Apodaca: Defense company’s move-in underscores journalism’s perilous state

A rendering of the new headquarters of defense tech company Anduril.
A rendering of the new headquarters of defense tech company Anduril, which is moving into the former Orange County office and printing press of the L.A. Times.

If this isn’t a sign of the times, I don’t know what is: Earlier this month it was announced that the former site of the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County operations in Costa Mesa would be the new home of Irvine-based defense technology company Anduril.

The 450,000-square-foot building on the property once housed a printing press, advertising and editorial operations. The bustling newsroom where I used to work as a reporter has been an empty shell for some time, a hollow remnant of the tragic decline of print journalism.

For the past several years the property has been owned by a real estate investment team that dubbed the complex “the Press” in a nod to its journalistic glory days. The plan had been to lease the redeveloped site to multiple tenants, but Anduril swooped in and snatched the entire place, with plans to add another 190,000-square-foot building and a parking garage.

The deal is being referred to as one of the largest office leases in Orange County history.

There’s a disturbing symmetry to this development that’s impossible to ignore. The eyes and ears of independent journalists who serve as society’s watchdogs are being replaced by technological eyes and ears that will be utilized by the government in ways that might not always be known to the public.

One kind of oversight in place of another. Openness vs. secretiveness. That’s part of what this deal represents.

Anduril — in true tech-nerd fashion the company was named for a sword in “The Lord of the Rings” books — was founded in 2017 by virtual reality whiz kid Palmer Luckey and other tech industry veterans. They saw an opportunity to advance artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities for the military and other government agencies, a space that tech giants such as Google have been reluctant to enter.

The company’s AI software is employed in a variety of surveillance products, including sentry towers, drones and quadcopters, all providing what it calls “smart eyes in the sky.”

The company markets the products as a means of enhancing military operations, defending bases and installations, and securing borders. It has contracts with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, the U.S. Air Force and the U.K. Royal Navy.

Just 28, Luckey is a polarizing figure. The college dropout founded the virtual reality company Oculus, sold it to Facebook in 2014 for more than $2 billion, then was fired by the social media giant in 2017.

Some reports have pegged the dismissal to Luckey’s political views — he’s been supportive of Donald Trump and even hosted a fundraiser for the former president at his Newport Beach home last year. But others contend it was because Oculus lost a $500-million intellectual-property-theft case.

With Anduril, Luckey is now on a mission to dominate what he views as the future of national defense.

Investing in prison education can improve the life of not just the incarcerated but society at large.

A summary of the company’s vision on its website warns that “we are mired in the past while adversaries surge ahead. Decades of global stability have allowed our technology advantage to erode while our brightest minds work on problems of convenience and entertainment.”

But for all those who tout AI as imperative to achieving military advantage, there are also many who contend that the technology might not be as reliable as its proponents assert. Worse still, there are fears that it could be used in clandestine, ethically compromised or even unlawful ways, or that the technology will evolve beyond our ability to control it.

The late physicist Steven Hawking and Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, have been among the leading voices warning of the potentially cataclysmic danger posed by AI.

Of course, these are exactly the kind of issues that journalists examine. But the vital work they do has become much harder, and more scarce, as a result of severe circulation and advertising declines in the news industry.

In last year’s excellent book, “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy,” author Margaret Sullivan wrote that from 2004 to 2015, 1,800 print newspaper outlets closed in the United States. The trend has continued since then and accelerated during the pandemic.

Those losses have created many “news deserts,” regions where corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power are more likely to go unchecked, and democracy is weakened. Important stories go untold, and communities lose critical means of connection and dialogue that are too often replaced by toxic piles of disinformation and discord spread on the internet.

In spite of these difficulties, I’m routinely amazed by the extraordinary journalism that somehow still gets done, and by the dedicated professionals who track down hard-to-get information. They deserve our appreciation and support, for without them we’d be a poorer nation in many ways.

Wary though I am of Anduril’s business plan, the company can hardly be blamed for journalism’s woes. And I have no reason to doubt that the founders truly believe their technology will make us more secure.

But I’d feel much safer if the same conviction and resources were applied to ensuring that a robust and independent press survives and thrives. For now, I must remain hopeful that a new dawn of journalism will soon rise.

Until then, the transformation of my former workplace stands as a stark reminder of all that we’ve lost.

It’s a sign of the times all right. For me, it’s a sad one.

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