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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

More Isolated and Less Private

The three articles I mentioned last week brought back two incidents that relate to what Rebecca Solnit and Adrienne LaFrance expressed in their articles about artificial intelligence and Silicon Valley Despots.

In November of 1965, as a poor graduate student in San Francisco, I became a Christmas season hire at Joseph Magnin, a posh department store. It turned out JM had junked cash registers and introduced computers. To get the job I had to take a test that showed I would be able to use the new machine.  I was young. My synapses fired! In the Children’s department where I was assigned, some saleswomen had not survived due to the computer. I was paid an hourly wage but an aging woman I worked with depended on a commission. Ironically, the computer slowed her down. She struggled to remember the codes, bemoaned the loss of fellow JM workers, some relegated to stock work or terminated. She and I made a deal. I would hover at the computer, which given my feelings about machines was ironic, and she would sell merchandise.

Then in 1972, my third year as a secondary English teacher in the Napa Valley, I took a summer “media” institute at U.C. Berkeley.  One day the speaker was an ex-Catholic priest who had become a big name in Education & Mass Media. I have not forgotten a claim he made, that television was the equivalent of running a sewer through the living room. How could I forget that image, especially given the wave of violent movies: Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, and others in 1971. Besides violence, the speaker’s concern was the abject stupidity of commercial television with its advertising and schlock. Days of Playhouse 90 and serious drama were gone.

The second image this guru ex-priest left with me was of film and television moguls living behind high walls to protect themselves from the world they were creating. Now its Bill Gates with his own island in Belize, Larry Ellison with 98% of Lanai, and Zuckerberg with 1400 acres on Kauai, to name just three tech titans mentioned in Rebecca Solnit’s London Review article.  She says this trio and others find a segregated life as their ideal while profiting from technologies that encourage social withdrawal. Meanwhile they are capturing as much information about us as possible. Solnit concludes, “We are both more isolated and less private than we’ve ever been.”

Adrienne LaFrance ends her article, powerfully. “Our children are not data sets waiting to be quantified, tracked, and sold. Our intellectual output is not a mere training manual for the AI that will be used to mimic and plagiarize us. Our lives are meant not to be optimized through a screen, but to be lived… We are better versions of ourselves when we are not tweeting or clicking “Like” or scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.  LaFrance’s article is in the March 2024 Atlantic and one to read.           

Next week I will be away in Southern California. But the following week I will share thoughts on Marilynn Robinson, whose latest book is discussed in the March Atlantic.


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