Monday, January 30, 2017

Donald the Demented Disruptor

I have a theory for how Donald Trump became president.  My theory makes the assumption that everyone is looking in the wrong place for explanations.  Everyone seems to think that since this was a political event then the answer must be political or economic or demographic in some way. This is partially correct. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if Hillary had gotten out the vote in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit she would have likely beaten Donald.  But, my contention is that the disruption of human life, so prevalent due to the advances of digital technology, governmental micromanagement, corporate power and commodification, globalization, among other reasons has deeply affected the American voter.

Disruption is understated in the political narrative but it cannot be emphasized enough.  The forces affecting the daily lives of Americans have frustrated the hell out of most people.  Frustration leads to a lack of clarity where politics is concerned. Voters don't care about the political consequences of their vote so much as they simply want to cause disruption themselves.  Donald Trump was not elected for any political reason.  He was elected because voters desire to create disruption as a form of revenge. To that extent, the 2016 election makes perfect sense.

This is not a Left versus Right phenomenon - though, of course, the Right has benefited from it. The Left, being progressive, is viewed as more of the cause of frustration. Progressivism is inherently pro-digital, pro-globalization, pro-government, pro-media, and pro-academia - all the things voters associate with the disruption of their lives.  The Right, being more conservative by design, is either neutral or opposed to these forces.  The corporate power component of frustration is viewed as more of a digital/global phenomena than as a contributing factor by the Right.

Progressives are seen as the primary enablers of disruption. Many articles on disruption take the slant that it is largely a positive phenomenon.  But it is not seen that way by most people at all.  Most people don't want to be re-trained for future jobs, they don't want to deal with the invasive technological change of private lives, they don't want the responsibility that comes with enabling technology and sophisticated governmental and corporate systems that result from this disruptive effect.

One example of this massive, understated, force of disruption comes from a recent book by Tom Friedman. 'The central argument of Friedman’s book is that technology (due to “Moore’s Law” — whereby computing power has been doubling every two years for the last fifty years), globalization (the “Market”), and climate change (“Mother Nature”) have all collided and now constitute the “age of acceleration.” These three accelerations “are impacting one another” and, at the same time, are “transforming almost every aspect of modern life.”

'Friedman believes that the collision occurred roughly ten years ago, 2007, with technological advancements in computing power (processing chips, software, storage chips, networking, and sensors) that formed a new platform. This platform “suffused a new set of capabilities to connect, collaborate and create throughout every aspect of life, commerce, and government.” These capabilities are smarter, faster, smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. It is not coincidental, therefore, that that year saw the advent of the first iPhone, symbolic of this massive transformation.
The challenge posed by these exponential rates of change is our ability to absorb and adapt to them. “Many of us,” Friedman writes, “cannot keep pace anymore.” Eric Teller, head of Google’s X research and development lab, said, “[T]hat is causing us cultural angst.” And Teller warns that “our societal structures are failing to keep pace with the rate of change.”'

The nuts and bolts of the disruptive effects upon human behavior are well known. 'I study disruptive technology, specifically innovative technology that gains so much momentum that it disrupts markets and ultimately businesses. In the past several years, disruptive technology has become so pervasive that I’ve had to further focus my work on studying only disruptive technologies that are impacting customer and employee behavior, expectations and values and affecting customer and employee experiences. I can hardly keep up with today let alone consider the potential disruption that looms ahead in every sector imaginable including new areas that will emerge and displace laggard perspectives, models and processes.'

According to the Huffington Post, American culture is clearly afflicted with disruption. 'If you were about to celebrate the end of the Great Recession and the decline in the unemployment rate, please re-cork the Champagne. The American economy — much like the economies of other developed nations — is entering a period of major upheaval in which many middle-class jobs will be lost. The digital revolution is increasingly allowing computers and machines, made smarter through software, to replace many of the better-paying jobs, namely those that require skills and are associated with the middle class.'

The Financial Times also substantiates this. 'So why all the fuss about tech companies and competition? Technological change is naturally disruptive. We saw widespread industry restructuring throughout much of the 20th century and we can expect the same to happen in the 21st. Incumbents are understandably worried about being disrupted or even displaced and this anxiety boils over into demands that regulators “do something”. Unfortunately, this often means restricting competition rather than enhancing it.

'“The best of all monopoly profits,” the Nobel laureate John Hicks once said, “is a quiet life.” But life can never be quiet in the high tech industries as long as technologies continue to advance, innovation continues to thrive and consumers continue to have so much choice.'

The accelerated pace of disruption is a possible source of societal discontent partly because there's no end to it in sight. This creates a sense of helplessness and rage that feeds the more radical instincts of the voters. 'Whether you are a fan of the digital revolution, or think of it as unavoidable evil, there is no denying that it has changed our lives forever. It has changed the culture and social fabric of our existence in more profound ways than we realize. The most amazing thing is that all of these changes have taken place in the last 15-20 years! The even more chilling fact is that we are not done yet.'

The Economist notes that part of the crisis lies in the emergent relationship between technological progress and unemployment.  'Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently. They start from the observation that, across the rich world, all is far from well in the world of work. The essence of what they see as a work crisis is that in rich countries the wages of the typical worker, adjusted for cost of living, are stagnant. In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.'

With disruption really only beginning, with it becoming the norm, with the frustrations of the voters rising because of the complexity and uncertainty of our postmodern "Great Disruption", there is a paradoxical relationship between discontent and individual ability to impact disruption. 'My goal is to give you a sense of the pace of change. We haven’t seen one percent of the rate of change that we going to see within the next ten years. It used to be that a thousand years ago, the only people who could change a nation or a region of the world were the Kings and Queens. One hundred years ago it was the industrialists, the robber barons, that could make the change. Today it’s anyone…'

Clearly, Donald was the candidate of disruption. Jeff Reifman writes: 'Both Bernie Sanders and Trump exceeded early expectations because of their outsider status and their appearance as disruptors of the status quo. Sanders used his authentic regard for equality and social justice to address these issues, whereas Trump promises to tear everything apart and restructure it without specifics.

'Who can’t empathize with his intention? The status quo is broken for all of us. Even when money in politics fails to win elections, gerrymandering and the Supreme Court keep us on course toward an increasingly indebted country with failing infrastructure controlled by the wealthy and corporations for their own benefit. Frankly, there’s not much of a democracy left here.'

Hence, the emergence of Donald Trump.  The perfect candidate of disruption; the opportunity for disgruntled voters to give every contributing influence of disruption some payback. 'The emergence of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has sent shockwaves through the GOP. It has also unleashed a vitriolic response from many who passionately oppose his more inflammatory statements. Trump’s success is rooted in his ability to disrupt the established order within the GOP. His followers, fueled by anger and distrust of the prevailing political orthodoxy, have drawn their strength from conservative news sources, obscure websites and the blogging fraternity for views and opinions that reinforce rather than challenge established assumptions. The convergence of the power of new media on a political system dominated by extremes has formed a nexus within the present political cycle.

'Technological disruptions have served as important milestones for human progress across centuries. In the 19th century, opposition to newly developed technology in the English textile industry led to the machine-smashing Luddite movement. The movement would not last. New technology not only transformed the textile industry but also spurred the creation of a new economic order. Two centuries later, we are again experiencing disruptions of historic proportions. We are also observing the emergence of a new 21st-century economic order. The speed of innovation and its transformative impact on our everyday experiences is near complete, for good or bad. Disruption has always yielded champions and victims. What is not clear this time is who will win.'

This is causing great consternation, particularly on the Left. But, as the Sydney Morning Herald points out, 'Trump is governing almost exactly how he said he would during a campaign that he won. No one should be surprised.'

We got what we voted for America.  The voters are to blame for this mess.  A plurality voted for a man with serious mental issues and personality disorders over a wide field of other candidates throughout the primaries and in the general election.  Now, we all will learn.  Maybe a significant portion of American voters are a sick as Trump.  Regardless, just because a candidate is anti-everything doesn't make that candidate viable. If you voted for Trump, you voted for counter-disruption...and an unstable man.  God only knows what you are going to get in the end.  Trump serves no one but his delusional self. There has never been a better example of why informed voting, rather than voting based on your personal frustrations, matters.  

Read about this Trump presidency so far in my new flipzine, Trumpocalypse Now.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fake the Nation

The favorability rating for the news media in America is at an all-time low.  Americans don't trust the reporting of the free press.  Those who proclaim themselves Republicans are the primary driver of this trend.  The so-called "liberal media" (ignoring the fact that there is clearly a powerful, competitive "conservative media") has never been more under attack.  

Such skepticism is generally a health thing, in my opinion.   All media should be scrutinized and evaluated based upon a cross-checking of facts and a verification of any seemingly outlandish claims. But, when the media is ignored completely, not verified, not confirmed then we have a problem.  In our case we have the problem of people just simply making shit up because it sounds better to their preconceived (and largely unconfirmed) notions.

"Fake news" abounds in America today.  It crosses the political landscape to include both the Left and the Right. Buzzfeed supplies 50 examples of fake news from 2016 on FaceBook (FakeBook?) alone. But, Buzzfeed itself was probably guilty of fake news when it published the story about President-elect Trump's scandalous "Golden Shower" connection.

Other assorted examples:

And so on.  For both political factions, Left and Right,  it has become preferable to emulate the Joseph Goebbels style of (propaganda) press coverage.  This is a blow for the First Amendment far worse than any government regulation or corporate power play.  Free Speech is only as valuable as it is informed.  There is no constitutional right to make shit up and present it as fact.  That, my dear readers, is not Free Speech - that is intentionally misleading pseudo-speak.  Free Speech is inherently legitimate, even between contradictory speech acts.   It isn't "free expression" if it is an intent to lie.
Rather, Free Speech is an intent to enter into debate with conflicting views and to allow the force of factual argument to carry the day.  This is a cornerstone of American democracy. When voters rely upon fake news to validate their preconceptions out of a desire to be "right" rather than a desire to be "informed", then all of American democracy is in crisis. Free Speech cannot be distinguished from fake speech, the press is no longer allowed to inform the electorate or to legitimately hold authority accountable as part of our cultural "checks and balances", and people invent their reality thereby pushing public policy beyond the perils of partisan rancor and political gridlock into something far worse - policy based upon how people feel regardless of the facts

So we will soon be under the direction of a Fake President.  All politicians put spin on the truth and position the facts to their favor.  Most America politicians have historically stopped short of outright fabrication of facts.  Until recently. Donald Trump is a champion of fake news.  Even conservative media sources questioned the "stunning" phony accusations Trump made about "massive voter fraud" in the 2016 election.   Even when he wasn't personally orchestrating  fake news, Trump benefited from Right-wing fakers.

There is no shortage of Left or Right voters who prefer to believe their own opinions rather than to investigate, inform themselves, and obtain what has traditionally be termed "received wisdom." This is perhaps the most terrifying threat to free speech.

The New York Times reports on what researchers found when they intentionally parodied fake news. A significant swath of the American people (possibly around 15%), enough to sway an election, bought in to it.  The Times summarizes: "It may be less that false information from dubious news sources is shaping their view of the world. Rather, some people (about 8 percent of the adult population, if we take the survey data at face value) are willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heroes and villains in politics.

"It suggests that the most straightforwardly fraudulent forms of fake news are a small part of what is shaping how people understand the world. People’s hunger for information that suits their prejudices is powerful, and in the digital media age, a pile of it emerges to satisfy that demand."

It seems to me that the rise of media distrust and the rise of fake news are symptoms reflecting in tandem the same societal disease.  We are sick to the extent we allow fake news to validate our lives. We are inauthentic to the extent that we act in ways that was demonstrably false.  It turns out that America is fundamentally in trouble not because we are no longer ""great" nor because we have a legitimacy crisis in government, equality, privacy, freedom, corporate greed, etc. America is in crisis because the American people are increasingly invested in lies.  This supposedly Christian nation has allowed lying in the public sphere to have unprecedented powers of persuasion and inspiration.  

Though fake news is nothing new to America (we can find examples of it all the way back to the election of 1800) 2016 might well represent the year fake news consistently replaced legitimate news in the minds of the American public.  If 2016 is any indication, large swaths of the voting public are going to vote based upon preconceived prejudices without the benefit of either discourse between candidates to become better informed or the news media to "vet" the positions of candidates based upon reality.

Our democracy has plenty of troubles from the "evil powers" of the government or the "inequality" of corporate greed.  But nothing threatens it more than the American voters themselves.  By discounting factual reporting and meaningful debate in favor of fake news we have elected a fake president who clearly invents his own reality and we have thereby chosen to manifest our political freedom into a fake nation. We get the government we deserve and frankly, we deserve to be lied to, it is what makes so many of us politically happy.

Late Note: The Fakers seem to be running wild in the early days of the Trump administration. Kellyanne Conway, who did a brilliant job of getting Trump elected, claims that the administration is dealing with "alternative facts" - one of the finest examples of outlandish bullshit I've heard in a long time.  Meanwhile, Trump's press secretary's claim that Trump's mediocre Presidential Inauguration had "the largest crowd ever to witness an inauguration" is further proof that this administration is simply going to make shit up as they go along.  Most of this is petty stuff really, but it unfortunately is indicative of a behavioral pattern of lying. Trump is well on his way to becoming our (fake) great nation's Faker-in-chief