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Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013 (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

Today’s Dead End Kids

Who can “claim the name” of Anonymous? Anyone. The lack of identity may not be ideal for organizing a political philosophy or program, but that is not seen as a drawback. When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes; they are empowering each other.

(Photo: Dan Lampariello/Reuters (Blast, Close-up); The Daily Free Press/Kenshin Okubo/AP Images (Ripped Pants); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blood); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Fallen Runner); David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blast, Pulled Back))

Total Noise, Only Louder

Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.” When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that. The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call …

Wikipedia’s Women Problem (2013)

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Amanda Filipacchi, whom I will call an American novelist despite her having been born in Paris, set off a furor with an opinion piece on the New York Times website last week. Browsing on Wikipedia, she had suddenly noticed that women were vanishing from “American novelists”—starting, it seemed, in alphabetical order. In the A’s and the B’s, the list was now almost exclusively male: I did more investigating and found other familiar names that had been switched from the ‘American Novelists’ to the ‘American Women Novelists’ category: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, Ann Beattie, Djuna Barnes, Emily Barton, Jennifer Belle, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Judy Blume, Alice Adams, Louisa May Alcott, V. C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark—and, upsetting to me: myself. The word that came to mind—and the Times used it for the headline—was sexism. And who could disagree? Joyce Carol Oates expressed her view on Twitter: …

How Google Dominates Us (2011)

How thoroughly and how radically Google has already transformed the information economy has not been well understood. The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells—concentrated, focused, and crystallized.

Touching History

I got a thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian, brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton. First I was required to study a microfilm version. There followed a certain amount of pomp. The notebook was lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was—58 leaves bound in vellum, just 2¾ inches wide, half the size I would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old with his quill, and the date, 1659. “He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote in Isaac Newton a few years later. “He began at both ends and worked toward the middle.” Apparently historians know the feeling well—the exhilaration that comes from handling …

Autocorrect, Unexpurgated

I mention a certain writer in an email, and the reply comes back: “Comcast McCarthy??? Phoner novelist???” Oops. Did I really call him “Comcast”? No. The great god Autocorrect has struck again. It is an impish god. I try retyping the name on a different device. This time the letters reshuffle themselves into “Format McCarthy.” Welcome to the club, Format. Meet the Danish astronomer Touchpad Brahe and the Franco-American actress Natalie Portmanteau. In past times we were responsible for our own typographical errors. Now Autocorrect has taken charge. This is no small matter. It is a step in our new evolution—the grafting of silicon into our formerly carbon-based species, in the name of collective intelligence. Or unintelligence, as the case may be. A few months ago the police in Hall County, Ga., locked down the West Hall schools for two hours after someone received a text message saying, “gunman be at west hall today.” The texter had tried to type “gunna,” but Autocorrect had a better idea. “Dictionaries have a lot of trouble keeping up …


Patently Absurd (2000)

W hen 21st-century historians look back at the breakdown of the United States patent system, they will see a turning point in the case of Jeff Bezos and and their special invention: “The patented One Click® feature,” Bezos calls it. Not everyone who knows Bezos as the newly minted billionaire founder of the world’s leading Internet retailer knows that he’s also an inventor, but he is. It says so on U.S. Patent No. 5,960,411, “Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network.” Every good invention needs a story, and Jeff Bezos has one for one-click ordering. He’s laying it out in federal court, where, at the height of the holiday shopping season, he won an injunction forcing his chief competitor,, to add deliberate complication to its ordering process. In ways that could not have been predicted even a few years ago, the patent system is in crisis. A series of unplanned mutations have transformed patents into a positive threat to the digital economy. The patent office has grown entangled …

Watch This Space (1995)

WHERE HUMAN ANATOMY meets data processing, there are just two important devices: the brain and the wristwatch. The brain is nice, but it doesn’t tell time very well. So, creatures of habit that we are, we strap on that extra thing—a machine worn every day by most adults in the industrialized world to display a single piece of data. It’s starting to look as though this may not be a particularly creative use of valuable anatomical real estate. Technology is outpacing fashion. Now you can buy wristwatches that tell time and . . . announce your appointments . . . monitor your pulse and blood pressure . . . store phone numbers . . . check the air or water temperature . . . compute sums . . . play music. There are emergency-beacon watches for pilots and at least a prototype of a matchmaking watch: put your essentials into a data base and the watch of a suitable romantic interest will blink when you draw nigh. Besides locating you in the fourth dimension, some …