Coup du Jour – Eric Schmidt as CEO of America?
In case you missed it, OWS co-founder, now Google software engineer, Justine Tunney is responsible for a petition calling for a coup d’etat that would hand over administrative authority of the United States to the tech industry and appoint Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt as CEO of America. Whether Tunney is trying to be amusing, or she’s deranged, or she’s just another Twitter attention junkie, nobody is taking her too seriously if the comment section below the article in The Guardian is any indication. In fact, this is one of those side-show moments that I questioned commenting on at all except for the unfortunate fact that so much of what now passes for discourse in the world comprises so many side shows that mutate into headlines and round-table discussions on once-respectable news programs. Even more relevant, though, is that even if Tunney herself is dismissible, her appeal might actually touch a few very real nerves running though the body of the American electorate.
For starters, the suggestion that any business leader ought to be president, that the presidency itself is like being a CEO, is a well-entrenched conservative idea also popular with many right-leaning libertarians. Given that one of the universal complaints about government is that the elected are terrible stewards of “our money,” it’s a natural, albeit narrow-minded, instinct to want to elevate a successful business operator to the presidency so that he or she can “get our house in order.” On purely theoretical grounds, I have always quarreled with this premise because a corporation is not a democracy — I don’t care how flat you say your org chart is — so much as it is a benign dictatorship, usually designed to excel in a limited number of core competencies in the service of profitability. Democracy isn’t efficient, giving everyone a voice isn’t efficient, balancing competing interests within a nation isn’t efficient; but inefficiency is one of the prices we pay for free speech, the right to redress the government, the right to assemble and organize, and so on.
Conversely, CEOs are conditioned toward efficiency and toward meeting quarterly goals for their shareholders. As such, CEOs are not necessarily the best collaborators; they’re often not multi-dimensional thinkers; they frequently have egos way too big for Washington (which is saying something); and they’re not particularly oriented toward balancing the needs of the diverse and quarrelsome many. There are and have been CEOs who meet these criteria, but my point is that a strong P&L statement alone does not make a good resume for Leader of the Free World. Interestingly though, while Tunney is standing on this weatherbeaten plank of the GOP, I think she’s simultaneously echoing sentiments among the left and libertarian left, who have come to think of technologies like social media as the antidote to corporate/government corruption and incompetence. And this is where the bizarre confluence of Occupy zeal and the idea of appointing a less-than-one-percenter like Eric Schmidt as national leader might actually make some twisted sense in certain minds.
Occupy, after all, was a YouTube protest that was unfortunately almost as fleeting as that damn “What Does the Fox Say” video, and just about as likely to effect any tangible change in the world. At its core, I thought OWS began as a legitimate response to a genuine problem — wealth consolidation and the many systemic ways in which this economic cancer, eating away the middle class, is protected and perpetuated in the U.S. But Occupy rather quickly manifest as the proverbial rebel without a clue — yet another social media side show in which the lead stories became a handful of viral videos depicting excessive force by certain police officers instead of a narrative relating any kind of clear, advancing agenda. Thanks in part to the ephemeral nature of social media and its tendency to provoke an increase in conspiracy theory, the story of Occupy became the story of who was trying to shut it down rather than what it was meant to accomplish. Think OWS today, let alone years from now, and what probably remains are a few images of cops misusing pepper spray. Imagine if all you could say about the civil rights movement is that some cops sprayed people with fire hoses.
Like it or not — and I certainly don’t — the Tea Party made Occupiers look like a bunch of fair-weather activists who seemed to think it was enough to conjure the illusion of a movement with all the trappings and also seemed to confuse mouse clicks with votes. OWS generated images and buzz and “Likes” and a moment of fleeting outrage while the Tea Party got seats in the House of Representatives. So, while Justine Tunney may be mockable for her hypocrisy, trying to trade on OWS bona fides from the rarefied heights of Googletopia and anointing the most corporate of corporate guys, the irony is that an event like OWS unwittingly does feed the pseudo-progressive trend toward a technocracy. OWS was a functionally impotent movement with regard to addressing any serious issues, but one that simultaneously elevated the apparent relevance of citizens using smartphones and social media. By extension, this elevates the importance of the individuals who build those technologies.
In this sense occupy takes on an unintended second meaning. While it was meant to express a contemporary sit-in whereby people occupy physical space as a form of protest, the millions of people passively engaged online were occupied in the sense that their attention was drawn particularly toward the aforementioned images of police misconduct. While this is happening, the unseen irony is that the one percent of the one percent who own social media sites are saying “Ka-ching!” while many users are thinking, “Thank goodness for YouTube and Facebook and Twitter, or we would never know about these extraordinary (soon to be forgotten) events.” Thus, I would argue that on at least a subconscious level, people come to think of a guy like Schmidt as a national leader of sorts. It reminds me of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which the 19th Century man with his technological prowess is to be given a title that doesn’t quite acknowledge that he’s the most powerful person in the realm. Arthur remains The King, Merlin remains The Wizard, and the technologically skilled Yankee is given the title The Boss.
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