Grey Days

Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.[1]

The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.

The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.

In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.

Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.

So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.

Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.

Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.

I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.

So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.

Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).

And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.

Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.

A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.

One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.

The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.

Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.

Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.[2]


[1] My personal favorite, The Argyle Album, can be downloaded here: http://www.100dbs.com/production/argyle/

[2] This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post: https://www.epsilontheory.com/in-praise-of-bitcoin/

PIE and a Polish King in France

What a beautiful view of a time and place that exists now only in its outward forms, bereft of the culture and society from which it was birthed. It has not vanished with time, however, and serves still as a pleasing monument and testament to human ingenuity and artistic sense.

These photos are of Place Stanislas in the city of Nancy, France. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is considered an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture which combined practical and aesthetic concerns.

How did a small city in France come to be an outstanding example of 18th Century architecture? With the help of a Polish King of course.

A Polish King (anglicized as Stanislaus I), a man crowned twice as King; actually, a man elected leader and called King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – who was elected through bribery and intimidation at the behest of a foreign power, and deposed twice, and, per agreement, who spent the last several decades of his life as the Duke of Lorraine, a province in Eastern France, the provincial capital of which was Nancy, who had a very interesting life (Oh, and his daughter married Louis XV). He commissioned this great architectural work after he settled down, far away from the politics of Poland.

We make the mistake of viewing the past in the same way we view the laws of physics, as if it were immutable and stable across all time-periods. Observations of history that incline toward conceiving of the past as a more primitive version of our current reality (as having stable nation-states, far-reaching bureaucracies, and social safety nets) dislocate the events of the past from their causes. This is a fairly well-known idea that I’ve heard called “alienation from the past.”[1] Life has changed so much we cannot conceive of the motivations of people before the Industrial Revolution. The vagaries of European institutions in the age of intertwined royalism make the structures of diplomatic and international life dissimilar to our own; a naïve look into history will not suffice for explanation, but we have another way available to us to examine the past and the present: through statistical analysis.

Unfortunately there are other errors that bedevil this type of analysis (which avoids the first error of not realizing our own alienation from the past) including believing that all things are quantifiable and the manifold confusions often arising from the use of statistics. For instance, you may be able to say: “humanity spent 40% of its existence at war in the pre-modern period, and only 20% since the Enlightenment” (numbers completely made-up by me). This is a snapshot, not a trend. There is no reason to believe that these statistical facts would actually mean anything or tell us a story – but such stats may often be thought of as confirming a trend. Statistics and mathematical immutability deceive us because we will often make up a story if we are only provided with scattered facts, or we will look at the numbers and forget to connect them to the real world. All bonds of cause and effect are severed when we aggregate and taxonomize mass data. But before we look more deeply into this problem, lets briefly look at why it is the case that those bonds are severed by going back, by going way back.

A delightfully corpulent-seeming Stanislaus.

Time was born only at the Big Bang, before that, there was no time, or in any case, it was a thing unknowable. If the Universe ends in heat death, everything ceasing to move, then time becomes meaningless as it stretches into a uniform infinity. Space and time are linked and therefore time and motion are inseparable.

“Alright Einstein, thanks for the physics lesson, so what?”

So, what happens when you create an infinite and indelible universe inside of the one which we physically inhabit? How many people foresaw that we were going to build an entire parallel universe inside computer networks? Every technological revolution is tied to time, most of them have been involved in shortening latency and friction in some way, reducing the amount of time to spread complex information via the printing press, for example. The digital world disrupts our relationship with time in a novel way, and this starts to disrupt perceptions of cause and effect. Time can now be measured in zeptoseconds, an incomprehensibly small unit of division, and in our digitized existence in its immediacy (or near immediacy) there is no practical distinction between the immediate and the near future.

There is research that suggests being online distorts our personal relationship to time. But if we look deeper than this, we can see that this time disruption, though not formal (we are still capable of discerning cause and effect) can lead to gross misperceptions of the world. In the name of objectivity, we abandon common sense. There is no statistical way to explain, for example, a Polish King becoming the premier architectural patron of France. If that sounds too silly, or too obvious, or abstract, it is easy to find a case closer to home.

The NYTimes recently ran an article about a poll[2] which they say showed that 15% of Americans believe in QAnon. Setting aside any personal opinions about the The New York Times or QAnon, or any other political or pseudo-political affiliations, polling in this manner and extrapolating from it are terrible ways to interrogate the world. People are not discrete mathematical concepts, and neither are beliefs. What defines someone as “believing” in QAnon? Can they believe part of the theory, or perhaps agree with its general aims while not believing literally? Can we trust self-report as an accurate measure of belief which will lead to action? Most importantly, this tells us nothing about how the movement develops, how the beliefs manifest, or how it spreads from one person to another. Using statistics to create a taxonomy crams the world into simplified structures created by the statistical analysis itself. This is a fundamental problem of our world-building in cyberspace as well. The internet being full of generated simulacra creates a version of reality that our minds can enter and our bodies cannot, forcing us into the close-ended worlds of videogames and the formats of social media platforms. It is easy to click a link (as easy as it is to answer a poll question), and the ease distorts perceptions of preferences.

Another example of this phenomenon of statistical taxonomy being misleading is back-testing strategies in financial markets. Computational power and data allow for hypothetical implementation of trading strategies in previous time periods. These will always produce naïve results, as the assumptions that the data are the same – that the data is representing the same things over time – is incorrect. There was no VIX in 1929, we can only try to imagine or construct one, and therefore a volatility-strategy could not exist then as it exists now. Imagining and constructing the VIX for Great Depression may be possible and useful in some manner, but not in using it to calculate a profit and loss of a strategy.

Also, symptomatic of our strange new lives: there is the perfection available in the online world. Everything is measurable and we can smooth the rough edges, just as we can enter a video game world with mind but not body. You can gauge your popularity with your follower count, your avatar doesn’t have the slight hunch in your neck or your asymmetrical eyes, your conversation can be thought out beforehand making your wit evident and concealing your nervousness. And yet here we remain stuck in our imperfect bodies, unsure of our place in the world, unable to indulge the human obsession with taxonomy and platonic forms. There is no more mystery to be found on earth in the average life. Everything is instant, and everything is indelible. Our thoughts, experiences, and knowledge were once almost entirely our own. Our internal lives and external events were accessible to us through memory, or through an eyewitness account, or etched in writing, or attested to by a stray photograph or other recording in more recent years – and the first three of these accounts are of dubious veracity (see Catiline and Cicero). Now, vast troves of our thinking and doing are no longer subject to the entombment of “calumniating time.” Go talk to someone who was “canceled” for a foolish remark from their teenage years to see how this can have negative social impacts that were not considered before. Ask a question on Google, and someone has asked it before us (we have everyone’s experiences to learn from, and yet so often, none that relate to the question we asked). A perfect record of past events lends itself to misleading taxonomies and analyses, another example of mass data being similar to a paucity of data.

There is a non-mathematical way to engage in taxonomy which helps to allay these numerous false perceptions arising from distortions of time in cyberspace, and thereby to reconstruct the past and build the present. This can be learned from how linguists build proto-languages. They do this through what is called the “Comparative Method,” developed and used specifically for discovering pre-historical parent languages, it involves careful analysis of similar words and grammar from different languages and the known evolution of sound changes to build common ancestor-words. It is a method of careful observation and comparison, leading to such breakthroughs as the fable of The Sheep and the Horses:

“A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: ‘My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.’ The horses said: ‘Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.’ Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.”

Breakthrough? This little story may not mean much since it is here typed in English, but the fable originally was written in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) by a German linguist named August Schleicher in the 19th Century (click the link above on “fable” and they have the two stories spoken in PIE). PIE is the first language constructed from the comparative method and is the presumed progenitor of the Romance languages, Germanic languages, Indian languages, Slavic languages and more. Using the comparative method does not set out a series of facts, but rather provides evidence of relationships which must be analyzed in a human way, taking into account information that is not strictly numerical. Such analysis requires a deep interpretation that takes into account factors outside of the quantifiable realm.

If you want to understand QAnon (for instance), where it comes from and how it spreads, one can deconstruct the individual beliefs and try to explain the commonalities between its various interlocking theories and who is promoting those theories. It is a case where logic works better than statistical taxonomy, which tells someone little about the nature of reality and much about the abstracted, simplified forms we derive from it. Despite my depressing condemnations of the impacts of the internet and computation and social media, there is reason for optimism regarding how we examine the past. Computational methods open vistas of undiscovered knowledge and unbiased, creative interpretations. If we use our computational abilities and data in a constructive way, as a tool, as something that can help us rather than control us, we can be aided immeasurably.

The great contradiction at the heart of our information systems[3] is that they are part of us, our species, while also being utterly separate from our biological functions. Our systems of language, of code, our description of the laws and powers of the universe with mathematics, our art – all are real transmissions of information through time. And they are no less real than DNA we carry and pass on in our bodies:

“Our dataome looks like a distinct, although entirely symbiotic (even endosymbiotic), phenomenon. Homo sapiens arguably only exists as a truly unique species because of our coevolution with a wealth of externalized information; starting from languages held only in neuronal structures through many generations, to our tools and abstractions on pottery and cave walls, all the way to today’s online world.”

In order to understand things: their origins, and where they might go and why they exist, there is no substitute for chronicling the progressive evolution of causation that travels out of the past, through the present, and into the future. Cyberspace generally, and statistical analysis specifically, sever these normal progressions of ideas and beliefs from their environments and their antecedents. If we want to understand a Polish King who reigns as a Duke in France, or why a social movement roars through a community like an uncontrolled fire, we might do well to think again of Schleicher’s Fable, which serves as both a narrative (a form much more likely to explain human behaviors than a statistical analysis) and an examination of a hypothetical language. The method of construction for the language is logical, but not mathematical. It is a simulacrum of the real thing but is not a perfectible abstraction. Perhaps sometimes, if we wish to make sense of reality, it is beneficial to bring the past to the present, instead of projecting ourselves backwards into the past.


[1] I wish I had a citation for this phrase as I’m using it here, but I can’t find anything on the internet.

[2] An oft-used catalyst for stories for newspapers, “creating” news where there is none, but that’s a different post – also, the NYTimes article I’m citing here has some woeful editorial problems that are nakedly biased, but that’s also a different post.

[3] The author of the article I linked (and the quote) calls it the “dataome” – like a biome. There are a lot of interesting implications here for what we consider to be life.

Note: the first two images in the slideshow were taken by Nicolas Cornet, the final one of the square in daylight by Berthold Werner.

We Are All NFTs Now

A digital image, inscribed in specific code on a blockchain, sold for over $69 million. There was a great deal of outrage, shock, mocking, amusement, and consternation over this price for something that appeared to be the equivalent of any shareable image on the internet. This was the first widely-known public eruption of part of a spending spree and gold rush in cryptographic assets, including cryptocurrencies and the images that I described (known as NFT’s – Non-Fungible Tokens). A NFT is a digital marker referencing an object placed on a blockchain which acts as a signature identifying the object as unique. NFTs of NBA highlights are trading in the thousands of dollars every day. While those may seem extravagant examples of conspicuous consumption, the hysteria and moralism surrounding the sale and purchase of NFTs (along with other examples of so-called “tokenization” – the creation of a digital asset representing a real or intellectual property) conceal some revolutionary changes occurring in the world of finance and our broad understanding of capitalism[1], along with how we organize and structure society itself.

The Internet, the greatest social innovation of the 30-year boom of technological innovation, has continued to shift the world in a way that is both subtle and extreme. Personal and public matters are irrevocably altered. We set our alarm clocks by talking to an electronic device, our friendships exist in multiple planes of communication, our employment is more impersonal. You pick-up a to-go order in a restaurant, ordered and paid-for online, not a word spoken to a waiter or host. A discreet, digital-only connection between a dictator’s secret police and a criminal organization leads to a targeted hack of a rival nation’s nationalized oil company. Big and small – everything is changing, though often hidden from our sight. Our present doesn’t look like the imagined future because we were thinking of physical changes: 5000-story skyscrapers, ubiquitous humanoid robots, flying cars and other visual immensities and oddities. Instead, the revolution animates an alternate world confined to invisible space and we are now a society looking down and inward (and constantly toward one another) instead of up and outward toward those still-fictitious colossal skyscrapers. Communications flow ceaselessly through wires and wi-fi disconnecting us from long generations of undisturbed face-to-face human contact while strengthening the bonds we share that are purely emotional and intellectual. Meanwhile, many of our most extraordinary technological innovations have discovered things that are so physically small, they are invisible to all except the most sensitive methods of detection. An example of this being the revelations presented from the particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, experiments from which confirmed the existence of a previously unknown particle, long after mathematical models hinted at its existence. In the mundane and tangible world, the force drawing our gaze inward is most often a smartphone. That communications-device may be the superlative tool representing the irony of humanity’s advancement: we are freeing ourselves from the natural restrictions of nature while binding ourselves closer to each other and our own impulses. As a particle accelerator reveals the hidden structure of physics when it collides particles, rapid, decentralized mass-communications reveal the most basic human psychological machinery.

Our interconnectivity, on an individual level between people, has fragmented the world and revolutionized capitalism in a way that may be intertwined with financial bubbles, but shouldn’t be confused solely for the bubbles themselves. Laws of governments, the constraints of supply and demand, and the conception of social equity have not necessarily changed all that much, just our relationships to those institutions and concepts. The changing relationships between person and power has devalued traditional authority, accelerating the rise in a peer-to-peer economy of individuals – a model now coming under threat from the traditional and centralizing forces of civil society, commerce, and government. There is a struggle between platforms and people, with immense rewards available to those who are able to extract more value from the centralized platforms than the platforms can extract from them. OnlyFans, NFTs, a politician’s social media presence, blogging, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, the effusion of podcasts, the cloistered chambers of Telegram groups and Discords – all are part of the same phenomenon of commoditizing the individual in digital space. We are all NFTs now – if we so choose.

Photo by Ru016bdolfs Klintsons on Pexels.com – Things like Dogecoin show the power of media and technology while concealing more basic changes.

Our public discourse and policy thinking is stuck in the past along with our major government institutions and the frameworks of civil society. Born of the 20th century when technological advances allowed singular forces to monopolize modes of communication, our perceptions of the threat of centralized power are skewed by the extremities of that calamitous 100 years. The internet, for the most part, is resistant to the broad forces of centralization that allowed Totalitarianism to flourish in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It is more difficult for a nation to completely control all media and all communication in the Information Age (China is doing its best, though). Destruction of traditional media gatekeepers launches us to the past even as it compels us into unknown territories. Modern independent journalists and media analysts are reminiscent of the effervescent pamphleteering and journalism of the 18th and 19th centuries. These tabloids and polemics were resistant, but not immune, to government and corporate centralization by the mere fact of the difficulty of communication. These realities often made persuasion and propaganda more valuable to those who wished to control a citizenry than suppression. Internet-based dissemination of information may be resistant to centralization simply because of their profusion. Floods of data are the greatest natural constraint now for human endeavors, mirroring the troublesome deluge of abundance in other arenas. People themselves, our base needs and desires unchanged by plenty, are not immune from methods of control and influence.

Novelty and innovation vastly outran regulation and control in the last 30 years, leaving governments lagging in reasserting authority over people inhabiting virgin digital terrain. Innovation also outstripped our ability to consider the consequences resulting from our world-building. I imagine that in the future it will be clear that this was an era of peak freedom and anarchy in the Digital World, maybe only comparable to other periods of leap-frogging technological advancement. Pre-modern society was characterized by repressive hierarchical social, governmental, and economic systems, where the oppressed would revolt with sudden violence from time-to-time. The methods and severity of control have changed and moderated, but they still exist. No people, in any society, have ever had complete freedom and autonomy, of course. An individual’s freedom is always constrained by the forces of social pressure[2], and by inherently human biological and communal vulnerabilities. Now, these vulnerabilities are ruthlessly exploited by corporations, governments, and, most-of-all, social media platforms.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com – The Matrix was pretty prescient…

There are three important features of social media: the first is addictiveness, the second is enabling virality, and the third is, of course, facilitating networks for people. Addictiveness keeps people coming back, allowing algorithms to refine the most engaging content for them to interact with, and to project more and more advertisements to meet their eyes. Virality is a natural consequence of the ability to rapidly share popular, digestible content. A feature of virality is that something small: a brand, a movement, a political ideology, can become something very large. Virality is further enabled by the creation of social networks. Tribalism is the salient quality of human social networks: a consequence of allowing people to self-sort, especially in blank spaces where people will create social structures out of chaos. Tribalism is important in our world because it perpetuates rivalries and cultism. To these three volatile ingredients there is one more additive which makes an explosive solution – we had, have, and always will have, the only thing for which there is endless demand and never enough supply: the desire to be entertained.

Back when Trump was first running for President and rabid fan-groups appeared online on places like the social media site Reddit (the now-banned message board community r/The_Donald being the obvious example) I referred to them as a “grassroots cult of personality.” I think I had that partly right. I was using the outdated model referring to the aberrational centralization of the 20th century and I discounted the forces of entertainment in Trump’s digital popularity. This phenomenon became clear as being merely one example of an eruption of digital tribes. These digital tribes can become dangerous mobs which threaten to hijack public discourse and policy every time a critical mass is reached and a catalyst triggers a riot. Trump’s rise is an excellent example of those four ingredients I mentioned and the incredible force they can create, but not of the commoditization of the individual – another politician is an even better example of that phenomenon.

Every day, or almost every day, for a period of months toward the end of 2020, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was seen on the “front-page” of Reddit. Almost always as a screenshot of a Tweet moralistically ripping on GOP or neoliberal policies. In a way, AOC is now a commoditized symbol, instead of just an elected official. Her tweets and viral moments speaking in the House are her intellectual property – generating value for her brand. I haven’t done any formal study, but it appears that attention afforded to her has fallen sharply after Trump was booted from Twitter and left office. I believe this gives some indication that her popularity is tied to a broadcasted battle played out through traditional and social media.

Addiction. Virality. Tribalism. Entertainment. Those four ingredients combined with the revolution in the production of digital assets create feedback loops and form resilient social groupings which can have real power in the real world. Any individual who has the ability and desire can use these new social groupings to attain money, influence, and power – and now and in the future – especially money because of tokenization.

NFTs selling for seemingly outrageous sums of money and AOC’s domination of Reddit’s front page in her digital war with the GOP are two sides of the same coin. Everything is being commoditized, including our digital personas. Monetization of intellectual labor is going to be a key fact of the world from now on. This is not just a world of direct-to-consumer products and psychologically-savvy corporations, it’s a world of each individual and their intellectual output as a potential brand and business to a degree that was impossible even a few years ago.

Changes in technology and social structure are a Pandora’s Box. This is a good development for society in that it can advance individual freedom, broaden prosperity and the reach of justice, and accelerate innovations. This is a bad development for society in that it can precipitate physical and digital riots, allow small groups of bad actors, or even single individuals, to cause grave harm to large numbers of people, and foster new and harmful addictions in millions of people. I think addiction deserves special attention, and is most likely to present the greatest sustained cost to society-at-large as a side-effect of our advancement.

One of the most painful problems with addiction is that it often takes an extreme adverse event or events to pull people out of their delusion that they can continue to feed their compulsion without consequences. As people are addicted to social media, and that addiction is reinforced in a multitude of ways, these new communities act as enablers, shielding addicts from reality and the harm they may be causing themselves or others. Addiction is a massively harmful, intractable problem, and I’m afraid it is increasing everywhere.

Wild freedom and the darkest oppressions are both freely available to people now: every person a potential brand and every person part of a potential mob.


[1] I don’t like using the word capitalism as it has been both politicized, decontextualized, and made overbroad and non-specific – here, I use it to refer to the general system of property rights and the relatively free flow of goods and services between different entities – perhaps close to its basic definition.

[2] You think “cancel culture” and “social justice” are out of control now? Imagine being an atheist in 1100 AD in Europe, or questioning why Serfdom was hereditary.

Mobs and Riots

Reconstruction

Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.

Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.

Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.

After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.

Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.

And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.

There were:

  • Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
  • Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
  • Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
  • Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus

By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.

In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.

The Destruction of Amy Cooper

A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?

The Murder of a Black Man

The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.

A Riot is a Signal

Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools.  And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.

One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.

These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.

If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of  this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.

Sound and Fury

Sound and Fury

Amid the uproar over the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, documenting (supposedly) the inner workings of the Trump White House and campaign, two incidents have not gotten the attention they deserve. And they portend grave ills in our political system.

First, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted the state of Florida from natural gas and oil drilling off its coast. Republican governor Rick Scott met with Zinke and afterward Zinke indicated that he had allowed the exemption at the governor’s request. Zinke has not indicated that democratically-run states could get similar exemptions. Along with the tax bill recently passed this is a clear example of Republican punishment of blue states.

Second, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS (commissioners of the infamous Steele dossier) without the consent and approval of Republicans. This action outraged the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Partisan clefting in the Committee displays an utter lack of cooperation and shared goals by the individuals tasked with running our government.

Winner-take-all

Key to these two incidents is evidence of intensifying winner-take-all effects in American political life. Laws are not passed and policy changes are not made unless one party controls majorities in the branches of government.

This fact is salient: Government has shifted from the mean to the outliers. While it may be true that our government was not as bipartisan in the past as it may seem from our current perspective, the political parties no longer shift to the middle in order to enact policy or win votes. Intolerant minorities now control policy and because of people’s political tribalism they will vote with a party or candidate with an extreme view as long as they are labeled Republican or Democrat. That is to say: people would rather vote and support a viewpoint with which they do not strongly agree as long as those candidates and policies are labeled and marketed as being part of their party.

Going as far back as the Affordable Care Act’s passage under the Obama Administration, passed with no Republican votes, the political parties have shown an inability to compromise. While this changing landscape has been analyzed, remarked-upon, and derided it has recently lost some attention due to the abhorrent and tumultuous Trump Administration. It is clear that the Trump Administration is a symptom, not the disease.

Going Forward

Partisanship, particularly the takeover of the Republican Party by an intolerant, radical minority, will stretch beyond the current administration. It is myopic to believe that all will be well after the inevitable downfall of President Trump – the American people and political system are not dealing with the causes of Trump’s rise in the first instance.

It is an irony that part of Trump’s appeal was in not belonging to a political party, that he was not part of the stagnant and dysfunctional establishment, but that his election has exacerbated the partisan divide in the country.

Dysfunction in Washington is here to stay, and while the issues of collusion and incompetence are important, in the arc of history it will be remembered as being “sound and fury” and not the central issue of the time.