Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Weird Endings

Image by Kate Peters/Financial Times

A classic Brooks in strictly formal terms ("How Artificial Intelligence Can Save Your Life"): 13 paragraphs on how nice AI can be, presented as interesting things he's been learning about in his wide reading on the subject, and then in paragraph 14 a first reference to a book by this guy he just met at the Aspen Ideas Festival, from which 10 of the previous paragraphs are in fact culled (Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again, by Eric Topol, 2019).

At the end, he brushes up against an issue that might be interesting: something I never know quite what to think about, anyway, the privacy issue, the way these genuinely lifesaving capacities are connected to the existence of intimate information about us all over cyberspace, in this case the AI programs that can estimate how serious texts sent to a suicide hotline are by analyzing their vocabulary, or diagnose depression on the basis of Instagram posts. But where Brooks wanders is really peculiar:
You can imagine how problematic this could be if the information gets used by employers or the state.
But if it’s a matter of life and death, I suspect we’re going to go there. At some level we’re all strangers to ourselves. We’re all about to know ourselves a lot more deeply. You tell me if that’s good or bad.
and that's it. What the hell? The Internet is going to force us all to attain self-knowledge? (Brooks was very hot on opposing self-knowledge in 2014.) It threatens our ability to keep things private from ourselves?

Making neckties, Division St., Little Italy, ca. 1890. Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images.

Of course the worst thing he could learn about himself probably isn't about his psychosexual disturbances or lack of education and laziness. He might learn he's a liberal. That seemed to be happening on Friday ("Your Daily Dose of Optimism!"), reacting to photos of the Lower East Side in the 1890s where one of his grandfathers grew up to become a lawyer:
When you grow up with this background, you have a deep sense of the goodness and purpose of America. America is the land of milk and honey. Lincoln could go from a log cabin to the White House. A Jewish boy from the Bronx named Ralph Lifshitz could grow up to become Ralph Lauren and redefine American preppy. You could be born on the fringes and assimilate into this new thing called an American.
Lauren is such a great example, since he created the WASP ascendancy as a brand, like Irving Berlin writing "White Christmas", but an entire life, and what makes this happy story impossible nowadays is that the WASP ascendancy no longer exists:
there is no longer a single American mainstream to serve as the structural spine of the nation. Mainline Protestantism is no longer the dominant religion and cultural force. The WASP establishment no longer rules the roost. There is no white majority in our kindergartens, and soon there will be no white majority in our society.
The lack of a WASP ascendancy is destroying the American dream for millions of immigrants! Not to mention too many TV channels and pop music genres.

But then Brooks thinks of something he learned from Rabbi Sachs (how Ralph Lauren is that, by the way, to rely on the only rabbi in the House of Lords) about the Jews of the 6th century B.C.E. after the Babylonian conquest, who took the advice of Prophet Jeremiah to forget about the Babylonian Dream, as it were, and just do the best they could while being Jewish.
In a world of radical pluralism, we are all Jews. We have no choice but to build a mass multicultural democracy, a society that has no dominant center but is a collection of creative minorities.
Which is Whitmanesque, so it should turn out to be American too!
Pluralism today is creating a new sort of person, especially among the young. They don’t just relish diversity; they embody it. Many have mixed roots — say, half-French/half-Dominican. Many are border stalkers; they live between cultures, switch back and forth, and work hard to build a multiplicity of influences into a single coherent life. They’re Whitmanesque, containing multitudes, holding opposite ideas in their minds at the same time.
So what the heck!
I used to think that America had to find a new unifying national narrative. Now I wonder if not having a single national narrative will become our national narrative.

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