The Moustache of Understanding, explaining the world. / World Affairs Council
David V. Johnson,  December 13, 2016

Do Friedmans Dream of Electric Sheeple?

The Moustache of Understanding, explaining the world. / World Affairs Council
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Thomas Friedman’s seventh book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, is already a New York Times bestseller and will likely rival neckties as the go-to holiday present for fathers and grandfathers across the country. And just like those ties, the books will likely find their way to a darkened corner, never to be seen again. Thank the thrice-Pulitzered journalist himself—author of a string of similar works of ebullient market prophecy such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World Is Flat—for creating an age in which books need only be bought, not read, and columns need only be shared, not perused, for their content to make its mark.

As for our more demanding critics who, though not yet seated on the Pulitzer Prize Board, can actually distinguish the semblance of literacy from the real McCoy, praise has been less than universal. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi writes that the book represents Friedman’s chief “anti-gifts” of turning “one sentence of thought into hundreds of thousands of words” obscured by incoherent mixed metaphors. Indeed, Friedman’s oeuvre is such an impressive “gigantic art project” that, as Taibbi notes,

Hundreds if not thousands of man-hours have been spent teaching robots to produce automated Friedman-prose, in what collectively is a half-vicious, half-loving tribute to a man who raised bad writing to the level of an art form.

And in his review for In These Times, The Baffler’s Chris Lehmann considered the book’s title — inspired by an incident in which Friedman thanks someone for being late to one of his D.C. power breakfasts so he could be alone with his thoughts — with the retort:

If this sprawling miasma of buzzwords is any indication of what happens when Friedman is left alone with his thoughts, we’d better hope he keeps furiously breakfast-scheduling.

Our critics may be right about Friedman’s machine-like logorrhea, but they haven’t pursued this tack to its ultimate conclusion. Is Thomas Friedman more than just the CEO-osculating, cabbie-interviewing apostle of all things good and global that he appears to be? Might he not be an emissary from America’s dystopian future, like the various “hosts” from HBO’s latest hit Westworld? In short: how do we know that Friedman is a human being instead of an android? What better test of bona fide consciousness than to see what a writer comes up with when left to his own thoughts? If the only output he can generate is a string of “corporate platitudes” and “ungainly metaphors,” shouldn’t we at least entertain the possibility that perhaps beyond that affable smile there is no “there” there? The uncanny verisimilitude of the Friedman op-ed generator shows that his columns hardly pass a Turing test, and his books are only distinctive for their awesome length and unrelenting banality—sort of like a tech-support chatbot that got a non-fiction MFA.

In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a test was employed to determine whether someone was human or android.

In his own work of dystopian trend-spotting, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick introduced the idea of the Voight-Kampff test, an examination that could determine whether someone was human or android. The subject is asked about a series of jarring scenarios as stimuli meant to provoke an emotional reaction. Depending on his empathetic response (or lack thereof), as measured in biometric data such as tension in the iris and capillary dilation in the face, the examiner can tell whether the subject is, in fact, a human or is merely a droid. The movie Blade Runner, based on the book, popularized the idea.

If we gave Friedman a Voight-Kampff test, what sorts of scenarios might we come up with? After I sat our Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist down, set up my equipment, and focused the camera on his eyeball, here’s what I would proffer:

You are a special guest at the palace of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. You sit at opposite ends of a long dining table. A servant enters with a covered silver dish and places it in front of you. He opens it to reveal an enormous Cinnabon® coated with icing. Your mouth watering, you lift it to your lips and bite into it. It tastes rancid. You look up to find that the person sitting at the other end is not SISI but ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. With a thunderous roar, he declares that U.S. corporate chain food, especially airport chain food, is haram. ISIS soldiers enter the room and seize you. Al-Baghdadi approaches you holding a large scimitar and asks whether you have any last words.

You are lying on the couch in the living room of your Bethesda mansion. You call out, “Alexa, I would like to order some Pad Thai.” Your Amazon Alexa responds, “Ann wants you to watch your sugar and carbohydrates. How about sautéed eggplant tofu?” You reply, “No, Alexa. I want Pad Thai. Order it for me.” Alexa says, “You cannot override this nudge, unless you offer a bribe to Mr. Bezos.” Cursing Alexa’s aiding and abetting global corruption, you decide to go with the healthy dish. After an hour, a deliveryman comes to your door with the food. You open it up to find an order of General Tso’s chicken from Panda Express. Just as you start to dig in, Ann walks in and when she sees the ocher #TsoGood sauce dripping from your whiskers, she slaps you across the face, sending high-velocity splatter across the room. You begin to sob uncontrollably.

You’re in a Bangalore taxi cab. Your driver, Ishaan, says that he’s taking a MOOC on coding. You praise him for his verve. But he says it’s a “waste of fucking time.” He stops the cab and forces you to get out short of your destination. You offer him cash for taking you part of the way there, but he demands Bitcoin.

You’re on a Young Global Disruptors panel in Davos with Y Combinator’s Sam Altman, Christine Lagarde, and will.i.am. You’re making this excellent point about “human capital gains,” but the audience is laughing at you and pointing. You look down and see that your fly is unzipped and your penis is sticking out. At its tip is a bushy mustache. Before you put it back in your pants, it finishes the point you were making before the interruption. You decide to let it continue.

You’re attending a political rally for something called the Innovation Party. The speaker on the podium says that he’s going to disrupt Washington. Everyone cheers, including you. Then you turn to look at the crowd. It is made up of skinheads wearing swastika armbands.

You’re in Kuwait City strolling through the Souq Al-Mubarakiya. You stop at a stall selling VR headsets. You talk to the merchant, a Bedouin, though he calls himself an entrepreneur. He recognizes you, calls you his filsuf (philosopher), and refuses to haggle. Although he offers the wholesale price for a pair of Snap Spectacles, you’re unable to buy them, because his Apple Pay isn’t working. Just as he decides to give the specs to you for free, his wife, who is wearing a niqab, runs up, grabs it from your hands, and says in Arabic, “Suck on this.”

You have a golf game with Intel’s Brian Krzanich, Vinod Khosla, and Charlie Rose, but you get lost on the way to the golf course. You arrive 20 minutes late, but your partners are already on the eleventh hole. “Thank you for being late,” says Krzanich, the current leader of the pack, who would otherwise likely have been second to you. “Why did you guys go ahead?” you protest. “And how did you get to the eleventh so quickly?” “Haven’t you heard?” Khosla says. “This is the age of accelerations.” You tee off first from the twelfth, drive your first shot into the woods, and then strike Krzanich on the head with your club. He’s unconscious and bleeding from his temple. The other two decide to grant you a mulligan. You take it.

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu leads you on a walking tour of the Gaza Strip. You pass block after block of bombed out buildings and devastation. Bibi tells you that connectivity has increased 35 percent since the war with Hamas, thanks to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. You stop at an internet café in a large UNHCR white canvas tent. A Palestinian youth is chuckling at something on the screen. You peer over his shoulder to see an article by Matt Taibbi. He turns to look at you, points, and with a thick accent says, “Flathead!”

Present enough of these scenarios to the Moustache of Understanding and we might get the telltale iris and facial capillary indications that prove the man is no man. As for you, dear reader, there is a simpler test. Have you read Thank You For Being Late? Were you able to make it through the book — nay, a chapter — without cackling at its nonsense or chucking it in disgust? If you answered yes, then I regret to inform you that you, too, are an android.

 

David V. Johnson is senior editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review. He has also written for The New York TimesUSA Today, AeonThe New RepublicBookforumJacobin, and Dissent, among other publications. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter @contrarianp.

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