SEPT. 30, 2019
THE TECHNOLOGY ISSUE SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
5 GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN 19 THE TALK OF THE TOWN
Elizabeth Kolbert on Greta Thunberg’s climate mission; the candidates’ IMDb credits; fashion of a kind; Jenny Lewis talks salad; cooking with the sun. ANNALS OF MEDICINE
D. T. Max
Dr. Robot Surgery by remote control. SHOUTS & MURMURS
Running with Scissors BRAVE NEW WORLD DEPT.
The Meme Factory How TikTok keeps us watching. A REPORTER AT LARGE
Value Meal A quest to save the planet with meatless burgers. PERSONAL HISTORY
Girl, Disrupted Lessons from Silicon Valley. SKETCHBOOK
“Hudson Yards” FICTION
“The Fellow” THE CRITICS A CRITIC AT LARGE
Reckoning with the age of social media. BOOKS
Louis Menand Adam Kirsch
Brieﬂy Noted Does college perpetuate inequality? A new translation of “Darkness at Noon.” THE CURRENT CINEMA
“The Laundromat,” “Downton Abbey.” POEMS
Annelyse Gelman Henri Cole
“The Climate” “On Friendship” COVER
Jason Patterson, Mick Stevens, Liz Montague, Roz Chast, Victoria Roberts, Michael Maslin, Joe Dator, Frank Cotham, Elisabeth McNair, Liana Finck, Charlie Hankin, Paul Noth, Maggie Mull, Karen Sneider, Shannon Wheeler, Ellie Black, Jeremy Nguyen SPOTS Tucker Nichols
CONTRIBUTORS Tad Friend (“Value Meal,” p. 42), a staﬀ writer since 1998, is the author of the memoir “Cheerful Money” and the essay collection “Lost in Mongolia.”
Anna Wiener (“Girl, Disrupted,” p. 56) became a contributing writer this year. Her ﬁrst book, “Uncanny Valley,” is forthcoming in January.
Finding discreet, proven treatment for drug and alcohol abuse is no joke. But it is possible.
Jia Tolentino (“The Meme Factory,” p. 34) is a staﬀ writer. Her ﬁrst book, the essay collection “Trick Mirror,” came out in August.
D. T. Max (“Dr. Robot,” p. 26) is a staﬀ writer and the author of “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.”
We’ve spent 40 years researching treatments for addiction.
Henri Cole (Poem, p. 68) is the author of, most recently, “Orphic Paris.” He will publish a new poetry collection, “Blizzard,” in 2020.
For the exact moment when you know you need help.
Joy Williams (Fiction, p. 66) has published four novels and ﬁve books of stories, including “Ninety-nine Stories of God” and “The Visiting Privilege.” Joel Kuntz (Sketchbook, p. 63) is a creative director in New York City. His “GloboBot” photo series has been displayed at art shows around the world. Elizabeth Kolbert (Comment, p. 19) has been a staﬀ writer since 1999. Her book “The Sixth Extinction” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonﬁction, in 2015.
Christoph Niemann (Cover) has published several books, including “Sunday Sketching,” “Souvenir,” and “Hopes and Dreams.” Annelyse Gelman (Poem, p. 30) is the author of the poetry collection “Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone.” Her collaborative EP “About Repulsion,” with samples from Max Ritvo, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Carl Phillips, will be out in October. Louis Menand (Books, p. 75) has been a staﬀ writer since 2001. He teaches at Harvard University. Tyler Foggatt (The Talk of the Town, p. 20) is an editor of the Talk of the Town section.
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THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
The New Yorker announces the longlists for the 2019 National Book Awards for Poetry, Fiction, and more.
Bill McKibben asks what would happen if the ﬁnancial industry stopped funding fossil fuels.
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THE MAIL CAN WE STOP CLIMATE CHANGE?
Jonathan Franzen argues that it is delusional to think we can still save the planet from climate change, because rising temperatures will inevitably cause global catastrophe (“What If We Stopped Pretending?,” September 8th, newyorker.com/franzen). He says that we should resign ourselves to the destruction to come. This argument promotes complacency and hopelessness, and it gives an easy out to people who might otherwise advocate for the political action we need. I trust the climate scientists and activists who believe we have the resources to create a hopeful future. Franzen does not oﬀer reality—he oﬀers defeat. Judy Schneier Brooklyn, N.Y.
If environmentalists resent Franzen’s piece, it is only because it presents the state of human inaction on climate in a well-reasoned, clear-sighted, and complex way. We cannot prevent cataclysmic temperatures and extreme weather. Wouldn’t we all feel better if we acknowledged that fact and acted accordingly? Linda J. Drake Denver, Colo. The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David WallaceWells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. Tom Athanasiou Albany, Calif. I quibble with Franzen’s assertion that one of our best defenses against global chaos is to maintain functioning democracies and civil society. Franzen must
see how poorly democracies have fared in the past few decades—just ask Francis Fukuyama or George Soros. If we want to confront the coming climate apocalypse, we must, as Franzen says, “institute draconian conservation measures.” Left to our own devices, most of us will keep destroying the planet, one Amazon Prime order at a time, and we’ll keep voting for whichever Trump or Bolsonaro lets us do it. Democracy may well be the worst answer to the question of climate change. Emily Otto Kaplan St. Louis, Mo.
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My only complaint about Franzen’s piece is that it should have been published in 1970, when we still had a chance. Walter Haugen Fougax-et-Barrineuf, France
Franzen’s essay is a welcome discussion of reality. At our current rate of progress, we cannot stop global warming. But Franzen says he is not a scientist, and it shows. In the last few decades, science has enabled us to manipulate molecules of DNA as easily as a carpenter builds a table. Technologically speaking, developing safe and controllable methods to combat rising temperatures is a much easier task. Franzen deserves credit for advancing the discussion, but he should recognize that what we need is a large government-funded research program— one that gives science the chance to stop global warming. Robert Eisenberg Chicago, Ill. Yes, the climate reality is desperate. But caving like this? Pathetic. I could never explain to my classroom of fourth graders this kind of moral surrender. Siri Bardarson Freeland, Wash.
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GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN
The New York Film Festival (Sept. 27-Oct. 13), the city’s main showcase for new movies from around the world, is also a cornucopia of classics and rediscoveries. This year’s revivals include “The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun” (1999), by the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, about a child working to survive in Dakar; Luis Buñuel’s Surrealist 1930 ﬁlm “L’Âge d’Or”; and Frank Borzage’s “Street Angel” (from 1928, above), one of the three ﬁlms for which Janet Gaynor received the ﬁrst Oscar for Best Actress.
American Moor Cherry Lane Who is Othello to a black actor? The famous Moor, a character who is now almost exclusively played by a black man (the Laurence Olivier days behind us), may become a means to some representation of blackness. In Red Bull Theatre’s “American Moor,” the playwright, Keith Hamilton Cobb, stars as an actor faced with the role and challenged by the microaggressions of a white director. Most of the play is a monologue for the actor, with light cues indicating shifts between his exterior presentation and his interior thoughts. Cobb’s classical training shines through when he slips into Shakespeare (one Othello passage is mesmerizing), but it occasionally renders his other modes stiff. The show is a thought-provoking mix of racial and social commentary and literary criticism; as directed by Kim Weild, it swells with different registers of diction, accents, and tones, but Cobb’s streams of invective and rancor become tiresome, and his occasional put-on of a “black voice” feels, ironically, like a performance of blackness.—Maya Phillips (Through Oct. 5.)
Betrayal Jacobs In this enjoyable, astringent revival of Harold Pinter’s love-triangle-told-backward, from 1978, the director, Jamie Lloyd, strips the production bare, leaving the play to speak in a near-vacuum, a head without a body. Emma (Zawe Ashton) and Jerry (Charlie Cox) have carried on an affair for seven years; Robert (Tom Hiddleston), Emma’s husband and Jerry’s good friend, hasn’t been as much in the dark as Jerry thinks. The implication of the show’s placelessness is that
its tangle of iffy loves and fading affections is an ever-unfolding human pattern, occurring not only in England in the nineteen-seventies, where Pinter placed it, but everywhere and all the time. Unanchored from the world that helped birth it, the play becomes a parable. Ashton is particularly deft at using Pinter’s pauses as ramps into and out of sonorous line deliveries, and the playwright’s words and tones—his native, brutal idiom—shine through.—Vinson Cunningham (Re viewed in our issue of 9/16/19.) (Through Dec. 8.)
Derren Brown: Secret Cort The extremely personable British mentalist entertainer has mounted a show that is attention-grabbing, funny, somewhat improvisatory, often astounding, and thoroughly confounding. Embarking on an increasingly complex series of audience-participation exercises, Brown assures us that he is not a psychic and that nobody is “playing along.” It’s not exactly a magic show, though surely there are tricks—there must be. Some of the bits’ resolutions cross the line from head-shakingly inexplicable to disturbingly bizarre. In a prologue to the festivities, Brown expresses a philosophy that our trip through life is just a series of stories we tell ourselves. Then, with an expert command of psychology, misdirection, hypnotism, and legerdemain, he proceeds to seriously mess with viewers’ perceptions and expectations. From a script written by Brown with Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman, and directed by O’Connor and Nyman.—Ken Marks (Through Jan. 4.)
Dust Fourth Street Theatre This punishingly sad and sometimes surprisingly funny one-woman performance, written and performed by Milly Thomas and directed
Less genteel than her literary cousin Blanche DuBois, but just as susceptible to emotional highs and lows, Seraﬁna Delle Rose, the heroine of Tennessee Williams’s 1951 play, “The Rose Tattoo,” has proved a tour-de-force character for performers including Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani, and Mercedes Ruehl. She’s a feisty Italian matron, living in a Sicilian neighborhood in a small town on the Gulf Coast, with an almost religious devotion to her husband, who is smuggling drugs in the back of his banana truck. When he’s killed, she plummets into extravagant mourning, and it falls to a stranger to coax her out. Marisa Tomei is the latest actress to explore Seraﬁna’s beguiling excesses, in Trip Cullman’s Roundabout revival, in previews at the American Airlines Theatre.—Michael Schulman 6
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
by Sara Joyce for Next Door at NYTW, is an uneven work of theatre saved by a lovely, technically impressive display of acting. Alice, a deeply depressed young woman, more comfortable with her smartphone than with the people she knows, has taken her own life, and, in an unsettling image of the afterlife, now has to hang around and watch the aftermath. The play’s structure—a series of visits to Alice’s parents, her loser boyfriend, her sweet best friend, and even her own funeral—gives Thomas too much exposition to deliver, but, at the same time, it offers her the opportunity to showcase the breadth of her dancerly talent for physical gesture and facial specificity. Think of an Eddie Murphy movie—now make it dismayingly tough to watch. If Thomas often seems too focussed on making you cry, she’s also bound to make you hunger to see her in something else.—V.C. (Through Sept. 29.)
Fern Hill 59E59 Three close-knit, artsy, affectionately bickering couples in their sixties and seventies are on the verge of moving into a farmhouse together, so that the six of them can grow older in what they’ve decided to call a “commune”; an ornery philosopher named Jer, who happens to co-own the house, is the sole holdout. In Michael Tucker’s leisurely comedy, directed by Nadia Tass and staged on an excellent living-room set by Jessica Parks, the male characters (played by Mark Blum, Mark Linn-Baker, and John Glover) are conspicuously more fully developed than any of the women (Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long, and Ellen Parker), although the wives do get the best zingers. “Men are easy,” one says. “They come with a handle.”—Rollo Romig (Through Oct. 20.)
Get on Your Knees Lucille Lortel Heterosexuality and its manifold indignities are the subjects of this charmingly raunchy and very funny standup set by the comedian Jacqueline Novak. Nothing is less cool, in 2019, than to be a woman who “lusts after the common shaft,” but such is Novak’s predicament. She makes the best of it by bringing her “poetic eye” (why call it “doggy style” when you could speak of “the Hound’s Way”?) and analytical swagger to sex—particularly the oral variety. Novak was twelve when she first learned that her “teeth were a danger to men”; pacing the stage in a pointedly schlumpy gray T-shirt and jeans, she goes deep on the semantics of the male member and the equally vulnerable male ego. Directed by John Early, the show is an overthinker’s delight, and a reminder that a woman’s humor can cut as deeply as her rage.—Alexandra Schwartz (Through Oct. 6.)
Novenas for a Lost Hospital Rattlestick St. Vincent’s Hospital, which succumbed to bankruptcy, in 2010, was a Manhattan institution for sixteen decades. During that time, it battled a cholera epidemic; treated survivors from the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and 9/11; and, most famously, cared for thousands of patients in the city’s first AIDS ward. Presided over by two Catholic do-gooders whose work
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presaged the hospital’s mission—Elizabeth Ann Seton (Kathleen Chalfant) and Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith)—Cusi Cram’s passionate tribute to St. Vincent’s, directed by Daniella Topol, is affectingly performed but conceptually cluttered. Curiously, it’s most effective in its passages of exposition, especially as delivered by Chalfant, and in a lively six-character discussion of how mismanagement precipitated the hospital’s demise. The show concludes with a short walk to the New York City AIDS Memorial, across the street from where St. Vincent’s once sprawled.—R.R. (Through Oct. 13.)
Only Yesterday 59E59 In September of 1964, the Beatles took a weather-induced break from a gruelling tour of America. The first-time playwright Bob Stevens uses this moment of relative quiet to imagine the long day and night that John Lennon (Christopher Sears) and Paul McCartney (Tommy Crawford) spent holed up in a cheap motel room in Key West. The two young men play out scenes of exhaustion, boredom, cheekiness, anger, drunkenness, and discovery, with, of course, music (and a killer Elvis impersonation), as both actors strum and sing appealingly. Apart from the Liverpudlian accents, Sears and Crawford don’t imitate Lennon and McCartney, but they do capture their alternately clashing and complementary personas. Some of the jokes have a sitcom-y, prefab (sorry) construction, but, in this production from Vermont’s Northern Stage, directed by Carol Dunne, there’s plentiful insight into what drew these two brilliant lads together, and what pulled them apart.—K.M. (Through Sept. 29.)
Sea Wall /A Life Hudson The monologues that make up this show, directed by Carrie Cracknell, are not so much acted as presented by Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal. In “Sea Wall,” by Simon Stephens, a youngish photographer named Alex (Sturridge) talks adoringly about his family—a wife too good to be deserved, a beautiful little girl, and a father-in-law, Arthur, with whom he has gently antagonistic conversations about the existence of God. Stephens braids these talks with Alex’s meditations on the nature and power of water; we see the heavy ending coming from a nautical mile away. In “A Life,” by Nick Payne, Gyllenhaal plays a man grieving for his father as he expects his first child. Payne ﬂits between the two cataclysms, first with slow precision, and then, as the cruxes approach, back and forth cinematically, the borders showing some slippage. The scene is nicely done, but it doesn’t lead to much of a revelation. You might just shrug if the anvil of these plays’ shared desire weren’t so obvious: Cry. Feel.—V.C. (8/19/19) (Through Sept. 29.)
Wives Playwrights Horizons Jaclyn Backhaus’s new play, with its vastly different settings—sixteenth-century France, nineteen-sixties Idaho, nineteen-twenties India—is rightly called a “kaleidoscopic comedy.” Three sections present the wives and consorts of great men (King Henry II, Ernest Hemingway, Madho Singh II) as they reckon with their 8
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
famous partners’ stories. Backhaus originally imagined the play as three separate pieces, and that idea remains in its DNA, creating an identity crisis in the work, the peculiar progression of which seems to lack any concrete logic. Directed by Margot Bordelon, the play starts off lively, like a zany, jocose “Blackadder”-style feminist comedy; Adina Verson, as Queen Catherine de’ Medici’s cook, goes full madcap ham. But each sketch feels incomplete, and the show sloughs off the comedy, untethering itself for an incantatory performance-art finale about female identity.—M.P. (Through Oct. 6.)
1 NIGHT LIFE
Musicians and night-club proprietors lead complicated lives; it’s advisable to check in advance to confirm engagements.
Jon Batiste Café Carlyle Jon Batiste, the vivacious keyboardist, singer, and bandleader for the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” always brings the party with him, and this tony boîte should surrender helplessly to his charms. Despite his high-energy sets, Batiste, armed with his trademark mouthblown melodica, maintains a steady standard of dexterous musicianship—as demonstrated on his recent live album, “Anatomy of Angels”—no matter how spirited the proceedings get.—Steve Futterman (Sept. 24-28.)
Evan Christopher Mezzrow The rich musical heritage of New Orleans provides lifeblood to such dedicated musicians as the clarinettist and soprano saxophonist Evan Christopher and his fellow Big Easy collaborator, the pianist David Torkanowsky—two wizardly players who draw upon a century of fertile inspiration in their music. Allegiance to tradition may be admirable, but what makes this pair exceptional is the vitality they bring to venerable work; together, they pay forward a legacy.—S.F. (Sept. 25.)
Injury Reserve Gramercy Theatre The Phoenix-bred trio Injury Reserve approach hip-hop with the attitude of deconstructionists. Their producer, Parker Corey, assembles beats made of clamorous percussion and shifty melodies that can transform from minimalist to maximalist in a matter of seconds; the rhymers Ritchie With a T and Stepa J. Groggs complement that sound palette with tricks of their own, often trading meta-commentary on the music industry, rap itself, and their relationship with it. The group’s witty self-titled début album, from May, emphasizes such contrasts and peculiarities. Here, they appear with support from the abstract producer Slauson Malone.—Briana Younger (Sept. 25.)
Arca The Shed The Venezuelan singer-songwriter, producer, and performance artist Arca defies easy de-
scription; she has shaped her career around the experimental and the enigmatic, transforming with each new release (the latest of which was her self-titled album, from 2017). Here, she presents “Mutant;Faith,” an immersive four-part residency offering a unique experience every night. She débuts some of her latest work, and, with assistance from a team of artistic disruptors—including the d.j. Total Freedom and the interaction designer Daito Manabe—she continues probing the boundaries of art, technology, and sound.—B.Y. (Sept. 25-28.)
Long Beard Baby’s All Right Leslie Bear, the New Jersey musician who goes by Long Beard, introduced her fuzzy, mistyvoiced dream pop on her aptly titled début album, “Sleepwalker,” from 2015. On the record, she tucks gossamer vocals beneath jagged, shoegaze-inspired guitars and hints of reverb, crafting an exquisitely forlorn signature that is redolent of a forgotten time and place. Her new album, “Means to Me,” features more ornate production without sacrificing restrained beauty or poignancy.—Julyssa Lopez (Sept. 26.)
Massive Attack Radio City Music Hall The third Massive Attack album, “Mezzanine,” from 1998, remains the British trip-hop pioneer’s most ominous work; it’s perfect for revival in a time that makes that era seem like a pleasure cruise. The live rearrangements are crisp and tart, the stage show is busy (shifting lights and graphics symbolize dystopia more convincingly than its litany of ﬂashing slogans), and the band’s guest vocalists—the reggae legend Horace Andy and the front woman of the Cocteau Twins, Elisabeth Fraser—add warmth and gravitas.—Michaelangelo Matos (Sept. 26-27.)
Lil Ugly Mane Brooklyn Bazaar Travis Miller has numerous aliases under which he records various styles of music, from noise to hardcore to hip-hop, but the most venerated is Lil Ugly Mane. In the early years of this decade, Miller became a force in underground hip-hop circles with a string of cerebral releases under the moniker, but retirement loomed, seemingly born of a need to quell the popularity and the expectations that had grown beyond his comfort. The last full-length record bearing the name came in 2015—Miller’s reëmergence as the tormented Bedwetter and in the now disbanded trio Secret Circle followed—but, like any cult figure, Lil Ugly Mane is eternal, if only as an ideal.—B.Y. (Sept. 28.)
LSDXOXO Nowadays During the nineties, queer ball culture and lollipop-and-glow-stick raves were generally separate musical arenas. But their respective tastes for ostentation go great together, like glitter and glue, and that combination is at the heart of LSDXOXO’s music. Born Rashaad Glasgow in Philadelphia and now based in Berlin, the techno producer and d.j. makes brash tracks
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laden with the hammering snares and haughty spoken phrases of ball nights and the buzzy synths and general delirium of the best raves. He’s equally antic on the decks—no song stays untouched for long.—M.M. (Sept. 28.)
Moor Mother Issue Project Room There is often no better characterization of an artist’s music than the one she provides herself. Pick from any of the genre tags on Moor Mother’s Bandcamp—“blk girl blues,” “witch rap,” “coffee shop riot gurl songs,” “southern girl dittys,” “black ghost songs”—and you might get a sense of the sort of energy that the Phillybased musician and poet can conjure in the space of a track. The oppressive conditions of the world may drive her to the studio, but her music, which mines beauty out of survival, is rooted in a love of both her people and herself.—B.Y. (Sept. 28.)
J Balvin Madison Square Garden The Colombian singer J Balvin has reached the upper echelons of the mainstream pop world through careful musical calibration. Since soaring out of Medellin’s reggaetón scene, in the early two-thousands, he’s judiciously balanced
eclectic urban genres, left-of-center pop, and wily electronic beats. The globally palatable brand he’s fashioned—thanks to his viral hit “Mi Gente” and his collaboration with Cardi B and Bad Bunny on “I Like It”—has helped make progress toward crumbling language barriers in the industry.—J.L. (Sept. 29.)
The Good Ones Joe’s Pub A breathtakingly tender trio from Rwanda, the Good Ones were formed in the wake of genocide. Although they sing in Kinyarwanda, the musicians evoke America’s rural blues in haunted harmonies that seek light in the shadow of devastation. The band headlines at Joe’s Pub as part of their first U.S. tour; the previous evening, they perform at a McNally Jackson book event for the producer Ian Brennan, who has championed the musicians since he chanced upon them, a decade ago, during a trip to Rwanda.—Jay Ruttenberg (Sept. 30.)
Ty Segall Various locations The Laguna Beach native Ty Segall cultivates an air of surf and slack, but there is an aesthete lurking beneath his fuzz. Both are on display on his combustible new album, “First Taste,”
which features a mandolin and a koto but, pointedly, not a lick of guitar. Who needs it? Let Segall conduct the New York Philharmonic and it, too, will resemble a blissed-out garage band. Throughout this residency, split between Brooklyn Steel (Oct. 1 and Oct. 5) and Bowery Ballroom (Oct. 2-4), he sings “First Taste” in full while playing drums and bouzouki, then switches to guitar to perform a different album from his catalogue each night.—J.R. (Oct. 1-5.)
Anthony Braxton Miller Theatre Although Anthony Braxton is most closely associated with the avant-garde jazz scene, of which he has been a prominent figure since the late sixties, this singular artist has been active as a composer of notated concert works since nearly the beginning of his career. Here, in the first Miller Theatre “Composer Portrait” of the new season, the JACK Quartet and the ensemble Either/Or team up for a shrewdly selected cross-section of Braxton’s canon, from Composition No. 1 (1968) to Composition No. 358 (2006).—Steve Smith (Sept. 25 at 8.)
Israeli Chamber Project Merkin Hall The ever-changing Israeli Chamber Project has earned acclaim for the thoughtfulness of its programs and the generous sparkle of its playing. This event assembles a contingent of two violins, a viola, a clarinet, and a piano to highlight works by European composers— Bruch, Dvořák, Bartók, Martinů, and Kurtág— that draw upon folk-music traditions.—S.S. (Sept. 26 at 7:30.)
Life could be a breeze for Cécile McLorin Salvant if she were content with merely having the most glorious pipes of her generation; her voice allows her to tunnel deep into the emotional core of a song while simultaneously maintaining a winking distance that steers clear of easy irony. But this fresh phenomenon, whose career took wing some nine years ago, after she won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition, embraces ambition as a given—composing personal material and stationing herself in intriguing musical situations seem to be where her muse beckons. At the Rose Theatre, Sept. 27-28, Salvant joins the Mivos Quartet and a thirteen-piece ensemble, led by the equally visionary arranger Darcy James Argue, to perform her “Ogresse,” a new work with fairy-tale overtones.—Steve Futterman 10
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
The New York Philharmonic stages a double bill of one-act dramas that belong to the genre of psychological horror. In Schoenberg’s Expressionist masterpiece “Erwartung” (or “Expectation”), an unnamed woman, tormented by lashes of anxiety, searches the woods for the man who has betrayed her. Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” features strings and woodwinds flying through the air, like ravens portending disaster, as the character Judith explores her new husband’s home and finds that each room brings fresh and terrifying insights about the man she married. In both pieces, a woman grasps in the dark for knowledge of her lover, only to find herself delving further into the recesses of the mind. Jaap van Zweden conducts the Philharmonic and the singers Katarina Karnéus, Nina Stemme, and Johannes Martin Kränzle in Bengt Gomér’s production.—Oussama Zahr (Sept. 26 at 7:30 and Sept. 27-28 at 8.)
Rocco di Pietro Roulette What’s old becomes new again at Roulette, where the Mivos Quartet premières Ben Neill’s audiovisual piece “Fantini Futuro,” inspired by
ILLUSTRATION BY NHUNG LE
New York Philharmonic David Geffen Hall
the life and the music of the Baroque trumpeter and composer Girolamo Fantini. The evening’s main attraction, though, is the seldom heard work of Rocco di Pietro, a pianist, composer, writer, and teacher who brings his wide-ranging interests to bear in music with a decidedly multidisciplinary bent. In celebration of his seventieth birthday, the Mivos musicians present a sampling of his work across four and a half decades, with a few world premières. The composer himself also takes to the piano, for a performance of Julius Eastman’s haunting and meditative “Hail Mary”; the piece has special meaning for di Pietro, who received it as a gift from Eastman at a low and lonely time in his life.—Hélène Werner (Sept. 26 at 8.)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Carnegie Hall For centuries, composers have taken up the challenge of depicting cities, seasons, and landscapes in music. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra pairs Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, whose frisky energy and elegant melodies testify to the composer’s love of Rome and Naples, with Jessie Montgomery’s new “Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations,” a modern homage to the cycle of seasons. The feather-fingered pianist Jan Lisiecki joins the ensemble for Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor.—O.Z. (Sept. 26 at 8.)
Hotel Elefant Areté Venue and Gallery The ensemble Hotel Elefant has been invigorating the classical-music scene in New York for almost a decade with performances of music by living composers. Far more unusual than it may seem, this is by no means a gimmick; with a roster of about twenty musicians, the collective celebrates the innovation and creativity at the heart of our current moment. It opens its eighth season with a kaleidoscopic array of tonality and rhythm in short pieces by Carlos Bandera, Sean Harold, Alexandra Gardner, Kaija Saariaho, and Patrick Castillo. The evening culminates with a performance of Lois V Vierk’s celestially inspired yet strangely anxious “Red Shift,” from 1989.—H.W. (Sept. 27 at 7.)
ILLUSTRATION BY ANTHONY RUSSO
A Night of Women Composers National Sawdust Co-founded by Paola Prestini, in 2015, National Sawdust honors its brief legacy with a season-opening program featuring women composers of past and present. A pair of new-music luminaries, Timo Andres and Nico Muhly, perform Clara Schumann’s “Trois Romances” and Meredith Monk’s “Ellis Island,” and the newly created National Sawdust Ensemble plays selections by Missy Mazzoli, Emma O’Halloran, and others. The 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Reid makes an appearance with her recent piece “So Much on My Soul,” based on poetry by singers in the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Rafiq Bhatia and Son Lux’s Ian Chang cross into jazz to pay tribute to the vanguard pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams with interpretations of her classically inflected and irresistible “Zodiac Suite.”—H.W. (Sept. 27 at 7:30.)
Orphaned as a child and sent to a theological seminary for education and eventual ordainment, Komitas Vardapet was a gifted musician and an ardent collector of folk songs. He became a foundational ﬁgure in Armenian music, known for his pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist and a pedagogue. The soulful, splendid works that Komitas compiled and composed have an instantaneous appeal, and a concert at Symphony Space, on Sept. 27, presents them in two ways. Making its New York City début, the Gurdjieﬀ Ensemble—established by Levon Eskenian, in 2008, to perform works by the Greek-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff—plays Komitas on traditional instruments, including the duduk, oud, santur, and dhol. Providing urbane contrast, the pianist Lusine Grigoryan elegantly and persuasively translates Komitas’s music on the grand piano.—Steve Smith
Constellation Chor Spectrum
Constellation Chor, a vocal ensemble comprising singers, dancers, actors, and composers, made an indelible impression on anyone who saw its visceral, committed work in the New York Philharmonic’s première of Ashley Fure’s “Filament,” last season, or who witnessed the group collaborating with the flutist Claire Chase, at the Kitchen, earlier this year. The opening performance of its residency promises uncommon intimacy in a decidedly cozy Brooklyn space.—S.S. (Sept. 27 at 8.)
Joe Hisaishi and Friends Carnegie Hall In recent seasons, Joe Hisaishi, a composer known for the sophisticated appeal of his scores for the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki, has become a frequent presence in the concert hall. In these two Carnegie appearances, Hisaishi joins the American Symphony Orchestra as both conductor and pianist; the program includes the U.S. première of an original composition, “The East Land Symphony,” as well as suites derived from his cinematic œuvre.—S.S. (Sept. 27-28 at 8.)
New York City Ballet David H. Koch
In a now yearly ritual, the Fall Fashion Gala (Sept. 26) offers, with varying degrees of success, new works costumed by designers of note. (This year, the honors go to Anna Sui and Zac Posen.) There’s usually a film, too, celebrating the company’s costume shop and its resident guru, Marc Happel, who is amply deserving of praise. Both of the new ballets premièring at the gala are by people associated with the company: Lauren Lovette, currently a principal dancer, and her predecessor Edwaard Liang, a former City Ballet soloist who later joined the contemporary ballet company Nederlands Dans Theatre. As a choreographer, Liang’s style is full of undulating lines that loop and buckle, expressing emotion through fluidity and luxuriant partnering. One compelling aspect of Lovette’s ballets—she has made two for the company so far—is their openhearted quality, exemplified by a dreamy pas de deux for two men in her 2017 piece “Not Our Fate.”—Marina Harss (Through Oct. 13.) THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
until 1971, in the rotunda of the Guggenheim. Now, as part of its golden-anniversary celebrations, it returns to that unique, difficult site with a lineage-baring “Works & Process” program. The juxtaposition of excerpts from George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” with “Tones II,” a recent revision of a piece from that début show by the company’s late founder, Arthur Mitchell, is a clear example of model and mimicry. In Robert Garland’s “Nyman String Quartet No. 2,” new this year, the juxtaposition is between Balanchinian ballet and Harlem steps.—B.S. (Sept. 30.)
Fall for Dance Festival City Center
SITI Company and STREB Alexander Kasser Theatre OUT OF TOWN Collaborating for the first time, the
physical-stunt choreographer Elizabeth Streb and the theatre director Anne Bogart find common ground in “Falling & Loving.” The production, premièring at Peak Performances, in Montclair, New Jersey, combines six actors from SITI Company and six dancer-athletes from the STREB Extreme Action Company. As always with Streb, there are contraptions: bowling balls swinging dangerously on strings; a Guck Machine, conceived by Streb, that drops water, sand, confetti, and more. But, this time, there are also words to give the mess some meaning—love sonnets and other phrases, by Charles Mee, that hymn the cyclical nature of love.—Brian Seibert (Sept. 24-29.)
Germaine Acogny La MaMa In “Somewhere at the Beginning,” the Senegalese matriarch of contemporary dance Germaine Acogny, now in her mid-seventies, puts her origins under pressure. This multimedia-enhanced solo, created by Acogny and the director Mikaël Serre and presented as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, is a kind of argument with her father, who was a colonial administrator for the French, and a pledge of kinship with one of her grandmothers, a Yoruba priestess she never 12
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
“Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” Guggenheim Museum
In 1924, the young George Balanchine left Russia, never to return. Once in Europe, he was scooped up by the enterprising Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. Balanchine’s very first assignment was to re-choreograph an existing work called “Le Chant du Rossignol,” based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale. Dance being an ephemeral art, the steps to “Le Chant” were eventually forgotten. Enter the dance detectives Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who, in 1999, brought a version of it back to life, reconstructing it through archival research. Until now, it has never been seen in the U.S. At the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process,” ahead of the work’s American première, by Ballet West, a group of dancers from the company perform excerpts, and Hodson, Archer, and the historian Lynn Garafola discuss the process of reviving lost choreography.—M.H. (Sept. 29.)
This small but timely and often surprising powerhouse of a historical show is pegged to a not very good scrap of painting by a stardusted name. The exhibition includes photographs, documents, and art works relating to the death, on September 28, 1983, of Michael Stewart, a twenty-five-year-old art student in New York City, from injuries incurred while in police custody after his arrest, allegedly for writing graffiti. At some point later that year, Jean-Michel Basquiat used marker and acrylics to dash oﬀ a sketch on a graffiti-crowded plasterboard wall in the artist Keith Haring’s studio: two fiendish cops beating an armless, legless figure, rendered in black silhouette. Unrelated tags of graffitists (Daze and Zephyr are legible) and random froths of spray paint share the surface. The piece, known as “Defacement,” is anomalous. Things are almost never shown happening within this great painter’s characteristic pictorial space, which is usually cannily organized and aggressively frontal. Three other Basquiat paintings of police figures, all from 1981, along with strong works by him on unrelated themes, also appear in the show. The curator Chaédria LaBouvier asserts their kinship, as protest art, with “Defacement.” But Basquiat’s message wasn’t a fight for freedom. It was that he was free.—Peter Schjeldahl (Through Nov. 6.)
Dance Theatre of Harlem Guggenheim Museum
“Culture and the People ” Museo del Barrio
Although this beloved troupe was founded in 1969, it didn’t make its official New York début
In 1969, when the artist-educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz was asked to develop a cur-
met. Acogny also channels Medea, telling us that the pillows she holds are her children and then ripping those pillows apart.—B.S. (Sept. 26-28.)
Ballet West Guggenheim Museum
ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL SALMIERI
If someone turned “The Breakfast Club” into a dance for four women, it might look like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s “Rosas Danst Rosas.” Clad in gray, with sleeves that slip provocatively from their shoulders, the women squirm, thrash their hair, pull at their clothes, or create elegant loop-theloops, now and then smiling slyly at private thoughts. The piece, created in 1983, was only De Keersmaeker’s third, but its mix of formal rigor, coiled energy, and pugnacity instantly struck a nerve. That combination is still essential to De Keersmaeker’s style, though over the years it has lost some of its adolescent “bad girl” edge. Members of her Brussels-based company, Rosas, perform this classic of eighties post-minimalism at New York Live Arts, Oct. 1-5, preceded, Sept. 24-28, by her 1982 piece, “Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich.”—Marina Harss
The audiences for this popular, inexpensive sampler are always enthusiastically appreciative, but this year’s opening program should elicit an especially boisterous response: Misty Copeland is on the bill. She’s dancing a new solo choreographed by Kyle Abraham, a dance-world star himself. The program’s closer is also a surefire crowd-pleaser: an expansion of Caleb Teicher’s “Bzzz,” which delightfully mashes up high-speed tap, beatboxing, and Appalachian flatfooting. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Vuyani Dance Theatre, from South Africa, complete the mix.—B.S. (Oct. 1. Through Oct. 13.)
riculum on Puerto Rican history and culture, his answer was to open a community museum, El Museo del Barrio, in a Harlem public-school classroom. This fiftieth-anniversary exhibition celebrates the institution and its innovative curatorial approach with a detailed, wall-spanning time line, punctuated with photos of El Museo’s landmark shows and acquisitions. It’s accompanied by a sprawling, non-chronological survey of works in the museum’s collection, from pre-Hispanic Taino artifacts and modernist abstractions to documentation of performances and a diverse array of prints, all arranged into three sections: “Roots,” “Resistance,” and “Resilience.” Although not everything on view is explicitly activist, a picture emerges of El Museo’s ever-evolving mission to represent indigenous, Latin-American, and Latinx cultures. The Mexican artist Ana de la Cueva’s piece “Maquila” is as relevant now as it was in 2007, when she created it: a map of the Americas, outlined in tan thread on unbleached linen, hangs near a video of an embroidery machine violently stamping the U.S.-Mexico border on the fabric in blood-red thread.—Johanna Fateman (Through Sept. 29.)
etation, Harlem: all of it is alive with the experience of being.—Hilton Als (Through Oct. 26.)
three, or four—wild views of the evening sky, electric over the water.—J.F. (Through Nov. 2.)
TM Davy Van Doren Waxter
Xylor Jane / Sahar Khoury Canada
Dozens of new sketchbook-size works on paper by this Brooklyn artist ring the gallery, arranged with only the slightest of gaps between them. As a result, the plein-air studies, which capture a season in the Fire Island Pines, seem to draw a continuous, bittersweet line marking summer’s end. The intimate pasteland-gouache works portray friends walking into the waves, lounging on the beach, and floating in turquoise swimming pools. Davy renders likenesses faithfully and fast, with punched-up color and squiggly lines—a casual but doting, even sexy, approach that also extends to his treatment of landscapes. The vibrant band of images alternates portraits with sunsets. The latter appear in sequences of two,
DOWNTOWN The gallery inaugurates its new Tri-
beca space auspiciously with a pair of enchanting solo shows. Jane’s shimmering new paintings are ultra-precise, combining an idiosyncratic Pointillism with a poetic, even romantic, engagement with math. Prime numbers, palindromic numerals, and binary codes are rendered in grids with an undulating optical eﬀect. “The Goodnight Kiss” is a colorful, quiltlike composition, in which zeros and ones interlock in what the Massachusetts-based painter describes as a “lullaby of sameness.” Khoury’s sculptures, in the smaller gallery, are similarly playful, suggesting manic improvisation with a riot of glazed-ceramic and papier-mâché elements, accessorized or bundled together with assorted belts. One particularly
AT THE GALLERIES
Mrinalini Mukherjee Met Breuer Vegetal, sexual, exquisite, and strange, the fibre sculptures by this Indian artist, now casting their spell on the museum’s third floor, are so emphatically haptic that, in their presence, you might stop thinking and just feel what you see. At once fluid and rough, and often taller than a tall human being, the densely knotted works are made from hemp or jute ropes, a laborious process that yielded just a few pieces a year through the nineteen-seventies and eighties. (The artist’s later ceramics and bronzes are also on view.) Dyed jungle greens, gloaming blues, marigold yellows, and a frankly erotic array of pinks, they suggest newly discovered objects of worship from some fecund alternate world. Mukherjee—who died in 2015, at the age of sixty-five, days after opening her first major retrospective at home, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in New Delhi—makes her overdue U.S. museum début.—Andrea K. Scott (Through Sept. 29.)
COURTESY THE ARTIST AND TANYA BONAKDAR GALLERY, NEW YORK / LOS ANGELES; PHOTOGRAPH BY GENEVIEVE HANSON
Roy DeCarava Zwirner CHELSEA The tremendous shows of DeCarava’s
black-and-white work currently on view at two locations—“Light Break,” on West Nineteenth Street, and “the sound i saw,” on East Sixty-ninth Street—are the first large-scale exhibitions of his photographs to be mounted in New York since a 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and the timing couldn’t be more ideal. It’s wonderful, during this age of agitprop and questions about who gets to speak for whom, to be reminded of the delicacy that one can find in art, a fineness of sensibility that eludes a blatantly political reading. Not that DeCarava, who died in 2009, will escape those readings entirely; the majority of his subjects are black, like the artist, which means that much of the response to his images will be, de facto, sociological, addressing the so-called marginalization of the people depicted. But there is no such thing as the marginal in DeCarava’s photographs. Women, musicians, veg-
Just as a crescent moon can be either waxing or waning, the phenomenal installation “Crescent (Timekeeper),” by the American artist Sarah Sze, seems to be both coming together and falling apart—a remembrance and a forgetting. It’s the centerpiece of the artist’s new show at the Tanya Bonakdar gallery (through Oct. 19), a towering yet delicate metal scaﬀold of small moving images, in which real-time observation and prerecorded documentation blur (thanks, in part, to an ingenious use of water). Larger images ﬂoat by on the surrounding walls, reinforcing the fugacious mood. Sze (who represented the U.S. at the 2013 Venice Biennale) has taken over the entire gallery, including the building’s exterior. Her increasingly ambitious approach—a proposition that drawing, painting, installation, and sculpture are all just as time-based as ﬁlm—recalls Robert Rauschenberg’s maxim about art and life: “I try to act in the gap between the two.” In several works here, fragmentary pictures of Sze’s sleeping husband and daughters recur—dreamers in an unﬁnished, ungraspable, beautiful world.—Andrea K. Scott THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
charming makeshift tower provides a pedestal for a roughly modelled bronze cast of a cat.—J.F. (Through Oct. 19.)
Hayv Kahraman Shainman CHELSEA A freak-show contortionist is the Iraqi
artist’s motif (and metaphor) in this two-part show, titled “Not Quite Human” (in the gallery’s West Twentieth and West Twenty-fourth Street spaces). Spectral, exoticized female figures with black hair, severe brows, and milky skin populate cleverly layered compositions. Kahraman’s paintings are serenely disturbing, evoking Persian miniatures, Orientalist tropes in Renaissance portraiture, and Victorian circus posters. The figures float in empty fields of raw linen, frozen in unlikely, if not anatomically impossible, poses, their crotches lewdly dramatized by surreally pronounced genitalia and spiderlike strands of pubic hair. Kahraman’s studied tangles of body parts refer not only to acrobatic feats and fetishistic fantasies but also to brutal dismemberment and carnage. The artist, who is based in Los Angeles, draws upon her experiences of war and of life as a refugee to reflect on the horrors of bombings and the dehumanization that allows for such violence.—J.F. (Through Oct. 26.)
Josiah McElheny Cohan The profoundly beautiful work of this American sculptor—a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, whose mediums are glass and reflection—inaugurates the gallery’s new mother ship, in Tribeca, a neighborhood that has become an undeniable force in the New York art scene. On the walls, McElheny hangs magic-trick pictures of infinite galaxies, fashioned with lapidary precision from thousands of translucent rods. If the past two years of American life have left you feeling blue, you’re not alone: the show’s centerpiece is a sixteenfoot-long curved wall of glass bricks, a glimmer of azure, cerulean, cobalt, midnight, and sapphire. The artist conceived the nearly ninefoot-tall arc as a haven for listening: music and poetry performances, organized by the invaluable nonprofit Blank Forms, take place there on Wednesdays at 6:30 and Saturdays at 2.—A.K.S. (Through Oct. 19.) DOWNTOWN
Aliza Nisenbaum Kern “Bodies, with their color and their nuance and their materiality, are so different in person than on social media,” the Mexican painter Aliza Nisenbaum told me last month, in her Harlem studio. She was putting the finishing touches on a group portrait of the staff at the Kern gallery, where her exhibition of taut and tender pictures must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Nisenbaum spends hours painting people from life, an intimate process with social-justice roots: the artist met her first sitters in Queens, in 2012, while teaching English at Immigrant Movement International, a community center founded by the Cuban artist-activist Tania Bruguera. The first picture that greets visitors is the kaleidoscopic “Jenna and Moises,” from 2018, a portrait of UPTOWN
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
art and civics intertwined: Jenna is both a salsa dancer and an immigration attorney. Still, as the Marxist Mexican muralist Diego Rivera wrote, “Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction.” As politically minded as Nisenbaum is, her work is also about the sheer joy of color, pattern, and perception.—A.K.S. (Through Nov. 2.)
Amy Sherald Hauser & Wirth The subjects of the eight strong oil portraits here impress with their looks, in both senses: striking elegance, riveting gazes. In six of the pictures, people stand singly against bright monochrome grounds. (The other two works are more complicated.) Sherald activates the double function of portraiture as the recognition of a worldly identity and, in the best instances, the surprise of an evident inner life. All of her subjects are African-American. Should this matter? It does in light of the artist’s stated drive to seek “versions of myself in art history and the world.” Race anchors Sherald’s project in history. She represents it strategically, rendering the skin of her subjects grisaille, and thereby apostrophizing America’s original sin and permanent crisis: the otherizing of the not white, regardless of gradations. Three years ago, Sherald was plucked from low-profile but substantial status as an artist when Michelle Obama chose her to paint her official portrait. On view at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., it is a tour de force. Even so, it didn’t prepare me for the more intense eloquence of the canvases here—I had a dizzy sensation at Sherald’s show of ground shifting under my feet.—P.S. (Through Oct. 26.) CHELSEA
characters are held together by a web of long memories and strong traditions. Its water supply has been cut off by a huge dam that serves business interests, represented by a politician named Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima). After the townspeople mock him and his campaign, they find themselves under attack from an international group of mercenaries; they suspect that the timing isn’t coincidental, and, despite being vastly outgunned, they fight back. Mendonça deftly sketches the personalities and passions of Bacurau’s besieged residents while also examining the mercenaries’ cruel power; the light touches of science fiction evoke present-day depravities, and the vision of local unity offers a thrillingly imaginative playbook for resistance. With Sônia Braga, Barbara Colen, and Udo Kier. In Portuguese and English.—Richard Brody (New York Film Festival, Oct. 1-2.)
Nadine Labaki’s anguished tale of poverty and depravity, despair and survival in the slums of Beirut stars an extraordinary young actor, Zain Al Rafeea, as a boy named Zain, who’s about twelve years old. Unregistered at birth by his parents, who never let him attend school and instead forced him to work, he’s now in jail for attempted murder. The events leading to his arrest are framed by scenes of his time in court—where he is suing his parents—and told in flashbacks. Unable to save his eleven-year-old sister (Haita Izzam) from a forced marriage to a local merchant, Zain runs away from home and is taken in by an undocumented Ethiopian migrant (Yordanos Shiferaw), who’s being menaced by the authorities and by street-level predators. With a journalistic ardor for detail that sometimes outweighs the drama, Labaki depicts underworld barbarity, official indifference, and the crushing weight of traditional misogyny through Zain’s ferociously intelligent, deeply principled perspective. In Arabic.—R.B. (BAM, Sept. 30, and streaming.)
James Gray, the director of such films as “The Yards” (2000) and “The Immigrant” (2013), steps, for the first time, into the future, and into the realms of science fiction. We follow the exploits of Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut noted for both his low heart rate and his famous father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), a pioneer of extraterrestrial travel. With the earth threatened by mysterious power surges, our hero flies first to the moon—no big deal, we learn—and thence toward Neptune, which is both the source of the surges and the area where Clifford McBride went missing, many years earlier. The result is, even by Gray’s standards, a startling mixture of the outward bound and the inwardly reflective, with Roy confiding his restless and friendless thoughts (scarcely becoming to a spaceman) in voice-over. Seldom has Pitt looked less at ease. With Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland.—Anthony Lane (Reviewed in our issue of 9/23/19.) (In wide release.)
Asif Kapadia makes documentaries about limit-busting souls who cannot help goading themselves beyond all that seems reasonable and wise. Having investigated Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, he turns his gaze upon Diego Maradona, who bestrode the world as the most gifted soccer player of the nineteen-eighties. The movie starts in 1984, with Maradona’s arrival as a player for Napoli, a team described, or demonized, as the poor relation of the top Italian league. (The opening question at his first press conference was about the Neapolitan Mafia.) Halfway through the film, we reach the 1986 World Cup, where Maradona, who was born in a Buenos Aires slum, lifts the trophy for Argentina: a summit from which he could only fall. The Dionysian frenzy of hero worship is well captured by the film, though it could use more footage from the field of play, where Maradona redefined what it means to be fleet of foot.—A.L. (In limited release.)
The title of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s boldly inventive political fantasy, set in the near future, refers to a fictitious small town in rural Brazil that’s the center of a hotly contested election and a fierce dispute over natural resources. The village’s idiosyncratic and temperamental
Renée Zellweger’s passionate and vulnerable incarnation of Judy Garland energizes this empathetic, nuanced, yet patchy drama centered on the singer’s London concert series in 1968, the year before her death. Struggling with her career because of a prescription-drug addiction
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dating back to her childhood stardom, Garland desperately seeks custody of her children, Lorna and Joey Luft, but is penniless and homeless. She only accepts the London gig to earn enough money to support them. Although she flings herself devotedly into the concerts, her initial triumphs crumble in the face of fresh troubles, including an unhappy new marriage and failed business plans. Flashbacks to her teen-age years at M-G-M reveal the abusive studio regime that brought her worldwide fame at the expense of her private life. Tom Edge’s script, based on a play by Peter Quilter, lapses into clichés, but the dialogue is often sharp, and Zellweger offers it up with flair and fury. She also sings, and, though her voice hardly resembles Garland’s, she commands the stage majestically. Directed by Rupert Goold.—R.B. (In wide release.)
Midnight Traveler When the Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili received death threats from the Taliban, in 2015, he fled the country with his family—his wife, Fatima Hussaini, who is also a filmmaker and an actress, and their young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. Despite a thick dossier citing these threats, the family was denied asylum in the
European Union. They pursue an arduous and dangerous journey to reach Europe nonetheless—and they film it on cell phones, yielding the footage assembled in this documentary. Hassan does much of the camerawork, and Fatima and the children pitch in, too, detailing intimate experiences that unfold with global and historical scope. Passing through Iran en route to Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia, dealing with smugglers (some sympathetic, others predatory), travelling hazardously on foot through forests, confronting violent nationalist gangs, becoming the subjects of news reports, being held behind barbed wire: the Fazili and Hosseini family endures and depicts the crises of the century. Discussing their circumstances incisively, they offer trenchant views of religious and popular culture—and the role and the power of the cinema itself.—R.B. (Film Forum.)
Monos The child soldiers who populate Alejandro Landes’s film have names like Wolf and Dog, and you can see why: whatever bound them to normal human society has all but fallen away. The drama is set in the high hills and hostile jungles of an unnamed Latin-American land, where the
kids are trained to fight for a revolutionary cause that seems both urgent and faraway; often, they receive commands over a crackling radio. Some viewers may be vexed by this lack of specificity, yet the movie is most compelling when it verges on abstraction—note the mountainous landscapes, misty and vertiginous, and the ritualistic games in which the warriors engage. One of the youths, Bigfoot, is played with great intensity by Moisés Arias, who has journeyed a long way from his days on “Hannah Montana.” With Julianne Nicholson as a desperate hostage, whose efforts to escape consume much of the movie’s second half. In Spanish and English.—A.L. (9/23/19) (In limited release.)
Santiago, Italia The Italian director Nanni Moretti crafts this fiercely earnest documentary with a frank simplicity that feels remarkably original. The film tells a historical story with personal passion and grand drama: he interviews a wide range of Chileans—factory workers, filmmakers, doctors, writers—about Salvador Allende’s jubilant rise to power, in the early seventies, the Chilean Army’s 1973 coup (aided by the United States), and the monstrous cruelties to which the junta subjected Allende’s sympathizers. One embassy in Santiago—Italy’s—allowed Chileans to take refuge within its walls, and then managed to negotiate their safe passage to Italy (where many live even now). With his blunt and probing discussions, Moretti carefully parses Allende’s movement, looking at it with uninhibited admiration—and catches premonitions of tragedy. He exalts the heroism of Italian diplomats, but he keeps the main focus on the struggles of Chileans, some of whom speak with an anguished candor about their experiences of torture. While interviewing an imprisoned junta officer, Moretti, a master of autofiction, finally comes out from behind the curtain to declare his point of view. In Spanish and Italian.—R.B. (New York Film Festival, Sept. 30 and Oct. 2.)
As both a director and an independent producer, Robert Aldrich made a batch of movies about the ﬁlm business, centered on actors’ volatility and vulnerability, including “The Killing of Sister George,” from 1968 (screening Sept. 26-27, at Anthology Film Archives). It’s based on a play by Frank Marcus and is set in London, where an acerbic middle-aged actress named June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) plays a chipper character named Sister George in a television series. She’s so closely identiﬁed with the role that she’s called George in her private life, including by her girlfriend, a young oﬃce worker and poet (Susannah York), who lives with her. When producers plan to kill oﬀ the character and write June out of the show, she spins out of control, endangering both her relationship and her career. Aldrich looks empathetically at the furtive lives of lesbian couples in the nineteen-sixties (one sequence emphasizes their inability to marry) while peering derisively behind the scenes at the media’s heedless waste of talented artists on trivial productions.—Richard Brody 16
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
An exciting idea and a cast with the skill to convey it go to waste in this overplotted, underdeveloped science-fiction mood piece. Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard), awkward and guarded, is a Manhattan-based tuner of homes—a consultant who identifies and fixes, with the help of high-tech sound equipment and his own supersensitive ears, the frequencies and harmonies that drive people to distraction in their apartments. A music scholar and a self-taught scientist, he also plots his findings (augmented by his own street-level research) on a map of the city and is formulating a grand theory that he plans to publish. But when a client (Rashida Jones) remains unsettled after his intervention, a tense relationship develops. Meanwhile, he confronts the chicanery of a research assistant (Tony Revolori), two professors (Austin Pendleton and Tina Benko), and a tech executive (Bruce Altman). These jump-started plotlines, with their tone of brooding doubt, are merely distractions from the fascinating faux-documentary details of Peter’s obsessive quest, which gets lost in the tangle. Directed by Michael Tyburski.—R.B. (In limited release.)
1 For more reviews, visit newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town
The Sound of Silence
TABLES FOR TWO
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC HELGAS FOR THE NEW YORKER; ILLUSTRATION BY JOOST SWARTE
Red Hook Tavern 329 Van Brunt St., Brooklyn You could say that Billy Durney, the man behind Red Hook Tavern, stumbled into the restaurant business. Around 2008, while working as a celebrity bodyguard, the Brooklyn native began noodling around with a smoker at home in South Park Slope, cooking barbecue as a way to blow oﬀ steam. Before long, he was taking research trips to study under pit masters in Texas, Illinois, and South America, painstakingly honing his recipes and techniques. In 2013, he opened Hometown Bar-B-Que in a converted garage in Red Hook; it quickly became one of New York’s most exciting places to eat, in part because of how unassuming it is, in the grand tradition of American barbecue restaurants. Hometown’s ragged slices of brisket and hulking beef ribs, served on wax paper, are as delicious as they are brutish-looking. In 2016, Durney announced plans to open another restaurant, down the street, this one focussed on fried chicken. That sounded like a perfect extension of his obsessive hobbyist cooking. But he was plagued by construction and
permit problems, and, as time went by, his idea shifted—the new place would be a tavern, he said in 2018, something like Corner Bistro or McSorley’s Ale House, with a limited menu featuring fried chicken but also a burger. The restaurant that Durney ﬁnally opened, this past July, is intended, according to its Web site, to “pay tribute to the classic old school taverns and legendary food establishments experienced in New York City,” including Peter Luger Steak House. That’s a tall order, and Red Hook Tavern seems to be sagging a bit under the weight of its concept: it’s not a comfortable neighborhood saloon so much as a strangely stiﬀ paean to one, dripping with self-consciousness and forced nostalgia, evident from the moment you walk in the door, where a besuited host named Benny insists on shaking each customer’s hand and making a formal introduction. The narrow dining room, in a former liquor store, is theatrically heavy on early-twentieth-century-style wood, exposed brick, and ﬂoral wallpaper, and feels uniquely suited to winter. The menu also seems designed for colder climes. In the end, the chicken is not fried but pan-roasted and served with a mountain of gravy-capped mashed potatoes. There is a burger, but there’s also a New York strip steak (with a side of creamed spinach), a chicken-liver pâté, and a European-cheese plate. On a steamy night in August, when produce was peaking, one of a handful of vegetable dishes was composed almost entirely of things that could have come from a root cellar at
Christmastime: fennel roasted in brown butter, served atop white-bean purée, and ﬁnished with pink peppercorns, pine nuts, and torn Castelvetrano olives. Much of the food is admirable, particularly the burger: dry-aged beef formed into a patty that’s somehow both precisely bevel-edged and loosely packed, furnishing optimal juiciness, then layered with orange American cheese and crunchy raw white onions in a sesame roll from the same bakery Peter Luger uses. Mine came without ketchup and, as a lover of the condiment, I am loath to admit that this burger really doesn’t need any; adding it would be akin to sullying the ﬁnest sushi by dunking it in soy sauce. It’s accompanied by exactly three wedges of deepfried potato, which seems stingy at ﬁrst and then like an act of tasteful restraint. But part of the appeal of Corner Bistro and McSorley’s—not to mention Hometown Bar-B-Que—is how accessible and to the point they are. You may not get a table immediately, but you can count on high turnover. Red Hook Tavern hasn’t had time to earn the stature of a place like Peter Luger, yet you need a reservation weeks in advance, or to wait for someone at the bar to ﬁnish a leisurely meal that might involve tasting pours of caramel-colored macerated wine from Greece and Georgia. These aren’t bad things, necessarily—I got notes of Cracker Jack from the Georgian wine—but there’s something a little disingenuous about the place. I’ll take my simple pleasures in a simpler setting. (Entrées $22-$49.) —Hannah Goldﬁeld THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
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THE TALK OF THE TOWN COMMENT A CLIMATE CHANGE?
ate last month, Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist from Sweden, arrived in New York. Thunberg, who is sometimes compared to Joan of Arc and sometimes to Pippi Longstocking, doesn’t ﬂy—the emissions from aviation are too high—so she’d spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic in a racing boat. When she reached New York Harbor, she told Trevor Noah, on “The Daily Show,” the ﬁrst thing she noticed was “Suddenly, it smells.” Thunberg doesn’t adhere to social niceties. (She’s spoken openly about having Asperger’s syndrome.) She began her crusade last year, sitting outside the Swedish parliament building, in Stockholm, handing out ﬂyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.” It’s a trait particularly well suited to the cause she’s taken up: on no other issue is the gap between what’s politically acceptable and what’s scientiﬁcally necessary wider than it is on climate change. In an address to the French parliament, in July, Thunberg put it this way: “Maybe you are simply not mature enough to tell it like it is, because even that burden you leave to us children. We become the bad guys who have to tell people these uncomfortable things, because no one else wants to, or dares to.” Thunberg had come to New York to address world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. The summit’s stated goal is to “rapidly accelerate action to implement the Paris Agreement,” which was negotiated in 2015.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOÃO FAZENDA
Under the Paris Agreement, just about every country on earth pledged to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and to try to hold it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But, as Thunberg patiently explained on “The Daily Show,” citing last year’s special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the window for meeting these targets is closing fast. To have a twothirds chance of holding the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the signatories of the Paris Agreement would, collectively, have to limit future carbon-dioxide emissions to roughly three hundred and ﬁfty billion tons. Since global emissions are now running at about forty billion tons a year, this gives the world less than a decade until, as Thunberg observed, “that budget is gone.” The ﬁrst global conclave on climate change was held in Geneva, in 1979, when
Thunberg’s mother, Malena Ernman, was eight years old. (A few years ago, Thunberg persuaded Ernman, an internationally renowned opera singer, to give up ﬂying, which meant that she also gave up her international career.) The ﬁrst treaty on the problem—the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change— went into eﬀect in 1994, nearly a decade before Thunberg was born. It soon became clear that the treaty was ineﬀective, and so it was amended, with the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, when Thunberg was a toddler. The Paris Agreement, it’s now evident, is also woefully inadequate. A potluck supper of a pact, it asks each country to contribute its own emissions-reduction target. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent research group, only two nations—Morocco and Gambia—have set targets consistent with holding the world’s fever to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Five others have set targets consistent with two degrees. All the rest have targets that are “insuﬃcient,” “highly insuﬃcient,” or “critically insuﬃcient.” Into this last category falls the United States. With less than ﬁve per cent of the world’s population, this nation is responsible for more than twenty-ﬁve per cent of cumulative emissions. On an annual basis, it’s the world’s second-largest emitter, after China. To accommodate the U.S.’s unfortunate politics on the issue, the Paris Agreement was not oﬃcially designated a treaty. This allowed the Obama Administration to bypass Congress when it drew up its admittedly “insuﬃcient” targets. The Trump Administration, of course, THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
has said that it will withdraw from the agreement, and has been systematically reversing whatever progress had been made. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was loosening the rules on methane leaks from oil and gas operations. (As a greenhouse gas, methane is many times more potent than CO₂.) Last week, the Administration moved to revoke California’s authority to set its own tailpipe-pollution standards—an authority that the state was granted by Congress in 1967. Are the politics of climate change in America changing? There are positive signs. Earlier this month, the top ten candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination participated in a CNN town hall on the issue; according to the Times, this was “the ﬁrst such prime-time event” in history. A recent Washington Post poll found that more than three-quarters of Americans now consider climate change a “crisis” or a
“major problem.” A survey conducted this summer of voters in Texas showed that, even in the oil patch, a majority are concerned about climate change. Thunberg’s actions have inspired hundreds of thousands of young people around the globe to stage school strikes for climate action. Ahead of the strike called for the eve of the climate summit, the New York City school system said it would excuse students who skipped classes; Thunberg was set to speak to the strikers in Foley Square. Still, you’d have to ignore most of the past forty years to conclude that action is imminent. The same Post poll that showed rising concern about warming indicated continuing resistance to doing much about it. Fewer than half of those surveyed said that they’d support a two-dollar-a-month surcharge on their electricity bills, and only a third would support a ten-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax.
Much has been written in the past few weeks about the importance of remaining hopeful. Without hope, the argument goes, there’s no hope. In any event, giving up isn’t an option. Blow past 1.5 or two degrees Celsius and there’s the prospect of 2.5, or three or four or even more, to worry about. New climate models unveiled the other day in France suggest that, if emissions continue unabated, by 2100 global temperatures could rise by a beyond-apocalyptic seven degrees. At no point will it cease to matter how much carbon goes into the air and how much stays in the ground. Once again, Greta Thunberg has put it best. “People sometimes ask me if I’m an optimist or a pessimist,” she said in a recent interview. “I am a realist.” As for hope, that “is something you need to deserve—that you have actually done something.” —Elizabeth Kolbert
THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL AS SEEN ON TV
a political comedy series created by Garry Trudeau. Warren’s scene takes place at a book signing, where she inscribes a book for a fellow-senator, played by John Goodman, promising that she’s not going to run for President. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been on three TV shows: “The Simpsons,” “The Good Wife,” and “Horace and Pete,” a 2016 Web series made by his friend Louis C.K. On “The Simpsons,” the joke is that the Mayor is tall; he lifts up Grampa Simpson and says, “From my shoulders, you can see Rhode Island!” On “The Good Wife,” the joke is that he is annoying. (“The Mayor won’t stop talking.”) On “Horace and Pete,” he is both tall (“You’re big as shit!”) and annoying (of the N.Y.P.D., he says, “it’s your N.Y.P.D. It’s all our N.Y.P.D.”). Michael Price, who wrote the “Simpsons” episode, coached the Mayor remotely, from L.A., as de Blasio recorded his part in a New York studio. “A deep laugh, kind of like the Jolly Green Giant’s—a big ho-ho-ho,” Price said, required several takes. Senator Cory Booker recently lent his voice to a short ﬁlm called “Boundless,” directed by the actress Rosario Dawson, who is also his girlfriend. He plays Kevin’s dad, a disembodied voice from oﬀ-screen, who yells, “Kevin, your friends are here!” The ﬁlm is available
on YouTube. (Comments have been disabled.) Booker’s other two roles— cameos on “Being Mary Jane,” a BET drama, and the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation”—are more Method. In the ﬁrst, Booker is suckered into a “gotcha” moment by a news anchor, but he recovers, and ends by making a point about the black incarceration rate. In the “Parks and Rec” episode, which aired in 2015, he shows his willingness to reach across the aisle. On the same day that Booker’s cameo
ome people believe that, in 1968, Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in four seconds, by looking into a camera and asking, “Sock it to me?” on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” If cameos really can move voters, then it would seem that President Donald Trump has an advantage going into 2020. Trump has made around two dozen cameos, appearing in “Sex and the City” (he ﬂirts with Samantha), “Home Alone 2” (he tells Macaulay Culkin where the lobby is), “The Little Rascals” (in the role of Waldo’s dad), and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (Carlton: “It’s the Donald!”). He favors a certain kind of role: characters who get to kiss attractive women or give sage business advice. Waldo’s dad is just a rich guy who has a weird relationship with his kids. (His sole line: “Waldo, you’re the best son money can buy.”) Some of the Democratic candidates have been slightly more selective. Senator Elizabeth Warren has only one TV credit, playing herself in “Alpha House,”
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
Homer, Marge, and Bill de Blasio
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was shot, the “Parks and Rec” crew ﬁlmed scenes with Vice-President Joe Biden, whom Leslie Knope (the show’s protagonist, played by Amy Poehler) has a crush on, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “She just felt like the kind of politician Leslie would get excited about,” Mike Schur, one of the creators of the show, said. (Last month, Gillibrand dropped out of the 2020 race; Biden currently leads in the polls.) Biden was surprisingly easy to get. “When we asked if the Vice-President would be interested in doing a cameo of himself, it was very instantly, like, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ ” Schur said. (Since then, Biden has appeared on one other show, “Law & Order: SVU.” He gives a speech about rape kits.) In “Parks and Rec,” Booker has a scene with Orrin Hatch, the eighty-ﬁve-yearold Republican senator from Utah, now retired. “We came up with this crazy bit,” Schur said. “That the two of them had a Polynesian folk band that they played in together, and, while Leslie was talking to them about her proposal to increase the National Parks budget, they were also really excited about getting her to watch them perform.” Booker and Hatch happily did take after take. “They both improvised a couple of times,” Schur said. If four seconds on TV can sway an election, what can a movie scene accomplish? Only Bernie Sanders would know. In 1988, the Vermont senator (then the mayor of Burlington) played himself getting egged on Halloween, in “Sweet Hearts Dance,” a dramedy about two small-town couples—Susan Sarandon and Don Johnson, and Jeﬀ Daniels and Elizabeth Perkins. A reviewer on IMDb called the ﬁlm “A must see for couples with fading relationships.” Eleven years later, he was in another ﬁlm: “My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception,” starring Debbie Gibson, the pop star. Sanders plays Rabbi Manny Shevitz. Martin Guigui, who wrote, directed, and starred in the ﬁlm, grew up in Vermont. He used to have a band, and, one time, at a club gig in the seventies, he spotted Sanders “boogying away.” In the early nineties, he turned on C-Span and saw Sanders, by now a congressman, giving a speech. “Bernie’s delivery,” Guigui said. “It just struck me— it reminded me of a rabbi.” Guigui got to work on a script. Three years later, they ﬁlmed at a 22
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
Holiday Inn Express near Lake Champlain, in Vermont. Sanders came dressed in a blue suit and a red tie. “The costumer said, ‘You look perfect. Don’t change a thing,’” Guigui recalled. Sanders, all business, pointed out some typos in the script. “And he brought his own yarmulke!” Guigui said. “That was a detail I hadn’t put in.” As the rabbi, Sanders gives a rambling speech, touching on the Brooklyn Dodgers leaving for Los Angeles, and “that free-agency crap.” “He nailed it in one take,” Guigui said. “And it was so darn funny that everyone on the set wanted to see it again, so we did a closeup. And then he nailed it again.” —Tyler Foggatt
DEPT. OF MISFIRES FASHION VICTIMS
he goody bags at the National Riﬂe Association’s Concealed Carry Fashion Show, which took place, in Texas, during New York Fashion Week, did not contain high-end wrinkle creams and perfume samples. Instead, there were cannisters of pepper spray shaped like shotgun shells, camo knives, and coupons for companies such as Packin’ Neat. About a hundred people had paid fortyﬁve dollars each to attend the event, which took place in a Fort Worth convention center. It was the ﬁrst-ever fashion show for Eric, an N.R.A. instructor from Massachusetts who was wearing a Patriots T-shirt. He kept a subcompact 9-millimetre tucked into the elastic waistband of his blue jeans, “at three o’clock.” Female pupils, he said, often asked him, “How can I carry in tight clothes?” He had come to learn the answer. Abby Walker manned a table displaying nine leather purses. She is the founder of Aegis, a luxury handbag company based in Burleson, Texas. She described how she used to keep her Smith & Wesson pistol in an inner pocket of a Chanel bag. “Then, one day, I pulled my gun out of the thing, and there was a tube of lipstick through the trigger guard,” she said. She began designing bags with a “dedicated compartment” for a gun.
Walker pointed to a red leather hobo bag, which retails for three hundred and seventy-ﬁve dollars. She showed oﬀ the lining, imprinted with “little glittery sugar skulls,” because, she said, “every girl loves glitter.” She explained that, in addition to a gun, “there’s room for your sunnies, lipstick, mace, whatever.” She demonstrated by reaching into the bag and pushing the muzzle of a fake plastic .45 out through a small opening. She said that she’d never had to shoot from her purse, but “when I’m walking through dark parking lots, grocery stores, malls—I’ve got my hand on a gun.” Walker’s bags are all named after Greek goddesses. She pointed to an Athena and an Artemis. “Wait,” she said. “Diana is protection, right? I’ve got it written down somewhere.” She’s currently working on the ﬁrst Aegis backpack. “I’m trying to get the ballistic shield in it without making it too heavy,” she said. “It’s a lot of research.” She hopes to get one to Clint Eastwood. Around six-thirty, the show began. Stefany Reese Toomer, a communications manager for a gun manufacturer and an event m.c., told the crowd, “I’ve been carrying concealed for about two years now, and it truly becomes a life style.” Her co-host, Chad Vermillion, described himself as an actor, a classical guitarist, a former Navy cryptology oﬃcer, and a Cowboys fan. Three dozen models walked the runway as a few bars of country music played on repeat. First up: Asfaleia Designs’ Self-Defense Family Pack. Toomer described the maroon satchel as having a “special pocket that allows you to carry ballistic-armor panels, turning your pack into a shield to protect yourself during an active-shooter situation.” She went on, “The magneticclosure C.C.W. pockets are designed to overcome the adrenaline eﬀect, giving you fast access to your weapon without fumbling with zipper pulls.” A petite model swung the pack around to her front, blocking imaginary gunﬁre. A large male model in jeans walked out in American Rebel’s Freedom Concealed Carry Jacket. Then came a young woman in Tactica Defense Fashion’s Concealed Carry Leggings, which have spaces for handguns against the abdomen and in the back. (Vermillion: “You’ll not only feel energized and slim but truly empowered.”) A short, bald man
trotted out in a Hide-It Holster, which, Toomer said, “allows him to completely hide any size handgun with his shirt tucked in or left out!” The man modelling the holster—its inventor, Steve Wiesner—put his hand into his pocket and magically pushed a gun up and out from behind his belt. The crowd roared. “That’s good,” Ann Pugliano said, from the front row. “I’d like to see my husband do that.” Pugliano describes herself as a “purse person.” She held a colorful cloth bag that she’d bought on vacation in St. Thomas. “It’s nice, but not gun-friendly,” she said. “My husband taught me all the safety issues, so I don’t shoot my foot oﬀ. ” She didn’t love the Aegis bags, but she liked the ZAP Light Stun Gun—“for gun-free zones”—which, Toomer told the crowd, “boasts one million volts, instantly incapacitating attackers!” On the runway, the model activated it, and the air brieﬂy buzzed. Three products, including the Hide-It Holster, tied for audience favorite. Wiesner demonstrated his product again. “Do I look like an armed threat?” he asked. He shook his head. “I just look like an old bald guy.” —Charles Bethea
SONGS OF THE DAY THE CRUNCHIEST
arlier in the summer, Jenny Lewis, the singer and songwriter, performed her new song “Wasted Youth” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” She and her band wore a matching getup of white Nikes and Mets-blue sweatpants and sweatshirts, chests adorned with an image of a skull smoking a joint. The look said stoner slumber party meets cult of Heaven’s Gate. So did the song, maybe. The next afternoon, Lewis was still in her blue sweats, drinking natural wine and picking at a plate of cooked carrots at Café Mogador, in the East Village. “I’m proudly wearing my own merchandise,” she said. She had reddish bangs and serious eyelashes. Mogador had been her food go-to when, a few years ago, she’d lived in a nearby apartment that belonged to Annie
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
Clark, who records as St. Vincent. (“They have the world’s crunchiest salad,” Lewis said a few times, with a giggle that suggested it was an old inside joke.) She had ﬂed Los Angeles, her lifelong home, to get away from some “post-breakup vibes,” and had found rejuvenation in the company of her friend Tennessee Thomas, who had a little shop, on First Avenue, called the Deep End Club. “I went there every day,” Lewis said. “It was a space for young women to come hang. Make friendship bracelets, register to vote, whatever.” She and Thomas and another friend formed a one-oﬀ low-ﬁ band that they named Nice as Fuck. They wrote an album in the shop. “I was channelling whatever you’re channelling when you’re turning forty and in a new city and out in the world for the ﬁrst time,” she said. Her latest record, “On the Line,” which features guest work by Beck, Don Was, Jim Keltner, Ryan Adams, and Ringo Starr (who showed up in the studio one day), channels, among other things, the recent death of her mother, from whom she’d been estranged for twenty years. Liver cancer, hepatitis C. Her mother had been a longtime heroin addict. Her father was never around. The two met at an audition in Las Vegas and, in the seventies, formed a lounge act called Love’s Way. “Harmonica, drum machine, bass guitar,” Lewis said. “They lived in hotels, paid in cash. They were doing live covers of the songs of the day. Sonny & Cher, the Carpenters. Family bands, man! That shit is bananas. I come from a family band. My dad was a virtuoso harmonica player. He could play Brahms on a chromatic harmonica. His story is interesting, in a ‘Big Fish’ kind of way. I don’t really know what’s true, but, in a way now, it doesn’t matter. According to my grandmother, there was a program at the end of the Second World War where you could basically check your kids into an orphanage and join the workforce, so my father lived in an orphanage in Philadelphia while my grandmother worked. She was a Busby Berkeley dancer. My grandfather was a Golden Gloves boxer who got into vaudeville. He had an act with Bert Lahr, and when Bert Lahr blew up my grandfather was very bitter about it. Supposedly. He ended up working in the crime world and going
to jail, I don’t know where. Never met him, don’t even know his name. So my father was in this orphanage, and there was a famous harmonica school there. He wound up going on the road as a little guy, a harmonica prodigy. He never drove a car, didn’t have a bank account, sort of lived in his own twilight. For a while, he was in a prison in central California. Just something silly. Fraud or something. A lot of my family has gone to prison or jail. My mom was at Linwood when Lindsay Lohan was in there.” Lewis grew up in the Valley, amid the turmoil of her mother’s addictions. When she was three, she began acting. Ads, then TV shows, then ﬁlm. At ten, she played Lucille Ball’s granddaughter in thirteen episodes of “Life with Lucy.” “We were on welfare, and it pulled us out of poverty,” she said. “It was too much money, it turned out.” Her music career, anyway, has been just modest enough to be survivable. “Any other trajectory, and I would have
Jenny Lewis spiralled out on drugs. The access. I never got invited to an orgy. In my entire life, not one goddam orgy invitation. And that says something about me.” “Does everyone else get invited to orgies?” she was asked. “They must, because orgies happen.” Lewis doggie-bagged her food and headed for another favorite haunt, Flower Power Herbs & Roots. At the counter, she asked for a potion she’d got there before, called Come to Me Oil. The cashier said they were out: “The owner
makes it on an astrological timetable. It’s an ampliﬁer, a manifestation aid.” “I think I manifested Ringo with the Come to Me Oil,” Lewis said. “I wore it with romantic intentions, but those got crossed with the Ringo intentions.” —Nick Paumgarten
BRAVE NEW WORLD COOKOUT
ate one recent morning, Alan Bigelow set up seven solar-thermal cooking devices in the front yard of his house in Nyack, New York. Sunshine was pouring down like slot-machine jackpots. One of the seven cookers cost essentially nothing, and consisted of linked cardboard panels covered with aluminum foil which reﬂected the sunlight to a central point, on which sat a pot of jasmine rice. Another was a metal box with silvery surfaces that unfolded upward, to catch the sun and aim it at a pot of chickenand-tomato stew. A high-end solar cooker (about ﬁve hundred dollars, retail), which involved a large parabolic dish and a cooking surface like a burner on an electric stove, had already become hot enough to get a pan of stir-fry shrimp in turmeric sauce sizzling. Bigelow is the science director of Solar Cookers International (S.C.I.), a nonproﬁt that promotes solar cooking around the world. He talks with a slight Texas drawl, because that’s where his family is from and where he got his Ph.D. (physics), but he grew up all over. His father was in the foreign service. Bigelow raises his eyebrows when he smiles, as if he has a wonderful present waiting for you in the next room. Four months ago, he demonstrated solar cookers at a refugee camp in northern Kenya. More recently, he talked to delegates at the U.N. Mary Frank, the artist, is his friend and fellow solar-cooking proselyte. She has been a volunteer at S.C.I. for more than two decades. Frank had come down from her studio in Woodstock and brought the chicken and the shrimp. They were making the solar lunch for themselves and a man from New Jersey.
• “About three billion people around the world cook on open ﬁres,” Bigelow said, giving the parabolic cooker a nudge, to keep it aligned with the sun. Frank said, “And all that smoke is bad for the planet, of course, but the ﬁres are also terrible for the women and girls who have to tend them, breathing in the smoke, getting burns and lung ailments, risking being raped or even killed on their increasingly long journeys to ﬁnd biomass to burn—wood and dung, mainly.” She started taking the shrimp out of the pan, and the man from New Jersey quickly ate one. Chicken and tomato with rice followed, done perfectly. Cicadas in the trees did their impersonations of various electrical appliances, hydrangea bushes in the yard burst into even more elaborate bloom, and the incoming sunlight, at a rate of a thousand watts per square metre, transformed into culinary heat, seemed to hum. Bigelow opened a map on the patio table. It showed the average yearly sunlight around the globe, with the less sunny places (northern Russia, Seattle) in limp pastel shades of yellow and blue, and the sunniest places a vigorous sunburn red. Those included most of subSaharan Africa and a lot of India. “Billions of people live in these parts of the world, and many of them are considered ‘last mile’—beyond the last mile of road,” he said, sweeping his ﬁnger across the red. “For them, solar cooking can reduce
• deforestation and soil erosion, and they can also use the cookers to pasteurize water where there’s a problem ﬁnding a potable supply.” One of the seven cookers had been baking a cake, whose cozy winter aroma ﬁlled the gold-green summer day. Frank served slices with a solar-simmered fruit compote. The scene now shifts to the Bronx. Bigelow is about to give a talk to solarcooking fans in an S.C.I. board member’s home. Rose Bazile, originally from Haiti, who started the world’s ﬁrst college-level solar-cooking class there, says to the New Jersey man, “In Haiti, I even use my solar cooker on the roof of my car! I have a Toyota RAV4, and I put sweet potatoes, squash, plantain, hamburger—nothing that requires water, because the bumps will splash it out—into my cooker, and I tie it to the roof. Then I set out from Port-au-Prince to Côtesde-Fer, a three-hour drive, and by the time I’m about halfway the food is done. I stop at a picnic table, take the cooker from the roof, and eat my lunch under a tree. Solar cooking is perfect for Haiti, because fuel can be hard to ﬁnd, and many of our hillsides are completely stripped of trees. But we have sun in abundance.” “There are at least fourteen thousand solar cookers already in Haiti, and we hope that number will grow by thousands and thousands more,” Bigelow put in, eyebrows raised, beaming. —Ian Frazier THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
ANNALS OF MEDICINE
DR. ROBOT An Italian surgeon prefers to do his cutting by remote control. BY D. T. MAX
hen Pier Giulianotti was a medi cal student, he hated the sight of blood. In the midseventies, he travelled from his native Italy to Spain, on a fel lowship, and watched a lung resection. “I nearly fainted,” he recalled recently. “I had to sit down in the corner.” The next day, he attended a plasticsurgery procedure. “Something more gentle,” he told himself. “This will be for me!” The patient had a burn scar on her face. First, the surgeons removed the damaged skin. “You’ve seen the movie ‘Termina tor’?” Giulianotti said. “I was trembling on my legs, but I was trying to resist.” After the surgeons prepared a graft by slicing healthy skin from the woman’s
thigh—“Swoosh swoosh swoosh, like cut ting a piece of salami!”—he went woozy. Again he was led to the chair of shame. Giulianotti considered quitting medi cine, but he loved helping patients. He got over his squeamishness and decided to specialize in surgery, but kept won dering if the practice could be reﬁned. “I am Tuscan—anatomy is painting,” he said to himself. “Surely there is a more artistic way to interact with the human body.” He ﬁnished his medical studies and did surgical residencies at the Univer sity of Pisa and the University of Milan, which are among Italy’s best medical faculties. In the mideighties, he be
Surgical robots have thin rods instead of bulky hands, and the rods never tremble. 26
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came an expert in laparoscopic surgery, in which a doctor inserts a camera in side a small incision and then uses the video to guide surgical tools that have been inserted into the body through other incisions. Minimally invasive sur gery speeds recovery and reduces the length of hospital stays. But he found that laparoscopic equipment was dis orienting to use—among other prob lems, depending on the position of the probe inside the body, the image that the surgeon sees can be backward. In 1999, Giulianotti remembers, he attended a conference in Germany, spon sored by Johnson & Johnson, where the company demonstrated a prototype of a robotic arm for use in performing sur gery. The response was tepid—the sur geons present said that they just wanted better laparoscopic tools. Johnson & Johnson shelved the project, but Giu lianotti was galvanized by the concept. “Ninety per cent of the surgeons said bullshit,” he said. “But I knew.” On a recent morning in Chicago, Giulianotti, who looks a little like Ar nold Schwarzenegger with white hair, put on a sterile gown and cap, covered his craggy face with a surgeon’s mask, and entered an operating room. Giu lianotti is now a professor of surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where he runs a program in roboticassisted surgery. At the age of sixtysix, he has now performed roughly three thousand procedures with the aid of a robot, and has helped train nearly two thousand surgeons in the art. Farid Gharagozloo, a professor at the Univer sity of Central Florida and a surgeon at the Global Robotics Institute, said of Giulianotti, “He singlehandedly started the area of general surgery in robotics, and I don’t think that’s an overstate ment. No matter what the ﬁeld, there’s a certain panache and sort of genetic makeup that makes people the lead ers—makes them do things that no one else wants—and Pier has that.” Ghara gozloo said that, when he watched vid eos of Giulianotti’s surgeries, he was left “in awe.” Giulianotti was the ﬁrst sur geon to perform more than a dozen ro botic procedures, ranging from kidney transplants to lung resections. In the operating room, he relies on one robot: a multiarmed, oneandahalfmillion dollar device named the da Vinci. ILLUSTRATION BY ELENA XAUSA
The patient, a woman in her twen ties, lay etherized upon a table. She had a genetic endocrine condition that causes an enlarged thyroid, and recurring tu mors on the pancreas and on the adre nal glands. After Giulianotti arrived in the operating room, the physician as sistant and the chief resident made four tiny incisions, marked with red dots, on her stomach, and inserted narrow tubes, called cannulas, into the holes. Giulianotti greeted the support team and took me over to a monitor, to look at a preoperative blackandwhite scan of the patient’s innards. He pointed to a large tumor on the tail of the woman’s pancreas, a couple of centimetres from her spleen. It would be “very, very chal lenging,” he warned, to remove the tumor without damaging the spleen. The ab domen is as densely packed as an over stuﬀed suitcase.The spleen nearly touches the curvature of the stomach and a sec tion of the colon. To operate success fully within such density, surgeons must have a pinpoint sense of their tools’ lo cations. Giulianotti’s clinical fellow, Mi chail Papamichail, who was observing the operation, explained, “If you miss the plane, one mistake leads to another, and soon you have to convert.” Converting is switching to conventional surgery. Giu lianotti told me that he had once made a conversion after one of the da Vinci’s arms stopped moving. But he had never missed the plane.
obotic surgery has several advan tages. First is the ability to cut and suture in deeper, tighter quarters. Ro bots have thin rods instead of bulky hands, and—in contrast to conventional or laparoscopic surgery—the rods never tremble. The da Vinci has four arms: one holds a camera and the other three grasp instruments. Surgeons sit at a con sole and use joysticks and foot pedals to control which two of the three rods they are manipulating at any given moment. A user as skillful as Giulianotti creates the illusion of having three operative hands; surgeons who regularly use the da Vinci often report experiencing a heightened sense of control. Robotic in struments are more ﬂexible than a human wrist and can rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. Laparoscopic tools, by com parison, have a limited range of motion and can be awkward to use: when the
tip of a laparoscopic tool is deep inside a patient’s body, it can be hard to exert leverage precisely, and the tiniest move ment of the surgeon’s hand can lead to a major mistake. Finally, whereas most laparoscopic probes show a twodimen sional image, the da Vinci’s robotic cam era gives a full threedimensional pic ture of the body—the surgeon looks at the footage through a stereoscopic viewer that is attached to the console. Papamichail told me that, were I to see the procedure unfold solely by watching the console screen, it would look like “such an easy operation to per form.” He added, “But it is not. Other wise, many people would do it. Pier makes it look easy because he moves so smoothly, accurately, and quickly.” Pa pamichail also said, “What really im presses me is his perception of the in side anatomy and how delicately he is moving the robotic instruments. For each operation, he strictly follows his preoperative plan. For whatever action he does during an operation, there is al ways a reason behind it.” Despite the enthusiasm of such prac titioners as Giulianotti, many members of the American surgical establishment remain skeptical of robotic surgery—in part because it is expensive (having a robot perform your kidney transplant can add several thousand dollars to your hospital bill) and in part because doctors often prefer to stick with methods they have already mastered. Some physicians view robotic surgery as a pretty technol ogy in need of a problem. Marty Ma kary, a doctor who performs both lapa roscopic and robotic surgery, and is also a healthpolicy expert at Johns Hopkins University, told me, “Because the robot has been so heavily marketed, it has be come a ‘one hammer’ approach. I know of instances where there’s no real beneﬁt, but surgeons insist on using it, in order to attract patients.” Since robotic sur gery ﬁrst came on the scene, twenty years ago, more than eighteen thousand stud ies of its eﬃcacy have been conducted, and with many procedures, such as a pancreatectomy, the method is consid ered superior; with other procedures, it remains unclear whether a robotic ap proach produces meaningfully better outcomes than laparoscopic surgery. Giulianotti, who performed robotic surgery on a cadaver in 1999, has never
looked back. He recalled to me the ﬁrst times he used a da Vinci for operations on living patients. (They were all gall bladder surgeries, because for an accom plished surgeon the procedure is diﬃ cult to mess up.) He described the experience in sensual terms: “I felt the small robotic hands of the robot were a prolongation of my own. If you are used to having ﬂat vision, and you pass into 3D, you feel you are immersed in side the human body. It was a fantastic journey—the interior of the anatomy, the shadow of little vessels and nerves. I immediately fell in love.” He told me about a bravura operation that he per formed, in 2008, on an Italian woman who had a huge tumor on her liver. The patient was a Jehovah’s Witness, and therefore couldn’t be given blood. Giu lianotti recalled telling himself, “Any mistake, and the patient will die on the operating table.” Because his da Vinci assisted incisions were so precise, he said, he was able to remove the tumor with only three hundred cubic centi metres of blood loss—about half a pint. “That was a big turning point for me,” he recalled. “I thought this technique could be expanded—a lot.” (He has since operated on dozens of other Je hovah’s Witnesses.) For the patient currently on the table, he felt that the advantages of robotic surgery were particularly clear. Given her condition, this was unlikely to be her last visit to an operating room, and he wanted her body to emerge as in tact as possible. Typically, the operation would call for removing the patient’s spleen, but she was a young woman, and it was better to keep it. “The spleen has immunitary functions,” Giulianotti explained. At 7:35 a.m., the circulating nurse gave the “time out”—the reading of the patient’s name and age, and the reason for the surgery. Then she turned on the carbon dioxide and the patient’s stomach expanded obscenely; the suitcase became a closet. Giulianotti approached the op erating table. Rows of gleaming scalpels, forceps, and sponges were arrayed on a tray—an arrangement familiar to anyone who watches medical dramas. But, at the moment when a typical surgeon would extend his hand for a scalpel, Giulianotti went into a corner, where there was a gray console that reminded me of a hulking THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
computer from the nineties. He slid oﬀ his hospital shoes—green Crocs—and placed his stockinged feet on the pedals and his hands on the joysticks. He sank his face deep into the stereoscopic viewer. A nurse rolled a cart with four praying-mantis-like arms toward the patient’s exposed belly and connected them to the cannulas. The machine whirred as it gently adjusted its height, calculating a position that would allow its arms to move optimally inside the woman’s abdomen. Giulianotti asked for forceps, a hook, and a grasper, and the nurses attached them to the robot’s appendages. At seven-thirty-seven, the da Vinci inserted the instruments into the woman’s body, and they instantly appeared on the monitor. It was time to begin cutting.
n the nineteen-nineties, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military organization that ﬁrst developed the Internet, attempted to design a robotic-surgery device. The goal was for a doctor to sit securely behind enemy lines and remotely repair soldiers’ wounds on the battleﬁeld. The project, which was based at the Stanford Research Institute International, was abandoned: the bandwidth available at the time was insuﬃcient to operate a sensitive instrument halfway across the world without a devastating time lag. Some innovations pioneered at Stanford did work well, though, such as a method that oﬀered better visualization of wounds. In 1995, a California surgeon named Fred Moll licensed the technology, with two colleagues, for tens of millions of dollars, and launched a startup, Intuitive Surgical. Moll knew that laparoscopy, for all its beneﬁts, could exhaust and frustrate surgeons, who often had to spend several hours manipulating their tools through tiny holes. But, if scalpels and forceps were attached to a remote-controlled robot, surgeons could easily go as deep as they wanted, at any angle. Moll and his colleagues built a device and called it the da Vinci. (Leonardo, the protean genius, had made drawings of a humanlike robot.) Initially, sales were slow. Hospitals were wary of the high costs of the de-
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
vice, and many surgeons found it alienating. David Cassak, the editor of the journal MedTech Strategist, explained to me, “These are guys who like to be up to their elbows in gore.” He added that, when the da Vinci was new, “many really didn’t want to entertain the idea there was some machine out there that could replace them.” Moll began promoting the da Vinci for heartbypass surgery, a gruelling operation for which no minimally invasive procedure was generally available— the patient’s ribs had to be cracked open. This turned out to be a strategic mistake. According to the company, one problem the researchers faced was that a patient undergoing a bypass can’t survive for very long on a mechanical heart pump: surgeons must race the clock. The procedure was too stressful for use as an introduction to the da Vinci. One day in 2000, a German urologist named Jochen Binder decided to use a da Vinci to remove a prostate gland. He was impressed with the freedom of movement and the 3-D view oﬀered by the da Vinci, and felt that robotic appendages, with their accuracy and strength, were especially well suited to the narrow space where the gland is tucked away. In laparoscopic prostate surgery, suturing was almost impossible—it was, as a medical executive explained to me, “like two chopsticks trying to tie a knot.” The da Vinci completed the sutures with ease. Quickly, a majority of urologists adopted the robotic approach. Intuitive Surgical executives now like to joke, “We aimed for the heart and hit the prostate.” (Around this time, Moll left the company.) The company, like any West Coast startup, was consumed with making its platform ubiquitous: if it could get enough of its machines into hospitals, it would be hard for anyone to get them out. The sales force worked to create excitement not just among surgeons but also among potential patients, tapping into the futuristic appeal of robots. Da Vinci simulators were set up in malls. In radio ads, hospitals that owned da Vincis boasted about having the latest technology, using talking points that Intuitive Surgical had provided for them.
Many surgeons clearly preferred using the da Vinci for certain procedures, but were they sending patients home sooner and in better shape? The Food and Drug Administration hadn’t forced Intuitive Surgical to oﬀer proof. The agency divides medical-device applications into various categories. The manufacturer of a product that employs new technology is required to demonstrate that it works and is safe. In other cases, companies need only show that their devices are substantially similar to products already in the marketplace. The F.D.A. judged the da Vinci to be a variant of laparoscopic surgery, and cleared it for sale. Intuitive Surgical, in its early push for proﬁt, developed a reputation for some sloppy practices. The training that surgeons were oﬀered on the da Vinci often lasted only a day. In 2013, the F.D.A. sent the company a warning letter, accusing it of failing to keep the agency informed about updates to the da Vinci’s operating instructions, on matters such as the proper cleaning of instruments.Two years later, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists declared that “the rapid adoption of robotic technology for gynecologic surgery is not supported by high-quality patient outcomes, safety, or cost data.” At about the same time, shareholders began ﬁling lawsuits alleging that, among other things, Intuitive Surgical had made false statements about the da Vinci’s capabilities. Two of the cases were eventually settled, for ﬁftyﬁve million dollars. Other lawsuits were ﬁled by patients who said they had been harmed during surgery involving a da Vinci. A urologist, who caused a tear in the rectal wall of an obese patient while performing robotic prostate surgery, claimed that the company hadn’t warned him that the operation was not suited to seriously overweight patients. (Intuitive denied this, but settled the case.) Documents ﬁled in that lawsuit revealed that sales representatives at Intuitive Surgical had pressured doctors to increase the number of procedures they performed with the da Vinci, so that the company’s numbers would be more impressive. In 2014, Intuitive Surgical paid for an ad that featured a photograph of Giulianotti and other white-coated employees at the University of Illinois medical center. “We believe in da Vinci Surgery because our patients beneﬁt,” the copy said.
A blogger criticized the school for endorsing a commercial product, and noted that one person in the picture was neither a doctor nor a nurse but an administrator. The company had not compensated the medical team for the endorsement, but over the years it has given two hundred thousand dollars to help fund annual conventions for the Clinical Robotic Surgery Association, of which Giulianotti is a founding member. Giulianotti pointed out that the money was not paid to him personally, and he does not regret the ad, explaining that its purpose was to advertise for patients. “I am totally independent,” he said. Makary, of Johns Hopkins, told me that in recent years Intuitive Surgical has “cleaned up its act,” and, among other reforms, now provides more extensive training to doctors. But its mistakes have contributed to the surgical community’s skepticism about robotic surgery. Phil Phillips, a former deputy director at the F.D.A., who played a major role in clearing the robot for use, told me, “I think the da Vinci was probably a lightning rod because its manufacturer cast it as a revolutionary device.” Giulianotti told me that most general surgeons still oppose robotic procedures. “Ask any of the presidents of the American College of Surgeons,” he said. “They’re basically all against it.” (A spokesman for the group said that it has no oﬃcial position on robotic surgery.) Even though Intuitive Surgical is controversial in the medical community, it has had the robotics ﬁeld to itself, and has an excellent business plan. Currently, there are nearly ﬁve thousand da Vincis around the world. Servicing one of the robots can cost up to two hundred thousand dollars a year. From the end of the month in which Intuitive Surgical ﬁrst went public, in 2000, to the end of last month, the company’s stock price increased more than eight thousand per cent—almost twenty-six per cent, on average, per year. During the same period, the Nasdaq went up less than ﬁve per cent a year. Some analysts call Intuitive Surgical the “Apple of the med-tech sector.” nce the da Vinci had inserted its 3-D camera inside the patient with a tumor on her pancreas, everyone turned their eyes to a ﬂat-panel screen. Monitors had been installed around the op-
erating room, as in a sports bar. The da Vinci’s three arms were loaded and ready to go: one held a grasper, the second held a hook, and the third held forceps. Giulianotti moved the grasper to lift the stomach wall and hold it immobile. He then used the forceps to push tissue out of the way as he hooked a ligament and severed it. If you were watching the patient—nobody was—you saw the arms of the robot steadily moving in and out through the tiny incisions in the woman’s body. On the screen, things looked more frenetic. The robotic arms seemed to prod and grab at the tissue like a pack of predatory animals, giving the disquieting impression that they were feasting on a carcass. Medical residents watched from the perimeter. As a playlist of Bach partitas played in the background, Giulianotti kept up a running commentary, which was transmitted via a sound system. He pointed out anatomical landmarks—the liver, the transverse colon—and described how he was using each instrument. The pleasure that he took in his work was evident. “Through the navigation with the robot, you will see beautiful images,” Giulianotti had promised me. “You are moving around like you are dancing, avoiding major blood vessels and organs.” Now, after making a deft cut, he told his audience, “Michelangelo said the art is already inside the marble block.” As Giulianotti made his
way toward the pancreas, he occasionally paused to exult in how little blood had been lost: “Only ﬁfty or sixty millilitres!” He added, “That’s less than a glass of wine.” He asked a nurse to replace the forceps with a tool called a vessel sealer, a device that emits electromagnetic waves in order to cut oﬀ blood ﬂow, usually within seconds. It also contains a blade, for cutting blood vessels. Once the sealer had been attached, he went back to work. He came to the tail of the pancreas, where it joins the spleen, and cut the colon away from the left kidney. The 3-D camera revealed that smoke was curling inside the patient’s closed abdomen. At last, the tumor—yellow-red and bulging—was at the center of the console screen. Giulianotti did not like the look of it. It seemed “hypervascularized,” and he suspected that it was cancerous. To test this theory, an anesthesiologist injected a green dye that moved through the patient’s bloodstream. Giulianotti switched the camera probe to infrared mode and, using the foot pedals, activated a laser on the da Vinci. The tumor pulsed green. This meant that it was sucking up blood, which suggested that it might indeed be malignant. Giulianotti stood up and announced that “this operation has become a cancer operation.” According to standard surgical protocol, the woman’s spleen would have to come out, after
“I don’t need a club or a spear, now that I’ve mastered sarcasm.”
all, because of the risk of leaving cancerous lymph nodes behind. “Let’s complete the job,” he said. He went back to the console, and the robot began methodically cutting the blood vessels that bonded the stomach to the spleen. Throughout the operation, the da Vinci displayed morsels of digital intelligence. Whenever Giulianotti wanted to cut something, the robot ﬁrst measured the tissue’s impedance—or resistance to an electrical current—and, thus, the extent to which blood had been stanched. If the da Vinci judged that it was O.K. to proceed, it gave an encouraging beep. The robot had a stapler, but it would not use it if the tissue that it was supposed to tack down was too thick. (It reminded me of a remark that Moll, Intuitive Surgical’s co-founder, had made to the Times, in 2008. He said that a key function of robots in an operating room was to constrain bad surgeons: “Robots are good at going where they are supposed to, remembering where they are and stopping when required.”) At eight-forty-ﬁve, the tumor paled, its blood supply having been cut oﬀ. Giulianotti cut loose a section of the pancreas near the tumor and then separated the spleen, and its suspect lymph nodes, from the stomach wall. If there had been no evidence of cancer, Giulianotti could have chopped up the tumor and brought it out through the existing tiny holes in the patient’s belly. But this was impossible where there was a risk of malignant cells spreading, so a nurse sent a specimen bag through the cannula. Giulianotti used his robotic grasper to put the loose organ and the tumor inside the bag. The elegance that Giulianotti so prized had evaporated. He got up from his seat and went over to the operating table. The chief resident made a threeinch incision in the patient’s abdomen. Giulianotti put a laparoscopic camera through one of the cannulas and, while watching the screen, used forceps to push the bag toward the incision. He then squeezed the contents until they ﬁt through the slit. At 9:42 a.m., he pulled out the bag with the severed spleen and the tumor. The specimen emerged through the incision with a plop. Giulianotti looked up like a boy with mixed feelings about having caught a ﬁsh. “We lost more 30
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It was like watching a wave approach from a great distance, so great that at first it is not a wave at all, but a mere horizon, static and singular, so that one, it being possible, presumably, to avail oneself of the diversions of the beach, might turn one’s back on the ocean altogether, might turn instead to the sand, heaped and tunnelled, the sunscreened hand that fumbles for a book, indeed, the book, the sentence, the syntax, the sun blanching the page, stained, perhaps, with sweat, the creamy pleasure of not-laboring, when one would otherwise labor, the pleasure of wasting blood from this stupid maneuver than from the entire robotic operation,” he groused. But there was compensation. “We ﬁnished before the Bach partitas did,” he noted. Afterward, Giulianotti and I went to a small room outside the O.R., where various physicians were typing into terminals. He said, “Some people—even my colleagues—when speaking about the robot they are saying, ‘Oh, it’s a better tool.’ No. It’s not a better tool! It’s a complete”—he searched for the end of the thought—“philosophical concept. We are for the ﬁrst time in the history of humanity using a world that doesn’t exist—virtuality—to be able to change reality.” Later that day, we went across the street, where the university is building a new robotic-surgery center. (The most generous private donor is a satisﬁed former patient of Giulianotti’s.) The new lab, which is set to open next year, will be underground, and when Giulianotti ﬁrst saw the bunkerlike space he found it too gloomy. So he lifted the audacious concept behind I. M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre, and added skylights, in the shape of glass pyramids, to var-
ious courtyards. Giulianotti told me that he had originally come to Chicago for a one-year sabbatical but had grown to like the city. “It is one of only three American cities acceptable to Europeans,” he declared. To get to the new lab, Giulianotti took me beneath the university’s neuropsychiatric institute, whizzing past an “Authorized Personnel Only” sign. He has the mind-set, common to many surgeons, that he can do pretty much whatever he wants. At one point, when a publicist from the hospital told him that she was obligated to be at his side whenever I was present, he refused, informing her that he didn’t live in the Soviet Union. Arriving at the new lab space, most of which was still under construction, Giulianotti showed me where seminar rooms and training facilities would go. He was particularly eager to try out an operation on patients who suﬀered from gastric reﬂux; if the technique worked as well as he hoped, the patients might emerge fully cured—and could stop taking medication like Prilosec. He swore me to secrecy on the new procedure, saying, “If they knew that I’m working on this project they could kill me, be-
oneself, of decadent uselessness, though one might, of course, always alarm to some emergency, a child caught in the undertow, say, who must be dragged to shore and breathed into like an empty balloon, an empty balloon on which everything depends, might, bent over the small body, waiting for it to rise, to float, casting a shadow the size of oneself, not even see, though one was, of course, warned it would come, and soon, the shadow of that wave, like a new sky, already overhead and even now descending. —Annelyse Gelman cause I’m touching a business of billions around the world.” We walked over to another empty space. This was where he planned to build a remote “cockpit” for surgeries in which the patient was not in the same room. It was the original darpa project, reborn. “I think with 5G coming we can do it,” Giulianotti said. He will have to work quickly: a Boston-area company called Vicarious Surgical, which is partly funded by Bill Gates, is also working on a robot that a surgeon will be able to operate from a remote distance. Even though competitors like Vicarious Surgical are beginning to emerge, Intuitive Surgical retains an overwhelming market share, and, with ﬁve billion dollars in cash reserves, it can aﬀord to invest heavily in R. & D. An important next step for the company will be upgrading the da Vinci. With its cautionary beeps, the robot is more than a tool, but it is hardly as autonomous as, say, a self-driving car. It marshals no personal data about the patient or the population that has the same conditions; it does not make assessments by weighing genetic information or by aggregating data from
similar procedures. During an operation, a da Vinci oﬀers a surgeon only rudimentary guidance. If its software were a chess program, all it would do is keep you from accidentally sacriﬁcing your queen on the next move. Giulianotti told me that a more advanced robot could have assessed the tumor he saw that morning better in situ than he could: “I’m pretty sure that the computer would be able to recognize—based on the pattern of blood ﬂow and the tissue itself, and based on billions of people—what is the best decision: ‘You can save the spleen,’ or ‘It’s better to remove the spleen.’” Later, I learned that the patient’s tumor was not actually malignant; she could have kept her spleen. A company called Digital Surgery is trying to smarten robots by feeding visual data sets of surgical procedures into artiﬁcial-intelligence algorithms. The company already markets an app that trains doctors through simulated surgery, and it is essentially applying the same technique to training robots. The company’s founder, a surgeon named Jean Nehme, told me, “We’re not anywhere near playing grand-master chess.
But the computers are at the level of a medical-school student. Our algorithms recognize and understand where a surgeon is in a procedure.” Fred Moll, the Intuitive Surgical cofounder, is eager to see robotic medical devices incorporate artiﬁcial intelligence, but he argues that there are some decisions a computer simply can’t make. He asked me to imagine a surgeon removing a tumor from a patient’s brain. Too much cutting could lead to a loss of function, such as aphasia; too little cutting could leave the patient open to a possibly fatal outcome. The patient, meanwhile, is awake on the operating table, providing the surgeon with second-by-second feedback. “You’re trying to make a judgment about how much should I take, and there’s patient interaction,” Moll said. “When do you stop? There’s a component that’s going to be hard to displace onto a robot.” Intuitive Surgical tends to point to the F.D.A. as the reason that complex artiﬁcial intelligence hasn’t yet made it into the operating room. Last year, Myriam Curet, the company’s chief medical oﬃcer, spoke to the Robot Report, a Web site, and said, “I actually think the technology to create an autonomous robot will actually be easy to solve. . . . The problem will be the regulatory environment.” Consumer fears will also have to be overcome. Gary Guthart, the C.E.O. of Intuitive Surgical, reminded me that human pilots still take oﬀ and land commercial planes, even though they don’t have to do so. He said, “Flight-wise, I think most folks, while they accept that there’s a fair amount of automation, they want the pilot in there. They want Sully Sullenberger.” He was careful not to promise too much autonomy for the da Vinci too soon. “When the computer makes a recommendation, it better be right,” he said. For the moment, Intuitive Surgical seems focussed more on making humans as good as robots than on the reverse. Intuitive’s main automation goal, Curet explained, is to dampen the variability of a human surgeon’s performance—“ ‘My child was throwing up, so therefore I’m tired today, and therefore my hands are not as steady as they were yesterday.’” Some of Intuitive’s key patents related to the da Vinci have expired or THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
will do so soon, and later this month the company will get a glimpse of its ﬁrst signiﬁcant competitor: a surgical robot made by Medtronic, the medical-products behemoth. Its device is tentatively being called the Einstein. (Giulianotti noted, mockingly, “Da Vinci was a genius, and they need another genius, so—Einstein!”) According to an industry executive who has seen photographs of the device, it doesn’t seem very diﬀerent from the da Vinci. “There are only so many ways to build a robot,” the executive told me. The Einstein poses a threat mainly because Medtronic can use its market power to sell the device along with other products. The University of Illinois, despite its longstanding relationship with Intuitive Surgical, recently signed a million-dollar deal to test Medtronic robots in the new underground lab. Another threat comes from Johnson & Johnson, which now has a robotics division headed by none other than Fred Moll. This time, Moll says, his goal isn’t to produce a huge robot for an operating room; instead, he plans to manufacture a more portable multipurpose device that can be deployed throughout a hospital, assisting on everything from colonoscopies to heart surgeries. Scott Huennekens, who until recently ran a joint venture between Google and Johnson & Johnson, spoke to me about how the practice of surgery might be transformed in the next few decades. Once robotic devices become commonplace and reliable, surgery will no longer have to take place at a hospital, which means that far more people will have access to it—especially those in remote or impoverished areas. There will be dozens of kinds of surgical robots, and many will tackle speciﬁc jobs, from suturing in the abdomen to setting a broken leg. The over-all surgical plan will be generated by a computer, crunching data from the patients’ tests and previous similar surgeries. An A.I. algorithm will recommend a treatment regimen. Humans will oversee but not perform the actual operating. The only person who will be nostalgic for today’s clumsy methods is the kind of surgeon who is driven by the visceral thrill of immersing his hands in ﬂesh. A data-driven, robotic surgical protocol will not only be more democratic, 32
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
Huennekens promised; it will “result in better outcomes, faster recoveries, and lower costs.” got a sense of how far we are from this vision when I watched Giulianotti remove a woman’s gallbladder, a few hours after he’d ﬁnished the operation on the pancreas. He had lunched, reluctantly, on some woeful pizza in the medical center’s student cafeteria. During the meal, he gave me some culinary advice: “Never eat at a so-called Italian restaurant where there is Caesar salad on the menu. What is this, Caesar salad ?” Then he went up to the designated operating room, and waited impatiently for his turn at bat—some urologists were taking forever to complete a robotic prostatectomy. By two-forty-ﬁve, he was back in scrubs. For this patient, he was using Intuitive Surgical’s newest model robot, the da Vinci S.P. (The initials stand for “Single Portal.”) The robot has a solitary appendage: a metal tube that contains within it four little arms ready to spring out, like the tools in a Swiss Army knife. The operating team attaches to the arms all the necessary devices, from hooks to forceps. The patient ends up with only one visible incision. Earlier this year, the University of Illinois at Chicago sent out a press release boasting that it owned the only S.P. in the city. The university’s internal review board had approved the gallbladder procedure, even though the F.D.A. has not yet oﬃcially cleared it for the S.P. According to Giulianotti’s estimate, only about ﬁfty such operations have been performed. When I walked into the operating room, the patient was inert; incisions had been made around her belly button, and a ﬂap of skin rested on her stomach like a tube of toothpaste that had been ﬂipped open. Giulianotti went over to his corner. The operation was not demanding—he had done it about ﬁve hundred times with the old, four-portal da Vinci. The probe, which resembled a metal straw, slid smoothly past the liver; once it was inside the abdomen, four tiny, jointed arms emerged from the tube. One held the camera; a second, deploying a grasper, pulled back the neck of the gallbladder; the remaining
two moved to clip and cut an artery that connects to the organ. Because the da Vinci S.P.’s purpose is to function in even narrower surgical ﬁelds than the standard model, it has special icons on the console that help the user keep track of where the three tools and the probe are at all times. If robotic surgery is dancing, the icons help keep you from stepping on your partner’s toes. Giulianotti quickly ran into trouble. In order to create a device that could ﬁt through one small incision, Intuitive Surgical had designed more delicate tools. Giulianotti’s grasper lost its grip on the gallbladder, and the organ ﬂopped back down, blocking the camera’s view. Giulianotti froze. I could sense his frustration both in his taut shoulders and on the screen. As I watched the grasper repeatedly fail to hit its target, I understood how much of an interloper the surgical tools were in the slippery conﬁnes of the body, and how much harm they could do if the surgeon got even slightly discombobulated. The patient’s liver hovered, like a piñata, just millimetres away. Eventually, Giulianotti retracted all the tools, so that he could see the larger area more clearly. The grasper successfully latched on to the gallbladder’s neck, and the rest of the operation went smoothly. Once the gallbladder was free, Giulianotti used the grasper to bring it near the surface; the assistant surgeon then used forceps to pull it out of the patient’s belly button. “It was diﬃcult,” Giulianotti told me, outside the operating room. “We are still working on the procedure, what we can do better.” He assured me, with a touch of wounded pride, that “with the multi-probe it would have been a piece of cake.” A staﬀer on the hospital’s internal review board asked him if there had been “any issues.” Giulianotti curtly reported that the beginning of the procedure had been a struggle. But, after he’d walked down the hall and thrown his used scrubs into a compactor, his enthusiasm resurfaced. Because the incision had been made in the belly button, he noted, “the patient will have no visible scar at all!” If a laparoscopic operation had been done with only one incision, he told me, it would have been much more risky. “And by the way,” he said, “she’s going home in two hours.”
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unning with scissors changed my life. At ﬁrst, it was just a hobby, but soon it became something I did almost every day, and now I can’t imagine life without it. It would just be so predictable. It all started when my parents yelled at me for running with scissors. I could tell that they were trying to hold me back—that they didn’t have the same ability to think outside the box that I did. I ignored them, and, as a result, I won a regional high-school running competition. There will always be people who don’t believe in your vision. Lots of kids in the races I ran would cry and whine, saying that it was “scary” to run next to me, or that I had “cut them badly.” I knew I couldn’t stay in school—the teachers there just weren’t smart enough to understand my innovative spirit. Also, they chased me oﬀ campus after I won a particularly great race and then joyously embraced the gym teacher, forgetting about the scissors thing. They say that bad things will happen if you run with scissors, but that hasn’t been my experience. After I ran (holding my scissors) out of school following the gym-teacher incident, I found it very easy to get a job, even though I hadn’t technically graduated from high school. You see, job interviews go much faster when you’re running around an oﬃce holding scissors. It’s as if you have a magical power over people. Of course, they’re all terriﬁed—terriﬁed of opening their minds to new ways of doing
things. But, at the same time, they feel compelled to hire you. I worked my way up the corporate ladder by being decisive and quick. I remember many a meeting where it looked like things weren’t going to go my way. But, after I took a few laps around the room holding scissors, people seemed willing to give me whatever I wanted. Eventually, I was promoted to C.E.O., after the other person who was going for the job mysteriously ended up in the hospital. It turns out that running a company is a lot like running with scissors. I bet you think that I’m going to talk about making cuts! But, really, success is about taking risks and not surrounding yourself with yes-men. Almost all the people around me disapproved of my running with scissors, but I didn’t take their advice. Unfortunately, there were a fair number of people who didn’t understand my maverick leadership style, and I had to let them go. But everyone who left the company was given a generous parting gift: a pair of scissors and an autographed copy of my book, “Cut and Run.” A few years ago, I retired from my job as C.E.O., and now I spend most of my time running with scissors to stay ﬁt, rather than to get ahead in the corporate world. To young people who want to be like me, I say: Don’t let society dictate what you can and can’t do. Ride your bike without a helmet, play with matches, eat glue—you never know where it might take you. But, please, don’t run with scissors. That’s my thing.
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THE MEME FACTORY How TikTok holds our attention. BY JIA TOLENTINO
arcella is eighteen and lives in a Texas suburb so quiet that it sometimes seems like a ghost town. She downloaded TikTok last fall, after seeing TikTok videos that had been posted on YouTube and Instagram. They were strange and hilarious and reminded her of Vine, the discontinued platform that teen-agers once used for uploading anarchic six-second videos that played on a loop. She opened TikTok, and it began showing her an endless scroll of videos, most of them ﬁfteen seconds or less. She watched the ones she liked a few times before moving on, and double-tapped her favorites, to “like” them. TikTok was learn-
ing what she wanted. It showed her more absurd comic sketches and supercuts of people painting murals, and fewer videos in which girls made fun of other girls for their looks. When you watch a video on TikTok, you can tap a button on the screen to respond with your own video, scored to the same soundtrack. Another tap calls up a suite of editing tools, including a timer that makes it easy to ﬁlm yourself. Videos become memes that you can imitate, or riﬀ on, rapidly multiplying much the way the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook ﬁve years ago. Marcella was lying on her bed looking at TikTok on a Thursday evening
TikTok doesn’t ask you to pretend that you’re on the Internet for a good reason. 34
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
when she began seeing video after video set to a clip of the song “Pretty Boy Swag,” by Soulja Boy. In each one, a person would look into the camera as if it were a mirror, and then, just as the song’s beat dropped, the camera would cut to a shot of the person’s doppelgänger. It worked like a punch line. A guy with packing tape over his nose became Voldemort. A girl smeared gold paint on her face, put on a yellow hoodie, and turned into an Oscar statue. Marcella propped her phone on her desk and set the TikTok timer. Her video took around twenty minutes to make, and is thirteen seconds long. She enters the frame in a white button-down, her hair dark and wavy. She adjusts her collar, checks her reﬂection, looks upward, and—the beat drops—she’s Anne Frank. Marcella’s friends knew about TikTok, but almost none of them were on it. She didn’t think that anyone would see what she’d made. Pretty quickly, though, her video began getting hundreds of likes, thousands, tens of thousands. People started sharing it on Instagram. On YouTube, the Swedish vlogger PewDiePie, who has more than a hundred million subscribers, posted a video mocking the media for suggesting that TikTok had a “Nazi problem”— Vice had found various accounts promoting white-supremacist slogans—then showed Marcella’s video, laughed, and said, “Never mind, actually, this does not help the case I was trying to make.” (PewDiePie has been criticized for employing anti-Semitic imagery in his videos, though his fans insist that his work is satire.) Marcella started to get direct messages on TikTok and Instagram, some of which called her anti-Semitic. One accused her of promoting Nazism. She deleted the video. In February, a friend texted me a YouTube rip of Marcella’s TikTok. I was alone with my phone at my desk on a week night, and when I watched the video I screamed. It was terrifyingly funny, like a well-timed electric shock. It also made me feel very old. I’d seen other TikToks, mostly on Twitter, and my primary impression was that young people were churning through images and sounds at warp speed, repurposing reality into ironic, bite-size content. Kids were clearly better than adults at whatever it was TikTok was for—“I haven’t ILLUSTRATION BY NICK LITTLE
seen one piece of content on there made by an adult that’s normal and good,” Jack Wagner, a “popular Instagram memer,” told The Atlantic last fall—though they weren’t the only ones using the platform. Arnold Schwarzenegger was on TikTok, riding a minibike and chasing a miniature pony. Drag queens were on TikTok, opera singers were on TikTok, the Washington Post was on TikTok, dogs I follow on Instagram were on TikTok. Most important, the self-made celebrities of Generation Z were on TikTok, a cohort of people in their teens and early twenties who have spent a decade ﬁlming themselves through a front-facing camera and meticulously honing their understanding of what their peers will respond to and what they will ignore. I sent an e-mail to Marcella. (That’s her middle name.) She’s from a military family, and likes to stay up late listening to music and writing. Marcella is Jewish, and she and her brothers were homeschooled. Not long before she made her video, her family had stopped at a base to renew their military I.D.s. One of her brothers glanced at her new I.D. and joked, accurately, that she looked like Anne Frank. In correspondence, Marcella was as earnest and thoughtful as her video had seemed ﬂip. She understood that it could seem oﬀensive out of context—a context that was invisible to nearly everyone who saw it—and she was sanguine about the angry messages that she’d received. TikTok, like the rest of the world, was a mixed bag, she thought, with bad ideas, and cruelty, and embarrassment, but also with so much creative potential. Its ironic sensibility was perfectly suited for people her age, and so was its industrial-strength ability to turn non-famous people into famous ones—even if only temporarily, even if only in a minor way. Marcella had accepted her brush with Internet fame as an odd thrill, and not an entirely foreign one: her generation had grown up on YouTube, she noted, watching ordinary kids become millionaires by turning on laptop cameras in their bedrooms and talking about stuﬀ they like. The videos that I’d been seeing, chaotic and sincere and nihilistic and very short, were the natural expressions of kids who’d had smartphones since they were in middle school, or elementary school. TikTok, Marcella explained, was a simple reac-
tion to, and an absurdist escape from, “the mass amounts of media we are exposed to every living day.”
ikTok has been downloaded more than a billion times since its launch, in 2017, and reportedly has more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat. Like those apps, it’s free, and peppered with advertising. I downloaded TikTok in May, adding its neon-shaded music-note logo to the array of app icons on my phone. Tik-
Tok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, which, in recent years, has invested heavily and made major advances in artiﬁcial intelligence. After a three-billion-dollar investment from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, last fall, ByteDance was valued at more than seventy-ﬁve billion dollars, the highest valuation for any startup in the world. I opened the app, and saw a threefoot-tall woman making her microwave door squeak to the melody of “Yeah!,” by Usher, and then a dental hygienist and her patient dancing to “Baby Shark.” A teen-age girl blew up a bunch of balloons that spelled “PUSSY” to the tune of a jazz song from the beloved soundtrack of the anime series “Cowboy Bebop.” Young white people lip-synched to audio of nonwhite people in ways that ranged from innocently racist to overtly racist. A kid sprayed shaving cream into a Croc and stepped into it so that shaving cream squirted out of the holes in the Croc. In ﬁve minutes, the app had sandblasted my cognitive matter with twenty TikToks that had the legibility and logic of a narcoleptic dream. TikTok is available in a hundred and ﬁfty markets. Its videos are typically built around music, so language tends not to pose a signiﬁcant barrier, and few of the videos have anything to do with the news, so they don’t easily become dated. The company is reportedly focussing its growth eﬀorts on the U.S., Japan, and India, which is its biggest market— smartphone use in the country has swelled, and TikTok now has two hundred million users there. ByteDance often hacks its way into a market, aggressively courting inﬂuencers on other social-media networks and spending huge amounts on advertising, much of which runs on competing platforms. Connie Chan, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, told me that investors normally
look for “organic growth” in social apps; ByteDance has been innovative, she said, in its ability and willingness to spend its way to big numbers. One former TikTok employee I spoke to was troubled by the company’s methods: “On Instagram, they’d run ads with clickbaity images—an open, gashed wound, or an overtly sexy image of a young teen girl— and it wouldn’t matter if Instagram users ﬂagged the images as long as the ad got a lot of engagement ﬁrst.” In April, the Indian government brieﬂy banned new downloads of the app, citing concerns that it was exposing minors to pornography and sexual predation. (At least three people in India have died from injuries sustained while creating TikToks: posing with a pistol, hanging out on train tracks, trying to ﬁt three people on a moving bike.) In court, ByteDance insisted that it was losing ﬁve hundred thousand dollars a day from the ban. The company announced plans to hire more local content moderators and to invest a billion dollars in India during the next three years. The ban was lifted, and the company launched a campaign: every day, three randomly selected users who promoted TikTok on other platforms with the hashtag #ReturnOf TikTok would receive the equivalent of fourteen hundred dollars. TikTok is a social network that has nothing to do with one’s social network. It doesn’t ask you to tell it who you know—in the future according to ByteDance, “large-scale AI models” will determine our “personalized information ﬂows,” as the Web site for the company’s research lab declares. The app provides a “Discover” page, with an index of trending hashtags, and a “For You” feed, which is personalized—if that’s the right word— by a machine-learning system that analyzes each video and tracks user behavior so that it can serve up a continually reﬁned, never-ending stream of TikToks optimized to hold your attention. In the teleology of TikTok, humans were put on Earth to make good content, and “good content” is anything that is shared, replicated, and built upon. In essence, the platform is an enormous meme factory, compressing the world into pellets of virality and dispensing those pellets until you get full or fall asleep. ByteDance has more than a dozen products, a number of which depend on THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
A.I. recommendation engines.These platforms collect data that the company aggregates and uses to reﬁne its algorithms, which the company then uses to reﬁne its platforms; rinse, repeat. This feedback loop, called the “virtuous cycle of A.I.,” is what each TikTok user experiences in miniature. The company would not comment on the details of its recommendation algorithm, but ByteDance has touted its research into computer vision, a process that involves extracting and classifying visual information; on the Web site of its research lab, the company lists “short video recommendation system” among the applications of the computer-vision technology that it’s developing. Although TikTok’s algorithm likely relies in part, as other systems do, on user history and video-engagement patterns, the app seems remarkably attuned to a person’s unarticulated interests. Some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food. After I had watched TikTok on and oﬀ for a couple of days, the racist lipsynchs disappeared from my feed. I started to see a lot of videos of fat dogs,
teen-agers playing pranks on their teachers, retail workers making lemonade from the lemons of being bored and underpaid. I still sometimes saw things I didn’t like: people in horror masks popping into the frame, or fourteen-year-old girls trying to be sexy, or rich kids showing oﬀ the McMansions where they lived. But I often found myself barking with laughter, in thrall to the unhinged cadences of the app. The over-all eﬀect called to mind both silent-movie slapstick and the sort of exaggerated, knowing stupidity one ﬁnds on the popular Netﬂix sketch show “I Think You Should Leave.” Some videos displayed new forms of digital artistry: a Polish teen-ager with braces and slate-blue eyes, who goes by @jeleniewska, makes videos in which she appears to be popping in and out of mirrors, phones, and picture frames. Others drew on surprising sources: an audio clip from Cecelia Condit’s art piece “Possibly in Michigan,” from 1983, went viral under the track label “oh no no no no no no no no silly” after a sixteen-year-old found the ﬁlm on a list of “creepy videos” that had been posted on YouTube. I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that
didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason. I was not giving TikTok my attention because I wanted to keep up with the news, or because I was trying to soothe and irritate myself by looking at photos of my friends on vacation. I was giving TikTok my attention because it was serving me what would retain my attention, and it could do that because it had been designed to perform algorithmic pyrotechnics that were capable of making a half hour pass before I remembered to look away. We have been inadvertently preparing for this experience for years. On YouTube and Twitter and Instagram, recommendation algorithms have been making us feel individually catered to while bending our selfhood into proﬁtable shapes. TikTok favors whatever will hold people’s eyeballs, and it provides the incentives and the tools for people to copy that content with ease. The platform then adjusts its predilections based on the closed loop of data that it has created. This pattern seems relatively trivial when the underlying material concerns shaving cream and Crocs, but it could determine much of our cultural future. The algorithm gives us whatever pleases us, and we, in turn, give the algorithm whatever pleases it. As the circle tightens, we become less and less able to separate algorithmic interests from our own.
ne of TikTok’s early competitors was Musical.ly, a lip-synching app based in Shanghai that had a large music library and had become extremely popular with American children. In 2016, an executive at an ad agency focussed on social media told the Times that Musical.ly was “the youngest social network we’ve ever seen,” adding, “You’re talking about ﬁrst, second, third grade.” ByteDance bought Musical.ly the following year, for an amount reportedly in the vicinity of a billion dollars, and merged the app with TikTok in August, 2018. In February, the Federal Trade Commission levied a $5.7-million ﬁne against the company: the agency found that a large percentage of Musical.ly users, who were now TikTok users, were under the age of thirteen, and the app did not ask for their ages or seek parental consent, as is required by federal law. The F.T.C. “uncovered disturbing practices, including
“Now show him projected sea levels on his golf course.”
collecting and exposing the location” of these children, according to an agency statement.TikTok handled this in a blunt, makeshift fashion: it added an age gate that asked for your birthday but which defaulted to the current date, meaning that users who failed to enter their age were instantly kicked oﬀ the app, and their videos were deleted. TikTok did not seem terribly worried about the com plaints that followed these deletions. It was now big enough not to care. A few months after TikTok arrived in the U.S., a nineteenyearold rapper and singer from Georgia named Mon tero Lamar Hill uploaded a song that he had been trying for weeks to promote as the basis of a meme. Hill, who goes by the stage name Lil Nas X, had spent much of his teens attempting to go viral on Twitter and elsewhere. There is a sweet ness to his selfpresentation, which seems optimized for digital interaction; he wears tengallon hats and fringe and glitter, a laughcryingcowboy emoji come to life. “The Internet is basically, like, my par ents in a way,” he told the Times this spring, after people began making vid eos featuring a snippet of his song “Old Town Road,” in which they would drink “yee yee juice” and turn into cowboys and cowgirls. The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April, and stayed there longer than any song ever had. Certain musical elements serve as TikTok catnip: bassheavy transitions that can be used as punch lines; rap songs that are easy to lipsynch or include a narrativefriendly call and response. A twentysixyearold Australian producer named Adam Friedman, half of the duo Cookie Cutters, told me that he was now concentrating on lyrics that you could act out with your hands. “I write hooks, and I try it in the mirror—how many hand movements can I ﬁt into ﬁfteen seconds?” he said. “You know, goodbye, call me back, peace out, F you.” TikTok employs an artistrelations team that contacts musicians whose songs are going viral and coaches them on how to use the platform. Some vid eos include links to Apple Music, which pays artists per stream, though not very much. Virality can thus pay oﬀ else where, relieving the pressure for Tik Tok to compensate artists directly. It is, these days, a standard arrangement: you will be “paid” in exposure, giving your
labor to a social platform in part be cause a lot of other people are doing it and in part because you might be one of the people whom the platform sends, however brieﬂy, to the top. If you are one of those people, Tik Tok can be a godsend. Sub Urban, a nineteenyearold artist from New Jer sey, got a deal with Warner Records after millions of TikTokers started do ing a dance from the video game Fortnite to his song “Cradles.” In August, a twentyoneyearold rap per from Sacramento who goes by the name Stunna Girl learned that a song of hers had gone viral on the app, and soon signed a rec ord deal with Capitol. Tik Tok also oﬀers artists the uniquely moving experience of watching total strangers freely and enthusiastically produce music videos for them. Jonathan Visger, an electronic artist known as Absofacto, told me that it had changed his entire outlook on his career to see nearly two million Tik Toks all set to his 2015 single “Dissolve,” a heady pop song that inspired a meme in which people appeared to be falling through a series of portals. “I think the song worked well for the platform because the lyrics are ‘I just wanted you to watch me dissolve, slowly, in a pool full of your love,’” Vis ger told me recently. “Which is a lot like ‘I’m on the Internet, I want to be seen, and I want you to like it.’” I asked him if he’d been thinking about the In ternet when he was writing it. “No!” he said, laughing. “I was thinking about unrequited love.” ByteDance is developing a music streaming service—which will likely launch ﬁrst in emerging markets, such as India—and it is currently negotiat ing the renewal of old Musical.ly licens ing agreements with the three compa nies that control roughly eighty per cent of music globally. ByteDance also has acquired a Londonbased startup called Jukedeck, which has been developing A.I. musiccreation tools, including a program that can interpret video and compose music that suits it. Incorporat ing such technology into TikTok could give ByteDance total ownership of con tent created within the app. Multiple
people at TikTok and ByteDance told me that they were not aware of any plans to add this sort of tool, but TikTok’s plans have a way of abruptly changing. In some respects, what’s sonically valu able on TikTok isn’t any diﬀerent from what has long succeeded on radio; no popsongwriting practice is more estab lished than crafting a good hook. But the app could begin to inﬂuence com position in other ways. Dig ital platforms and digital at tention spans may make hit songs shorter, for instance. (“Old Town Road” clocks in at under two minutes.) Adam Friedman has begun producing music directly for inﬂuencers, and engineering it for maximum TikTok suc cess. “We start with the snip pet, and if it does well on TikTok we’ll produce the full song,” he told me. I suggested that some people might think there was a kind of artistic integrity missing from this process. “The inﬂuencer is playing a central role in our culture, and it’s not new,” he said. “There’ve always been socialites, people of inﬂuence, the Paris World’s Fair. Whatever mecca that people go to for culture is where they go to for culture, and in this moment it’s TikTok.” ikTok’s U.S. operations are currently based at a coworking space in a generic fourstory building on a busy thoroughfare in Culver City, in Los An geles. I visited the oﬃce twice this sum mer, after an extensive email correspon dence with a company spokesperson. The ﬁrst person TikTok oﬀered for an ontherecord chat was a twentyyear old TikToker named Ben De Almeida, who lives in Alberta and, on the app, goes by @benoftheweek. De Almeida ﬁrst went viral on TikTok with a video that noted his resemblance to the actor Noah Centineo, best known for his roles on “The Fosters” and in teen movies on Netﬂix. De Almeida wore red striped pants and a yellow shirt and was accom panied by a handler; he radiated good natured charisma. When I extended my hand, he immediately went in for a hug. “I’m excited to share what it’s like to be a TikToker,” he said. De Almeida was in L.A. for the sum mer, “collabing,” he told me. He said
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
that he’d “always wanted to be a creator,” using the term that has become a catchall identity for people who make money by producing content for social platforms. He’d grown up admiring YouTubers, “people like Shane Dawson and iJustine,” and had begun making online videos when he was twelve. He used to post videos on Snapchat, but he got on TikTok in November and now has two million followers. In conversation, De Almeida, like other TikTok teens I talked to, mixed the ecstatically strange dialect of people who love memes—a language in which every word sets oﬀ a chain of incomprehensible referents—with the sort of anodyne corporate jargon I associate with marketing professionals. “In this generation, you get steeped in the culture of online video,” he said. “You naturally pick up on what can be a trend.” He pulled out his phone and showed me one of his early TikTok hits, in which he pretended to put a can of beans in the microwave and burn his mom’s house down. Later that day, in West Hollywood, at an outpost of Joe & the Juice, I met with Jacob Pace, the ebullient twentyone-year-old C.E.O. of a content-production company called Flighthouse. Pace wore a charcoal T-shirt and had the erratic energy of a champion sled dog on break. Flighthouse has more than nineteen million followers on TikTok, and its videos reﬂect an intuitive understanding of its audience: Pikachu in a baseball cap, dancing; a girl eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in a bowl full of milk. Pace has ﬁfteen employees working under him to make TikToks, some of which serve as back-end marketing for record labels that have paid Flighthouse to promote particular songs. He was about to travel to New York to present to ad agencies. “What gets me out of bed in the morning is creating and impacting culture,” he said. Figuring out how to make TikToks that people liked and related to was, he said, like “helping to perfect a machine that will one day start running perfectly.” Many of the people whose professional lives are dependent on or tied to TikTok were eager to talk to me, but 38
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
that eagerness was not shared by people who actually work for the company. A former TikTok employee told me, in a direct message, “As strategic as it appears from the outside it’s a complete chaos on the inside.” After my ﬁrst visit to the L.A. oﬃce, I sent a TikTok representative a list of questions asking for basic information, including the number of employees at the company, the number of moderators, the demographics of its users, and the number of hours of video uploaded to the platform daily. The representative informed me, weeks later, that there were “a couple hundred people working on TikTok in the US” and “thousands of moderators” across all of TikTok’s markets, and she said that she couldn’t answer any of the other questions. TikTok’s primary selling point is that it feels unusually fun, like it’s the last sunny corner on the Internet. I asked multiple TikTok employees whether the company did anything to insure that this mood prevailed in the videos that the app served its users. Speaking with an executive, in August, about the app’s “Discover” page, I asked, “What if the most trending thing was something that you didn’t want to be the most trending thing? Would you put something else in its place?” The executive said that doing so would run counter to TikTok’s ethos. A few weeks later, the online trade magazine Digiday reported that TikTok had begun sending select media companies a weekly newsletter that previewed “the trending hashtags that the platform plans to promote.” A copy of the newsletter that I obtained lists such hashtags as #BeachDay and #AlwaysHustling, and it instructs, “If you’re interested in participating, make sure to upload your video no earlier than one day before the hashtag launch.” Later, a representative told me that the company might choose not to include certain hashtags on the “Discover” page, and that TikTok was interested in highlighting positive trends, like #TikTokDogs. TikTok employees in Los Angeles declined to talk in any detail about their relationship to ByteDance headquarters, in Beijing, and everyone I spoke to emphasized that the U.S. operation was
fairly independent. But one former employee, who left the company in 2018, described this as a “total fabrication.” (A ByteDance spokesperson, in response, said that the markets were becoming more independent and that much of that process had happened within the past year.) TikTok’s technology was developed in China, and it is reﬁned in China. Another ex-employee, who had worked in the Shanghai oﬃce, said that nearly all product features are shipped out from Shanghai and Beijing, where most of ByteDance’s engineers are based. “At a tech company, where the engineers are is what matters,” the writer and former Facebook product manager Antonio Garcia-Martinez told me. “Everyone else is a puppet paid to lie to you.” The direct predecessor of TikTok is Douyin, a short-video platform that ByteDance launched in China in 2016. Douyin is headquartered in Shanghai, and ByteDance says that it has more than ﬁve hundred million monthly active users. Zhou Rongrong, a twentynine-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, in Beijing, who has studied Internet art in China, said that most young people in the country are on Douyin. In particular, she said, the app has opened up new kinds of economic potential for people outside the country’s traditional centers of power. “For example, I had no way before to see these ways that rural people can cook their dishes,” Zhou said. Douyin has given rise to inﬂuencers like Yeshi Xiaoge—the name means “brother who cooks in the wilderness”—who ﬁlms himself preparing elaborate meals, and who has released his own line of beef sauce. Rural administrations have begun advertising their regions’ produce and tourist attractions on the app. Though it remains broadly similar to TikTok, Douyin has become more advanced than its global counterpart, particularly with respect to e-commerce. With three taps on Douyin, you can buy a product featured in a video; you can book a stay at a hotel after watching a video shot there; you can take virtual tours of a city’s stores and restaurants, get coupons for those establishments, and later post geo-tagged video reviews. Fabian Bern, the head of a marketing company that works closely with Douyin inﬂuencers, told me that some
power users can make “ﬁfteen to twenty thousand U.S. dollars” on a shopping holiday like Singles’ Day. So far, TikTok has concentrated more on expanding its user base than on oﬀering opportunities for e-commerce. If TikTok wants to keep growing, it will need to attract more people who are no longer in their teens, and it will need to hold their attention. Many people are not terribly interested in even the choicest memes the world has to oﬀer; in August, the Verge reported that a “signiﬁcant majority” of new TikTok users give up on the app after thirty days. Bern thinks that TikTok content will soon become more mature, as has already happened with Douyin, which now contains micro-vlogs, life-style content, business advice, and videos from local police. Selected users on Douyin can upload videos as long as ﬁve minutes. Fictional minidramas have begun to appear. “This meme content, people will get bored with it,” Bern said. “And companies are, like, ‘We cannot make this type of content or we’ll damage our brands.’ ” yteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, was twenty-nine when he started the company, in 2012. Zhang, who rarely gives interviews, was raised in Fujian Province, the son of a civil servant and a nurse, and attended university in the northern port city of Tianjin. He brieﬂy worked at Microsoft in China, and bounced between startups for a while. He then pitched Chinese investors on the idea of a news-aggregation app that would use machine learning to provide people with whatever they wished to read. The app, called Jinri Toutiao, was launched within the year. Its name means “today’s top headlines.” It’s a bit like Reddit, if Reddit were guided by A.I. rather than by the upvotes and downvotes of its readers. Like TikTok, Toutiao starts feeding you content as soon as you open it, and it adjusts the mix by tracking and analyzing your scrolling behavior, the time of day, and your location. It can deduce how its users read while commuting, and what they like to look at before bed. It reportedly has around a hundred and twenty million daily active users, most of whom are under thirty. On average, they read their tailored feeds for more than an hour each day.
The app has a reputation for promoting lowbrow clickbait. In China, daily life has become even more tech-driven than it is in the U.S. People can pay for things by letting cameras scan their faces; last year, a high school in Hangzhou installed scanners that recorded classrooms every thirty seconds and classiﬁed students’ facial expressions as neutral, happy, sad, angry, upset, or surprised. The Chinese government has been assembling what it calls the Social Credit System, a network of overlapping assessments of citizen trustworthiness, with opaque calculations that integrate information from public records and private databases. The government has also set benchmarks for progress in artiﬁcial-intelligence development at ﬁve-year intervals. Last year, Tianjin announced plans to put sixteen billion dollars toward A.I. funding; Shanghai announced a plan to raise ﬁfteen billion. There are two principal approaches to artiﬁcial intelligence. In symbolic A.I., humans give computers a set of elabo-
rate rules that guide them through a task. This works well for things like chess, but everyday tasks—identifying faces, interpreting language—tend to be governed by human instinct as much as by rules. And so another approach, known as neural networks, or machine learning, has predominated in the past two decades or so. Under this model, computers learn by recognizing patterns in data and continually adjusting until the desired output—a correctly labelled face, a properly translated phrase—is consistently achieved. In this sort of system, the quantity of data is, broadly speaking, more important than the sophistication of the program interpreting it. The sheer number of users that Chinese companies have, and the types of data that come from the integration of tech with daily life, give those companies a crucial advantage. Chinese tech companies are often partly funded by the government, and they openly defer to its requests, turning over user messages and purchase data, for instance. Tencent, which owns WeChat, has a “Follow Our Party” sign
Kenneth Victor Young, Untitled (Abstract Composition), acrylic on canvas, 1972. Estimate $80,000 to $120,000.
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THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
on a statue in front of its headquarters. The Wall Street Journal has reported that a ByteDance oﬃce in Beijing includes a room for a cybersecurity team of the Chinese police, which the company informs when it “ﬁnds criminal content like terrorism or pedophilia” on its apps. Last year, ByteDance was ordered to suspend Toutiao and to shut down a meme-centric social app called Neihan Duanzi—the name means something like “implied jokes”—because the content had become too vulgar, too disorderly, for the state. Zhang issued an apology, written in the language of government control. ByteDance had allowed content to appear that was “incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance,” he said. Three days later, the Times reported that the Chinese government had deployed facial-recognition technology to identify Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the country, through its nationwide network of surveillance cameras. China has imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in reëducation camps, in Xinjiang, and has subjected them to a surge in arrests, trials, and prison sentences. In August, I asked a ByteDance spokesperson about the fear that the massive trove of facial closeups accumulated on its various products could be misused. Even if people trusted ByteDance not to do anything sinister, I said, what if a third party got hold of the company’s data? The spokesperson told me that the data of American users was stored in-country—TikTok’s data is now kept in the U.S. and Singapore, the rep said—and noted, nonchalantly, that people made their faces available to other platforms, too. Of course, U.S. tech companies often don’t seem answerable enough to the government—or, rather, to the public. The American system has its own weaknesses. Dinesh Raman, an A.I.-alignment researcher in Tokyo, who has studied ByteDance as a consultant for some of its investors, spoke with a mixture of alarm and admiration about the company’s A.I. capabilities. “The system is doing billions of calculations per second,” he said. “It’s data being transmitted at a scale I’ve never seen before.” Raman insisted that TikTok had kept its platform tightly policed in part through its algorithm, which, he said, is able to identify videos with 40
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
dangerous content. (TikTok’s moderators are trained to apply diﬀerent standards to every market, the company told me.) He pointed me to the “Gaga Dance” challenge, a meme on Indonesian TikTok that asked users to mirror the poses of cheerful yellow stick ﬁgures that ﬂoated across the screen. The A.I., he suggested, was training itself in pose estimation, a deep-learning capability with major surveillance implications. OpenPose, a program developed at Carnegie Mellon, has been used by a Japanese telecom company to alert shopkeepers to customers whose movements supposedly signal that they are likely to steal something. The Chinese government is more interested in surveilling and controlling its own citizens than it is in monitoring foreign nationals; one of the reasons that ByteDance launched TikTok as a separate entity from Douyin was to establish a ﬁrewall between the Chinese state and users outside China. But state interference can cross borders. In August, Facebook and Twitter revealed that they’d found evidence of a Chinese-government campaign to spread disinformation about the protests in Hong Kong, which began in June by calling for the withdrawal of an extradition bill and have since widened in scope, demanding democratic reforms. If you pull up the hashtag #HongKong on TikTok, you’ll ﬁnd plenty of videos, but few, if any, about the protests. The hashtag #protest elicits demonstrations from around the globe—London, Melbourne, South Africa, and, especially, India—but almost none from Hong Kong. (On Instagram, both #HongKong and #protest call up plenty of such images.) Meanwhile, a search for one of the primary Chinese-language hashtags that Hong Kong protesters have used on other platforms yields a small handful of videos, with a total of a hundred and ten thousand views. (As the Washington Post noted, in a piece investigating the relative absence of the Hong Kong protests on TikTok, videos hashtagged #snails have more than six and a half million views.) It’s true that the Hong Kong user base is not large, relatively speaking— TikTok told me that the app had fewer than a hundred and ﬁfty thousand daily active users there—though that is the case for Twitter, too, and videos from the protests have gone viral on that platform.
TikTok is generally thought of as a place for gooﬁng oﬀ rather than for engaging in political discourse, and a TikTok executive dismissed the idea that the company was manually or algorithmically suppressing Hong Kong-related content. But one of the risks of giving our attention to entertainment governed by privately controlled algorithms is that those who own the algorithms will always be able to say that they are merely delivering what we want to see. A platform designed for viral communication will never naturally be politics-free. In August, a new sort of video started appearing on Douyin. Uighurs in China were using the app’s editing suite to place themselves against a backdrop of loved ones who have disappeared, as sad string music plays. In one, a tearful young woman wearing a yellow shirt holds up four ﬁngers, one for each person in the photo behind her. It may be a double signal: “four” and “death” are pronounced similarly in Mandarin. Douyin has deleted many of these videos, although, like everything that goes viral on TikTok, they have found an audience on Instagram and Twitter. ikTok is not the ﬁrst social-media app to begin its life with an air of freewheeling fun. The darker and more complicated parts of life never stay away forever. A college student from Philadelphia recently went viral with a multipart video account of her relationship with the rapper and onetime Vine star Riﬀ Raﬀ, which began when she was seventeen. A Miami student was arrested after his videos were interpreted as threats to shoot up schools. TikTok may ﬁgure out how to maintain or enforce a jovial vibe more eﬀectively than its predecessors have—but, even if it does, the kids who made it popular may get bored and move on to the next thing. Whatever comes along will likely owe something to TikTok. Facebook has already released a TikTok clone, called Lasso, which ﬂopped, and the app researcher Jane Manchun Wong recently discovered that Instagram has been testing TikTok-like features. A.I.-powered algorithms are becoming central to the ways that we process our everyday existence. Someday, other companies could use ByteDance’s A.I. systems the way they now use Google’s cloud-computing
services: like a utility—gas or electricity for the new A.I.-driven world. “People say TikTok will run out of money, that it’s going to end up like Vine,” Bern, the marketer, said. “But TikTok has one of the biggest companies in China behind them. ByteDance is way ahead of everyone else already, in terms of the way they use A.I. They know everything about a person. They can give that person everything they want.” In August, I took the train from Atlantic Terminal, in Brooklyn, to Patchogue, on the South Shore of Long Island, where the eighteen-city Boys of Summer teen-inﬂuencer tour was stopping for the day. It was sultry and cloudless, and as I walked up to the designated venue on Ocean Avenue I saw a pack of girls, who looked to be thirteen or fourteen, in jean shorts and braces and tube tops, and a few ﬂoppy-haired boys who looked slightly older—TikTok-famous heartthrobs named Sam and Josh and Payton, who were hugging their fans, taking selﬁes, accepting scrunchies as oﬀerings and stacking them on their arms. “I love you,” the girls yelled. “I love you, too,” the guys said back. Video-making had been incorporated into this ritual in a startlingly seamless way: before one girl could ﬁnish asking a TikToker to make a video saying hi to her friend Adrianne, the TikToker was halfway through a video saying hi to her friend Adrianne. Inside the venue, parents were drinking Michelob Ultra and staring into the middle distance. Kids were making TikToks everywhere, phones propped up on bar railings; they were moving on and oﬀ the Internet, dead serious about getting their content. In the meet-andgreet line, I talked to a blond fourteenyear-old in a white bucket hat named Dylan Hartman, who has more than half a million followers, and whose videos often feature him shirtless, brushing his hair back, lip-synching to rap. “That’s the one they all want to marry,” a mom who was chaperoning her daughter and a friend whispered to me. Another TikToker, Grasyn Hull, was wearing a “Virginity Rocks” shirt that a fan had given him. “I make memes and stuﬀ, and I just blew up,” Hull said. The crowd was almost entirely female, and about three-quarters of the TikTokers were male; occasionally, a
sharp hormonal whiﬀ of agony and longing would enter the air. Nearly everyone was white, and nearly everyone was mouthing along to hip-hop and doing viral dances, making sinuous, jerky movements. This is the way people learn to move, perhaps, when the ruling idea is that your physical presence should pop when viewed on a smartphone. I watched Zoe Laverne, a blond social-media star, make content on outstretched phones as reﬂexively and smoothly as a President shakes hands along a receiving line. Then the lights went down and the children started screaming. The m.c. asked us to raise our left hands and promise, in unison, to have a “lit time.” Later, in line at the merch table, I talked to a thirteen-year-old girl named Beau, from New Jersey, who told me that a good TikToker was someone who “did things that made you want to watch them.” She’d been on short-form-video platforms since the third grade, when she downloaded Musical.ly. Many of the kids I talked to said that TikTok made them feel connected to other people their age. The memes surfaced glancing sensations that might otherwise be forgotten, or stay private: what it was like to sit in the back seat while your mom drove around listening to Calvin Harris; what it was like to be little, and sleepless, standing nervously outside your parents’ bedroom door at 3 A.M. I had stopped impulsively checking TikTok after a month—I already have enough digital tools to insure that I never need to sit alone with the simple fact of being alive. But I could understand being thirteen and feeling like the world would be better if as many people as possible could be seen by as many people as possible all the time. I could imagine experiencing a social platform as a vast, warm ocean of aﬀection and excitement, even if that ocean needed money that it could generate only by persuading you not to leave. I wondered how many baby siblings of these TikTok fanatics were at home, sitting in front of iPads, adrift in an endless stream of YouTube videos. Perhaps the time had come to let the algorithm treat the rest of us like babies, too. Maybe it knows more about what we like than we do. Maybe it knows that if it can capture our attention for long enough it won’t have to ask us what we like anymore. It will have already decided.
Tom Phillips, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Inferno, in three volumes, London, 1983. Estimate $15,000 to $25,000.
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A REPORTER AT LARGE
VALUE MEAL Impossible Foods wants to save the world by inventing a better burger. BY TAD FRIEND
ows are easy to love. Their eyes are a liquid brown, their noses inquisitive, their udders homely; small children thrill to their moo. Most people like them even better dead. Americans eat three hamburgers a week, so serving beef at your cookout is as patriotic as buying a gun. When progressive Democrats proposed a Green New Deal, earlier this year, leading Republicans labelled it a plot to “take away your hamburgers.” The former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka characterized this plunder as “what Stalin dreamt about,” and Trump himself accused the Green New Deal of proposing to “permanently eliminate” cows. In fact, of course, its authors were merely advocating a sensible reduction in meat eating. Who would want to take away your hamburgers and eliminate cows? Well, Pat Brown does, and pronto. A sixty-ﬁve-year-old emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, Brown is the founder and C.E.O. of Impossible Foods. By developing plantbased beef, chicken, pork, lamb, dairy, and ﬁsh, he intends to wipe out all animal agriculture and deep-sea ﬁshing by 2035. His ﬁrst product, the Impossible Burger, made chieﬂy of soy and potato proteins and coconut and sunﬂower oils, is now in seventeen thousand restaurants. When we met, he arrived not in Silicon Valley’s obligatory silver Tesla but in an orange Chevy Bolt that resembled a crouching troll. He emerged wearing a T-shirt depicting a cow with a red slash through it, and immediately declared, “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth. We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.” Meat is essentially a huge check written against the depleted funds of our environment. Agriculture consumes more freshwater than any other human activity, and nearly a third of that water
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
is devoted to raising livestock. Onethird of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed for livestock, which are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Razing forests to graze cattle—an area larger than South America has been cleared in the past quarter century—turns a carbon sink into a carbon spigot. Brown began paying attention to this planetary overdraft during the late twothousands, even as his lab was publishing on topics ranging from ovariancancer detection to how babies acquire their gut microbiome. In 2008, he had lunch with Michael Eisen, a geneticist and a computational scientist. Over rice bowls, Brown asked, “What’s the biggest problem we could work on?” “Climate change,” Eisen said. Duh. “And what’s the biggest thing we could do to aﬀect it?” Brown said, a glint in his eye. Eisen threw out a few trendy notions: biofuels, a carbon tax. “Unhunh,” Brown said. “It’s cows!” When the world’s one and a half billion beef and dairy cows ruminate, the microbes in their bathtub-size stomachs generate methane as a by-product. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, some twenty-ﬁve times more heattrapping than carbon dioxide, cattle are responsible for two-thirds of the livestock sector’s G.H.G. emissions. (In the popular imagination, the culprit is cow farts, but it’s mostly cow burps.) Steven Chu, a former Secretary of Energy who often gives talks on climate change, tells audiences that if cows were a country their emissions “would be greater than all of the E.U., and behind only China and America.” Every four pounds of beef you eat contributes to as much global warming as ﬂying from New York to London—and the average American eats that much each month. “So how do we do it?” Eisen asked. “Legal economic sabotage!” Brown said. He understood that the facts didn’t
compel people as strongly as their craving for meat, and that shame was counterproductive. So he’d use the power of the free market to disseminate a better, cheaper replacement. And, because sixty per cent of America’s beef gets ground up, he’d start with burgers. A lean marathon runner with the air of a wading stork, Brown was an unlikely food entrepreneur. His older brother, Jim, said, “The idea of Pat running a company was a real surprise. The mission had always been gene mapping and ﬁnding cures for AIDS and cancer.” Brown, a vegan who ate his last burger in 1976, had never spared a thought to food, considering it “just stuﬀ to shove in your mouth.” Free-rangingly curious, he lacked a C.E.O.’s veal-penned focus. “Pat gave some of the best science talks I’ve ever seen,” Eisen told me, “and also some of the worst, because the slides wouldn’t match after he started talking about something diﬀerent from what he had planned.” The existing plant-based armory was unpromising; veggie burgers went down like a dull sermon. But, Brown reasoned, this was because they were designed for the wrong audience—vegetarians, the ﬁve per cent of the population who had accustomed themselves to the pallid satisfactions of bean sprouts and quinoa. “The other veggie-burger companies were just trying to be as good as the next plant-based replacement for meat, which meant they were making something no meat lover would ever put in his mouth,” Brown said. To get meat-eaters to love meat made from plants, he had to resolve a scientiﬁc question, one that he decided was the most important in the world: What makes meat so delicious? Brown assembled a team of scientists, who approached simulating a hamburger as if it were the Apollo program. They made their burger sustainable: the Impossible Burger requires eighty-seven per cent less water and ninety-six per
Pat Brown, Impossible’s founder, argues that we can’t fight climate change unless we get rid of cows. PHOTOGRAPH BY THE VOORHES
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cent less land than a cowburger, and its production generates eighty-nine per cent less G.H.G. emissions. They made it nutritionally equal to or superior to beef. And they made it look, smell, and taste very diﬀerent from the customary veggie replacement. Impossible’s breakthrough involves a molecule called heme, which the company produces in tanks of genetically modiﬁed yeast. Heme helps an Impossible Burger remain pink in the middle as it cooks, and it replicates how heme in cow muscle catalyzes the conversion of simple nutrients into the molecules that give beef its yeasty, bloody, savory ﬂavor. To my palate, at least, the Impossible Burger still lacks a beef burger’s amplitude, that crisp initial crunch followed by shreds of beef falling apart on your tongue. But, in taste tests, half the respondents can’t distinguish Impossible’s patty from a Safeway burger. Eighteen months ago, White Castle, the nation’s oldest burger chain, started selling the Impossible Slider, and sales exceeded expectations by more than thirty per cent. Lisa Ingram, White Castle’s C.E.O., said, “We’ve often had customers return to the counter to say, ‘You gave us the wrong order, the real burger.’” In August, Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper in all of its seventy-two hundred locations. Fernando Machado, the company’s chief marketing oﬃcer, said, “Burger King skews male and older, but Impossible brings in young people and women, and puts us in a diﬀerent spectrum of quality, freshness, and health.” Ninety-ﬁve per cent of those who buy the Impossible Burger are meat-eaters. The radio host Glenn Beck, who breeds cattle when he’s not leading the “They’re taking away your hamburgers!” caucus, recently tried the Impossible Burger on his show, in a blind taste test against a beef burger—and guessed wrong. “That is insane!” he marvelled. “I could go vegan!” Pat Brown had built a better mouthtrap. But would that be enough?
he working title of Impossible Foods’ 2019 impact report was “Fuck the Meat Industry.” “I never seriously considered using it,” Brown told me, “but it helps frame the mojo.” Brown has a light voice, a tolerant smile, and an engaging habit of absorption; he often remarks that some scientiﬁc conundrum is “too arcane
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to get into,” then plunges into it regardless, surfacing minutes later with a sheepish “Anyway, anyway!” as he tries to recall the topic at hand. But the mojo is conquest. “We plan to take a double-digit portion of the beef market within ﬁve years, and then we can push that industry, which is fragile and has low margins, into a death spiral,” he said. “Then we can just point to the pork industry and the chicken industry and say ‘You’re next!’ and they’ll go bankrupt even faster.” Meat producers don’t seem too worried that Brown will rid the earth of livestock by 2035. The three largest meatpacking companies in America have combined annual revenues of more than two hundred billion dollars. Mark Dopp, a senior executive at the North American Meat Institute, a lobbying group, told me, “I just don’t think it’s possible to wipe out animal agriculture in sixteen years. The tentacles that ﬂow from the meat industry—the leather and the pharmaceuticals made from its byproducts, the millions of jobs in America, the infrastructure—I don’t see that being displaced over even ﬁfty years.” A number of alternative-protein entrepreneurs share Brown’s mission but believe he’s going about it the wrong way. The plant-based producer Beyond Meat is in ﬁfty-three thousand outlets, including Carl’s Jr., A&W, and Dunkin’, and has a foothold in some ﬁfty countries. Its I.P.O., in May, was the most successful oﬀering of the year, with the stock up more than ﬁve hundred per cent; though the company is losing money, investors have noticed that sales of plantbased meat in restaurants nearly quadrupled last year. While Impossible depends on the patented ingredient heme, Beyond builds its burgers and sausages without genetically modiﬁed components, touting that approach as healthier. Ethan Brown, Beyond’s founder and C.E.O. (and no relation to Pat Brown), told me, jocularly, “I have an agreement with my staﬀ that if I have a heart attack they have to make it look like an accident.” Several dozen other startups have taken an entirely diﬀerent approach: growing meat from animal cells. Yet even Pat Brown’s competitors often end up following his lead. Mike Selden, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Finless Foods, a startup working on cell-based blueﬁn tuna, said, “Pat and Impossible made it
seem like there’s a real industry here. He stopped using the words ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ and set the rules for the industry: ‘If our product can’t compete on regular metrics like taste, price, convenience, and nutrition, then all we’re doing is virtue signalling for rich people.’ And he incorporated biotechnology in a way that’s interesting to meat-eaters—Pat made alternative meat sexy.” What’s striking about Brown is his aggression. He is a David eager to headbutt Goliath. “If you could do two things of equal value for the world, and in one of them someone is trying to stop you, I would do that one,” he told me. Brown doesn’t care that plant-based meat amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of the $1.7-trillion global market for meat, ﬁsh, and dairy, or that meat contributes to the livelihoods of some 1.3 billion people. His motto, enshrined on the wall of Impossible’s oﬃce, is “Blast ahead!” During the six months that I was reporting this story, the company’s head count grew sixty per cent, to ﬁve hundred and ﬁfty-two, and its total funding nearly doubled, to more than seven hundred and ﬁfty million dollars. Brown laid out the math: to meet his 2035 goal, Impossible just has to double its production every year, on average, for the next 14.87 years. This means that it has to scale up more than thirty thousandfold. When I observed that no company has ever grown anywhere near that fast for that long, he shrugged and said, “We will be the most impactful company in the history of the world.” merica’s ﬁrst commercial mock meat came out of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, in Michigan, at the turn of the twentieth century. The sanitarium was run by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a member of the vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist Church, who proselytized for sexual abstinence and made his eponymous cornﬂakes superbly bland, hoping that their ingestion would dampen lust. When Kellogg began to sell cans of Protose, an insipid mixture of nuts and gluten, he claimed that it “resembles potted veal or chicken”—meat in general, rather than any speciﬁc one. In the seventies and eighties, soy burgers developed by MorningStar Farms and Gardenburger epitomized a peaceful life style, indicating that “no
animals were harmed in the making of this patty.” In 2001, Bruce Friedrich, who ran vegan campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, led a “Murder King” protest, trying to get Burger King to change its ways. The chain tweaked its animal-welfare policies, but kept on selling beef. Friedrich, who is now the executive director of the Good Food Institute, which advocates for meat replacements, told me, “If you’re asking fast-food restaurants to pay more to compete, and to use a veggie burger that isn’t very good, that’s a colossal fail.” In the past decade, venture capitalists have begun funding companies that view animal meat not as inﬂammatory, or as emblematic of the Man, but as a problematic technology. For one thing, it’s dangerous. Eating meat increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer; a recent Finnish study found that, across a twenty-two-year span, devoted meat-eaters were twenty-three per cent more likely to die. Because antibiotics are routinely mixed into pig and cattle and poultry feed to protect and fatten the animals, animal ag promotes antibiotic resistance, which is projected to cause ten million deaths a year by 2050. And avian and swine ﬂus, the most likely vectors of the next pandemic, pass easily to humans, including via the aerosolized feces widely present in slaughterhouses. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found fecal matter in sixty-nine per cent of pork and ninety-two per cent of poultry; Consumer Reports found it in a hundred per cent of ground beef. For another thing, meat is wildly ineﬃcient. Because cattle use their feed not only to grow muscle but also to grow bones and a tail and to trot around and to think their mysterious thoughts, their energy-conversion eﬃciency—the number of calories their meat contains compared with the number they take in to make it—is a woeful one per cent. It’s easy enough to replicate some animal products (egg whites are basically just nine proteins and water), but mimicking cooked ground beef is a real undertaking. Broadly speaking, a burger is sixty per cent water, twenty-ﬁve per cent protein, and ﬁfteen per cent fat, but, broadly speaking, if you assembled forty-two litres of water you’d be sixty per cent of the way to a human being. Cooked beef contains at least four thou-
sand diﬀerent molecules, of which about a hundred contribute to its aroma and ﬂavor and two dozen contribute to its appearance and texture. When you heat plant parts, they get softer, or they wilt. When you heat a burger, its amino acids react with simple sugars and unsaturated fats to form ﬂavor compounds. The proteins also change shape to form protein gels and insoluble protein aggregates—chewy bits—as the patty browns and its juices caramelize. This transformation gives cooked meat its nuanced complexity: its yummy umami. Mimicking these qualities was the task Pat Brown undertook in 2011, when he decided, after organizing a workshop on animal agriculture that accomplished nothing, that he’d have to solve the problem himself. He worked up a pitch, then bicycled down the road from Stanford to three venture-capital ﬁrms. His pitch had everything V.C.s like to fund: a huge market, a novel way to attack it, and a passionate founder who already talked the talk. Brown’s habit of referring to “the technology that provides us with meat” made plant burgers sound like an iterative eﬃciency rather than like a threat to a beloved way of life. All he was doing was disintermediating the cow. Impossible ended up taking three million dollars in seed funding from
Khosla Ventures. Then Brown started hiring scientists, most of whom had no food expertise. His wife, Sue Klapholz, who trained as a psychiatrist and worked as a geneticist, became the company’s nutritionist. “I had been making jewelry and doing nature photography, having this great retirement,” she told me, still surprised by this turn in their lives. No one quite knew what they were doing, including Brown, who’d announce projects such as “We need every single plantbased ingredient in the world. Go!” or alternative-protein companies, the ﬁrst challenge is often producing a protein that’s utterly tasteless. A ﬂavor packet can then make it delicious. A startup called Spira, for instance, is attempting to develop algae called spirulina as a food source. “The problem is that it’s a slimy goop,” Surjan Singh, the company’s C.T.O., told me. “And when you dry it and powderize it, it tends to biodegrade, so it tastes terrible. We’re hoping to break even, eventually, where we can extract a protein isolate that’s really good for you, but that tastes like as close to nothing as possible.” Impossible’s ﬁrst prototype burgers contained the “oﬀ-ﬂavors” characteristic of their foundational protein, soy or wheat or pea. (Pea protein is sometimes
“Which would be more dangerous—a bear, or a man in a bear suit?”
• said to evoke cat urine.) So the company’s scientists had to learn how to erase those ﬂavors, even as they were learning the subtleties of the aroma and taste they were trying to emulate. One morning in Impossible’s lab, Brown showed me a gas chromatograph– mass spectrometer, which is used to identify the molecules that appear in meat as it’s cooked and to link those molecules to odors. “Some poor schmuck has their nose stuck in here for forty-ﬁve minutes,” Brown said, indicating a plastic nose mold that protruded from the machine. “You have to bunny-sniﬀ at a very high rate, often trying to characterize molecules you’ve never smelled before.” He looked at a handwritten list from the last assay: “You might say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of “Band-Aid,” or “skunk,” or “diaper pail” ’—but don’t judge, because all of those together make up ‘burger taste.’” Most veggie burgers are formed by an extruder, a machine that operates like a big pressure cooker, using heat and compression to replicate meat’s ﬁbrous morphology. Brown suspected that the key to a truly meaty plant burger was an ingredient. He had a hunch about heme, an iron-carrying molecule in hemoglobin (which makes your blood red), whose structure is similar to that of chlorophyll (which enables plants to photosynthesize). David Botstein, a geneticist who sat on Impossible’s board, told me, “If 46
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• you understand biochemistry, you understand that heme, more than anything else, is a central molecule of animal and plant life.” As Brown was beginning to experiment, he pulled up clover from behind his house and dissected its root nodules, to see if there was enough heme inside to make them pink. (There was.) In Impossible’s microbiology lab, Brown told me, “An interesting, extremely speculative idea is that there’s an evolutionary advantage to human beings in seeking out heme. It’s a cue that means ‘There’s a dense source of protein and iron nearby.’ ” The ﬁrst time that Impossible made a burger with heme, he said, “it tasted like meat, and within six months we had compelling evidence that it was the magic ingredient that gives meat its ﬂavor.” In 2012, the company tested heme from thirty-one sources, ranging from tobacco plants to geothermal-spring water. Myoglobin from cows, the obvious candidate, oxidized too quickly (which is why ground beef goes brown in your fridge). Soy leghemoglobin performed best, so Impossible built a dozen machines to try to harvest it from the root nodules of soy. “We even rented a street sweeper and fed the soy plants in there,” Brown told me. Nothing worked. “We ﬂushed a year or more and half of our seed funding on this project I’m to blame for—the total low point,” he said. They ended up manufacturing heme by genet-
ically modifying yeast with a snippet of soy DNA. Yeast is usually white; Impossible’s yeast, made in ﬁfty-thousand-gallon tanks, is the foamy red of cocktail sauce. Impossible’s ﬁrst burger, built around wheat protein, launched in 2016, at four high-end restaurants: Cockscomb and Jardinière, in San Francisco; Crossroads Kitchen, in Los Angeles; and Momofuku Nishi, in New York. An improved formulation, introduced last January, swapped out wheat for soy and was not only gluten-free but also lower in fat and cheaper to manufacture. Traci Des Jardins, the chef behind Jardinière, said, “The 1.0 version had a mushy mouthfeel, and it would adhere to surfaces and sear in a way that meat doesn’t. This version has a more toothsome bounce, and it doesn’t fall apart in a Bolognese sauce. The 2.0 really does behave just like beef.” ven those sympathetic to Brown’s mission fret that taste and mouthfeel won’t matter if the desire for meat is hardwired by evolution. Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian company, is building a three-hundred-million-dollar facility in Indiana to make alternative proteins. But its C.E.O., Michael McCain, told me, “The human body has been consuming animal protein for a hundred and ﬁfty thousand years, and I honestly think that’s going to continue for a really long time.” Climate change, which now drives our hunt for meat substitutes, originally drove hominids to turn to meat, about two and a half million years ago, by making our usual herbivorean foodstuﬀs scarce. Eating animals added so much nutrition to our diets that we no longer had to spend all our time foraging, and we developed smaller stomachs and larger brains. Some scientists believe that this transformation created a powerful instinctive craving. Hanna Tuomisto, a Finnish professor of agricultural science, recently wrote, “This evolutionary predilection explains why eating meat provides more satisfaction compared to plant-based food and why so many people ﬁnd it diﬃcult to adopt a vegetarian diet.” An inborn meat hunger remains a hypothesis; meat is the object of many human urges, including the urge to construct all-encompassing theories. In the book “Meathooked,” Marta Zaraska writes, “We crave meat because it stands
for wealth and for power over other humans and nature. We relish meat because history has taught us to think of vegetarians as weaklings, weirdos, and prudes.” The anthropologist Nick Fiddes goes further, declaring, in “Meat: A Natural Symbol,” that we value meat not in spite of the fact that it requires killing animals but because it does. It’s the killing that establishes us as kings of the jungle. Ethan Brown, of Beyond Meat, suspects that nibbling plant patties doesn’t exude the same macho vibe. A bearded, gregarious, six-foot-ﬁve man who played basketball at Connecticut College, he has retained a squad of athlete “ambassadors” to help dispel that perception. When I visited Ethan at the company’s oﬃces, in El Segundo, California, he pointed me to a 2009 study of Ivory Coast chimpanzees which suggested that males who shared meat with females doubled their mating success. “Men usually give women the meat ﬁrst, at dinner, before the sex—you want to be a protein provider,” he said. “Do you think if you take a woman out and buy her a salad you get the same reaction?” It’s worth noting that the Neanderthals, who subsisted almost entirely on meat, were outcompeted by our omnivorous ancestors. In any case, Ethan told me, meat no longer serves its original purpose, and “we can use the expanded brain that meat gave us to get us oﬀ of it.” Like many alternative-protein entrepreneurs, he is a vegan; when he tastetests Beyond’s burgers, he occasionally chews a beef burger to orient his palate, then spits it out and wipes his tongue with a napkin. He has a potbellied pig named Wilbur at home that knows how to open the refrigerator: “Wilbur lives in our house to teach my kids that, from the perspective of science, the moral circle is poorly deﬁned.” Ethan said that he launched Beyond Meat to mitigate meat’s eﬀects on “human health, climate change, natural resources, and animal welfare—we call them ‘the four horsemen.’” One consequence of this compendious mission, with its attention to people’s health— and to their concerns about health, warranted or not—is that Beyond, unlike Impossible, uses only ingredients taken more or less directly from nature. For lunch, Ethan and I ate the latest Beyond Burger. Built around proteins
derived from peas, mung beans, and brown rice, it was enriched with coconut oil and cocoa butter. Ethan, a self-described tough grader, rated it a 7.5 out of 10. “We’ve had great progress in texture and juiciness,” he said, but added that the company’s scientists were still working on “color transition.” My burger was brown on the outside and purple in the middle, with a bloody aﬀect encouraged by beet juice— but the fading between the two tones seemed faintly amiss. While savory, and possessed of a plausible mouthfeel, the patty was also curiously dense. Pea protein’s oﬀ-ﬂavor was another problem to solve. Ethan said that he planned to expand his supply chain to include proteins from such plants as ﬂax and lupine. He added, reﬂexively, “The best thing about pea is that it’s not soy”— Impossible’s chief ingredient. “I learned early on that consumers don’t want a lot of soy, because they’re worried about phytoestrogen, the concern being that it disrupts hormones and gives you ‘man boobs.’” I observed that there was no evidence that this ever happens unless you consume soy in gigantic amounts. “I don’t believe in the man-boobs theory,” he said, “but who am I to question our customers?” Ethan’s scientists are skeptical of heme’s eﬃcacy. Dariush Ajami, who runs Beyond’s lab, told me that he viewed it as a mere colorant, because, in collaborating with companies specializing in food chemistry, “we’ve never seen any ﬂavor houses using heme as a ﬂavor
catalyzer.” Ethan told me that even if heme proved to be a catalytic dynamo he wouldn’t use it, or any genetically modiﬁed ingredient: “There’s an evolutionary instinct, deep within us, to avoid things we don’t understand.” When I noted that consumers already accept many G.M.O. products—more than half the rennet used to make cheese is genetically modiﬁed, and ninety-two per cent of America’s corn is G.M.O.— he conceded, “People will get used to it
in the Impossible Burger.” He grinned. “But will they get used to it before the burn rate gobbles the company?”
eat producers like to point out that meat has a “clean deck”: its components are few. One ag-business executive told me that consumers would, or anyway should, be alarmed by the long list of ingredients in Impossible’s and Beyond’s burgers: “A lot of customers think of an animal that has been around for more than a thousand years”— cows were domesticated from aurochs about ten thousand years ago—“and is just one ingredient as a natural product, versus a chemistry project of twenty-ﬁve or thirty ingredients you can’t even pronounce.” (Pat Brown noted, tartly, “If I gave you a poisonous mushroom, well, that’s one ingredient.”) Thirty-three companies are working on a single-ingredient approach: using animal cells to grow meat in vats. The management consultants at A.T. Kearney predict that by 2040 the technique will produce thirty-ﬁve per cent of all meat. Josh Tetrick, the C.E.O. of Just, Inc., which is developing cell-based chicken nuggets and ground wagyu beef, told me that the problem with plantbased meat is that it feels ersatz: “The Silicon Valley approach of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat is ‘If we can nail taste and cost, we’ll win.’ But meat is about identity and authenticity. Like, I hope Tesla comes out with a pickup truck, but if they have to call it Tesla’s Electric Mobility Transport Unit my friends in Alabama would never buy it.” This spring, Tetrick watched closely as I ate his chicken nugget. It tasted weirdly healthy—I missed the creamy crappiness you expect from a fast-food nugget. That’s because it was mostly composed of chicken muscle cells grown in Just’s lab, one ﬂoor down at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Tetrick, a charismatic vegan who started Just to save chickens’ lives, knew that he had work to do: “We need to cultivate a second strain of cells, ramp up the fat program downstairs.” The cell-based approach may eventually provide meat using a tiny fraction of the land and water that livestock use. And, if companies can ﬁgure out how to grow cells on a scaﬀolding of mushroom or celery, or arrange them using a
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3-D printer (and also surmount issues with vascularization and oxygen diﬀusion), they’ll have solved the deﬁning challenge for meat replacements: building a sturdy approximation of muscle, fat, and connective tissue to produce full cuts of meat and ﬁsh. Mike Selden, of Finless Foods, told me, “Where Impossible stops is where Finless starts. They’re limited to ground products, and we’ll be able to make sashimi and ﬁllets.” But cell-based meat remains a ﬂedgling ﬁeld. The Good Food Institute has calculated that the entire group of startups has raised only seventy-three million dollars. There are notable diﬃculties even getting started: it’s challenging to identify the right cells to culture; the serum typically used to grow cells for medical research costs a thousand dollars a litre; rapid cell growth is frustratingly elusive; and the traditional best kick-starter for that growth is fetal bovine serum, taken from dead calves. So costs remain extremely high and yields extremely low. The founders of Wild Type told me that their salmon had become more than ﬁfty times cheaper to manufacture: it’s now less than four thousand dollars a pound, and they can make a pound every six weeks. Kate Krueger, the research director at New Harvest, an institute devoted to cellular agriculture, said, “A nugget or a burger could be ﬁve to ten years away. For a structured product, like steak, it’s at least ten years—and that may be optimistic.” Just originally announced that it would introduce cell-based meat by 2018; Tetrick told me he now hoped to have his chicken in a few restaurants by the end of this year. His production cost for a single chicken nugget is still ﬁfty dollars. “The natural reaction to that price,” he admitted, “is ‘You gotta be eﬃn’ kidding me.’” It’s hard to predict whether customers will adjust more easily to meat made from plants or meat grown in enormous vats. In a recent survey by the investment bank Barclays, plant-based meats have a tiny edge among American, Indian, and Chinese consumers. Tetrick believes this will shift in time, as people in the developing world eat more meat. “If the objective is to get to a billion dollars in sales in seven years, I would do plant-based meat,” he told me. “And every time I’m in San Fran48
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cisco, L.A., or New York I think, Why aren’t we doing plant-based? But every time I’m in Shanghai, where meat is all about cultural arrival, I think, We can only change the world’s system of animal agriculture by doing cultured meat. So I think Pat Brown is wrong. Of course,” he added, “I could also be wrong. Or, guess what, we could both be wrong!”
ince 1961, global meat production has grown more than four hundred per cent. Not only is meat delicious; it’s nutritious—a great source of protein, iron, and Vitamin A. In areas such as subSaharan Africa, where one person in ﬁve is malnourished, meat is the quickest ﬁx. Its consumption also demonstrates to the neighbors that you can aﬀord something other than rice, yams, or cassava. The barrier to that emblem of arrival keeps getting lower: in most places, meat is cheaper than it’s ever been. By 2050, as the world’s population grows to nearly ten billion, demand for meat is expected to nearly double again. In the global-management world, this predicates what is known as “the 2050 Challenge”: how do we feed all those people without hastening climate change? A ﬁve-hundred-page report, “Creating a Sustainable Food Future,” released in July by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank, and the United Nations, declared that, if we stay on our present course through 2050, feeding the planet will “entail clearing most of the world’s
remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5° C and 2° C warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement—even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.” The chance that ten billion people will suddenly stop driving, cooling their homes, and manufacturing anything at all is, of course, zero. The report’s lead author, a droopy-eyed research scholar at Princeton University named Tim Search-
inger, told me, “There were times writing it when I thought, Euthanize your children—we’re all doomed.” In April, Searchinger visited Impossible’s Silicon Valley headquarters, in Redwood City, hoping for better news. He tossed a notepad on a conference table, across from half a dozen Impossible executives, and looked probingly at Pat Brown. Searchinger was the fox who knows many things; Brown the hedgehog convinced of one. I’d mentioned to him that Searchinger’s report detailed a raft of initiatives that humanity needed to implement to solve the 2050 Challenge, from wiser manure stewardship to increasing the global ﬁsh supply and drastically lowering the birth rate: twenty-two changes in all. “One change!” Brown had cried. “If we can just get everyone to eat plants, you don’t have to disrupt everything else.” “What’s the increase in your production going to be the day Burger King goes national?” Searchinger asked. “Humongous,” Brown said. He ﬁddled with a piece of paper, folding it into a rectangle. Impossible’s rapid growth had led to a supply crunch. The company was holding meetings to determine which distributors would get less product, and had postponed launching in supermarkets. (The Impossible Burger débuts in a hundred and twenty-nine stores this fall, beginning with Gelson’s locations in Los Angeles.) He went on, “That’s why half the population of this building has volunteered to work in our Oakland plant.” In a call-for-volunteers e-mail, Brown wrote that while the supply problem was “the biggest risk not only to our vital relationship with Burger King, [but] to our business as a whole,” it was also “an epic opportunity for heroism.” I’d just visited the plant—a former industrial bakery—and seen dozens of oﬃce workers in hairnets and steel-toed galoshes shadowing line workers, eager to step in. Searchinger had brought a list of detailed questions about the company’s costs and its supply chain, which the execs met with assured generalities. Brown said, “Another advantage we have over the incumbent technology is that we keep improving our product every week. The cow can’t.” “How close are you on the texture issues to being able to make steak and cubed beef?”
“The level of conﬁdence in the R. & D. team is very high,” Brown replied evenly. At the moment, Impossible’s steak prototypes are squishy and homogeneous, far too easy to eat. Brown announced a steak project earlier this year, then put it on hold to address the supply crunch. Searchinger studied his list and said, “One thing that will be critical is acceptance in the developing world—ﬁnding local agricultural associations that make precursor products for you, before the local beef guys put you out of business.” “I completely agree,” Brown said. North America makes up only twelve per cent of the global market for meat; he needed to wipe out livestock everywhere. Searchinger said, “Our baseline estimate is that by 2050, to produce the beef to meet demand, we’ll see a hundred and ﬁfty-eight million hectares more pastureland in Africa alone. And the even bigger threat is from China.” Brown made a face. “To head that oﬀ, we have to be seen as successful in the U.S. and developed countries ﬁrst,” he said. “If we’re seen as a cheap substitute, we won’t get any traction in Africa.” Searchinger looked wistful. “If you could just reforest all the grazing land, 1.2 billion hectares!” he said. “Giving up all beef would be the most eﬀective thing we could do for the planet.” He has calculated that if you reduced beef consumption by three-fourths (allowing for some pastoral nomadism and dairy cows later used for beef ) and reforested accordingly it would reduce global G.H.G. emissions by about twenty per cent. “We’ll take care of getting rid of all beef for you,” Brown said. They smiled and shook hands. Searchinger later told me, “Innovation from places like Impossible is the one thing that allows me to have a tiny bit of optimism.” But he still believed too many complicating, countervailing things. A week after his visit, he co-wrote an op-ed for CNN that called Impossible’s deals with fast-food restaurants “historic,” but said that “eliminating beef is neither the goal nor realistically at stake. The point is to hold down its growth.” n June, more than a thousand people descended on the Quality Hotel Globe, in Stockholm, to discuss how to feed the world without destroying it. The annual conference of EAT, a Scan-
“A hug? I thought you needed tech support.”
• dinavian nonproﬁt dedicated to making our food system sustainable, showcased backpacks and business beards, talk of the Global South and the Global North, and the AirDropping of dire bar graphs. There was an atmosphere of acerbic self-satisfaction, a sense that only those present understood both what it would take to save humanity and that it was probably too late. At dinner, after the chef Claus Meyer, who co-founded Noma, extolled the rhubarb on his menu for “plunging from the earth like a cold frozen ﬁst,” Pat Brown surveyed the throng and said, “If I were cynical, which of course I’m not, I’d say conferences like this are an excuse for these guys to bop around the world meeting each other.” Yet when Brown was interviewed on the main stage, wearing the outﬁt his comms team had speciﬁed—“NO COW T-shirt, blazer and jeans”—he was upbeat. He’s become a more conﬁdent, less academic public speaker of late, having mostly learned not to point with his middle ﬁnger or end refutations with “Q.E.D.” He now distilled his message to a congenial set of propositions: Lecturing people doesn’t work. This is a technology problem. And we’ve solved it. He
• left his provocative “I ♥ GMO” water bottle in his backpack. Oﬀstage, however, he couldn’t resist disputation. Watching a panel discussion in which a British cattle rancher lauded “regenerative grazing,” Brown stuck out his tongue and murmured, “I am so tempted to shout out, ‘This is bullshit!’” The rancher’s ideas were premised on the increasingly popular practice of “grass-feeding” cattle, and further shaped by the theories of the Zimbabwean rancher Allan Savory, who believes that herds of livestock that are ushered to a new pasture as soon as they’ve cropped the grass can reverse desertiﬁcation and make grasslands a carbon sink. To Brown’s chagrin, the EAT crowd seemed more receptive to this dream of Eden than to his unrepentant bovicide. While all cattle graze on grass for much of their lives, at least ninety-ﬁve per cent of American beef cattle spend their last four to six months being fattened on grain at feedlots. Because cattle “ﬁnished” on grass gain weight half as fast as they do on grain, they are kept alive longer; for that reason, and because the microbes in their bellies process grass more thoroughly, the cows belch out THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
forty-three per cent more methane. Grass = gas. When a Costa Rican at Brown’s table at dinner proudly announced, “One of the priorities of our government is decarbonizing cattle ranching,” Brown said, “You can’t decarbonize cattle ranching. It’s impossible. You just need to get rid of those cows!” At a meeting in the hotel’s lobby, Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, a Zimbabwean scholar and policy advocate who co-chairs the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, politely told Brown that his plan didn’t apply to her continent. “Ninety per cent of Africans are not eating meat in quantity,” she said. “For most smallholders, it’s a goat or a chicken. We use livestock for dowries, for diversity of diet, and as a store of wealth. They are literally cash cows.” Brown had told me repeatedly that he wasn’t trying to displace poor farmers’ goats, but he replied, “Even those goats and those chickens are taking a big toll on biodiversity. They’re eating the grasses and shrubs and bugs that wild animals would otherwise be eating.” “I have yet to see scientiﬁc evidence that goats and chickens have pushed out other species,” Sibanda said. “Remember, you’re looking at arid and semiarid areas, so when you say, ‘Meat is bad for the environment,’ I say, ‘Which en-
vironment? The thing that grows best here is goats!’” “The global biomass of goats and sheep is more than two-thirds that of all wild animals,” Brown said. “Disadvantaged people have their own systems of livelihood—” “We’re not attacking farmers who are raising goats! We’re just trying to remove the economic incentive for covering the earth with livestock.” They shook hands and rose without regret. Afterward, Sibanda told me, “You’re selling the environmental argument to us, but it’s the northern countries—right?—that are responsible for the majority of the damage. In the south, the feeling is ‘How can my ﬁfty grams of meat cause a problem?’” Brown said, “She cares about many of the same things we do, obviously, but we were almost from diﬀerent universes.” He added that he wished he had a short ﬁlm to show “what the world would be like in 2035 on its present course, and what it would be like if we eliminate animal ag.” In the second scenario, he said, “the canonical poor farmer with his goat, or whatever, would get to keep it. But he would also get the beneﬁts of averting catastrophic climate change and of our eliminating the biggest drain on his freshwater sources and his land—
“I told you not to mix your whites with beets.”
which is his neighbors raising cows. People need to see ‘How does it improve my life?’” He sighed. “It’s all so complicated and indirect.” hen Pat Brown was twelve, and he and his six siblings were living with their parents in Taiwan, he ﬁgured out that his father, Jim, was in the C.I.A. He didn’t tell anyone, because he didn’t want to blow his father’s cover or impede his mission of keeping an eye on China. “There’s this real misconception about the C.I.A., that it’s the dirty-deeds arm of the U.S. government,” he told me. “When my dad joined, he’d been a P.O.W. in World War Two, in Belgium, where he ended up weighing ninety-something pounds, and he came out of it with a well-developed sense that there are bad people in the world who need to be watched.” The family was uprooted with Jim Brown’s postings: to Paris, Taipei, Washington, D.C. This itineracy, Brown came to feel, made him a resourceful citizen of the world. Brown’s younger brother, Richard, a neurobiologist who works at Impossible studying how we perceive taste and odor, said that the family was Catholic, but guided less by doctrine than by curiosity and fairness: “We were driven by ‘What is intellectually the most interesting thing to work on, and what is of the most public service?’” Brown was a fractious student; a generation later, he might have been given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. “In Taiwan, I would get F’s, F’s, F’s for conduct,” he said. “I was intrinsically not into anyone having authority over me—I was kind of an asshole. Most of the things of value that I learned I learned on my own.” In college, at the University of Chicago, Brown loved pure mathematics, but felt that it was too removed from public service. So he majored in chemistry. He became a vegetarian the summer after he graduated, spurred by his younger sister Jeanne, whose animalwelfare arguments convinced nearly everyone in the family to stop eating meat. That same year, Brown met Sue Klapholz, and began an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Chicago; afterward, he did a residency in pediatrics. The couple married in 1982 and six years later relocated to Stanford, where Brown became an associate professor and an investiga-
tor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They had three children and brought them up as vegetarians. They still live in the cedar-shingled faculty-housing condominium they moved into more than thirty years ago, now accompanied by a deaf, senile rescue mutt named Sebastian. The rooms, a riot of wooden and ceramic animals, call to mind Kafka’s observation as he admired ﬁsh at an aquarium: “Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.” Brown seems almost angry that when Impossible Foods goes public he’ll likely become a billionaire. “We’ve got it so good here,” he told me one morning, as he sat with Klapholz in their back garden over bagels and blackberries, watching juncos ﬂit overhead. “Why would we want to change the way we live?” Every other arrangement, though, has always been up for grabs. “I don’t know anyone more passionate than Pat—and it’s hurt him,” Suzanne Pfeﬀer, his former department chair at Stanford, said. “We’d tease him about not hitting the Send button on e-mails to the dean or the N.I.H.” Joe DeRisi, a leading malaria researcher who once worked in Brown’s lab, showed me a photo he keeps on his phone from those days: the ﬁrst slide in a presentation Brown gave at Howard Hughes, which said “Eating meat, publishing in Nature, and other asinine things you dumb f***s keep doing.” “I thought, Man, do I admire that,” DeRisi said. “What I learned from Pat was ‘You have a certain amount of time on the planet— you should work on important stuﬀ.’” In 1995, Brown’s lab published pioneering work on the microarray, a method of determining which genes are being expressed in a given cell. The technique proved hugely useful in distinguishing normal tissue from cancerous tissue and identifying a given cancer; it established, for instance, that there isn’t one kind of breast cancer but six. In 2001, he cofounded the Public Library of Science, a nonproﬁt publisher of open-access science journals that competed, with some success, with the commercial journals that oﬀended his principles by limiting access to their trove of knowledge. At Impossible, Brown second-guesses himself in ways he never had to as a scientist. He loves the oﬃce—“It gives me a burst of happiness when I come in”—
but hates having to compartmentalize information and to suppress his instinct for combat. “My favorite thing to do is to get into an argument, but my superego can’t snooze through the day the way it used to,” he told me. Still, he can’t resist interrogating norms that strike him as defective. At a recent meeting to consider promotions for ten staﬀers, Brown derailed the agenda by questioning the whole idea of tiered titles. After half an hour, Impossible’s new president, Dennis Woodside, the former C.O.O. of Dropbox, said, in gentle disbelief, “Last week, we were very close to promoting eight or nine people, and now we’re going to take everyone’s titles away?” Unruﬄed, Brown said, “Is there a way to have a more sensible system that wasn’t invented for I.B.M.?” Brown’s brother Richard said, “Pat optimistically holds to the belief that people are rational and can be convinced by evidence. Some of the frustration he feels is that food is diﬀerent—there’s so much subjectivity to it.” Brown remains mystiﬁed, for instance, by Americans’ eagerness to add protein to their diets when they already consume far more than is necessary. Nonetheless, he beefed up the protein in his burgers. “There are things we do that are eﬀectively just acknowledging widespread erroneous beliefs about nutrition,” he said. “For the same reasons, we initially used only non-G.M.O. crops, which was essentially pandering. We’re not trying to win arguments but to achieve the mission.” He is equally baﬄed by challenges from people who agree with his goals but question his methods. In 2017, the environmentalist organizations ETC Group and Friends of the Earth attacked Impossible, claiming that heme was potentially unsafe and that its patty “implicates the extreme genetic engineering ﬁeld of synthetic biology, particularly the new high-tech investor trend of ‘vat-itarian’ foods.” Brown published a comprehensive response, in which he pointed out that “your own bloodstream right now contains about as much heme as 300 pounds of Impossible Burgers.” When Impossible undertook the required animal testing to get F.D.A. approval of heme as a color additive, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals promptly strafed the company for feed-
ing soy leghemoglobin “to a total of 188 rats in three separate tests, killing them, and cutting them up.” PETA spitefully added that “the Impossible Burger is probably the unhealthiest veggie burger on the market.” Brown told me he was wounded by the attacks: “With a lot of fundamentalist religious groups, it’s bad if you’re a nonbeliever. But if you’re a heretic—that’s a capital crime.” The spread of livestock is largely responsible for the ultimate in the unethical treatment of animals; since 1970, the world’s wild animal populations have diminished by an average of sixty per cent. But PETA, in its zeal, often fails to grapple with the nuances of means and ends. For instance, it opposes eating chicken, pointing to the abuses of factory farming. American broilers, chickens raised for meat, are bred and conﬁned in ways that make them more than four times larger than broilers were in the nineteen-sixties; as a result, they often collapse from their own weight. Jacy Reese, in “The End of Animal Farming,” noted that “consuming smaller animals leads to far more suﬀering per calorie because it takes far more animals.” By comparing the number of days that various kinds of livestock spend in factory-farm conditions, Reese determined that eating chicken is nineteen times worse than eating beef. But it’s vastly better for the environment—poultry production has about one-eighth the climate impact of beef production. Believing you’re right doesn’t salve the bruises from these ethical struggles. Sue Klapholz told me, “Our mission was too important not to do the animal testing, but Pat and I would never want to do it again. Our youngest son had a pet rat, and they’re very smart animals that like to have toys. I wouldn’t even swat a mosquito—I’m that kind of vegan. The protest was personally shattering to me, as a longtime PETA supporter.” She looked out the window. “I feel like I lost a friend.” n Stockholm, Pat Brown had breakfast with Solina Chau, an energetic Hong Konger who is the co-founder of Horizons Ventures. The ﬁrm, underwritten by one of Asia’s richest men, Li Ka-shing, has led two rounds of investment in Impossible. Over coﬀee and avocado toast at the Grand Hotel, Chau
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
was trying to revise Brown’s plan for introducing his burgers into China. Brown said that he envisioned telling the central government, “ ‘I want to help you solve your biggest national-security problem.’ Because China is the biggest meat consumer in the world”—between 1961 and 2013, the average Chinese person’s meat intake went up more than ﬁfteenfold—“but it’s completely dependent on imports,” chieﬂy from Brazil and Germany. Chau had told me she didn’t think Impossible should attempt to eradicate meat in China, or anywhere else: “There’s not enough supply to feed future demand, so it’s a coexistence scenario.” She suggested to Brown that Impossible partner with the tech-friendly city of Shenzhen: “You must align your interest with the local government, and they will do your work for you and protect the investment. And they’d help you with the regulatory issue!” Because heme is a novel ingredient, Impossible’s burgers require regulatory approval in both Europe and China, which Brown told me will take “probably two years in Europe and eighteen months to inﬁnity in China.” Chau’s way would be slower, but safer. Brown waggled his head: he’d think about it. He was well aware that a Chinese company could entice him into a joint venture and then hijack Impossible’s intellectual property. However, he told Chau, “it’s just a risk you take. Either you go there and reach some accommodation that’s not complete exploitation, or you go there and maybe they exploit you and you end up with nothing, or you don’t go there and you deﬁnitely end up with nothing.” Impossible has explored a way to keep its heme-production process from being bootlegged. Nick Halla, the executive in charge of new markets, told me, “We’d send the buckets into China rather than the recipe, just the way Coca-Cola sends in the syrup.” Brown assured Chau, “We’re not going to give it away.” Yet his instinct is to do exactly that, with companies around the world. “In ﬁve or ten years,” he told me, “I’d love to give small entrepreneurs free access to our technol52
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
ogy, with the idea that they’d pay us royalties once they got to a million dollars in revenue. The way I’d pitch it as a business is ‘Now you have a million new employees who are basically working for free.’” Such a plan would cut into Impossible’s proﬁts, but, he said, “the animal industry will be worth three trillion dollars in ten years, and if we have a small fraction of that we’ll be one of the most successful companies on earth. And if we tried to have all of it, and we controlled the world’s food supply, we would guarantee being the most hated company in history.” Brown sees himself as a guide rather than as a micromanager—“I have no idea if the company paid taxes last year. The C.E.O. is supposed to know that, I guess”—but he is determined to retain control. When Google made an early oﬀer to buy the company, he said, he turned it down “in less than ﬁve seconds, because we would have just been one of their suite of nifty projects.” And he made it a condition of his deal with Khosla Ventures that Impossible couldn’t be sold without his approval to any of about forty “disallowed companies”—meat producers and agricultural conglomerates. Those companies, which like to say that they’re in the business of providing whatever protein consumers want to eat, have ﬁnally begun to respond to the plant-based boom. Nestlé oﬀers an Incredible plant-based burger overseas and is about to release an Awesome one in the U.S., and Kellogg just announced a plant-based line called Incogmeato. Many of these new products seem aimed less at meat-eaters than at ﬂexitarians, a dignifying name for the wishy-washy: Perdue’s “Chicken Plus” nugget mixes chicken with cauliﬂower and chickpeas, and Tyson Foods is releasing a burger that blends beef with pea protein. The agribusiness giant Cargill recently invested in Puris, which supplies Beyond Meat with pea protein, and in two cell-based startups. Brian Sikes, who runs Cargill’s protein-and-salt group, told me that “plant-based is part of the solution” to the 2050 Challenge, “and potentially cell-based is, too.” Though Sikes repeatedly assured me
that Cargill’s purpose is “to be leaders in nourishing the world,” the company recently said that—like many agricultural conglomerates—it would miss its target of removing deforestation from its supply chain by 2020. And the environmental group Mighty Earth just excoriated Cargill as “The Worst Company in the World.” When I asked Sikes if he’d learned anything from Impossible and Beyond, he said, “They’re master marketers. They’ve made us realize that we need to tell the story of traditional animal protein better.” Samir Kaul, Brown’s original investor at Khosla Ventures, told me, “There have to be ways to partner with the large food companies,” but Brown remains skeptical. “If Tyson called us, we wouldn’t go into it with the naïve idea that they want to help us,” he said. “The best outcome for them, given their sunk costs, would be to slow us down.” He allowed, cautiously, that “if Tyson shut down their meat-production operations and broke all their artiﬁcial-insemination rods and melted them down and turned them into hoes—well, that would get my attention.” few months ago, in Washington, D.C., I visited the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which lobbies on behalf of American cattle producers and feeders. Five of the N.C.B.A.’s employees sat across from me in leather chairs at a long conference table, surrounded by paintings of cowboys performing their manly duties, and explained why Pat Brown was misguided. Danielle Beck, a senior lobbyist, said, “Consumers like locally grown, supporting the small rancher— we have a good story to share, and our product is superior. So I don’t think we need a Plan B.” “It comes down to taste,” Ed Frank, who runs policy communications, said. “Ed and I tried the Impossible Burger for our podcast,” Beck said, referring to a 2018 episode called “We Tried Fake Meat So You Don’t Have To!” She made a face: “Salty. Odd aftertaste.” “We faced a moral and ethical dilemma. What if it was as good as ground beef ? What would we say then?” Frank said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t, so I was able to sleep at night.” I noted that Impossible has since put out a much improved
burger—had they tried it? Frank and Beck shook their heads and looked away. Meanwhile, local ranchers’ groups have convinced twelve state legislatures to pass laws that prohibit words such as “meat” and “burger” from being used on labels for anything that’s not “harvested” from carcasses. In July, a law went into eﬀect in Arkansas that forbids the makers of plant-based meat even to use the term “veggie burger.” The laws’ alleged intent is to avoid “customer confusion,” but most people have no trouble grasping that almond milk doesn’t gush from an almond’s udders. The laws’ actual intent, of course, is competitive hindrance. Mark Dopp, of the North American Meat Institute, told me that when Impossible Foods has to put “bioengineered” on its labels, in 2022, once a federal labelling law takes eﬀect, “that will be a challenge for them. I’m sure they’ll try to escape it.” In fact, Impossible will label itself as bioengineered this fall, when it goes on sale in supermarkets. “We’re totally transparent,” Pat Brown said, adding, “I’d love to have them have to put labels on their meat that say ‘Processed in a slaughterhouse,’ with a symbol of a friendly bacterial cell smiling and saying, ‘Contains aerosolized fecal bacteria!’ ” While the lobbyists at the N.C.B.A. acknowledged that beef has some environmental liabilities, they said that those concerns would soon be mitigated by the same American ingenuity that has “productized” every inch of the cow. After sixty-four per cent of the animal is turned into meat, including beef hearts sold to the Middle East, tongues to Asia, and tripe to Mexico, eighteen volleyballs can be made from the hide, and other remnants are used to produce bone china, gelatine, dog food, ink, nail-polish remover, laundry pre-treatments, and antifreeze. I observed that, despite all these eﬃciencies, the magazine Science had recently identiﬁed giving up meat and dairy as the most powerful environmental act any individual could make. “There are more reports like that than we care to see,” Colin Woodall, the N.C.B.A.’s senior vice-president of government aﬀairs, said ruefully. “We just go back to the two-per-cent number from the E.P.A.” By the association’s reading of a 2019 E.P.A. report, only 2.1 per cent of Amer-
ica’s greenhouse gases come directly from beef production. “Is two per cent really going to change climate change?” Woodall said. “No. A lot of people like to throw rocks at us, but they do so while driving down the road at seventy miles per hour in an air-conditioned car.” The N.C.B.A.’s math doesn’t account for nitrous-oxide emissions from manure-covered pastures or emissions from producing crops for feed and from manufacturing the beef itself, all of which raise the ﬁgure to 3.8 per cent. More signiﬁcantly, the E.P.A.’s accounting, like many such assessments, fails to factor in the G.H.G. impact of animal agriculture’s land use. According to the World Resources Institute, if Americans replaced a third of the beef in their diets with legumes, it would free up a land area larger than California, much of which could be reforested (at great expense, and if the owners of the land were so inclined). In most of the world, beef production is vastly less eﬃcient than it is in America. Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis, who is often cited by pro-meat forces, acknowledged, “We have way too much livestock in the world—it poses a serious risk to our ecosystems.” By incor-
porating American know-how abroad, he added, “we could feed everyone in the developing world with one-quarter of the current global herds and ﬂocks.” Sciencing the cow to make this possible, the N.C.B.A. suggested, was where everyone should be focussing their eﬀorts. Colin Woodall proudly reported, “Since 1977, we can produce the same amount of beef with onethird fewer cattle.” In the past two decades, the dressed weight of a cow— the amount of beef that ends up for sale—has increased ten per cent. Woodall noted that agronomists are working on new corn varieties and seed additives to reduce methane, as well as nitriﬁcation inhibitors to diminish the nitrous oxide given oﬀ by manure. However, he said, “we’re never taking cattle completely oﬀ of grass, so it really comes down to: what are the new tools to put more meat on that animal?” hile the Impossible Burger is still trying to match the ﬂavor of beef, in certain respects it’s begun to improve upon the original. Celeste Holz-Schietinger, one of the company’s top scientists, told me, “Our burger is already more savory and umami than beef, and in our next version”—a 3.0 burger will be released in a few months—“we want
“I suppose, stranger, that flying for a major airline makes you think you’re something special.”
“Hey, I just got my thousandth follower!”
• to increase the buttery ﬂavor and caramelization over real beef.” Richard Brown said, “Early on, we had two goals that were fully aligned: to be identical to a burger from a cow, and to be much better than a burger from a cow. Now they’re somewhat at odds, and we talk about the chocolate-doughnut problem. What if what people really like in a burger is what makes it taste like a chocolate doughnut, so you keep increasing those qualities—and suddenly you’re not making a burger at all?” Rob Rhinehart thinks that Brown should double down on doughnut. Five years ago, Rhinehart created Soylent, a wan, nutritive sludge that allows you to keep playing Mortal Kombat as you replenish; he now runs MarsBio, an accelerator for companies working on bioreactors and engineered microalgae. “There’s all these comical eﬀorts to make new food look like the old food,” he said. “I want Impossible Foods to do something totally new. Alien meat! Or a burger that tastes like a human—a brain burger!” Brown is drawn to such ﬂights of fancy. He told me, “There’s reason to 54
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
• doubt that the handful of animals we domesticated thousands of years ago provide the most delicious meats possible. We could choose a meat ﬂavor better than beef or chicken or pork, and call it a brontosaurus burger—or anything you like. It would be super fun to make übermeat!” He added, regretfully, “But it has to be a side project, for now, because the more sure way to crush the chicken producers is to make the best version of chicken.” One morning in June, Impossible’s chief science oﬃcer, David Lipman, took me through the test kitchen. As nine scientists in lab coats and hairnets looked on, I drank a glass of Impossible Milk, which had the consistency, color, fat, and calcium content of dairy milk. The only issue was that it tasted like water. “We have to do more work to give it dairy ﬂavor,” Lipman said, optimistically. The ﬂavor scientist Laura Kliman made me a tasty ﬁsh paella. The recipe for Impossible’s anchovy-ﬂavored broth is about eighty per cent similar to its recipe for the Impossible Burger. “Once we cracked the code on meat ﬂavor,” Kliman said, “if you change a few of
the ratios and ingredients, it’s not that hard to get ﬁsh or pork or chicken.” Next up was Impossible Steak Flavor—a beaker full of red juice. A scientist named Ian Ronningen poured it into a saucepan, turned on the gas, and began swirling the juice with a metal spatula. As it reduced and turned brown, he said, “Now you’re getting a change of ﬂavor.” His colleague Allen Henderson softly conﬁded, “We feel that we have suﬃciently recapitulated the multiple chemistries of cooked beef.” Ronningen bent over the bubbling goo, wafted the steam toward his nose, and said, “I’m starting to get that really wonderful fat note.” “Ah, yes,” Lipman said, doing some wafting. “There’s an animalic quality. It’s more musky than a burger.” “And we get these grizzled pieces, just like a steak,” Ronningen said. “If we have a deﬂavored protein, which we’re good at, we can take this ﬂavor and put it on a textured protein base.” He took the pan oﬀ the heat and we dipped pieces of bread into the gritty juice. It was literally the sizzle, not the steak—but it was delicious. Brown told me it was “time to double down on steak, for mission reasons.” He planned to use another chunk of the three hundred million dollars he’d just raised to accelerate his R. & D., hiring ninety more scientists. Small teams would immediately begin work on chicken nuggets and melty cheese for pizza. He also planned projects to spin proteins into structural ﬁbres, and to pursue a general methodology for stripping plant proteins of their oﬀcolors and oﬀ-ﬂavors. After years of focus, Brown was beginning to return to his preferred mode of swashbuckling inquiry. He yearns to pursue a project that gripped him early in Impossible’s development: using RuBisCo, the most abundant protein in the world, as his staple ingredient. RuBisCo is an enzyme used for photosynthesis that’s found in the leaves of plants like soy and alfalfa; by Brown’s calculations, it would enable him to meet the world’s protein requirements using just three per cent of the earth’s land. But no one produces RuBisCo at scale: to do so requires processing huge quantities of leaves, which tend to rot in storage, and then isolating the en-
zyme from indigestible cellulose. How ever, Brown said, “for a year, our pro totype burgers used RuBisCo, and it worked functionally better than any other protein, making a juicy burger.” He folded a napkin smaller and smaller. “We will build a system for producing protein from leaves.” hough Brown longs to transmute leaves into loaves and ﬁshes, the more immediate concern is the drive through at fastfood restaurants. Chi potle and Arby’s have declared that they have no plans to serve plantbased meats, and Arby’s went so far as to develop a mocking rejoinder: the “marrot,” a car rot made out of turkey. Other chains have lingering concerns. One is price: Impossible’s burgers, like Beyond Meat’s products, cost about a dollar more than the meats they’re intended to replace. At White Castle, the Impossible Slider sells for a dollar ninetynine, one of the highest prices on the menu. “Honestly, that’s the biggest barrier to the new product for college kids, and for our cus tomers who can only aﬀord to pay three dollars for a meal,” Kim Bartley, White Castle’s chief marketing oﬃcer, said. Early on, Brown believed that his burger would be cheaper than ground beef by 2017. His original pitch claimed, in a handwaving sort of way, that be cause wheat and soy cost about seven cents a pound, while ground beef cost a dollarﬁfty, “plant based alternatives can provide the nutritional equivalent of ground beef at less than 5 % of the cost.” But establishing a novel supply chain, particularly for heme, proved ex pensive. The company has increased its yield of the molecule more than seven fold in four years, and, Brown said, “we’re no longer agonizing over the impact of heme on our cost.” He now hopes to equal the price of ground beef by 2022. Plantbased meat won’t become a shoppingcart staple unless it achieves price parity, and some observers worry about how long that’s taking. Dave Friedberg, the founder of the Produc tion Board, an incubator for alterna tiveprotein companies, noted the ex pense of heme and texturized soy protein. “I’m concerned that we’re never going to get to the price of ground beef,” Friedberg told me. “And to sell people a product that’s not meat, and charge
more for it, won’t shift the world to a new agricultural system.” Shifting the world to a new agricul tural system is not part of a fastfood chain’s business model. So the chains question whether plantbased will prove to be a trend, like spicy food, or merely a fad, like rice bowls. Lisa Ingram, the White Castle C.E.O., told me she was agnostic on animal ag. Eradicating it by 2035 “is Pat’s view of the world,” she said, “and every customer gets to decide if they agree. If they do, then in 2035 we’ll sell the Impossible Slider and the Impossible Chicken Slider and the Im possible Fish Slider. If they don’t, then we’re going to sell the Impossible Slider as part of our menu just as long as peo ple want to buy it.” Right now, they do. In July, Impossi ble announced that, after tripling pro duction at its Oakland factory and sign ing a deal to make its burgers at plants belonging to a meatprocessing behemoth called the OSI Group, it was no longer restricting deliveries to any of its distrib utors. The company planned to increase production fourfold by the end of the year. It was once more blasting ahead. Yet, the greater its progress, the wider the gap between what Brown hopes to do and what his investors expect to gain—between idealism and market value. Vinod Khosla, at Khosla Ventures, has assured Brown, “If we never make a penny from our operations in Africa, I’m ﬁne with that.” But you won’t ﬁnd this promise in any of Khosla’s contracts. Bart Swanson, who sits on Impossible’s board, suggested that any potential conﬂict is not imminent, adding, “By the time we go into Africa, I hope I’m alive.” Swanson is ﬁftysix. Brian Loeb, an investor at Continental Grain, a large agriculturalproducts holding company that invested in Impossible in 2016, said, “The industrywide conversation now is around ‘Can plantbased meats get to ﬁve per cent of the market?’” During my last visit to Impossible Foods, Brown admitted that he was somewhat at the mercy of his investors. “I was more naïve than I wish I’d been early on in terms of how my control gets aﬀected by repeated rounds of fund ing,” he said, as we sat in Yam, a small conference room near his desk. “I don’t have the hard power to say no, if some one wants to buy us. I have a reason
able amount of soft power, to the ex tent that I can convince our investors that they’d be missing out on contin ued growth if they sold. The best de fense we have is doing well—and if we’re not doing well then who cares if we get sold to Tyson Foods?” “Do you, deep down, believe that no body else is approaching the problem correctly?” I asked. “I’m worried about how it sounds, but yes,” he said. “Nobody else has caught on to the fact that this is the most im portant scientiﬁc problem in the world, so their results are just a reheated ver sion of veggie burgers from ten years ago, maybe with a little lipstick on them. And cellbased companies are just tak ing the same technology cows have used to grow meat for a thousand years and making it less eﬃcient.” His impatience was plain. It struck me that while, as a scientist, Brown welcomes searching questions and alternative ideas, as a mis sionary he believes that searching ques tions and alternative ideas waste time— time we simply don’t have. I wondered whether it had occurred to him that he had essentially devised a tortuous workaround for human selﬁshness. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I do ﬁnd that interesting. Strategically, a ham burger is hugely symbolic. But it’s also completely trite and ridiculous. If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be totally focussed on burgers, I’d have thought, Well, that’s not a life I want.” After a moment, he returned to the question of whether he had any true partners. “I’m aware of our investors’ feelings, and to some extent disappointed by them,” he said. “People aren’t used to doubling in size and impact every year— that’s a very steep and unrelenting curve, and even venture investors are incredi bly conservative. They realize that some thing far short of our goal is a massive investment success for them. If they were completely conﬁdent, they would be backing trucks up to Impossible Foods loaded with billiondollar bills.” He grinned, and went on, “But they’re wrong! Kodak and the horseandbuggy industry thought they’d just coexist with the new technology, too. I only picked 2035 because it seemed like something you could plausibly achieve, something that other people could at least see a path to. I would have picked sooner.” THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
GIRL, DISRUPTED Four years in Silicon Valley startups. BY ANNA WIENER
epending on whom you ask, 2012 represented the apex, the inﬂection point, or the beginning of the end for Silicon Valley’s startup scene—what cynics called a bubble, optimists called the future, and my future co-workers, high on the fumes of world-historical potential, breathlessly called the ecosystem. Everything was going digital. Everything was up in the cloud. A technology conglomerate that ﬁrst made its reputation as a Webpage search engine, but quickly became the world’s largest and most valuable private repository of consumer data, developed a prototype for a pair of eyeglasses on which the wearer could check his or her e-mail; its primary rival, a multinational consumer-electronics company credited with introducing the personal computer to the masses, thirty years earlier, released a smartphone so lightweight that gadget reviewers compared it to ﬁne jewelry. Technologists were plucked from the Valley’s most prestigious technology corporations and universities and put to work on a campaign that reëlected the United States’ ﬁrst black President. The word “disruption” proliferated, and everything was ripe for or vulnerable to it: sheet music, tuxedo rentals, home cooking, home buying, wedding planning, banking, shaving, credit lines, dry-cleaning, the rhythm method. It was the dawn of the unicorns: startups valued, by their investors, at more than a billion dollars. The previous summer, a prominent venture capitalist, in the op-ed pages of an international business newspaper, had proudly declared that software was “eating the world.” Not that I was paying any attention. At twenty-ﬁve, I was working in publishing, as an assistant to a literary agent, sitting at a narrow desk outside my boss’s oﬃce, frantically e-mailing my friends. The year before, I’d received a raise, from twenty-nine thousand dollars to thirty.
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
What was my value? One semester of an M.F.A. program; ﬁfteen hundred chopped salads, after taxes. I had a year left on my parents’ health insurance. I was staving oﬀ a thrumming sense of dread. An online superstore, which had got its start, in the nineties, by selling books on the World Wide Web, was threatening to destroy publishing with the tools of monopoly power: pricing and distribution. People were reeling from the news that the two largest publishing houses, whose combined value pushed past two billion dollars, had agreed to merge. In the evenings, at dive bars, I met with other editorial and agency assistants, all women, all of us in wrap dresses and cardigans, for whiskey-and-sodas and the house white. Publishing had failed to innovate, but surely we—the literary, the passionate, lovers and defenders of human expression—couldn’t lose? One afternoon, at my desk, I read an article about a startup, based in New York, that had raised three million dollars to bring a revolution to publishing. It was building an e-reading app for mobile phones which operated on a subscription model. The pitch—access to a sprawling library of e-books for a modest monthly fee—should have seemed too good to be true, but the app was a new concept for publishing, an industry where it seemed as if the only ways to have a sustainable career were to inherit money, marry rich, or wait for our superiors to defect or die.
y interviews with the e-book startup were so casual that at a certain point I wondered if the three co-founders just wanted to hang out. They were younger than I was but spoke about their work like industry veterans, and were generous with unsolicited business advice. I wanted, so much, to be like them. I joined at the beginning of 2013. The job, which had been created for
me, was a three-month trial run. As a full-time contractor, I would be paid twenty dollars an hour, with no beneﬁts. Still, the annual salary amounted to forty thousand dollars. On my start date, I arrived at the oﬃce, a loft a block from Canal Street, to ﬁnd a stack of hardcover books about technology, inscribed by the founders and stamped with a wax seal of the company logo: a mollusk, unavoidably yonic, with a perfect pearl. The e-book startup had millions of dollars in funding, but the app was still in “private alpha,” used by only a few dozen friends, family members, and investors. For the ﬁrst time in my career, I had some semblance of expertise. The founders asked for my opinions on the app’s user interface and the quality of the inventory, and on how we could best ingratiate ourselves with the online reading communities, the largest of which would soon be acquired by the monopolistic online superstore. One afternoon, the C.E.O. summoned the other two founders and the staﬀ of three to a conference room to practice his presentation to publishers. He opened by saying that this was the era of the sharing economy. Music, movies, television, retail, and transportation had been disrupted. Apparently, the time had come for books. He ﬂipped to a slide that displayed the logos of various successful subscription platforms, with ours at the center. “Hemingway” was misspelled in the pitch deck: two “m”s. After the ﬁrst few weeks, it seemed that the founders were paying me mostly to look for new oﬃce furniture and order them snacks: single-serving bags of sliced apples, tiny chocolate bars, cups of blueberry yogurt. “She’s too interested in learning, not doing,” the C.E.O. wrote. He meant to send the message to the two other co-founders, but mistakenly posted it in the company chat room. He apologized sincerely, while I looped the words in my head. I had not
The ďŹ rst time I looked at a block of code and understood what was happening, I felt like a genius. ILLUSTRATION BY ELENA XAUSA
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
understood that the founders hoped I would make myself indispensable. I had never heard the tech incantation “Ask forgiveness, not permission.” Soon afterward, the co-founders informed me that the areas where I could add value would not be active for some time. They assumed that I wanted to continue working in tech, and I didn’t disabuse them of this notion. ne of the e-book startup’s co-founders helped arrange an interview at an analytics startup in San Francisco. The role was in customer support, which I was not particularly excited about, but it was an entry-level position that required no programming knowledge. As a sociology major with a background in literary ﬁction and three months of experience in snack procurement, I assumed I was not in a position to be picky. The night before the interview, in a bedroom I’d rented through a millennial-friendly platform for sleeping in strangers’ bedrooms, I read puﬀ pieces about the analytics startup’s co-founders, now twenty-four and twenty-ﬁve, with one Silicon Valley internship between them and a smart, practical dream of a world driven by the power of Big Data. A renowned seed accelerator in Mountain View had oﬀered funding and connections in exchange for a sevenper-cent stake, and the C.E.O. and the technical co-founder left their college in the Southwest to join. The startup had twelve million dollars in venture funding, thousands of customers, and seventeen employees. In the oﬃce, the manager of the Solutions team, a hirsute man with a belly laugh, presented me with a series of questions and puzzles. A wiry sales engineer showed me how to write a function that rearranged the characters in a long string of letters. The technical co-founder watched me complete a reading-comprehension section from the LSAT. The oﬀer included company-paid medical and dental coverage and a starting salary of sixty-ﬁve thousand dollars a year. The Solutions manager did not mention equity, and I didn’t know that early access to it was the primary reason people joined startups. Eventually, the company’s in-house recruiter recommended that I negotiate a small
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
stake, explaining that all the other employees had one. Friends at home told me that they were excited for me, then asked whether I was sure I was making the right decision. The media tended to cover tech as a world of baby-faced nerds with utopian ambitions and wacky aesthetic preferences, but to my friends it was a Wall Street sandbox. I stuck to the narrative that working in analytics would be an experiment in separating my professional life from my personal life. Maybe I would start the short-story collection I had always wanted to write. Maybe I would take up pottery. I could learn to play the bass. I could have the sort of creative life that creative work would not sustain. It was easier to fabricate a romantic narrative than to admit that I was ambitious—that I wanted my life to pick up momentum. tartups in New York were eager to create services for media and ﬁnance; software engineers in the Bay Area were building tools for other software engineers. The analytics platform enabled companies to collect customized data on their users’ behavior, and to manipulate the data in colorful, dynamic dashboards. I’d had some guilt about the opportunism of the e-book startup, but had no qualms about disrupting the Big Data space. It was thrilling to see a couple of twentysomethings go up against middle-aged leaders of industry. It looked like they might win. I was employee No. 20, and the fourth woman. The three men on the Solutions
team wore Australian work boots, ﬂannel, and high-performance athletic vests; drank energy shots; and popped Vitamin B in the mornings. The Solutions manager assigned me an onboarding buddy, whom I’ll call Noah—employee No. 13—a curly-haired twenty-six-yearold with a forearm tattoo in Sanskrit. He struck me as the kind of person who
would invite women over to listen to Brian Eno and then actually spend the night doing that. I spent my ﬁrst few weeks with Noah carting around an overﬂowing bowl of trail mix and a rolling whiteboard, on which he patiently diagrammed how cookie tracking worked, how data were sent server-side, how to send an HTTP request. He gave me homework and pep talks. Our teammates handed me beers in the late afternoon. I was happy; I was learning. The ﬁrst time I looked at a block of code and understood what was happening, I felt like a genius. e treated the C.E.O., a twentyfour-year-old with gelled, spiky hair, like an oracle. The child of Indian immigrants, he mentioned, not infrequently, his parents’ hope that he would ﬁnish his undergraduate degree. Instead, he was responsible for other adults’ livelihoods. On Tuesdays at noon, we would roll our desk chairs into the middle of the oﬃce and ﬂank him in a semicircle, like children at a progressive kindergarten, for the weekly all-hands. Packets containing metrics and updates from across the company were distributed. We were doing well. An I.P.O. seemed imminent. The engineers had built an internal Web site to track revenue, which meant that we could watch the money come in in real time. The message was clear and intoxicating: society valued our contributions and, by extension, us. Still, the C.E.O. motivated us with fear. “We are at war,” he would say, his jaw tense. We would look down at our bottles of kombucha and nod gravely. At the end of the meeting, the packets were gathered up and shredded. Camaraderie came easily. We all felt indispensable. Failures and successes reﬂected personal inadequacies or individual brilliance. Slacking oﬀ was not an option. Research did not necessarily support a correlation between productivity and working hours beyond a reasonable threshold, but the tech industry thrived on the idea of its own exceptionalism; the data did not apply to us. We were circumventing the fussiness and the protocol of the corporate world. As long as we were productive, we could be ourselves. I did not want to be myself. I envied
my teammates’ sense of entitlement, their natural ease. I began wearing ﬂannel. I incorporated B Vitamins into my regimen and began listening to E.D.M. while I worked. The sheer ecstasy of the drop made everything around me feel like part of a running-shoe ad or a luxury-car commercial, though I couldn’t imagine driving to E.D.M. Was this what it felt like to hurtle through the world in a state of pure conﬁdence, I wondered—was this what it was like to be a man? I would lean against my standing desk and dance while pounding out e-mails, bobbing in solidarity with the rest of the team. ach new employee, regardless of department, was required to spend a few days at the Solutions cluster, answering support tickets––like working the mail room in Hollywood. The C.E.O. believed that this experience built empathy for our customers. It did not necessarily build empathy for Support. The engineers and salespeople tossed oﬀ replies to customer inquiries and rolled their eyes at developers who did not understand our product. The engineers had been hired at two or three times my salary, and their privileged position in the industry hierarchy should have exempted them from such tedium. It wasn’t exactly that they harbored contempt for our users; they just didn’t need to think about them. In theory, the tool was straightforward. But when users—engineers and data scientists, almost all of them men— encountered problems, they would level accusations and disparage the company on social media. My job was to reassure them that the software was not broken. Looking at their source code or data, I explained where things had gone haywire. Some days, helping men untangle problems that they had created, I felt like a piece of software myself, a bot: instead of being an artiﬁcial intelligence, I was an intelligent artiﬁce, an empathetic text snippet or a warm voice, giving instructions, listening comfortingly. Twice a week, I hosted live Webinars for new customers. I asked my parents to join, as if to prove that I was doing something useful, and, one morning, they did. My mother e-mailed afterward. “Keep that perky tone!” she wrote. After two months, the Solutions
“There she is. The girl I’m going to marry.”
• manager took me for a walk around the neighborhood. We passed a strip club, a popular spot for parties during developer conferences, which my co-workers claimed had a superlative lunch buﬀet. We circumvented people sleeping on steaming grates. He looked at me with kind eyes, as if he had given birth to me. “We’re giving you an extra ten thousand dollars,” he said. “Because we want to keep you.” he simplest way to solve users’ problems was by granting the Solutions team access to all our customers’ data sets. This level of employee access— some of us called it God mode—was normal for the industry, common for small startups whose engineers were overextended. It was assumed that we would look at our customers’ data sets only out of necessity, and only when our doing so was requested by the customers themselves; that we would not, under
• any circumstances, look up the proﬁles of our lovers and family members and co-workers in the data sets belonging to dating apps and shopping services and ﬁtness trackers and travel sites. It was assumed that if a publicly traded company was using our software we would resist buying or selling its stock. Our tiny startup operated on good faith. If good faith failed, there was a thorough audit log of all employee behavior. The founders tracked the customer data sets we looked at and the speciﬁc reports we ran. Early in the summer of 2013, news broke that a National Security Agency contractor had leaked classiﬁed information about the U.S. government’s surveillance programs. The N.S.A. was reading private citizens’ personal communications, crawling through people’s Internet activity by gathering cookies. The government had penetrated and pillaged the servers of global technology THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
companies. Some commentators said that tech companies had, essentially, collaborated, by creating back doors that the government could access. Others defended the tech companies’ innocence. In the oﬃce, we never talked about the whistle-blower—not even during happy hour. was making seventy-ﬁve thousand dollars a year. It felt like getting away with something. Even so, when I ran out of work to do on nights and weekends, I felt free, invisible, and lonely. The city’s green spaces overﬂowed with couples jogging next to each other and cycling on bikes with matching panniers. I spent hours in bed, drinking coﬀee and thumbing my phone. On a dating app, I made plans with two men, both of whom seemed boring and benign, before deciding that I couldn’t go through with it. I deleted the app. A few days later, one of them messaged me on a social network everyone hated. I tried to reverse engineer how he’d identiﬁed me, but couldn’t. Noah took me under his wing. He had grown up in Marin, and had moved back to California after college, hoping to live a bohemian life. Meeting his friends was like swinging open the gate to a version of the Bay Area I thought no longer existed: Here were chefs and social workers, academics and musicians, dancers and poets. Everyone was in-
venting a way to live. Some women instituted gender reparations with their partners, redistributing the housework to compensate for decades of patriarchal control. Atheists bought tarot decks and went to outposts in Mendocino to supervise one another through sustained, high-dose LSD trips. They went on retreats to technology-liberation summer camps, where they locked up their smartphones and traded their legal names for pseudonyms evoking berries and meteorological phenomena. I attended a spa-themed party at a communal house and wandered the grounds in a robe, avoiding the hot tub—a sousvide bath of genitalia. At a birthday party north of the Panhandle, Noah’s roommate, Ian, sat down beside me and struck up a conversation. Ian was soft-spoken and whistled slightly when he pronounced the letter “s.” He had static-electricity hair and a sweet, narrow smile. He asked questions and then follow-up questions, a novelty. It took a while for me to steer the conversation to him. He worked in robotics, I eventually learned, programming robotic arms to do camerawork for ﬁlms and commercials. The studio where he worked had recently been acquired by the search-engine giant down in Mountain View. One of the founders had been sent a set of three-hundred-thousand-dollar speakers as a welcome gift; when a pallet of
“ Yes, this was a crime of passion—a passion for premeditated murder.”
electric skateboards arrived at the studio, Ian and his co-workers knew that the deal had closed. oah had been with the startup for a year, and was preparing for his annual review. Before the meeting, he sent me his self-assessment and a memo he had written, asking what I thought. As an early employee, Noah was often the recipient of grievances and concerns from teammates and customers. In the memo, he pushed for changes to the product and in the company culture. He asked for a title change, more autonomy, a raise, and an increase in stock options. He presented the number of hires he’d referred, the proﬁts of the accounts he and his referrals had acquired and nurtured, the amount of money he calculated he had generated for the company. He wanted to become a product manager and run his own team. He wanted equity commensurate with his contributions, about one per cent of the company. He framed it as an ultimatum. Giving the chief executive an ultimatum was unprofessional, crazy, even for one of the best employees at the company. On the other hand, it was a company of twentysomethings run by twentysomethings. I read Noah’s memo twice, then I wrote and said it was risky but not unreasonable. I hoped they would give him everything he wanted. A few days later, on my way to work, I got a text message from Noah telling me that he had been ﬁred. At the oﬃce, the cluster felt like a funeral home. “They didn’t even try to negotiate with him,” a sales engineer said. “They just let one of our best people go, all because nobody here has any management experience.” The early members of the Solutions team were corralled into an unscheduled meeting with the C.E.O. He told us to sit down, standing at the front of the room, arms folded. “If you disagree with my decision to ﬁre him, I’m inviting you to hand in your resignation,” he said, speaking slowly. He looked around the table, addressing each of us individually. “Do you disagree with my decision?” he asked the account manager. “No,” the account manager said, raising his palms as if at gunpoint. “Do you disagree with my decision?”
the C.E.O. asked the sales engineer. “No,” the sales engineer said. His eyelids ﬂuttered. He looked ill. “Do you disagree with my decision?” the C.E.O. asked me. I shook my head, face hot. Of course not, I lied. Later, the C.E.O. denied that this meeting had taken place—it wasn’t something he would do, he said. At the time, it had seemed perfectly in character.
an and I biked through the city, drinking seltzer and eating avocado sandwiches on the seawall. We walked to the top of Bernal Hill and watched the fog curl around Sutro Tower; we skinnydipped in Tomales Bay. In the winter of 2013, Ian took me to a party at the oﬃces of a hardware startup operating out of an ivy-clad brick warehouse in Berkeley. Drones buzzed over a crowd of young professionals wearing sensible footwear. Ian disappeared with a co-worker to investigate a prototype line of self-assembling modular furniture, leaving me in a circle with a half-dozen other roboticists. The men discussed their research. One was trying to teach robots to tie diﬀerent kinds of knots, like Boy Scouts. I asked if he was a graduate student. No, he said, squinting at me. He was a professor. Talk turned to self-driving cars. How plausible were they, really? I asked. I had ﬁnished my beer, and I was bored. I also wanted to make sure everyone knew that I wasn’t just an engineer’s girlfriend who stood around at parties waiting for him to ﬁnish geeking out— though that’s exactly what I was doing. The group turned toward me, the Scout leader looking amused. “What did you say you do?” one of them asked. I said that I worked at a mobileanalytics company, hoping they would assume I was an engineer. “Ah,” he said. “And what do you do there?” Customer support, I said. He glanced at the others and resumed the conversation. On the train home, I leaned into Ian and recounted the interaction. What sexists, I said. How dare they be so dismissive, just because I was a woman— just because I did customer support and was considered nontechnical. Ian cringed and pulled me closer. “You’re not going to like this,” he said. “But you
were trying to talk shit about self-driving cars with some of the ﬁrst engineers ever to build one.” n the spring of 2014, the analytics startup released a new feature, a chart called Addiction. It displayed the frequency with which individual users engaged, synthesized on an hourly basis. Every company wanted to build an app that users were looking at throughout the day. Addiction, which quantiﬁed this obsession, was an inspired product decision by the C.E.O., executed brilliantly by the C.T.O. Our communications director had left for a larger tech company with familyfriendly beneﬁts and policies, and was not replaced. With her departure, I became the defacto copywriter. To promote Addiction, I ghostwrote an opinion piece for the C.E.O., published on a highly traﬃcked tech blog, that described the desirability of having people constantly returning to the same apps. “If you work for a SaaS”— software as a service—“company and most users are lighting up your Addiction report by using your app for 10 hours every day, you’re doing something very, very right,” I wrote, like the careerist I had become. The novelty of the product was exciting, but the premise and the name made me uneasy. We all treated technology addiction as though it were inevitable. The branding vexed me, as I told a friend. It was as if substance abuse were an abstract concept, something that people had only read about in the papers. The friend listened while I ranted. “I hear you,” he said. The question of addiction, he told me, was already a big thing in gaming: “It’s nothing new. But I don’t see any incentive for it to change. We already call customers ‘users.’”
ne evening, a group of us stayed late at work to watch a scienceﬁction movie about hackers who discover that society is a simulated reality. It was the C.E.O.’s favorite ﬁlm, released the year he turned eleven. The movie didn’t just make the hackers look sexy—it glamorized circumvention, the
outcast’s superiority, and omniscience. The C.E.O. sat with his laptop open, working as he watched. At the beginning of my tenure—a decade earlier, in startup time—the C.E.O. had invited me and an entrepreneur friend of his for late-night pizza in North Beach. The walls of the pizzeria were covered in stickers, like a laptop. We ordered grandma slices and cups of water, and perched on stools in the back, chatting, almost like friends.The men insisted on getting me home safely, and hailed a cab. I started saying my goodbyes, but they got into the back seat. Seeing me home would add another hour to their trip, I protested. They buckled their seat belts. As we glided through the city, I wondered if the cab ride was an act of chivalry or a test. I felt like a prop in their inside joke. At my apartment steps, I turned back to wave, but the car was already gone. The employees tried to be the C.E.O’s friends, but we were not his friends. He shut down our ideas and belittled us in private meetings; he dangled responsibility and prestige, only to retract them inexplicably. We regularly brought him customer feedback, like dogs mouthing tennis balls, and he regularly ignored us. He was expensive to work for: at least two of my co-workers met with therapists to talk through their relationship with him. Still, I was reluctant to entertain the idea that the C.E.O., who’d been under scrutiny from venture capitalists and journalists for years, was egomaniacal or vindictive. I was always looking for some exculpatory story on which to train my sympathy. By the time I started looking for other jobs, I considered my blind faith in ambitious, aggressive, arrogant young men from America’s soft suburbs a personal pathology. But it wasn’t personal at all; it had become a global aﬄiction. n the summer of 2014, I went for an interview at a startup that hosted a platform for open-source software development, housed in a former driedfruit factory by the ballpark. A security guard wearing a shirt with the company
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
logo and the words “SECRET SERVICE” showed me to the waiting room, a meticulous replica of the Oval Oﬃce. The wallpaper was striped yellow and cream. An American ﬂag stood to the side of the Resolute desk, behind which an animation of clouds passing over the National Mall played on a screen. The rug, a deep Presidential blue, was emblazoned with the startup’s mascot, a tentacled, doe-eyed octopus-cat crossbreed, holding an olive branch above the words “IN COLLABORATION WE TRUST.” The company had attracted a hundred million dollars in venture funding, and appeared to be spending it the way most people would expect three men in their twenties to spend someone else’s money. The oﬀer letter arrived. “We’re expecting big things from you, ourselves, and for the company,” it read. “You should be justiﬁably proud.” Mostly, I was burned out. The open-source company was famous for its culture, which atypically emphasized work-life balance. For years, in emulation of the tenets of open source—transparency, collaboration, decentralization—the organization had been nonhierarchical, and the majority of employees worked remotely. Until recently, employees had named their own compensation, determined their own priorities, and come to decisions by consensus, including some related to interior design. As my host gave me a tour through the oﬃce, I noted juggling balls on a desk cluster, a children’s play area, and a barefoot employee playing video games. People shook cocktails at the company bar. There was an indoor picnic area with Adirondack chairs and plastic grass, an orange shipping container—a visual pun on “shipping code”—with a gaming room inside, and a row of so-called coder caves: dark, cushioned booths designed for programmers who worked best under the conditions of sensory deprivation. The job was a customer-support role, but the title listed in the oﬀer letter was, in homage to the company mascot, Supportocat. I set that humiliation aside. My co-workers at the analytics startup had made fun of me for considering a “lifestyle job”––it entailed a ten-thousand-dollar pay cut––but I liked the company’s utopianism. The open-source startup hosted the largest collection of source 62
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code in the world, including a public Web site with millions of open-source software projects. Excitable tech journalists sometimes referred to it as the Library of Alexandria, but for code. It was six years old, with two hundred employees and no serious competitors. The social network everyone hated and the United States government both used its tools. For years, it had seemed that the company could do no wrong, but in the spring of 2014 the ﬁrst woman on the engineering team—a developer and designer, a woman of color, and an advocate for diversity in tech—had come forward with a spate of grievances. The startup, she claimed, was a boys’ club. Colleagues condescended to her, reverted and erased her code, and created a hostile work environment. She described a group of male employees watching female employees hula-hoop to music in the oﬃce, leering as if they were at a strip club. The developer’s story was picked up by the media and went viral. The company conducted an investigation. An implicated founder stepped down; another moved to France. For the ﬁrst time, tech companies were beginning to release internal diversity data. The numbers were bleak. The people building the world’s new digital infrastructure looked nothing like the people using it. There was an ongoing ﬁght about the “pipeline problem”–– the belief, apparently divorced from conversations about power or systemic racism, that there simply weren’t enough women and underrepresented minorities in STEM ﬁelds to ﬁll open roles. The situation at the open-source startup wasn’t the ﬁrst instance of sexism and racism in the tech industry, but it was among the ﬁrst to receive national attention. It made me wary, but I wondered if there might be some beneﬁt to joining an organization forced to confront discrimination head on. Call it self-delusion or naïveté; I considered these calculations strategic. uring my ﬁrst month in the job, there was a lot of chatter in the oﬃce about a group of Internet trolls who had mounted a harassment campaign against women in gaming. The trolls had ﬂooded social networks, spouting racist, misogynistic, and reactionary rhetoric. They had been banned from nearly every platform, and had responded by citing
the First Amendment and crying censorship. On our platform, they thrived. The trolls maintained a repository of resources and data on women they were targeting—photos, addresses, personal information. The trolls’ identities, meanwhile, were impossible to trace. My co-workers debated how seriously to take the campaign. A popular narrative about trolls was that they were just a bunch of lonely men in their parents’ basements, but this looked like a coördinated eﬀort. The repository included e-mail templates and phone-call scripts. It was, my teammates agreed, unusual to see them so organized. n October, I ﬂew to Phoenix for an annual conference of women in computing, established in honor of a female engineer who had helped develop military technologies during the Second World War. I was not really a woman in computing—more a woman around computing; a woman with a computer—but I was curious, and the open-source startup was a sponsor. The company put employees up in a boutique hotel with a pool and a Mexican restaurant. On the ﬁrst night, my co-workers, having ﬂown in from Portland, Toronto, Boulder, and Chicago, gathered over margaritas and bowls of guacamole. Many hadn’t seen one another since the startup’s gender-discrimination crisis. I hovered on the periphery, hoping that the engineers would adopt me. Some of them had unnaturally colored hair and punk-rock piercings, signalling industry seniority as much as subcultural aﬃliation. I had no idea what it would be like to be a woman in tech whose skill set was respected. I was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t dissimilar from being a woman in tech whose skill set wasn’t. For the most part, the other women at the open-source startup were glad that the years-long party seemed to be winding down. Leadership was scrambling to tidy up after the discrimination scandal: installing a humanresources department; disabling the prompt “/metronome,” which dropped an animated gif of a pendulous cock into the all-company chat room; rolling up the “In Meritocracy We Trust” ﬂags. In retrospect, the adherence to meritocracy should have been suspect at a prominent international
COURTESY MICHELE MARIAUD GALLERY
HUDSON YARDS BY JOEL KUNTZ
had no trouble identifying the early employees. I saw my former self in their monopolization of the chat rooms, their disdain for the growing sales team, their wistfulness for the way things had been. Sometimes I would yearn for their sense of ownership and belonging—the easy identity, the all-consuming feeling of aﬃliation. And then I would remind myself, There but for the grace of God go I. stopped going into the oﬃce. Support met once a week, for an hour, over videoconference. I prepared for these meetings by brushing my hair, closing the curtains to the street, and tossing visible clutter onto my bed and covering it with a quilt. I would log in and lean into my laptop, enjoying the camaraderie and warmth of a team. For an hour, my studio apartment would ﬁll with laughter and chatter, conversation tripping when the software stalled or delayed. Then I would stand up, stretch, replace the tape over my laptop camera, and open the curtains, readjusting to the silence in my room. Some days, clocking in to work was like entering a tunnel. I would drop a waving-hand emoji into the team chat room, answer a round of customer tickets, read e-mail, process a few copyright takedowns, and skim the internal social network. In the chat software, I moved from channel to channel, reading information and banter that had accumulated overnight in other time zones. After repeating this cycle, I would open a browser window and begin the day’s true work of toggling between tabs. Platforms designed to accommodate and harvest inﬁnite data inspired an inﬁnite scroll. I careened across the Internet like a drunk: small-space decoration ideas, author interviews, videos of cake frosting, Renaissance paintings with feminist captions. I read industry message boards and blogs, looking for anything to hold my interest. I learned that the e-book startup had been acquired by the search-engine giant, which had shut down its app. I watched videos of a xenophobic New York City socialite, whose greatest accomplishment was playing a successful businessman on reality television, launch a Presidential bid. I watched marriage proposals and post-deployment reunions and gender reveals: moments of bracing intimacy among people I would
• company that was overwhelmingly white, male, and American, and had fewer than ﬁfteen women in engineering. For years, my co-workers told me, the absence of an oﬃcial organizational chart had given rise to a shadow chart, determined by social relationships and proximity to the founders. As the male engineers wrote manifestos about the importance of collaboration, women struggled to get their contributions reviewed and accepted. The company promoted equality and openness until it came to stock grants: equity packages described as “nonnegotiable” turned out to be negotiable for people who were used to successfully negotiating. The name-your-own-salary policy had resulted in a pay gap so severe that a number of women had recently received corrective increases of close to forty thousand dollars. No back pay. In the convention center, I felt out of place among the computer-science majors, then ashamed to have impostor syndrome at a conference designed to empower women in the workforce. At a Male Allies plenary panel, a group of engineers circulated bingo boards among attendees. In each square was a diﬀerent indictment: “Refers to a feminist as ag64
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• gressive”; “ ‘That would never happen in my company’”; “Asserts other man’s heart is in the right place”; “Says feminist activism scares women away from tech”; “Wearables.” Wearables: the only kind of hardware men could imagine women caring about. At the center of the bingo board was a square that just said “Pipeline.” The male allies, all trim, white executives, took their seats and began oﬀering wisdom on how to manage workplace discrimination. “The best thing you can do is excel,”a V.P. at the search-engine giant, whose well-publicized hobby was stratosphere jumping, said. “Don’t get discouraged,” another said. “Just keep working hard.” Women bent over their bingo boards, checking oﬀ boxes. oing into work was not mandatory, but I still wanted to be a part of something. In the oﬃce, I staked out an unclaimed standing desk among a cluster of engineers and left my business cards next to the monitor. I took meetings in an area atop the indoor shipping container, on couches where an engineer was rumored to have lived for several months, before being busted by our secret service. I was employee No. 230-something. I
never know. I searched for answers, excuses, context, conclusions: “Text neck.” “Vitamin D deﬁciency.”“Rent calculator.” “What is mukbang?” Time passed, inevitably and unmemorably, in this manner. y the beginning of 2016, corners of the open-source platform had become increasingly vicious and bizarre. People posted content claiming to be members of a terrorist organization; people posted content to dox government employees and stalk our staﬀ. The company received a note so menacing that the oﬃce closed for a day. A far-right publication ran a blog post about our V.P. of social impact–– the woman responsible for managing diversity and inclusion programs—zeroing in on her critique of initiatives that tended to disproportionately beneﬁt white women. The post was accompanied by a collage of octopus-cats, under the headline “ANTI-WHITE AGENDA REVEALED.” The article sparked a furor in the comments section, which ﬁlled up with conspiratorial statements about Marxism and Hollywood, liberal victimhood, reverse racism, and the globalist agenda. The comments snowballed into threats. Some of the threats were speciﬁc enough that the company hired security escorts for the targeted employees. Later, I mentioned to a co-worker that all Internet harassment now seemed to follow the same playbook: the methods of the far-right commenters were remarkably similar to those of the troll bloc that, eighteen months earlier, had targeted women in gaming. It was bizarre to me that the two groups would have the same rhetorical and tactical strategies. My coworker, a connoisseur of online forums and bulletin boards, looked at me askance. “Oh, my sweet summer child,” he said. “Those groups are not diﬀerent. They are absolutely the same people.”
an Francisco was tipping into a fullblown housing crisis. Real-estate brochures oﬀered building owners enticements to ﬂip. “Hi, neighbor!” they chirped. “We have considered and ready buyers eager to invest in your neighborhood.” There was a lot of discussion, particularly among the entrepreneurial class, about city-building. Everyone was reading “The Power Broker”—or, at least, reading summaries of it. Armchair
urbanists blogged about Jane Jacobs and discovered Haussmann and Le Corbusier. They fantasized about special economic zones. An augmented-reality engineer proposed a design to combat homelessness which looked strikingly like doghouses. Multiple startups raised money to build communal living spaces in neighborhoods where people were getting evicted for living in communal living spaces. There was a running joke that the tech industry was simply reinventing commodities and services that had long existed. Cities everywhere were absorbing these ﬁrst-principles experiments. An online-only retailer of eyeglasses found that shoppers appreciated getting their eyes checked; a startup selling luxury stationary bicycles found that its customers liked to cycle alongside other people. The online superstore opened a bookstore, the shelves adorned with printed customer reviews and datadriven signage: “Highly rated: 4.8 stars & above.” Stores like these shared a certain ephemerality, a certain snap-togrid style. They seemed to emerge overnight: white walls and rounded fonts and bleacher seating, matte simulacra of a world they had replaced. Scale bred homogeneity. Half the knowledge workers I encountered had the same thin cashmere sweaters I did, and the same lightweight eyeglasses. Some of us had the same skin tints, from the same foundation. We complained of the same back problems, induced by the same memory-foam mattresses. In apartments decorated with the same furniture and painted the same shades of security-deposit white, we placed the same ceramic planters, creating photogenic vignettes with the same low-maintenance plants.
n the late fall, I went home to Brooklyn, reporting into work from my childhood bedroom, making myself available between six in the morning and early afternoon. New York held my life, but the city I had grown up in no longer existed. I had been gone for almost four years, and there were now so many co-working spaces and upscale salad shops; so many anemic new buildings with narrow balconies. I wondered if anyone actually wanted these things, and, if so, who they were. Whenever I asked, friends gave the same answer:
ﬁnance guys, tech bros. It was the ﬁrst time I had heard the two groups referred to in the same breath, not to mention with such frequency. Being in New York compounded a feeling I had been experiencing, of profound dissociation from my own life. I knew, as I wandered through museums with friends and video-chatted with Ian, that I needed to leave the tech industry. I was no longer high on the energy of being around people who so easily satisﬁed their desires––on the feeling that everything was just within reach. The industry’s hubris and naïveté were beginning to grate; I had moral, political, and personal misgivings about Silicon Valley’s accelerating colonization of art, work, everyday life. I could not have anticipated––three weeks before a Presidential election that would convince me it was safer to have a foothold, however small and tenuous, inside the walls of power––that leaving would take me more than a year. I went with my friends to see a performance in Fort Greene by a musician and choreographer we knew. I had met him shortly after my college graduation; he was the ﬁrst person I knew who was building an artistic life from scratch. The show, years in the making, had a fournight run. Onstage, dancers and musicians guided large slabs of foam into architectural arrangements, surrounded by instruments, pedals, and wires. The choreographer slipped an electric guitar over his shoulder. Light followed him as he stepped delicately across the stage, singing—hair ﬂopping across his brow, concentration and joy all over his face. I had forgotten what it felt like to want something; to feel that what I had, or was, mattered. I cried a little, wiping my nose on the program, stung by an old loss that suddenly felt fresh. Afterward, the performers stood in the theatre lobby, radiant, receiving bouquets wrapped in butcher paper. People in structurally inventive clothing lingered over plastic cups of wine. We oﬀered our congratulations, then shuﬄed past to let in other friends who had been waiting on the periphery. Outside, we ﬂagged a taxi. It rumbled across the Brooklyn Bridge, toward a restaurant where others were waiting. The city streaked past, the bridge cables ﬂickering like a delay, or a glitch. THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
PHOTOGRAPH BY JACK DAVISON
had been the assistant to the director for less than a year. The important qualiﬁcation for the job was to have no fear of water. None. And I did not. Only one thing moved me: the appearance in my head of the river horse. The guests, the Fellows, weren’t supposed to have any fear of water, either, but often they lied. This hadn’t mattered for some time, because the creek was dry, the creek was ashen. Children, having collected pretty stones from the wetness in the past only to see them grow dull on a shelf, thought that all the stones, everywhere, had died, even the ones they’d left behind. I had dealt with only two Fellows before Philip—which I suspect was not his real name. The previous ones had always appeared drunk, though perhaps they were only savagely thinking while I ﬁlled the water tanks and brought in fresh toilet-bowl brushes and briquettes for the grill. Both, on departure, had abandoned a remarkable amount of detritus. Plastic parts of things. Cords of many sorts. Puzzling attachments. They had both complained of bedbugs and ﬁre ants. “Not bedbugs,” I told them. “Conenose bugs. The conenose bugs have eaten the bedbugs.” I told them to treat the ﬁre-ant mounds with molasses mixed with dish soap, but they did not. The proof being the empty cannisters of Baygon everywhere. The residency came with a modest ranch house surrounded by several hundred acres. A creek bisected the only road leading to the property, though it hadn’t ﬂooded and cut oﬀ access for many years. The stories of high and consuming waters were, however, legion. They were diﬃcult to believe. I try to relate only to what is immediately veriﬁable. I don’t like to imagine things. I have to be careful about what I allow into my head, though of course sometimes I have no choice—as is the case with the river horse—and then I want to shriek with sadness and powerlessness. Philip arrived on the ﬁrst day of the new year, eager, he announced, to get to work. He was plump and pale, and reeked of mildew or worse, and he arrived with a dog about whom he had informed no one. Still, pets were not expressly forbidden. The dog had a melancholy air. “What’s its name?” I asked.
“What?” Philip demanded. I helped him unpack his vehicle. There was no luggage, but there were a great many tightly sealed cardboard boxes. “Would you like me to get additional supplies?” I asked. “Dog food?” “What?” Philip bellowed again. “I’m anxious to get down to business.” I said that the guests, the Fellows, always remarked on how astonishingly quickly their time here went by. “What? That’s preposterous! Time never goes anywhere!” The dog followed me outside and sniﬀed the tires of my truck. Together, we studied the sky, which appeared threatening. I rearranged some porch furniture. The dog looked at me. If I were to attempt to describe that look I would say that it was one that deeply questioned what it was looking at, my very existence, even. We walked toward the woods and I showed him various breaks in the fence line. “Don’t go out there,” I advised him, “unless you’re accompanied by someone, preferably a person.” “You mean like Philip,” he said, though of course he couldn’t have. We went back into the house and he settled onto a bed that had been prepared for him, a nest of faded beach towels. He chewed thoughtfully at a hole in one of them. I told Philip about the weather-alert system, the emergency phone, the extra batteries and candles, the German vacuum cleaner, which no Fellow had ever mastered. Once again, I asked him the dog’s name but he didn’t seem to hear me. He said he was working on a major work, an exceedingly major work. “No one will bother you,” I assured him. “The university doesn’t care about this place. I think they’d just as soon tear it down.” “Why not,” he agreed. He seemed more cheerful now that I was leaving. Looking back through one of the windows, I saw the dog carefully removing a slim book of poems from the bookcase. That evening, it began to rain. And it continued to rain for many days. The rain was not ﬂamboyant, merely constant. During this period, I mostly lay quietly, staring at the walls. There was nothing on them. Once, I had had two watercolors—I’d had them since I was
a little boy, and I had carried them about with me for years and hung them in whatever room I was living in—but someone in a position of authority had ﬁnally determined that they were detrimental to my progress and they were taken from me. They had been created by a capuchin. Caged animals often take refuge in art but this one was exceptionally talented. I was told at the time—when I was a little boy—that we were the same age. She favored the color blue, all the blues, of which there are many. She worked feverishly, I was told, usually at night, but then she suddenly sickened and died. But how she loved art! Perhaps she loved it too much. Perhaps she died trying to express the great thing. She presented mystery in terms of mystery. And is that not substance! Is that not meaning! I stared at the walls and thought of the little capuchin. I saw her only once. The cowl comforting her troubled face looked weary. There she is, I was told. That is the one. When it stopped raining, I ventured out to visit the residency, but the creek was impassable. Water rushed foaming over the ford, and the gauge posts marking ﬂood heights either were submerged or had been ripped away. The scene before me had been utterly transformed. I returned to my room and tried to call Philip but there was no answer. I contacted the university and left a message, though they seldom responded to my messages, even in the best of times. I went back the following day, and noticed that the woods looked especially fresh and benign. All was peaceful except for the rushing water, which showed no sign of abatement. But when I returned less than twentyfour hours later I was astonished to ﬁnd the creek bed dry. It was as though someone had pulled a plug, which might well have been the case. I would not put that past someone at all. I drove quickly over the ford and up the dirt track to the house. All seemed in order, except that Philip’s car was gone. I had gazed at the dangerous waters impassively, untroubled, but my heart was pounding as I approached the house. “Philip!” I called, but when I entered there was only the dog on his nest of towels. There was no sign of Philip or his materials, the sealed cartons he’d THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
arrived with. I suddenly had a terriﬁc headache. This was always the signal for the door in my head—and I experienced it quite speciﬁcally as a door, a big red one—to open and allow the river horse to come in. He lived in a poem, but before that he had languished in a zoo. I push the poem from my mind as soon as I can, but it’s never soon enough. When it wants in, it enters. The river horse. The baby river horse. “Oh, I know that one,” the dog said. “Craig Arnold. It ends with an infant being . . . the innocent . . . the ingenious . . . ” “Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “. . . whose ﬁrst step came only just in time to allow him to climb, all by himself . . .” “Yes, yes,” I said, sobbing. “. . . the steep steps to the guillotine.” I had to lie down. I staggered to a bedroom and closed my eyes. When I resurfaced, hours later, I saw that the dog had managed to start a ﬁre. It wasn’t cold enough for a ﬁre, but it was pleasant all the same. I was amazed that he was able to build a ﬁre. “There are those fatwood starters,” he said. “They come in a box.” “But even so,” I said. “Now that it’s stopped raining we could use the ﬁre pit outside. I investigated it earlier. It’s big, isn’t it? And those slabs of limestone around it. There are little faces in them, aren’t there?” “Oh, I hope not,” I said sincerely. “They seem to be screaming.” “I mustn’t scream,” I said. “Well, everything does at some point. I remember when I died—just the ways I died—over and over again. It was awful. No sense of plenitude or peace. Each time, I struggled. Didn’t do a lick of good. I died. Each time, I would ask, ‘But is there nothing that can be done?’ And there was only silence. I so wanted to get behind this endless end business. There’s so much there. But the resistance to its being realized is great. I was determined to break through. So I employed an amanuensis to assist in my anamnesis.” “Philip? Your memories of other lives?” He gazed at me. “Words can be so weird, can’t they!” I said, my excitement somewhat dis68
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
Lately, remembering anything involves an ability to forget something else. Watching the news, I writhe and moan; my mind is not itself. Lying next to a begonia from which black ants come and go, I drink a vodka. Night falls. This seems a balm for wounds that are not visible in the gaudy daylight. Sometimes a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier kneeling on soft mats. Everything seems possible, as when I hear birds that awaken at 4 a.m. or see a veil upon a face. Beware, the heart is lean red meat. The mind feeds on this. I carry on my shoulder a bow and arrow for protection. I believe whatever I do next will surpass what I have done. —Henri Cole placed. “The inversion or addition of a letter or two creates a whole diﬀerent meaning. It would be so easy to confuse the two if there was a test or something!” I was a small and earnest child again, a child saving money to buy the watercolors of a capuchin. “Amanuensis and anamnesis,” I added. “There are tests and there are tests,” the dog said. “Where is Philip?” I asked. “Gone. Swept away. And all the stories of my lives with him. He believed he had them all, but he did not. Hundreds and hundreds of hours’ worth, but far from all. Still, gone again. Indecipherable. Ruined. Lost.” I supposed that this was the end of my position as the assistant to the director. “He left when he thought I was sleeping. But I was not sleeping. I ran after him. I saw it all. Swept away.” “Did he record what you told him or did he write it down?” “I’m not a fan of electronic devices,” the dog said. “I think Philip was deaf.” “Deaf?” “Quite deaf, I think.” “So he was writing down what he imagined I was saying rather than . . .” “Possibly,” I said. The dog began worrying the hole in the beach towel again. It hadn’t become any larger, which I thought
showed considerable skill on his part. We were silent, watching the ﬁre. Finally, he spoke. “Sometimes I exhibit quite poor judgment.” “The selection process here is a mystery.” “I thought all the while that it was my work they found worthy.” “I’m sure it was. Is.” “The river of indiﬀerence ﬂows through the country of forgetfulness. That’s the way it’s always been. It need not be that way forever. That is what I have addressed and must continue to address.” The ﬁre was burning beautifully. He certainly knew how to make a ﬁre. I loved him. “We must leave,” I said sensibly. “We mustn’t stay. We would have to explain so much.” “Yes,” he sighed. “We begin again. We are forever being taken from our home and expected to thrive in some other place. Sometimes it is possible. More often it is not.” His coat was darker and more gleaming than I’d previously thought. “What would you call your color anyway?” I asked. “How would you like me to describe it?” “Devil’s-food cake,” he said. “That’s good. That’s perfect.” “I think so,” he said. ♦ THE WRITER’S VOICE PODCAST
Joy Williams reads “The Fellow.”
A CRITIC AT LARGE
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE Does connecting the world actually make it better? BY ANDREW MARANTZ
n 1476, about two decades after the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, a merchant named William Caxton built Britain’s ﬁrst printing press, in a building near Westminster Abbey. The following year, he used it to publish a book, one of the ﬁrst ever mass-printed in English, called “The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers.” (The title was redun-
dant: “dictes” and sayings are the same thing.) The book was a translation of a French anthology, which was a translation of a Latin anthology, which was a translation of a Spanish anthology, which was a translation of an Arabic anthology that had been transcribed from oral tradition in eleventh-century Egypt. “The Dictes” was what classicists call
a doxography—a chapter-by-chapter list of ancient thinkers and what they said, or what they were said to have said. The chapter on Socrates, for example, included a brief summary of his life and death, a few descriptive details (“When he spake he wagged his litil fynger”), and a recitation of his various opinions, including his opinion that philosophy should only
From the printing press to the Internet, new tools have led to the dissemination of information—and misinformation. ILLUSTRATION BY JAVIER JAÉN
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
be transmitted orally, not through books. Many of the dictes were mystical aphorisms (“Thought is the myrrour of man, wherein he may beholde his beaute and his ﬁlth”), or alarmist diet tips (“Wyne is ennemye to the saule . . . and is like setting fyre to fyre”), or paeans to a deity who was made to sound blandly, anachronistically Christian. Pythagoras, it was reported, instructed his followers “to serve God.” Omitted was the fact that Pythagoras was a pagan who believed in reincarnation and occult numerology. Still, at least Pythagoras was a real person. Some of the other philosophers in “The Dictes,” such as Zalquinus and Tac, probably never existed at all. As it turns out, the whole volume was shot through with what we would now call fake news. Caxton did not introduce these errors; they were there all along. According to the “Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature,” the Egyptian anthology on which all subsequent translations were based was “highly inﬂuential as a source of both information and style,” despite the fact that it was “almost entirely inaccurate, and the sayings themselves highly dubious.” The standard story about mass printing is a story of linear, teleological progress. It goes like this: Before Johannes
Gutenberg invented the printing press, books were precious objects, handwritten by scribes and available primarily in Latin. Common people, most of whom couldn’t aﬀord books and wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, were left vulnerable to exploitation by powerful gatekeepers—landed élites, oligarchs of church and state—who could use their monopoly on knowledge to repress the masses. After Gutenberg, books became widely available, setting oﬀ a cascade of salutary movements and innovations, including but not limited to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the steam engine, journalism, modern literature, modern medicine, and modern democracy. This story isn’t entirely wrong, but it leaves out a lot. For one thing, Gutenberg wasn’t the ﬁrst to use movable type—a Chinese artisan named Bi Sheng had developed his own process, using clay and paper ash, three and a half centuries before Gutenberg was born. For another, information wants to be free, but so does misinformation. The printing press empowered reformers; it also empowered hucksters, war proﬁteers, terrorists, and bigots. Nor did the printing press eliminate the problem of gatekeepers. It merely shifted the problem. The old gatekeepers were princes and
“I told you, nothing is wrong.”
priests. The new ones were entrepreneurs like Gutenberg and Caxton, or anyone who had enough money to gain access to their powerful technology. From the beginning, Caxton was ambivalent about his status as a gatekeeper. He seemed uneasy even acknowledging his power. In an epilogue, Caxton wrote that, after receiving an English translation of the French version of “The Dictes,” he read the manuscript and “found nothing discordant therein”— well, except for one thing. “In the dictes and sayings of Socrates,” he wrote, the translator “hath left out certain and divers conclusions touching women.” In previous versions, the chapter on Socrates had included a sudden digression into petty misogyny. (“He saw a woman sick, of whom he said that the evil resteth and dwelleth with the evil.” And “he saw a young maid that learned to write, of whom he said that men multiplied evil upon evil.”) In the English translation, the digression was gone. Should Caxton overrule the translator and restore the original text? Or should he let the censorship stand, implying that, even if such insults were acceptable in ancient Athens or medieval Cairo, they were now beyond the pale? After many sentences of ornate hand-
wringing, he tried to have it both ways. He translated the misogynistic passage into English and reproduced it in full. But, instead of placing it in its original context, in the Socrates chapter, he put it in the middle of his epilogue, as if to quarantine it. As soon as he made his decision, he attempted to rationalize it. In the rest of the epilogue, he seemed to imply that he wasn’t a gatekeeper after all—that, although he was clearly a publisher, his printing press should be treated more like a platform. He was merely serving his customers, he suggested: they deserved to hear all perspectives and make up their own minds. Besides, anyone who was oﬀended should blame Socrates, not Caxton. Better yet, a reader who disliked the passage could “with a pen race it out, or else rend the leaf out of the book.”
n the twentieth century, as early packetswitching networks evolved into the Internet, a generation of futurists and TED talkers emerged, explaining the new system to the laity in a spirit of wideeyed techno-utopianism. They compared it to a superhighway, to a marketplace of ideas, to a printing press. Anyone who was spending a lot of time on the Internet knew that many parts of it felt more like a dingy ﬂea market, or like a parking lot outside a bar the moment before a ﬁght breaks out. The techno-utopians must have been aware of those parts, too, but they didn’t mention them very often. In 1998, James Dewar, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, wrote a paper called “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead.” He had a rosy view of the past, and he extrapolated this into hopeful speculation about the future. “The printing press has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientiﬁc Revolution,” he wrote. “Similarly profound changes may already be underway in the information age.” Near the end of the paper, he acknowledged that “we are already seeing some of the dark side of networked computers.” He listed a few examples, in bullet-point form: “New and interesting ways of breaking into computer systems”; “Chain letters (that are both illegal and bandwidth intensive)”; “ ‘Trollers’ are posting to newsgroups.” Yet this brief qualiﬁcation, which appeared in a
BRIEFLY NOTED A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, by Jason DeParle (Vi-
king). Thirty years ago, as a young reporter intent on documenting stories of poverty, the author moved in with a family living in a shantytown in Manila. His host, Tita Comodas, and her relatives are at the center of this thoughtful examination of the causes and the consequences of global migration. For decades, millions of Filipinos—Tita’s husband, daughter, and niece among them—have left in order to earn a living by fulﬁlling the growing demand for labor overseas. As DeParle charts their paths to Saudi Arabia and Galveston, the clan’s generosity toward him enables him to provide a vivid window into lives that have been transformed by the remittance economy, the feminization of labor, and political nativism. The Outlaw Ocean, by Ian Urbina (Knopf ). The disturbing sto-
ries of “global oceanic pillage” compiled in this record of life on the high seas demonstrate the often dire results of the failure to police international waters. The ocean’s vastness compounds the problem, presenting opportunities for both exploitive commercial interests and idealistic vigilantes. Untended waters are rife with ﬁshing boats whose laborers, sometimes shackled to the decks, work in wretched conditions. Environmental activists, concerned about widespread pollution and declining ﬁsh populations, take advantage of the lax surveillance to document coral reefs, while humanitarians oﬀer abortions oﬀ the shores of countries where the procedure is illegal. The Ten Loves of Nishino, by Hiromi Kawakami, translated
from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (Europa). Ten women recall their relationships with the same man, Yukihiko Nishino, creating, in this novel, an intriguing appraisal of romantic attachment. While the details of his professional life are unspeciﬁed, his romantic behavior is scrutinized. In the accounts of his former lovers, who include a teen-age schoolmate and a woman with a newly empty nest, Nishino embodies both courtesy and savagery, honesty and inﬁdelity. He emanates a slick indiﬀerence, yet satisﬁes “a woman’s desires that even she was unaware of.” Nishino’s yearning for connection is hindered by his fear of a narrow life, and the women, in their narrations, betray their own anxiety and ambivalence about falling in love. Marilou Is Everywhere, by Sarah Elaine Smith (Riverhead). In
this strange and gripping début novel, a lonely teen-age girl assumes the identity of a classmate who has gone missing. The narrator, whose own mother sporadically disappears, leaving her and her “feral” brothers to fend for themselves, is driven by a desire to redraw the contours of her life by growing more conﬁdent, and by experiencing maternal love. Captivated by what she gains in the absent girl’s place, the narrator rationalizes her actions by telling herself that the girl’s mother, who suﬀers from memory loss, cannot tell the diﬀerence. But this radical remaking eventually becomes indistinguishable from erasure, as the narrator realizes, “I was being this slippery person I invented who could disappear in so many ways.” THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
section called “Afterthoughts,” seemed perfunctory at best. It had no eﬀect on Dewar’s sweeping, optimistic conclusion: that it was “more important to explore the upside of the technology than to protect against the downside,” and, thus, “the Internet should remain unregulated.” In the ensuing decade, a few nerdy young men created a handful of fastgrowing social networks—Myspace, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook. They didn’t pretend to know exactly how social media would be used, and they gave even less thought to how it might be misused. Despite Caxton’s self-justiﬁcations, subsequent generations of printers had grown to understand themselves as gatekeepers, and publishing had become an industry deﬁned as much by what it didn’t publish as by what it did. In the new industry of social media, the default setting was reversed. Founders vowed to keep their platforms “content-neutral.” The assumption was that almost all voices, even odious ones, deserved the chance to be ampliﬁed. Steve Huﬀman, the co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, told me that in high school he learned “about Gutenberg, Martin Luther—the democratization of knowledge and power. It was deeply ingrained in me that freedom of expression is important.” Naturally, he moderated the speech on Reddit as minimally as possible. “In the early days, we considered ourselves the anti-gatekeepers— the liberators,” Huﬀman told me. “Everyone’s feeling, including mine at the time, was, Trust your users. Let them post what they want to post. If it’s bad, it’ll get down-voted.” For centuries, the meaning of free speech had been reﬁned and reinterpreted in universities, in legislatures, in the courts, in the press. In the early days of Silicon Valley, however, weighty decisions about free speech were more likely to be made in the course of an afternoon, in a cramped conference room full of complimentary snacks, by a small team of harried computer engineers. Often, they had no long-term plan other than hacking together a “minimum viable product,” “shipping” their code as quickly as possible, and then “iterating”— startup euphemisms for what was, essen72
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
tially, trial and error. “I remember thinking, People in government, on the Supreme Court, are way smarter than me,” Huﬀman said. “So, if something’s not illegal to say under U.S. law, why should I make it illegal to say on Reddit?” In 2012, shortly before Facebook went public, one of its S.E.C. ﬁlings included an open letter signed by Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and C.E.O. Since Facebook’s launch, in 2004, Zuckerberg had portrayed himself as a Robin Hood ﬁgure, snatching power from the gatekeepers and redistributing it to the people. In the letter, he claimed that, around Facebook’s openplan oﬃce, “we often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television—by simply making communication more eﬃcient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. . . . They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized.They brought us closer together.” This wasn’t entirely wrong, but it left out a lot. Still, in fairness to Zuckerberg, he was merely echoing what has long been the dominant narrative about the history of technology—the triumphalist one. Until recently, Zuckerberg insisted that Facebook was a platform, not a publisher. If some disgruntled teen-ager wanted to quote Socrates’ vituperative opinions about women—or if, for that matter, a teen-ager wanted to share his own vituperative opinions— then who was Zuckerberg to stand in the way? In 2016, a few hours after a private audience with the Pope, Zuckerberg hosted a public question-and-answer event in Rome. He was asked whether he saw himself as an editor. “No,” he said, tittering uncomfortably. “We build tools. We do not produce content.” In some settings, he tried to absolve himself of decision-making power. In others, he acknowledged his power but framed his actions as inherently noble, implying that the freedom to share opinions online was akin to a human right. Sometimes he deployed several dodges, one after another, in the tradition of William Caxton: information wants to be free; besides, people who take oﬀense
should blame the author, not the messenger; anyway, the ultimate responsibility lies with each individual reader.
any early social-media entrepreneurs went to college to study computer science or business, receiving a respect for free-speech principles via cultural osmosis. Others didn’t ﬁnish college at all. One of the few who has read widely in the humanities is Chris Hughes, who was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard before becoming one of Facebook’s ﬁrst employees. “There was a strong sense back then—certainly you heard it from Mark and the people around him— that wiring the world was good in and of itself,” Hughes said recently. “There was a widespread belief in the inevitable forward march of history. I don’t know that that came from books, or from anywhere in particular—I think it was just understood.” Most people in Silicon Valley wanted to “change the world.” They didn’t bother specifying that they wanted to change it for the better—that part was implied, and, besides, it was supposed to happen more or less automatically. “I remember a ton of conversations in which the introduction of our tools was compared to the advent of the hammer, or the light bulb,” Hughes went on. “We could have compared it to a weapon, too, I suppose, but nobody did.” “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change,” published in 1979 by the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, is the seminal account, more than seven hundred pages long, of how mass printing, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, “altered the face and state of the world.” Eisenstein is a thorough scholar, and she is dutiful about lodging the necessary caveats. She acknowledges that many early printers were driven, at least in part, by the proﬁt motive, and that much of what they printed was disinformation or propaganda. Still, even when noting such drawbacks, she tends to couch them in a narrative of redemption. She argues, for example, that many “fraudulent esoteric writings” were, ultimately, “paving the way for a puriﬁcation of Christian sources later on. Here as elsewhere there is a need to distinguish between initial and delayed eﬀects.” She makes similar claims at other points in the book, downplaying initial eﬀects in favor of taking the long view, even though the initial eﬀects of the printing
press included heightened ethnic tensions, the spread of medical misinformation, and about a century’s worth of European religious wars. In other words, even when early printing technology ought to be described as a weapon, Eisenstein treats it more like a light bulb. “The advent of printing,” Eisenstein writes, “provided ‘the stroke of magic’ by which an obscure theologian in Wittenberg managed to shake Saint Peter’s throne.” The theologian, of course, was Martin Luther. Eisenstein recounts the viral dissemination of Luther’s Ninetyﬁve Theses in some detail. Nowhere, however, does she mention one of Luther’s later works, a treatise called “On the Jews and Their Lies.” “We are at fault in not slaying them,” Luther writes. “I shall give you my sincere advice: ﬁrst, to set ﬁre to their synagogues or schools. . . . Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.” It goes on and on, with an avidity that was shocking even by the standards of the time. Luther’s swan song, published in the year of his death, was a pamphlet called “Warning Against the Jews.” Luther was not content with verbal abuse, Paul Johnson writes, in “A History of the Jews.” “He got Jews expelled from Saxony in 1537, and in the 1540s he drove them from many German towns.” Johnson adds that Luther’s followers “sacked the Berlin synagogue in 1572 and the following year ﬁnally got their way” when the Jews were banned from the entire region. If mass printing was “the spark of magic” that helped Luther catalyze the Reformation, then it was also the megaphone that enabled antiSemites to shout “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of Western Europe. According to Johnson, “On the Jews and Their Lies” was “the ﬁrst work of modern antiSemitism, and a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust.” William Caxton introduced more than a thousand words into the English language, including “concussion,” “voyager,” and “servitude.” Another word that didn’t exist at the time is “Islamophobia,” which can now be used, anachronistically, to describe Caxton’s geopolitical proclivities. In fact, such a description would be an understatement. In 1481, Caxton published “Godeﬀroy of Boloyne; or, The Siege and Conqueste of Jerusalem.” The book, he explained in an epilogue, had
“Let’s work on using ‘I’ instead of the ‘hive mind.’ ”
• been “translated & reduced out of French into English by me, symple persone Wylliam Caxton, to the end that every Christian man may be better encouraged to enterprise warre for the defense of Christendom.” (He actually wrote “ﬀrensshe” and “tenterprise,” but some of his spellings have been standardized here for the sake of legibility.) Godeﬀroy was an eleventh-century crusader who led Christian armies through Nicaea and Constantinople, and into Jerusalem, slaughtering as many Muslims as he could ﬁnd. In 1481, the Ottoman Empire was expanding toward Jerusalem. Caxton hoped that, by recounting romantic tales of the First Crusade, he could inspire his contemporaries “with strong hand to expelle the Saracens and Turks out of the same, that our Lord might be there served & worshipped of his chosen Christian people.” So much for content neutrality. his is all a matter of recondite academic debate, until it isn’t. Let’s say it’s 2004 or 2005, and you’re about to start a social-media company. Bandwidth is cheap. Venture capital abounds. Legislators don’t understand your business model well enough to regulate it, and the public isn’t really paying attention. You can do pretty much whatever you want. So what do you do? If you believe wholeheartedly in the inevitable march of progress—if you have no doubt that any communication tool you bestow upon the masses will be used as a light bulb, not as a weapon—then there will be no
• countervailing force checking your reckless optimism, not to mention your rapacity. If, however, you take the downside risk more seriously—if it crosses your mind that your nifty new light bulb could, say, cause a few liberal democracies to lurch toward tyranny, exacerbate an already acute climate crisis, and heighten nuclear tensions—then you might proceed with a bit more caution. In 2003, a ﬁfteen-year-old named Christopher Poole created an image board called 4chan, which was built on the principles of anonymity and unrestrained free speech. It grew into a repository for some of the worst that the Internet had to oﬀer: ﬂorid racism, violent pornography, screeds from the cohort of misogynists now known as “incels.” (Poole was later hired by Google.) When Poole started banning some of the most egregious 4chan posts—images that verged on child pornography, for example— many users saw this as a violation of their free-speech rights. One such user was Fredrick Brennan. In 2013, high on mushrooms, Brennan decided to create 8chan. He conceived it as an alternative to 4chan, one with an even stauncher commitment to anything-goes content moderation. Pretty quickly, 8chan became like 4chan, only worse. (Recently, on Vice News, Brennan called 8chan “the butt hole of the Internet”; in an interview with me, he called it “horrifying and depressing.”) This year, three acts of whitesupremacist terrorism—armed attacks on a synagogue in Poway, California; THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; and on a Walmart in El Paso, Texas—have been committed by young men who said that they’d been radicalized on 8chan. “You build this thing with good intentions, believing that you’re about to change the world, and then you watch as the body count ticks up to— what is it now, seventy-one?” Brennan said. “It’s like a nightmare.” Brennan, who lives in the Philippines, left 8chan in 2016. He now builds software for typeface designers. The site’s current owner, Jim Watkins, an American who also lives in the Philippines, has done essentially nothing to rein in the chaos. “Jim seems to think it’s all fun and games,” Brennan told me. In August, Watkins was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Homeland Security, and this month he ﬂew to Washington to give closed-door testimony. In his prepared remarks, he wrote, “My company has no intention of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech.” Brennan told me, “If I could, I’d delete 8chan in a second. It’s way beyond the point of no return.” In recent years, Steve Huﬀman, of Reddit, has modiﬁed his early approach to content moderation. “It’s one thing to go, ‘We should never ban anything,’” he said. “It’s another thing to watch a community use your platform for something that’s obviously harmful and think, O.K., can we actually justify doing nothing about this?” In 2016, Reddit’s administrators banned a subreddit devoted to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory; in 2018, they banned a subreddit devoted to the QAnon conspiracy theory; in June, they censured The_Donald, a popular proTrump subreddit, after several of its members called for armed uprisings in progressive cities such as Portland, Oregon. Huﬀman told me, “I still think the spread of information through technology has been overwhelmingly positive. But I no longer believe, like I did fourteen years ago, that the negative side eﬀects will disappear by themselves. What we’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, is that it takes a ton of work.” fter more than a decade, the most powerful social-media entrepreneurs, now businessmen in their thirties, ﬁnally seem to understand that their imagined techno-utopia is not
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
going to materialize. This realization may be a sign of maturity; it may be a calculated response to internal pressure from investors or a strategy to stave oﬀ regulation; or it may be a simple defense mechanism, a reaction to being shamed. Within just a few years, the general public’s attitude toward social media has swerved from widespread veneration to viral fury. This may be one of the few silver linings of the 2016 election: had Hillary Clinton been elected, as most people expected, it’s unlikely that social-media founders would now have as much reason to reckon with what they’ve wrought. In November, 2018, Mark Zuckerberg posted a note on his Facebook proﬁle. “Many of us got into technology because we believe it can be a democratizing force for putting power in people’s hands,” he wrote. “I believe the world is better when more people have a voice to share their experiences, and when traditional gatekeepers like governments and media companies don’t control what ideas can be expressed.” He announced that he would set up “an independent body” to hear appeals from users who felt that their speech had been unfairly suppressed, or that they’d been insuﬃciently protected from harassment. The idea seemed to be that Zuckerberg—who once rejected the idea that fake news aﬀected the 2016 election, and who has referred to Holocaust denialism as merely something “that diﬀerent people get wrong”—should not be entrusted with sole gatekeeping authority over one of the most inﬂuential institutions on earth. The independent board, now nicknamed “the Supreme Court of Facebook,” is expected to begin its work next year. Since it was announced, its brief has expanded: in addition to resolving conﬂicts, the board’s decisions will help Facebook develop a coherent approach to content moderation in general. Last week, Facebook released an eight-page charter outlining the board’s intentions, a detailed ﬂowchart illustrating how it will make decisions, and a new message from Zuckerberg reaﬃrming his commitment (“The board’s decision will be binding, even if I or anyone at Facebook disagrees with it”). Kate Klonick, an Internet-law scholar and a professor at St. John’s University, has been allowed
to observe more than a hundred hours of internal meetings at Facebook— meetings about what this new body should do, who should be on it, what powers it should have. She described the process as “manically thoughtful.” “It’s sort of like setting up Article III courts entirely from scratch,” she told me, referring to the part of the U.S. Constitution that enumerates the powers of the judicial branch. “Except, if you’re Facebook, you don’t have an Article III, because you don’t have a constitution. Which raises the question: Well, O.K., should we write a constitution? If so, what should be in it?” In the end, she continued, “it’s hard to know whether this will be adequate or not, but I can promise there has never been such an enormous concerted voluntary eﬀort by a private company to jettison part of its power over a public right in human history.” Zuckerberg hasn’t abandoned his techno-utopianism—his claim that the post-Facebook world “is better,” as he put it in his note in November, is arguable, at best—but his self-assurance has clearly been punctured. “The past two years have shown that without suﬃcient safeguards, people will misuse these tools to interfere in elections, spread misinformation, and incite violence,” he continued. “One of the most painful lessons I’ve learned is that when you connect two billion people, you will see all the beauty and ugliness of humanity.” As of last week, the note had received forty-one thousand likes, four thousand loves, eight hundred and ﬁfty-six surprised emojis, two hundred and ﬁftytwo laughing emojis, a hundred and ﬁfty-eight angry emojis, eighty-one crying emojis, and more than seven thousand comments. “Keep up the good work!” a stock trader in Michigan wrote. “Ignore the media, keep improving.” “Please address the issue of fake ads,” a man in Benin wrote. “Any concept, however sophisticated will somehow purposely be misused and abused,” a German woman wrote. “You suck suckberg,” a British woman wrote. “Let me guess,” a woman in Washington State wrote, “you guys never really thought of how explosive free speech really was did ya??”
Meritocracy’s winners think their success is all due to their brains and effort.
Educational sorting often begins very early in the United States, as when schoolchildren are selected for “gifted and talented” programs, and it continues in high school, where some students are pushed onto vocational tracks. But every American has the right to an elementary- and high-school education. You just need to show up. Until you are sixteen, you are required by law to show up. College is diﬀerent. College is a bottleneck. You usually have to apply, and you almost always have to pay, and college admissions is a straight-up sorting mechanism. You are either selected or rejected. And it matters where. Research shows that the more selective a college’s admissions process the greater the economic value of the degree. The narrower the entryway, the broader the range of opportunities on the other side. College, in turn, sorts by qualifying some students for graduate and professional education (law, dentistry, architecture). And graduate and professional education then sorts for the labor market. It’s little gold stars all the way up. College is also a kind of dating service. You and your classmates have chosen and been chosen by the same school, which means that your classmates are typically people whose abilities and interests are comparable to your own. And, for many people, friendships with other students constitute the most valuable return on their investment in college education. One of the things they are buying is entrance into a network of classmates whose careers may intersect proﬁtably with theirs, and alumni who can become references and open doors. We ﬁnd it unseemly when someone is hired because his or her mom or dad made a phone call. We think that’s unmeritocratic. But we are not, usually, taken aback when we learn that someone got a job interview through a college roommate or an alumni connection, even though that is also unmeritocratic. We accept that those connections, along with connections that students make with their professors, are among the things you “earn” by getting into a college. It’s one of the rewards for merit. Education therefore plays an outsized role in people’s lives. It can vastly outweigh the eﬀects of family and local community on people’s beliefs, values,
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT SAMUEL HANSON
THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
MERIT BADGES Is higher education an engine of social injustice? BY LOUIS MENAND
n recent years, we have been focussed on two problems, social mobility and income inequality, and the place these issues appear to meet is higher education. That’s because education in the United States is supposed to be meritocratic. If the educational system is reproducing existing class and status hierarchies—if most of the beneﬁts are going to students who are privileged already—then either meritocracy isn’t working properly or it wasn’t the right approach in the ﬁrst place. Paul Tough, in “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us” (Houghton Miﬄin Harcourt), thinks that the problem is a broken system. Daniel
Markovits, in “The Meritocracy Trap” (Penguin Press), thinks that the whole idea was a terrible mistake. The term “meritocracy” was invented in the nineteen-ﬁfties with a satirical intent that has now mostly been lost. “Merit” was originally deﬁned as “I.Q. plus eﬀort,” but it has evolved to stand for a somewhat ineﬀable combination of cognitive abilities, extracurricular talents, and socially valuable personal qualities, like leadership and civic-mindedness. Attributes extraneous to merit, such as gender, skin color, physical ableness, and family income, are not supposed to constrain the choice of educational pathways.
tastes, and life paths. For the individual student, the investment in time and money, not to mention the stress, can be enormous. But, according to Steven Brint’s “Two Cheers for Higher Education” (Princeton), even though tuition and fees increased by more than four times the rate of inﬂation between 1980 and 2012, college and graduateschool enrollments grew every year. (There has been a dip in recent years.) Almost every study concludes that getting a college degree is worth it. What is known as the college wage premium— the diﬀerence in lifetime earnings between someone with only a high-school diploma and someone with a college degree—is now, by one calculation, a hundred and sixty-eight per cent. For people with an advanced degree, the wage premium is two hundred and thirteen per cent. (Of course, the more people who get a college degree—about a third of the population now has a bachelor’s degree—the greater the penalty for not having one. The decrease in earnings for non-degree holders raises the premium.) The investment is also substantial for society as a whole. Taxpayers spend a hundred and forty-eight billion dollars a year to support higher education through subsidies and grants. Total annual revenue at all colleges and universities—including public, private, and for-proﬁt schools, from all sources, including tuition, grants, gifts, and endowment income—is more than six hundred and forty-nine billion dollars. The question of whether the system is working for everyone is therefore never an inappropriate one to ask. Fifty years ago, the worry about meritocracy centered on race and gender. In 1965, the student population in American colleges and universities was ninety-four per cent white and sixtyone per cent male. By one measure, this problem appears to have been solved, despite tireless resistance to the methods that colleges have used to get there. Today, ﬁfty-six per cent of students are classiﬁed as non-Hispanic whites and forty-two per cent of students are male. A more ﬁne-grained analysis suggests that this is not quite the victory for diversity that it seems. According to a report from the Georgetown Uni76
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versity Center for Education and the Workforce, enrollment in the four hundred and sixty-eight best-funded and most selective four-year institutions is seventy-ﬁve per cent white, while enrollment in the thirty-two hundred and ﬁfty lowest-funded community colleges and four-year universities is forty-three per cent black and Hispanic, a pattern of de-facto segregation which mirrors that of the country’s public schools. Nor does racial diversity necessarily correlate with economic diversity. That a student is nonwhite obviously does not mean he or she is from a disadvantaged background. Highly selective colleges tend to select from the best-oﬀ underrepresented minorities. And this feeds into our current focus on class and income. In the nineteen-ﬁfties and sixties, the college wage premium was small or nonexistent. Americans did not have to go to college to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. And the income of Americans who did get a degree, even the most well-remunerated ones, was not exorbitantly greater than the income of the average worker. By 1980, though, it was clear that the economy was changing. The middle class was getting hollowed out, its less advantaged members taking service jobs that reduced their income relative to the top earners’. “The help-wanted ads are full of listings for executives and for dishwashers—but not much in between,” Walter Mondale said at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Since then, the situation has grown worse. In a survey conducted in 2014, ﬁfty-ﬁve per cent of Americans identiﬁed as lower class or working class. And, of the many diﬀerences between Trump and Clinton voters in 2016, the education gap seems to have been a key one. Years That Matter Most” is a “ T he journalist’s book. Paul Tough interviewed students, teachers, researchers, and administrators, trying to ﬁgure out why the higher-education system fails some Americans and what people are doing to ﬁx it. He has fascinating stories about eﬀorts to remediate class disparities in higher education, some of which have succeeded and some of
which may have made matters worse. What’s best about the book, a fruit of all the time Tough spent with his subjects, is that it humanizes the process of higher education. People have diﬀerent situations and diﬀerent aspirations. Not everyone wants to go to Harvard or Stanford. Not everyone wants a job on Wall Street. People should be able to lead ﬂourishing lives without a prestigious college degree, or any college degree at all. On the other hand, there are people who could go to Harvard or Stanford but don’t have the chance—because they are not given proper guidance in high school, because of family pressures and ﬁnancial need, because their test scores do not accurately reﬂect their potential. Two standardized tests have been used nationally in college admissions since the ﬁfties, the ACT and the SAT, and they are constantly duking it out for market share. Tough’s analysis focusses on the SAT, which is administered by the College Board. The SAT was originally designed as an I.Q. test, based on the idea that people are born with a certain quantum of smarts (g, as psychologists used to call it). The purpose of the SAT was not to expand the college population. It was just to make sure that innately bright people got to go. A lot of the debate over the SAT, therefore, has had to do with whether there really is such a thing as g, whether it can be measured by a multiple-choice test, whether smarts in the brute I.Q. sense is what we mean by “merit,” and whether the tests contain cultural biases that cause some groups to underperform. But the real problem with the SAT is much simpler: SAT scores are not very good at predicting college grades. What is very good at predicting college grades? High-school grades, at least for American applicants. (For international students, whose secondary schools can have inconsistent or hard-to-parse grading systems, the SAT may be a useful way for admissions oﬃces to pick out promising recruits.) Submitting high-school grades costs the applicant nothing. Tough thinks that the College Board knows it has a problem and is trying to disguise it. In 2017, facing the fact that an increasing number of colleges were no longer requiring standardized-
test scores, the company helped pro duce a report, “Grade Inﬂation and the Role of Standardized Testing,” which claimed that grade inﬂation favors welloﬀ students. “Testoptional poli cies,” the report concluded, “may be come unsustainable.” The College Board promoted this ﬁnding by, among other things, run ning an online advertorial in The Atlantic called “When Grades Don’t Show the Whole Picture.” “Submitting SAT scores as part of a college application can open doors of opportunity not just for a privileged few, but for all students,” the article said. The SAT is the disad vantaged student’s friend. It takes a bite out of privilege. The education press bought it. The trouble, Tough says, is that the report’s conclusion is contradicted by evidence contained in the report itself. Grade in ﬂation has been consistent across racial and socioeconomic groups. What have not been consistent are SAT scores. Since 1998, the average score of students whose parents are well educated has in creased by ﬁve points, while the aver age score of students whose parents have only an associate’s (twoyear col lege) degree has dropped by twenty seven points. It turns out that the SAT is, in fact, the friend of privilege. If you combine SAT scores with highschool G.P.A., you get a slightly better predic tor of college grades than you do using G.P.A. alone. But the SAT, a highly stressful rite of passage for American teenagers that has cost their parents, over the years, many millions of dollars in testpreparation schemes, is a largely worthless product. College does enable social mobility, but it’s not happening at the most se lective schools. According to the Har vard economist Raj Chetty, children whose parents are in the top one per cent of the income distribution—roughly 1.6 million households—are seventy seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than children whose parents are in the bottom income quin tile (about twentyﬁve million house holds). At what are called the Ivy Plus colleges—the eight Ivies plus schools such as the University of Chicago, M.I.T., and Stanford—more than two thirds of the students are from the top quintile and less than four per cent are
from the bottom. The most extreme case, according to Tough, is Princeton, where seventytwo per cent are from the top quintile and 2.2 per cent are from the bottom. Such data suggest that higher edu cation is not doing much to close the income gap, and that it may be help ing to reproduce a class system that has grown dangerously fractured. This is the phenomenon that the man who coined the term “meritocracy,” Michael Young, predicted back in 1958, and it has been tracked by a number of writ ers since. In a classic history of meri tocracy, “The Big Test,” published in 1999, Nicholas Lemann concluded, “You can’t undermine social rank by setting up an elaborate process of ranking.” his inversion of what meritocratic education sought to achieve is the subject of “The Meritocracy Trap.” Dan iel Markovits thinks that meritocracy is responsible not only for the widen ing gap between the very rich and ev eryone else but for basically everything else that has gone wrong in the United States in the past forty years. “The aﬄic tions that dominate American life,” he
says, “arise not because meritocracy is imperfectly realized, but rather on ac count of meritocracy itself.” “The Meritocracy Trap” is an aca demic’s book. Markovits is a law pro fessor at Yale. He draws his evidence from an impressive range of studies, by other researchers, of income in equality and its eﬀects on the quality of American life. But the book com pletely lacks a human element. It is as though Markovits constructed simu lacra of human beings out of his data: this is what the numbers tell you that people must be like. It is almost im possible to recognize anyone you ac tually know. “My students at Yale—the poster children for meritocracy—are more nearly overwhelmed and confounded by their apparent blessings than com placent or even just selfassured,” he writes. “They seek meaning that eludes their accomplishments and regard the intense education that constitutes their elevated caste with a diﬃdence that ap proaches despair.” I happen to know some current students and recent grad uates of Yale Law School, and they don’t seem diﬃdent or despairing to me at
“All the better to ignore you with.”
• all. In fact, they seem, understandably, rather pleased with themselves. “The Meritocracy Trap” is an exhausting book—bombastic, repetitive, and single-minded to the point of obsession, a mixture of Cotton Mather, Karl Marx, and MAGA. Brimstone rains down from every sentence. Markovits thinks that meritocracy is making everyone miserable, not least the meritocrats themselves. “Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry, never ﬁnding, or even knowing, the right food,” he says. (Maybe not the most apt metaphor. One thing that high-income earners do seem to know about is food.) Meanwhile, middle-class Americans “are dying from indirect and even direct self-harm, as they—literally—somatize the insult of their meritocratically justiﬁed exclusion.” “Merit is a sham,” the preacher saith. “Merit itself is not a genuine excellence but rather—like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancien régime—a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.” The successful have sold their souls to Mammon: “Meritocrats gain their immense labor incomes at the cost of exploiting themselves and deforming their personalities.” The MAGA part of the book is the complaint that the “élites” have rigged the system to beneﬁt themselves at the 78
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• expense of the middle class, whose tastes and values they sneer at. (This is Trumpian, but not Trump, who is the ultimate system rigger, the crony capitalist par excellence.) Meritocracy, Markovits says, throws élites and the middle class alike into “a maelstrom of recrimination, disrespect, and dysfunction.” Every social ill that aﬄicts working- and middleclass Americans—the opioid crisis, the decline in life expectancy, the incidence of out-of-wedlock births—is the consequence of what Markovits calls “meritocratic inequality” (a phrase he uses more than a hundred and forty times). The educated élite has become a selfperpetuating caste, drilling its children in the rituals of meritocratic advancement and walling itself oﬀ from the world of the average American. Back in the ﬁfties, Markovits says, we were all on the gravy train together, or, at least, white men were. The well-oﬀ ate the same food and drove the same cars as everyone else. You could make a good living as a middle manager or an assembly-line worker. Americans didn’t get high-handed about virtue issues like identity politics, racial bigotry, and gay marriage, issues that Markovits thinks the average worker rightly regards as irrelevant. We need to bring that America back. Of course, in that America, almost a quarter of the population lived in poverty; ten per cent of the population,
Americans of African descent, was eﬀectively barred from social advancement; and ﬁfty per cent of the population was mostly consigned to womenonly jobs. Not great for everybody. The book’s model of a town that is decaying because of the scourge of meritocracy is St. Clair Shores, Michigan. St. Clair Shores is a virtually all-white exurb of Detroit that ﬂourished at a time when most of the world’s cars were made in the United States. Many things besides college-admissions practices led to its decline. The Marxist part of “The Meritocracy Trap” is the interesting part. Like Marx, Markovits sees society as constituted by the dynamic between two social classes, the élite (which he calls “the ruling class”) and the middle class. He uses a stereotype to represent each class: the partner at a Wall Street ﬁrm who takes home ﬁve million dollars a year versus the packager in an Amazon fulﬁllment center whose every movement is monitored and who has little or no job protection. Strangely, apart from the references to Amazon, the tech economy is almost completely missing from the analysis. Markovits’s focus is on C.E.O.s and élite-professional-service (E.P.S.) workers: corporate lawyers, management consultants, and investment bankers, people who get rich by helping other people get richer. This is possibly because those are careers pursued by law-school graduates, who do not train to do tech work. For Markovits, both classes are the prisoners of meritocracy, just as Marx thought that both the capitalist and the worker he exploits were doing only what the system was making them do. That did not prevent Marx from calling capitalists greedy and cruel, and it does not prevent Markovits from calling élite workers selﬁsh, corrupt, and immoral. But, like Marx, Markovits thinks that the whole system is a Frankenstein’s monster. We created the meritocracy with good intentions, and now we are its victims. What would a post-meritocratic world look like? Markovits doesn’t know, and neither did Marx know what a post-capitalist world would be like. There will be less alienation and inauthenticity (as Marx believed, too); other than that, we can’t really imagine a post-
meritocratic world, because the élite has made its own values everyone’s. “Presentday ideals concerning justice, entitlement, and even merit are all meritocracy’s oﬀspring and carry its genes inside them,” as Markovits puts it. “Meritocracy has built a world that makes itself—in all its facets, including meritocratic inequality—seem practically and even morally necessary.” Meritocracy seems the natural way of running things, so that when you ask why meritocracy isn’t working people say it’s because it’s not meritocratic enough. One obvious response to Markovits’s complaint is that, thanks to globalization and the digital revolution, the twentyﬁrst-century economy is enormously complex and requires highly trained people to operate it, and so the returns to education have grown. Markovits’s answer is that the twenty-ﬁrst-century economy was made complex by the élite in order to monopolize high-paying jobs for itself. He thinks that fancy ﬁnancial instruments, like junk bonds and derivatives, were devised to reward the highly educated, since less educated people can’t manipulate them. “The appearance of super-skilled ﬁnance workers induced the innovations that then favored their elite skills,” he says. He goes so far as to suggest that computers were invented to raise the value of higher education. Markovits is right that the concept of merit is now tied up with a certain idea of work, and the two are not easily separated. College-educated people believe that you are supposed to work hard. It is diﬃcult for them to respect someone who treats his or her job as a paycheck, rather than as a source of achievement and fulﬁllment. Markovits presents a lot of evidence that élite workers are putting in crazier and crazier hours while middle-class workers have become victims of what he calls “enforced idleness.” They work less because there is less work for them to do. He is also probably right that the top-earner work ethic reﬂects the fact that people are now socialized to think of themselves as human capital. He thinks that this alienates highly educated people from their own labor, since they are driven to maximize the return on the investment they have made in themselves. But artists and athletes are
embodiments of human capital, too, and they are also driven, sometimes obsessively, to succeed. We would not say this makes them inauthentic. Meritocracy Trap” does not “ T he oﬀer much in the way of policy
advice. In a brief conclusion, Markovits suggests eliminating the cap on Social Security taxes and giving the money to companies as wage subsidies to create more mid-skilled jobs. He mentions a program to create 4.4 million public-sector jobs. And he recommends depriving private schools and universities of their tax-exempt status unless they take at least half their students from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution. To do this, he thinks that they should double their enrollments. He does not endorse a wealth tax, student-debt relief, or “college for all” free tuition, policies that progressive politicians have proposed to increase social mobility and reduce income inequality. The weirdest claim in “The Meritocracy Trap” is that the American educational system is designed to produce super-skilled dealmakers and number crunchers. “Elite schooling is carefully calibrated to train students . . . to resist the urge to pursue their own peculiar authentic interests in favor of doggedly shaping themselves to serve ends set externally by the meritocratic system,” Markovits says. The suggestion
that Yale professors are trying to get students to shape themselves “to serve ends set externally by the meritocratic system” is ridiculous. People who work at schools like Yale and Stanford and Chicago are devoted to exposing students to as wide an array of art, ideas, methods, and ways of being as possible. Curricula are constructed and classes are designed to get students to explore, non-instrumentally, the world of knowledge and to reﬂect on their
goals and ambitions in an informed way. “Populists who say that colleges and universities are bad for America may have narrowly political motives,” Markovits tells us, “but a clear-eyed understanding of meritocratic inequality shows that they are not wrong.” It is alarming when a Yale professor says that colleges and universities are “bad for America” (a Fox News phrase). It feeds the idea that the way to address inequality and discrimination is to reform college admissions at places like Harvard and Yale. This idea rests on an error of scale. The most highly selective universities—the eight Ivies plus M.I.T., Stanford, Chicago, and Caltech—enroll less than one half of one per cent of all college students in the United States. You could swap out every legacy, donor oﬀspring, and faculty child (not to mention, since almost nobody does, recruited athletes) in those schools for an underprivileged applicant and the inequality needle would hardly budge. Colleges should always be asking themselves what they are trying to achieve with their admissions processes and whether they are working fairly and in everyone’s best interests. But the focus on private colleges’ admissions is a distraction from a development that aﬀects far more people: the defunding of public higher education. Those are the schools in which seventy-three per cent of American college students—14.7 million people—are enrolled. Steven Brint, in “Two Cheers for Higher Education,” says that the average appropriation per student in public institutions declined by twenty per cent between 1990 and 2015. Many ﬂagship public universities, such as the University of Virginia, have basically been privatized, and charge tuitions that are unaﬀordable to low-income students. There are sixty thousand undergraduates in Ivy League colleges. There are four hundred and twenty-eight thousand students, seven times as many, in the Cal State system alone. Those students should be getting more resources. Some of Markovits’s criticisms of college admissions don’t seem to have been thought through. He cites the increased competition for admission to top schools, referring to a time, not that long ago, when the Ivy League accepted THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
thirty per cent of its applicants. The ﬁgure is now around ﬁve per cent. But low acceptance rates are a good thing. They mean that the pool is bigger. Applicants no longer need to have gone to Groton or be able to pay full freight to have a fair chance of getting in. Commentators do not seem exercised about the admissions preference given to varsity athletes, but they are about the legacy preference. Eliminating that preference is a much less eﬃcacious reform than it seems. Most American colleges are not highly selective. According to Brint, no more than ﬁve to seven per cent of college students attend a school that admits less than half its applicants. The average admissions rate at fouryear colleges is sixty-six per cent. Legacy preferences at most of those schools do not signiﬁcantly reduce the non-legacy’s chances. At any college, many legacies would be admitted without the preference. In the more selective colleges, the legacy preference is supposed to be used to tip the choice between equally qualiﬁed candidates, so eliminating it turns the decision into a coin toss, meaning that half the time the legacy still gets in. There is also, of course, no guarantee that the applicant taking the legacy’s spot is not also privileged. Some colleges rely on alumni loyalty in order to survive ﬁnancially, and, in turn, to provide ﬁnancial aid. Would they, too, be expected to eliminate legacy preferences? There is, ﬁnally, the question of whether we want the government to tell private universities whom they may and may not admit, beyond the stipulations of anti-discrimination law. That could be a very slippery slope. The main signiﬁcance of the legacy preference is symbolic. It represents, to many people, the perpetuation of privilege. Eliminating it would send a positive message about class. What it would not do is reduce income inequality. You would just be replacing one group of future high earners with a slightly diﬀerent group. The social eﬀect would be minuscule. People also complain that college admissions is a black box. It is. But if the process were transparent, if everyone knew the recipe for the secret sauce, then applicants would game the system. (And privileged students have more resources to get good at the game.) 80
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They try to game it as it is, so the recipe changes from year to year, as admissions oﬃcers ﬁgure out what to discount or to ignore when they review applications. It can seem, from the outside, that every applicant is competing against every other applicant. In fact, colleges have many buckets to ﬁll, and applicants are mainly competing inside their own buckets. There is no single deﬁnition of “qualiﬁed.” Finally, it’s not the colleges that endow the degree from Princeton or Stanford with its outsized market value. Stanford and Princeton do not look for future hedge-fund managers or corporate lawyers when they put together a class. They look for people who, among other things, will take advantage of the educational experience they oﬀer. It’s the businesses that recruit from those colleges which have fetishized the Ivy Plus credential. If we really want diﬀerent kinds of people to get those jobs, maybe we should ask those ﬁrms to take half their new employees from the bottom quintiles. Are universities “bad for America”? The main purpose of the Ivy Plus universities and schools like them is not to credential young people. It is to produce knowledge. That is what university endowments support and what professors are paid to do. Virtually every piece of data in Tough’s and Markovits’s books comes from research done by an academic or someone with academic training. Would we be better oﬀ with less of this knowledge? espite Markovits’s hyperbole and overwriting, his conception of meritocracy as a machine that runs itself is a powerful one. He and other critics could be right that meritocracy, like free-market capitalism, generates inequalities naturally. There is at least one purely meritocratic industry in the United States: professional sports. An athlete basically has to engage in illegal activity for attributes extraneous to ability to aﬀect his or her career (and even then . . .). Yet, since the seventies, the growth in income inequality in professional sports has mirrored the growth in society as a whole. Star athletes make millions, and below that level wages drop oﬀ very quickly. LeBron James is paid more than thirty million dollars a year by his team; the median annual
wage for all professional athletes—people who make their living playing spectator sports—is $50,650. At this point, whether meritocracy is responsible for the economy we have or whether the economy we have is subverting the aims of meritocracy doesn’t really matter. Even if we randomized college admissions, there would still be sorting, and only a tiny fraction of the population is going to get those C.E.O. and E.P.S. jobs. If social mobility means that a bigger bit of that tiny fraction is from disadvantaged backgrounds, the faces may change, but the level of income inequality will remain more or less the same. “Merit is a sham.” What Markovits means is that merit is a self-justiﬁcation in the same way that the divine right of kings was a self-justiﬁcation. In a meritocracy, the winners, the people who beneﬁt from the system, tend to believe that their success is due entirely to brains and hard work, not to the accident of birth. But merit as opposed to what? Teachers and employers evaluate people on some criteria, however deﬁned, and people who rate better are given more opportunity. Should they not be? The problem is not that some citizens are lawyers and some work in Amazon fulﬁllment centers. It’s that the economy is structured to allow the former class of worker to soak up most of the national wealth. The educational system is not working to everyone’s advantage, and it would be convenient if ﬁxing that ﬁxed the larger problem of wealth and income inequality. Tough’s book makes us feel that college can work better, and that progress in increasing access is possible. But we should not be afraid of the use of political power. As a polity, we are in a bizarre place where workers whose lives and prospects have been damaged by the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth and income have helped bring to power a government whose most signiﬁcant legislative accomplishment is the passage of a tax law that eﬀectively redistributes wealth upward. That government’s leaders love to pose as the enemies of the élites, but they are turning the federal government into an E.P.S. There is a good chance that they will be given another four years to help the rich get richer.
ASSASSIN’S CREED A new translation of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” BY ADAM KIRSCH
Unlike other critics of Communism, Koestler took Marxist theory seriously. n December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was shot and killed in the hallway outside his oﬃce. The assassin, an unemployed man who had been expelled from the Party and bore a grudge against its leadership, was apprehended on the spot, but the case still raised questions. How did the killer get his pistol? Who had called oﬀ the bodyguards who usually surrounded Kirov at all times? Today, most historians agree that it was Joseph Stalin himself who ordered the murder, in order to eliminate a potential rival. But the oﬃcial investigation came to quite diﬀerent conclusions. During the next four years, it metastasized into a conspiracy-hunt that claimed to expose shocking villainy at the high-
est levels of Russia’s government, military, and industry. In a series of trials that were publicized around the world, some of the oldest and most trusted Bolshevik leaders—men who, with Lenin, had led the Russian Revolution—were accused of being traitors. Supposedly, acting on orders from Stalin’s exiled rival Leon Trotsky, they had plotted to murder Stalin, to hand Soviet territory over to Nazi Germany, and to restore capitalism in Russia. Their alleged methods included not just assassinations but also industrial sabotage, or “wrecking”—even putting ground glass in the nation’s butter supply. At the conclusion of the trial of two veteran Party leaders, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, the state prosecutor
general, Andrey Vyshinsky, denounced the defendants with ﬂorid Stalinist rhetoric: “These mad dogs of capitalism tried to tear limb from limb the best of the best of our Soviet land. . . . I demand that these dogs gone mad should be shot— every one of them!” There was never any doubt about the verdict or the sentence. And the Party leaders who were condemned, in what came to be known as the Moscow Trials, were only the most prominent of the victims. Stalin’s Great Purge, of 1936-38, ultimately took the lives of a million Soviet citizens, and sent millions more to the Gulag. By the late nineteen-thirties, Western intellectuals who sympathized with Communism had already proved themselves capable of accepting a great deal of killing in the name of the cause. Such “fellowtravellers” usually justified Stalinism’s crimes as the necessary price of building a socialist future, and of defending it against a hostile capitalist world. Walter Duranty, the Times’ correspondent in Moscow, excused the three million famine deaths that were caused by the push to collectivize Soviet agriculture, writing that, “to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The Moscow Trials, however, presented a diﬀerent sort of challenge to the Communist faith. It was one thing to unleash the power of the state against kulaks, the wealthy peasants who were key villains in Soviet mythology. But how could it be that Old Bolsheviks, who had, until the day before yesterday, been the rulers of the Soviet Union, were secret counter-revolutionaries? On the other hand, if the charges were false, why did the defendants confess? Zinoviev, who had been a member of the ﬁrst Politburo, in 1917, and the head of the Comintern, said, “My defective Bolshevism became transformed into anti-Bolshevism, and through Trotskyism I arrived at Fascism.” Kamenev concluded his statement by addressing his children: “No matter what my sentence will be, I in advance consider it just. Don’t look back. Go forward together with the Soviet people, follow Stalin.” Did such men simply give in to prolonged interrogation—the so-called “conveyor,” whereby prisoners were questioned for days on end by a team of agents working in shifts—or to outright torture? Were they trying to protect their wives and THE NEW YORKER, SEPTEMBER 30, 2019
children, who were eﬀectively Stalin’s hostages? Or did they feel that, in some obscure way, they deserved punishment for crimes they hadn’t committed? Here was a problem for a psychologist—or, better, for a novelist, one who understood Communism from the inside and knew what it was like to be a political prisoner. That novelist was Arthur Koestler, and the book that the Moscow Trials inspired him to write was “Darkness at Noon,” which became one of the most important political novels of the twentieth century. Telling the story of a veteran Bolshevik who is awaiting trial for treason, the book originally appeared in December, 1940, just two years after the events that it drew on, and became a worldwide phenomenon. In America, it was a best-seller and a Book-of-theMonth Club selection, and was soon adapted into a hit Broadway play. When it appeared in France, in the spring of 1945, it sold half a million copies. Some observers credited “Darkness at Noon” with tipping the balance against the Communists in the French elections of 1946. ow Scribner has published a new translation of the book, by Philip Boehm, based on the original German manuscript, which was discovered in a Swiss archive in 2015 after being lost for seventy-ﬁve years. The story of how it disappeared in the ﬁrst place gives a vivid sense of the dislocated world from which the novel emerged. Koestler began writing “Darkness at Noon”—under its original title, “The Vicious Circle”— early in 1939, in France, where he had lived as a stateless refugee ever since Hitler came to power in Germany, six years before. When the Second World War broke out, that September, the French government took the opportunity to sweep up such immigrants—especially those who, like Koestler, had Communist Party connections—and put them in internment camps. From October, 1939, to January, 1940, Koestler had to abandon work on the novel while he was a prisoner at a camp in southwestern France. When he was released, after string-pulling by some highly placed literary and political friends, he returned to Paris and quickly ﬁnished the book. As Koestler worked, his English girlfriend, Daphne Hardy, sat in the same room producing an En-
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glish translation, and, at the beginning of May, both manuscripts were mailed out—the English version to a publisher in London, and the German version to a publisher in neutral Switzerland. Ten days later, the Germans invaded France and swiftly conquered the country. Koestler, who was a Jew, a Communist, and a refugee, knew that if he fell into Nazi hands he would certainly be killed, and he and Hardy embarked on a headlong dash for the unoccupied southern zone of the country, separating along the way. Hardy, a British citizen, made it back to London fairly easily, but Koestler underwent a months-long odyssey, during which he joined and then quit the French Foreign Legion, twice attempted suicide (once with morphine, once with cyanide—miraculously, neither worked), and ﬁnally smuggled himself, via Morocco and Portugal, to England, where he was promptly arrested once again. While he was in transit, Hardy had been corresponding with the London publisher, which, despite some reservations, had accepted the novel for publication. When the publisher objected to Koestler’s original title, it was Hardy who, unable to contact Koestler, decided on calling it “Darkness at Noon.” The phrase was an allusion to Job 5:14: “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night”—a description of both the moral conundrums facing the novel’s protagonist and the desperate plight of Koestler him-
self. The German manuscript, meanwhile, was presumed to have been lost in the chaos of war, and so the English translation of the novel became, in eﬀect, the original, from which all subsequent translations were made, including one back into German. The new edition is the ﬁrst to return to Koestler’s German text, and aims to replace Hardy’s version, which was the hasty work of an inexperienced translator—though, clearly,
it was good enough to have secured the novel’s global reputation. This new “Darkness at Noon” arrives in a very diﬀerent world from that which greeted the original, and one important diﬀerence has to do with Koestler’s reputation. In 1940, he was thirty-ﬁve and little known in the English-speaking world. He had been a successful journalist in Berlin and a Communist Party activist in Paris, but “Darkness at Noon” was his ﬁrst published novel. It transformed him from a penniless refugee into a wealthy and famous man, and was also the best book he would ever write. It was followed, in the forties, by an important book of essays, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” and several thoughtprovoking but less consequential novels of politics and ideas, including “Arrival and Departure,” which reckoned with Freudianism, and “Thieves in the Night,” about Jewish settlers in Palestine. But after that Koestler’s reputation took a fairly steep dive, as he turned from ﬁction to pop-scientiﬁc works that earned the scorn of actual scientists, especially when he began to embrace E.S.P. and other paranormal phenomena. By the time Koestler died, in 1983— in a double suicide with his wife, Cynthia, after he was given a diagnosis of terminal leukemia—he already seemed to belong to history. And the dive turned into an irrecoverable plummet after the publication, in the past two decades, of biographies by Michael Scammell and David Cesarani, which exposed him as an egotistical monster with a lifelong pattern of abusing women emotionally and physically. At least one woman accused Koestler of rape, but many others described behavior that today would certainly be classiﬁed as sexual abuse. Simone de Beauvoir said that he kept aggressively “pushing and pushing” her to sleep with him until she gave in: “I really detested him, that arrogant fool.” If Koestler’s biography raises one barrier to his reception, a changed political climate raises another. Soviet Communism in its heyday served many people around the world as a secular religion. Today, although Marxist ideas and the label “socialist” have been resurgent on the left, the enormous inﬂuence once exerted by Communism now seems a distant phenomenon. To its adherents, Communism was not just a party iden-
tiﬁcation but a complete theory of life and history, which dictated both personal and political morality. And it was the conﬂict between that morality and ordinary moral instincts—which condemned things like lying and killing, which the Party often demanded—that provided the dramatic focus of “Darkness at Noon.” The novel reminds us of a time when literature was felt to be urgently political—when the critic Lionel Trilling could speak of “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” This gave Koestler, like his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, and Albert Camus, a kind of authority that no novelist approaches today. arkness at Noon” is certainly “D dated, in the sense that an eﬀort
of imagination is needed to enter into its time and place. But its central theme will probably always seem timely, because every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means. As Koestler saw, this problem reached its pure form in Communism because its avowed aim was the noblest of all: the permanent abolition of social injustice throughout the world. If this could be achieved, what price would be too high? Maybe a million or ten million people would die today, but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it? A Communist revolutionary, Koestler writes, “is forever damned to do what he loathes the most: become a butcher in order to stamp out butchery, sacriﬁce lambs so lambs will no longer be sacriﬁced.” Koestler’s protagonist, Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov, is one such righteous butcher, now facing his turn on the chopping block. The ﬁgure Rubashov especially evokes is Nikolai Bukharin, a veteran theorist of revolution who was the most famous of the defendants in the Moscow Trials. Like all the other defendants, Bukharin ended up pleading guilty, and the new edition of “Darkness at Noon” usefully reproduces a speech that he gave at his trial. “I consider myself responsible for a grave and monstrous crime against the socialist fatherland and the whole international proletariat,” he said. Yet there was ambiguity in that “consider myself responsible,” for Bukharin
“What company do you see yourself starting when you leave this one in five years?”
• insisted that he was unaware of any of the speciﬁc plots of sabotage and assassination with which he had been charged. His crime, he seemed to be saying, was not actual but mental, even metaphysical. Perhaps he was pleading guilty only because he knew that it was the last service he could render to the Party, which he had served for so long. “For when you ask yourself, ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?,’ an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness,” Bukharin said in the courtroom. “There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented.” Repentance, even false repentance, could give propaganda value to what would otherwise be a meaningless death. In “Darkness at Noon,” Koestler inserts a version of these words into a speech that Rubashov gives at his trial. But although Rubashov dies as a loyal Party member, by the end of the book he has lost his certainty that the things he did in the Party’s service were justiﬁed. Indeed, Koestler suggests that the Moscow defendants may have
• pleaded guilty as a form of clandestine atonement for crimes they really did commit at the Party’s command. “They were all guilty, just not of those particular deeds to which they were confessing,” Koestler writes.
uch of the power of the book comes from its journalistic immediacy and the authenticity of its details. Rubashov’s jailers, for instance, work on his nerves by leading a prisoner who was his friend past his cell on the way to execution; Robert Conquest, in his groundbreaking history “The Great Terror” (1968), conﬁrmed that this was a standard technique in Soviet prisons. Koestler explains the code that political prisoners developed in order to carry out conversations by tapping on the walls of their cells. And he knew that the most common way of executing prisoners was to shoot them in the back of the head when they weren’t expecting it—which is how Rubashov dies in the ﬁnal pages of the novel. But the real plot of “Darkness at Noon” is almost entirely internal. It lies in Rubashov’s evolving realization of
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his guilt, and his loss of belief in the in fallible justice of Communism. Early in the book, a ﬂashback shows Rubashov on a mission in Nazi Germany in 1933, just after Hitler seized power and banned the Communist Party. In a thrillerlike scene, Rubashov covertly meets with a German Communist named Richard, who pours out his grief to this repre sentative of the socialist fatherland: his comrades have been mur dered, he is living in hiding, and he is losing faith in the cause. Rather than sympa thize with him or promise help, Rubashov tells Richard that he is being expelled from the Party because he dared to distribute pamphlets that, as he coldly says, “contained wordings that the party con siders politically inadmissi ble.” By the end of the scene, it’s clear that Richard has been marked for death. “The party cannot be wrong,” Ru bashov says. “You and I can make mis takes—but not the party.” Anyone who disagrees with the Party’s dictates is on the wrong side of history, and so de serves to be eliminated. The Moscow Trials, Koestler suggests, were just the latest example of a tendency toward selfcannibalism that had been there from the start. It is no accident—to use a phrase fa vored by Communist writers of the time— that Koestler found the Party’s treatment of foreign comrades to be the most con spicuous example of its injustice, since he had spent most of the thirties as one of those comrades. Born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1905, Koestler had already lived several professional and ideo logical lives by the time he joined the Party, in 1931. As a teenager, he had been a committed Zionist who moved to Pal estine to work on an agricultural settle ment. Quickly realizing that this austere existence was not for him, Koestler trans formed himself into a journalist, work ing as a stringer for German newspapers. After two years, he returned to Europe, and by the end of the twenties he had a precociously successful career in Berlin, working as an editor and writer for one of Germany’s biggest liberal dailies. In the essay that he contributed to “The God That Failed” (1949), a collec tion of six memoirs by exCommunist 84
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writers, Koestler recalled how conditions in Weimar Germany turned him into a Communist. “Germany lived in a state of latent civil war, and if one wasn’t pre pared to be swept along as a passive vic tim by the approaching hurricane it be came imperative to take sides,” he wrote. If the future was a struggle between Na zism and Communism, then Commu nism was the only possible choice. But Koestler emphasized that he did not become a Commu nist “by a process of elimina tion.” Rather, he compared the experience to a religious conversion. “The whole uni verse falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puz zle,” he wrote. “There is now an answer to every question.” For the next seven years, Communism was at the cen ter of Koestler’s life and work. “I served the Communist Party for seven years— the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daugh ter,” he wrote, in “The God That Failed.” (In the Biblical story, Jacob ﬁnds out, at the end of that time, that he’s been tricked and given the wrong bride.) In 1932, after losing his highly paid job— because, he claimed, his employers learned that he had joined the Party— Koestler made a pilgrimage to the So viet Union, where he spent eighteen months travelling around in order to write a propagandistic book praising the Soviet experiment. By the time he left Russia, in 1933, Hitler was in power and he couldn’t return to Germany. Instead, he went to France, where he worked for a series of Partyfunded publications and agencies until 1938. Throughout this period, Koestler later wrote, he was well aware of the gulf be tween Communist ideals and the real ity they produced. He had seen the vic tims of famine in Ukraine, and he had gone along with the Party’s ruthless im position of the oﬃcial line. But he still felt that the only way to improve the Party was from within. Indeed, he was willing to risk his life for it: in 1937, Koest ler went to report on the Spanish Civil War for the News Chronicle, a British daily, knowing that if he was captured by Franco’s Nationalists his life would be in danger. In February, he was caught in the city of Málaga, as it fell to Fran
co’s forces, and taken prisoner. For the next three months, he lived in a cell not unlike Rubashov’s, as his fellowprison ers were executed and he waited for his turn. But, because he had been on as signment for an English newspaper, the British government and press took an interest. The public attention meant that Koestler was spared; in the end, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange. This experience, which Koestler wrote about in his memoir “Dialogue with Death,” could have strengthened his Communist convictions—after all, he had been imprisoned as a rojo, a Red. In stead, his imprisonment awakened a new sense of the preciousness of freedom. “Strangely enough,” he wrote, “I feel that I have never been so free as I was then.” This was an existentialist kind of free dom, cold and clear, the last possession of someone with nothing left to lose. Once he was released, Koestler found it impossible to retreat back into the intellectual orthodoxy of Party life. Events in Russia—including the news that three of his closest friends had been arrested in Stalin’s purge—only conﬁrmed his disillusionment. In 1938, the year he resigned from the Party, Koestler gave a speech to an audience of refugee intellectuals in Paris, in which he aﬃrmed that “a harmful truth is bet ter than a useful lie,” and that “no move ment, party or person can claim the privilege of infallibility.” His listeners, he remembered, were split in their re actions: “The nonCommunist half of the audience applauded, the Commu nist half sat in heavy silence, most of them with folded arms.”
at Noon,” which Koest “ D arkness ler began writing the following
year, in the South of France, was his at tempt to work through the intellectual and emotional reasons for breaking with the Party. Rubashov is a better Commu nist than Koestler ever was, and the pu rity of Rubashov’s faith allows the novel to lay bare its contradictions. How did Communism, with its dream of a per fectly just society, result in Stalinism, with its paranoia, persecution, incompetence, and cruelty? “Our principles were all cor rect, but our results were all wrong,” Ru bashov muses. “We brought you the truth, and in our mouths it sounded like a lie.” Koestler’s reckoning with Commu
nism is very diﬀerent from Orwell’s vision in “1984,” which was published nine years later. In Orwell’s dystopia, “Ingsoc,” English socialism, is not really an ideology at all, just a tissue of lies and a tool for mass hypnosis. The Party’s leader, O’Brien, famously tells Winston Smith, after his arrest, that the core of its appeal is pure sadism, the pleasure of exercising total power over another: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” Stalinism, for Orwell, dressed up this power worship in a lot of meaningless doctrine that people learned to repeat without thinking about it—what the novel calls “duckspeak.” Orwell’s book, in other words, is relatively indiﬀerent to the intellectual content of Communism, which may explain why it is now more popular than Koestler’s. Koestler takes dialectics seriously. Marx claimed to have shown that history was a process of continual conﬂict moving toward a ﬁnal redemption, when the proletariat would cast oﬀ its chains and the exploitation of humanity would disappear. For Koestler, it was the belief in the historical inevitability of this outcome that enabled the Bolsheviks to act with such ruthlessness: acts that ordinary morality judged to be wrong would be justiﬁed as right and necessary once a classless society had been established. “Whoever proves right in the end must ﬁrst be and do wrong,” Rubashov says. But, as he sits in his cell, he comes to realize the immensity of this moral gamble; for if the revolution fails, and a just society doesn’t come into being, then the revolutionaries’ crimes will remain merely that. “It is only after the fact that we learn who was right to begin with,” Rubashov says. “In the meantime we act on credit, in the hope of being absolved by history.” The deferral of responsibility for one’s own actions to an outside agency, such as history, is what Sartre, in his existentialist writings of the time, deﬁned as “bad faith.” And Rubashov’s awakening, like Koestler’s in his Spanish cell, is a kind of existential crisis—a sudden recognition of the necessity of individual judgment. The Communist Party, Koestler writes, has “a tendency to shy away from using the ﬁrst-person singular,” since it reckons in masses, not individ-
uals. The “I” is, for the Party, nothing more than “the grammatical ﬁction,” an illusion that had to be overcome in order to achieve justice for the many. But Rubashov’s experience in prison convinces him that the “I,” for all its fragility, is of inﬁnite value, because it is the ultimate source and basis of morality. To the Party, the fact that the “I” partakes of inﬁnity is what makes it useless for the purposes of logic: “Inﬁnity was a politically suspect quantity,” Koestler writes. But if you remove the irrational dimension from human existence—call it subjectivity, or, in religious terms, the soul—it turns out that you can no longer understand how people will feel and act. As Rubashov comes to see, for Communism there was a “mistake in the calculation—the equation did not add up.” If the Soviet Union was, as its defenders often said, an experiment, for Koestler it was an experiment gone wrong, in which “the experimenters have ﬂayed the test person alive and left him facing history with exposed tissue, muscles, and tendons.” It is Rubashov’s long-standing failure to understand this truth, not his alleged crimes against the state, that ﬁnally leads him to embrace his guilt:
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Why hadn’t the prosecutor asked: “Accused Rubashov, what about inﬁnity?” He would not have known how to answer, and here, right here, was the true source of his guilt. Could there be any greater?
At its core, “Darkness at Noon” treats Stalinism as a philosophical problem. But was it? Doubtless, most of the crimes committed in its name stemmed from more ordinary motives, like greed, fear, and hatred, just as the defendants of the Moscow Trials confessed largely out of terror and exhaustion rather than as penitence for existential guilt. Still, Koestler saw that, in the modern world, it took the ruthlessness of an idea to marshal ordinary human cruelty into an irresistible force. It is this distrust of the tyrannical power of reason, even when it considers itself most righteous and humane, that makes “Darkness at Noon” a subversive book even today. It is still hard for people who consider themselves enlightened to accept Rubashov’s hard-won conclusion: “Perhaps thinking everything through to the end was not a healthy thing to do.”
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THE CURRENT CINEMA
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT “The Laundromat” and “Downton Abbey.” BY ANTHONY LANE
f you had to categorize Steven So derbergh’s new ﬁlm, “The Laun dromat,” what would you call it? An extended skit; a blast of indignation against the avarice of recent times; a jigsaw of minimovies, just about ﬁtted together; a Brechtian Lehrstück, pulling us into the plot, schooling us in its di dactic purpose, and reducing the fourth
Oscar last year for playing Churchill?) Only in the latter stages does that aura disperse, as the hosts are ﬁnally, to their dismay, pulled into the guts of the ac tion. Money eats everything in sight. “The Laundromat” is divided into seg ments, each prefaced with a rueful motto. First up is “The Meek Are Screwed.” We meet a retired couple, Ellen Martin
Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep, and Gary Oldman in Steven Soderbergh’s film. wall to rubble; or simply a bit of a mess? One thing is for sure. Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Burns, cannot be accused of hiding their central theme. At the start of the proceedings, a clump of tumbleweed bowls along desert sands, followed, somewhat surprisingly, by two gentlemen in formal evening wear. Each bears a friendly smile and a cocktail in his hand. Their names are Ramón (An tonio Banderas) and Jürgen (Gary Old man), and they will be our hosts for this motion picture. Appearing at intervals, they guide us through “the secret life of money,” maintaining an aura of genial condescension. (Plus, in Jürgen’s case, a German accent so thick that you could spread it like lard. Do I detect an injoke on the part of Oldman, who won an 86
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(Meryl Streep) and her husband, Joe ( James Cromwell), as they take a trip on Lake George, the point being that their existence, benign and gently paced, is as far from the swagger of Jürgen and Ramón as you can get. Yet there is a connection between these disparate lives. When calamity strikes, and Ellen’s law yer ﬁles an insurance claim, it is discov ered that the insurance company has been sold to a larger outﬁt, which in turn is beholden to yet another corpo rate body, and so forth. In short, Ellen ﬁnds herself at the mercy of shell com panies, which, like sonnets, are no less potent for existing only on paper. In common with millions of other folk, she is blameless, unwitting, and initially uncomprehending; yet she is far from
incurious, and thus her sleuthing be gins. She becomes a shell seeker. First stop is the West Indies. “Where in the world is Nevis?” Ellen says, on learning that one of the shells is registered there. She ﬂies to the island and goes looking for someone named Boncamper. “I don’t know him,” a passing resident says—a wise precaution, since he is Bon camper ( Jeﬀrey Wright), the overseer of many suspect companies, with ﬁngers in innumerable pies. He seems to be a strong family man, and, on home ground, at least, he is breaking no laws; but is he a good man? And, if he isn’t, how did he arrive at his twilit moral state? Wright is, as usual, such an arresting presence onscreen that we are left want ing more of his character; instead, he comes and goes, setting a piecemeal pat tern for the entire ﬁlm. Other halfsketched ﬁgures crowd the stage. Nonso Anozie plays Charles, an aﬀable bruiser so corrupt that, when caught in a transgression, he bribes his own nearest and dearest to hush them up; if they grow less near and furiously nondear, so be it. Then, we have May wood (Matthias Schoenaerts), who makes an illomened attempt to put the squeeze on a Chinese businesswoman (Rosalind Chao), and a disappointingly brief role for Sharon Stone, as a Las Vegas real estate agent. What Soderbergh is aim ing for here, in other words, is the sort of group portrait that he delivered in “Traﬃc,” as opposed to the solo hero ics of “Erin Brockovich.” (Both movies, amazingly, came out in 2000: not a bad year’s work.) I’d guess that he also took stock of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” (2015), another cautionary tale of ﬁnan cial abuse, which was so anxious not to bore or to burden us that it kept fooling around with the narrative—getting Mar got Robbie, say, to explain subprime mort gages while lounging in a bubble bath. Whether the average viewer of “The Big Short” could, two days after watch ing it, still tell you about subprimes is open to debate; I suspect that, for most of us, the pedagogy got lost in the fooling, leaving no more than a light froth of outrage. The same is true of “The Laun dromat.” Behind the ﬁlm lie the Panama Papers—the millions of ﬁles, leaked in 2016, that demonstrated how the wealthy stash their moola oﬀshore and thereby avoid the plebeian vulgarity of tax. Any ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE RIFKIN
one hoping to grasp these tangled issues should probably go for “The Panama Papers,” Alex Winter’s documentary of 2018, and skip “The Laundromat,” whose mission is not to enlighten us so much as to revel in the ﬂagrancy of the mischief that it purports to condemn. For one thing, so thoroughly do Banderas and Oldman enjoy themselves that it feels almost ungracious to decry their cynical rapacity; at one delicious metamoment, they even disclose that “the director of this movie” has invested in ﬁve shell companies. Nobody is safe. There is nothing new, of course, about villains hogging the spotlight. That is their domain. Why, then, should “The Laundromat” induce such particular queasiness? Partly because of Meryl Streep, who shows us what might have been. As Ellen, she is a marvel; few other performers can give such a plausible, aﬀecting, and unpatronizing account of a regular citizen, tethered by stable values and fond memories. (“He took me to see Diana Ross at Caesar’s,” she says of her husband.) I’d say that Ellen merits a movie to herself, instead of which she is constantly interrupted, and we get the fatal sense that Soderbergh is a triﬂe impatient with her normality— that he doesn’t back her as he backed Julia Roberts in the cleaner, more determined story line of “Erin Brockovich.” More awkward still is his treatment of Mia Beltran (Brenda Zamora), whose signature, on thousands of documents, suggests that she is a company director of some stature. But no, she is a lowly employee of a Panamanian ﬁrm, who does what she is told and would be horriﬁed to hear that she is part of a worldwide criminal conspiracy. Mia is a frag-
ment of the shell. We see her taking the bus home one afternoon, and then falling afoul of a freak accident, which Soderbergh has the nerve to play for laughs. Hang on, what ever happened to “The Meek Are Screwed”? How can a parable that set out to take the side of little people, versus gargantuan greed, end up using them as disposable comic fodder? Not only shall the meek not inherit the Earth. They don’t even own the movie. f you were watching PBS on September 17, 1974, you might have come across “Guest of Honor.” This was an episode from the second series of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” one of the decade’s most successful shows—a British enterprise, set in a stately London house, in the years before and after the First World War. The drama was divided, as the title implies, between the grandees in the upper rooms and the crew of loyal servants who, from their base of operations down below, saw to their employers’ every need. In “Guest of Honor,” matters were complicated by the visit of the King, who came to dine: a privilege, a challenge, or an imposition, according to taste. Now we have “Downton Abbey,” which is written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Michael Engler, and stoutly based on the TV phenomenon of the same name. The ﬁlm is set in a stately country house, in 1927, and the drama is divided. Upstairs, we ﬁnd Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), both of whom, I must confess, lead me to wonder if Lenin had a point, after all. Also present is the Earl’s redoubtable
mother (Maggie Smith), who dispenses bons mots like sour lemon drops. Downstairs, there is Barrow the butler (Robert James-Collier), Mrs. Patmore the cook (Lesley Nicol), her assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), the benevolent Bates (Brendan Coyle), and his wife, Anna ( Joanne Froggatt), who is also Lady Mary’s maid. And the main event? The visit of the King (Simon Jones), who comes to dine: a privilege, and all that jazz. What, you may ask, distinguishes “Downton Abbey” on the big screen from its smaller kin? Well, the movie is twice as long, and, when the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), instructs the staﬀ, in her brisk Highland manner, to make everything “gleam and spaarrkle,” she could be speaking for the whole production. From the steam train at the start, and the mail van that brings a letter from Buckingham Palace, to the silver that requires one last buﬃng before the feast, everything looks hilariously spruce, and the scene in which Mrs. Patmore tips blood-red sauce onto the stiﬀ white waistcoat of Mr. Wilson (David Haig), His Majesty’s impregnable butler, is as shocking as the climax of “Reservoir Dogs.” Now and then, it is true, we are titillated with subplots: The foiled assassination! The purloined paper knife! The broken boiler! And, yes, the gay club! In Yorkshire! But all vexations are calmed, and “Downton Abbey” concludes with both Lady Edith and Daisy uttering the sacred words “I’m happy.” Upstairs and downstairs, in perfect concord: believe that, and you’ll believe anything. NEWYORKER.COM
Richard Brody blogs about movies.
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CARTOON CAPTION CONTEST
Each week, we provide a cartoon in need of a caption. You, the reader, submit a caption, we choose three ﬁnalists, and you vote for your favorite. Caption submissions for this week’s cartoon, by Drew Dernavich, must be received by Sunday, September 29th. The ﬁnalists in the September 16th contest appear below. We will announce the winner, and the ﬁnalists in this week’s contest, in the October 14th issue. Anyone age thirteen or older can enter or vote. To do so, and to read the complete rules, visit contest.newyorker.com.
THIS WEEK’S CONTEST
THE WINNING CAPTION
“ You will obey my every whim. Oh, wait—you already do.” Malcolm S. Mitchell, Aliso Viejo, Calif. “Look what I dragged in.” David Schermer, Chicago, Ill. “The ahi. Not the canned.” Jeﬀrey Karoﬀ, Los Angeles, Calif.
“ You two seem oddly suited.” Kenny Moore, Rocklin, Calif.
What if your email was organized by project, and not by date?
It wouldnâ€™t be email at all.
Choose a better way to work.
2019 Screens issuu