I subjected myself to a modified version of digital detox last week. I hardly fled the grid. But I did favor paper over pings, books not bytes, and experiences rather than email.
In the books department, I finished Ron Chernow’s magisterial Alexander Hamilton, the 2004 bestseller that birthed the Broadway musical of more recent fame. What with all the distractions of e-life—and life—it took me the better part of a year to finish. But it was so rewarding. My abiding takeaway: Politics were every bit as nasty at the beginning of the Republic as they are now. Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, for example, got along about as well as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I also read a novel start to finish in a couple days, Katie Kitamura’s 2009 debut, The Longshot. It’s a spare, brutal, deeply soulful meditation on a mixed martial arts fighter and his trainer. In other words, it’s a perfect metaphor for contemporary Silicon Valley.
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I also wrapped my brain around an amazing piece of investigative journalism, Jane Mayer’s penetrating look in The New Yorker at the shockingly out-of-nowhere political power of hedge-fund magnate Robert Mercer. Unlike my first two reads, technology plays a significant role in this yarn. Mercer leads Renaissance Technologies, a “quant”-driven hedge fund that has mastered algorithmic trading as brilliantly as Google’s beautiful equations have dominated contextual advertising. Mercer also has funded a data-mining firm called Cambridge Analytica—which Fortune columnist Dan Lyons explored recently—that uses algorithms to influence consumer (and voter) decisions.
Whatever your political perspective, Mayer’s expose poses deeply troubling questions about the power of money and also mind-bending technology to exert influence on what is supposed to be government of, by and for the people. This article is worth your time—even if you have to set aside the next email in your inbox to read it.