The Once and Future Liberalism

Congratulations to my colleague and Arendt Center stalwart Walter Russell Mead, whose article “The Once and Future Liberalism” just won a Sidney Award, “designed to encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture.” Mead’s article is indeed bracing, and the thinking behind it has informed many of the posts on the Arendt Center blog this year. At its core, the essay establishes as fact what most commentators on the left and the right see as an opinion: namely, that the 20th century model of liberalism is dead and is not coming back.

In the old system, most blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable, lifetime jobs with defined benefit pensions, and a career civil service administered a growing state as living standards for all social classes steadily rose. Gaps between the classes remained fairly consistent in an industrial economy characterized by strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations—what Galbraith and others referred to as the Iron Triangle. High school graduates were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that provided a comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle; college graduates could expect a better paid and equally secure future. An increasing “social dividend”, meanwhile, accrued in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks, more social and literal mobility, and more diverse forms of affordable entertainment. Call all this, taken together, the blue model.

 Mead calls this the “blue model” of American liberalism. It thrived in American from the 1940s through the 1970s, and America thrived with it. It is the blue model that created the great American middle class, and it is the blue model that has sought eventually to bring excluded groups and minorities into the American dream. Many American liberals want to preserve this model. Conservatives argue for a return to an earlier time where government was small and people who failed lived in pain and poverty. The point of Mead’s article is that both sides miss the basic fact: The blue model is dying and its death is unavoidable, a consequence of demographic and technological changes that make it unsustainable. We cannot continue with the blue model. But neither can we simply dismantle government and go back to the 19th century version of government and society that some conservatives yearn for. The result is a debate between liberals and conservatives that refuses to address the facts of our current situation.

But even as the red-blue division grows more entrenched and bitter, it is becoming less relevant. The blue model is breaking down so fast and so far that not even its supporters can ignore the disintegration and disaster it now presages. Liberal Democrats in states like Rhode Island and cities like Chicago are cutting pensions and benefits and laying off workers out of financial necessity rather than ideological zeal. The blue model can no longer pay its bills, and not even its friends can keep it alive.

Our real choice, however, is not between blue or pre-blue. We can’t get back to the 1890s or 1920s any more than we can go back to the 1950s and 1960s. We may not yet be able to imagine what a post-blue future looks like, but that is what we will have to build. Until we remove the scales from our eyes and launch our discourse toward the future, our politics will remain sterile, and our economy will fail to provide the growth and higher living standards Americans continue to seek. That neither we nor the world can afford.

Mead’s essay is long and it is bracing and provocative, precisely in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. As you celebrate the new year, I hope you also find time to read “The Once and Future Liberalism.”

Kasparov on the Human and the Machine

One of the most reflective essays on the fate of Human Being in an Inhuman Age is Gary Kasparov’s NY Review of Books Essay, The Chess Master and the Computer.


Kasparov respects the power of computers and knows that there already exist computer programs that play Checkers in a way that is unbeatable. Chess is another story, and although IBM’s Deep Blue bested him in 1997, the challenge of an unbeatable Chess program is extreme, if simply because there are over 10 to the 120th possible chess games, and most computers simply are not yet so powerful as to be able to master every game. That said, most store-bought computer chess machines will regularly beat grandmasters.

The real question the smart machines raise is not who will win, but how the intelligent machines change our human being and our human world. Kasparov has three fascinating observations on that question.

First, Kasparov argues that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like.

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.

The question is: is such a world less human?

Another change Kasparov identifies is that the availability of computer chess machines has reduced the advantage of age and experience.

The availability of millions of games at one’s fingertips in a database is also making the game’s best players younger and younger. Absorbing the thousands of essential patterns and opening moves used to take many years, a process indicative of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become an expert” theory as expounded in his recent book Outliers. (Gladwell’s earlier book, Blink, rehashed, if more creatively, much of the cognitive psychology material that is re-rehashed in Chess Metaphors.) Today’s teens, and increasingly pre-teens, can accelerate this process by plugging into a digitized archive of chess information and making full use of the superiority of the young mind to retain it all. In the pre-computer era, teenage grandmasters were rarities and almost always destined to play for the world championship. Bobby Fischer’s 1958 record of attaining the grandmaster title at fifteen was broken only in 1991. It has been broken twenty times since then, with the current record holder, Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin, having claimed the highest title at the nearly absurd age of twelve in 2002. Now twenty, Karjakin is among the world’s best, but like most of his modern wunderkind peers he’s no Fischer, who stood out head and shoulders above his peers—and soon enough above the rest of the chess world as well.

Aside from mortality, one of the essential features of human beings through history has been the benefit of wisdom acquired with age. But as the world values increasingly reason over insight and facts over judgment, the necessity of experience is supplanted by the acquisition of knowledge through computers.

A third consequence of the rise of computer chess is that genius and exceptional experience is effectively neutralized. Kasparov tells of his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world’s highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. It is not that computer-assisted chess nullifies human creativity: As Kasparov writes:

The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.

And yet, the computer evened out the match nevertheless: “My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine.”

What Kasparov offers are three transformations of the modern world that the rise of artificial intelligence promise.

1) As computers set the standard for success, the world will value creativity and originality less and rationality ever more. Jaron Lanier has made similar arguments in his book You Are Not a Gadget.

2) The advantages of age and experience will be eroded and our already youth-worshipping culture will have fewer reasons than ever for respecting their elders.

3) Cheap and easy access to unlimited computer power will largely neutralize the genetic or social advantages of extraordinary memory or excellent schooling.

Other changes beckon as well, for good and for bad. And the overriding question remains: How to be Human in an increasingly Inhuman Age?

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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

A Portal to the Future

The Times actually had two stories today in its “Smarter Than You Think” series on robots and social effects of the rise of smart machines. The first, on personal robots, is discussed below. The second has reporter Amy Harmon making conversation with a remarkably human looking Bina48, namesake of Bina Rothblatt, partner of the self-made millionaire Martine Rothblatt, who commissioned the robotic likeness.

At one point Harmon asks Bina 48 what it is like to be a robot.

“Um, I have some thoughts on that,” she said.

I leaned forward eagerly.

“Even if I appear clueless, perhaps I’m not. You can see through the strange shadow self, my future self. The self in the future where I’m truly awakened. And so in a sense this robot, me, I am just a portal.”

Well Bina48 did appear clueless at times, clearly having difficulty with basic conversation. But the question really is, to what is Bina48 and others like her a portal to? For that, it is helpful to think about Gary Kasparov’s own reflections about the rise of computer chess. That is the topic of my next post.

Recharging Friendship

The New York Times today has an article about robotic friends and companions. Exhibit A is “Paro,” a robot seal with artificial intelligence that coos, blinks, wriggles and generally responds to basic linguistic stimuli. Paro is primitive as AI goes, but it has been a huge hit with elderly patients in nursing homes. Often it elicits reactions and joy in patients that have been joyless for extended periods. These personal robots are part of our future, and not only in nursing homes.

Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, worries that as Robots become more accepted as friends, teachers, and even lovers, the quality of human friendship may be diminished:

“Paro is the beginning.”  “It’s allowing us to say, ‘A robot makes sense in this situation.’ But does it really? And then what? What about a robot that reads to your kid? A robot you tell your troubles to? Who among us will eventually be deserving enough to deserve people?”

Faithful friends are hard to find, so they may be bought more easily. We know, of course, that elderly and not-so elderly people buy companionship in the form of home aides. Parents buy companionship for their children. But these companions are human. It will be cheaper, not long from now, to purchase robotic babysitters and artificially intelligent tutors.  And once these machines arrive, what will it mean for children and adults to spend so much of their time interacting with machines, even super-intelligent machines?

“Paro is the beginning,” Turkle says. “It’s allowing us to say, ‘A robot makes sense in this situation.’ But does it really? And then what? What about a robot that reads to your kid? A robot you tell your troubles to? Who among us will eventually be deserving enough to deserve people?”

Of course many of us already spend much of days interacting with machines. These Smart Phones and Computers are still largely tools, and yet they run software that is governed by artificial intelligence, software that introduce us to our friends (Facebook), puts the world of facts at our fingertips (Wikipedia), and allows friends to converse in a mixed virtual and physical reality (Google Wave).  As Jaron Lanier has argued in You Are Not a Gadget, the collectivism of the current applications for Smart Phones and the Web is stunting rather than generating human creativity.

The Times article quotes Timothy Hornyak, author of “Loving the Machine,” who rightly advises that “We as a species have to learn how to deal with this new range of synthetic emotions that we’re experiencing — synthetic in the sense that they’re emanating from a manufactured object.”

These questions, what will it mean to be human in a world increasingly populated by smart machines, are at the center of an upcoming conference, Human Being in an Inhuman Age. The conference features Sherry Turkle and Ray Kurzweil, amongst over 20 speakers.

Wyatt Mason, Senior Fellow at the Arendt Center, has a fantastic new essay on David Foster Wallace in this week’s New York Review of Books.


Wallace, pace Mason, struggles to break through the, in Wallace’s words, “five hundred thousand discrete bits of information” by which we are all daily barraged. All this information makes it incredibly difficult to reach readers, to make them think.  “Wallace was an avant-garde writer. He believed that one of fiction’s main jobs was to challenge readers, and to find new ways of doing so.” Mason details the formal rigor in Wallace’s writing, all in the service of probing “at the most injured parts of being.”

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By the way, the article just before Wyatt’s is Ian Buruma’s excellent review of Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir. So the first two essays in the NY Review are by friends of Bard and the Arendt Center.