David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “October, 2018”

Workers, Owners, and the Mathematics of Wealth

Over the last 30 years, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased by about 1072%.  In other words, if you had had an investment that just tracked the DJIA, not one that tried to “beat the market,” as they say, your investment would have multiplied by about 12 times during that period.  An investment like that would have an annual rate of return of about 9%.  So let’s say you can beat the market a little, and get an annual return of 10%.  That’s not too hard, really.


Suppose you start with $1000.  In 10 years you would more than double your money.  In 30 years, your investment would yield about $17,000 – quite a bit of money, of course, but hardly a fortune.  On the other hand, if someone else started with $500,000, and invested it in such a way as to produce the same annual return – 10% – he would also more than double his money in 10 years.  He would then have about 1.3 MILLION DOLLARS.  In other words, he would make 50 TIMES in 10 years what you made in 30 years.


The mathematics of money are something the average America hardly gives a thought to.  Finance, which was less than 3% of our economy in 1950, is now well over 8%, and growing.  In a way, it’s amazing that wealth doesn’t get more concentrated in the hands of a few.  Think about it.  The average American household takes in about $61,000 per year.  Over 10 years that would be $610,000.  But someone with investments totaling 10 million dollars, having an annual return of 10%, takes in 1 MILLION DOLLARS EVERY YEAR WITHOUT LIFTING A FINGER, or depleting the original investment.  And some people have much more than that.  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has a net worth of more than 100 BILLION DOLLARS.  If all of that wealth were merely in a money market account, drawing 1.8% interest, he would take in 1.8 BILLION DOLLARS EVERY YEAR.  It hardly needs to be said that his annual return is much higher than that.


When you have lots of money, making lots more is a no-brainer.  You can’t help it.  In the classic movie Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor’s character, Monty Brewster, is given 30 million dollars.  If he can spend it all within 30 days, he will inherit 300 million.  But there are lots of conditions.  He cannot simply give the money away.  At the end of the 30 days, he must not have any assets (except the ones he already had before).  He cannot simply buy expensive objects and destroy them.  He cannot hire people at incredible wages and get no service of value from them.

Brewster of course quickly finds ways to spend large amounts of money, such as renting an expensive hotel suite and making bad gambling bets.  He even starts his own campaign for mayor.  But his friend Spike, who isn’t “in the loop” about what’s going on, is busily investing what isn’t being spent.  The result is that Brewster is making money faster than he can spend it.  That’s not so implausible when you consider that to spend $30 million in a month, you’d have to spend $41,700 PER HOUR, every hour, 24 hours a day.  As well as the additional money the unspent money is making, every hour, 24 hours a day.  And this was in 1985.


Brewster succeeded, barely, and inherited the $300 million.  Now, with a 10% annual return, he would be taking in $82,000 A DAY, every day.  In a year, he’d make $30 million.  Even if he spends $10 million EVERY YEAR, within 10 years his unspent money will have more than doubled.  He will now have $619 million, which at a 10% annual return will make about $62 million per year, about $170,000 a day.  And so on.

My point is that when you already have lots of money, it’s hard NOT to make lots more.  If you don’t spend it hand over fist, it just grows and grows.  Even if it’s just sitting in a bank account, it’s growing.  The better money markets currently pay about 1.8% interest.  On $619 million dollars, that’s more than $11 million a year.  But then no one with that kind of money puts it into a mere bank account.


Where does all of that new wealth originate?  How can interest just “appear”?  How can equities just “grow” in value?  These are questions the average American seldom asks.  A common assumption, heavily promoted by propagandists, is that all of this wealth comes from the sweat of hard-working human beings.  It’s a fanciful idea, and a little consideration shows how flawed it is.  In 1800, America was a largely agricultural country.  Most productive labor was performed by humans and animals.  The real GDP per capita was only about $1000.  Today, agriculture is only a small part of our economy, and even that is highly mechanized.  Our real GDP per capita is more than $40,000.  Clearly, the average American doesn’t work 40 times as hard today as he did in 1800.  That’s what scientific advancement and technology have given us.

Of course, someone owns all of that productive technology.  Not workers, generally.  Workers are not owners.  Workers collect wages.  Owners collect profits.  Since the vast majority of productive work comes from machines, it is not surprising that owners reap great rewards from that machine labor.


Since technology is responsible for most production, some people are surprised that our economy doesn’t grow faster.  In the mid 20th century, our economy grew rapidly, often at rates of 5-8% per year.  These days it’s generally more like 1-4% per year.  If scientific advancement and automation are giving us production, why doesn’t more automation give us more growth?

The problem is that machines are not consumers.  They don’t actually buy anything.  Production is the value of goods and services PURCHASED.  A machine might crank out 10 million Barbie dolls in a month.  But if no one buys them, no production has occurred.  It’s not about how much stuff is made.  It’s about how much is bought.  When large numbers of people aren’t paid very well, they don’t have much disposable income to buy stuff.  This is exactly why our economy struggles along, even with increasing automation.  The machines can “produce” as much as we want.  But someone has to have the money to buy that stuff.


A thriving middle class is the key to strong economic growth.  In the mid 20th century, when growth was so strong, labor unions were also strong.  America was a manufacturing powerhouse, and many of those jobs were union jobs.  Many households were single breadwinner, yet were often doing better than many 2-breadwinner households today.  Today we have much better technology, able to generate far more wealth.  Real GDP today is 3 times what it was in 1950.  But owners collect a much higher percentage of that productive wealth.  And a few owners can only consume so much stuff.

Of course, owners still need human workers for many critical tasks.  Agriculture and manufacturing, though, are increasingly automated.  Most of our economy now consists of service jobs, and many of those don’t pay well – hamburger flippers, maids, supermarket stockers, receptionists.  This is exactly why an increasing percentage of production is going to finance.  Our economy is increasingly top-heavy.  And this is bad for the economy as a whole.  But individual owners and CEO’s do not base their actions on the economy as a whole.  Their goal is to maximize profits, which means cutting labor costs.  The system creates a downward spiral.  It’s inherently unstable.


Very likely, long before the downward spiral leads to collapse, we will see accelerating automation that will force a revolutionary restructuring of our economy.  Up until now we have been pretty good at skirting around an inescapable reality – that the vast majority of productive work is done by machines.  Since the machines are not owned by workers, workers are increasingly squeezed out of the rewards.  When “work” as we have known it becomes largely obsolete, this reality will be unavoidable.

The Past, Present, and Future of Anti-intellectualism

In 1980, 11 months before Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, Newsweek published an essay by Isaac Asimov.  It was entitled “A Cult of Ignorance.”  Asimov noted, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” jeffersonbible Actually, America’s founding fathers were quite intellectual.  American democracy is a child of the Enlightenment.  It wasn’t just about a rejection of the divine right of kings.  It was a rejection of supernatural causes altogether, a commitment to evidence and reason.  Thomas Jefferson produced his own “Bible” called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which excluded miraculous or supernatural elements.  There were anti-intellectual elements even back then, of course.  Religious zealots, striving to achieve the supremacy of their particular religion, accused him of being a “howling atheist,” an infidel.  It was in fact these criticisms that prompted one of his most famous quotes:  “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The real rise of anti-intellectualism in America came about when religious fundamentalism was merged with capitalism.  This started in the late 19th century with Dwight Moody.  Moody did not grow up in a fundamentalist church.  His parents were Unitarians.  When he was a teenager, he worked as a shoe salesman in his uncle’s store.  His uncle required him to attend the Congregational Church of Mount Vernon.  It was there that Moody was converted to evangelicalism.  He became a salesman for religious fundamentalism – organizing revivals and spreading the word.  But this was only the beginning. quakeroats In 1881 Henry Crowell bought the Quaker Mill Company, which produced oatmeal using the “Quaker” brand – even though Quakers had nothing to do with it.  He launched a national advertising campaign based on an image of a man in a Quaker outfit.  The whole point was to create trust, to create an impression of purity – just as brands like Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima are supposed to create trust.  In 1901 the Quaker Oats Company came into being.  That very year, Crowell joined the Moody Bible Institute, and by 1904 was running it.  He created a new “brand” for Christianity – one that wasn’t tied to any particular sect or denomination.  This new brand would be the “pure” Christianity. It wasn’t until 1917, with the help of oil tycoon Lyman Stewart, that this brand of “pure” Christianity acquired a name – fundamentalism.  The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth was a series of essays, published by Lyman, and a response to modernism quite generally – to Biblical criticism, science, and indeed, the whole notion of progress, which was vital to modernism.  But without large amounts of money, none of this would have ever been very influential.  Businessmen like Crowell and Stewart were absolutely vital to the spread of fundamentalism. Guitar and Mandolin It’s important to realize that Christian fundamentalism meant an abandonment of traditional denominations.  Virtually every Christian denomination had, by this time, abandoned Biblical literalism and embraced science.  At the same time, virtually every Christian denomination had its conservatives who felt uncomfortable with all of this.  Fundamentalism provided them with validation.  The notion of religious purity was powerful.  Equally important, fundamentalists used music and lively services to create excitement.  It was during this time that Pentecostalism was created.  But fundamentalism was essentially non-denominational.  It was also during this time that businesses, religious leaders, and politicians discovered the value of “plain folks” appeals. It’s also important to note that conservative businessmen had a natural, easy path to blend Christian fundamentalism with anti-union propaganda – Karl Marx had attacked religion as the “opiate of the people.”  Anti-communism and Christian fundamentalism were a package.  And there was an additional element.  Karl Marx was Jewish.  Labor organizers often tried to unify workers of all ethnicities.  Conservative businessmen knew they could appeal to white workers with racist language.  Communistic Jews were conspiring to give black people power over you and destroy Christianity.  To a great extent, it worked, especially in the South.  To this day, the blend of religious fundamentalism and economic conservatism is overwhelmingly a feature of white, non-Jewish America.  Non-whites have never bought into it.  They were never really invited. apollo The incredible advances of the 20th century largely overwhelmed religious fundamentalism in America.  Many Americans, particularly those in rural areas, who had grown up without running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and the telephone, lived to see television, microwave ovens, heart transplants, and space travel.  Religious fundamentalism tended to be brushed aside as obsolete superstition, and it seemed that everyone wanted a better life for their children – which included a good education.  The sheer momentum of scientific and technological advancement drowned out the fundamentalists. pentecostals All of that seemed to change in the 1970’s, after high-profile assassinations and Watergate.  Religious fundamentalism came back with a vengeance, using decades-old techniques on a young and unsuspecting generation – contemporary music, energetic services, highly emotional, personal appeals.  But this time the “doctrine” was far from an idealistic attachment to Christian service and an afterlife in paradise.  Trust in institutions of almost every kind was fading, and even more importantly, the kind of idealism that dominated the 1960’s was crashing and burning.  At the time, the 1970’s was naively called the “me decade,” before we realized that it was just a prelude to a whole “me generation.”  I remember a bumper sticker from that time very well:  “I’ve abandoned my search for truth, and now I’m looking for a good fantasy.”  And this new surge of religious fundamentalism provided something that was all about “me,” something that made it even more compatible with capitalism than the early 20th century variety – the prosperity gospel. prosperitygospel In contrast to mainline religions, which were still all about self-sacrifice and humility, these new fundamentalists emphasized rewards in this life, today, right now.  Everything was all about you, today.  God would take care of you.  All you needed was faith.  You didn’t need to strive, educate yourself, improve yourself.  If you needed anything, all you had to do was ask.  God would reward you as a sign to unbelievers.  A nice, big house?  A sign of the faithful.  A beautiful new car?  A sign of the faithful.  Name it and claim it.  Other people?  All you needed to do was convert them to the faith.  Then God would take care of them too.  Simple.  No fuss, no muss. This made the new fundamentalism a perfect match for economic conservatism.  No need to educate yourself, join a civic group, or support any government program.  No need to strive to improve yourself, or work toward a more just society.  You and all other human beings were fundamentally flawed, and all you needed to do was leave it to God.  How convenient for conservative businessmen, who of course have never just sat back and left it to God, but who had been battling government regulation and organized labor all along.  How convenient for conservative power-mongers like Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation, who now saw the opportunity to use religion as a cover to squash worker rights, environmental protection, and anything else that stood in the way of corporate profits.  Joining forces with Jerry Falwell, they quickly realized that the abortion issue could be used to motivate an army of culture warriors. reagan And then came Ronald Reagan.  Reagan welcomed religious fundamentalism into the public square with open arms.  Ideas that had long since been discredited, even by mainline religions, such as young earth creationism, gained support.  At the same time, he reinforced the cynicism and distrust of institutions that was already in the air.  An anti-government ethic began to take hold.  Conservative groups began to push an anti-science agenda in public schools, and dry up financial support for universities, where most science originates.  It has largely worked.  The American education system has produced generations of students that not only know little about science, but for that matter, history, philosophy, literature, art – in short, all of the things that are important to an educated citizen of a democracy. bachelorstrends After World War II and into the 1970’s, young Americans went to college in ever-increasing numbers.  By 1976, 28% of American men aged 25 to 29 had Bachelor’s degrees.  But then, in the 1980’s, something startling happened.  This percentage actually decreased.  By 1990 it was down to about 22%.  It was not until the early 2000’s that it finally began to rise significantly again.  The rates of college completion for women continued to rise during the 1980’s, although much more slowly than earlier.  By 1992, more young women than men had Bachelor’s degrees, and this discrepancy has increased since then. Among rural men the trend is even more startling.  About 24% of rural men aged 60-64 have Bachelor’s degrees.  These people reached college age during the 1970’s.  But among rural men aged 50-54 (who reached college age during the Reagan years), the percentage is only 16%.  And among those aged 25-29, only 14% have Bachelor’s degrees!  Rural American men, who are overwhelmingly white, have virtually abandoned college.  They find themselves in the grip of a right-wing propaganda machine, both religious and secular, which reinforces their fears and prejudices about “elitists.” lincoln2 Indeed, the very word intellectual has a negative connotation in much of America.  Abraham Lincoln was a genius, perhaps our most brilliant president.  But no one calls him an intellectual.  Instead he is smothered with talk of his compassion, because the last thing we want to do is honor his incredible mental prowess.  One excerpt from Asimov’s essay is particularly noteworthy:  “We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around.  People like that are called ‘elitist.’”  I say noteworthy because the implication is that prior to 1980, the word elitist was not in popular usage in America.  Ignorance was not a source of pride.  Anti-intellectualism was there, always, but as an undercurrent, not mainstream. Particularly in the last 20 years, as college campuses have grown increasingly non-white and non-male, a conservative propaganda machine has promoted an anti-intellectual message to poorly-educated whites, white males particularly.  This has set the stage for our opportunistic populist moron-in-chief.  Although he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he tells them exactly what they have been primed to hear – that they are the “real” America, the America that must regain its supremacy over the “fake” Americas.  Scientists?  Don’t trust ‘em.  Universities?  Full of “America haters.”  The “mainstream media”?  Fake news.  Public servants?  They all cater to “those people.” traditionalfamily The problem, as I have indicated, is that all of this has been directed toward poorly educated white Americans, American males particularly.  It depends on very specific image of an American family – white, male-dominated, church-going.  Defending America was defending this image in the minds of many whites.  Non-whites and independent women were never really invited.  The result is predictable.  As white America ages, new generations of Americans arise, which are overwhelmingly urban and increasingly non-religious.  They don’t have preconceptions about the role of government.  They don’t see themselves as defending something from change.  The very messages that were so effective with poorly-educated white males are turning new generations away from political conservatism. And American women are increasingly independent.  Today about 4 out of 10 women aged 25-29 have Bachelor’s degrees.  Young women are delaying marriage more and more.  Single women simply do not vote for conservatives.  In the last presidential election, only 33% of single women voted Republican.  Young women are increasingly impatient with male privilege and traditionalists who condone disrespect and harassment.  Having hitched their wagon to the Trump star, American conservatives have now sealed their fate with young American women. unaffliliatedgrowth Young America is increasingly educated, non-white, and non-religious.  It remains to be seen how much MORE educated America will become.  Switzerland has one of the highest percentages of residents with the equivalent of a 4-year degree:  49%.  This still leaves half of the population without such a degree.  Even in Finland, where college tuition is free and there are lots of support systems for students, only 41% of residents have the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree. scientist It is very possible that we will see an increasing divide between educational haves and have-nots, particularly if automation takes over large portions of the economy and basic income gives people financial security.  Alternatively, as work is redefined, we may see the rate of college completion skyrocket, and college become the new normal, as high school completion did in the early 20th century.  If this happens, it is inevitable that anti-intellectualism will lose much of its appeal, and that critical thinking skills will become much more a part of everyday life in America. https://media.aphelis.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ASIMOV_1980_Cult_of_Ignorance.pdf

The Boob Tube, Past, Present, and Future

When I was a kid, we had a television.  But only 3 channels were available (and one of them was usually quite fuzzy).  All of them were commercial broadcast channels.  I grew up watching lots of commercials, so much so that many of them are still in my head after more than 50 years – a testament to the effect of television on a young impressionable mind.  Some of them are for products or even companies that no longer exist.  The television shows themselves, especially in prime time, were mostly written by actual professional writers.  They had actual plots, actual sets, and actual actors.  In other words, they were constructed the same basic way that movies are constructed.


Broadcast television was “free” in the sense that the television signals were there all the time, penetrating every home, unencrypted, available to be picked up by any television set.  Naturally there had to be a mechanism to pay for it.  That mechanism was sponsorship.  Advertising.  Typically there were a couple of 30-second commercials at 15-minute intervals, and longer commercial breaks at 30-minute intervals.  Over time, the number and length of commercials gradually increased at the expense of programming.  Shows that originally aired in the 1960’s had to be edited down when they were rerun in the 1970’s and 1980’s.


In the 1980’s, along came cable television.  Suddenly hundreds of channels were available, most of them 24 hours a day.  They had to be filled with something.  You can’t possibly fill hundreds of non-stop channels with shows written by actual writers with actual plots.  And even the shows written by actual writers with actual plots seemed to be on a race to the bottom.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of this was Beavis and Butthead, which largely consisted of 2 loathsome characters going “heh heh, heh heh, heh heh” at each other for half an hour.

When they found they couldn’t go lower than that with actual plotlines, many cable networks largely abandoned writers and plots altogether, in favor of the cheapest possible product.  The result was some version of cameras just following people around, either celebrity wannabe’s or cops or ghost chasers or whoever.  No plots, no professional writers, no legitimate actors.  Those things cost money.  Just fill the time and don’t spend money doing it.


Cable television, unlike broadcast television, was never free.  Yet even from the beginning, almost all cable channels had commercials.  When cable television first arrived, the commercials on the new cable networks were relatively few and infrequent, pretty similar to those in the early days of broadcasting.  But soon they multiplied.  Today most cable channels contain 5 to 10 minutes of actual program, interspersed with numerous commercials, so much so that a movie with a run time of only 2 hours on the big screen will often take 4 hours or more to play on cable.  The frequent, long commercial interruptions inevitably trivialize anything being presented, especially since the commercials are usually louder than the program – which is why the major news networks refused to play commercials for hours and hours after the infamous events of the morning of 11 Sept 2001.

It is a little-publicized fact that many highly educated Americans strongly limit their kids’ television time.  Some of them forbid their children from watching television altogether.  If that seems extreme, consider that most highly educated Americans expect their kids to do well in school.  That means studying hard, doing lots of homework and projects, getting a solid grounding in history, literature, philosophy, math, science, art, and so on.  All of this is accomplished with LOTS OF READING.  How is all of this reading going to occur if the children spend hours and hours in front of the television?  Don’t get me wrong.  There are excellent educational shows on television – the many historical documentaries produced by Ken Burns come to mind.  But none of it can possibly substitute for the written word.


Then, quite recently, along came streaming video.  Calling it streaming is a bit ironic, because it’s really cable television that “streams” in the sense that it spews out a continuous stream of – well, whatever.  There is no pause button, no control other than the channel selector.  If the television is on, the content is flowing.  It’s a lot like, well, let’s be honest, audio-visual diarrhea.  So-called “streaming” video gives the viewer control.  You can’t simply flip from channel to channel.  You have to actively select a program.  And importantly, you have control over the flow.  You can pause at any point.  You can exit from the show you’re watching and return to it later exactly where you left off.  You’re watching on your terms and your timetable, not the terms of your streaming provider.


I have 8 nieces and nephews.  And I have a television.  In any given week, there is an excellent chance that one or more of my nieces or nephews will be sitting in front of that television.  But here’s the thing.  We don’t have cable.  We have a few streaming channels and we have YouTube.  We have to pay for the streaming channels and they are more or less commercial-free.  And the shows – well, there are lots of movies and series, and there are lots of kid’s shows.  The vast majority of them are written by actual writers and have actual plots.  What streaming does, essentially, is give the viewer access to hundreds of “channels” without the producers of the material having to crank out a continuous stream of content.  The quality improves.

Netflix is a prime example.  (No, this isn’t a commercial for Netflix.  It’s just a good example.)  Netflix is devoid of commercials – even commercials for Netflix!  The shows that are actually funded by Netflix are invariably written by actual writers and have actual plots.  This doesn’t stop kids from watching.  They are happy to sit in front of the television for hours at a time, watching nothing but programs written by actual writers with actual plots.


Since we don’t have cable and don’t subscribe to any streaming news channels, we get ZERO news from the television screen at home.  (Actually, we can browse the web on the television, but it’s much easier to do that on a computer or phone.)  In 10 minutes I can read more news articles on the internet than I can get from an hour of watching television news.  In fact, most of what gets displayed on my phone is news, opinionating, and fact-checking from the internet – the NY Times, the Washington Post, HuffPost, Politifact, Politico, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and on and on.  The internet gives us access to countless sources of news that were formerly out of reach for the average person.  Given this, the last thing I would want to do is gather most of my news from the boob tube.

I can’t help but wonder what much longer cable television as we have known it will survive.  Even sports are available now on Amazon Prime.  And I can’t help but wonder whether television news channels, especially the hours and hours of talking heads on cable, will survive much longer.  Who is going to spend $100+ per month to watch people yammer at each other?  It seems to me that those who actually care about politics are going to turn to the internet, and those who don’t are going to go to streaming video.  Even now large numbers of young people are getting their news primarily from the internet.


There’s television, and then there’s television.  “Television” as we have known it, which is to say, a collection of channels producing continuous video feeds containing numerous commercials, seems destined for oblivion, at least in people’s homes.  Digital technology gives consumers the power to choose only the content they want.  They are unlikely to continue to pay $100+ per month for 200 channels of visual diarrhea, most of which they never even look at, when they can pay $20 per month for what they actually want to see.  “Television” has always been an oddity in this respect.  Imagine going to the supermarket and having someone say, “You pay a set monthly fee of $100 and you get to choose from these groceries.”  “But I don’t even like most of this stuff,” you respond.  “Why I can’t I just pay for the stuff I want?”  “Because we say so.  We make the rules.  We have the power.  You can’t pick and choose.  Take it or leave it.”


Like so many things in life, we tend to think the television of today will be the television of tomorrow.  But change is the one constant in life.  Blacksmiths were once very common in America.  So were chamber pots.  “Television” is no more permanent than steamboats or horse-drawn carriages.

Refusing to give you access to a soapbox and a bullhorn is not censorship

Recently  I read about a “prophet” who was interviewed on a YouTube network.  I won’t give his name, or the name of the network, because I don’t want to give them any more publicity than they might already have.  If you doubt what I am about to relate, I’m sure you can put some key words into most any search engine and find them.


This “prophet” explained that opposition to Supreme Court prospect Brett Kavanaugh is all about preventing Trump from establishing military tribunals to try and even execute Democratic leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  This “prophet” further explained that “God’s been speaking a lot to me through racehorses.  The racehorse named Barack Obama was euthanized. That is probably the biggest prophetic sign that you could have of God saying this man is going to go down.  Period.  That’s the bottom line.  You can get mad at me all you want to, but God’s the messenger here, he is the one sending the message.  People don’t think that this stuff is real or it’s going to happen.  It’s going to happen.”

I repeat, this person was given access to a YouTube network.  Because he’s telling a certain segment of the population exactly what they want to hear, he’s given access.  And if he weren’t, he would no doubt scream “censorship.”  It is a familiar refrain from extremists, especially on the right wing.  And to some extent, it works, because professional journalists are usually very sensitive to bias accusations.


Now of course you might argue that this kind of detachment from reality is not really that popular.  I am constrained to point out that there has long been huge a gray area in our media between reality and fantasy.  So-called “science” networks are full of shows about alien abduction, bigfoot expeditions, and increasingly, moon shot denialism.  So-called “history” networks are full of shows about haunted Civil War sites, Atlantis, and voodoo curses.  Americans’ ideas about other countries and even other states are highly caricatured and have little connection with reality.  And so-called “news,” on both television and the internet, is increasingly infiltrated by conspiracy theorists, people who get platforms and bullhorns by reinforcing the fears, fantasies, and prejudices of other people.

Danah Boyd is a researcher at Microsoft’s Data and Society Research Institute.  In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named her one of its top 100 global thinkers.  A few weeks ago, she gave a talk at the Online News Association conference in Austin, Texas.  The talk was entitled “Media Manipulation, Strategic Amplification, and Responsible Journalism.”


Since Boyd was speaking to a professional audience and not lay people, her language was a bit rarefied.  She used words like “conflate” and “rubric.”  But her message to journalists was this:  Watch yourselves.  There are those who are trying to manipulate you into amplifying their views in the name of freedom of speech, and thus manipulate the public into buying into conspiracy theories and a general distrust of evidence-based journalism.

In the process, Boyd makes an important point.  Americans often have very naïve ideas about what censorship means.  There are more than 300 million people in America.  The idea that we are all going to be able to get everyone else’s FULL ATTENTION, even for a moment, is absurd.  Someone, a lot of someones in fact, are not going to get the bullhorn.  The issue is not who will get censored.  Most of us will, inevitably.  It’s whose voice will get AMPLIFIED.  That’s what the media does.  It amplifies a few voices.


An on-line search engine does the same thing.  Just because I spend a lot of time talking about science, critical thinking, and white supremacy in this blog does not mean it will pop up near the tops of searches on science, critical thinking, or white supremacy.  I can no more demand a spot at the top of a Google search than I can demand an op-ed at the NY Times.  If that’s censorship, it’s the kind of censorship that comes with living on a planet with 7 billion other people.

So who deserves to be amplified?  And who makes that call?  Well, in the past, there’s been a system of “gatekeepers,” people who had to earn their positions and play according to certain rules.  People who have worked quietly, behind the scenes, the filter out what they consider the garbage and amplify the nuggets of truth.  People who were well aware that access to the media implies LEGITIMACY.  Editors – editors at newspapers, professional journals, textbook publishers, television networks.  There has been an unwritten understanding between the public and these gatekeepers – that we will trust them to screen out the garbage.  All of us have to get our information somewhere.  We can’t possibly run down every story, journal article, or television segment for accuracy.  We depend on these professionals.


The problem is that we have this vague idea that what is popular must be right.  After all, isn’t that what democracy is fundamentally about?  The masses are supposed to be able to govern themselves, which means that the majority must make wise decisions.  And in the long term, this is probably correct.  “….you cannot fool all of the people all of the time,” Lincoln famously said.  But the critical phrase there is ALL OF THE TIME.  Lincoln also said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time.”  The majority sometimes makes big mistakes in the short term.

Our economic system is all about the short term.  And our media system is very much beholden to economics.  Boyd tells us “The news industry has been undermined by the financial sector.”  I would go a lot farther than that.  I would say that since the advent of television, the news industry is overwhelmingly about short-term ratings.  It wants to give us what we “want” – which means what is popular, today, right now.  Not what is good for the country, or even good for us in the long term.  It is happy to give us candy rather than nutritious food.  It is happy to reinforce our fears, prejudices, and tribalisms, if that holds our interest.  It is happy to make us our own worst enemies, if that means we don’t change the channel, right now, today.


Reality is not popular.  Look at wrestling.  You have genuine competitive wrestling, like college or Olympic wrestling.  And you have the spectacle of “professional” wrestling.  Gee, I wonder which of the two is more popular?  Actual space travel will never be as exciting as Star Wars.  Actual history will never be as popular as hobbits, fairy tales, and King Arthur’s round table.  Actual reality will never be as popular as conspiracy theories and the WWE.

Human well-being, on the other hand, is part of inescapable reality.  As I have said before, there is pain and pleasure, sickness and health, poverty and wealth, oppression and freedom.  Because candy and saturated fat are popular does not make them healthy.  Because tobacco and cocaine are popular does not make them healthy.  Because prejudice and tribalism are popular does not make them healthy.  If we merely yield to what is popular in the short term, we will find ourselves on a path to self-destruction.


Making actual decisions about actual human well-being on the basis of popularity is fine – IF – we follow certain rules.  Those rules are the rules of evidence and reason.  We have to realize that we are vulnerable to certain inherent tendencies.  And because of these we’re are vulnerable to manipulation by those who want to use our fears, prejudices, and addictive tendencies for their own purposes.  In the end, I think we will find that uncontrolled capitalism is not really compatible with democracy, any more than theocracy is compatible with democracy.  There’s nothing wrong with religion per se.  Religious people do great deal of good on this planet.  But when religion is used to create an “us” and a “them,” when it is used to promote myth at the expense of reality, as all fundamentalist religions do, it becomes an agent of evil.


The same is true of capitalism.  Properly controlled, capitalism can produce great happiness.  Friendly competition gives us lots of wonderful products, services, and technologies, at affordable prices.  But left to its own devices, unbridled capitalism is happy to sell us the rope to hang ourselves.  It will sell us all the candy and cookies and more candy and cookies and addiction and gratification and fear and division we can eat.  And if we can’t eat any more, capitalism will sell us the idea that we can, because the one thing it cannot abide is for us to be calm and content and free of anxiousness and getting along with each other.  We might change the channel.  Or worse, turn off the television.


Post Navigation