When usability pioneers have All the Feels about the nature of our creeping technological dystopia, how we got here, and what we might need to do to right the ship, it’s wise to pay attention. Don Norman’s preaching resonated with my choir, and they’ve asked me to sing a summary song of our people in bulleted list format:
What seemed like a virtuous thing at the time — building the internet with an ethos of trust and openness — has led to a travesty via lack of security, because no one took bad actors into account.
Google, Facebook, et al didn’t have the advertising business model in mind a priori, but sort of stumbled into it and got carried away giving advertisers what they wanted — more information about users — without really taking into consideration the boundary violations of appropriating people’s information. (see Shoshana Zuboff’s definitive new book on Surveillance Capitalism for a lot more on this topic)
Tech companies have mined the psychological sciences for techniques that — especially at scale — border on mass manipulation of fundamental human drives to be informed and to belong. Beyond the creepy Orwellian slant of information appropriation and emotional manipulation, the loss of productivity and mental focus from years of constant interruptions takes a toll on society at large.
We sign an interminable series of EULAs, ToS’s and other lengthy legalese-ridden agreements just to access the now basic utilities that enable our lives. Experts refer to these as “contracts of adhesion” or “click-wrap,” as a way of connoting the “obvious lack of meaningful consent.” (Zuboff)
The “bubble effect” — the internet allows one to surround oneself completely with like-minded opinions and avoid ever being exposed to alternative points of view. This has existential implications for being able to inhabit a shared reality, as well as a deleterious effect on public discourse, civility, and the democratic process itself.
The extreme commercialization of almost all of our information sources is problematic, especially in the age of the “Milton Friedman-ification” of the economic world and the skewing of values away from communities and individuals, towards a myopic view of shareholder value and all the attendant perverse incentives that accompany this philosophical business shift over the past 50 years. He notes that the original public-spiritedness of new communication technologies has historically been co-opted by corporate lobbyists via regulatory capture — a subject Tim Wu explores in-depth in his excellent 2011 book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires.“
Is it all bleak, Don?! His answer is clear: “yes, maybe, no.” He demurs on positing a definitive answer to all of these issues, but he doesn’t really mince words about a “hunch” that it may in fact involve burning it all down and starting over again.
Pointing to evolution, Norman notes that we cannot eke radical innovation out of incremental changes — and that when radical change does happen it is often imposed unexpectedly from the outside in the form of catastrophic events. Perhaps if we can’t manage to Marie Kondo our way to a more joyful internet, we’ll have to pray for Armageddon soon…?! 😱
In the 1930s and 40s we had the New Deal. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting legal limits on the maximum number of hours worked and the minimum wages allowed.
Republicans fought it then, claiming it would be essentially socialist, and an economic enemy to business and growth. However, it was the very opposite of that — the war and post-ware years were ones of productivity and prosperity, widely and broadly. A strong middle class was formed, changing the life and culture of America forever.
In the mid-1970s this growth engine finally began to falter, and since the 80s, we’ve instead had the Raw Deal. An ever-escalating version of a Libertarian’s wet dream: deregulation of numerous industries including finance (leading to the housing crash of 2007-8) and energy (leading to Enron), a steadily less progressive tax system (down from a whopping 94% in 1944 down to 28% under Reagan), and endless waves of cuts to social programs designed to level the opportunity playing field.
The thing is, when people feel hopeful, they work harder.
When there is hopelessness, there is less urgency to work hard to maintain the conditions and systems that make one feel so hopeless. If you know the game is rigged, how futile does it seem to keep playing?
Libertarians lament about the size of the pie, which is as good a modern version of “let them eat cake” while the plebes swill McD’s and pay through the nose for health care as any.
As members of the white male oligarchy fall all over themselves to mock the Green New Deal in their prostrate subservience to special interest lobbyists and Wall Street, there’s an opportunity hanging out in the wind (…but mostly in the sun) for Main Street.
People who claim that solar power isn’t scalable are living like it’s 1999, or 1984, or maybe 1924. Solar power has been shown to so far follow the edicts of Moore’s Law, which describes the doubling of the number of transistors on the same size chip every 18 months to 2 years — leading to predictable cost reductions over time for technologies that exhibit this kind of growth curve.
Meanwhile, the substrates upon which solar photovoltaic cells can be deployed are getting smaller — ridiculously smaller. Thinner than a strand of human hair. Of course those solar implementations are still insanely expensive, but give Moore’s Law and markets some time to work and at some point (and probably in this lifetime, for some of us) we’ll be in a world where PV cells are everywhere — almost literally. We will pass out of the age of fossil fuel scarcity and into an age of true energy abundance, in which power can be harvested from almost any given surface.
So, get yourself a nice little solar ETF and plow some money into it, or squirrel away little bits over time — whatever you can afford. Eventually you’re liable to be laughing all the way to the bank as the dinosaurs cry themselves to sleep at night before the feverish petroleum-soaked nightmares set in.
It’s designed to whip you up into a frenzy in order to foment cheap pageviews. Its interest is in you becoming a histrionic attention whore, such that you suck in as much clandestinely stolen user data to your platform of choice as possible.
Anger is also notably the “loophole” emotion — it’s the invisible one men get to have, while claiming for generations upon generations that “women are too emotional to be entrusted” with leadership or anything meaningful, really. Meanwhile male anger and aggression have killed hundreds of millions and wreaked destruction upon the earth many times over, as fragile masculinity is repeatably and predictably triggered over any little old thing.
We need to bring the fire down from the mountain. We are not on that project — we are still on the opposite project: keeping the wizards behind the curtain.
Too many of the wizards are male, and are busying themselves in playing petty economic and status zero-sum power games instead of recognizing the context they are in — we are all in — as an infinite game in which the enlargement of the participant group to include and, not just reluctantly tolerate, but to avidly welcome women in to the club will massively benefit all the players.
Then there are the white wizards who create pseudoscientific rationalizations for wasting time obsessing over 18th century racial animus as a massive distraction from having to do the work of creating anything useful or contributing any value to the world. They’ve taken their centuries of evolutionary advantage and painstakingly developed economic pie to split hairs over who ought to be denied a few of the crumbs, as a cheap method of papering over the deep well of collective insecurity and ego fragility precipitated by a lack of meaningful individuation and their failure to create anything useful or contribute any value to the world.
We could be playing this game together. Instead, we furtively dart about in Plato’s Cave imagining we are still living in a world of scarcity, rather than leveling ourselves up to behold the vision of the new world of abundance we have the capacity to create.
Power is the crushing sensation delivered from somewhere vaguely Above. It is obtuse; inscrutable. Ever-shifting and mercurial. Confounding. Contradicting. Nakedly self-interested. Confident. Conscienceless. Faceless. Meaningless. A black hole sucking everything in. A black boot in every face. A blackness. A contradiction; a cognitive dissonance. The bitter taste on one's tongue. The gnawing fear. Capriciousness. Corruption. Hypocrisy. Paranoia. Bombastic grasping. A slap in the face. An endless arms race. A shallow grave. A cold stare. A trap.
How do you prevent monopoly capitalism under a minimalist state?
The answer is: you don’t — which is “working as intended” to a libertarian. Both because their contempt for the government is so great they would sacrifice our very national treasures if it meant squeezing another cent out of the public coffers, and because they are fans of monopoly capitalism. Greed is good — so what if the invisible hand must be made to slap around the little guy? Money is a religion, and these people are True Believers.
I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and reminded of the quintessential liberal definition of the term:
The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”
— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (emphasis mine)
It seems to me that Libertarian proponents tend to make a systematic error in portraying liberty as only commensurate with the first part of Mill’s description: essentially interpreting it as, “I should be able to do whatever I want, and have no constraints placed upon my person by the government whatsoever.”
This misses completely the essential boundary established by the second part: that doing what one wants has limits attached, and that those limits are a proscription on engaging in activities which either harm others, or deprive others of their own rights in pursuit of liberty.
Being fixated with avoiding taxation, the Libertarian will proclaim that the government is coercing him out of his hard-earned monies — but this fails to recognize the real harm being done to the lower classes by the deprivation of funds to support the basic level of public goods required to preserve life at a subsistence level as well as social mobility: the essence of the American dream.
In short, Libertarian dogma tends to be singularly focused on the self-interest of the upper classes without any attendant regard to the rights of others that may be trampled on by either class oppression or the capturing and consolidation of political power in the hands of the wealthy. It fails systematically to recognize the perspective of the “other side,” i.e. those who are harmed by the enactment of the Libertarian ideology — much as a narcissist lacks the capability of seeing others’ perspectives.
Gather ’round, y’all — it’s the fight of our times…
How much decision-making should be privately made, vs. collectively? Arguably, decisions that affect most of us ought, in some way, to incorporate input from the public.
But as Elizabeth Warren 2020 (!!) notes — it’s getting harder and harder to do that, even as economic opportunities dry up and the wealthy capture more and more of the political class.
With Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all exploring bids too, it’s shaping up to be a very interesting 2020 indeed. With so many all-star Democrats in this mix, it’s hard to imagine we won’t come out of this with an interesting campaign season — beginning approximately now, with Warren’s semi-official entry into the arena and owning the airwaves as Trump comes unhinged at “Pocahontas.”
She dressed him down easily, gracefully, and quickly — before moving on into substantive economic issues most Americans are going to want to hear a lot more about. Trump cannot speak this way about the economy, which means his ruse on the Hillbilly Elegies of the world is about to come to an abrupt end, with many of their rude awakening.
For some it will never dawn on them that the man of the golden toilets (and golden showers!) who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars from his New York real estate mogul father before bankrupting himself 4 times in the casino business, in point of fact can in no way understand their experience living in a motor home or ramshackle apartment complex in some run-down suburb in the rust belt. But many may finally see that he’s just been pretending, like all the other rich people who still rule their damn lives despite all the promises to “drain the swamp” of corruption.
We have endured much together these past 2-3 years, Team America. Thankfully our civil society is incredibly robust — and time is accelerating demographic gains in an inexorably democratic direction. As Boomers give way to Millennials — slated to happen as early as this year — we are experiencing a seismic shift in the national consciousness.
Our values as a nation-state have always been evolving as the political consciousness and cultural landscapes shift, but in recent political times the changes have been radical, seemingly sudden, and jarring in a way that collective memory does not easily recall. I believe we are witnessing the swan song of a generation — the largest post-WWII generation dominant demo for decades, now facing only the long decline.
Much is said of the Hillbilly Elegies of our country, but to be fair these elders are legitimately terrified: of the U.S. they see around them today — bearing little resemblance to the nation of their boomingly patriarchal childhoods; of the world outside our borders and the immigrants (theoretically; allegedly) streaming into them illegally; of long disused portions of America drying up and economically (and in some cases literally) tumbleweeding away; of their own impending mortality.
We go high
Michelle Obama was right. Is right. We should make ourselves aware of the kinds of games the other side is willing to employ, but endeavor not to play them ourselves as much as we can. But beyond a moral reason to love thy neighbor, there’s the practical matter that we may find common cause in surprising territories. Non-wealthy elder whites and young Millennials who struggled through the 2008 housing and banking crash both have reason to want a robust safety net, for example. This is the essence of democratic politics done well: coalition-building — not among special interests, but among elected leaders representing their constituents in good faith.
The arc of justice
…goes at its own pace, or something like that. Fascism has a creep (or at the moment, more of an open stride), and justice has a methodical process of evidence-gathering and weighing; we can have some solid faith in the latter to do its work. Regardless of the levels of bitter partisanship in the air, we have an enormous cadre of professional civil servants who do their often thankless jobs tirelessly for years and decades out of the limelight, for sub-private sector pay and little recognition. This cohort works tirelessly for us now, investigating the many tentacles of the Trump corruption operation stretching back years and decades into American life and foreign investment.
Mr Mueller, do your worst. By which I mean your best. We understand each other, I think. 👍🏽⚖️
Luckey and Thiel are a particularly toxic breed of billionaire welfare queen, who outwardly revile government with every chance they get while having both sucked at its teat to make their fortunes, and currently making a luxe living on taxpayer largesse.
Some people like to argue that more economic inequality is a good thing, because it is a “natural” byproduct of capitalism in a world of “makers and takers,” “winners and losers,” “wolves and sheep,” [insert your favorite Manichaean metaphor here]. However, too much inequality is deleterious for both economics and politics — for reasons that are intertwined.
Those who amass exorbitant wealth often increasingly use a portion of their gains to capture politics. While the mythological promise of trickle-down economics is that we must not have progressive taxation, because giving more money to the already wealthy is the only way to spur economic investment and innovation and create jobs — in actual fact the majority of tax cut windfalls go to stock buybacks, offshore tax havens, regulatory capture, political lobbying, and campaign donations. All this is a runaway amplifying feedback loop that tilts the playing field further away from equal opportunity, social mobility, and democratic process.
Wealthy elites seek to preserve the power structures that have benefitted them, and keep them (and their descendants) in the ruling class. It is a slow recreation of the aristocratic societies of old Europe that we fought a bloody war of independence to separate ourselves from. Yet the erosion of civil values, public engagement, and collective will — largely as fomented by the conservative elite over the past 50 years in America — and the ascendancy of the myth of “rugged individualism” have conspired to create a perilous condition in which corruption operates so openly in today’s White House and Wall Street that democracy itself is in great danger.
Moreover, we have learned these lessons once, not quite a century ago, yet have forgotten them:
“Where there is a crisis, the ruling classes take refuge in fascism as a safeguard against the revolution of the proletariat… The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of decision.”