Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions

Tesla required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions

Elon Musk may be a “visionary,” but his vision doesn’t seem to include unions
(Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared in In These Times


Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been making more headlines than usual lately. Shortly after the business magnate claimed he had received governmental approval to build a hyperloop from New York to Washington, D.C., he got into a public argument with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the future of artificial intelligence. Musk also recently made comments regarding the production of Tesla’s new Model 3, a battery-electric sedan. “We’re going to go through at least six months of manufacturing hell,” he told journalists.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes “manufacturing hell,” but it might also be difficult to ever find out. That’s because, since last November, Tesla has required employees to sign confidentiality agreements which prevent them from discussing workplace conditions. This policy has faced increased criticism since February, as workers at Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. plant have expressed concern over wages, safety and their right to unionize. They have reached out to the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) union, which is now intervening.

Last week, some of those workers made specific demands. A group called Tesla Workers’ Organizing Committee sent a letter to the company’s board members seeking safety improvements and a clearer promotion policy. The letter cites 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the last full year for which such information is available. “For that year, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that our injury rate was higher than that of sawmills and slaughter houses. Accidents happen every day,” reads the letter. The committee also addressed Tesla’s resistance to workplace organizing: “We should be free to speak out and to organize together to the benefit of Tesla and all of our workers. When we have raised this with management we have been met with anti-union rhetoric and action.”

Attention was originally drawn to the factory’s organizing fight after Tesla employee Jose Moran published a Medium post on February 9. Moran raises safety concerns, writing that, a few months ago, six of the eight people on his work team were on leave due to workplace injuries. He also breaks down problems with the factory’s wages. According to Moran, workers at the Tesla factory make between $17 and $21 in Alameda county, an area where the living wage is more than $28 an hour. Moran wrote that some of his coworkers make a two-hour commute to work because they can’t afford to live near the factory.

“Tesla’s Production Associates are building the future: They are doing the hard work to build the electric cars and battery packs that are necessary to reduce carbon emissions. But they are paid significantly below the living wage for one adult and one child in our community,” Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of the local worker advocacy group Silicon Valley Rising, told In These Times via email. “We believe that green jobs should be good jobs, and that they have a right to organize and advocate for themselves and their families.”

The day after Moran published his post, employees passed out literature containing the piece during a shift change at the factory. According to an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made by workers, and obtained by Capital and Main, this prompted management to schedule a meeting where workers were told they couldn’t pass out information unless it was pre-approved by the employer. The same NLRB charge accuses Tesla of illegal surveillance and intimidation.

Moran’s piece, and the subsequent accusations, were taken seriously enough to be addressed by Elon Musk directly. In an email to employees, obtained by Buzzfeed, Musk declared that safety concerns ignored vast improvements established in 2017. Tesla also put out a statement echoing Musk’s claims. The company’s data points to a 52 percent reduction in lost time incidents and a 30 percent reduction in recordable incidents during the company’s first quarter.

Musk promised a “really amazing party” for workers after the Model 3 reached volume production. In addition to the party, the factory would eventually include free frozen yogurt stands and a roller coaster. “It’s going to get crazy good,” he wrote. As for Moran, Musk claimed he was a paid UAW plant and that he had looked into his claims and discovered they weren’t true. The UAW, he explained, “does not share our mission” and their “true allegiance is to the giant car companies, where the money they take from employees in dues is vastly more than they could ever make from Tesla.”

This wouldn’t be the last time Musk would use such language in regards to a union. Six months after Tesla acquired Germany’s Grohmann Engineering, Musk found himself clashing with the country’s dominant metalworkers’ union, IG Metall. The union intervened to insist that Tesla straighten out a wage discrepancy that had some workers claiming they were making 30 percent less than union rates. Musk sent a letter to Grohmann employees offering a one-time bonus — an extra 150 Euros a month — and Tesla shares instead of a pay increases that the employees desire. “I do not believe IG Metall shares our mission,” reads the letter.

“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told The Guardian in May. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing.” Two months after that interview, Automotive News reported that Musk had been the highest paid auto executive of 2016, exercising stock options worth $1.34 billion. Musk’s incredible economic success hasn’t exactly been generated via an unfettered free market. According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Musk’s companies have benefited from billions in government subsidies.

Whether or not Tesla’s board members are receptive to employee demands, it seems clear that the workers’ struggle is not going away anytime soon.

How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention

Free your brain: 

A continual quest for attention both drives and compromises Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian vision

Free your brain: How Silicon Valley denies us the freedom to pay attention
(Credit: Salon/Flora Thevoux)

In late June, Mark Zuckerberg announced the new mission of Facebook: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

The rhetoric of the statement is carefully selected, centered on empowering people, and in so doing, ushering in world peace, or at least something like it. Tech giants across Silicon Valley are adopting similarly utopian visions, casting themselves as the purveyors of a more connected, more enlightened, more empowered future. Every year, these companies articulate their visions onstage at internationally streamed pep rallies, Apple’s WWDC and Google’s I/O being the best known.

But companies like Facebook can only “give people the power” because we first ceded it to them, in the form of our attention. After all, that is how many Silicon Valley companies thrive: Our attention, in the form of eyes and ears, provides a medium for them to advertise to us. And the more time we spend staring at them, the more money Facebook and Twitter make — in effect, it’s in their interest that we become psychologically dependent on the self-esteem boost from being wired in all the time.

This quest for our eyeballs doesn’t mesh well with Silicon Valley’s utopian visions of world peace and people power. Earlier this year, many sounded alarm bells when a “60 Minutes” exposé revealed the creepy cottage industry of “brain-hacking,” industrial psychology techniques that tech giants use and study to make us spend as much time staring at screens as possible.

Indeed, it is Silicon Valley’s continual quest for attention that both motivates their utopian dreams, and that compromises them from the start. As a result, the tech industry often has compromised ethics when it comes to product design.

Case in point: At January’s Consumer Electronics Convention – a sort of Mecca for tech start-ups dreaming of making it big – I found myself in a suite with one of the largest kid-tech (children’s toys) developers in the world. A small flock of PR reps, engineers and executives hovered around the entryway as one development head walked my photographer and me through the mock setup. They were showing off the first voice assistant developed solely with kids in mind.

At the end of the tour, I asked if the company had researched or planned to research the effects of voice assistant usage on kids. After all, parents had been using tablets to occupy their kids for years by the time evidence of their less-than-ideal impact on children’s attention, behavior and sleep emerged.

The answer I received was gentle but firm: No, because we respect parents’ right to make decisions on behalf of their children.

This free-market logic – that says the consumer alone arbitrates the value of a product – is pervasive in Silicon Valley. What consumer, after all, is going to argue they can’t make their own decisions responsibly? But a free market only functions properly when consumers operate with full agency and access to information, and tech companies are working hard to limit both.

During a “60 Minutes” story on brain hacking, former product manager at Google Tristan Harris said, “There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it.”

The problem, according to Harris, is that “this is just not true… [Developers] want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.”

Harris was homing in on the fact that, increasingly, it isn’t the price tag on the platform itself that earns companies money, but the attention they control on said platform – whether it’s a voice assistant, operating system, app or website. We literally “pay” attention to ads or sponsored content in order to access websites.

But Harris went on to explain that larger platforms, using systems of rewards similar to slot machines, are working not only to monetize our attention, but also to monopolize it. And with that monopoly comes incredible power.

If Facebook, for instance, can control hours of people’s attention daily, it can not only determine the rate at which it will sell that attention to advertisers, but also decide which advertisers or content creators it will sell to. In other words, in an attention economy Facebook becomes a gatekeeper for content – one that mediates not only personalized advertising, but also news and information.

This sort of monopoly brings the expected fiscal payoff, and also the amassing of immeasurable social and cultural power.

So how does Facebook’s new mission statement fit into this attention economy?

Think of it in terms of optics. The carotid artery of Facebook, along with the other tech giants of Silicon Valley, is brand. Brand ubiquity means Facebook is the first thing people check when they take their phones out of their pockets, or when they open Chrome or Safari (brought to you by Google and Apple, respectively). It means Prime Day is treated like a real holiday. Just like Kleenex means tissues and Xerox means copy, online search has literally become synonymous with Google.

Yet all these companies are painfully aware of what a brand-gone-bad can do – or undo. The current generation of online platforms is built on the foundations of empires that rose and fell while the attention economy was still incipient. Today’s companies have maintained their centrality by consistently copying (Instagram Stories, a clone of Snapchat) or outright purchasing (YouTube) their fiercest competitors – all to maintain or expand their brand.

And perhaps as important, tech giants have made it near impossible to imagine a future without them, simply by being the most prominent public entities doing such imagining.

Facebook’s mission affixes the company in our shared future, and also injects it with a moral or at least charitable sensibility – even if it’s only in the form of “bring[ing] the world closer together”-type vagaries.

So how should we as average consumers respond?

In his award-winning essay “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Persuasion in the Attention Economy,” James Williams argues, “We must … move urgently to assert and defend our freedom of attention.”

To assert our freedom is to sufficiently recognize and evaluate the demands to attention all these devices and digital services represent. To defend our freedom entails two forms of action: first, by individual action – not unplugging completely, as the self-styled prophets of Facebook and Twitter encourage (before logging back on after a few months of asceticism) – but rather unplugging partially, habitually and ruthlessly.

Attention is the currency upon which tech giants are built. And the power of agency and free information is the power we cede when we turn over our attention wholly to platforms like Facebook.

But individual consumers can only do so much. The second way we must defend our freedom is through our demand for ethical practices from Silicon Valley.

Some critics believe government regulation is the only way to rein in Silicon Valley developers. The problem is, federal agencies that closely monitor the effects of product usage on consumers don’t have a good category for monitoring the effects of online platforms yet. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tracks medical technology. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) focuses on physical risk to consumers. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)  focuses on content — not platform. In other words, we don’t have a precedent for monitoring social media or other online platforms and their methods for retaining users.

Currently, there is no corollary agency that leads dedicated research into the effects of platforms like Facebook on users. There is no Surgeon General’s warning. There is no real protection for consumers from unethical practices by tech giants — as long as those practices fall in the cracks between existing ethics standards.

While it might seem idealistic to hold out for the creation of a new government agency that monitors Facebook (especially given the current political regime), the first step toward curbing Silicon Valley’s power is simple: We must acknowledge freedom of attention as an inalienable right — one inextricable from our freedom to pursue happiness. So long as the companies producing the hardware surrounding us and the platforms orienting social life online face no strictures, they will actively work to control how users think, slowly eroding our society’s collective free will.

With so much at stake, and with so little governmental infrastructure in place, checking tech giants’ ethics might seem like a daunting task. The U.S. government, after all, has demonstrated a consistent aversion to challenging Silicon Valley’s business and consumer-facing practices before.

But while we fight for better policy and stronger ethics-enforcing bodies, we can take one more practical step: “pay” attention to ethics in Silicon Valley. Read about Uber’s legal battles and the most recent research on social media’s effects on the brain. Demand more ethical practices from the companies we patronize. Why? The best moderators of technology ethics thus far have been tech giants themselves — when such moderation benefits the companies’ brands.

In Silicon Valley, money talks, but attention talks louder. It’s time to reclaim our voice.

http://www.salon.com/2017/08/05/free-your-brain-how-silicon-valley-denies-us-the-freedom-to-pay-attention/?source=newsletter

Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to 13 leading socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites

2 August 2017

New data compiled by the World Socialist Web Site, with the assistance of other Internet-based news outlets and search technology experts, proves that a massive loss of readership observed by socialist, anti-war and progressive web sites over the past three months has been caused by a cumulative 45 percent decrease in traffic from Google searches.

The drop followed the implementation of changes in Google’s search evaluation protocols. In a statement issued on April 25, Ben Gomes, the company’s vice president for engineering, stated that Google’s update of its search engine would block access to “offensive” sites, while working to surface more “authoritative content.”

The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships. The results are as follows:

* wsws.org fell by 67 percent
* alternet.org fell by 63 percent
* globalresearch.ca fell by 62 percent
* consortiumnews.com fell by 47 percent
* socialistworker.org fell by 47 percent
* mediamatters.org fell by 42 percent
* commondreams.org fell by 37 percent
* internationalviewpoint.org fell by 36 percent
* democracynow.org fell by 36 percent
* wikileaks.org fell by 30 percent
* truth-out.org fell by 25 percent
* counterpunch.org fell by 21 percent
* theintercept.com fell by 19 percent

Of the 13 web sites on the list, the World Socialist Web Site has been the most heavily affected. Its traffic from Google searches has fallen by two thirds.

The new statistics demonstrate that the WSWS is a central target of Google’s censorship campaign. In the twelve months preceding the implementation of the new Google protocols, the WSWS had experienced a substantial increase in readership. A significant component of this increase was the product of Google search results. The rapid rise in search traffic reflected the well-documented growth in popular interest in socialist politics during 2016. The rate of growth accelerated following the November election, which led to large protests against the election of Trump.

Search traffic to the WSWS peaked in April 2017, precisely at the point when Google began the implementation of its censorship protocols.

Another site affected by Google’s action has provided information that confirms the findings of the WSWS.

“In late May, changes to Google’s algorithm negatively impacted the volume of traffic to the Common Dreams website from organic Google searches,” said Aaron Kaufman, director of development at progressive news outlet Common Dreams. “Since May, traffic from Google Search as a percentage of total traffic to the Common Dreams website has decreased nearly 50 percent.”

The extent and impact of Google’s actions prove that a combination of techniques is being employed to block access to targeted sites. These involve the direct flagging and blackballing of the WSWS and the other 12 sites listed above by Google evaluators. These sites are assigned a highly negative rating that assures that their articles will be either demoted or entirely bypassed. In addition, new programming technology teaches the computers to think like the evaluators, that is, to emulate their preferences and prejudices.

Finally, the precision of this operation strongly suggests that there is an additional range of exclusion techniques involving the selection of terms, words, phrases and topics that are associated with socialist and left-wing websites.

This would explain why the World Socialist Web Site, which focuses on issues such as war, geopolitics, social inequality and working class struggles has experienced such a dramatic fall in Google-generated searches on these very topics. We have seen that the very terms and phrases that would under normal circumstances be most likely to generate the highest level of hits—such as “socialism,” “Marxism” and “Trotskyism”—produce the lowest results.

This is an ongoing process in which one can expect that Google evaluators are continuously adding suspect terms to make their algorithm ever more precise, with the eventual goal of eliminating traffic to the WSWS and other targeted sites.

The information that has been gathered and published by the WSWS during the past week exposes that Google is at the center of a corporate-state conspiracy to drastically curtail democratic rights. The attack on free speech and uncensored access to information is aimed at crippling popular opposition to social inequality, war and authoritarianism.

The central and sinister role of Google in this process demonstrates that freedom of speech and thought is incompatible with corporate control of the Internet.

As we continue our exposure of Google’s assault on democratic rights, we demand that it immediately and unequivocally halt and revoke its censorship program.

It is critical that a coordinated campaign be organized within the United States and internationally against Google’s censorship of the Internet. We intend to do everything in our power to develop and contribute to a counter-offensive against its efforts to suppress freedom of speech and thought.

The fight against corporate-state censorship of the Internet is central to the defense of democratic rights, and there must be a broad-based collaboration among socialist, left and progressive websites to alert the public and the widest sections of the working class.

Andre Damon and David North

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/08/02/pers-a02.html

Google’s chief search engineer legitimizes new censorship algorithm

By Andre Damon
31 July 2017

Between April and June, Google completed a major revision of its search engine that sharply curtails public access to Internet web sites that operate independently of the corporate and state-controlled media. Since the implementation of the changes, many left wing, anti-war and progressive web sites have experienced a sharp fall in traffic generated by Google searches. The World Socialist Web Site has seen, within just one month, a 70 percent drop in traffic from Google.

In a blog post published on April 25, Ben Gomes, Google’s chief search engineer, rolled out the new censorship program in a statement bearing the Orwellian title, “Our latest quality improvements for search.” This statement has been virtually buried by the corporate media. Neither the New York Times nor the Wall Street Journal has reported the statement. The Washington Post limited its coverage of the statement to a single blog post.

Framed as a mere change to technical procedures, Gomes’s statement legitimizes Internet censorship as a necessary response to “the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’ where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information.”

The “phenomenon of ‘fake news’” is, itself, the principal “fake news” story of 2017. In its origins and propagation, it has all the well-known characteristics of what used to be called CIA “misinformation” campaigns, aimed at discrediting left-wing opponents of state and corporate interests.

Significantly, Gomes does not provide any clear definition, let alone concrete examples, of any of these loaded terms (“fake news,” “blatantly misleading,” “low quality, “offensive,” and “down right false information.”)

The focus of Google’s new censorship algorithm is political news and opinion sites that challenge official government and corporate narratives. Gomes writes: “[I]t’s become very apparent that a small set of queries in our daily traffic (around 0.25 percent), have been returning offensive or clearly misleading content, which is not what people are looking for.”

Gomes revealed that Google has recruited some 10,000 “evaluators” to judge the “quality” of various web domains. The company has “evaluators—real people who assess the quality of Google’s search results—give us feedback on our experiments.” The chief search engineer does not identify these “evaluators” nor explain the criteria that are used in their selection. However, using the latest developments in programming, Google can teach its search engines to “think” like the evaluators, i.e., translate their political preferences, prejudices, and dislikes into state and corporate sanctioned results.

Gomes asserts that these “evaluators” are to abide by the company’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines, which “provide more detailed examples of low-quality webpages for raters to appropriately flag, which can include misleading information, unexpected offensive results, hoaxes and unsupported conspiracy theories.”

Once again, Gomes employs inflammatory rhetoric without explaining the objective basis upon which negative evaluations of web sites are based.

Using the input of these “evaluators,” Gomes declares that Google has “improved our evaluation methods and made algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content.” He again asserts, further down, “We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content.”

What this means, concretely, is that Google decides not only what political views it wants censored, but also what sites are to be favored.

Gomes is clearly in love with the term “authoritative,” and a study of the word’s meaning explains the nature of his verbal infatuation. A definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary for the word “authoritative” is: “Proceeding from an official source and requiring compliance or obedience.”

The April 25 statement indicates that the censorship protocols will become increasingly restrictive. Gomes states that Google is “making good progress” in making its search results more restrictive. “But in order to have long-term and impactful changes, more structural changes in Search are needed.”

One can assume that Mr. Gomes is a competent programmer and software engineer. But one has good reason to doubt that he has any particular knowledge of, let alone concern for, freedom of speech.

Gomes’s statement is Google-speak for saying that the company does not want people to access anything besides the official narrative, worked out by the government, intelligence agencies, the main capitalist political parties, and transmitted to the population by the corporate-controlled media.

In the course of becoming a massive multi-billion dollar corporate juggernaut, Google has developed politically insidious and dangerous ties to powerful and repressive state agencies. It maintains this relationship not only with the American state, but also with governments overseas. Just a few weeks before implementing its new algorithm, in early April, Gomes met with high-ranking German officials in Berlin to discuss the new censorship protocols.

Google the search engine is now a major force for the imposition of state censorship.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/07/31/goog-j31.html

What if all journalists wrote like tech journalists?

Hypnotized by Silicon Valley’s hype machine, too many tech writers are little more than fawning lackeys

What if all journalists wrote like tech journalists?

Apple CEO Tim Cook(Credit: AP/Richard Drew)

Ever since the ’90s tech boom, tech journalists have tended to cover their beat a little differently. More specifically, compared to other journalistic fields, tech journalism is more likely to be reverent, even fawning, toward the subjects it is supposed to critique.

“Visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that ‘gadget porn’ videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption,” wrote my Salon colleague Angelo Young, in his article about how Silicon Valley sells a side of ideology with its gadgets. “[C]riticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.”

This is the dismal state of tech journalism in the digital era: Because of the tech industry’s success at branding itself as selling a sunny, progressive vision of the future, most (but not all) tech journalists don’t really cover it with a critical eye. Some publications and blogs read like advertisements for gadgets, and breathlessly cover minor, quotidian firmware updates as if they were front-page stories.

Which leads us to a thought experiment: What if all news stories were written the way tech journalists cover their beats? What if all journalism was infected with the same cultish CEO adulation, the fawning adoration, the puff pieces about how this week’s disposable gadget is the most amazing thing to have ever existed? How might the news look to us then?

Reader, here’s a take on a shiny new product — not in the tech industry, but the fast-food industry — written from just that perspective.

It’s here: McDonald’s Lobster Roll 7

McDonald’s adds a fresher crustacean and an improved crunch at a higher price point — but should you buy it?

Reviewing the new Lobster Roll 7 is a lot like reviewing the previous models, but different. The roll, which was announced last week at the annual Worldwide Food-Eater’s Conference (WFEC) at the futuristic McDonald’s campus in Oak Brook, outwardly resembles the last Lobster Roll — but inside, it’s totally new.

Until recently, the notoriously secretive fast-food company had been mum about the next generation of its ever-popular sandwich. For the past two years, journalists have had to rely on the slow trickle of supply-chain rumors and leaked photos of questionable veracity to guess at the nature of the next model. The hype machine is so overblown that there’s a cottage industry of excitable vloggers who make a living creating speculative computer mock-ups of the next Lobster Roll and posting them on YouTube.

But back to the WFEC reveal: Perhaps the most surprising announcement from the Wizards of Oak Brook was the changed naming scheme. No more McLobster. It’s just Lobster Roll 7 now.

More elegant, perhaps, and an intriguing shift in marketing strategy for the decidedly minimalist company. Indeed, since meticulously engineering the first McLobster, the company has opted to make subtle year-to-year changes in its sandwich design, a strategy that makes sense given its astonishing popularity. Many reviewers believed the second generation model was “near-perfect”; how can you improve on perfection? Tinkering is all that’s left. Yet as sandwich tech improves, we can surely expect to see some of the fruits of that innovation implicated in this model. McDonald’s certainly spends a pretty penny on R&D.

If you take a closer look, most of the outward changes to this Lobster Roll model are subtle. For example, the way the lobster is cut is more angular than before — an interesting design decision for a company that always had a fetish for bevels. And for the first time, the lettuce no longer comes from Korean-based Lettuce International; relations between the two companies have been frosty ever since LI began selling a competitor crustacean roll.

While anticipation was sky-high for the next iteration of the Lobster Roll line, questions linger about McDonald’s ability to continue to dominate the industry. Mickey D fanboys have reason to be suspicious of this release; ever since the first groundbreaking McLobster was released in 1993, the crustacean fast-food space has become way more crowded. Rival Panera has been innovating in the crustacean sandwich world for the past few years, and has built up an impressive condiment ecosystem to rival that of McDonald’s. Likewise, the new Lobster Roll 7 will be the first iteration of the McDonald’s line released under the aegis of new CEO Steve Easterbrook, who last year took the reins from his iconic, brilliant, industry-defining predecessor, the ever-reclusive wunderkind Don Thompson — whose leadership of the industry-defining company has been immortalized in five biopics over the past 10 years, including an eponymous 2016 film written by Aaron Sorkin.

But enough about expectations. What about the product?

Let’s just say that fanboys are likely to call this Lobster Roll “world changing” (many of them without even tasting it, if the long lines outside McDonald’s stores across the globe are any indication). You may roll your eyes at such an epithet, but they may indeed be right. Even the most crotchety reviewers will likely admit that the Lobster Roll 7 epitomizes a paradigm shift for the industry. And to those who say it’s barely an innovation on previous models, I say this: Why mess with perfection?

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die

CNN delves into a decade of pat neoliberalism and hollow spectacle and, unsurprisingly, comes up with nothing

CNN’s “The Nineties”: Empty nostalgia for a decade we should let die
The Nineties (Credit: CNN)

To anyone who came of age in the 1990s, the current cultural ascent of fidget spinners is likely to induce an acute pang of recognition — equal parts wistful nostalgia, anxiety and woozy terror. The ‘90s were, as any certified “Nineties Kid” can attest, a decade marked by a succession of asinine schoolyard fads.

One can imagine an alternative timeline of the decade that marks time not by year, but the chronology of crazes: the Year of the Beanie Baby, the Year of the Tamagotchi, the Years of the Snap-Bracelet, the Macarena, the Baggy Starter Jacket, the Painstakingly Layered “The Rachel” Hairdo, and so on. What’s most remarkable about our culture’s whirring fidget spinner fetish is that it didn’t happen sooner; that this peak fad didn’t emerge from among the long, rolling sierra of hollow amusements that defined the 1990s.

Surveying the current pop-culture landscape, one gets the sense that the ‘90s— with all its flash-in-the-pan fads and cooked-up crazes — never ended. On TV, “The Simpsons” endures into its 28th season, while David Lynch and Mark Frost’s oddball ABC drama “Twin Peaks” enjoys a highly successful, and artistically fruitful, premium-cable revival. The Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers and Treasure Trolls have graduated from small-screen Saturday morning silliness to blockbuster entertainments.

Elsewhere, the “normcore”/“dadcore”/“lazycore” fashion of singers like Mac DeMarco has made it OK (even haute) to dress up like a “Home Improvement”-era Jonathan Taylor Thomas. And Nintendo recently announced its latest money-printing scheme, in the form of the forthcoming SNES Classic Mini: a handheld throwback video game platform chock-full of nostalgia-baiting Console Wars standbys like “Donkey Kong Country,” “F-Zero” and “StarFox.” Content mills like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and their ilk bolster their bottom line churning out lists and quizzes reminding you that, yes, the show “Rugrats” existed.

To quote a nostalgic ’97-vintage hit single, which was itself a throwback to ‘60s jazz-pop, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

It’s natural to languish for the past: to trip down memory lane, get all dewy-eyed about the past, pine for the purity of the long-trampled gardens of innocence, and go full Proust on the bric-a-brac of youth that manages to impress itself on the soft, still-maturing amber of the adolescent mind, even if that stuff was total crap like Moon Shoes or a Street Shark or Totally Hair Barbie doll or a bucket of Nickelodeon-brand goo called “Gak.” The 1990s, however, offered a particularly potent nostalgia trap, something revealed watching CNN’s new TV documentary miniseries “event,” fittingly called “The Nineties.”

A follow-up to CNN’s previous history-of-a-decade events (“The Sixties,” “The Seventies” and “The Eighties”) and co-produced by Tom Hanks, the series provides some valuable insight into the nature of ’90s nostalgia. The two-part series opener, called “The One About TV,” threads the needle, examining the ways in which television of the era shifted the standards of cultural acceptability, be it in Andy Sipowicz’s expletive-laden racism, Homer Simpson’s casual stranglings of his misfit son or the highbrow, Noel Coward-in-primetime farces of “Frasier.”

To believe CNN’s procession of talking heads, damn near every TV show to debut after midnight on Jan. 1, 1990, was “revolutionary.” “The Simpsons” was revolutionary for the way it hated TV. “Twin Peaks” was revolutionary for the way it subverted it. “Seinfeld” ignored (or subtracted, into its famous “Show About Nothing” ethic) the conventions of the sitcom. “Frasier” elevated them. “Will & Grace,” “Ellen” and “The Real World” bravely depicted gay America. Ditto “Arsenio,” “Fresh Prince” and “In Living Color” in representing black America. “OZ” was revolutionary for its violence. “The Sopranos” was revolutionary in how it got you to root for the bad guy. “Friends” was revolutionary because it showed the day-to-day lives of, well, some friends. If the line of argumentation developed by “The Nineties” is to be believed, the TV game was being changed so frequently that it was becoming impossible to keep up with the rules.

Despite seeming argumentatively fallacious (if everything is subversive or game-changing, then, one might argue, nothing is), and further debasing the concept of revolution itself, such an argument cuts to the heart of ‘90s nostalgia. In pop culture, it was an era of seeming possibility, where it became OK to talk about masturbation (in one of “Seinfeld’s” more famous episodes) or even anal sex (as on “Sex & the City”), where “Twin Peaks” and “The Sopranos” spoke to the rot at the core of American life. “The Nineties” paints a flattering, borderline obsequious portrait of Gen-X ’90s kids as too hip, savvy and highly educated to be suckered in by the gleam and obvious propaganda that seemed to define “The Eighties.” (The ’90s kid finds a generational motto in the tagline offered by Fox’s conspiratorial cult sci-fi show “The X-Files”: trust no one.)

What “The Nineties” misses — very deliberately, one imagines — is the guiding cynicism of such revolutions in television. Far from being powered by a kind of radical politics of inclusivity, TV was (and remains) guided by its ability to deliver certain demographics to advertisers. In the 1990s, these demographics splintered, becoming more specialized. Likewise, entertainment streams split. The bully “mean girls” watched “90210,” the bullied watched “My So-Called Life,” and the kids bullied by the bullied watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Then on Thursday night, everyone watched “Seinfeld.”

This parade of prime-time cultural revolutions betrayed the actual guiding political attitude of the decade: stasis. The second episode of “The Nineties” turns to the scandal-plagued political life of Bill Clinton. “A new season of American renewal has begun!” beams Clinton, thumb pressed characteristically over a loosely clenched fist, early in the episode. For the Democrats, Bill Clinton seemed like a new hope: charming, charismatic, hip, appearing in sunglasses on Arsenio to blow his saxophone. But like so many of TV’s mock-insurgencies, the Clinton presidency was a coup in terms of aesthetics, and little else.

Beyond his sundry accusations of impropriety  (Whitewater, the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky sex scandals, etc.), Clinton supported the death penalty, “three strikes” sentencing, NAFTA, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and countless other policies that alienated him from his party’s left-progressive wing. Clinton embodied the emerging neoliberal ethic: cozying up to big banks and supporting laissez-faire economic policies that further destabilized the American working and middle classes, while largely avoiding the jingoist militarism, nationalism and family values moralism of ‘80s Reaganomics. Clinton’s American renewal was little more than face-lift.

“The Simpsons,” naturally, nailed this devil-you-know distinction in a 1996 Halloween episode, which saw the bodies of Bill Clinton and then-presidential rival Bob Dole inhabited by slithering extraterrestrials. Indistinguishable in terms of tone and policy, the body snatching alien candidates beguiled the easily duped electorate with nonsensical stump speeches about moving “forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”

A 1992 book by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama summed up the ’90s’ neoliberal approach to politics. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” Fukuyama posited that the collapse of the Soviet Union following the Cold War had resolved any grand ideological and historical conflicts in world politics. Liberal democracy and capitalism had won the day. Free market democracy was humanity’s final form. History — or at least the concept of history as a process of sociological evolution and conflict between competing political systems — had run its course.

Following the publication of “The End of History,” Fukuyama became an institutional poli-sci Svengali (John Gray at the New Statesman dubbed him the “court philosopher of global capitalism”), with his ideas holding significant major sway in political circles. The 1990s in America, and during the Clinton presidency, in particular, were a self-styled realization of the “end of history.” In the wake of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall, the president’s position was largely functionary: enable the smooth functioning of markets, and the free flow of capital. Such was the horizon of political thought.

Fukuyama’s book has been subjected to thorough criticism for its shortsightedness — not least of all for the way in which its central argument only serves to consolidate and naturalize the authority of the neoliberal elite. More concretely, 9/11 and its aftermath are often cited as signals of the “revenge of history,” which introduces new, complicated clashes of world-historical ideologies.

Though it’s often touted for its triumphalism, as a cheerleading handbook for the success of Westernized global capitalism, Fukuyama’s end of history theory is suffused with a certain melancholy. There’s one passage, often overlooked, which speaks to the general content and character of the ’90s (and “The Nineties”). “The end of history will be a very sad times,” he writes. “In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come.”

Our fresh new millennium has been marked, in political terms, by cultural clashes between decadent Western liberalism and militant Islamism (both sides bolstering their positions with the hollow rhetoric of religious zealotry), the abject failure of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the reappearance of white supremacist and ethno-nationalist thinking, the thorough criticism of neoliberalism, and the rise of a new progressive-left (signaled by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders), alongside a similarly invigorated form of moderatism referred to as “the extreme centre.” Amid such wild vicissitudes, the placid neoliberal creep of Fukuyama’s “post-history” feels downright quaint.

This is the sort of modern nostalgia that CNN’s “The Nineties” taps into: a melancholy for the relative stability of a decade that was meant to mark the end of history itself. Not only did things seem even-keeled, but everything (a haircut, a GameBoy game about tiny Japanese cartoon monsters, a sitcom episode about waiting for a table) seemed radical, revolutionary and, somehow, deeply profound. We are, perhaps invariably, prone to feeling elegiac for even the hollowness of A Decade About Nothing. It’s particularly because the 1990s abide in our politicians, our ideologies, our prime-time entertainments, blockbusters movies and even, yes, in our faddish toys, designed to ease our fidgety anxiety about the muddled present, and keep us twirling, twirling back into memory of a simpler, stupider past.

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of “This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall” (ECW Press).

Trump has a dangerous disability

 
During his many television interviews, President Trump often leaves his interviewers with more questions than answers. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer May 3

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.

In February, acknowledging Black History Month, Trump said that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Because Trump is syntactically challenged, it was possible and tempting to see this not as a historical howler about a man who died 122 years ago, but as just another of Trump’s verbal fender benders, this one involving verb tenses.

Now, however, he has instructed us that Andrew Jackson was angry about the Civil War that began 16 years after Jackson’s death. Having, let us fancifully imagine, considered and found unconvincing William Seward’s 1858 judgment that the approaching Civil War was “an irrepressible conflict,” Trump says:

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Library shelves groan beneath the weight of books asking questions about that war’s origins, so who, one wonders, are these “people” who don’t ask the questions that Trump evidently thinks have occurred to him uniquely? Presumably they are not the astute “lot of,” or at least “some,” people Trump referred to when speaking about his February address to a joint session of Congress: “A lot of people have said that, some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber.” Which demotes Winston Churchill, among many others.

What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.

The United States is rightly worried that a strange and callow leader controls North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. North Korea should reciprocate this worry. Yes, a 70-year-old can be callow if he speaks as sophomorically as Trump did when explaining his solution to Middle Eastern terrorism: “I would bomb the s— out of them. . . . I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.”

As a candidate, Trump did not know what the nuclear triad is. Asked about it, he said: “We have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ballgame.” Invited to elaborate, he said: “I think — I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Someone Trump deemed fit to be a spokesman for him appeared on television to put a tasty dressing on her employer’s word salad: “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?” To which a retired Army colonel appearing on the same program replied with amazed asperity: “The point of the nuclear triad is to be afraid to use the damn thing.”

As president-elect, Trump did not know the pedigree and importance of the one-China policy. About such things he can be, if he is willing to be, tutored. It is, however, too late to rectify this defect: He lacks what T.S. Eliot called a sense “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” His fathomless lack of interest in America’s path to the present and his limitless gullibility leave him susceptible to being blown about by gusts of factoids that cling like lint to a disorderly mind.

Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances. So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict.

Washington Post