Six Ideas That Made Us Think

1. Is Social Media Enabling Authoritarianism?

Though George Soros is no stranger to conspiracy mongering, that was some stemwinder he delivered in Davos! His new pet theory: social media is a willing agent in a movement to undermine human autonomy. A taste of his message:

Social media companies deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide…Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies…But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance.

This may not be a fringe argument. Witness the recent debate between free-market economists Tyler Cowen and Luis Zingales. Zingales, a respected University of Chicago professor, contends that U.S. antitrust policy is blind to the growing power of Facebook and Google. The techlash is moving to the mainstream.

2. Spinning Silicon Valley

More evidence of the techlash: Wired’s profile of Silicon Valley image impresario Margit Wennmachers – and the new challenge she faces. For years, Wennmachers has been a  behind-the-scenes spin-master at Andreessen Horowitz, responsible for creating the archetype of the “brilliant, nerdy, eccentric, well-meaning tech founder.” Now the stereotype no longer works:

For years Wennmachers has quietly advanced a narrative that has shaped how the world sees Silicon Valley and how the Valley perceives itself—as a group of brainy outcasts upending the limits of the status quo. But as the Valley’s tinkerers become industry titans, that image is changing. From almost every political perspective, they have been criticized as profit-mongering, irresponsible, privacy-invading, and out-of-touch. In the wake of that backlash, tech is now trying to come to terms with the impact of the tools it has introduced and to manage the wealth it has created. This presents Wennmachers with a new and critical challenge: crafting a revamped image of the techie of the future, one that embraces the great responsibility that arrives with newfound great power.

3. Out of the Box

Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, whose wealth was believed to surpass $50 billion, was a visionary entrepreneur, fierce competitor, thrifty rich man, and occasional eccentric with some unsavory political history. But as The Guardian’s masterful obituary makes clear, Kamprad will be remembered for turning Ikea into a brand nearly everyone has encountered:

With the exception of perhaps McDonald’s, Ikea has uniquely transcended barriers of class, culture and geography in the late 20th and early 21st century, flying in the face of received retail wisdom by selling the same products with unpronounceable Swedish names all around the world. The catalogue once had a print run of 150m copies, and some statistics claimed that more than 10% of the population of Europe had been conceived in an Ikea bed.

4. McCartney: Please, Please Me

This unusual interview with Paul McCartney focuses largely on his role as a bass player and the specific equipment he played with the Beatles. But buried in the middle McCartney offers his simple philosophy of live performances:

I always approach a tour by thinking as if I’m not there. Well, this geezer McCartney’s going on tour, what would I like to see him do? Well, I’d like to see him play bass—he’s good on that old bass. So I’d think, I must play bass. The man in the audience, the girl in the audience, would expect me to play bass. I’d probably want him to do "Yesterday," so we’ll sling that in somewhere…I’m the opposite of Bob Dylan. I know G.E. Smith, who played with him, and he told me they’d say, "Oh, Bob, ‘Tambourine Man’ went down great tonight, fantastic." And that meant he wouldn’t do it. He’d knock it out the next night.

5. The Kissinger Network

Nearly 50 years after he held a formal post in government, Henry Kissinger still mesmerizes historians. In this excerpt from the forthcoming second volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography of the former Secretary of State, Ferguson contends one of Kissinger’s greatest strengths was his capacity to reach out to people around the world:

While those around him continued to be bound by the rules of the hierarchical bureaucracy that employed them, Kissinger from the outset devoted considerable energy to building a network that extended horizontally in all directions beyond the Washington Beltway…According to one Time magazine profile of him, he was “the world’s indispensable man” — though one who stood accused by his critics of paying more “attention to principals than principles.” The hypothesis must be that Kissinger’s influence and reputation were products not only of his intellect and industriousness, but also of his preternatural connectedness.

Of course, Ferguson supplies charts to explain the overlapping networks of the Kissinger years.

6. China’s Disappearing History

 Veteran China-watcher Orville Schell has written a blistering critique of China’s approach to writing history. He reports on a recent study in which 140 mainstream Chinese publications were searched for articles about the Cultural Revolution – the notorious ten-year period in which artists, intellectuals, and political dissidents were killed. According to the research, the Cultural Revolution was mentioned in only three articles. Schell believes this example illustrates an ominous trend:

In the wake of China’s Democracy Wall Movement of 1978–79, during which thousands of Beijingers gathered at an unprepossessing brick wall to hang political posters, deliver speeches, and hold political debates, Chinese writers began examining their country’s decades of political oppression. This writing came to be known as “investigative reportage” and “scar literature.” But such inquiries ended after 1989, and ever since Xi took office, in 2012, an ever-heavier shroud of censorship has cast China into an increasingly deep state of historical darkness.


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