Ferguson & the Case of John v Sam

When I think about Ferguson, I can’t help but think about the story of the Boston Massacre and how often history repeats itself.  That incident, which was no massacre, led to the trial of the British soldiers who fired into the crowd and who faced hanging if found guilty.  Of course, it wasn’t the soldiers themselves who were really on trial, but the larger crime of British occupation and policy itself.  John Adams recognized the difference and, because he believed in the rule of law, successfully defended the individual soldiers who had not themselves committed a criminal act.  Then, of course, Adams went on to argue the cause of rebellion and a war for independence from the tyranny that put those soldiers in Boston in the first place.

In a similar way, I think it’s fair to say that the Ferguson story and our reaction to it is not ultimately about Michael Brown and Officer Wilson.  The evidence we have available may or may not have supported an indictment of Wilson himself, though investigation continues that may yet reveal new evidence regarding events of that day. In the meantime, isn’t the most important issue that, like Adams, we need to make a distinction between the rule of law regarding any one case and the larger indictment we seek against a greater, institutionalized injustice?  By far too many accounts, predominantly black neighborhoods in the U.S. resemble Boston in 1775 with a uniformed, occupying force on patrol, making second-class citizens out of residents just trying to live their lives. And with the correspondent militarization of civilian police forces, this can only aggravate already dangerous circumstances.

I am continually dismayed by the state of race relations in the U.S. nearly fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King; and this regressive trend is a force that indeed begs for revolution, though preferably one without bloodshed. It is interesting, though, how often we Americans need to decide whether to follow the path of John Adams or that of his second cousin Samuel.  Because Sam Adams was frankly a bit of a nut, so hell-bent on revolution that he didn’t care much about nuance like truth or fairness or the rule of law. He was a shameless propagandist, responsible for commissioning the famous but inaccurate sketch of the “Boston Massacre,” reprinted ever since in American school textbooks — the one depicting soldiers firing down upon cowering colonial citizens.  He was a member of the real Tea Party, a mob that tortured a relatively minor British official — a customs officer — with a tar-and-feather “Yankee Jacket” before they dumped all that tea into Boston Harbor.  Sam was a patriot, but he was also one of the goons who might break the window of some shopkeeper, who bore little or no responsibility for the injustice of The Crown.

Today, we have social media, which can be a great way to rely on friends we respect to curate and share worthwhile information and editorials on subjects as emotionally raw as the Ferguson story.  But forums like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr also challenge us to choose between our John Adams side and our Sam Adams side.  The photographic meme or provocative update allows our inner Sam to reduce general outrage or sorrow into a fragment of ephemeral propaganda; and maybe this is a healthy outlet, but I do wonder if on some level it does not also stifle the more contemplative and more valuable capacity of our inner John.  After all, sustainable change has never been authored or led by the Sams of the world.  We may drink Sam Adams’s eponymous beer this holiday, but the toast should go to John.

It is certainly clear that social media produces a lot of armchair experts in all fields from tort law to ballistics, leading to kitchen-table theories about what Officer Wilson could have done differently or what Mike Brown did or did not do that day.  But to what extent all this speculative noise gets us even one step closer to Dr. King’s dream is a very tough question to answer. So, as we head into the long, holiday weekend and millions of American televisions switch from Ferguson to football, and families stoke arguments with their relatives over this case, it is pretty hard to see the progress being made. It simply isn’t enough to change our profile pictures and share a few editorials, including this one.  I don’t presume to know exactly what is necessary, but if all we do is click, share, and move on, then the only people left taking tangible action are the goons setting things on fire.

Wishing everyone a peaceful and hopeful Thanksgiving.

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Ayn Rand Didn’t Mean a Technocracy

It is a matter of record that many of the most powerful entrepreneurs and VCs of Silicon Valley espouse a distinctly libertarian point of view tinged with shades of Ayn Rand, or at least a half-assed reading of her works.  And this confluence should not be overlooked, if for no other reason than, at least for the moment, what feels like our inexorable march toward a technocracy is being led by a very small group of very young men.

I have opined to friends and colleagues that the last people who should ever read Ayn Rand’s novels, let alone be required to read them, are teenage boys.  No creature that horny and that neophyte in basic literacy should ever be exposed to her particular brand of social philosophy until it is mature enough to realize that, for instance, her masterwork Atlas Shrugged is essentially an unforgivably verbose, adult comic book.  Like The Justice League meets The Story of O, part of the narrative of this undeservedly influential novel is one in which the heroine lives out her rape fantasies with a series of increasingly powerful wizards.  Each of the wizards — all brilliant and good-looking men — are flattering caricatures of 20th century Robber Barons, as if Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were all dashing, philosophical, and scientific rather than cunning, ruthless, and lucky.  The subplot of Dagney Taggart’s sexual metamorphosis portrays her as a figure who must earn the right through her journey toward ideological enlightenment to finally deserve to be ravished by the man with the biggest machine.  In this sense, Taggart’s sexual “awakening” parallels the overarching implication in the novel that society itself must earn the right for John Galt to return messianic with his intrinsic technology.  All of the action is of course interspersed  with endless and repetitive monologues that might be boiled down to three words — communism is bad.

So, no, we should not assign this novel to adolescent boys, most especially if those boys reveal themselves to be prodigies in a technological field and are, therefore, more apt to imagine themselves possessing the power to “turn off the machine of the world.”  Such comparisons to Galt were made after the blackout of certain websites in protest of SOPA/PIPA. And although the world did, and certainly could, carry on without Wikipedia, it is worth noting that its founder Jimmy Wales considers himself an Objectivist, which is the social philosophy of Rand and her inner circle of thinkers and sex partners.  Of course, it’s hard to imagine many enterprises that would inspire one of the author’s smoky sneers more that Wikipedia might.  Free?  For the greater good?  Managed by a collective?  As I say, Rand leaves almost no English word unused in her excoriation of such ideas.  But this is typical of most people who claim to adhere to a particular philosophy; from traditional religion to vegetarianism, they tend to cherry pick the bits they like and leave out the bits they don’t like or don’t understand.

Visualize the present lifestyles many of Silicon Valley’s boy geniuses, and the parallels with Atlas Shrugged require little imagination.  These contemporary wizards have science and technology, they have extraordinary wealth, and they have private planes they land in their very own magic valley where they construct work spaces, social clubs, and even transportation systems that allow them to exist entirely separate from the population around them.  And like John Galt and those chosen to live in his secret valley, the consistently articulated message from these real-life wizards is that society needs them, and we would be self-destructive to restrain their “genius” no matter where it may lead.  Of course, the fictional Galt had invented a machine that would produce an endless supply of energy while many a real-world Internet entrepreneur has invented a means to waste an endless amount of time; but that’s just life’s way of producing an endless amount of irony.

Needless to say, I am no Ayn Rand fan; I think she was mad as a hatter, desperately in need of an editor, and doesn’t really deserve the philosophical pedestal on which she has been placed.  But one value often overlooked by both her fans and her haters, in industry or in politics, and one she often wrote about quite beautifully, was the notion that a person’s work is irrevocably his own. Be it a technological device, an architectural design, a new formulation for steel, a novel, or a symphony, a person’s work was his or her property; and any other person or entity which sought to profit from or restrain the creator’s right to exploit that work was what she called a “looter.”  And nothing was lower in her view.

While many interpreters of Rand associate her with social Darwinism, I think she makes clear that she doesn’t revile the average citizen but rather reviles the theft of human capacity and theft of genius.  Thus, her characters are of caricatures of genius breaking restraints on their abilities, but if you pay attention to the passage in Atlas Shrugged once Dagney arrives in the secret valley, you’ll notice that the even the ubermensch who have formed their own society still honor the boundaries of one another’s individual sovereignty.  They so utterly reject the idea of the collective, that they will not do even the slightest deed as a favor; all interactions and transactions are a form of trade.  And a less jaded reading of this is that all individuals, not just the John Galts of the world, own the sovereignty and dignity produced by their labor.  And that is not a wholly inhuman idea, which is why I’m not surprised it is so often missed by boys who probably didn’t read very carefully.

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Uber – Do you want your daughter to use it?

There are so many stories in circulation this week detailing the sins of the presumptive disruptor of the the hired car industry, that I would feel more than redundant summarizing all of it here.  Read this story by founder and Editor-in-Chief of PandoDaily, Sarah Lacy who was singled out as a journalist whom Uber executive Emil Michael stated publicly he would smear for her criticisms of the company. You can also read about the company’s chauvinistic ad campaign, its tactics to undermine competitors, CEO Travis Kalanick’s boasting about how the company gets him laid, or you can read anecdotes involving some very acute dangers passengers have experienced like a near abduction, or just the data collection being done with all riders.  Or, for a laugh, you can read about Uber investor and movie star Ashton Kutcher wondering on Twitter “What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalists?”  Oh, Ashton, just sit there and look pretty and try not to say things.

The overarching theme from many journalists commenting about the too-aptly named Uber — even Sarah Lacy despite her feeling threatened — is not that the company needs to go away but that its executives need to grow up.  “…the very values at the core of start-up culture — the move fast, break things, us-against-the-world spirit of experimentation — are inconsistent with the kinds of responsibilities that come with being an economically important company that touches millions of customers,” writes Neil Irwin for The New York Times He’s right, of course, but I am skeptical that growing up is in the cards for these executivettes.  As the father of sons and a former boy myself, I often generalize that males are pretty immature by nature until they’re at least in their mid twenties, and one way to really stifle potential growth in nearly any male is to value his start-up company at eighteen billion dollars and tell him he’s a genius.

The problem with incubating the kind of permissionless culture that fuels Silicon Valley is that a “boy genius” with too much money in his pockets really cannot distinguish between breaking one set of rules, like a business paradigm in need of change, and breaking all other rules like social responsibility, liability, and personal behaviors that denigrate others. To show how far the dementia goes, read about Standford Law Graduate and co-founder of RapGenius, Mahobod Moghadam, smugly defending his proposal to steal from Whole Foods.  Why?  Because he wants to.  This is what passes for “thought” when the thought leaders all drink the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.

While we could enumerate sundry flaws with traditional taxi and limousine regulations in particular cities, it should be noted that these problems associated with Uber have manifest in a very short time since the company’s launch, and that these ills are the reason state-imposed regulations exist in the first place — because human nature simply isn’t good enough in a permission-free society.  Boys simply do not grow up unless adults force them to do so against their will.

Create an unregulated taxi service, and of course, women are going to be less safe than if they’re being driven by a cabbie who had to pay a fortune for a medallion.  No that system isn’t perfect either, but it’s fundamentally safer, includes oversight and a liability chain backed by insurance; and it never involves a private company collecting data on your comings and goings.  Moreover, I don’t think consumers who see Uber as a real game changer right now have considered the potential for unprecedented price-gouging if traditional T&L services are “disrupted” out of competitive existence.  And drivers are beginning to realize that being an Uber “partner” means having a job without any of the benefits or security of actually being employed.  No rules means no rules. No rules means the owner of the ball always wins.  So, we’ll see where this goes, but for now, if you had to put your teenage daughter in a hired car tonight, would Uber be your first choice?

Posted in Digital Culture, Law & Policy | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Critic Cote on Digital-Age Behavior in Theaters

I had to share this article by New York theater critic David Cote because it really is an indictment of digital-age jitteriness screwing up culture and literacy instead of broadening same as was promised.  It’s not really surprising that a contemporary theater audience doesn’t know that a play is not typically an interactive experience, and yet it is still a little surprising.  Cote’s “What Not to Do at Hugh Jackman’s New Broadway Show” is a funny but stern lecture that not only lays down basic rules for audience behavior, but even implies that people need a refresher course in what exactly theater is.  All of his observations — the use of smartphone cameras, the callouts to Jackman as celebrity, applauding at the wrong moments — all reek of digital-age induced illiteracy and narcissism. From Cote’s article:

So thunderstruck are they to be in a theater with the godlike Jackman, they forget to turn off their phones. Or worse, they snap pictures. At the press night I attended, some woman lacking a filter filled in the final, quiet moments of the play with an audible, “Holy shit!” Nice way to ruin a final tableau.

Here’s the first thing to know about a play:  Although you are there to experience it, it is not actually about you.

Read David Cote’s full article at TimeOut New York here.

Posted in Digital Culture, Lit/Pub | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Vicious Cycle – Speech Now Rewards the Oligarchs

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, about the challenges and the opportunities facing the next generation — those millennials about whom everyone has a theory and whose attention everybody wants.  They are, after all, the next big generation, equalling the boomers at about eighty million with us Xers weighing in at a paltry fifty million.  But as the father of three of these so-called millennials, I’m not so much interested in them as a demographic, trying to understand their habits and tastes so I can figure out what to sell them and how to package it.  And I certainly worry about their entry into cyberspace, sharing information about themselves with Zuckerberg’s data mining organization before they reach adulthood.  But above all, I wonder whether or not millennials are up for the big social and political challenge of their age and whether or not us Xers are able to lead the charge. At the moment I’m not so hopeful in light of this report from Public Citizen entitled Mission Creep-y, explaining how Google is becoming an ultra-powerful political force and continuing to expand its “information collection empire.” Just the first few lines of the introduction reads as follows:

“Google may possess more information about more people than any entity in the history of the world. Its business model and its ability to execute it demonstrate that it will continue to collect personal information about the public at a galloping pace. Meanwhile Google is becoming the most prolific political spender among corporations in the United States, while providing less transparency about its activities than many other of its politically active peers. Despite its mantra – “Don’t be evil” – Google’s ever- growing power calls for keeping a close eye on the company, just as it is keeping a close eye on us.”

I do think the challenge of this half of this century is whether or not we’re going to allow the unfettered power of a new oligarchy to flourish.  Plutocrats have risen before in American history, but what is unique this time is that the means by which we perceive we can combat unchecked power actually waters the seeds of that power itself. To illustrate what I mean, let’s go back to Occupy Wall Street.  Remember Occupy?  It was trending not that long ago.  In my opinion, this series of protests was borne of anger and frustration with exactly the right problem — wealth consolidation.  For more than a half century now, Americans have fostered both policy and business culture that has resulted in a tiny fraction of society holding the greatest percentage of wealth.  Meanwhile, opportunity continues to shrink for everyone else — the 99% championed by OWS.  Thus, the targets of Occupy were the financial industry and the government that failed first to regulate and then to punish those who practiced predatory and fraudulent schemes that led to near economic collapse five years ago.  This particular rage aimed at those particular institutions was a reasonable start, but the narrative written by OWS actually contains an ironic twist I doubt many of its founders or followers ever considered before, during, or since those days in Zuccotti Park.

If we’re going to be honest, OWS produced nothing tangible to address the fundamental problem of wealth consolidation in the U.S.  No serious grassroots political force was founded, no OWS-backed candidates were elected to office, no dialogue has even really changed much as a result of those protests.  Instead, what OWS produced was a great deal of theater. And that’s normal.  Protests always produce some measure of theater that doesn’t translate into progress, which doesn’t mean protests don’t serve a purpose.  The irony, however, with this particular spectacle in the age of social media, this free show comprised of shared photos, videos, tweets, and updates about kids tussling with city police, was that it could not exist without putting money into the pockets of the wealthiest one percent of the one percent. For every one of us who watched a video of Officer Bologna pepper spray a young woman and thought, “that’s wrong” and then went about our day, the Internet billionaires made money. The top search result of that video alone has just under a million views on YouTube, and there are I don’t know how many related videos representing how many thousands of views.  But suffice to say that long after the goals of Occupy have been swept up with the detritus from the park, Silicon Valley’s elite few continue to make money from the from the free media circus performed in the name of restoring power to the many.  This Catch-22 scenario applies to just about any cause, any protest, any movement around the world.

I wrote broadly on this theme after supposed co-founder of OWS, now Google employee (yep), Justine Tunney called for a libertarian’s coup that would install Google chairman Eric Schmidt as chief executive of America. I really don’t think it’s alarmist to say that we are spawning a new generation of Vanderbilts with a social agenda that goes beyond mere greed, and that in the end, we won’t even get a railroad out of the deal.  But what is truly different about this era’s breed of Robber Baron is that this time he owns the medium through which we naively imagine we can protect our civil liberties against his caprice and callousness.  With every tweet, status update, an even blog post just like this one, we are feeding the very monster we think we’re fighting.  This is the real conundrum of our times and for the next generation to solve:  How do we speak truth to power when that power is made stronger by every word we say?

Posted in Digital Culture, Politics | Tagged , , | 118 Comments