Getting serious

    This is a great article by Katherine Boyle that talks about the lack of ‘seriousness’ in the USA, but also considers the wider geopolitical situation. We’re living at a time when world leaders are ever-older, and people between the ages of 18 and 29 just don’t have… that much to do with their time?

    The Boomer ascendancy in America and industrialized nations has left us with a global gerontocracy and a languishing generation waiting in the wings. Not only does extended adolescence—what psychologist Erik Erikson first referred to as a “psychosocial moratorium” or the interim years between childhood and adulthood— affect the public life of younger generations, but their private lives as well.

    […]

    In many ways, the emergence of extended adolescence was designed both to coddle the young and to conceal an obvious fact: that the usual leadership turnover across institutions is no longer happening. That the old are quite happy to continue delaying aging and the finality it brings, while the young dither away their prime years with convenient excuses and even better TikTok videos.

    […]

    So in 2023, here we are: in a tri-polar geopolitical order led by septuagenarians and octogenarians. Xi Jinping, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have little in common, but all three are entering their 70s and 80s, orchestrating the final acts of their political careers and frankly, their lives. That we are beholden to the decisions of leaders whose worldviews were shaped by the wars, famines, and innovations of a bygone world, pre-Internet and before widespread mass education, is in part why our political culture feels so stale. That the gerontocracy is a global phenomenon and not just an American quirk should concern us: younger generations who are native to technological strength, modern science and emerging cultural ailments are still sidelined and pursuing status markers they should have achieved a decade ago.

    Source: It’s Time to Get Serious | The Free Press

    On the economic pressures of Covid

    This is data from the USA, but the picture I should imagine might be true on a smaller scale in the UK. The difference, I guess, not being an economist, is that we still have a larger state over here and some vestiges of union action.

    So how this plays out in terms of the pressure it puts on the workforce, and especially those employed directly or indirectly by the government, is different. It's why we're having lots of strikes right now.

    It strikes me as extremely disingenuous of the UK government to be spinning the current crisis as being about them trying to avoid 'embedding 10% inflation' in the economy. It's not like we're going to see a reduction in prices if inflation levels decrease. People will still have had a real-terms pay cut.

    As an historian by training, I can't help but think about the parallels with the Black Death and the collapse of feudalism due to the lack of workers...

    Chart showing labour force shortfall in US

    Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell struck a particularly somber note at his press conference earlier this week when he mentioned that one reason the labor market is so tight right now is that many workers died from COVID-19.

    The big picture: Economists have theorized for a while about the impact of COVID deaths on the labor market. Now, research has started to emerge and key public figures like Powell are starting to talk about it explicitly.

    Source: Fed chair Powell on the U.S. labor shortage: COVID, retirements, missing immigrants | Axios

    Muting the American internet

    This is a humorous article, but one with a point.

    [W]e need a way to mute America. Why? Because America has no chill. America is exhausting. America is incapable of letting something be simply funny instead of a dread portent of their apocalyptic present. America is ruining the internet.

    […]

    The greatest trick America’s ever pulled on the subjects of its various vassal states is making us feel like a participant in its grand experiment. After all, our fate is bound to the American empire’s whale fall. My generation in particular is the first pure batch of Yankee-Yobbo mutoids: as much Hank Hill as we are Hills Hoist (look it up!), as familiar with the Supreme Court Justices as we are with the judges on Master Chef, as comfortable in Frasier’s Seattle or Seinfeld’s Upper West Side as we are in Ramsay Street or Summer Bay.

    […]

    I should not know who Pete Buttigieg is. In a just world, the name Bari Weiss would mean as much to me as Nordic runes. This goes for people who actually might read Nordic runes too. No Swede deserves to be burdened with this knowledge. No Brazilian should have to regularly encounter the phrase “Dimes Square.” To the rest of the vast and varied world, My Pillow Guy and Papa John should be NPCs from a Nintendo DS Zelda title, not men of flesh and bone, pillow and pizza. Ted Cruz should be the name of an Italian pornstar in a Love Boat porn parody. Instead, I’m cursed to know that he is a senator from Texas who once stood next to a butter sculpture of a dairy cow and declared that his daughter’s first words were “I like butter.”

    Source: I Should Be Able to Mute America | Gawker

    Muting the American internet

    This is a humorous article, but one with a point.

    [W]e need a way to mute America. Why? Because America has no chill. America is exhausting. America is incapable of letting something be simply funny instead of a dread portent of their apocalyptic present. America is ruining the internet.

    […]

    The greatest trick America’s ever pulled on the subjects of its various vassal states is making us feel like a participant in its grand experiment. After all, our fate is bound to the American empire’s whale fall. My generation in particular is the first pure batch of Yankee-Yobbo mutoids: as much Hank Hill as we are Hills Hoist (look it up!), as familiar with the Supreme Court Justices as we are with the judges on Master Chef, as comfortable in Frasier’s Seattle or Seinfeld’s Upper West Side as we are in Ramsay Street or Summer Bay.

    […]

    I should not know who Pete Buttigieg is. In a just world, the name Bari Weiss would mean as much to me as Nordic runes. This goes for people who actually might read Nordic runes too. No Swede deserves to be burdened with this knowledge. No Brazilian should have to regularly encounter the phrase “Dimes Square.” To the rest of the vast and varied world, My Pillow Guy and Papa John should be NPCs from a Nintendo DS Zelda title, not men of flesh and bone, pillow and pizza. Ted Cruz should be the name of an Italian pornstar in a Love Boat porn parody. Instead, I’m cursed to know that he is a senator from Texas who once stood next to a butter sculpture of a dairy cow and declared that his daughter’s first words were “I like butter.”

    Source: I Should Be Able to Mute America | Gawker

    America, fascism, and the first, second, and third 'solutions'

    Jason Kottke reminds us of Toni Morrison’s “Ten Steps Towards Fascism” from 1995. As an historian, it was this bit that he also quoted that jumped out at me, though.

    Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.
    To outsiders, Americans at this point seem like slowly-boiled frogs on their way to a fascist stew. Canadians seemingly understand the threat.

    It’s terrifying when you think about it too much. (Most people in a position to do anything about it seemingly aren’t thinking about it…)

    Source: Toni Morrison’s Ten Steps Towards Fascism

    Brains melted like butter in a microwave

    This is a really powerful essay about the American response — or lack of it to the news that the Taliban have taken Kabul. The author, Antonio García Martínez, contends that Americans are “no longer a serious people” and spend too much time manufacturing reality.

    You see, in the Before Times there was a reality ‘out there’, peoples and cultures unlike ours that stubbornly refused to think and act as we did (and we knew it); facts on the ground that were immune to social-media spirals of bloviation and simply could not be ignored (and we knew it). We grappled with them, debated them, rallied consensus around them, and just dealt with reality however poorly perceived it might have been. And leaders who could not deal with inarguable realities, such as Carter with his botched Iranian rescue operation, did not stay leaders for very long.
    The war in Afghanistan cost a trillion dollars over 20 years, thousands of lives, and was ultimately an exercise in futility:
    This might seem flip and 'too soon', but the irony highlights the real civilizational difference here: one where combat is via prissy morality and pure spectacle, and one where the battles are literal and deadly. One where elites contest power via spiraling purity and virality contests waged online, and where defeat means ‘cancelation’ or livestreamed ‘struggle sessions’ around often imaginary or minor offenses. And another place where the price of defeat is death, exile, rape, destitution, and fates so grim people die dangling from airplanes in order to escape.

    In short, an unserious country mired in the most masturbatory hysterics over bullshit dramas waged war against an insurgency of religious zealots fired by a 7th-century morality, and utterly and totally lost.

    And all we can do in the wake of it, with our brains melted like butter in a microwave by four years of Trump and Twitter and everything else, is to once again try and understand in our terms a hyper-violent insurgency of fanatics, guilty of every manner of cultural barbarism, now running a country with the population of Texas.

    Source: We are no longer a serious people | The Pull Request

    More US electoral chaos to come in 2024?

    Difficult to argue against this scenario.

    The scenario then goes like this. The Republicans win back the House and Senate in 2022, in part thanks to voter suppression. The Republican candidate in 2024 loses the popular vote by several million and the electoral vote by the margin of a few states. State legislatures, claiming fraud, alter the electoral count vote. The House and Senate accept that altered count. The losing candidate becomes the president. We no longer have “democratically elected government.” And people are angry.
    Source: The Last Free Election in America | Kottke

    If you have been put in your place long enough, you begin to act like the place

    Seeing through is rarely seeing into

    Like the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall, from darkness into darkness

    Wretched is a mind anxious about the future

    So said one of my favourite non-fiction authors, the 16th century proto-blogger Michel de Montaigne. There's plenty of writing about how we need to be anxious because of the drift towards a future of surveillance states. Eventually, because it's not currently affecting us here and now, we become blasé. We forget that it's already the lived experience for hundreds of millions of people.

    Take China, for example. In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes about the Chinese government's brutality against the Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang:

    [The] horrifying situation is built on the scaffolding of mass surveillance. Cameras fill the marketplaces and intersections of the key city of Kashgar. Recording devices are placed in homes and even in bathrooms. Checkpoints that limit the movement of Muslims are often outfitted with facial-recognition devices to vacuum up the population’s biometric data. As China seeks to export its suite of surveillance tech around the world, Xinjiang is a kind of R&D incubator, with the local Muslim population serving as guinea pigs in a laboratory for the deprivation of human rights.

    Derek Thompson

    As Ian Welsh points out, surveillance states usually involve us in the West pointing towards places like China and shaking our heads. However, if you step back a moment and remember that societies like the US and UK are becoming more unequal over time, then perhaps we're the ones who should be worried:

    The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back thru your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was OK 10 or 30 years ago isn’t OK now, well they can get you on that.

    Ian Welsh

    As the world becomes more unequal, the position of elites becomes more perilous, hence Silicon Valley billionaires preparing boltholes in New Zealand. Ironically, they're looking for places where they can't be found, while making serious money from providing surveillance technology. Instead of solving the inequality, they attempt to insulate themselves from the effect of that inequality.

    A lot of the crazy amounts of money earned in Silicon Valley comes at the price of infringing our privacy. I've spent a long time thinking about quite nebulous concept. It's not the easiest thing to understand when you examine it more closely.

    Privacy is usually considered a freedom from rather than a freedom to, as in "freedom from surveillance". The trouble is that there are many kinds of surveillance, and some of these we actively encourage. A quick example: I know of at least one family that share their location with one another all of the time. At the same time, of course, they're sharing it with the company that provides that service.

    There's a lot of power in the 'default' privacy settings devices and applications come with. People tend to go with whatever comes as standard. Sidney Fussell writes in The Atlantic that:

    Many apps and products are initially set up to be public: Instagram accounts are open to everyone until you lock them... Even when companies announce convenient shortcuts for enhancing security, their products can never become truly private. Strangers may not be able to see your selfies, but you have no way to untether yourself from the larger ad-targeting ecosystem.

    Sidney Fussell

    Some of us (including me) are willing to trade some of that privacy for more personalised services that somehow make our lives easier. The tricky thing is when it comes to employers and state surveillance. In these cases there are coercive power relationships at play, rather than just convenience.

    Ellen Sheng, writing for CNBC explains how employees in the US are at huge risk from workplace surveillance:

    In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree. That is, unless lawmakers introduce laws that explicitly state a company can’t make workers agree to a technology...

    One example: Companies are increasingly interested in employee social media posts out of concern that employee posts could reflect poorly on the company. A teacher’s aide in Michigan was suspended in 2012 after refusing to share her Facebook page with the school’s superintendent following complaints about a photo she had posted. Since then, dozens of similar cases prompted lawmakers to take action. More than 16 states have passed social media protections for individuals.

    Ellen Sheng

    It's not just workplaces, though. Schools are hotbeds for new surveillance technologies, as Benjamin Herold notes in an article for Education Week:

    Social media monitoring companies track the posts of everyone in the areas surrounding schools, including adults. Other companies scan the private digital content of millions of students using district-issued computers and accounts. Those services are complemented with tip-reporting apps, facial-recognition software, and other new technology systems.

    [...]

    While schools are typically quiet about their monitoring of public social media posts, they generally disclose to students and parents when digital content created on district-issued devices and accounts will be monitored. Such surveillance is typically done in accordance with schools’ responsible-use policies, which students and parents must agree to in order to use districts’ devices, networks, and accounts.
    Hypothetically, students and families can opt out of using that technology. But doing so would make participating in the educational life of most schools exceedingly difficult.

    Benjamin Herold

    In China, of course, a social credit system makes all of this a million times worse, but we in the West aren't heading in a great direction either.

    We're entering a time where, by the time my children are my age, companies, employers, and the state could have decades of data from when they entered the school system through to them finding jobs, and becoming parents themselves.

    There are upsides to all of this data, obviously. But I think that in the midst of privacy-focused conversations about Amazon's smart speakers and Google location-sharing, we might be missing the bigger picture around surveillance by educational institutions, employers, and governments.

    Returning to Ian Welsh to finish up, remember that it's the coercive power relationships that make surveillance a bad thing:

    Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

    Ian Welsh

    We don't want to think about all of this, though, do we?


    Also check out: