Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia

The rules are important at Burning Man. But being rich means you get to do what you want, just like anywhere else

Why Burning Man is not an example of a loosely regulated tech utopia
El Pulpo Mecanico, at the Burning Man 2012 “Fertility 2.0″ arts and music festival, August 29, 2012. (Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

“Burning Man culture,” writes Gregory Ferenstein in Vox, “discourages money or bartering; the entire economy is a gift economy.”

Ferenstein, a regular attendee at the Nevada desert counterculture festival so beloved by Northern California’s tech-hipsters, is defending Burning Man from critics like the New York Times’ Nick Bilton, who have noted that in recent years, rich attendees have been setting up their own luxury camps within the confines of Black Rock City. Ferenstein makes some good points explaining why tech billionaires love Burning Man, but it’s still difficult to square his point on “burning man culture” with the details reported by Bilton.

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs… “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”

His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

Such camps, reports Bilton, also included “Sherpas” that serve as servants.

Ferenstein writes that the tech execs have basically the same experience as everyone else. But he appears to be tone-deaf to the enormous offense of labeling paid employees “Sherpas” and doesn’t bother to mention the female models flown in from New York. That’s not the gift economy, and it’s not the sharing economy. And it’s surely not something that anyone even imagined possible when tripping around a very big bonfire on Baker Beach in the early ’90s.



Ferenstein also wanders into a self-combusting contradiction, of the sort that would look pretty good exploding  in the desert night. Burning Man, he writes, “is an experiment in what a city would look like if it were architected for wild creativity and innovation…. At Burning Man, sharing is the economy. It’s rather appealing to the Silicon Valley elite to see an entire city function on an economic idea that is at the heart of the knowledge economy. It’s an important glimpse of why the founders are so optimistic that a loosely regulated field of tech startups can outweigh the potential downsides of unregulated sharing.”

But Burning Man is intensely regulated. It’s got its own police force. Gun control is absolute. Attendance is limited to a set number of people who can afford the not-cheap tickets. The very layout of Black Rock City is a paean to planning and organization. Central control is as much the essence of Burning Man as is hedonism and fire.

We can argue about the proper extent of regulation. Is Burning Man more like Houston, which scoffs at zoning restrictions, or San Francisco, where plastic bags are outlawed? (The rules on trash at Burning Man might come off as pretty extreme to your typical happy-go-lucky free market polluter, after all.) But to use Burning Man as a model for what tech billionaires want for a greater society is to actually argue that rules are extremely important, and anarchy is a failure!

The key point made by Nick Bilton is that the very existence of a camp inside Burning Man where tickets cost $25,000 and female companionship is imported is a demonstration that Burning Man, far from being an alternative to society, is business as usual.

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/22/why_burning_man_is_not_an_example_of_a_loosely_regulated_tech_utopia/?source=newsletter

How Google and the Big Tech Companies Are Helping Maintain America’s Empire


Military, intelligence agencies and defense contractors are totally connected to Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley has been in the media spotlight for its role in gentrifying and raising rents in San Francisco, helping the NSA spy on American citizens, and lack of racial and gender diversity. Despite that, Silicon Valley still has a reputation for benevolence, innocence and progressivism. Hence Google’s phrase, “Don’t be evil.” A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that, even after the Snowden leaks, 53% of those surveyed had high confidence in the tech industry. The tech industry is not seen as evil as, say, Wall Street or Big Oil.

One aspect of Silicon Valley that would damage this reputation has not been scrutinized enough—its involvement in American militarism. Silicon Valley’s ties to the National Security State extend beyond the NSA’s PRISM program. Through numerous partnerships and contracts with the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Silicon Valley is part of the American military-industrial complex. Google sells its technologies to the U.S. military, FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, NGA, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, has managers with backgrounds in military and intelligence work, and partners with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Amazon designed a cloud computing system that will be used by the CIA and every other intelligence agency. The CIA-funded tech company Palantir sells its data-mining and analysis software to the U.S. military, CIA, LAPD, NYPD, and other security agencies. These technologies have several war-zone and intelligence-gathering applications.

First, a little background to explain how the military has been involved with Silicon Valley since its conception as a technology center. Silicon Valley’s roots date back to World War II, according to a presentation by researcher and entrepreneur Steve Blank. During the war, the U.S. government funded a secret lab at Harvard University to research how to disrupt Germany’s radar-guided electronic air defense system. The solution — drop aluminum foil in front of German radars to jam them. This birthed modern electronic warfare and signals intelligence. The head of that lab was Stanford engineering professor Fred Terman who, after World War II, took 11 staffers from that lab to create Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab (ERL), which received funding from the military. Stanford also had an Applied Electronics Lab(AEL) that did classified research in jammers and electronic intelligence for the military.

In fact, much of AEL’s research aided the U.S. war in Vietnam. This made the lab a target for student antiwar protesters who nonviolently occupied the lab in April 1969 and demanded an end to classified research at Stanford. After nearly a year of teach-ins, protests, and violent clashes with the police, Stanford effectively eliminated war-related classified research at the university.

The ERL did research in and designed microwave tubes and electronic receivers and jammers. This helped the U.S. military and intelligence agencies spy on the Soviet Union and jam their air defense systems. Local tube companies and contractors developed the technologies based on that research. Some researchers from ERL also founded microwave companies in the area. This created a boon of microwave and electronic startups that ultimately formed the Silicon Valley known today.

Don’t be evil, Google

Last year, the first Snowden documents revealed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other major tech companies provided the NSA access to their users’ data through the PRISM program. All the major tech companies denied knowledge of PRISM and put up an adversarial public front to government surveillance. However, Al Jazeera America’s Jason Leopold obtained, via FOIA request, two sets of email communications between former NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Google executives Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt. The communications, according to Leopold, suggest “a far cozier working relationship between some tech firms and the U.S. government than was implied by Silicon Valley brass” and that “not all cooperation was under pressure.” In the emails, Alexander and the Google executives discussed information sharing related to national security purposes.

But PRISM is the tip of the iceberg. Several tech companies are deeply in bed with the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and defense contractors. One very notable example is Google. Google markets and sells its technology to the U.S. military and several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, and NGA.

Google has a contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that allows the agency to use Google Earth Builder. The NGA provides geospatial intelligence, such as satellite imagery and mapping, to the military and other intelligence agencies like the NSA. In fact, NGA geospatial intelligence helped the military and CIA locate and kill Osama bin Laden. This contract allows the NGA to utilize Google’s mapping technology for geospatial intelligence purposes. Google’s Official Enterprise Blog announced that “Google’s work with NGA marks one of the first major government geospatial cloud initiatives, which will enable NGA to use Google Earth Builder to host its geospatial data and information. This allows NGA to customize Google Earth & Maps to provide maps and globes to support U.S. government activities, including: U.S. national security; homeland security; environmental impact and monitoring; and humanitarian assistance, disaster response and preparedness efforts.”

Google Earth’s technology “got its start in the intelligence community, in a CIA-backed firm called Keyhole,” which Google purchased in 2004, according to the Washington Post. PandoDaily reporter Yasha Levine, who has extensively reported on Google’s ties to the military and intelligence communitypoints out that Keyhole’s “main product was an application called EarthViewer, which allowed users to fly and move around a virtual globe as if they were in a video game.”

In 2003, a year before Google bought Keyhole, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, until it was saved by In-Q-Tel, a CIA-funded venture capital firm. The CIA worked with other intelligence agencies to fit Keyhole’s systems to its needs. According to the CIA Museum page, “The finished product transformed the way intelligence officers interacted with geographic information and earth imagery. Users could now easily combine complicated sets of data and imagery into clear, realistic visual representations. Users could ‘fly’ from space to street level seamlessly while interactively exploring layers of information including roads, schools, businesses, and demographics.”

How much In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified. However, Levine writes that “the bulk of the funds didn’t come from the CIA’s intelligence budget — as they normally do with In-Q-Tel — but from the NGA, which provided the money on behalf of the entire ‘Intelligence Community.’ As a result, equity in Keyhole was held by two major intelligence agencies.” Shortly after In-Q-Tel bought Keyhole, the NGA (then known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency or NIMA) announced it immediately used Keyhole’s technology to support U.S. troops in Iraq at the 2003-2011 war. The next year, Google purchased Keyhole and used its technology to develop Google Earth.

Four years after Google purchased Keyhole, in 2008, Google and the NGA purchased GeoEye-1, the world’s highest-resolution satellite, from the company GeoEye. The NGA paid for half of the satellite’s $502 million development and committed to purchasing its imagery. Because of a government restriction, Google gets lower-resolution images but still retains exclusive access to the satellite’s photos. GeoEye later merged into DigitalGlobe in 2013.

Google’s relationship to the National Security State extends beyond contracts with the military and intelligence agencies. Many managers in Google’s public sector division come from the U.S. military and intelligence community, according to one of Levine’s reports.

Michele R. Weslander-Quaid is one example. She became Google’s Innovation Evangelist and Chief Technology Officer of the company’s public sector division in 2011. Before joining Google, since 9/11, Weslander-Quaid worked throughout the military and intelligence world in positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Reconnaissance Office, and later, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Levine noted that Weslander-Quaid also “toured combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to see the tech needs of the military first-hand.”

Throughout her years working in the intelligence community, Weslander-Quaid “shook things up by dropping archaic software and hardware and convincing teams to collaborate via web tools” and “treated each agency like a startup,” according to a 2014 Entrepreneur Magazine profile. She was a major advocate for web tools and cloud-based software and was responsible for implementing them at the agencies she worked at. At Google, Weslander-Quaid’s job is to meet “with agency directors to map technological paths they want to follow, and helps Google employees understand what’s needed to work with public-sector clients.” Weslander-Quaid told Entrepreneur, “A big part of my job is to translate between Silicon Valley speak and government dialect” and “act as a bridge between the two cultures.”

Another is Shannon Sullivan, head of defense and intelligence at Google. Before working at Google, Sullivan served in the U.S. Air Force working at various intelligence positions. First as senior military advisor and then in the Air Force’s C4ISR Acquisition and Test; Space Operations, Foreign Military Sales unit. C4ISR stands for “Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.” Sullivan left his Air Force positions to work as Defense Director for BAE Systems, a British-based arms and defense company, and then Army and Air Force COCOMs Director at Oracle. His last project at Google was “setting up a Google Apps ‘transformational’ test program to supply 50,000 soldiers in the US Army and DoD with a customized Google App Universe”, according to Levine.

Google not only has a revolving door with the Pentagon and intelligence community, it also partners with defense and intelligence contractors. Levine writes that “in recent years, Google has increasingly taken the role of subcontractor: selling its wares to military and intelligence agencies by partnering with established military contractors.”

The company’s partners include two of the biggest American defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, an aerospace, defense, and information security company, and Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company. Both Lockheed and Northrop produce aircraft, missiles and defense systems, naval and radar systems, unmanned systems, satellites, information technology, and other defense-related technologies. In 2011, Lockheed Martin made $36.3 billion in arms sales, while Northrop Grumman made $21.4 billion. Lockheed has a major office in Sunnyvale, California, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. Moreover, Lockheed was also involved in interrogating prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo, through its purchase of Sytex Corporation and the information technology unit of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), both of whom directly interrogated detainees.

Google worked with Lockheed to design geospatial technologies. In 2007, describing the company as “Google’s partner,” the Washington Post reported that Lockheed “demonstrated a Google Earth product that it helped design for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s work in Iraq. These included displays of key regions of the country and outlined Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, as well as U.S. and Iraqi military bases in the city. Neither Lockheed nor Google would say how the geospatial agency uses the data.” Meanwhile, Google has a $1-million contract with Northrop to install a Google Earth plug-in.

Both Lockheed and Northrop manufacture and sell unmanned systems, also known as drones. Lockheed’s drones include the Stalker, which can stay airborne for 48 hours; Desert Hawk III, a small reconnaissance drone used by British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the RQ-170 Sentinel, a high-altitude stealth reconnaissance drone used by the U.S. Air Force and CIA. RQ-170s have been used in Afghanistan and for the raidthat killed Osama bin Laden. One American RQ-170 infamously crashed in Iran while on a surveillance mission over the country in late 2011.

Northrop Grumman built the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude surveillance drone used by the Air Force and Navy. Northrop is also building a new stealth drone for the Air Force called the RQ-180, which may be operational by 2015. In 2012, Northrop sold $1.2 billion worth of drones to South Korea.

Google is also cashing in on the drone market. It recently purchased drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can “stay in the air for years without needing to land,” reported the Wire. Facebook entered into talks to buy the company a month before Google made the purchase.

Last December, Google purchased Boston Dynamics, a major engineering and robotics company that receives funding from the military for its projects. According to the Guardian, “Funding for the majority of the most advanced Boston Dynamics robots comes from military sources, including the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US army, navy and marine corps.” Some of these DARPA-funded projects include BigDog, Legged Squad Support System (LS3), Cheetah, WildCat, and Atlas, all of which are autonomous, walking robots. Altas is humanoid, while BigDog, LS3, Cheetah, WildCat are animal-like quadrupeds. In addition to Boston Dynamics, Google purchased eight robotics companies in 2013—Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka, Schaft, Holomni, Bot & Dolly, and Autofuss. Google has been tight-lipped about the specifics of its plans for the robotics companies. But some sources told the New York Times that Google’s robotics efforts are not aimed at consumers but rather manufacturing, such as automating supply chains.

Google’s “Enterprise Government” page also lists military/intelligence contractors Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Blackbird Technologies among the companies it partners with. In particularly, Blackbird is a military contractor that supplies locators for “the covert ‘tagging, tracking and locating’ of suspected enemies,” according to Wired. Its customers include the U.S. Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM oversees the U.S. military’s special operations forces units, such as the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and Green Berets. Blackbird even sent some employees as armed operatives on secret missions with special operations forces. The company’s vice president is Cofer Black, a former CIA operative who ran the agency’s Counterterrorist Center before 9/11.

Palantir and the military

Many others tech companies are working with military and intelligence agencies. Amazon recently developed a $600 million cloud computing system for the CIA that will also service all 17 intelligence agencies. Both Amazon and the CIA have said little to nothing about the system’s capabilities.

Palantir, which is based in Palo Alto, California produces and sells data-mining and analysis software. Its customers include the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Special Operations Command, CIA, NSA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, LAPD, and NYPD. In California, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), one of 72 federally run fusion centers built across the nation since 9/11, uses Palantir software to collect and analyze license plate photos.

While Google sells its wares to whomever in order to make a profit, Palantir, as a company, isn’t solely dedicated to profit-maximizing. Counterterrorism has been part of the company’s mission since it began. The company was founded in 2004 by investor Alex Karp, who is the company’s chief executive, and billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel. In 2003, Thiel came up with the idea to develop software to fight terrorism based on PayPal’s fraud recognition software. The CIA’s In-Q-Tel helped jumpstart the company by investing $2 million. The rest of the company’s $30 million start-up costs were funded by Thiel and his venture capital fund.

Palantir’s software has “a user-friendly search tool that can scan multiple data sources at once, something previous search tools couldn’t do,” according to a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile. The software fills gaps in intelligence “by using a ‘tagging’ technique similar to that used by the search functions on most Web sites. Palantir tags, or categorizes, every bit of data separately, whether it be a first name, a last name or a phone number.” Analysts can quickly categorize information as it comes in. The software’s ability to scan and categorize multiple sources of incoming data helps analysts connect the dots among large and different pools of information — signals intelligence, human intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and much more. All this data is collected and analyzed in Palantir’s system. This makes it useful for war-related, intelligence, and law enforcement purposes. That is why so many military, police, and intelligence agencies want Palantir’s software.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan who used Palantir’s software, particularly the Marines and SOCOM, found it very helpful for their missions. Commanders liked Palantir’s ability to direct them at insurgents who “build and bury homemade bombs, the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” the Washington Times reported. A Government Accountability Office report said Palantir’s software “gained a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, while also providing effective tools to link and visualize data.” Special operations forces found Palantir to be “a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations” and “provided flexibility to support mobile, disconnected users out on patrols or conducting missions.” Many within the military establishment are pushing to have other branches, such as the Army, adopt Palantir’s software in order to improve intelligence-sharing.

Palantir’s friends include people from the highest echelons of the National Security State. Former CIA Director George Tenet and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are advisers to Palantir, while former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus “considers himself a friend of Palantir CEO Alex Karp”, according to Forbes. Tenet told Forbes, “I wish I had Palantir when I was director. I wish we had the tool of its power because it not only slice and dices today, but it gives you an enormous knowledge management tool to make connections for analysts that go back five, six, six, eight, 10 years. It gives you a shot at your data that I don’t think any product that we had at the time did.”

High-tech militarism

Silicon Valley’s technology has numerous battlefield applications, which is something the U.S. military notices. Since the global war on terror began, the military has had a growing need for high-tech intelligence-gathering and other equipment. “A key challenge facing the military services is providing users with the capabilities to analyze the huge amount of intelligence data being collected,” the GAO report said. The proliferation of drones, counter-insurgency operations, sophisticated intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and new technologies and sensors changed how intelligence is used in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries.

According to the report, “The need to integrate the large amount of available intelligence data, including the ability to synthesize information from different types of intelligence sources (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, and open source), has become increasingly important in addressing, for example, improvised explosive device threats and tracking the activities of certain components of the local population.” This is where Palantir’s software comes in handy. It does what the military needs — data-mining and intelligence analysis. That is why it is used by SOCOM and other arms of the National Security State.

Irregular wars against insurgents and terrorist groups present two problems— finding the enemy and killing them. This is because such groups know how to mix in with, and are usually part of, the local population. Robotic weapons, such as drones, present “an asymmetric solution to an asymmetric problem,” according to a Foster-Miller executive quoted in P.W. Singer’s book Wired for War. Drones can hover over a territory for long periods of time and launch a missile at a target on command without putting American troops in harm’s way, making them very attractive weapons.

Additionally, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are increasingly relying on signals intelligence to solve this problem. Signals intelligence monitors electronic signals, such as phone calls and conversations, emails, radio or radar signals, and electronic communications. Intelligence analysts or troops on the ground will collect and analyze the electronic communications, along with geospatial intelligence, of adversaries to track their location, map human behavior, and carry out lethal operations.

Robert Steele, a former Marine, CIA case officer, and current open source intelligence advocate, explained the utility of signals intelligence. “Signals intelligence has always relied primarily on seeing the dots and connecting the dots, not on knowing what the dots are saying. When combined with a history of the dots, and particularly the dots coming together in meetings, or a black (anonymous) cell phone residing next to a white (known) cellphone, such that the black acquires the white identity by extension, it becomes possible to ‘map’ human activity in relation to weapons caches, mosques, meetings, etcetera,” he said in an email interview. Steele added the “only advantage” to signals intelligence “is that it is very very expensive and leaves a lot of money on the table for pork and overhead.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commandos combined images from surveillance drones with the tracking of mobile phone numbers to analyze insurgent networks. Commandos then used this analysis to locate and capture or kill their intended targets during raids. Oftentimes, however, this led to getting the wrong person. Steele added that human and open source intelligence are “vastly superior to signals intelligence 95% of the time” but “are underfunded precisely because they are not expensive and require face to face contact with foreigners, something the US Government is incompetent at, and Silicon Valley could care less.”

Capt. Michael Kearns, a retired U.S. and Australian Air Force intelligence officer and former SERE instructor with experience working in Silicon Valley, explained how digital information makes it easier for intelligence agencies to collect data. In an email, he told AlterNet, “Back in the day when the world was analog, every signal was one signal. Some signals contained a broad band of information contained within, however, there were no ‘data packets’ embedded within the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, collecting a signal, or a phone conversation, was largely the task of capturing / decoding / processing some specifically targeted, singular source. Today, welcome to the digital era. Data ‘packets’ flow as if like water, with pieces and parts of all things ‘upstream’ contained within. Therefore, the task today for a digital society is largely one of collecting everything, so as to fully unwrap and exploit the totality of the captured data in an almost exploratory manner. And therein lies the apparent inherently unconstitutional-ness of wholesale collection of digital data…it’s almost like ‘pre-crime.'”

One modern use of signals intelligence is in the United States’ extrajudicial killing program, a major component of the global war on terror. The extrajudicial killing program began during the Bush administration as a means to kill suspected terrorists around the world without any due process. However, as Bush focused on the large-occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the extrajudicial killing program was less emphasized.

The Obama administration continued the war on terror but largely shifted away from large-scale occupations to emphasizing CIA/JSOC drone strikes, airstrikes, cruise missile attacks,proxies, and raids by special operations forces against suspected terrorists and other groups. Obama continued and expanded Bush’s assassination program, relying on drones and special operations forces to do the job. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes and other covert operations have killed nearly 3,000 to over 4,800 people, including 500 to over 1,000 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. During Obama’s five years in office, over 2,400 people were killed by U.S. drone strikes. Most of those killed by drone strikes are civilians or low-level fighters and, in Pakistan, only 2 percent were high-level militants. Communities living under drone strikes are regularly terrorized and traumatized by them.

Targeting for drone strikes is based on metadata analysis and geolocating the cell phone SIM card of a suspected terrorist, according to a report by the Intercept. This intelligence is provided by the NSA and given to the CIA or JSOC which will then carry out the drone strike. However, it is very common for people in countries like Yemen or Pakistan to hold multiple SIM cards, hand their cell phones to family and friends, and groups like the Taliban to randomly hand out SIM cards among their fighters to confuse trackers.

Since this methodology targets a SIM card linked to a suspect rather than an actual person, innocent civilians are regularly killed unintentionally. To ensure the assassination program will continue, the National Counterterrorism Center developed the “disposition matrix,” a database that continuously adds the names, locations, and associates of suspected terrorists to kill-or-capture lists.

The Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal requests $495.6 billion, down $0.4 billion from last year, and decreases the Army to around 440,000 to 450,000 troops from the post-9/11 peak of 570,000. But it protects money — $5.1 billion — for cyberwarfare and special operations forces, giving SOCOM $7.7 billion, a 10 percent increase from last year, and 69,700 personnel. Thus, these sorts of operations will likely continue.

As the United States emphasizes cyberwarfare, special operations, drone strikes, electronic-based forms of intelligence, and other tactics of irregular warfare to wage perpetual war, sophisticated technology will be needed. Silicon Valley is the National Security State’s go-to industry for this purpose.

Adam Hudson is a journalist, writer, and photographer.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/how-google-and-big-tech-companies-are-helping-maintain-americas-empire?akid=12149.265072.iCZIs-&rd=1&src=newsletter1016284&t=6&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Not Content To Ruin Just San Francisco, Rich Techies Are Gentrifying Burning Man Too

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Artist Dadara‘s Facebook like altar from Burning Man 2013. Photo: Bexx Brown-Spinelli/Flickr

This will come as news only to people who have not attended Burning Man in the last couple of years, but the New York Times has just caught on to the fact that Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires) have been attending the desert festival in greater numbers and quickly ruining it with their displays of wealth. While we used to call Coachella “Burning Man Lite for Angelenos,” Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk who want to get naked and do bong hits with Larry Page in Elon Musk’s decked-out RV.

Burners won’t just be sharing the playa with Larry and Sergey, Zuck, Grover Norquist, and at least one Winklevoss twin this year. There will also be a legion of new millionaires, most of them probably Burning Man virgins, who will be living in the lap of luxury and occasionally dropping in on your parties to ask for molly.

Per the Times piece:

“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”

The blockaded camps of the tech gentrifiers have tended to be in the outer rings of Black Rock City, as was previously reported in 2011 when a guest of Elon Musk’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out of the thick of it,” he said, “so we’re not offending the more elaborate or involved set ups.”

But as Silicon Valley assumes more and more of a presence on the playa, what’s to stop them from claiming better and better real estate, closer to where the action is?

You won’t see any evidence of this on Facebook, though. All of this happens without the tech world’s usual passion for documentation, since they do abide by at least that one tenet of Burning Man culture that frowns on photography. And at least, as of 2014, they seem to understand that their displays of wealth aren’t all that welcome, and should probably be kept on the down-low.

But seriously? Models flown in from New York? Gross.

[NYT]

 

http://sfist.com/2014/08/21/not_content_to_ruin_just_san_franci.php

Israel’s Most Important Source of Capital: California

The New Gold Rush

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by DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM

 

Last Saturday between one and two thousand protesters marched on the Port of Oakland to blockade one of its busy marine terminals and prevent an Israeli ship from docking. After confronting a line of police guarding the waterfront the protesters declared victory; the Zim Lines vessel hovered offshore, afraid to dock, they said, and port workers wouldn’t be unloading its cargo.

One protester, looking beyond the line of police guarding the port, explained that the purpose of the action was to “impede the flow of capital.” Stopping one of Zim’s ships—the company’s vessels arrive in Oakland about four times a month, according to Zim’s web site—was a small, but real economic blow against Israel.

But if it’s a matter of stopping the flow of capital, the ports are a relatively small conduit of trade between California and Israel. For over 20 years California’s technology industry has been channeling billions of dollars to finance the growth of Israeli tech firms. In that time, tech has become a key sector for Israel’s economy. The flow of capital between California and Israel is digital, transmitted as currency and intellectual property. And this flow of capital occurs mostly through the decisions of a small number private equity firms and perhaps as few as a dozen large corporations. These flows of capital supporting Israel’s economy are less susceptible to social movement pressure.

The amount of support of for Israel’s economy originating from Silicon Valley’s private equity firms is especially large. In 2001, during the first year of the Second Intifada, Sequoia Capital Partners, a private equity company headquartered in Menlo Park, raised $150 million to invest in Israeli technology companies. This was Sequoia’s second Israel-focused venture capital fund. Last year Sequoia raised its fifth Israel-dedicated fund, totaling $215 million. Since 1999 Sequoia Capital has injected over $789 million into Israel’s software and electronics industries. Much of this money managed by Sequoia Capital was contributed by California investors, including major tax-exempt institutions like the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Accel Venture Partners, another one of the giants of Silicon Valley private equity, set up its first Israel-focused investment vehicle in 2001. Joseph Shoendorf of Accel told the Haaretz newspaper in 2007 that Accel has invested over $200 million in 20 Israeli companies. He added that many of Accel’s investments in Israel are not the run-of-the-mill consumer apps and gadgets that are so popular in the Bay Area’s tech scene. Although Israeli engineers produce plenty of that, Shoendorf said, “the world’s security situation is expected to get worse, and as a result, inventiveness will increase. The armies of the world are seeking solutions to a problem, and will encourage technological answers.”  Last March, Accel successfully raised $475 million for a fund that will burn a lot of its powder supporting Israeli tech companies.

You’re starting to get the picture. Billions flow from California’s Bay Area into Israel to support chip manufacturers, Internet startups, and telecommunications companies.

A lot of California’s venture capital has been exported to Israel to fund military and cybersecurity startups. Israeli society, constantly mobilized for a counter-insurgency war and occupation, creates an environment in which the nation’s hi-tech firms see their main role as contributing to the security of the Jewish state.

But the U.S. tech industry is also steeped in surveillance and weapons companies, and even the big consumer and enterprise brands like Google, Microsoft, and Cisco produce militarized software and hardware for use in the “homeland” and abroad. The contributions of Hewlett Packard in creating Israel’s biometric tracking system to control the movements of Palestinians is well known. Hewlett Packard also maintains the Israel Defense Ministry’s server farms, a job IBM previously held.  What makes the California-Israel economic connection powerful, however, isn’t so much the nature of the technologies being traded, and the capabilities they provide the Israeli state and military, but more so the sheer economic value of these transactions.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Israel received $1.846 billion in direct investment from U.S. investors in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available. This is about two thirds of the total military aid the U.S. government provided Israel the same year.

U.S. investors have built up large positions in Israel’s economy, mostly through ownership of stock in Israeli corporations. In 2012 U.S. investors held a $19.7 billion stake in Israel’s economy, more than double the interest owned by all European countries combined. And corporations registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax shelter where thousands of American investors establish offshore funds, owned another $8.6 billion of Israel’s economy. For example, the Sequoia Capital Partners venture firm of Menlo Park raised $215 million last August to invest entirely in Israel. The legal place of incorporation for this fund? The Cayman Islands.

California investors own and manage stakes in Israeli companies like Mellanox Technologies, Ltd.. In 2002 Silicon Valley venture capital firms and several U.S. tech companies provided Mellanox with $64 million in funding. The American investors included three Menlo Park private equity firms, Sequoia Venture Partners, U.S. Venture Partners, and Bessemer Venture Partners, as well as technology giants IBM and Intel. Using this capital, Mellanox, headquartered in Yokneam, Israel, grew from a small company into a transnational technology giant valued today at $1.8 billion. It’s a key supplier of hardware to Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Intel. It’s main office in Yokneam looks like any other tech campus you can see in San Mateo County off the 101 Highway with gleaming glass mid-rise buildings tucked among trees and grass.

Yokneam is in the heart of Israel’s Silicon Wadi (“wadi” being a dry stream bed in Arabic, meaning “valley” in colloquial Hebrew). Prior to 1948 Yokneam was called Qira, the site of a Palestinian village and farms, but the area was “depopulated” and occupied by Israeli forces, and later settled and transformed into one of Israel’s most affluent cities.

Lots of Silicon Valley venture capital firms have set up offices in Israel. The location of choice for California investors seems to be Herzliya Pituach, a posh ocean side district of the city of Herliya. North of Tel Aviv, Herzliya is named after Theodor Herzl, considered by many to be the intellectual father of Zionism. The Herzliya Pituach is one of the wealthiest spots in all of Israel, home to many of the nation’s elite families. Bessemer Venture Partners’ Israel office is located just a few blocks from the Marinali Marina yacht harbor, and a short drive from million dollar beachfront homes. Sequoia Venture Partners maintain an office on Ramat Yam in one of the high rise towers with views of the azure Mediterranean Sea.

The business links between Silicon Valley and Israel aren’t apolitical. Many of California’s venture capital investors and technology executives are staunch supporters of pro-Israel causes. They have established numerous nonprofit organizations to strengthen economic and political ties between California and Israel.

The California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, located in Sunnyvale in an office park filled with software firms, is funded by Silicon Valley investors, corporations and law firms including Intel, Paypal, Silicon Valley Bank, and Morrison Foerster. Executives from these companies sit on the Chamber’s board of directors. Their ties to pro-Israel political groups are numerous.

Zvi Alon, a director of the California-Israel Chamber, runs a family foundation out of his Los Altos Hills home. Alongside a donation of $9,900 in 2011 to the California-Israel Chamber, Alon also made donations worth $36,000 to the Friends of Israeli Defense Forces. Alon is also credited as being a founder of Israel21C, an “online news magazine offering the single most diverse and reliable source of news and information about 21st century Israel to be found anywhere.”

Operating out of offices on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, across the Street from Israel’s consulate, Israel21C produces media promoting Israel’s technology companies. Recent articles published by the group include “20 top tech inventions born of conflict,” and a profile of the “maverick thinker” behind the creation of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. A recent film produced by the organization promotes Tel Aviv as a startup epicenter similar to San Francisco.

The General Consul of Israel in San Francisco, Andy David, is a board member of the California-Israel Chamber, as is the president of Silicon Valley Bank.

Nir Merry, another board member of the California-Israel Chamber, was born and partly raised in Israel in the Ma’agan Michael kibbutz. His father worked in a hidden underground ammunition factory making armaments used by Jewish commandoes in the battles that created the state of Israel. In a talk to students at the University of California, Santa Barabara, Merry elaborated on the links between Israel’s technology companies and its military.

“I volunteered to become a commando. It’s quite related to the topic of innovation,” said Merry. “Because to be a commando we have to be very innovative.”

Silicon Valley’s financial and technological assistance to Israel is by no means only a private sector effort. In March of 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to promote economic links between California and Israel. The setting for the signing ceremony, Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, underscored the centrality of the tech industry in the agreement.

On the same trip Netanyahu visited Apple’s Cupertino headquarters where he was ushered into the executive board room for a chat with the company’s leaders. He also toured Stanford University.

Netanyahu’s California appearance was designed to beat back the Palestinian solidarity movement’s boycott, divest and sanction campaigners who, in recent years, have increased pressure on California’s universities and other public institutions to divest from companies that do business with Israel. During the signing ceremony for the MOU that would give Israeli companies access to California’s technology infrastructure, Netanyahu thanked Governor Brown for California’s divestment from Iran. In 2012, California virtually barred insurance companies from owning Iranian assets. Earlier the state passed legislation requiring its pension funds to divest from Iranian companies. As a result of these laws, the state’s teachers retirement fund CalSTRS even consults with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee regarding its investments.

Netanyahu also thanked Brown for the economic benefits that California’s giant public employee pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, provide to Israel. Both are major investors in Israel’s economy.

The California-Israel MOU originated from California assembly member Bob Blumenfield’s office. Blumenfield, the sponsor and author of several Iran sanctions bills, is now a city council member in Los Angeles. Blumenfield is a staunch ally of Israel, and has used his political offices, from Sacramento to the state’s largest city, to strike back against the boycott, divest, sanction movement aimed against the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. Most recently Blumenfield organized LA’s top elected officials, including mayor Eric Garcetti, to make a public statement in support of Israel.

“We stand with Israel against a Hamas regime that terrorizes Israelis from the skies and now, from beneath the ground,” Blumenfield told the public.

Mayor Garcetti called Israel “our strongest ally in a tumultuous region.”

Palestinian solidarity activists inside Israel’s biggest economic and military partner, the United States, and inside one of its biggest investors, California, have struggled for years to build a boycott, divest and sanction movement. They’ve asked pension funds and universities to divest from companies that do business with the state of Israel, and they’ve asked academics and musicians to boycott Israel by canceling concerts and shunning conferences. They’ve had some success, but as California’s continuing links to Israel show, their task is a difficult one.

Their struggle will continue long after Zim’s ship pulls anchor and leaves Oakland’s harbor. Supporters of Israel will be working to strengthen California’s ties to their cause and prevent any economic protest movement from gaining traction. This coming October the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce will be hosting an international business summit at the Microsoft Campus in Mountain View where innovation and investment will be among the topics of discussion. And between now and then another six to eight Israeli vessels will probably also moor along Oakland’s waterfront trading millions in goods.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/

 

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/08/20/israels-most-important-source-of-capital-california/

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Multicultural Consumers Will Be Majority Of U.S. By 2043, Will Influence Music Trends

 

     According to current U.S. Census Bureau projections, the American consumer increasingly is a multicultural one. Since 1990, the share of the U.S. population that identifies itself as African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic has grown from 24% to 37%, and these groups are expected to make up a majority of the U.S. population by 2043. Hispanics currently account for 17% of the U.S. population, while African Americans make up 14% and Asian Americans total 5%. Looking at just those consumers under the age of 18, however, 2012 U.S. Census projections anticipate the minority-majority tipping point to arrive by 2018.

Against this demographic backdrop, a new report generated as part of Nielsen’s Diverse Intelligence Series titled “Listen Up: Music and the Multicultural Consumer” takes on added significance – particularly when it comes to music. The report notes that multicultural consumers account for 31% of the total spend on music and therefore is increasingly influencing the U.S. music market.

African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic consumers “represent the vanguard of musical trends in the U.S.,” the Nielsen report states. “They drive the development of musical taste and they’re readily adopting new ways of consuming music. So as this group of multicultural consumers continues to pioneer pathways of taste and adoption, companies interested in understanding the future of music would be well served to keep this growing demographic at the top of their engagement lists.”

 

New ASCAP, BMI Consent Decree Rules 

Could Place Pressure On Streaming Costs

 

     The last few months have seen a major push by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) to modify or eliminate the current “consent decree” structure that determines the rate a company must pay to broadcast or stream a song…or whether a song can be withheld from use entirely. A court decision last year found that neither rights group could selectively deny Pandora (or other streaming companies) the right to play certain works, leaving in place a structure that forces Pandora to pay a 1.85% royalty rate, while Apple’s iTunes Radio plays an industry-wide rate of 10%.

As reported by Wall Street Cheat Sheet, J.P. Morgan analyst Rod Hall says the changes would increase content costs for most music streaming platforms. “Upward pressure on streaming costs could be a negative for Apple’s newly acquired Beats Music unit,” wrote Hall in a research note. “Typically, attempting to pass this sort of cost increase through to customers after the low-price genie is out of the bottle is tough in a competitive environment.”

According to the Nielsen Entertainment & Billboard‘s 2014 Mid-Year Music Industry Report, the on-demand audio streaming market saw a year-over-year usage growth of 50.1%. Meanwhile, sales of digital albums declined by 11.6% and digital track sales fell by 13% over the same period. The motives behind ASCAP’s and BMI’s quest for changes in the rules are obvious, but the threat to Pandora and Apple are just as clear. As Cheat Sheet reports, “there’s no telling how high total royalty fees for all internet-based radio services could go.”

Consent Decree Battle Tied To Shift

From Analog To Digital Distribution

 

     “Without changes to the consent decree, ASCAP may face the complete resignation of certain of its largest music publisher members, a result that could be as damaging for music users as it could be for ASCAP and its remaining members. Without a robust collective licensing system, the increased cost of having to negotiate licenses with hundreds of thousands of individual copyright owners would likely be passed on to consumers and stymie the growth of innovative new services that would benefit consumer choice and experience.”

That, in part, is how ASCAP positioned its argument that the music licensing consent decree system be modified to allow for its members songwriters to negotiate with Pandora and other streaming services independently of the publishing organizations. But, as reported by the Nashville Tennessean, Pandora argues that if publishers are allowed to withdraw digital rights, it will lead to anticompetitive issues.

“The publishers and publishing rights organizations are frustrated by the extent to which the decrees fulfill their purpose,” Pandora claims in its own public comments. “More to the point, the PROs and publishers are unhappy because the consent decrees prevent them from implementing a scheme that has the purpose (and would have the effect) of raising prices across the board without regard to competitive constraints.”

In support of ASCAP and BMI, Nashville Songwriters Association International also got into the fray, issuing a statement saying, “Digital delivery models continue to evolve while more great American songwriters fall by the wayside. Nashville has lost 80% or more of those who claimed songwriting as a full-time occupation since the year 2000. This startling statistic alone demands changes in an antiquated royalty system.”

Vevo’s Label Owners Could Hamper Sale

 

     A number of potential suitors for Vevo have surfaced over the past few weeks, but many (if not all) of them might be turned off by one possibly insurmountable issue: the current owners. DreamWorks, AT&T, Yahoo, Verizon, Chernin Group, and Guggenheim Partners all have been linked to the acquisition, which is valued at somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion. But that price tag could be a stumbling block because Universal Music and Sony Music currently hold significant shares of the video streaming company and also control the licenses of much of the music that’s streamed.

As reported by Billboard, “The economics all depend on licenses from the major labels. If it’s sold, at what terms? The sellers can make Vevo look like it’s worth $1 billion or zero dollars…Whoever buys it will have to contend with the complications of dealing with rights holders.”

Music Ally points out that the same argument can be applied to Spotify, whose tires also are being kicked and which also is partly owned by the major labels. While license fees  didn’t stop Apple from paying $3 billion for to get its hands on Beats, the Cupertino-based company already has considerable experience dealing with rights holders (and subsequent complications). “Vevo will surely still find its backer eventually, but [this] is a reminder that while equity stakes make tempting golden geese for music rights-holders, they may still be perceived – within the tech/financial communities at least – as having the potential to scramble the golden eggs in the event of a lucrative exit,” Music Ally says.

Vevo Teams With Vadio To Launch Music

Video Service For Online Radio Services

 

Mobile Video      Music video website Vevo has formed a partnership with Vadio Inc. to distribute content through online radio services, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Radio. The Portland, OR-based start-up says it is looking to turn internet listeners into viewers by bringing Vevo’s 100,000-plus music videos to services hosted by Lachlan Murdoch’s Nova Entertainment and European Media Group. According to Vadio CEO Bryce Clemmer, the goal of the partnership is to help online radio services host music videos, which command higher advertising rates. Vevo’s videos and the ads that appear on them will provide additional revenue as competition for listeners grows from streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, he said.

“What we’re doing is taking any audio stream, something like iHeartRadio, Pandora, or Spotify, and evolving it to video,” Clemmer said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Most content delivered through services like Pandora is audio content, and that’s been very hard to monetize profitably.”

Vevo was founded in 2009 and is co-owned by Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Google. and Abu Dhabi Media Co. Vadio is backed by current and veteran entertainment executives, including former NBC Enterprises President Ed Wilson and Robin Richards, the former CEO of Vivendi Universal Net USA Group.

BlackBerry, 7digital “Re-Establish”

Shared Music Service Bond

 

     “I’m not dead yet.” That seems to be the latest (and ongoing) cry from BlackBerry, which this week inked another pact with 7digital to launch a new music service. The news comes after the Canadian smartphone manufacturer said it is shutting down the music and video sections of Blackberry World last month in lieu of a licensing deal with the eCommerce giant Amazon, giving its users access to the Amazon App Store. That announcement caused 7digital’s share prices to plunge…hence the $1 million attempt to “re-establish the shared bond” between the two companies.

In announcing the new deal, 7digital said users will have to make transitions to new music lockers within the next 12 months. The company also is developing a new app for BlackBerry users for them to continue purchasing music. Additionally, the digital music firm will take over the sales of music from BlackBerry, “retaining all profit margin earned on track sales,” which previously was shared by the two companies.

As reported by Techie News, 7digital CEO Simon Cole said the company is “pleased to have agreed to new terms with BlackBerry and to serve the customers with music access.”

 

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

 

Are We Out of Big Ideas?

http://geniussquared.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Plato-Socrates-Aristotle.png

“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid.

**

Here’s a tiny question. Are we idearupt? As in: bankrupt of great ideas?

Go ahead. Name me an “ism” that still works.

I’ll wait.

Conservatism? #LOL. Liberalism? #lol. Capitalism, or what’s left of it? Sure, maybe for billionaires. “Libertarianism”? I invite you to Mogadishu, good sir. Socialism…syndicalism…anarchism…mercantilism…revanchism…shit!!

Wait. What about…Bronyism?

Perhaps you see my point.

We’re living through a kind of implosion. Not just of institutions—that much is obvious. But a collapse of institutions that was detonated by an implosion.

Of ideas.

Yesterday’s ideas about how to organize societies and economies simply don’t work anymore.

And so we’re left in a vacuum. What’s a vacuum? A void. An emptiness. An absence. We’re out of good ideas about how societies, democracies, and economies should be organized and managed.

But not just “how”. More deeply, by whom—and why.

What’s the point, you often wonder. Of your life. Of the sheer goddamned futility of it all.

Working harder on stuff that doesn’t matter to buy junk you can’t afford to impress people you don’t like obeying the orders of robots programmed by assholes who’ve never read a book in their lives that oversee the entire economy purely for the production of “profit” not real things that actually benefit human lives which are getting poorer so they’re just one paycheck away from disaster…and even if you do somehow win the infernal contest of all the above, what’s the jackpot at the end of the rainbow? A life that’s totally meaningless in the first place.

What the fuck?

If you think all that’s…futile…you’re not wrong. You’re precisely right. It is. Yesterday’s great “isms” do not offer enough, to enough, for enough, from enough.

Whether it is “liberalism” or “conservatism”, the result is the same.

The middle class implodes; the rich grow incalculably richer; the poor are trampled. What’s the result? To pay for social services, the assets of the state are “privatized“; but they cannot do so for long. Eventually, ninety percent plus of people see their incomes stagnate; their wealth vanish; economies stall as people grow poorer. Society can no longer afford public goods, as tax bases dry up; public and private debts grow; and currencies are devalued. People’s lives go from prosperous and stable to precarious and impoverished in a generation or two.

See the pattern? The collapse of great ideas about to organize stuff isn’t merely…an idea. It’s reality.

Consider the twentieth century. The world created international law, international development, international trade, and international human rights. These were tremendous, astonishing human accomplishments. The kind that mankind might never have even dreamed of a few short centuries ago.

And now? What do we consider “great ideas”? Cruising to your less-than-minimum-wage temp gig at a robo-warehouse in your self-driving car share checking how many “friends” Spot made on the latest doggy dating app hoping you got another heart on yours?

Those aren’t great ideas. They’re clever businesses, and for that we should applaud them. But we must recognize. You can’t Tinder your way to a better world. You can’t even Tinder your way to a life worth living.

All the great “isms” are winking out. And so. The world is starting to burn. Nations are fracturing. Social contracts are being torn apart. In most of the world’s richest nations, not one but two generations will be lost. The global economy is stagnating.

And already from that witches cauldron is rising the smoke. Of violence, animosity, extremism, hatred. Which will eventually, if the fire is left untended, kindle into a wildfire of war.

All this is not inevitable. Yet. But it is predictable. For a single, simple reason.

We no longer have ideas powerful enough to organize the world. Yesterday’s “isms” are vanishing. And in their place is left a vacuum.

Here’s the catch.

You.

You probably believe that something always fills a vacuum. For you’ve been trained to be an obedient believer in progress; in advancement; in growth; in efficiency; in spontaneous order; in self-organization; in automaticity; in manifest destiny; and in all that’s inevitability.

In other words, you’re a True Believer in…the Big Idea: the idea of the progress of ideas.

Something always fills a vacuum, right? A bigger, better idea?

Wrong.

Sometimes, nothing does. For a very long while.

Sometimes, there is no progress of ideas.

Sometimes the darkness stays. And lasts. And deepens. Into an endless, frozen midnight. An abyss of collapsing ideas; from which mankind must escape.

We call those times Dark Ages. And my worry is that we’re stumbling headlong into one.

**

“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid. “We must pray!”, he shouted, angrily.

“Pray?”, the villagers muttered to themselves, confused. “To whom?”

“To the Gods”, the Priest whispered.

“But the Gods are dead”, the Chief protested.

“Who do you think killed them?”, the Priest demanded.

“Gods who were more powerful still. And it is to them we must pray”.

“New Gods! But who are they?”, the villagers asked one another, astonished, anxious, afraid.

“They will reveal themselves. But only if our prayers prove worthy. Come. Let us pray!”, the Priest commanded.

“We are saved!”, cried the villagers.

“Glory!”, cried the Chief.

The Priest smiled.

He raised his hands to the heavens; and they all bowed beneath the perfect sky the new Gods hid behind.

The sun rose high. There was not a cloud to be seen.

It was how every Dark Age begins.

View story at Medium.com

BLOGGER COMMENT:  The “big ideas” of today are silly multimillion dollar phone apps and dumping ice cubes on your head in front of the new Audi.

I recall having many conversations like this in the Sixties. I’m happy there are those beginning to question the status quo in the 21st century.  Perhaps one might begin by looking back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates…

What Facebook doesn’t show you

BLOGGER COMMENT:  Interaction with your FB “friends” is relatively insignificant. So what’s the point of “social media?” Data gathering for corporations. Certainly not socializing…
August 18

When you spend a day with something that knows you in ways you don’t know yourself, you learn that maybe you aren’t quite as interested in the things you think you are.

Here’s what I learned about myself: It seems I don’t much care about my hometown or the people in it, I’m far more interested in feminist blogs than I am in technology or sports, I’m still hung up on New York after moving away last spring, and I’m apparently very interested in the goings on of someone I worked with at Pizza Hut when I was 16.

What was the source of these revelatory, self-image-shifting facts? The same place you probably went when you got to work this morning: Facebook, which we can’t stop feeding, and obsessively tracks our every online movement.

Over the course of five or six hours on July 17, I pored over my News Feed, endlessly scrolling and refreshing until every piece of content that appeared was a repeat. I cataloged each post, totaling 1,417 status updates, photos, links, Likes, event RSVP’s and more, creating an assortment of everything Facebook thinks I care about.

But for all those link shares and wall posts, I still wasn’t sure exactly why I was seeing what I was seeing, or if I was even seeing what I wanted to see. (A Pizza Hut co-worker? Really?) So I went through my whole Facebook network – all of my 403 friends and the 157 Pages I Like – and recorded every single thing they posted on July 17.

Spoiler: My News Feed showed me only a fraction of my network’s total activity, most of what it showed me was old, and what I was shown was often jarringly unexpected.

Facebook says roughly one in seven people on the planet log in at least once a month. And yet, how News Feed works remains bafflingly opaque, like a secret box of technology, algorithms and magic that remains one of tech’s bigger mysteries. An entire consulting industry is built around trying to game it (think SEO for Google), and publishers invest enormous amounts of energy into succeeding on it, but as soon as people start to figure it out Facebook tweaks its secret recipe and everything goes out the window.

What we know is this: The more popular a piece of content posted in your network becomes, the more likely it is to spill into your News Feed; and the friends and Pages you interact most with are the ones you’ll see most frequently, according to Justin Lafferty, editor of InsideFacebook.com.

“Mark Zuckerberg wants News Feed to be like a newspaper,” he said. “The top stories are curated based on relevancy and the user’s connection to that page or friend,” he said, adding that like a printed newspaper or magazine, older stories can still be germane.

But beyond that, not much is known, and the further you dig into what Facebook thinks about you, the more odd things can get.

For example: I lived in Denver until I was 20 and still consider it home. Throughout my day on Facebook, I didn’t see a single story from The Denver Post, despite that Page posting 17 pieces of unique content. The same was true for Westword, a Denver alt-weekly I used to read religiously; a handful of local TV news stations I Like; and high school friends, acquaintances and even people I still consider close friends who live there. Do I not care about my home as much as I thought? Despite letting Facebook track me basically wherever and whenever it wants to, it still doesn’t think I’m interested in Denver or what goes on there?

On the other hand, women-oriented blogs such as Jezebel, Refinery29 and The Cut at times dominated my News Feed, with a whopping 40 posts between them appearing. The Verge, which I thought was among my favorite blogs, barely showed up.

And even as I was doing my experiment, I could see subtle shifts in what appeared, which, in turn, perhaps changes who Facebook thinks I am. Status updates from those same high school friends I hadn’t interacted with in years suddenly started popping up toward the end of the day. The same went for Pages I liked long ago and forgot about, and parties in New York I wasn’t invited to but saw close friends RSVP to.

The day had become an oddly pointed reminder of a past I don’t seem to care about, and a distressing collection of everything I’m missing out on today.

By midnight, after almost six hours of scrolling, refreshing and note-taking throughout the day, I had consumed 1,417 unique events. Posts from July 17 became rare as older posts crept in, and eventually everything I was seeing in my News Feed I had seen before. I had exhausted my well of Facebook content, I thought – a triumph! I had conquered Facebook!

Well, no: I wasn’t even close. After going back to record every single event that happened in my entire network on July 17, I saw that 2,593 pieces of new content had been produced. I saw 738 of them, or about 29%. The other 679 posts that appeared in my News Feed were old news by the time I saw them, sometimes by more than two days.

So that means that after doing everything possible to see all of the activity in my network, I saw less than third of it. Considering the average U.S. user spends around 40 minutes on Facebook per day – or about one-tenth of the time I spent in my News Feed – it’s easy to imagine that percentage dipping far, far below my 29%.

But that might be the point.

Greg Marra, a product manager on News Feed at Facebook, told me that it is fundamentally a reflection of the user and his or her interests.

“News Feed is made by you,” Marra said. “It tries to show the most interesting things possible for you, it’s a very personalized system,” he said, adding, “We try to let users take control.”

Marra said there are countless signals that tell Facebook what to pump into a person’s News Feed, including relationships with other users, the topic of content in a given link, how long a user spends reading a story he or she found though Facebook, if and how many times X user visits Y user’s profile, friends’ activity on a certain post, all of our previous activity and more.

“We learn based on what you’ve done in the past,” Marra said. “And we try to quickly learn about the things that you’re interested in.”

(Remember that Facebook’s learning can sometimes result in disastrous PR.)

So after a full day spent on Facebook, what was I left with? In the end, not much. A heap of work for myself to complete this story; a still-muddled understanding of how News Feed works; and a slightly different view of what I think I care about.

Fittingly enough: The final post I saw on my Endless Day of Facebook was a status update about a flash flood warning that was more than 40 hours old.

It was for Denver.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/08/18/what-facebook-doesnt-show-you/?Post+generic=%3Ftid%3Dsm_twitter_washingtonpost

 

Cell Phone Guide For US Protesters, Updated 2014 Edition

August 15, 2014 | By Eva Galperin and Parker Higgins

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With major protests in the news again, we decided it’s time to update our cell phone guide for protestors. A lot has changed since we last published this report in 2011, for better and for worse. On the one hand, we’ve learned more about the massive volume of law enforcement requests for cell phone—ranging from location information to actual content—and widespread use of dedicated cell phone surveillance technologies. On the other hand, strong Supreme Court opinions have eliminated any ambiguity about the unconstitutionality of warrantless searches of phones incident to arrest, and a growing national consensus says location data, too, is private.

Protesters want to be able to communicate, to document the protests, and to share photos and video with the world. So they’ll be carrying phones, and they’ll face a complex set of considerations about the privacy of the data those phones hold. We hope this guide can help answer some questions about how to best protect that data, and what rights protesters have in the face of police demands.

Before The Protest

Think carefully about what’s on your phone. When we last visited this question, law enforcement in many states were arguing that they could search the contents of a phone incident to arrest without a warrant. Today, thanks to the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California, that’s no longer the case. Still, if you can avoid carrying sensitive data, you don’t have to worry about it getting pulled off the phone. That can include photos, your address book, application data, and more. If you don’t need it for the protest, consider removing it for the duration.

If you have access to a temporary phone with only the essentials, that might be a better option. Modern smartphones record all sorts of data, and there may be overlooked sources of sensitive information.

Password protect your phone. Password protection can guard your phone from casual searches, but it can still be circumvented by law enforcement or other sophisticated adversaries.

Start using encrypted communications channels. Text messages, as a rule, can be read and stored by your phone company or by surveillance equipment in the area. If you and your friends can get comfortable with encrypted communications channels in advance, that can keep prying eyes off your texts while they’re in transit.

Direct messages through social media may be encrypted while in transit, but can be subject to subpoenas from law enforcement. You may wish to explore end-to-end encrypted options, like Whisper Systems’s TextSecure,1 Guardian Project’s mobile IM software ChatSecure, or the mobile version of Cryptocat, which only store the contents of your communications in an encrypted, unreadable form.

End-to-end encryption does not protect your meta-data. In other words, using end-to-end encrypted communications will keep law enforcement from being able to read the contents of your messages, but they will still be able to see who you’re talking to and when you’re talking to them.

At The Protest

Keep control of your phone. You may wish to keep the phone on you at all times, or hand it over to a trusted friend if you are engaging in action that you think might lead to your arrest. In any case, you can set the lock screen to turn on quickly, so that if you do lose control of your phone, nobody else gets access easily.

Take pictures and video of the scene. As the ACLU says in a recent Know Your Rights guide, “Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop law enforcement officers from occasionally demanding that protesters stop doing exactly that.

If you’re planning to document the protest, you should read the whole guide ahead of time. There are special considerations for videotaping, too, so make sure to brush up on that if you plan to be recording video.

Finally, you may wish to explore options that upload directly to another server. Livestreaming sites, and even social media services, can make sure photos and videos get online before law enforcement officers have a chance to delete them.

Help, I’m being arrested!

You have a right to remain silent—about your phone and anything else. If questioned by police, you can politely but firmly decline to answer and ask to speak to your attorney.

If the police ask to see your phone, tell them you do not consent to the search of your device. Again, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley, there is little question that officers need a warrant to access the contents of your phone incident to arrest, though they may be able to seize the phone and get a warrant later.

As we said in the last guide, if the police ask for the password to your electronic device you can politely refuse to provide it and ask to speak to your lawyer. Every arrest situation is different, and you will need an attorney to help you sort through your particular circumstance. Note that just because the police cannot compel you to give up your password, that doesn’t mean that they can’t pressure you. The police may detain you and you may go to jail rather than being immediately released if they think you’re refusing to be cooperative. You will need to decide whether to comply.

OK, now how do I get my phone back?

If your phone or electronic device was seized, and is not promptly returned when you are released, you can file a motion with the court to have your property returned. If the police believe that evidence of a crime is on your electronic device, including in your photos or videos, the police can keep it as evidence. They may also attempt to make you forfeit your electronic device, but you can challenge that in court.

Increasingly, we keep our most sensitive communications and personal information on our cell phones. We carry in our pockets these devices that can tremendously enhance our ability to exercise our First Amendment rights, but which also carry serious privacy risks. We hope that with these tips in mind, you can take the necessary precautions with your digital technology.

Last updated August 2014.

  • 1. Currently Android-only, but with iPhone support on the way

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2014/08/cell-phone-guide-protesters-updated-2014-edition

The Carnage of Capitalism



Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Photo Credit: JoeBakal/Shutterstock.com

Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Milton Friedman said in 1980: “The free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people.” The father of the modern neoliberal movementcouldn’t have been more wrong. Inequality has been growing for 35 years, worsening since the 2008 recession, as a few well-positioned Americans have made millions while the rest of us have gained almost nothing. Now, our college students and medicine-dependent seniors have become the source of new riches for the profitseeking free-marketers.

Higher Education: Administrators Get Most of the Money

College grads took a 19 percent pay cut in the two years after the recession. By 2013 over half of employed black recent college graduates were working in occupations that typically do not require a four-year college degree. For those still in school, tuition has risen much faster than any other living expense, and the average student loan balance has risen 91 percent over the past ten years.

At the other extreme is the winner-take-all free-market version of education, with a steady flow of compensation towards the top. Remarkably, and not coincidentally, as inequality has surged since the 1980s, the number of administrators at private universities has doubled. Administrators now outnumber faculty on every campusacross the country.

These administrators are taking the big money. As detailed by Lawrence Wittner, the 25 highest-paid presidents increased their salaries by a third between 2009 and 2012, to nearly a million dollars each. For every million-dollar public university president in 2011, there were fourteen such presidents at private universities, and dozens of lower-level administrators aspiring to be paid like their bosses. At Purdue, for example, the 2012 administrative ranks included a $313,000-a-year acting provost, a $198,000 chief diversity officer, a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief.

All this money at the top has to come from somewhere, and that means from faculty and students. Adjunct and student teachers, who made up about 22 percent of instructional staff in 1969, now make up an estimated 76 percent of instructional staff in higher education, with a median wage in 2010 of about $2,700 per course. More administrative money comes from tuition, which has increased by over 1,000 percent since 1978.

At the for-profit colleges, according to a Senate report on 2009 expenses, education companies spent about 23 percent of all revenue on marketing and advertising, and almost 20 percent of revenue on pre-tax profits for their shareholders. They spent just 17.2 percent of their revenue on instruction.

Medicine: A 10,000 Percent Profit for Corporations

As with education, the extremes forced upon us by free-market health care are nearly beyond belief. First, at the human end, 43 percent of sick Americans skipped doctor’s visits and/or medication purchases in 2011 because of excessive costs. It’s estimatedthat over 40,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance.

At the corporate end, drugmakers are at times getting up to $100 for every $1 spent. That’s true at Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of the drug Sovaldi, which charges about $10 a pill to its customers in Egypt, then comes home to charge $1,000 a pill to its American customers. The 10,000 percent profit is also true with the increasingly lucrative, government-funded Human Genome Project, which is estimated to potentially return about $140 for every $1 spent. Big business is quickly making its move. Celera GenomicsAbbott LabsMerckRocheBristol-Myers Squibb, andPfizer are all starting to cash in.

The extremes of capitalist greed are evident in the corporate lobbying of Congress to keep Medicare from negotiating better drug prices for the American consumer. Americans are cheated further when corporations pay off generic drug manufacturers to delay entry of their products into the market, thereby ensuring inflated profits for the big firms for the durations of their shady deals.

Global Greed

Lives are being ravaged by unregulated, free-market capitalism, in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Global Forum for Health Research, less than 10 percent of the global health research budget is spent on the conditions responsible for 90 percent of human disease.

And the greed is getting worse. Perhaps it’s our irrational fear of socialism, peaking in the years after World War 2, that has inspired our winner-take-all culture. In the Reagan era we listened to Margaret Thatcher proclaim that “There is no such thing as society.”

In a more socially-conscious time, in 1955, after Dr. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine, he was asked by reporter Edward R. Murrow: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Responded Salk, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

A free-market capitalist might remind us that a skillful hedge fund manager can make as much as a thousand Jonas Salks.

 

Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org and RappingHistory.org, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/carnage-capitalism?akid=12138.265072.pC6w-o&rd=1&src=newsletter1015885&t=13&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted

I used to be able to read for hours without digital interruption. Now? That’s just funny. I want my focus back!

"War and Peace" tortured me: Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted
This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence”

I’m enough of a distraction addict that a low-level ambient guilt about not getting my real work done hovers around me for most of the day. And this distractible quality in me pervades every part of my life. The distractions—What am I making for dinner?, Who was that woman in “Fargo”?, or, quite commonly, What else should I be reading?—are invariably things that can wait. What, I wonder, would I be capable of doing if I weren’t constantly worrying about what I ought to be doing?

And who is this frumpy thirty-something man who has tried to read “War and Peace” five times, never making it past the garden gate? I took the tome down from the shelf this morning and frowned again at those sad little dog-ears near the fifty-page mark.

Are the luxuries of time on which deep reading is reliant available to us anymore? Even the attention we deign to give to our distractions, those frissons, is narrowing.

It’s important to note this slippage. As a child, I would read for hours in bed without the possibility of a single digital interruption. Even the phone (which was anchored by wires to the kitchen wall downstairs) was generally mute after dinner. Our two hours of permitted television would come to an end, and I would seek out the solitary refuge of a novel. And deep reading (as opposed to reading a Tumblr feed) was a true refuge. What I liked best about that absorbing act was the fact books became a world unto themselves, one that I (an otherwise powerless kid) had some control over. There was a childish pleasure in holding the mysterious object in my hands; in preparing for the story’s finale by monitoring what Austen called a “tell-tale compression of the pages”; in proceeding through some perfect sequence of plot points that bested by far the awkward happenstance of real life.

The physical book, held, knowable, became a small mental apartment I could have dominion over, something that was alive because of my attention and then lived in me.

But now . . . that thankful retreat, where my child-self could become so lost, seems unavailable to me. Today there is no room in my house, no block in my city, where I am unreachable.

Eventually, if we start giving them a chance, moments of absence reappear, and we can pick them up if we like. One appeared this morning, when my partner flew to Paris. He’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss him, but this is also my big break.



I’ve taken “War and Peace” back down off the shelf. It’s sitting beside my computer as I write these lines—accusatory as some attention-starved pet.

You and me, old friend. You, me, and two weeks. I open the book, I shut the book, and I open the book again. The ink swirls up at me. This is hard. Why is this so hard?

* * *

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a friendly professor at Iowa State University, recently commiserated with me about my pathetic attention span. “It’s me, too, of course,” he said. “When I try to write a paper, I can’t keep from checking my e-mail every five minutes. Even though I know it’s actually making me less productive.” This failing is especially worrying for Gentile because he happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the effects of media on the brains of the young. “I know, I know! I know all the research on multitasking. I can tell you absolutely that everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We know that in fact it’s those who think they’re good at multitasking who are the least productive when they multitask.”

The brain itself is not, whatever we may like to believe, a multitasking device. And that is where our problem begins. Your brain does a certain amount of parallel processing in order to synthesize auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around you, but the brain’s attention is itself only a spotlight, capable of shining on one thing at a time. So the very word multitask is a misnomer. There is rapid-shifting minitasking, there is lame-spasms-of-effort-tasking, but there is, alas, no such thing as multitasking. “When we think we’re multitasking,” says Gentile, “we’re actually multiswitching.”

We can hardly blame ourselves for being enraptured by the promise of multitasking, though. Computers—like televisions before them—tap into a very basic brain function called an “orienting response.” Orienting responses served us well in the wilderness of our species’ early years. When the light changes in your peripheral vision, you must look at it because that could be the shadow of something that’s about to eat you. If a twig snaps behind you, ditto. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.

Gentile believes it’s time for a renaissance in our understanding of mental health. To begin with, just as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.

* * *

It’s not merely difficult at first. It’s torture. I slump into the book, reread sentences, entire paragraphs. I get through two pages and then stop to check my e-mail—and down the rabbit hole I go. After all, one does not read “War and Peace” so much as suffer through it. It doesn’t help that the world at large, being so divorced from such pursuits, is often aggressive toward those who drop away into single-subject attention wells. People don’t like it when you read “War and Peace.” It’s too long, too boring, not worth the effort. And you’re elitist for trying.

In order to finish the thing in the two weeks I have allotted myself, I must read one hundred pages each day without fail. If something distracts me from my day’s reading—a friend in the hospital, a magazine assignment, sunshine—I must read two hundred pages on the following day. I’ve read at this pace before, in my university days, but that was years ago and I’ve been steadily down-training my brain ever since.

* * *

Another week has passed—my “War and Peace” struggle continues. I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Only this morning I watched a boy break down crying on “X Factor,” then regain his courage and belt out a half-decent rendition of  Beyoncé’s “Listen”; next I looked up the original Beyoncé video and played it twice while reading the first few paragraphs of a story about the humanity of child soldiers; then I switched to a Nina Simone playlist prepared for me by Songza, which played while I flipped through a slide show of American soldiers seeing their dogs for the first time in years; and so on, ad nauseam. Until I shook I out of this funk and tried to remember what I’d sat down to work on in the first place.

* * *

If I’m to break from our culture of distraction, I’m going to need practical advice, not just depressing statistics. To that end, I switch gears and decide to stop talking to scientists for a while; I need to talk to someone who deals with attention and productivity in the so-called real world. Someone with a big smile and tailored suits such as organizational guru Peter Bregman. He runs a global consulting firm that gets CEOs to unleash the potential of their workers, and he’s also the author of the acclaimed business book 18 Minutes, which counsels readers to take a minute out of every work hour (plus five minutes at the start and end of the day) to do nothing but set an intention.

Bregman told me he sets his watch to beep every hour as a reminder that it’s time to right his course again. Aside from the intention setting, Bregman counsels no more than three e-mail check-ins a day. This notion of batch processing was anathema to someone like me, used to checking my in-box so constantly, particularly when my work feels stuck. “It’s incredibly inefficient to switch back and forth,” said Bregman, echoing every scientist I’d spoken to on multitasking. “Besides, e-mail is, actually, just about the least efficient mode of conversation you can have. And what we know about multitasking is that, frankly, you can’t. You just derail.”

“I just always feel I’m missing something important,” I said. “And that’s precisely why we lose hours every day, that fear.” Bregman argues that it’s people who can get ahead of that fear who end up excelling in the business world that he spends his own days in. “I think everyone is more distractible today than we used to be. It’s a very hard thing to fix. And as people become more distracted, we know they’re actually doing less, getting less done. Your efforts just leak out. And those who aren’t—aren’t leaking—are going to be the most successful.”

I hate that I leak. But there’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world. We don’t know that the inbox is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,” Bregman suggested as I told him about my flitting ways. And that made me think there might be a connection between the responsibility-free days of my youth and that earlier self’s ability to concentrate. My young self had nowhere else to be, no permanent anxiety nagging at his conscience. Could I return to that sense of ease? Could I simply be where I was and not seek out a shifting plurality to fill up my time?

* * *

It happened softly and without my really noticing.

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind. Moments of total absence began to take hold more often; I remembered what it was like to be lost entirely in a well-spun narrative. There was the scene where Anna Mikhailovna begs so pitifully for a little money, hoping to send her son to war properly dressed. And there were, increasingly, more like it. More moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed. A “causeless springtime feeling of joy” overtakes Prince Andrei; a tearful Pierre sees in a comet his last shimmering hope; Emperor Napoleon takes his troops into the heart of Russia, oblivious to the coming winter that will destroy them all…

It takes a week or so for withdrawal symptoms to work through a heroin addict’s body. While I wouldn’t pretend to compare severity here, doubtless we need patience, too, when we deprive ourselves of the manic digital distractions we’ve grown addicted to.

That’s how it was with my Tolstoy and me. The periods without distraction grew longer, I settled into the sofa and couldn’t hear the phone, couldn’t hear the ghost-buzz of something else to do. I’m teaching myself to slip away from the world again.

* * *

Yesterday I fell asleep on the sofa with a few dozen pages of “War and Peace” to go. I could hear my cell phone buzzing from its perch on top of the piano. I saw the glowing green eye of my Cyclops modem as it broadcast potential distraction all around. But on I went past the turgid military campaigns and past the fretting of Russian princesses, until sleep finally claimed me and my head, exhausted, dreamed of nothing at all. This morning I finished the thing at last. The clean edges of its thirteen hundred pages have been ruffled down into a paper cabbage, the cover is pilled from the time I dropped it in the bath. Holding the thing aloft, trophy style, I notice the book is slightly larger than it was before I read it.

It’s only after the book is laid down, and I’ve quietly showered and shaved, that I realize I haven’t checked my e-mail today. The thought of that duty comes down on me like an anvil.

Instead, I lie back on the sofa and think some more about my favorite reader Milton – about his own anxieties around reading. By the mid-1650s, he had suffered that larger removal from the crowds, he had lost his vision entirely and could not read at all—at least not with his own eyes. From within this new solitude, he worried that he could no longer meet his potential. One sonnet, written shortly after the loss of his vision, begins:

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, and that one Talent

which is death to hide Lodged with me useless . . .

Yet from that position, in the greatest of caves, he began producing his greatest work. The epic “Paradise Lost,” a totemic feat of concentration, was dictated to aides, including his three daughters.

Milton already knew, after all, the great value in removing himself from the rush of the world, so perhaps those anxieties around his blindness never had a hope of dominating his mind. I, on the other hand, and all my peers, must make a constant study of concentration itself. I slot my ragged “War and Peace” back on the shelf. It left its marks on me the same way I left my marks on it (I feel awake as a man dragged across barnacles on the bottom of some ocean). I think: This is where I was most alive, most happy. How did I go from loving that absence to being tortured by it? How can I learn to love that absence again?

This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris, published by Current / Penguin Random House.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/17/war_and_peace_tortured_me_facebook_email_and_the_neuroscience_of_always_being_distracted/?source=newsletter

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