Last May, at the Met Gala kicking off the Chaos to Couture exhibition, Vivienne Westwood had an appropriately punk moment as she took her turn on the Vogue live stream. She wanted to talk about her unusual jewellery: a laminated photo of the WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning, safety-pinned to her pastel robes. A little too much for the sensitivities of her host – she was taken off air mid-sentence. US Vogue may be the least punk proposition imaginable, and the Met show turned out to be a hollow farce. As we go to press, Chelsea Manning has been condemned to a 35-year prison sentence. Officially branded a traitor, to many she is a patriot and a hero – even, you might say, a light unto the world.
According to Moore’s Law, computer processing power doubles every 18 to 24 months. The law has been more or less accurate in predicting the growth in computing from the mid 1950s until now, and as the tech has got faster, the price has kept dropping. So far, so good? Hardly. For one thing, all technology, from the stone axe onwards, has had a double edge. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson point out in their 2012 book Race Against the Machine, technology has always destroyed jobs as well as creating them. Over the last 15 years, the rate of job creation has lagged behind that of destruction.Four of the largest US corporations, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, have a combined market capitalisation of $900 billion, yet they employ fewer than 200,000 people – fewer, that is, than the number who enter the US job market every two months.
Youth underemployment in advanced economies may provide hipster series like Lena Dunham’s Girls with the amusing storyline of the never-ending internship, but it’s no laughing matter. Thanks to the financial crash and the digitally initiated mass extinction of service and manufacturing jobs, we are seeing the first generation in nearly a hundred years who, though fewer in numbers and better educated than their parents, are guaranteed to be poorer. What’s more, the undoubted democratic gains the digital revolution has brought to ordinary citizens are dwarfed by the exponential increase in the powers of the powerful.
To demonstrate the point at which processing power surpasses our capacity to imagine it, McAfee and Brynjolfsson use an Indian parable. The story goes like this. A chap invents the game of chess and presents it to the emperor who, duly impressed, tells him to name his reward. Pointing to the chessboard, the inventor asks to be given a grain of rice for the first square, two for the next, four for the one after, and so on. The rice collected on all 64 squares will be his reward. The emperor is amused: “Silly man – he could have asked for his own weight in gold!”
Of course, the joke is on the emperor: doubling the numbers on each successive square, you soon reach a sum so staggering that all therice ever grown in India could not fill the entire board. According to McAfee and Brynjolfsson, the human imagination is far from unlimited; when it comes to numbers, at least, it falters roughly halfway through the chessboard, on the 32nd square. They argue that we have reached precisely that point with computers. From now on, we cannot hope to hold the true extent of current processing power in our minds. Meanwhile, the price of computers is falling more slowly, or even beginning to move back up. Microchips, it seems, can’t get any cheaper than the components they contain.
We’re all aware of the uses these inconceivably expanded capacities have been put to by the greatest powers on Earth. They employ the PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora internet surveillance programmes to read your emails and text messages, with the cooperation of all those hip techies at Google, Facebook and Amazon. Caught red-handed, the US government has responded in true despotic, vengeful fashion. The wrath of the emperor has come down on the whistleblowers – Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden – and the European powers have been quick to join in, detaining David Miranda and forcing down the Bolivian president’s plane when they suspected Snowden was on it. Technology’s double edge has never seemed sharper, nor have citizens ever seemed in greater need of allies to bear witness, and strategies to protect the witnesses.
Tank is an experiment – now running for 15 years and counting – in fitting square pegs into round holes. We have tried to marry a review rag of fashion, the visual arts and culture with a perspective on the wider sphere of ideas and the world at large: the very opposite of what traditional publishers have regarded as an editorial platform, a niche or specialism. This non-specialism, in fact, has been our specialism: thank you for making it possible. §