Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

This 9-year-old blog post continues to attract attention. I suspect the reason behind sustained interest is use of the term structural violence, which sits adjacent to voguish use of the term structural racism. Existence of permanent, institutionalized violence administered procedurally rather than through blunt, behavioral force (arguably still force but obfuscated through layers of bureaucracy) seems pretty plain to most observers. Typical analyses cite patriarchy and white supremacism as principal motivators, and those elements are certainly present throughout American history right up to today. I offer a simpler explanation: greed. Thus, most (though not all) institutionalized violence can be chalked up to class warfare, with the ownership class and its minions openly exacting tribute and stealing everyone’s future. Basically, all resources (material, labor, tax dollars, debt, etc.) can be attached, and those best positioned to bend administrative operations to their will — while pretending to help commoners — stand to gain immensely.

It doesn’t much matter anymore whose resources are involved (pick your oppressed demographic). Any pool is good enough to drain. But because this particular type of violence has become structural, after gathering the demographic data, it’s an easy misdirection to spin the narrative according to divergent group results (e.g., housing, educational opportunity, incarceration rates) where such enduring structures have been erected. While there is certainly some historical truth to that version of the story, the largest inanimate resource pools are not readily divisible that way. For instance, trillions of dollars currently being created out of nothingness to prop up Wall Street (read: the ownership class) redound upon the entire U.S. tax base. It’s not demographically focused (besides the beneficiaries, obviously) but is quite literally looting the treasury. Much the same can be said of subscriber and customer bases of commercial behemoths such as Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, and Netflix. Those dollars are widely sourced. One can observe, too, that the ownership class eschews such pedestrian fare. Elites avoiding common American experience is reflected as well in the U.S. armed services, where (depending on whom one believes: see here and here) participation (especially enlisted men and women) skews toward the working class. Consider numerous recent U.S. presidents (and their offspring) who manage to skip out on prospective military service.

What’s surprising, perhaps, is that it’s taken so long for this entrenched state of affairs (structural violence visited on all of us not wealthy enough to be supranational) to be recognized and acted upon by the masses. The Occupy Movement was a recent nonviolent suggestion that we, the 99%, have had quite enough of this shit. Or course, it got brutally shut down and dispersed. A couple days ago, a caravan of looters descended upon the so-called Magnificent Mile in Chicago, the site of numerous flagship stores of luxury brands and general retailers. I don’t approve of such criminal activity any more than the ownership class looting the treasury. But it’s not hard to imagine that, in the minds of some of the Chicago looters at least, their livelihoods and futures have been actively stolen from them. “Look, over there! In that window! Resources for the benefit of rich people. They’ve been stealing from us for generations. Now let’s steal from them.” The big difference is that designer handbags, electronics, and liquor hauled away from breached storefronts is relatively minor compared to structural violence of which we’ve become more acutely aware recently. Put another way, complaining about these looters while ignoring those looters is like complaining about someone pulling your hair while someone else is severing your legs with a chainsaw, leaving you permanently disabled (if not dead). They’re not even remotely in the same world of harm.

The previous version of this blog post was about flora and fauna dying off and/or being driven to endangerment and extinction by direct and indirect effects of human activity, and on the flip side, collective human inactivity to stop or forestall the worst effects. Indeed, removal and rollback of environmental restrictions and regulations hasten the ongoing ecocide. This version is about three more things disappearing right before our eyes like some sort of macabre magic act: American jobs, American businesses, and civil society.

Job losses stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and government-mandated shut-downs and quarantines have been reported ad nauseum, as have mounting deaths. No need to cite the numbers. To call this disappearance of people from the streets and workplaces sickening is a redundancy. Despite an immediate Federal response (by the Fed) to prop up the stock market (a literal entity) but not main street (a figurative entity), businesses both large and small are now performing this same disappearing act. Again, no need to cite the numbers, which are worsening continuously. It’s impossible to predict what will be left after this destructive phase runs its course. I don’t expect it to be creative destruction (also the name of the defunct group blog where I got my start blogging). In the meantime, however, plenty of price gougers, vultures, scammers, and opportunists seek to exploit new capitalist dynamics. As the unemployed and disenfranchised are further reduced to penury, many have taken to the streets to demand change. While the inciting incident was yet another unarmed black man killed by police in the course of his arrest, the wider context of unrest in the streets is the utterly preposterous level of wealth and income inequality. Two short-lived sovereign zones in Seattle and Portland (declared and undeclared, respectively) attest to a lack of confidence in state authority and fraying rule of law. Federal law enforcement officers disappearing protesters from the street speaks volumes regarding how the citizenry is regarded by politicians. The looming wave of evictions, foreclosures, and bankruptcies also promise to overwhelm civil society and prove the illegitimacy of our current government.

The connection between one set of disappearing acts and the next should be obvious, as we humans rely upon the natural world for our very survival. The modern industrial world, especially in those societies organized around capitalism, has been at war with nature (ecocide), extracting far more than necessary for a balanced, respectable life. Instead, wanton accumulation and self-aggrandizement (read: ballin’) are commonplace, at least for those who can. In the process, we’ve made ourselves vulnerable to even modest perturbations of this hypercomplex style of social organization. Well, surprise! The war on nature is no longer taking place over there, socially distanced, out of sight and out of mind; the war has come home. Nature struck back, blindly demanding a return to equilibrium. The disappearing act turns out to be part of a much larger balancing act. However, processes we humans initiated make impossible any such return except perhaps over evolutionary time. For the foreseeable future, the only paved path is toward unfathomable loss.

Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.

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Here’s a rather strange interaction: destruction budgets and moral license. The former refers to a theoretical or proposed budget for allowable environmental destruction. The latter refers to how doing something good allows rationalization of doing something bad as though one offsets (recognize that word?) the other. A familiar example is a physical workout that justifies a later sugar binge.

So just maybe some (outside executive offices anyway) are coming round to the idea that ongoing destruction of nature ought to be curtailed or better regulated. That’s the thrust of an article in Nature that mentions emissions budgets, which I’ve renamed destruction budgets. The article provides a decent overview of the largest threats, or environmental tipping points, that lead to an uninhabitable Earth. Human activity isn’t only about greenhouse gas emissions, however. Because industrial civilization has essentially had an unlimited destruction budget in the past, we’ve depleted and toxified air, soil, and water at such an alarming rate that we now have a limited number of harvests left and already face fresh water shortages that are only expected to worsen.

Turning to the viral pandemic, large segments of the population kept at home on lockdown triggered a different sort of destruction budget that didn’t exist before it suddenly did: economic destruction, joblessness, and financial ruin. For many Americans already stretched thin financially and psychologically, if the virus doesn’t get you first, then bankruptcy and despair will. Several rounds of bailouts (based on money that doesn’t exist) followed the economic slowdown and are freighted with moral hazard and moral license. Prior bailouts make clear where most of the money goes: deep corporate pockets, banks, and Wall Street. According to this unsophisticated poll, a clear majority do not want banks and financial institutions bailed out. There is even stronger public support for conditions on corporate bailouts, especially those conditions designed to protect employees.

Since we’re in wildly uncharted terrain from only 1.5 months of whatever this new paradigm is, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will occur by summertime or the fall. We’ve blown way past any reasonable destruction budget. In truth, such budgets probably never existed in the first place but were only used as metaphors to make plans no one expects to be binding, much like the toothless 2016 Paris Agreement. Every time we set a hypothetical self-imposed limit, we exceed it. That’s why, to me at least, 350.org is such a cruel joke: the target ceiling was breached decades before the organization was even founded in 2009 and hasn’t slowed its rate of increase since then. In effect, we’ve given ourselves license to disregard any imaginary budgets we might impose on ourselves. The pertinent question was raised by Thomas Massie (KY-Rep.) in the first new bailout bill when he openly challenged the number: “If getting us into $6 trillion more debt doesn’t matter, then why are we not getting $350 trillion more in debt so that we can give a check of $1 million to every person in the country?” How weird is it that both issues cite the number 350?

That man is me. Thrice in the last month I’ve stumbled headlong into subjects where my ignorance left me grasping in the dark for a ledge or foothold lest I be swept into a maelstrom of confusion by someone’s claims. This sensation is not unfamiliar, but it’s usually easy to beat back. Whereas I possess multiple areas of expertise and as an autodidact am constantly absorbing information, I nonetheless recognize that even in areas where I consider myself qualified to act and/or opine confidently, others possess authority and expertise far greater than mine. Accordingly, I’ve always considered myself a generalist. (A jack of all trades is not quite the same thing IMO, but I decline to draw that distinction here.)

Decisions must inevitably be made on insufficient information. That’s true because more information can always be added on top, which leads to paralysis or infinite regress if one doesn’t simply draw an arbitrary line and stop dithering. This is also why I aver periodically that consciousness is based on sufficiency, meaning “good enough.” A paradox exists between a decision being good enough to proceed despite the obvious incompleteness of information that allows for full, balanced analysis, if fullness can even be achieved. Knowledge is thus sufficient and insufficient at the same time. Banal, everyday purchasing decisions at the grocery store are low risk. Accepting a job offer, moving to a new city, and proposing marriage carry significant risks but are still decisions made on insufficient information precisely because they’re prospective. No way of knowing with certainty how things will turn out. (more…)

Nicholas Carr has a pair of thoughtful new posts at his blog Rough Type (see blogroll) under the tag “infinite media.” The second of the two is about context collapse, restoration, and content collapse. I won’t review that particular post; I’m merely pointing to it for you to read. Carr is a journalist and media theorist whose work is especially interesting to me as a partial antidote to what I’ve been calling our epistemological crisis. In short, he offers primers on how to think about stuff, that stuff being the primary medium through which most people now gather information: via screens.

Relatedly, the other media theorist to whom I pay attention is Alan Jacobs, who has a recent book (which I read but didn’t review or blog about) called more simply How to Think. It’s about recognizing and avoiding cognitive biases on the way to more disciplined, clear thinking. I mention these two fellows together because I’ve been reading their blogs and books for over a decade now and have been curious to observe how their public interactions have changed over time. They have each embraced and abandoned various new media (particularly social media) and adopted more stringent media ecology. Carr posts ocassionally now and has closed comments at his blog (a shame, since his commentariat was valuable, quite unlike the troll mob at most sites). Jacobs is even more aggressive, starting and abandoning one blog after another (was active at multiple URLs, one formerly on my blogroll) and deleting his Twitter account entirely. Whatever goings-on occur at Facebook I can’t say; I never go there. These aren’t criticisms. We all evolve our associations and activities. But these two are unusual, perhaps, in that they evaluate and recommend with varying vehemence how to interact with electronic media tools.

The wide-open Web available to Americans (but restricted in some countries) used to be valorized as a wholly democratic, organic, grass-roots, decentralized force for good where information yearned to breathe free. Though pioneered by academic institutions, it wasn’t long before the porn industry became the first to monetize it effectively (cuz duh! that’s there the money was — at least initially) and then the whole thing was eventually overwhelmed by others with unique agendas and mechanisms, including commerce, surveillance, and propaganda. The surfeit of information demanded curation, and social media with algorithmic feeds became the default for folks either too lazy or just untrained (or uninterested) in how to think for themselves. Along the way, since a surprisingly large portion of human activity diverted to online media, that activity turned into a resource mined, harvested, and in turn monetized, much like the voting public has become a resource tracked, polled, channeled, activated, disenfranchized, corrupted, and analyzed to death.

An earlier media theorist I read with enthusiasm, Neil Postman, recommended that curricula include the study of semantics as applied to media. (Use of a word like semantics sends nonacademics running for the hills, but the recommendation is basically about thinking critically, even skeptically, regarding information, its sources, and its means of distribution.) The rise of handheld omnimedia postdates Postman, so I can only surmise that the bewildering array of information we confront absorb every day, which I liken to drinking from a fire hose, only compounds Postman’s concern that students are severely overmatched by media (especially advertising) intent on colonizing and controlling their minds. Thus, today’s information environment is a far cry from the stately slowness of earlier eras when teaching and learning (to say nothing of entertainment) were conducted primarily through reading, lecture, and discussion.

A comment came in on this blog chiding me for still blogging after 14 years. I admit hardly anyone reads anymore; they watch (or listen, as with audio-only podcasts). Preferred forms of media consumption have moved on from printed text, something USA Today recognized decades ago when it designed its print publication and sidewalk distribution boxes to look more like TVs. Nonetheless, the modest reproach reminded me of a cry in the wilderness by Timothy Burke: why he still blogs, though quite infrequently. (There’s a brokeback can’t-quit-you joke in there somewhere I’ll leave unformulated.) So this blog may indeed be past its proper expiration date, yet it remains for me one of the best means for organizing how I think about stuff. Without it, I’m afraid thoughts would be rattling loose inside my head, disorganized, only to be displaced by the next slurp from the fire hose.

An astounding sentence (sandwiched for context) from They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street:

The contemporary wealthy do not simply benefit from society; they accumulate fortunes at the expense of it. They profit from mass unemployment’s depressive impact on wages, which cuts their labor costs; regressive tax cuts and loopholes, which increase with wealth while shutting down social services for the poor; the cutting and undermining of environmental regulations, which reduce their business costs while spoiling livable ecology; wars and giant military budgets, which feed the bottom lines of the “defense” corporations they own while killing and crippling millions and stealing money from potential investment in social uplift; a hyper-commercialized mass consumer culture that despoils the environment while reducing human worth to exchange value and destroying peoples’ capacity for critical thought; dealing with corrupt dictators who provide natural resources at cheap prices while depressing wages and crushing democracy in “developing countries”; the closing down of livable wage jobs in the United States and the export of employment to repressive and low-wage peripheries; a health care system that privileges the profits of giant insurance and drug companies over the well-being of ordinary people; exorbitant credit card interest rates that lead to millions of bankruptcies each year; predatory lending practices that spread and perpetuate poverty and foreclosure; agricultural and trade practices that destroy sustainable local and regional food cultivation and distribution practices at home and abroad; the imposition of overly long working hours that keep employee compensation levels down while helping maintain a large number of unemployed workers; exorbitant public business subsidies and taxpayer incentives and bailouts of the rich paid for by the rest; and … the list goes on and on. Corporate and financial profits were restored in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis largely because the working-class majority paid for them, through taxpayer bailouts, slashed social services, layoffs, and reduced wages, hours, and benefits. [p. 89]

Holiday creep is observable in at least two aspects: (1) those who can (i.e., those with enviable employment benefits) use additional time off on adjacent workdays to create 4-, 5-, or 6-day holiday spans, and (2) businesses that sell to the public mount incessant sales campaigns that demand everyone’s attention and participation as good American consumers. Since I’m a Bah! Humbug! sorta fellow, these expansive regions of the calendar take on the characteristics of a black hole, sucking everything into their gravity wells and crushing the life out of any honest sentiment left to cynics and curmudgeons like me. We’re in the midst of one such holiday span, and my inclination (beyond appreciating the time off from work) is to hide away from bustle and obligation. Nonetheless, I show up and participate in some small measure.

Here in Chicago, trains and buses going to the Loop (the downtown business district) are less heavily trafficked at rush hours for several days before the actual holiday. However, I suspect the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway are both quite busy with travelers on the move. This is traditionally the holiday when people visit family for feasting and afternoon naps (or football games, I’m told). I’ve braved air travel at this time only a couple times, which is more miserable than usual due to congestion and weather-related delays. My workplace was a ghost town not only on the eve of the holiday for days in advance. Is it only my memory is that the eves of Christmas and New Year’s Day used to be the only ones that were celebrated? Now many expect to be released early from work prior to any observed holiday. Again, this is a benefit not evenly shared across the population and one I do not take for granted.

Feeding and shopping frenzies associated with holidays are well established traditions. However, subtle shifts to the shopping side are occurring that signal either welcome change or dying tradition, depending on one’s perspective. For instance, in the past few years, it’s been customary to learn of shoppers cued outside various superstores who stampede, trample, and fight like barbarians once doors are flung open. That ugly prospect is apparently disappearing, at least according to this report, as shoppers move away from brick-and-mortar venues to online shopping. Still, one acquaintance of mine relished the chance to among those multitudes and joked about trampling others to score a great deal on a comforter.

Similarly, some recognize the ecological impact of overconsumption (related to overpopulation) and have called for a ban to Black Friday sales, and presumably, other perverse incentives. This second development fits my thinking as I’ve blogged repeatedly how we’re awash in refuse and debris from our own past consumption. Still, my e-mail inbox has been positively pummeled by those few retailers in possession of my address who preview their Black Friday sales for weeks beforehand then offer forgiveness and second chances afterwards. The stink of desperation is on them, as business news organs report that holiday sales account for an impressively large percentage of annual sales but are threatened by fewer shopping days between the two anchor holidays this year (Thanksgiving falls late in the month). While that may have its effect, I daresay the larger problem is income inequality and the absence of positive bank balances among an ever-growing segment of the population. Debit balances on credit cards have already fueled about as much overconsumption as most can stomach.

Does it truly feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” on reflection and honest assessment? There is still enjoyment to be had, certainly. But unless one is an innocent child protected from the harshness of reality or otherwise living under a rock, every holiday decoration is tinged with knowledge of excess and suspicion that this year may finally be the last one we enjoy fully before things spin out of control. For a couple others of my holiday-themed blog entries (less dour perhaps than this one), see this and this.

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy in past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.