Archive for March, 2010

Two areas of endeavor have caught my interest as obvious examples of systems that are broken and in need of fixing. Regarding the first — healthcare — I’ve basically stuck my head in the sand and ignored it, leaving that issue and related debates to others better qualified to coax coherence out of complexity. The second — the recording industry — I’ve blogged about directly and indirectly over time.

As currently practiced in the U.S., the healthcare industry is on a collision course with insolvency. Already, tens of millions of people lack coverage, and those with coverage are either being squeezed by increased premiums accompanied by automatic claim refusals and/or are forced into bankruptcy when a major medical problem arises. The details of healthcare reform change daily, but reform of this particular industry is something that only government can do. Left to their own devices, the inextricably entwined healthcare and insurance industries simply cannot fix themselves while perverse incentives continue to corrupt the services rendered and cause costs to spiral without improvement in outcomes. Yet members of the Tea Party movement advocate against self-interest, seeing in the spectre of government interference an evil worse than, for instance, a total lack of preretirement healthcare benefits. Many of these people are retirees already enjoying the benefits of Medicaid and Medicare. Their intransigence about reform, even if it’s only step 1 in a multistep process, boggles the mind.

In contrast, this article by Miles Raymer in the Chicago Reader is notable for the author’s admission that he has changed his mind about free file sharing, which he now disparagingly calls freeloading. The business model that had served the recording industry for decades, based on intellectual property rights (specificaly, copyright) recognized for centuries, has been wrecked by file sharing made easy by modern technology. “Fine,” thought Raymer (and many others), “we’ll just figure out a different was of making money to support the creative impulse.” Several years into that experiment, he now recognizes new sources of revenue don’t simply spring magically into existence in the wake of the destruction of old ones. Any number of people could have told him that, but I surmise he was only able to learn that lesson the hard way. Until then, he happily advocated against self-interest, willingly giving away the fruits of his labor. Put another way, he embraced the demise of the music industry as the result of file sharing with the rose-hued optimism often called creative destruction.

The last time I blogged about torture I included a link to a discussion of various technologies authorities are now using against the citizenry. As miserable and reprehensible as such practices are in the U.S., we might just be eclipsed by what’s going on in the United Kingdom. The first paragraph below gives a clear sense of the story told in the article, which is very well written. Please read the whole thing.

In recent years Britain has become the “Willy Wonka” of social control, churning out increasingly creepy, bizarre, and fantastic methods for policing the populace. But our weaponization of classical music — where Mozart, Beethoven, and other greats have been turned into tools of state repression — marks a new low.

While this weapon of social control and others discussed in the article fall short of torture, they undoubtedly represent a culture in retreat. We don’t like our kids (or our poor and homeless), and if we can drive them away and out of sight using, of all things, classical music, then the problem is happily disposed of for those who remain.

As the article suggests, something uniquely British is at work, though the lessons are easily learned by Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders (is it something about the English language or former English colonies?). Specifically, the dystopian prophecies of Orwell, Huxley, Wells, and Burgess are becoming in varying degrees reality. One wonders if authorities aren’t in fact mining those writers’ novels for ideas to implement.

As a lover of classical music, I’m appalled that it is now used as a deterrent. I admit having been less bothered when some few years ago Barry Manilow’s music was played outside stores to drive away loiterers or high-volume rock music was beamed at the Noriega compound, but now my ox is being gored. What ought to be taught in schools as one of the pinnacles of cultural and artistic expression will be associated by youth (later adults) subjected to this treatment with tyranny of the state. Of course, music used as a tool of propaganda is nothing new, nor is apparently its use as a weapon. See here and here for fuller discussion. No doubt we get the culture we deserve for tolerating whatever authorities do in the name of safety and control.

News as Public Service

Posted: March 5, 2010 in Debate, Economics, Media

I heard a blurb during one of NPR’s fundraising drives this morning that encapsulates something that frequently goes unnoticed in discussions about the slow-motion degradation and disappearance of traditional journalism. In short, responsible journalism (remember that?) performs a public service by gathering and disseminating useful information that enables civic participation by the citizenry. NPR is in a good position to be mindful of that mission, unlike other news organizations that are driven solely by market share, promulgating whatever junk attracts the most readers, listeners, and viewers. Information and news has always been a commodity, but journalism’s underlying economic nature has sometimes — not always — developed alongside an idealistic adherence to truth and service.

One of the memes of the day is that information always wants to be free (as though information has conscious wants at all). The truth is that people want information to be free. That information can be news, entertainment, art, intellectual property, or more generally, knowledge. No one really believes that acquiring or creating information is free. Much of time and effort goes into creative work, investigative journalism, and even developing one’s own mind by getting an education. But if there are shortcuts to how we consume information, especially entertainments, then we want them: free access to music, museums, movies, TV, books, news, etc. Some information sources are subsidized or piggybacked on advertizing, whereas others simply cost to produce. But if we can convince others to give it away for free, such as writing or contributing to a Wikipedia article, then so much the better. And if we can take it for free, even though it may be illegal, then what’s the big deal, right?

I was reminded of the Kevin Costner movie The Postman, where a wanderer in a post-apocalyptic landscape inadvertently stumbles into a job (or messianic calling, as it’s depicted in the film) delivering the mail after all communication have been severed for an apparently extended period of time. In the film, people primarily wanted to exchange news reporting survival or death of their loved ones. News of the fall of civilization or governments didn’t figure prominently — that action occurred offscreen before the start of the film. It was clear that information was a premium commodity when there was none to be had, and the willingness of the Kevin Costner character to traverse the dangerous wilderness to deliver the mail made him a popular hero.

Today, although we’re inundated with information, much of it is trivial, useless, misinformed, or simply aimed at conning us into buying stuff. Further, those institutions that used to perform public services as part of the Fourth Estate are all now dying. Late-stage capitalist economics no longer supports that sort of information gathering. Instead, as mentioned in the NPR blurb, we have given all our attention to news reshaped as entertainment where TV anchors (brands in and of themselves), shock jocks, glib repartee, and controversy rule the day. News can no longer afford to be sober, service oriented, and, well, newsworthy when it has to sell, sell, sell to survive. Why report on serious issues when there is always a sex scandal or love child to be revealed?

The American system of education derives most clearly from the pragmatic philosophies of William James and John Dewey, both of whom were influential at the time public education system was coalescing. Pragmatism in the context of education could potentially mean preparing students for adulthood, for full participation in and contribution to society, for citizenship, for entry into the labor force, etc. In short, the objective was to teach students thinking and practical skills needed to succeed in life. As time has worn on, some argue, educational objectives were diluted, diffused, and/or coopted. Reducing the citizenry to mere labor or economic units (read: consumers) is one of the most damning of modern criticisms. Ironically, many students regard college degrees as nearly sure-fire means of obtaining high-paying and rewarding jobs/careers specifically so that they can enjoy a profligate lifestyle (read: be consumers). Further up the academic scale, higher education is criticized for weighing down graduates with burdensome debt (see here, too) of the sort previous generations took only later in life when purchasing a first home. Even further up the scale, some even argue that the cost of a graduate school education (especially in the humanities) and its value as a ticket into one’s chosen profession is so suspect that young people would be better off forgoing the effort.

Current educational objectives, if they truly exist in any agreed-upon form, scarcely serve to prepare students for the struggles they can be expected face in a future that looms dark. Sweeping demographic, economic, technological, and environmental changes promise to alter our reality and social structures in ways so fundamental they can’t yet be fully anticipated or appreciated. If schooling used to mean preparing students for a future that had strong continuity with the present, schooling now must contemplate preparing students for an unpredictable, discontinuous future of unremitting change and fluctuation. Take as an example of fundamental change the strange result of uncritical embrace of social media, namely, that students increasingly need to be taught basic face-to-face social skills. Such lessons used to be learned passively through involvement with extended family and participation in various forms of community. But today, it’s clear that many kids suffer from parental neglect and isolation from community, so they turn to their peers, mostly through electronic gadgets, to develop a value system and sense of belonging. Students also need preparedness for what’s being called gotcha capitalism, where everyone is a mark for some scheme, plot, scam, or con.

With those points in mind, one revised educational objective might be simply to teach students to understand what’s happening to and around them and how to devise thoughtful, dynamic responses. This is the new millennium’s version of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. What happens, for instance, when the trucks stop coming and the store shelves empty, as happened recently (and surprisingly rapidly) in Washington, D.C.?

Who knew that hoarding could deplete food stocks so quickly? All of this is related, of course, to an emerging suspicion (or among some, a foregone conclusion) that industrial civilization will not last much longer, the effects of which will be felt most forcefully by those now young.

A growing population of home schoolers and unschoolers is appearing who reject current educational models, methodologies, and objectives for a variety of reasons and have already opted out. I cling to public education provided by local government not because I think government always does a better job than the lone parent or even the parental cluster but because, for society to retain cohesion, there needs to be a normative educational experience and a clearinghouse for authoritative or canonical knowledge, which is now disappearing as spin, propaganda, religious dogma, and Wiki-ness corrupt what we think we know.

Large-scale social upheaval is almost uniformly irrational, and mob mentality morphs quickly into vigilante justice. The so-called Tea Party movement may be among the first signs of significant grassroots dissatisfaction expressed by those who feel, rightly or wrongly, that haven’t gotten their share of the American dream. And when the time comes to assess blame for society’s failures, inchoate anger and frustration are unlikely to be tempered by a thoughtful examination of the long-term trends that underlie any point of historical arrival. The masses are simply unprepared to think critically. And though it won’t be merely young people who are disenfranchised, it is their futures that are being sold out, typically by Baby Boomers who have failed utterly to demonstrate the political will to take up social problems and address them in ways that don’t amount to simultaneously exploiting the young via cheap rhetoric and mortgaging their lives under crushing government debt. If they develop the capacity to frame the issues at all, I expect youngsters to be hopping mad when their elders’ failures manifest fully, but I rather suspect they won’t understand that they’re really the unfortunate victims of a historical trajectory to which we unwittingly committed quite a long time ago.

There is something horribly sad, too, that even as parents claim to only want the best for their children, they have consistently chosen paths of least resistance and missed opportunities to build their children’s character, which has resulted in the Strawberry Generation. Although the term is Taiwanese in origin, its applicability elsewhere should be obvious. In short, many parents have so habitually sacrificed for and genuflected before their own children that the ungrateful cretins have developed a king-sized sense of entitlement and inability to withstand even modest hardship without wilting and going to spoil under the pressure. The American workplace is a Petri dish of this culture. Although shirking and cheating during secondary and higher education are now standard behaviors, graduates often believe they should enter the workplace with high levels of responsibility and pay for which they’re simply unprepared since the typical new graduate has neither the skills nor the work ethic to succeed on merit. And good jobs aren’t exactly waiting for them anyway, as economic setbacks have prevented boomers from retiring from the workforce early as expected. Human resources departments have plenty of horror stories to tell about hiring recent graduates. But as noted above, the young are victims in this scenario, as they can’t really be expected to have assumed mature responsibility for themselves before their time, or perhaps ever if they are unable to move out from under their parents’ roof. What a shining future they’ve been left with.