Q&A with Tim Wu

Why this technology author is stubbornly primitive.

How do you define resilience when it comes to the intersection between technology and society?

I’d define it as the ability for a society to survive periods of very rapid technological change without tipping into class warfare, violent revolution, mass dislocation, or actual warfare.  That may sound a bit dark but if we’re examining resilience we really need to understand the challenging sides of technological change.

This definition comes from looking at what the failure of resiliency looks like. The period of greatest technological change in human history was probably from the 1880s through the 1920s, and that period makes for a prime example of such a failure. The technologies invented during that period (electricity, radio, and the telephone; improved methods of mass production and engines; bombs, tanks, and the machine gun) were incredibly destabilizing along economic, social, and military dimensions, and the world did not cope well with them at all. There was terrible labor violence, two economic Depressions, the rise of totalitarianism, and two World Wars. If these horrors were not caused by the wondrous new technologies of the age they were certainly aided and abetted by them. I guess that can be described as a failure of resilience. 

You have had tremendous professional success as a writer—from publishing best-selling books to being a sought-after analyst on today’s greatest challenges when it comes to “big tech.” But the problems you talk about in your writing aren’t easy to solve. How do you maintain a sense of “possibility” that’s rooted in optimism and reality?

There’s a Wallace Stegner book, All the Little Live Things, where one of the characters (Marian) deeply and sweetly believes in the inexorable nature of progress; that we are on a march toward a better future (“always improving,” as the New York subway slogan says), and all the evils we see in the world are just little dips on the road forward. I once shared Marian’s disposition, especially when I was living in Canada, but like Stegner, I’ve become more inclined to think that progress is hard won, and that a society can go through prolonged peaks and valleys. But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

Nonetheless, I somehow remain an optimist: I would say that even though my books sometimes get dark, I have hope about the future of humanity. I think we’ve achieved a better life for many, and there is a possibility of a largely better life for all, if we don’t blow it.

Part of what does keep me optimistic is this theme of yours, resilience, or stated differently, the self-correcting instinct that pulls humanity back when we’ve gone too far in a bad direction. To me it is a wonder of nature: I am amazed that a once-polluted river can run clear, that a war-torn country can become happy and prosperous again, or even that a broken soul regains hope. It certainly isn’t inevitable, but it can happen, and just that fact gives me great optimism. The worst valleys, however, can be averted by society capable of criticizing itself. Because it is in that process, messy and wrong as it may be sometimes, we can realize when it might be going in the wrong direction and adjust.

To say just one thing more on this: The physicist Erwin Schrödinger once wrote an essay on biology where he observed that living things are the only thing that resist the principle of entropy, or the tendency of the universe to migrate toward disorder (that’s why death and disorder usually go hand in hand; think of how a bullet interrupts the body’s carefully constructed internal order). To me, that captures something about the force that causes me to remain optimistic—that life-force and the very possibility of recovery, and my belief in it, is indistinguishable from religious faith.

You’ve declared convenience “the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies,” especially in America. Do you think our capacity for resilience is further eroded by our insatiable desire to make life as easy as possible?

Yes. Personal resiliency, which is what we are talking about now, seems closely tied to the ability to survive some measure of pain without cracking. And our relentless desire to stamp out even the smallest of inconveniences—achieve a life with no pain at all—is both a folly and something that makes us bad at dealing with even the smallest of setbacks.

I suffer from this myself. In some ways I am stubbornly primitive (I like charcoal barbecues, stick-shift cars, and fishing with a fly rod), but also certainly not above using convenience technologies. One thing I’ve noticed is, as everything gets easier, just how sensitive I’ve become to minor setbacks. There’s a ratchet effect: once you get used to anything—everything delivered to your door, whatever music you want whenever you want it—it becomes hard to go back. And it’s not as if people really overcome life’s sufferings this way, we just find other things to fret about. Or, because it’s easier to do things now, we stuff much more into every day and spend all of our time organizing and scheduling instead of doing.

One of the trends you’ve explored in-depth is a shift in trust from the government to technology? What are the potential unintended consequences of such an important transfer of public faith? 

If he were alive, I think Aristotle would have to add a new chapter to The Politics which describes a form of government where, to get what they want in terms in public life you need to complain to Facebook, Amazon, and Google (or have the polity do so for them). What I’m hinting at is by far the largest change: the idea that so many of what were once public decisions now feel like they depend on the policies adopted by the world’s most powerful private entities. .

That said, government has never been perfect either, and as the socialist experiments showed, it is particularly bad over the long term, especially at providing goods and services. The real question of our times is how we imprint the ideas of democratic accountability on systems of social order largely comprised of code. I have some ideas about that but I’ll have to leave them for another time.

Since Amazon settled on a second headquarters in the D.C. suburbs, you’ve commented on Twitter that you wonder if “the struggle over Amazon is really kind of [an] internal Jungian struggle that pits our identity as consumers against our other selves as producers, employees, citizens and residents of places other than the east and west coasts.” Can you explain further?

Carl Jung had the idea (somewhat borrowed from Eastern sources) that we are all inhabited by multiple selves, striving for growth, and that the actualized person manages to balance those selves and give them all room. For fun, I was playing with that idea in a more economic context and thinking that, in this one person, we are really have a variety of different economic identities: the buyer or consumer, the worker, the citizen, and so on. I see that I also, in that quote sought to move beyond our own physical person and imagine we share a superconscious with people who live in other places—that’s a lot for one tweet.

For reasons better described by economic historians, Americans have given their consuming selves supremacy over all of our other potential identities for about the last century or so. Since the 1920s or so, we’ve often thought of who we are in terms of consumption—buying things. It is an idea of class that depends on what you can afford. Somewhere along the line, maybe under the influence of micro-economics, this idea became teleological, overwhelming, in particular, the idea of America as a classless society.

This is why Europeans are always struck by the fact that, while America is a great place to buy things, it is a terrible place to work. In Europe, it is difficult to buy things in the evenings because the employees have gone home. They are asserting the need for growth in their other selves a little more firmly.

But back to Amazon. Amazon is kind of the ultimate triumph of our consuming selves over our other identities, especially if you imagine an Amazon of the future where it is the dominant way of buying everything. Great for us as consumers, but rough for us as workers, citizens, and in our other identifies.

You wrote in June about a growing population of what you call, “phoneheads”—city dwellers who walk the streets, necks bent, headphones in, barely avoiding collisions with bikers and cars. You explained that there’s far more to this than bad posture, and that in fact, it’s actually revealing of something larger. You explained, “While it seems like we’re here in the city, we’ve all become part-timers, not fully living here at all, but inhabiting it halfway.” What does this habit of being head down and zoned in on one’s personal interests of the moment do to the resiliency of city life and culture?

Parasitic behavior is the opposite of resiliency, because parasites, by definition, weaken the host. A city is a kind of joint venture, so those who aren’t fully here are weakening the city.

In The Master Switch, you found that the great communication technologies of the 20th century all went through a cycle: each started out open, chaotic, and full of possibility, but each eventually wound up being controlled by industrial interests. The same has now become true of the internet. Why is it important that we find a way to break this cycle?

I think when I wrote the Master Switch I thought the cycle could be broken. I was foolish and naive, typical of a young person who thinks their generation has answers that others lacked. There is no breaking the cycle, there is only making sure it continues to turn enough to avoid an impoverishing stagnancy, while having the resilience and really the wisdom to absorb the shocks that come with technological change.

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Tim Wu

Tim Wu is the Julius Silver Professor of Law, Science and Technology at Columbia Law School, and is a former New America National Fellow.  Wu joined the Law School in 2006 and teaches antitrust, copyright, the media industries, and communications law. He is the author of, among other works, “Network Neutrality Broadband Discrimination” (2003), Who Controls the Internet (2006), The Master Switch (2010), The Attention Merchants (2016), and The Curse of Bigness (2018).

Wu was a law clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer and Judge Richard Posner, and has also worked at the White House National Economic Council, at the Federal Trade Commission, for the New York Attorney General, and in the Silicon Valley telecommunications industry. He has written widely for the popular press and is currently a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

Wu has testified before Congress on multiple occasions, has been named twice to the Politico 50 list of those transforming American politics, and was also named one of America’s 100 most influential lawyers by the National Law Journal. He has twice won the Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing, and in 2017 he was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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