This New American Life
I write this in a booth waiting for my current delivery order to be prepared in an empty restaurant that ten years ago would have been crowded. The music is a soft bossa nova and the kitchen while busy is careful to avoid clangs. The decor is standard a medium brown stain colors the wood and the carpet is green and clean. A mother and her retired son are the only other customers. She is dancing while waiting for the spring rolls to arrive. The owner hands me a thai tea on the house while I wait. I can’t help but worry for the fate of America. I can’t help but wonder where do we go from here.
The internet has redefined what and why we eat. It’s less about what we like and having haunts we return to but posting from the current trends to be considered a cool kid. Even those who do not post on social media still Google and Yelp their choices based on the impression that the best rated by those apps have more value experience wise for their dollars. The hive mind that is social media causes attention inequality and narrows culture especially food culture.
Speaking of the Hive Mind. What do we talk about when we say we shouldn’t give someone a platform. As in the current uproar over Megyn Kelly interviewing Alex Jones, a man who has been paid to spew filth since my childhood. He long ago built his alternative media platform and give a place for wayward views. He helped Trump win without a doubt and his org Infowars will have white house press credentials. He doesn’t need an interview on NBC but NBC and those who oppose his views do need these kinds of interviews. Darkness cannot be allowed to fester. Pre-internet denying mainstream outlets was a good way to slow repulsive thought but now mainstream media is one if the last shared spaces in American life and is more effective as a means of exposing.
The tendency of the internet to drive conformity from food and fashion trends to preventing public discourse is disconcerting to say the least. Humanity’s story is one driven by innovation through diversity not just the kind on a college application check box. How much have we lost? What will it take next?
There are many reasons to feel trapped by technology. Giving up email would make the modern job search very hard. Giving up Social Media would distance you from your social group even for those who only check when notified. Giving up the smart phone once again would make the job hunt harder, the job harder possibly, and navigation impossible without a map on hand. Without a computer and Office, well you would need more manpower and effort to maintain the current workload. However, I feel Farhad Manjoo’s NYTimes piece missed the hold of tech on us.
Maybe it is because I am too poor to enjoy the glory of the internet. I can’t afford an Echo let alone to pay anyone to install anything in my home. I am the Taskee not the Tasker. I think the internet means different things to different people. I personally hate Yelp to me it is a collection of attention grabbers and whiners. I wouldn’t flag people on the street for recommendations, why would I trust someone who is compiled to force theirs on me. Same goes for Amazon reviews. One example: My A/C broke a few weeks ago. I went to Costco and saw they had a budget model. I google’d it at my girlfriends request. A few reviews said it was so noisy, the reviewer couldn’t sleep. I bought it anyway (Costco returns are so easy, unlike online). It ended up being significantly quieter than my last one (which was 15 years old). Youtube for me is a memory of pre-21 in high school and college hanging out awkwardly in some basement with friends waiting for booze to arrive or parents to leave and kinda wishing I was home.
Instead the internet controls through smoke and mirrors. In this month’s Atlantic, theres a great article about how online prices especially the list price are framed to only make you perceive you got a deal while possibly paying more than other users. Twitter flurries appear as mass reaction even though it is an small percentage of users commenting let alone a small percentage of the population as a whole. Facebook encourages echo chambers which had no small part in electing Trump.
I do agree with Manjoo’s fear of the comfort tech creates. It is another illusion. To click and receive. Yet as cyberattacks especially ransomware increase, the comfort becomes a security flaw. Alexa is not a personal assistant but the property of Amazon on loan. As we give control of our lives to these networked systems, we don’t increase our practical knowledge of them. It is no different than magic and we become marks for wizards, who are always waiting in the virtual. We are sold gadgets and apps on the notion, they give us tools to gain control but the only tools of control exist in coding.
The only way out is to stop selling ourselves into serfdom. It begins with reclaiming ownership of the self. An act as simple and rebellious as buying a physical day planner at Staples.
It has been 101 days since Donald Trump took office. And yet, as I read the expected deluge of think pieces and listicles, I can’t help but feel contempt for them as well. It’s as though Donald Trump presents such a comically large target, that liberals will fail to learn why they lost the government and presidency.
Take Bill Maher. I was watching a segment focusing on 100 days of Trump, and he had a long bit about Trump supporters. Pointing to the “statistic” that all trump supporters are still satisfied with Trump, he made the “humorous” argument that facts will never change a Trump voter’s mind. That for the great unenlightened masses it’s all about the “gut feeling of change”.
What followed was one of the ugliest comedy segments I’ve seen in a long time, with Bill Maher putting on a southern accent and making redneck jokes. First, it is guilty of the cardinal sin of comedy: being unfunny. It did, however, have the added benefit of making me think. There was a time, until fairly recently, that the media kowtowed to Middle America. The lowest common denominator, culturally speaking, that would offend only the least sensible.
I think two things have changed in the information age. One is the mass devaluation of media that comes with its easy accessibility. The second is, in an ever more competitive market, one must up the ante sensationally.
So if we look at these two changes together, it equals exponentially more media exposure for the average viewer, and increasingly insulting coverage for those in rural America.
What would you do if every time you turned on the television you were represented as a criminal and thug? You’d be furious, just as African Americans rightly were, and still are, for shows like “cops”.
Now let’s say an economic recession has wiped out jobs, the market is transforming in ways no one seems to understand except that every industry you could work in is dead, and every time you turn on the television, you’re portrayed as either a rapist or an idiot.
I’d vote Trump too. Fuck um.
These are our countrymen, and Bill Maher gets to lob lazy jokes from his studio castle and get paid an outrageous sum to be the definition of a pseudo intellectual. If liberals don’t take a long hard look into the dark mirror, and have the grace to see the world of insult and fear so many of their own are relegated to, than liberals will be exposed as little more than a blue baseball cap opposite the antagonistic red.
Obsolescence of the City
It has to be said on of the strangest turns of the digital revolution is the revival of the American metropolis. In an age where physical location means less than any other period in human existence almost all opportunities are being concentrated in fewer locations. In an age where more options are available, more people eat making the same choices. Think of San Francisco. People pay the highest rent but are bused out of the city to their employer’s offices. Then at night, they bus back to their trendy luxury condo that matches all the others built recently across the world and consume the current global fads that score on social media by people who may or may not be near SF. How is that any different than living in a McMansion in the burbs and going to the office park?
Where is the disruption? Many gentrifiers will point to the homeless man on their stoop say his name and the cliffnotes of his life call him neighbor maybe give him a mug of coffee and a smoke before saying they want to live among the people by which they mean the poor who would be happy to afford a McMansion if they could. The truth is tech could save the rural life from the attack by industrialism. If a band can make millions from a track recorded at different times and all the members on separate continents then so can a company. If skyscrapers were needed to house the mountains of paper and the people that pushed them then what is needed after the mountains have been shredded. If our overlords can function with their money all offshore then why must we clock in to the same building.
I will admit we have a major infrastructure crisis in America. Beyond crappy roads, bridges, and dams there is an aged telecommunications network (that includes broadband even if the FCC disagrees). As I discussed previously, broadband access isn’t universal. It could be. The telephone wires and broadcast waves, we all take for granted wasn’t built by companies seeking profit but by Americans for other Americans through the New Deal. It can be done again.
Cities are inefficient as population centers in a wired world. Look at the response time for safety officials in LA vs rural CA and compare distances traveled and taxes paid. It isn’t pretty. If government is best decentralized then so is the population. Each community can function as it wills rather than war with political machines churning out party bench candidates for higher offices. Plenty of services can be outsourced with Sandy Springs as a strong example. Culturally digital media delivery has removed most barriers. In the past, a print was 10k a pop and an empty theater disastrous but those days are behind. No longer is a physical film print or even theater needed to share smaller and foreign movies . No longer do you need a store to buy an album or a book. You may cry wait there is still the live music experience and that is true but like with film where previously one assumed there was a full audience once population hit a certain number now we can see where the most streams or album buys are from. The band can actually find and perform for all their fans without assumption. You can show there is a fan base. But food you may say. If you can tell the difference between a cronut and a knockoff congrats you are an asshole. Food is trendier than any other entertainment these days. I saw three poke shops in a row on my commute this morning. Most restaurants fail. City or rural, why not have rotating chefs and menus, a touring residency. Of course, local cuisine favorites and landmarks will continue to be permanent and a chef could stay but on a wider level why not recognize the transient nature of taste and support tastebud adventures without anyone losing a shirt.
I don’t claim that de-urbanization will solve everything but I do think it would lead to a future rather than this remake of the 20th century we are currently playing out.
Cultural critique has become irrelevant to modern society as a whole. There are occasional reviews worth the words but the garbage heap has grown thick around them. At some level, the increase of cultural production (mostly garbage) is a cause of worse critique as well as content devaluing, if people pay less for culture, they won’t spend more to hear New Yorkers talk about it. Deep though I believe the decline is from stasis within the field.
Lacan has become a plague. What was once a fresh lens 60 years ago has become the intellectual equivalent of duck tape. Lacan’s sentences support themselves so well, they can support almost any other thesis. Like an Ouroboros, his prose circles back on itself. This isn’t against Lacan but against the abuse of his work. I shouldn’t feel the need to grab a red pen and email “come see me during office hours” with the mark up.
I get the sense that most reviewers hate their job as well. The long rambling tangents on current events, musings on societal opinions, plain old academic discourse has become the focus. The actual piece being reviewed will have a synopsis often feeling like the wikipedia entry being rehashed. While 500 words on casting choices sounds like it is about the film, it is more about the political beliefs of the reviewer. Actual discussion of the piece that exists gets peppered in to appease their editor. The reviewer knows the reader’s opinion has been set before clicking through.
One failure is the continued reliance for reviewers to be living in New York. Before the millions of remote working options, it makes sense to hire writers near the main office. Now that the laptop is the writer’s screening room and a conference room not so much. This creates a bubble best shown by “Girls”, a show on averaged watched by 1.5% of HBO subscribers and with ratings below that of other canceled HBO shows. However it was a must watch for critics who would spend the next Monday pushing out praise and roundtables. It might be possible to find the number of employed reviewers through viewership numbers. Critics loved seeing their neighborhood and friends on screen, their current definition of a cultural moment.
In an age of seemingly infinite content, critique has become inefficient. The major cultural commentary outlets waste their resources screening pieces with major distribution making the article, a free ad for the production. Whether franchise, remake, adaptation, or the elusive original property modern audiences know if they will see it thanks to targeted social media campaigns and mass publicity blitzes. Before Google and the marketing delivery systems of the iPhone and Facebook, these reviews did serve as an informative method of discovering recent major releases. The challenge for critics now is to not be the emperor in the Coliseum but Shackleton in Antarctica. The internet is dark and full of terror to paraphrase Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire. If I like Vice, what’s another lesser known but similar quality option? What indie films blocked out of major festivals deserve my attention? What soundcloud/bandcamp pages should I book mark? These are the questions critique should be answering.
Last week Facebook announced and released a new mission statement. If the debate of Facebook as an utility was iffy before it certainly is no longer. It envisions itself as the global social infrastructure and its billionaire owner has climbed down to re-educate us the user in his own image. Making users effectively citizens in a dictatorship no one asked for.
By streamlining our old tech communication tools (aim, group email, evites, rss feeds, etc), weyy have concentrated power. Facebook is one of mine only remaining social apps as it has become for others. I knew the cost in privacy for myself but not in terms of ad revenues and other economic standards. I will most likely be deleting my account soon. I try not to support Monopoly.
Barry C. Lynn published a piece in Washington Monthly illustrating that robber barons are indeed back just not perhaps as always visible as the old captains of industry. Yet even Sanders, the Good Socialist himself, ignored the inherent monopolistic tendencies of the modern internet. At what point does a social network become infrastructure and what power does that give the people. The tech stewards of course believe their souls to be pure and thus they are their own best watchman. The hidden algorithms that both feed their wallets and manipulate our realities cannot simply be transparent as the code is the only value of the network itself besides the data it sells. The debate of de-concentrating the web isn’t simple. Concentration is most of any one sites power not the content as some contest. Perhaps it should be treated like the national grid but nationalizing an international network isn’t possible. Breaking up the railroads challenged a previous generation, today we must grapple with the importance that the virtual has become. The Man has come for Liberty Valance.