The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

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Written by

Jordan Pearson

September 1, 2014 // 12:40 PM EST

You’ve seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they’re going to take our jobs. The future really doesn’t look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world’s jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn’t necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn’t do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

Image: Mixabest/Wikimedia

The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called “The Fragment on Machines.”

Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In “The Fragment,” Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what’s called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren’t the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.

Once robots take over society’s productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will “redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation,” Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns.

It’s a familiar sentiment that has gained new traction in recent years thanks to robots being in vogue, but we only have to look to the recent past to know that things didn’t exactly work out that way. Capitalism is very much alive and well, despite automation’s steady march towards ascendancy over the centuries. The reason is this: automation doesn’t disrupt capitalism. It’s an integral part of the system.

What we understand as “work” has morphed to accommodate its advancement. There is no reason to assume that this will change just because automation is ramping up to sci-fi speed.

To paraphrase John Tomlinson in his analysis of technology, speed, and capitalism in The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, no idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than “time is money”. If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):

The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital… employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.

“Not immediately productive” is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You’re not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a philosopher of labour and technology, explained it thusly in his book Precarious Rhapsody, referring to the legions of over worked part-time or no-timers as the “precariat”:

The word ‘precariat’ generally stands for the area of work that is no longer definable by fixed rules relative to the labor relation, to salary and to the length of the working day [...] Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers [...] The time of work is fractalized, that is, reduced to minimal fragments that can be reassembled, and the fractalization makes it possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.

Online labour is especially applicable to this description of the new definition of work. For example, work that increasingly depends on emails, instant correspondence across time zones, and devices that otherwise bring work home from the office in any number of ways, creates a mental environment where time is no longer marked into firm blocks.

Indeed, the “work day” is all day, every day, and time is now a far more fluid concept than before. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, on which low-income workers sell their time performing menial creative tasks for pennies per hour, is a particularly dystopic example of this.

A radically different form of work is that of providing personal data for profit. This online data work is particularly insidious for two main reasons. First, because it is often not recognized as work at all. You might not think that messaging a pal about your new pair of headphones is work, but labour theorists like Maurizio Lazzarato disagree. Second, because workers are completely cut out of the data profit loop, although that may be changing.

Image: ProducerMatthew/Wikimedia

These points, taken together, paint a pretty dismal picture of the future of humans living with robotic labour under capitalism. It’s likely that we’ll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?

In my opinion, being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There’s no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what’s needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.

Some people are already working toward this. The basic income movement, which calls for a minimum salary to be paid out to every living human regardless of employment status, is a good start, because it implies a significant departure from the purely economic language of austerity in political thought and argues for a basic income for the salient reason that we’re human and we deserve to live. However, if we really want to change the way things are headed, more will be needed.

At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-future-of-robot-labour-has-everything-to-do-with-capitalism

David Lowery: Here’s how Pandora is destroying musici

 Cracker and Camper van Beethoven’s David Lowery tells Salon how streaming services might end true avant garde music

David Lowery: Here's how Pandora is destroying musicians
David Lowery (Credit: davidlowerymusic.com/Jason Thrasher)

David Lowery has become both beloved and notorious over the last year as one of the musicians most critical of the ways musicians are paid in the digital era. The Camper van Beethoven and Cracker singer brings an artist’s rage and a quant’s detached rigor to his analysis of the music business.

He’s currently fired up about a federal lawsuit filed in New York in which several record labels have sued Pandora (and before that, Sirius FM) for neglecting to pay royalties for songs recorded before Feb. 15, 1972. Here’s how Billboard summarizes the suit: “The labels say both digital music services take advantage of a copyright loophole, since the master recording for copyright wasn’t created federally until 1972. … But the labels claim that their master recordings are protected by individual state copyright laws and therefore deserve royalty payments.”

Lowery thinks the loophole provides a way for Pandora to simply not pay older musicians for their work — while profiting from it themselves. The case could get bigger and change in strange ways, with broad implications.

And he’s similarly frustrated with the rise of streaming services, which are in part owned by the major labels. “For us, it’s the worst-case scenario,” he says. “The old boss and the new boss have joined hands, they’re singing ‘Kumbaya,’ and they’ve changed the words to, ‘Fuck the songwriters! Fuck the performers!’ ”

We spoke to Lowery from a studio in Wisconsin, where he was recording a new Cracker record.

There’s a sort of complicated and technical case in New York right now, involving musicians’ royalties from before 1972: It’s a lawsuit that the general public doesn’t know that much about, but it’s important for musicians, especially for older musicians. Tell us what’s going on.

Back in 1971, there was a series of legislative actions. Before 1972, copyrights for the sound recording weren’t federal, they were [handled at the state level]. So we had some copyright reforms in the ‘70s, which adjusts for technology and things like that. They basically created a federal copyright for sound recordings. And for many, many years people just had assumed — and many of these services had acted as if — the intention of the act was to federalize all sound recordings, not really making a distinction in 1972. But somehow, in the last few years, probably starting in 2009, a few of the digital services have decided that there is no federal copyright for sound recordings created before 1972 — so they’ve just stopped paying these artists.



That includes a lot of legacy artists, like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin — the writer and main performer of “Respect.” So you have these services that — not all of them, but some of them — just decided that they weren’t going to pay royalties on this. The general public might look at this and go, “This is just companies, and this is how they work, and they try to save money, and so they’re just doing what they can do.”

“They’re just doing what corporations always do.”

They’re just trying to minimize their expenses and stuff like that … But if you really look at this, you’ll see that it’s much, much more complicated than that. They’re making a very weird argument, right? Because ultimately, they lose either way.

The digital services, so Pandora, Sirius, Clear Channel, Digital Operations, whatever they may be. It’s not really clear — it’s definitely Sirius and Pandora — but it’s not really clear which other ones are there. But it’s a strange argument because they lose either way. Because if it’s not covered by federal law then it’s covered by state law. So if they win, and it’s covered by state law and suddenly these very large companies need a license from each individual state, essentially. Which would require them to negotiate with each copyright owner individually. And so there are a lot of people scratching their heads on this one, because why would they pursue a strategy like this? They lose either way. And they could lose really big on this.

So you look at this stuff and like a lot of things that happen with companies that are Wall Street-backed, there’s an incentive to keep the stock price high. And certainly in the case of Pandora — they’re kind of my bête noire, but you know, I feel like they deserve it — but you wonder if a lot of the time these kind of moves, they’re just sort of designed to keep the stock price high in the short-term. And in the long-term they’re creating these enormous liabilities that will just … They’re not only screwing song owners, to me this is one of the most important issues that I’ve come across since I’ve been advocating for artists’ rights. Because it ends up not only screwing songwriters but it could create these huge liabilities that ultimately cost pensions, and little old ladies their savings and stuff like that.

You say it could contribute to these digital-music companies collapsing? Because there’s been a lot of speculation that webcasters don’t have the business model that allows them to earn profits. There’s been speculation that they won’t be around along despite the conventional wisdom that they are saving the music business.

Exactly, and that’s kind of what I’m getting at; in a way, this is much bigger than songwriters’ rights. They don’t really win either way, in my opinion. I mean, yeah, it’s possible that they eke out some kind of financial advantage, but if federal law did not federalize sound recording copyrights, then we revert to state law. And that’s going to be a nightmare for everybody; it’s going to be a nightmare for artists, even your old AM/FM radio station.

Another funny thing: We are one of the only democracies in the modern world that doesn’t pay royalties to performers on terrestrial radio. We’re one of six countries in the world, and the only modern democracy, that doesn’t pay performers royalties for getting played on the radio. I’m a songwriter, too, so I get royalties as a songwriter, but I don’t necessarily get royalties as a performer for terrestrial radio. Anyway, to me, this is just corporate sleaziness. It’s, “We’re going to fight this case that we’re going to lose, to basically save 6 or 10 percent of our expenses, and stick our shareholders, possibly, with these huge liabilities down the road.” Because if they create the situation by which they do not have the copyrights for thousands of songs that they’re streaming, theoretically, they could be charged $150,000 in damages each time it plays one of these songs. So that’s the story that goes all the way down in the weeds of what is going on.

You’re saying this could be a real time bomb.

Yes.

Let’s go back to the artists for a second. I think a lot of consumers might look at this and say, “Well, the Beatles and the Stones don’t need more royalties, and Otis Redding is dead. Why does this matter? Who’s really going to suffer if just songs from before 1972 don’t produce royalties for the artists?”

Well, yeah, that’s what Chris Harrison from Pandora said. I think he said something like that, “These people never expected to get royalties.” I mean, really? Plenty of those artists are not rich, you know? I just saw Wanda Jackson play —she’s almost 80 and she’s out touring. And she made these iconic rock ‘n’ roll recordings.

Some of the first rockabilly records.

I mean, if Pandora is going to stream these things and if Sirius is going to broadcast these things, why shouldn’t they get paid? We’re America, we’re a fair country. We’re not a country like China, where we just go, “Here’s a politically well-connected elite, we’re just going to hand them the rights to something that somebody created.” Just so the politically well-connected can get richer. It’s really funny to me — look, I’m not really a lefty or liberal, I’m basically a little right of center in my politics — and it’s just funny to see consumers sort of rallying around the rights of corporations and against the rights of individuals.

Well, that is what’s happening.

It is! It would have been like the students in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s protesting for the war. Or for the defense contractors … You know what I mean? “We still need that rice from the Mekong Delta. We need cheap rice from the Mekong Delta, let’s protest against these draft dodgers.” On behalf of … I don’t know—

Dow Chemical or something.

That’s literally what the public is doing now. I’ve said this before, and I don’t think people quite get it.

The Internet has become cargo cult. People worship the Internet like a cargo cult. It’s this thing that they have that brings them free stuff, and they think it’s magic. It’s beyond rational thought and reason, right? And they have no sense that behind all that free stuff are the drowned ships and sailors. They don’t want to hear that behind the way you get this free stuff, some really actually fucked-up things have happened to individuals and their individual rights.

And that there are people getting rich off this stuff. Look, people used to go crazy and you’d always hear people talk about how the record labels were so bad to artists back in the ‘50s. They paid them really minimal royalties and stuff like that. But look, these guys are even worse. It’s way, way worse.

Well, let’s extend that a little bit. Since the last time we spoke, it seems like there’s been a dozen new streaming services launched. And streaming is now discussed as the savior of the record industry. We have a new Amazon service, Google has announced one, and Beats service was bought by Apple. There’s surely going to be others by the end of the month. Do these new services seem to be, from an artist’s point of view, an improvement? Or do we just not know?

Well, it’s going to depend on what kind of artist you are. First of all, let’s just take that face-value statement, that streaming will save the music industry. Well, it will if the music business is the kind of music business that’s basically just built around Top 40 songs.

Blockbuster artists.

If you don’t want to ever have Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis and — one of my favorite bands — the gloom-stoner, doom-metal band Sleep. If you don’t ever expect to have those kind of bands anymore. And the reason is because streaming flattens and commoditizes the spin. So you just have one price for every spin of a song across the entire spectrum, whether it’s some kind of avant-garde classical work or whether it’s a Miley Cyrus song. So that will work if you have lots and lots of spins. But it won’t work if you have just a few spins. So what that will do is push out — and you already see that happening — it will push out any sort of niche or, you know …

Any specialty genres.

Specialty genres. Because people might have gone into the stores and gone, “Well, all the albums are between $9.99 and $17.99, they sort of all hover around $12.99, or whatever. It’s always been that way.” Well, yes and no, because something like a Miley Cyrus song might get spun a whole bunch — you might play that record a whole bunch until you’re sick of it whereas an Art Blakey record you might play four times a year. Those, in effect, were more expensive, and when you look at the normal, real, non-magical unicorn part of the economy, niche products cost a lot more than mass-market products.

Maybe we could look at food: Fast food costs less, going to the farmer’s market costs more. But people have decided, increasingly, that it’s worth paying a little more for healthier, fresher, local, whatever food. What you’re saying, I think, that the economic structure of streaming means that everybody’s —

Everything is the same price.

Well, there’s no incentive to make anything besides mass-market —

The most mass-market stuff, exactly. It’s as if all T-shirts — my analogy is like it’s as if the government mandated that all T-shirts were going to cost $3. We would all be wearing semi-ironic, American flag T-shirts from Wal-Mart because nobody would make anything else. Because it has to appeal to the mass market. And yeah, you may not see it right now, but I don’t know what you’ll see 20 years from now. Maybe other systems will come up to fix it but I don’t think it bodes very well for anything other than the most mass-market kind of music.

Anyway, since when does the federal government basically step in and say, “You entire class of people who do this one thing — people who write poetry to music — this one class of Americans who write songs. We’re going to make it so that your songs have to appear on these services. You can’t really get out. You have to sell these songs on your services.” It’s a weird thing we’ve done as a country.

You’re unusual in some ways in your sentiments. A lot of the people fighting for artists’ rights are on the political left. Your argument, I think, is that what we have now is a kind of unpleasant combination of the marketplace and government regulation — kind of a worst of both worlds?

Yeah, it’s like some sort of corporate socialism, yeah. We basically mandate that individuals give their songs to these companies. I really feel like this is a simple problem to fix. There should just be an opt-out. You should just be able to serve notice with the copyright office that six months in advance, as of 2015, I’m the owner of these songs, I am opting out of all of these services.

And why can’t musicians opt out so easily?

There’s no way for songwriters really to opt out. There have been a couple of people who have pulled these really weird tricks where essentially their songs are not really published so therefore, they’re sort of not public and then they forgo performance fees but that’s really complicated, how they did that.

Performers, if you own your own recording, you can opt out of streaming services which are on-demand, but you can’t opt out of webcasting services which are not quite on-demand. You can opt out of Spotify but not Pandora. You can opt out of Spotify on the on-demand side, but you can’t opt out on the — you know how they have a Pandora-like radio service too? Your songs will still be played in there.

As a performer, you have this really narrow place where you can opt out. But as a songwriter that’s not possible anywhere.

Right. And if you have a deal with the label it’s even more complicated …

Yeah, because the label will just put your stuff in there. But I want to tell you this. I know for a fact that one of the heads of one of the major labels is freaking out on streaming and realizing that what his/her underlings told them about what was going to happen with streaming is not in fact true. And they are very pissed off about that. I can’t disclose my source, but they’re one of the major labels. They completely have buyer’s remorse right now. In fact, you could describe them as being in emergency management mode right now over what they’re going to do about streaming because of the streaming revenues. Because streaming is clearly cutting their sales but it’s not making up the difference in revenues. So even for the record labels — I mean, it’s terrible for artists, but even the record labels are realizing they have fucked themselves; at least one of the major labels has realized that they fucked themselves.

Which, actually, I take some delight in. I can’t help it. They got into this.

Because the deals are opaque, we’ve had to speculate, and I guess we still have to speculate on what the deals between the streaming services and the labels were. That isn’t public so we don’t know what kind of sweetheart deals were made between them. We do know that the artists have been largely left out of the process.

Let’s look at it this way. Say we own an apartment together, and we’re going to split whatever money we make off this apartment when we rent it out to somebody. But I go out to this renter and I say, “I tell you what, instead of you giving me $1,500 a month for this little studio apartment, we’ll charge you $750 rent but you basically give me $8,000 per year personally off the book and I’ll give you this cheap rent under the table.”

And then you’re splitting with me just that $750 and keeping the eight grand for myself. That’s what happened when the record labels traded equity for lower royalty rates. And I don’t know how long it’ll take, but there will be a class action eventually over that, but it may be too late.

Is it your sense that the streaming services will survive? There’s some worry that most of them haven’t turned a profit and that they don’t have a working business model.

I think they’ll survive but they’ll be part of Apple, part of Google, part of Amazon. They’ll be part of other services that make money in other ways. I think the same sense for the webcasters too as well. I just don’t see how they can really get the ship righted. They’ll need to charge more for their services.

On the other hand, I’m not necessarily against the streaming services. I think something like Spotify is useful and it’s kind of a good deal under certain circumstances. If I put my sound recording of “Low,” and if it was only behind the paywall, the premium-paying wall, I would get more than a penny and a half per spin. So for that song, I think having it on Spotify makes a lot of sense — if it was behind the paywall. It’s just that I don’t want my entire catalog, the entire album, for free on the service.

And you don’t have a choice right now as to whether you do?

We don’t have a choice. There are technicalities and there are ways certain artists can remove their recordings but you have to not have a record deal and frankly, I was part of the first wave of indie musicians in the 1980s. We had our own label — Pitch Tent Records. We are one of the pioneers of indie rock. And, you know, I’ve had this happen before in my 30-year career of being an independent and being on my own label and a major label. Because sometimes frankly it’s like “I don’t want to do the promotion on my own record.”

There’s an advantage to being on a label sometimes. It’s just really interesting to me. I don’t really see labels totally going away. Some people say, “Well, the labels will figure it out, they’ll figure out when it makes sense for artists.” Some people on the record side of the business are like, “Well, when we aggregate all these rights together we’ll know the best way to exploit these recordings and these copyrights.” I don’t necessarily see that happening and that’s why I just feel like there should be a right for artists to opt out of these services.

We’ve spoken a little about the government. We’ve spoken a little about these big corporations — Google, Amazon — who either own streaming services or webcasters or whatever. Let’s bring it together for a second. Part of what we’re describing is a kind of monopoly capital. We do have part of the federal government that’s supposed to be on the lookout for monopoly behavior — the Department of Justice.

And they are. They’re very vigilant on that. They’ve put the songwriters under monopoly supervision since 1941! They completely have monopoly backwards.

I’m gonna do something that breaks the law right now. I’m a songwriter who has my own publishing company. I think all songwriters should hold out for 10 percent of revenue from Pandora. I urge all songwriters to hold out for 10 percent of revenue from Pandora. I have just violated the consent decree. I am in contempt of court. Someone arrest me!

Because the DOJ doesn’t let songwriters do that. We’re under anti-trust supervision. But look at the companies that we’re [supposedly] colluding against — against Pandora which is 77 percent of the market for streaming. We might collude against Google and YouTube, right? There’s nobody close to them on online video. Let’s see, Spotify is [huge] as far as streaming goes.

Basically, the federal government has monopoly backwards. So you have the monopolies getting together on Capitol Hill and calling for Congress to not only keep the consent decree, but to expand it. It’s pretty crazy. It’d be funny if it wasn’t Kafka-esque. 

Since Reagan, the Department of Justice has focused on what they see as defending consumers, keeping prices low — and they’ve gone pretty easy on big corporations, music and technology corporations included. Do you think the DOJ, for instance, will start paying attention to the effect Amazon and Google are having on the making of culture?

I think they will once somebody sues them and it goes to the Supreme Court. This is a thing I am very seriously considering. I think the consent decree acts as what’s called a writ of attainder. Because essentially, as soon as I write my first song, I’m guilty. There’s no court proceedings. I’m under Department of Justice supervision. There’s no court proceeding. There’s no legislation. My rights are limited by extrajudicial, extra-legislative [rules] … Our Founding Fathers were very, very, very much against this thing. I think the point is that somebody has to sue the Department of Justice for violation of our constitutional rights, and then they’ll stop.

I think it’ll have to go to court. If you look at it, if a judge really looks at it, they’ll go — essentially the way the consent decree works is that it’s a court case that’s been open since 1941. It hasn’t been closed. And as soon as I wrote a song, I’m part of that court case. I demonstrated the limitation of my rights by showing how I’m in contempt of court by saying I think songwriters should hold out for 10 percent for Pandora.

When did I ever get a hearing, right? I never got a hearing on that. When was the law ever passed? The judicial branch can’t make law? They’re making law, by that consent decree they’ve created essentially a statutory right for broadcasters to have our songs.

And really, people are like, “Songwriters, I understand they’re being screwed, but it’s just a small portion of Americans.” If they can do this to our songs, they can do this to your photos that you post on the Web. There’s a law, there are proposed laws that generally fall under the title “orphan works” for photographs that essentially would allow that.

Once people start thinking that, well, if songwriters songs can be collectivized for the good of these for-profit corporations without a trial or legislation or anything like that, they can do the same thing with what you write on your Facebook account or the photo you post on Twitter. You know what I’m saying? It’s eventually going to get to everybody.

 

Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. His book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” comes out in January. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMisreadCity

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/31/david_lowery_heres_how_pandora_is_destroying_musicians/?source=newsletter

K Street Black Rock: Burning Man’s Billionaires Row

There was a certain point last night — when a six-foot-tall private-party planner in a bustier and feather headdress was clenching my shoulder and threatening me — that I wondered why I ever even wanted to follow along a tour of the fancy camps of Burning Man.

Burning Man is, after all, about building a city, which they call Black Rock. In that city, some people were building walled-off empires on its outer rings. Rich people do as rich people do.

But there is something about the way a new fleet of wealthy have descended on Burning Man that is inducing anxiety among Burners, a community that bans all money and branding (people tape over even small logos). The so-called “turnkey camps” — tight circles of trailers, or sometimes just large black-tarp walls that hide overstaffed luxury playpens — are distinctly different from the rest of Burning Man, a festival with a heavy emphasis on giving and work.

During a five-minute walk this morning, Burners in various camps offered me plums, coffee and homemade pita-and-cheese sandwiches. Campers constantly brag about how much work they put into their decor, erecting full bars or elaborate hammock-atop-hammock arrangements on site. Many of this year’s new camps are both private and prefab, and that is very difficult for some Burners to accept. It has been part of the conversation here all week.

Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings, the lights (there were side-of the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80).

Standing near a party bus one night around midnight, Ryan Parks, a young entrepreneur covered in LEDs, explained the situation: “This is the height of excess,” he said, indicating the neon and fire-spewing art cars around us. “We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars.”

It’s not about tech money, because that’s nothing new. Annie Harrison — an early Burner and former writer for Wired magazine — told me, “I came out here in ’95 to cover the tech scene. It was tech-reporter catnip! Mostly stories about the lasers from Lawrence Livermore. I took a picture of a guy lighting a cigarette off a laser that my editor loved.”

But something new is happening at Burning Man: There’s now a rich neighborhood.

While some power players, like Bob Pittman, station their camps openly at the center of the fray, others have created a fascinating ring of power: K Street Black Rock.

K Street Black Rock is at the perimeter of the city, which is built in the form of concentric semicircles. A long, obscure stretch far from the center, no one bikes all the way out there unless they have to.

“We’ve put our hand out to the turnkey camps and asked them to live by the principles. We can’t force them. But we asked, and I think they understand,” said Burning Man co-founder Will Rogers, who sat in a folding chair by his RV, a tattered bandana around his head. “After the first dust storm, we’re all the same color.”

In my event calendar, I noticed something called “Turnkey Camp Invasion,” described as a parade to test the hospitality of the fanciest camps. When I arrived at the meeting spot, a funky bar in a quiet neighborhood along E street, the bartenders told me the organizer hadn’t been able to make it to Burning Man because he couldn’t take the time off from work.

But the group — a dentist, a Google employee, a lawyer, some eccentrics — still gathered. They figured that, no matter what, it was a nice night for a bike ride.

“Okay, we want to make sure we don’t get the people who fund the art, though,” said a blonde woman wearing a headscarf and a sash of fake ammo. “How can we tell which is turnkey and which isn’t?”

“Listen, we’re not burning down their RVs, for god’s sake,” said David Grosof, who wore glow sticks fashioned into glasses. “If we’re friendly, they’ll invite us in. It’ll be fun.”

I stood next to a Google employee named Greg: “”The nanosecond I heard about this turnkey tour, there was no way I wouldn’t do it.”

What if it’s Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s camp?

“That’d be awesome! We’d sip a martini and have some caviar, no doubt,” Greg said.

Grosof had a more philosophical take.

“We are so very careful, no one can sell a hot dog for money, but it’s okay to have a staff and bodyguards and cooks?” he said. “What is the difference between commodity product and commodity service?”

When we reached K Street, one of the “invaders” asked a man who was walking by whether he had seen these fancy camps. Oh yes, he had, he said. Many. They set up 20 matching RVs here or there, and there’s one just right up the street.

We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.

She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.

One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch.

A momentary flare-up of culture clash on the dark, wealthy outskirts of Burning Man.

And then, because no one really wanted a fight, and the whole scene was ridiculous, it calmed. The Googler hopped on his bike and sped off. The dentist shook his head and adjusted his EL-wire. And I went off with a friend to a fire-dancing camp run by some Santa Cruz Burners — I gave them the ginseng candies that I carry in my bag. We ordered vodka and orange juice, but they poured us Coke and Fireball.

http://recode.net/2014/08/29/k-street-black-rock-burning-mans-billionaires-row/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social

Why Uber must be stopped

The touted start-up is proving to be the embodiment of unrestrained hyper-capitalism. What happens when it wins?

 

Why Uber must be stopped
Jordan Belfort and Gordon Gekko

What is Uber? A paragon of free market efficiency and technological innovation serving the greater convenience and comfort of the general public? Or living proof for why capitalist societies require regulation?

It is testimony to the ceaseless striving of Uber that Silicon Valley watchers find themselves with new reasons to ponder these questions nearly every week. But the end of August brought special vim and vigor to the debate. In particular, Verge’s publication of Casey Newton’s great scoop about the tactics Uber has been deploying to recruit riders from its top competitor, Lyft, has excited reams of commentary.

No matter what you think of Uber, the scope of “Operation SLOG” (Supplying Long-term Operations Growth) is impressive. Uber has hired hundreds of private contractors in multiple cities and equipped them with multiple burner phones (so as to prevent Lyft from identifying recruiters and blocking them from using its service), as well as credit card numbers and recruitment kits, and mobilized them to lure Lyft drivers over to the other side. Collateral damage to Lyft has extended beyond the siphoning away of drivers. When a Uber recruiter ordered a ride and discovered that the driver was someone who had been previously recruited, he or she immediately cancelled the ride. According to Lyft, Uber has been responsible for more than 5,000 cancelled rides in recent months.

Defenders of no-holds-barred free-market competition see nothing to be alarmed or concerned about. Riders can only benefit from fierce competition for their services, and the number of cancellations is trivial compared to Lyft’s total volume of rides, explains Timothy Lee at Vox. On the other hand, if you are inclined to see Uber as the acme of ruthless and amoral profit-seeking, then the latest news on Uber’s “deceptive tactics” is just one more confirmation of how the company will do anything to win.



Whichever side you fall on, the story is fascinating. There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism. This is like watching Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller in action. This is how robber barons play. From top to bottom, the company flaunts a street-fighter ethos.

Uber’s ambitions are limitless and it has the bankroll to do what it wants. Indeed, there is some irony to the fact that Uber has so much cash in the bank that it need not comply with the most basic premise of capitalism — the notion that survival is predicated on making more money than you spend. With access to an astonishing $1.5 billion in capital, Uber can simultaneously wage regulatory battles in multiple cities, engage in recruitment wars in which smartphones are distributed like candy, subsidize drivers at below cost, and employ whomever is necessary to achieve long-term goals.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is this: What happens when a company with the DNA of Uber ends up winning it all? What happens when the local taxi companies are destroyed and Lyft is crushed? When Uber has dominant market position in every major city on the globe? “UberEverywhere” isn’t a joke. It’s a mantra, a call to arms, a holy ideology.

What happens when Uber’s priorities turn to generating cash rather than spending it? What happens to labor — the Uber drivers — when they have no alternative but Uber? What happens when it rains and the surge-pricing spikes and there’s nowhere else to go? A company with the street-fighting ethos of Uber isn’t going to let drivers unionize, and it certainly isn’t going to pay them more than it is required to by the harsh laws of competition. It will also dump them entirely in a nanosecond when self-driving cars prove that they are cheaper and safer. Making the case that drivers are benefitting from the current recruitment wars starts to look like a pretty short-term play. The more powerful Uber gets, the more leverage it will have over labor.

So here’s what’s going to happen. Society is going to realize that power as great as Uber’s needs to be checked. Uber, by virtue of its own success, will demonstrate where the lines need to be drawn for the general good. When Uber is the only game in town, the necessity for comprehensive requirements for commercial insurance and background checks will be obvious. When Uber starts using its logistics clout and unlimited investment capital to go after UPS and Hertz and FedEx, regulators will start wondering about antitrust issues.

It’s probably too soon to cry out “Break up Uber.” The company hasn’t won yet. But the smart money is on Uber (by definition, if you consider Google and Goldman Sachs, two prominent Uber investors, to be “smart”). When we allow capitalism to play out without rules, and learn anew how labor gets exploited under that scenario, we may recall why we had rules in the first place.

 

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

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/31/why_uber_must_be_stopped/

US government-funded database created to track “subversive propaganda” online

http://foxnewsinsider.com/sites/foxnewsinsider.com/files/styles/780/public/Truthy2.jpg?itok=yAusZD5Z

By Matthew MacEgan
30 August 2014

The creation of the Truthy database by Indiana University researchers has drawn sharp criticism from free-speech advocates and others concerned over government censorship of political expression.

According to the award abstract accompanying the funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Truthy project aims to demonstrate “why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten.” In order to answer this and other questions, the resulting database will actively “[collect] and [analyze] massive streams of public microblogging data.”

Once the database is up and running, anyone can use its “service” to monitor “trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.” Several of the researchers suggested that the public will be able to discover the use of “shady machinery” by election campaigners who push faulty information to social media users to manipulate them politically.

As a seeming afterthought, the abstract concludes that this open-source project “could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

This last statement provoked widespread criticism as troubling and even Orwellian. Right-wing media outlets Fox News and the Washington Times attacked the reference to “hate speech,” in which they specialize, without highlighting the reference to “subversive propaganda,” a term of abuse usually reserved for left-wing criticism of American government and society.

While the leaders of this government-funded operation have sought to fend off attacks with the explanation that this database is merely designed to study the diffusion of information on social media networks, there is no mistaking the repressive overtones of the project.

Filippo Menczer, the project’s principal investigator and a professor at Indiana University, has responded to allegations by issuing a statement through the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, explaining that Truthy is not “a political watchdog, a government probe of social media,” or “an attempt to suppress free speech.” He states that Truthy is incapable of determining whether a particular scrap of data constitutes “misinformation,” and reiterates the notion that “target” is the mere study of “patterns of information diffusion.”

However, within the same statement, Menczer also echoes the abstract’s final conclusion, stating that “an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.” This seems to contradict the claim that the database is focused only on how information is diffused, rather than its content.

Results of the project have already been widely published in peer-reviewed journals and have been presented at several conferences around the world. One of these studies shows how the researchers, including Menczer, studied the growth of Occupy Wall Street over a 15-month period. This was done by identifying Occupy-related content on Twitter and creating a dataset that “contained approximately 1.82 million tweets produced by 447,241 distinct accounts.”

In addition, the researchers also selected 25,000 of these users at random and monitored their behavior in order to study how these users may have changed over time. This effort included the compilation of the hashtags used by each user, their engagement with foreign social movements, and the extent to which these users interacted with one another.

In other words, while the creators of Truthy have presented their service as a means for the public to expose elected officials who inject misleading information into news feeds for electoral propaganda purposes, one of the primary uses is to track and keep tabs on individuals who engage in political discussions deemed “subversive” by US authorities. A previous report has already shown that local police departments were engaged in similar coordinated efforts to spy on Occupy protesters throughout the same 15-month period.

The revelations of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have shown the extent of domestic spying of national governments on their own citizens and the erosion of Constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of expression. Despite Menczer’s claim that the system was not “designed” to be a government watchdog program, there is no assurance that this project will not be used for that purpose.

The 25,000 Twitter users who were studied and tracked by the project’s developers certainly did not give permission to have their behaviors and tweets recorded and studied. Truthy will enable anyone, including federal officials, to similarly track and follow the actions of groups and individuals deemed to be “diffusing” ideas labeled as “misleading.” The fact that the United States government has already contributed more than $900,000 to this project only exacerbates this fear.

Your data is for sale

 — and not just on Facebook

Nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. But do you trust them?

Your data is for sale — and not just on Facebook
(Credit: Chookiat K via Shutterstock/Salon)

This is how the tech P.R. wars of the future will be waged: “Trust us, because we will take care of your precious information better than the other guy.”

On Aug. 21, Square, the mobile-payments start-up helmed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, announced the release of a new package of analytical tools available for free to any merchant that uses Square.

Small businesses, argued the press release, tend not to have the same access to advanced data crunching as larger operations. Square Analytics “levels the playing field” and “delivers sellers actionable data to increase sales and better serve their customers.” Want to know exactly how much a bad snow storm affected your cupcake sales, or what kind of advanced coffee products your repeat customers crave the most on Tuesday mornings? Square Analytics has the answers!

A few hours after Square’s announcement, I received an email from a man who handles press relations for Shopkeep, a company that offers point-of-sale processing via the iPad, and has apparently been touting its own small business analytics support for years. Judging by the accusations made in the email, Shopkeep was none too pleased by the debut of Square’s new service.

“Square is more interested in collecting and selling data than it is in helping small businesses grow,” read the email. My correspondent further alleged that Square’s “terms and conditions” gave Square the right to do anything it wanted with the data it collected on retail transactions.

Picture this: I order coffee at a coffee shop that uses Square … Square, not the cafe, seizes the data on that transaction and emails me a receipt. The company can sell that data to the highest bidder — another coffee shop up the street or the closest Starbucks. Then I could get an email from that other coffee shop, not the one I’m a regular at, offering me a discount or some other incentive to come in.

Shopkeep, in contrast, would never do such a dastardly thing.

I contacted Square and asked spokesperson Aaron Zamost if the coffee shop scenario was realistic. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed it out of hand. “No, we do not intend to do this,” said Zamost. “We do not surface, nor do we have any plans to surface individualized transaction data to any sellers besides the one who made the sale. Our sellers trust us to be transparent with them and respectful of what they share with us. If we were to violate their trust, or behave as other companies have been known to, they would leave us.”



I have no evidence to prove or disprove the allegations made by Shopkeep or the defense offered by Square. The  interesting point is that the nature of the accusation is an attempt to poke at what is clearly a sore spot in Silicon Valley in 2014. In these post-Snowden days, how tech companies handle data is a volatile issue. In fact, it might be the biggest issue of them all. Because Shopkeep and Square are hardly alone in their ability to amass valuable information. Every company that offers a service over your mobile device — whether processing a sale, hiring a car, locating a room to stay in — is in the data business. Everyone is a data broker. As Silicon Valley likes to say, in the 21st century data is the new oil. What rarely gets mentioned afterward, however, is the fact that the oil business, especially when it was just getting started, was very, very dirty.

* * *

Square has a cool product: A plastic card reader that plugs into the headphone jack of your phone and enables anyone with a bank account to start processing credit card transactions. Although Square has yet to turn a profit, and has weathered some bad press in recent months, the company does process $30 billion worth of transactions a year. That’s a lot of information available to crunch.

Of course, there are plenty of companies, starting with the credit card firms themselves, that are already slicing and dicing payment transaction info and offering analysis to whomever can pay for it. Square is just one more player in a very crowded field. But Square is nevertheless emblematic of an important trend — let’s call it the disruptive democratization of data brokering. Once upon a time, a handful of obscure, operating-behind-the-scenes firms dominated the data-brokering business. But now that everything’s digital, everyone with a digital business can be a data broker.

In an increasing number of cases it appears that the ostensible service offered by the latest free app isn’t actually what the app-maker plans to make money off; it’s just the lure that brings in the good stuff — the monetizable data. Square may be a payments processing company first, but it is rapidly amassing huge amounts of data, which is in itself a valuable commodity, a point confirmed by  Square executive Gokul Rajaram to Fortune Magazine earlier this year.

Similarly, Uber is ostensibly a car hiring company but is also poised to know more about our transportation habits than just about any other single player. Almost every app on your phone — even the flashlight app — is simultaneously performing a service for you, and gathering data about you.

Increasingly, as the accusations about Square from a competitor demonstrate, we may end up deciding whom we choose for our services based on whether we trust them as responsible safekeepers of our data.

Until this year, most Americans have had only the sketchiest knowledge of how huge the marketplace is for our personal information. In May the FTC released a report that looked at the nine biggest data brokers — companies that specialize in amassing huge dossiers on every living person in the Western world. The numbers are startling.

Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. Of the nine data brokers, one data broker’s database has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions and over 700 billion aggregated data elements; another data broker’s database covers one trillion dollars in consumer transactions; and yet another data broker adds three billion new records each month to its databases.

The big data brokers build their databases by snarfling up every single source of information they can find or buy. Databases operated by federal, state and local governments are an obvious source, but the big data brokers also routinely scrape social media sites and blogs, and also buy commercial databases from a vast variety of enterprises, as well as from other data brokers.

Today, nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. Surveillance Valley, indeed! Analytics companies know the constellation of apps on your phone, including your every click and swipe, down to the most granular level.

The rules regarding what can be done with this information are in their infancy. For now, we depend largely on what the companies say in their own terms and conditions. But we would be unwise to regard those as permanently binding legally promises. They can change at any time — something that Facebook has demonstrated repeatedly. What Square says now, in other words, might not be what Square does in the future, especially if the company finds itself in dire need of cash.

When everyone is a data broker, having standardized rules governing what can be done with our information becomes a pressing social priority. Right now it’s just a big mess.

 

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

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/29/its_not_just_facebook_anymore_in_the_future_your_data_is_always_for_sale/?source=newsletter

Letter To The Millennials

A Boomer Professor talks to his students

Written by

  • Director, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”, “To Die For”

So we are about to embark on a sixteen-week exploration of innovation, entertainment, and the arts. This course is going to be about all three, but I’m going to start with the “art” part — because without the art, no amount of technological innovation or entertainment marketing savvy is going to get you to go to the movie theater. However, I think there’s also a deeper, more controversial claim to be made along these same lines: Without the art, none of the innovation matters — and indeed, it may be impossible — because the art is what gives us vision, and what grounds us to the human element in all of this. Although there will be lectures, during which I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned about the way innovation, entertainment, and the arts fit together, the most crucial part of the class is the dialogue between us, and specifically the insights coming from you as you teach me about your culture and your ideals. The bottom line is that the world has come a long way, but from my perspective, we’re also living in uniquely worrisome times; my generation had dreams of how to make a better life that have remained woefully unfulfilled (leaving many of us cynical and disillusioned), but at the same time your generation has been saddled with the wreckage of our attempts and are now facing what may seem to be insurmountable odds. I’m writing this letter in the hopes that it will help set the stage for a truly cross-generational dialogue over the next sixteen weeks, in which I help you understand the contexts and choices that have brought us where we are today, and in which you help me, and one another, figure out the best way to move forward from here.

When I was your age, I had my heart broken and my idealism challenged multiple times by the assassinations of my political heroes: namely, John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Many in my generation turned away from politics and found our solace in works of art and entertainment. So one of the things I want to teach you about is a time from 1965–1980 when the artists really ruled both the music and the film industries. Some said “the lunatics had taken over the asylum” (and, amusingly enough, David Geffen named his record company Asylum), but if you look at the quality of work that was produced, it was extraordinary; in fact, most of it is still watched and listened to today. Moreover, in that period the most artistic work also sold the best: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was without doubt the best record of the year but also the best selling, and The Godfather was similarly both best movie of the year and the biggest box office hit. That’s not happening right now, and I want to try to understand why that is. I want to explore, with you, what the implications of this shift might be, and whether this represents a problem. It may be that those fifteen years your parents and I were lucky enough to experience was one of those renaissance moments that only come along once every century, so perhaps it’s asking too much to expect that I’ll see it occur again in my lifetime. Nevertheless, I do hope it happens at least once in yours.

I spoke of the heartbreak of political murder that has permanently marked me and my peers, but we have also been profoundly disappointed by politics’ failure to improve the lives of the average citizen. In 1969, the median salary for a male worker was $35,567 (in 2012 dollars). Today, it is $33,904. So for 44 years, while wages for the top 10% have continued to climb, most Americans have been caught in a “Great Stagnation,” bringing into question the whole purpose of the American capitalist economy (and, along the way, shattering our faith in the “American Dream”). The Reagan-era notion that what benefited the 1% — “the establishment” — would benefit everyone has by now been thoroughly discredited, yet it seems that we are still struggling to pick up the pieces after this failed experiment.

Seen through this lens, the savage partisanship of the current moment makes an odd kind of sense. What were the establishment priorities that moved inexorably forward in both Republican and Democratic administrations? The first was a robust and aggressive foreign policy. As Stephen Kinzer wrote about those in power during the 1950s, “Exceptionalism — the view that the United States has a right to impose its will because it knows more, sees farther, and lives on a higher moral plane than other nations — was to them not a platitude, but the organizing principle of daily life and global politics.”

From Eisenhower to Obama, this principle has been the guiding light of our foreign policy, bringing with it annual defense expenditures that dwarf those of all the world’s major powers combined. The second principle of the establishment was that “what is good for Wall Street is good for America.” Despite Democrats’ efforts to paint the GOP as the party of Wall Street, one would only have to look at the track record of Clinton’s treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers (specifically, their zealous efforts to kill the Glass-Steagal Act and deregulate the big banks and the commodities markets) to see that both major parties are guilty of sucking up to money; apparently, the establishment rules no matter who is in power. Was it any surprise, then, that Obama appointed the architects of bank deregulation, Summers and Geithner, to clean up the mess their policies had caused? Was it any surprise that they failed? Was it any surprise that establishment ideas about the surveillance state were not challenged by Obama? The good news is that, as a nation, we have grown tired of being the world’s unpaid cop, and we are tired of dancing to Wall Street’s tune. Slowly, we are learning that these policies may benefit the 1%, but they don’t benefit the people as a whole. My guess is the 2016 election may be fought on this ground, and we may finally begin to see real change, but the fact remains that we — both your generation and mine — are right now deeply mired in the fallout of unfulfilled promises and the failures of the political system.

So this is the source of boomer disillusionment. But even if we are cynical about political change, we can try to imagine together a future where great artistic work continues to flourish; this, then, is the Innovation and Entertainment part of the course. It’s not that I want you to give up on politics — in fact the events of the last few weeks in Ferguson only reinforce my belief that when people disdain politics, their anger gets channeled into violence. But what I do want you to think about is that art and culture are more plastic — they can be molded and changed easier than politics. There is a sense in which art, politics, and economics are all inextricably and symbiotically tied together, but history has proven to us that art serves as a powerful corrective against the dangers of the establishment. There is a system of checks and balances in which, even though the arts may rely on the social structures afforded by strong economic and political systems, artists can also inspire a culture to move forward, to reject the evils of greed and prejudice, and to reconnect to its human roots. If we are seeking a political and economic change, then, an authentic embrace of the arts may be key. Part of your role as communication scholars is to look more closely at the communication surrounding us and think critically about the effects its having, whose agenda is being promoted, and whether that’s the agenda that will serve us best. One of the tasks we’ll wrestle with in this class will be how we can get the digital fire hose of social media to really support artists, not just brands.

In 2011, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) gave a lecture at the British Film Institute. He said something both simple and profound:

People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the Internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.

It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that — at the very least — this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colorful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, “What can we do to get people to buy more of these?

And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.

I think Charlie is right. People are starving, so we give them bread and circuses.

​ But I think Charlie is wrong when he says “there is no winning”. In fact I think we are really in a “winner-take-all” society. Look at the digital pop charts. 80% of the music streams are for 1% of the content. That means that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are billionaires, but the average musician can barely make a living. Bob Dylan’s first album only sold 4,000 copies. In this day and age, he would have been dropped by his label before he created his greatest work.

A writer I greatly admired, Gabriel García Márquez, died recently. For me, Márquez embodied the role of the artist in society, marked by the refusal to believe that we are incapable of creating a more just world. Utopias are out of favor now. Yet Marquez never gave up believing in the transformational power of words to conjure magic and seize the imagination. The other crucial aspect of Márquez’s work is that he teaches us the importance of regionalism. In a commercial culture of sameness where you can stroll through a mall in Shanghai and forget that you’re not in Los Angeles, Marquez’s work was distinctly Latin American. His work was as unique as the songs of Gilberto Gil, or the cinema of Alejandro González Iñárritu. In a cultural like ours that has so long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over our differences, it is valuable to recognize that there is a difference between allowing our differences to serve as barriers and appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to its people. What’s more, young artists also need to have the sense of history that Marquez celebrated when he said, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” Cultural amnesia only leads to cultural death.

With these values in mind, my hope is to lead you in a discussion of politics and culture in the context of 250 years of America’s somewhat utopian battle to build “a city on a hill.” I think many in my generation had this utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different than idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I did not aspire to be that professor who quotes Dr. King, but I feel I must. He said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road towards a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with you. It may take even longer than we imagined, but I know your generation believes in justice and equality, and that fills me with hope that the dream of some sort of promised land is not wholly lost. The next step, then, is to figure out how to work together, to learn from the past while living in the present moment in order to secure a better future, and I believe this class offers us an incredible opportunity to do precisely that.

So what are the skills that we can develop together in order to open a real cross-generational dialogue? First, I would hope we would learn to improvise. I want you to challenge me, just as I encourage and challenge you. Improvisation means sometimes throwing away your notes and just responding from your gut to the ideas being presented. It takes both courage and intelligence, but I’m pretty sure you have deep stores of both qualities, which will help you show leadership both in class and throughout the rest of your life. Leadership is more than just bravery and intellect, however; it also requires vulnerability and compassion, skills that I hope we can similarly cultivate together. I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers — and, more importantly, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I am somewhat confused by our current culture and I am looking to you for insight. You need to have that same vulnerability with your peers, and you also need to treat them with compassion as you struggle together to understand this new world of disruption. I know these four elements — courage, intelligence, vulnerability, and compassion — may seem like they are working at cross-purposes, but we will need all four qualities if we are to take on the two tasks before us. One of our tasks is to try to restore a sense of excellence in our culture — the belief that great art and entertainment can also be popular. The second task is for baby boomer parents and their millennial children to form a natural political alliance going forward. As I’ve said, I don’t think the notion that we will get to “the promised land” is totally dead, and with your energy and the tools of the new media ecosystem to help us organize, we can keep working towards a newly hopeful society, culture, and economy, in spite of the mess we have left you with.

This is, at least, the plan. Of course, as the great critic James Agee once said, “Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.”

 

 

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