often a reactionary and divisive force, pulverizing the very nations it once helped cement together.
The aim of many of these small-scale wars is to redraw boundaries, to implode states and resecure parochial identities: to escape McWorld’s dully insistent imperatives. The mood is that of Jihad: war not as an instrument of policy but as an emblem of identity, an expression of community, an end in itself. Even where there is no shooting war, there is fractiousness, secession, and the quest for ever smaller communities.
Among the tribes, religion is also a battlefield. (“Jihad” is a rich word whose generic meaning is “struggle”—usually the struggle of the soul to avert evil. Strictly applied to religious war, it is used only in reference to battles where the faith is under assault, or battles against a government that denies the practice of Islam. My use here is rhetorical, but does follow both journalistic practice and history.) Remember the Thirty Years War? Whatever forms of Enlightenment universalism might once have come to grace such historically related forms of monotheism as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in many of their modern incarnations they are parochial rather than cosmopolitan, angry rather than loving, proselytizing rather than ecumenical, zealous rather than rationalist, sectarian rather than deistic, ethnocentric rather than universalizing. As a result, like the new forms of hypernationalism, the new expressions of religious fundamentalism are fractious and pulverizing, never integrating. This is religion as the Crusaders knew it: a battle to the death for souls that if not saved will be forever lost.
The atmospherics of Jihad have resulted in a breakdown of civility in the name of identity, of comity in the name of community. International relations have sometimes taken on the aspect of gang war—cultural turf battles featuring tribal factions that were supposed to be sublimated as integral parts of large national, economic, postcolonial, and constitutional entities.
Neither McWorld nor Jihad is remotely democratic in impulse. Neither needs democracy; neither promotes democracy.
McWorld does manage to look pretty seductive in a world obsessed with Jihad. It delivers peace, prosperity, and relative unity—if at the cost of independence, community, and identity (which is generally based on difference). The primary political values required by the global market are order and tranquillity, and freedom—as in the phrases “free trade,” “free press,” and “free love.” Human rights are needed to a degree, but not citizenship or participation—and no more social justice and equality than are necessary to promote efficient economic production and consumption. Multinational corporations sometimes seem to prefer doing business with local oligarchs, inasmuch as they can take confidence from dealing with the boss on all crucial matters. Despots who slaughter their own populations are no problem, so long as they leave markets in place and refrain from making war on their neighbors (Saddam Hussein’s fatal mistake). In trading partners, predictability is of more value than justice.
Jihad delivers a different set of virtues: a vibrant local identity, a sense of community, solidarity among kinsmen, neighbors, and countrymen, narrowly conceived. But it also guarantees parochialism and is grounded in exclusion. Solidarity is secured through war against outsiders. And solidarity often means obedience to a hierarchy in governance, fanaticism in beliefs, and the obliteration of individual selves in the name of the group. Deference to leaders and intolerance toward outsiders (and toward “enemies within”) are hallmarks of tribalism—hardly the attitudes required for the cultivation of new democratic women and men capable of governing themselves. Where new democratic experiments have been conducted in retribalizing societies, in both Europe and the Third World, the result has often been anarchy, repression, persecution, and the coming of new, noncommunist forms of very old kinds of despotism.
To the extent that either McWorld or Jihad has a NATURAL politics, it has turned out to be more of an antipolitics. For McWorld, it is the antipolitics of globalism: bureaucratic, technocratic, and meritocratic, focused (as Marx predicted it would be) on the administration of things—with people, however, among the chief things to be administered. In its politico-economic imperatives McWorld has been guided by laissez-faire market principles that privilege efficiency, productivity, and beneficence at the expense of civic liberty and self-government.
For Jihad, the antipolitics of tribalization has been explicitly antidemocratic: one-party dictatorship, government by military junta, theocratic fundamentalism—often associated with a version of theFuhrerprinzip that empowers an individual to rule on behalf of a people.
How can democracy be secured and spread in a world whose primary tendencies are at best indifferent to it (McWorld) and at worst deeply antithetical to it (Jihad)? My guess is that globalization will eventually vanquish retribalization. The ethos of material “civilization” has not yet encountered an obstacle it has been unable to thrust aside.
…democracy is how we remonstrate with reality, the rebuke our aspirations offer to history. And if retribalization is inhospitable to democracy, there is nonetheless a form of democratic government that can accommodate parochialism and communitarianism, one that can even save them from their defects and make them more tolerant and participatory: decentralized participatory democracy. And if McWorld is indifferent to democracy, there is nonetheless a form of democratic government that suits global markets passably well—representative government in its federal or, better still, confederal variation.
It certainly seems possible that the most attractive democratic ideal in the face of the brutal realities of Jihad and the dull realities of McWorld will be a confederal union of semi-autonomous communities smaller than nation-states, tied together into regional economic associations and markets larger than nation-states—participatory and self-determining in local matters at the bottom, representative and accountable at the top. The nation-state would play a diminished role, and sovereignty would lose some of its political potency. The Green movement adage “Think globally, act locally” would actually come to describe the conduct of politics.
This vision reflects only an ideal, however—one that is not terribly likely to be realized. Freedom, Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, is a food easy to eat but hard to digest. Still, democracy has always played itself out against the odds. And democracy remains both a form of coherence as binding as McWorld and a secular faith potentially as inspiriting as Jihad.