Why the Rich Love Burning Man

Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core.

burning-man

In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

Introduce “radical inclusion,” “radical self-expression,” and “decommodification” as tenets, and designate the alternative society as a free space, where sex and gender boundaries are fluid and meant to be transgressed.

These ideas — the essence of Burning Man — are certainly appealing.

Yet capitalists also unironically love Burning Man, and to anyone who has followed the recent history of Burning Man, the idea that it is at all anticapitalist seems absurd: last year, a venture capitalist billionaire threw a $16,500-per-head party at the festival, his camp a hyper-exclusive affair replete with wristbands and models flown in to keep the guests company.

Burning Man is earning a reputation as a “networking event” among Silicon Valley techies, and tech magazines now send reporters to cover it. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Alphabet are foaming fans, along with conservative anti-tax icon Grover Norquist and many writers of the libertarian (and Koch-funded) Reason magazine. Tesla CEO Elon Musk even went so far as to claim that Burning Man “is Silicon Valley.”

Radical Self-Expression

The weeklong Burning Man festival takes place once a year over Labor Day weekend in a remote alkali flat in northwestern Nevada. Two hours north of Reno, the inhospitable Black Rock Desert seems a poor place to create a temporary sixty-thousand-person city — and yet that’s entirely the point. On the desert playa, an alien world is created and then dismantled within the span of a month. The festival culminates with the deliberate burning of a symbolic effigy, the titular “man,” a wooden sculpture around a hundred feet tall.

Burning Man grew from unpretentious origins: a group of artists and hippies came together to burn an effigy at Baker Beach in San Francisco, and in 1990 set out to have the same festival in a place where the cops wouldn’t hassle them about unlicensed pyrotechnics. The search led them to the Black Rock Desert.

Burning Man is very much a descendent of the counterculture San Francisco of yesteryear, and possesses the same sort of libertine, nudity-positive spirit. Some of the early organizers of the festival professed particular admiration for the Situationists, the group of French leftists whose manifestos and graffitied slogans like “Never Work” became icons of the May 1968 upsurge in France.

Though the Situationists were always a bit ideologically opaque, one of their core beliefs was that cities had become oppressive slabs of consumption and labor, and needed to be reimagined as places of play and revolt. Hence, much of their art involved cutting up and reassembling maps, and consuming intoxicants while wandering about in Paris.

You can feel traces of the Situationists when walking through Black Rock City, Burning Man’s ephemeral village. Though Black Rock City resembles a city in some sense, with a circular dirt street grid oriented around the “man” sculpture, in another sense it is completely surreal: people walk half-naked in furs and glitter, art cars shaped like ships or dragons pump house music as they purr down the street.

Like a real city, Burning Man has bars, restaurants, clubs, and theaters, but they are all brought by participants because everyone is required to “bring something”:

The people who attend Burning Man are no mere “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word: they create the city, the interaction, the art, the performance and ultimately the “experience.” Participation is at the very core of Burning Man.

Participation sounds egalitarian, but it leads to some interesting contradictions. The most elaborate camps and spectacles tend to be brought by the rich because they have the time, the money, or both, to do so. Wealthier attendees often pay laborers to build and plan their own massive (and often exclusive) camps. If you scan San Francisco’s Craigslist in the month of August, you’ll start to see ads for part-time service labor gigs to plump the metaphorical pillows of wealthy Burners.

The rich also hire sherpas to guide them around the festival and wait on them at the camp. Some burners derogatorily refer to these rich person camps as “turnkey camps.

Silicon Valley’s adoration of Burning Man goes back a long way, and tech workers have always been fans of the festival. But it hasn’t always been the provenance of billionaires — in the early days, it was a free festival with a cluster of pitched tents, weird art, and explosives; but as the years went on, more exclusive, turnkey camps appeared and increased in step with the ticket price — which went from $35 in 1994 to $390 in 2015 (about sixteen times the rate of inflation).

Black Rock City has had its own FAA-licensed airport since 2000, and it’s been getting much busier. These days you can even get from San Carlos in Silicon Valley to the festival for $1500. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg flew into Burning Man on a private helicopter, staying for just one day, to eat and serve artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches. From the New York Times:

“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!”

The growing presence of the elite in Burning Man is not just noticed by outsiders — long-time attendees grumble that Burning Man has become “gentrified.” Commenting on the New York Times piece, burners express dismay at attendees who do no work. “Paying people to come and take care of you and build for you . . . and clean up after you . . . those people missed the point.”

Many Burners seethed after reading one woman’s first-person account of how she was exploited while working at the $17,000-per-head camp of venture capitalist Jim Tananbaum. In her account, she documented the many ways in which Tananbaum violated the principles of the festival, maintaining “VIP status” by making events and art cars private and flipping out on one of his hired artists.

Tananbaum’s workers were paid a flat $180 a day with no overtime, but the anonymous whistleblower attests that she and others worked fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The emergent class divides of Burning Man attendees is borne out by data: the Burning Man census (yes, they have a census, just like a real nation-state) showed that from 2010 to 2014, the number of attendees who make more than $300,000 a year doubled from 1.4% to 2.7%. This number is especially significant given the outsize presence 1 percenters command at Burning Man.

In a just, democratic society, everyone has equal voice. At Burning Man everyone is invited to participate, but the people who have the most money decide what kind of society Burning Man will be — they commission artists of their choice and build to their own whims. They also determine how generous they are feeling, and whether to withhold money.

It might seem silly to quibble over the lack of democracy in the “governance” of Black Rock City. After all, why should we care whether Jeff Bezos has commissioned a giant metal unicorn or a giant metal pirate ship, or whether Tananbaum wants to spend $2 million on an air-conditioned camp? But the principles of these tech scions — that societies are created through charity, and that the true “world-builders” are the rich and privileged — don’t just play out in the Burning Man fantasy world. They carry over into the real world, often with less-than-positive results.

Remember when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to help “fix” Newark’s public schools? In 2010, Zuckerberg — perhaps hoping to improve his image after his callous depiction in biopic The Social Network donated $100 million to Newark’s education system to overhaul Newark schools.

The money was directed as a part of then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s plan to remake the city into the “charter school capital of the nation,” bypassing public oversight through partnership with private philanthropists.

Traditionally, public education has been interwoven with the democratic process: in a given school district, the community elects the school board every few years. School boards then make public decisions and deliberations. Zuckerberg’s donation, and the project it was attached to, directly undermined this democratic process by promoting an agenda to privatize public schools, destroy local unions, disempower teachers, and put the reins of public education into the hands of technocrats and profiteers.

This might seem like an unrelated tangent — after all, Burning Man is supposed to be a fun, liberating world all its own. But it isn’t. The top-down, do what you want, radically express yourself and fuck everyone else worldview is precisely why Burning Man is so appealing to the Silicon Valley technocratic scions.

To these young tech workers — mostly white, mostly men — who flock to the festival, Burning Man reinforces and fosters the idea that they can remake the world without anyone else’s input. It’s a rabid libertarian fantasy. It fluffs their egos and tells them that they have the power and right to make society for all of us, to determine how things should be.

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Of course, the wealthy can afford more, both in lodging and in what they “bring” to the table: so at Burning Man, those with more money, who can bring more in terms of participation, labor and charity, are celebrated more.

It is a society that we find ourselves moving closer towards the other 358 (non–Burning Man) days of the year: with a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

At Burning Man the 1 percenters — who have earned their money in the same way that Carnegie did so long ago — show up with an army of service laborers, yet they take the credit for what they’ve “brought.”

Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression:

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.

It is in their interest that we are as self-interested as possible, since the more we obsess over our digital identity, the more personal information of ours they can mine and sell. Little wonder that the founders of these companies have found their home on the playa.

It doesn’t seem like Burning Man can ever be salvaged, or taken back from the rich power-brokers who’ve come to adore it and now populate its board of directors. It became a festival that rich libertarians love because it never had a radical critique at its core; and, without any semblance of democracy, it could easily be controlled by those with influence, power, and wealth.

Burning Man will be remembered more as the model for Google CEO Larry Page’s dream of a libertarian state, than as the revolutionary Situationist space that it could have been.

As such, it is a cautionary tale for radicals and utopianists. When “freedom” and “inclusion” are disconnected from democracy, they often lead to elitism and reinforcement of the status quo.

 

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/burning-man-one-percent-silicon-valley-tech/

Facebook patents technology to help lenders discriminate against borrowers

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg

Above: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg

Image Credit: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Facebook has been granted an updated patent from the U.S. Patent office on a technology that can help lenders discriminate against certain borrowers based on the borrower’s social network connections.

The patent describes a technology that tracks the way users are connected in a network. The main use case is for preventing members of a network from sending spam to other members with who they’re not directly or legitimately connected. Other use cases involve preventing network members from receiving emails from, or showing up in the search results of, people with whom they have no direct or legitimate connection.

But the technology can also aid in other types of discrimination. Here’s the last use case Facebook describes in the patent:

In a fourth embodiment of the invention, the service provider is a lender. When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.

The use of social network contacts as a basis for establishing credit worthiness is questionable; just because some of my friends have bad credit scores doesn’t mean I do.  But the technology would likely be valued by some banks to add a new metric to the review process.

Such technology could be harmful for the estimated 51 million Americans who have limited or no access to banking services, and could make them more prone to using alternative predatory systems such as payday loans.

Facebook bought the patent from Friendster in 2010. The inventor, Christopher Lunt, now works at getinsured.com, a website that offers tools to help people enroll in health insurance plans.

Research provided by legal technology firm SmartUp Legal.

 

http://venturebeat.com/2015/08/04/facebook-patents-technology-to-help-lenders-discriminate-against-borrowers-based-on-social-connections/

Mindfulness: Capitalism’s New Favorite Tool for Maintaining the Status Quo

PERSONAL HEALTH

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The meditative practice is being used in a way that betrays its anti-materialist roots.

I stumbled across mindfulness, the meditation practice now favored by titans of tech, sensitive C-suiters, new media gurus and celebrities, without even really knowing it.

A couple of years ago, I was deeply mired in an insane schedule that involved almost everything (compulsive list-making at 4am, vacations mostly spent working, lots of being “on”) except for one desperately missed item (sleep; pretty much just sleep). A friend suggested I download Headspace, a meditation app he swore would calm the thoughts buzzing incessantly in my head, relax my anxious energy and help me be more present. I took his advice, noting the app’s first 10 trial sessions — to be done at the same time over 10 consecutive days — were free. When I found the time to do it, it was, at best, incredibly relaxing; at worst, it barely made a dent in my frazzled synapses. When I didn’t find the time (because again, schedule), the effort to somehow make time became its own source of stress. In the end, I got an equally hectic yet far more satisfying career, took up running and forgot Headspace existed.

That is, until the term “mindfulness” reached a tipping point of near ubiquity. As it turned out, what I’d regarded as just a digitized form of guided meditation was actually a “mindfulness technique,” part of a bigger, buzzy, Buddhism-derived movement toward some version of corporate enlightenment. As long ago as 2012, Forbes reported that Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and several other corporate behemoths already had mindfulness programs in place for employees. Phil Jackson, the basketball coach with a record-setting 11 NBA titles, tacitly praised mindfulness for his wins, telling Oprah he’d incorporated the technique into player practice regiments. Arianna Huffington, empress of media, not only sings the praises of mindfulness in speeches around the country, but she and Morning Joe  co-host Mika Brzezinski just hosted anentire conference dedicated to it this past April. And perhaps least surprising of all, Gwyneth Paltrow is a proselytizing adherent, giving mindfulness in general, and Headspace in particular, a shout-out on her lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-beautiful website, Goop.

You can tell a lot about trendy new concepts by who embraces them, and why. In the case of mindfulness, business leaders cite a number of reasons why they’ve adopted the concept so wholeheartedly. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation reduces stress, thereby making it a safeguard against employee burnout. Research finds that mindfulness bolsters memory retention and reading comprehension, which means employees can be more accurate in processing information. One Dutch study found that mindfulness makes practitioners more creative, helping ensure workers remain a fount of ideas. And some schools for children as young as first grade have begun teaching mindfulness meditation, based on studies that suggest it helps maintainfocus, a resource in constant threat of short supply for those multitasking their way through so many mundane, workaday obligations.

The idea is that mindfulness helps cleanse cerebral clutter and hush neural distractions so we can redirect that brain power into being our most in-the-moment selves.

But really, we already knew this. Long before mindfulness became the path toward corporate good vibes — back when Westerners were getting into what was then simply called Zen meditation — millions were already offering unsolicited testaments to the restorative powers of the technique. (To modify an old joke about vegans, Q: How do you know someone’s into meditation? A: Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you.) The pesky problem with meditation, now dubbed “mindfulness,” was its connection with Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely credited with introducing the concept of mindfulness to America in the 1970s, reportedly recognized the spread of the concept might be helped by loosening its religious ties. As a New York Times article on the practice explains, Kabat-Zinn redefined the technique, giving it a secular makeover and describing it as “[t]he awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Without all that dogma attached, the opportunities for use were suddenly endless.

And there’s nothing business loves better than a good opportunity. Silicon Valley, which sits in the shadow of San Francisco and its countercultural influence, was first to recognize the benefits of mindfulness. In a New Yorkerpiece that explores the history of the phenomenon, Lizzie Widdicombe cites Steve Jobs — who traveled India as a teen and was an avid practitioner of meditation — as the first tech industry icon to weave mindfulness with business practices. His heir apparent in this arena is Chade-Meng Tan, whose title at Google is, no kidding, Jolly Good Fellow, or alternately, the slightly more formal Head of Personal Growth. Originally hired in 1999 as an engineer, in 2007 Tan headed up the company’s first “Search Inside Yourself” course, a two-day mindfulness-focused program. Since then, the corporate adopters of mindfulness, which also include Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Aetna, have grown to include companies in every area of business, stretching far beyond tech to banking, law, advertising, and even the United States military. (Although, it should be noted, deep meditation may actually be damaging for some PTSD sufferers, exacerbating the condition.)

Strip away all the fuzzy wuzzy, and one glaring fact stands out about mindfulness’s proliferation across the corporate world: At the end of the day, the name of the game is increased productivity. In other words, the practice has become a capitalist tool for squeezing even more work out of an already overworked workforce. Buddhism’s anti-materialist ethos seems in direct odds with this application of one of its key practices, even if it has been divorced from its Zen roots. In an article about “McMindfulness,” the pejorative term indicting the commodified, secularized, corporatized version of the meditative practice, David Loy states “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.”

A 2013 piece from the Economist titled “The Mindfulness Business” compares mindfulness to the culture of self-help, previously held as the cure-all for a business culture looking to maximize worker usefulness. The piece points out that this recontextualized version of meditation seems, cynically, to miss the point of the practice’s original intent:

“Gurus talk about ‘the competitive advantage of meditation.’ Pupils come to see it as a way to get ahead in life. And the point of the whole exercise is lost. What has parading around in pricey Lululemon outfits got to do with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods? And what has staring at a computer-generated dot got to do with the ancient art of meditation? Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change eastern religion than eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism.”

It’s a valid point that drives home the schism between the roots of the practice and the warped interpretation of it.

For now, there seems no end to the spread of mindfulness — which isn’t such a bad idea. The notion of self-care in an era of constant digital distractions, as well as midnight and weekend work email exchanges, is a welcome one. But what of the halfhearted appropriation of a noble, anti-capitalist practice to thicken the bottom line? As Loy notes in his Huffington Post piece, American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi warns that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” That’s a pretty good summation of what’s already happening. Until corporate America discovers its next trendy panacea, the practice will continue to spread, its miraculous effects touted — and often overstated— as a booster of profits and more. It’s a bit like oms for making better worker drones; or rather, Zen done the American way.

http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/mindfulness-capitalisms-new-favorite-tool-maintaining-status-quo?akid=13299.265072.H0AeTf&rd=1&src=newsletter1039283&t=1

Resisting the “sharing” economy

Under the guise of “innovation,” capitalism creeps into our personal relationships, networks and community.

He’s helped you a lot in the past and you don’t think twice about saying yes.

When the day comes, you pick him up in your car and drive together, alternating between chatting and singing along, badly, to the radio. You drop him off at the gate, give him a hug and wish him well on his trip. He offers to pay for gas, but you shake your head and say he can cook you dinner when he gets back instead. He smiles and takes his bag into the terminal. You wave and get back into your car.

You come to that dinner a few months later. The smell of food fills his apartment. As you wait for the dish to finish in the oven, he talks about his trip: all the places he went and the people he met. He said that a friend of someone he met there has been backpacking in this area and will be staying on his couch for a week or two. It was the least he could do, he said, after they treated him so well when he was there. A timer goes off and your friend goes to the oven to remove dinner. About an hour later, you’re both stuffed and, looking at what’s left, realize that he probably made way too much food. A conversation about food waste bubbles up and soon your friend gets an idea.

Your friend knocks on his neighbor’s door while you hold the tin of way-too-many leftovers. The neighbor opens up and your friend explains that he made more food than he could ever eat before it would spoil and so was wondering if she wanted some. She smiles and gets a tupperware that your friend fills up, she asks the two of you to come in for some wine, which you both eagerly accept. It’s tart and strong and refreshing. You stay for about 15 minutes and talk about cooking. After leaving, you and your friend repeat this with more of his neighbors until the leftovers are all gone, though you’re not exactly empty-handed: you have a small pie from one neighbor, a loaned book from another, two bottles of beer from a third, and a bunch of fresh basil from the forth, all given without any prompting or expectations, and accepted not as payment or exchange but as an expression of goodwill reflecting that which your friend sent to them.

What you witnessed that night is technically called “community”, but it’s something so fundamental to the human experience and so foundational to human well-being that even those without the word would recognize it for what it is: social relations for the sake of social relations, the benefits coming not as part of some market mechanism but from simple human connections, the very thing that allowed humans to survive without the teeth and claws that other creatures enjoyed. It’s something that has sustained us before the capitalist economic system was even conceived of.

Because of this, it doesn’t follow the logic of the market, the ruthlessness and greed that give meaning and horror, to the capitalist system. It follows, instead, the logic of solidarity and friendship – it cannot be turned into a stock, it cannot be sold in stores, and it cannot be hawked on an infomercial. Indeed, that is the point. And it is because of this that the capitalist system finds it so threatening and why it works so hard to dismantle it.

While capitalism has always produced alienation, the rise of the so-called “sharing” economy, facilitated through smartphone apps and fueled by mountains of venture capital, is the apotheosis of the system’s war against the non-economic sphere. You can share cars, apartments, even meals with the touch of a button. It promises to take power away from the large corporations and put it into the hands of the individual, turning a top-down command economy into a peer-to-peer networked one. In reality, however, it is nothing more than capitalism rebranding itself. Having studied complaints about it with all the seriousness of a market researcher, it has launched the same old product in a bright, shiny new package, the New Coke of economic systems. Don’t believe it. The end goal is the same as it always was: profit.

The rhetoric surrounding these “services” is nothing more than a cover for capitalism’s direct colonization of our social interactions, our personal relationships becoming nothing more than one more means of production for some far off executive congratulating himself for a job well done. No longer content with monopolizing our physical world, it has now turned to our social relations as well, seeking to reduce something fundamental to who we are into a line item on a balance sheet.

Under this system, getting a ride to the airport, staying at someone’s house when traveling, cooking meals and sharing leftovers, are actions undertaken not in the name of friendship and camaraderie but as an impersonal economic transaction. The “sharing” economy is nothing of the sort – it is a way for companies to get people to do their work without having to deal with things like wages or benefits. It’s a way to build a hotel empire without having to build any actual hotels; it’s how you make money off selling food without making, or even buying any yourself; it’s a fleet of taxis without having to deal with things like fuel costs, liability insurance and licensing (not to mention ornery unions). At best, it should be called a renting economy. The participants take on all the work and all the risk. All the companies do is provide the connections, something that can easily be done for free, and has been for centuries and yet, for some reason, the people who create these services are praised as innovators. It is a parasitic relationship that masquerades as symbiosis.

The tragedy of all this is that it has turned an idea with revolutionary potential into one more manifestation of the dominant economic paradigm, a top-down structure where anything outside the bottom line is, at best, a secondary concern best dealt with after the quarterly earnings report comes out, so as not to spook the investors. It’s like if someone invented the steam engine and the only thing people used it for was to get wrinkles out of shirts, for a hefty price. We shouldn’t really be surprised about this, though. This is what capitalism does: it expands and absorbs anything it touches. It has to grow, or it will die. It constantly needs new things to monetize, to commercialize, to turn into products that it can feed its captive global market, and so when it begins running out of other things to make money off of, why not turn to our social relations? At this rate, nowhere and nothing and no one will be free of its influence, to rise above the status of a commodity.

There is still a chance to preserve this one last bulwark against the hungry market, however, while the “sharing” economy is growing, it has yet to surpass the size of the real sharing economy, the old connections we share and the new ones we make every day. We must discard parasitism disguised as sharing and promote mutual aid and solidarity; networks of people that can sustain themselves and each other outside the ruthless logic of market relations. We must share food, not because we can make some money,but because we care about each other. We must share rooms, not because we have aspirations of becoming some mini-entrepreneur, but because we value our connections. We must open up to new relationships, not because they present more opportunities for monetization, but because we want to reverse the alienation and isolation that has been foisted on us by a cruel and uncaring economic system. We must not allow the last refuge from rapacious market relations to fall to capitalism, turning even our most intimate relationships into something with a calculable dollars-and-cents value that can be bought and sold like a used car.

This battle presents unique opportunities for resistance, because it is one that is largely decoupled from the physical world. They are fighting us on the ground of our personal relationships and it is here that we, not they, have the home field advantage. We can fight and we can win, as long as we have our friends.

— Chris Cunderscoreg is the founder of the blog We Are the 99 Percent.

https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/120/resisting-so-called-sharing-economy.html

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!!

Brentwood Parade 7

 

For me the 4th is always associated with happy memories I have of the holiday in my home town of Brentwood, PA.  As my disenchantment with San Francisco’s technotopia grows, I find myself reaching back to the community of small-town America, and on this special day the iconic Independence Day celebrations.  Those celebrations always began with the community parade and the core of that event was the appearance of the volunteer fire trucks.
The volunteer fire department is emblematic of the difference between small-town America and the big cities.  Kurt Vonnegut, himself a volunteer fireman, called volunteer firefighters “… the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land.”  Imagine.  Citizens putting themselves in harm’s way, protecting their communities, for free.  Yes.
My father was a member of Brentwood’s Volunteer Fire Department and some of my earliest memories involved riding on the big Mack Firetrucks in the 4th of July Parade as a small boy.  Norman Rockwell moments and, indeed, American was a different place back then.  Especially small-town, tight communities.  I’m really feeling the lack of caring community these days.  My neighborhood has been destroyed and I’m surrounded by cold, uncaring tech bros who come and go.  I suspect they use Ocean Beach as a kind of holding area while they look for accommodation in the Golden Mission.  La Playa has become “gasoline alley.”  Ugh.

“Steve Jobs,” portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce

When we abandon the arts, this is what’s left 

"Steve Jobs," portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce
Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” (Credit: Universal Pictures)

The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.

The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.

The likening of tech savants to artists goes back at least as far as Richard Florida’s books about the creative class, but it picked up energy with the 2011 death of Jobs, who was hailed as a job creator by Republican politicians and mystic genius by many others. You see this same impulse in the opening of Jonah Lehrer’s now-discredited book “Imagine,” which compared the inventor of the Swiffer (which “continues to dominate the post-mop market”) with William James and Bob Dylan.

The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)

So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?

The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.

While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.

Cold War funding supported culture even more directly – Eisenhower sent Louis Armstrong overseas – and television stations and magazines considered the dissemination of the arts part of what they did. Maria Callas, Thelonious Monk, and Leonard Bernstein showed up not just in small-circulation specialty publications but on the cover of Time magazine.

For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.

Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.

How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.

In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?

So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?

Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.

The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash.He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”

The Tech Industry Bubble Is About To Burst

Euphoric reaction to superstar tech businesses is rampant — so much so that the tech industry is in denial about looming threats. The tech industry is in a bubble, and there are sufficient indicators for those willing to open their eyes. Rearing unicorns, however, is a distracting fascination.

The Perfect Storm

Raising funding for tech startups has never been so easy. Some of this flood of money has been because of mutual funds and hedge funds, including Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Tiger Global Management. This is altering not only the funding landscape for tech startups, but also valuation expectations.

There are many concerns that valuations for businesses are confounding rationale. Entrepreneurs and their investors are deviating from more traditional valuation and performance metrics to more unconventional ones. Another cause cited for increasing valuations is the trend of protections for late investors that cause valuations to inflate further. The combination of a number of these factors has put the sector into a state of artificial valuations.

Meanwhile, the companies themselves are burning through cash like there is no tomorrow. Throwing money at marketing, overheads and, in particular, remuneration has become the accepted investment strategy for startup growth. All this does is perpetuate the vicious cycle of raising more money and spending more money. For the amounts that some of these businesses have raised, the jury is still out on actual profitability.

Unicorn Season

CB Insights publishes information on unicorns (companies with a valuation above $1 billion), which shows that access to the club has become increasingly less exclusive in the last couple of years. The chart below shows that the number of companies valued at $1 billion or above in 2014 exceeded previous years by quite some margin (47 unicorns joined the club in 2014 vs. 7 and 8 in 2012 and 2013, respectively). In addition, for the first 5 months of 2015, this trend shows no signs of abating (32 new unicorns as of June 1, 2015).

bubblechart

Different Experts, Same Conclusion

In the face of these trends, a small group of well-respected and influential individuals are voicing their concern. They are reflecting on what happened in the last dot-com bust and identifying fallacies in the current unsustainable modus operandi. These relatively lonely voices are difficult to ignore. They include established successful entrepreneurs, respected VC and hedge fund investors, economists and CEOs who are riding their very own unicorns.

Mark Cuban is scathing in his personal blog, arguing that this tech bubble is worse than that of 2000, because, he states, that unlike in 2000, this time the “bubble comes from private investors,” including angel investors and crowd funders. The problem for these investors is there is no liquidity in their investments, and we’re currently in a market with “no valuations and no liquidity.” He was one of the fortunate ones who exited his company, Broadcast.com, just before the 2000 boom, netting $5 billion. But he saw others around him not so lucky then, and fears the same this time around.

A number of high-profile investors have come out and said what their peers all secretly must know. Responding to concerns raised by Bill Gurley (Benchmark) and Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures), Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz expressed his thoughts in an 18-tweet tirade. Andreessen agrees with Gurley and Wilson in that high cash burn in startups is the cause of spiralling valuations and underperformance; the availability of capital is hampering common sense.

The tech startup space at the moment resembles the story of the emperor with no clothes.

As Wilson emphasizes, “At some point you have to build a real business, generate real profits, sustain the company without the largess of investor’s capital, and start producing value the old fashioned way.” Gurley, a stalwart investor, puts the discussion into context by saying “We’re in a risk bubble … we’re taking on … a level of risk that we’ve never taken on before in the history of Silicon Valley startups.”

The tech bubble has resulted in unconventional investors, such as hedge funds, in privately owned startups. David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital Inc. stated that although he is bullish on the tech sector, he believes he has identified a number of momentum technology stocks that have reached prices beyond any normal sense of valuation, and that they have shorted many of them in what they call the “bubble basket.”

Meanwhile, Noble Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, who previously warned about both the dot-com and housing bubbles, suspects the recent equity valuation increases are more because of fear than exuberance. Shiller believes that “compared with history, US stocks are overvalued.” He says, “one way to assess this is by looking at the CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) ratio … defined as the real stock price (using the S&P Composite Stock Price Index deflated by CPI) divided by the ten-year average of real earnings per share.”

Shiller says this has been a “good predictor of subsequent stock market returns, especially over the long run. The CAPE ratio has recently been around 27, which is quite high by US historical standards. The only other times it is has been that high or higher were in 1929, 2000, and 2007 — all moments before market crashes.”

Perhaps the most surprising contributor to the debate on a looming tech bubble is Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat. Founded in 2011, Spiegel’s company is a certified “unicorn,” with a valuation in excess of $15 billion. Spiegel believes that years of near-zero interest rates have created an asset bubble that has led people to make “riskier investments” than they otherwise would. He added that a correction was inevitable.

What Does A Bubble Look Like?

To shed light on how close we may be to the tech bubble bursting, it is worthwhile trying to understand what determines being in a bubble. Typically, this refers to a situation where the price of an asset exceeds by a large margin its fundamental value.

In his 1986 book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, economist Hyman Minsky’s theory of financial instability attracted a great deal of attention, and gathered an increasing number of adherents following the crisis of 2008-09. Minsky identified five stages that culminate in a bubble, as described in this Forbes article: displacement, boom, euphoria, profit taking, and panic.

Uber is an enviable company for much of what it has achieved, and the team is to be commended for how they have grown this business, as well as their previous successes. However, it serves as a good example to illustrate the dynamics of the tech bubble.

Displacement:Investors’ excitement with a new paradigm, such as advances in technology or historically low interest rates. The explosion of the “sharing economy” has resulted in companies such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb growing exponentially in recent years by taking advantage of this new mode of operation.

Boom:Prices rise slowly at first, but then gain momentum as more participants enter the market. Fear of missing out (FOMO) attracts even more participants. Consequently, publicity for the asset class in question increases. Reviewing investment rounds for Uber since 2010 when they completed their seed round shows a large variety of investors wanting a piece of the action, perhaps in part due to a fear of missing out on the golden goose. The introduction of hedge funds and investment banks funding the business can also be seen, which underlines the facelift happening in this sector.

Euphoria:Asset prices increase exponentially; there is little rationale evident in decision making. During this phase, new valuation measures and metrics are touted to justify the unrelenting rise of asset prices. Uber’s increased valuation between funding rounds symbolizes the euphoria around the business. The chart below shows the evolution of Uber’s pre-money valuation over the last number of funding rounds.

Source: CB Insights; data analyzed by Funding Your Tech Startup

 

Although the pace of revenue growth at Uber is astounding (doubling approximately every 12 months at the moment), profitability is less certain. Profitability margins should increase over time as recognition and saturation are achieved in newer markets, but it is difficult to ignore the regulatory burdens and lawsuits the business is facing, which could steer it off course.

Profit taking:The few that have identified what’s going on are making their profit by selling their positions. This is the right time to exit, but is not seen by the majority. This is the next indicator on the horizon that will underline that we are in a tech bubble, and that it is about to burst. The catalyst for profit taking could be regulatory strains or excessive cash consumption that isn’t reflected by profitability gains in startups. Savvy investors will take the opportunity to exit while valuations are still high. The exits may well be too late for investors who are further behind on the FOMO curve or new types of investors who don’t appreciate that the market has moved.

Panic:By now it’s too late and asset prices collapse as rapidly as they once increased. With everyone trying to cash in realizing the situation, supply outstrips demand and many face big losses. Watch this space for the unfortunately impending examples.

Conclusion

The fact that we are in a tech bubble is in no doubt. The fact that the bubble is about to burst, however, is not something the sector wants to wake up to. The good times the sector is enjoying are becoming increasingly artificial. The tech startup space at the moment resembles the story of the emperor with no clothes. It remains for a few established, reasoned voices to persist with their concerns so the majority will finally listen.

 

http://techcrunch.com/2015/06/26/the-tech-industry-is-in-denial-but-the-bubble-is-about-to-burst/?ncid=rss&cps=gravity_1462_-7218853287940442458