Malthusian Catastrophes

Pondering Malthus and Koyaanisqatsi

I was hyper-focused on something the other afternoon, half-listening to a playlist of random ambient music on the sonos when Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi began to play.

The word means “world out of balance” in the Hopi language (or as my father would have said: ” Fubar.” It’s a beautiful film, especially when it was first released nearly 40 years ago, a stoner flick to be appreciated after a few bong hits in the dorm before heading to the midnight showing at the local art house cinema.

Reflecting on the present pandemic and its politicization as the world crawls out of quarantine into the future, I have to wonder if this and future pandemic threats to our health and social fabric are symptoms of a world out of balance, where geography and the natural barriers of oceans and time have been rendered irrelevant by technology, where natural processes and systems from the climate to gender roles have been turned on their head by genetically modified crops, wide-body jets, and instant communications which can speed both facts and propaganda as well as an infected passenger in the middle seat in aisle 42 into our lives faster than ever before.

Thomas Malthus was the English economist who posited the theory that improvements to productivity are not used to increase our quality of life, but to expand our population in a series of boom/bust cycles that punish the most disadvantaged segments the hardest. Coming out of an era of plague, such as the epidemic of 1666 that ravaged London, Malthusian economics was summed up by its creator thusly:

“Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment [i.e., marriage] is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.”

 Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II,

Malthus observed a boom and bust cycle of population growth and crashes and came to the conclusion that rather than achieve a balanced equilibrium, progress and society tend to use any gains to expand, not improve. Population growth is the top of mind agenda of three significantly wealthy and wise individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros…. all have prioritized population as the focus of their philanthropy. These aren’t cold-hearted eugenicists who advocate sterilizing the poor, or even eating them as Jonathan Swift suggested in his “modest proposal” of 1729.

The COVID-19 crisis is an great example of a Malthusian Catastrophe: an event such as a famine, war, genocide, or epidemic which tend to happen when things seem great but suddenly go out of balance. Famine used to be the great check valve on unbridled population growth, but the Green Revolution that followed World War II and the growing use of pesticides, hybrid strains of grain, and industrial agriculture has diminished the severity of famine save for a few susceptible regions such as the Horn of Africa. It also wiped out the local osprey population until Rachel Carson started the environmental movement with Silent Spring. Now the osprey are back and its nursing home residents who are disappearing.

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII

Here is Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 has hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods where crowded housing, poor healthcare and nutrition, and other factors particular to the impoverished have caused infection rates to soar far higher than more affluent zip codes. Chelsea, Brockton, Lawrence …. the virus burns hottest for the poorest and thrives on the weakest, the oldest, the sickest. I read last night that 50% of COVID deaths occurred in the counties within 100 miles of New York City. For a person living in North Dakota, where social isolation is the norm, the pandemic is irrelevant. For an elderly Latina with diabetes and COPD in Chelsea, it’s a death sentence.

Immigration didn’t bring the virus to America. During the Ebola scare in the late summer of 2015 conservatives reacted with great paranoia over the “jet age” effects of a single infected person flying from the west coast of Africa to New York, politicizing the disease in their ongoing agenda of restricting free immigration and opening America’s borders. Their calls for a cordon sanitaire then are not being repeated now, as critics of the shutdown ask why governments and public health organizations tanked the economy to avoid a pandemic that seems to pick off the elderly and the poor the most. For a college student in Fort Lauderdale in early March, it was worth sacrificing granny a few years sooner than expected so the wet t-shirt contests could go on.

Society is fracturing into two camps as it comes out of hiding, two camps who have dug in to embrace very different realities. For the conservative segment, the issue is about freedom and free markets as the best system to distribute wealth and regulate society. For the progressive wing, it’s about protecting the weak and sacrificing some growth and profit to improve the lot of the most vulnerable. But in the end the virus doesn’t care, neither does the next crop blight or typhoon. We’re all just passengers on the boom-bust roller coaster and destined to do to ourselves what our ancestors did to themselves — waiting for the next Malthusian catastrophe to remind us our world is indeed, our of balance.

Lab Rats

I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.

Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.

Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.

So in the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)

He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.

From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.

Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries; the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all; the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale; the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me? sense of humor.

Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.

I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and everyone has the sanctuary of their own office. I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.

I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.

Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.

* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.

**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.

Another day, another annoyance

So two new types of spam to hate.

First are the LinkedIn abusers who send the guilt inducing emails asking me to buy their super-duper marketing automation systems; and then a week later act all butt-hurt and demand a yes or no answer. Those dickheads get to meet the Man in the Chair.

LinkedIn has turned into a shallow money trench of desperate lead generators and sleeve-tuggers. As a so-called “thought leadership” platform it is where good ideas go to die on the altar of buzzword bingo. Once a resume network, it’s now a bazooka of spam. At least About.me leaves me alone.

Second inbox trend are the morons who think it’s okay to sign up for an app that spams people asking them to confirm their contact details. Brewster is the big villain. For example I get a few of these ever week.

Jamie — whoever he is — is “so close” but in reality is so deleted. Do your own legwork people. Figure it out. If you don’t know who the right person at my company is who is going to buy your amazing social analytics Big Data customer delight solution, then you’re not looking hard enough. If you can’t be bothered to managed your own contact list, please don’t ask some drone service to bug your contacts for it.

Blaming the blockers: What’s the future of online advertising? — Tech News and Analysis

GigaOm has published an opinion piece I wrote at the suggestion of Om Malik about the poor prospects for the present digital advertising model. I went off on a screed in my first draft against the protests of the Internet Advertising Bureau who have been attacking people like me who turn on ad-blocking software and turn off third-party tracking cookies.

http://gigaom.com/2013/08/18/blaming-the-blockers-whats-the-future-of-online-advertising/

I’ll let the column speak for itself.

Google is Fickle and Unfaithful but I Keep Crawling Back

In this day and age of “ecosystem” commitments, when a consumer needs to declare their allegiance to a platform such as Apple’s, Microsoft’s or Google’s in order to get the promised impact and benefits of an integrated world of synchronized accounts, content and media across the screens that dominate their lives — their phones, tablets, PCs and televisions — it’s a bit like getting engaged and married in the hope their betrothed partner will be faithful and keep their promises.

Google is maddeningly unfaithful and indecisive. Let me count the ways.

  • Perpetual Beta: How long did Google News carry a “beta” tag, four years? At least it still lives. 
  • Quick to bail: Remember Google Wave? The overhyped something or other that no one could figure out what to do with except it felt kind of brilliant and got the SMDB’s* all worked up? Gone in less than a couple years. 
  • iGoogle personalized home pages? Those throwbacks to the day when personalization was the killer app and you could create this awesome start page for your browser which could be customized with widgets …. terminal and going to die in November 2013. 
  • Google Notes: I like the idea of a notepad I can scribble random crap on and then access through my browser on multiple machines. The Google note pad did this. And then it didn’t. Killed off for reasons unknown. 
  • Google Health: park your medical records in the cloud and the next time you get whacked by a tuk-tuk in Bangalore the doctors can log in and pull up your last cholesterol test results and see what prescription drugs you’ve been taking. Gone.
  • Google Reader: the RSS news feed aggregator that was simply awesome in its elegance, its ability to share (wait, they are killing that off too), and its sheer greatness for aggregating the hundreds of feeds I subscribe to into one great interface. Soon to die……well, at least I can wait for Google Glass or a Prius that drives itself.

David Pogue writes in this morning’s New York Times about Google’s latest addition to its wonderful world of seamlessly synchronized stuff across browsers, android tablets and phones: Google Keep.  Google fanboi that I am, I dutifully installed it on my phone, my Nexus 7. and will eventually find a way to get it on the desktop of my PC. It’s Google’s answer to Evernote — the note taking, reminder, to-do list thing I occasionally use and also have installed across my devices.  Why Pogue gave up an entire column on this little utility is beyond me, but he does brilliantly voice some suspicion over Google’s fickle ways (and inspired me to rant in agreement):

“In time, Keep could become a pinboard — a Pinterest.com — for your entire life.

“Unfortunately, the last thing to remember isn’t quite as cheery: Google has a habit not only of creating great things, but also of killing them off. The timing of the Keep announcement was chilling, coming only a few days after the announcement that, in July, Google will shut down its popular Google Reader site. It’s a smooth, attractive RSS feed reader — something like a customizable, constantly updated magazine of articles you might like.

“Google has killed off notepad apps before, too. In 2009, it shut down Notebook, its first Evernote-type program. How will you feel if you entrust your life’s data to Keep — and then learn that Google chooses not to keep Keep?”

 

Applications, websites, grandparents and puppies all die eventually. I miss XyWrite, the first word processor I mastered back in the pre-Windows days of DOS but I’ve since moved on and don’t try to keep it alive like some Stephen King pet in the evil magical woodlot of eternal zombie life. Other people miss Twinkies. But when I start banking my personal crap, my photos, my music, my writing, my notes, my phone numbers and all the other digital ephemera that is me on someone’s cloud, and then they pull the plug on it …..well, pardon me while I call a private investigator to check their cheating, fickle heart.

And let’s not go down the path of knowing Google’s SkyNet is reading my email and sticking ads against it. I like to whistle past the graveyard of privacy.

 

*=Social Media Douche Bags

The Dorkification of Society

I loved Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” his 2006 movie about an ordinary guy who through an accident of suspended animation wakes up in a future where people have devolved to a state of utter idiocy and he is the smartest one by default. I realized yesterday, as the social networks started trending with the news that Google is looking for a select group to test drive their Glasses, that we are one step closer to Judge’s satirical hellish vision that began on that day sometime in the 1980s when the first moron started shouting “Can You Hear Me NOW?!?” on a city sidewalk and I walked past pitying the poor schizophrenic having an argument with himself.

Wearable technology make it difficult to tell the mentally ill from the sane and never make a good fashion statement (see cell phone belt holsters).  “Yuppy-with-cellphone” is Hollywood’s shorthand for “asshole” but was replaced by “Jerk with Bluetooth Headset.”  To be really ironic one only need put a first generation bag phone or one of those ginormous walkie-talkie phones on a character, and let the laughter begin. I can’t navigate a mall parking lot without nearly being clipped by some Mouth Breather with a phone in one hand and the controls of a two-ton SUV in the other. Public displays of communication devices is a serious sign of poor etiquette, bad manners, callous indifference and materialistic bad taste that says “Look At Me, I have the Latest Jesus Phone 2.0 5G LTE”

For more d-bags with phones, visit randomahole.com

This is not news but it’s about to get a lot worse.

So back to Google Glasses.  They are a pretty simple concept, cooler perhaps than the old Dick Tracy wrist phone it turns out we didn’t need along with flying cars and jet packs. If you think it’s weird running into the back of some Millenial/Net Gen texter who suddenly stops right in the middle of the sidewalk in front of Radio City Music Hall at the peak of the evening rush hour, blocking the entrance to the 48th Street Subway, just so she can thumb out an “OMG”, then just wait until the sidewalks masses start talking to their Glasses. At least they won’t have to stop walking or risk being blown out of their Sketchers by a crosstown bus.

Start by accepting voice recognition doesn’t really work. It’s getting better, sure, and I’ll concede it is very nice to hit the microphone icon on my phone when it is acting as a GPS and tell it slowly and patiently like a toddler that I want to go to a specific address. The old method of trying to type the address while driving was far worse. But honestly, is Siri really that amazing? Do you actually use it or know someone who does? Did Dragon Naturally speaking suddenly lift millions from the tyranny of typing so now they can dictate and control their PCs with a microphone?

Second, Google Glasses needs a connection to the Internet in order to do what it does. “Well duh!” you may say, but consider how it’s going to get that signal by making a bluetooth connection to your phone, which is in your pocket, and then either a WiFi connection when you’re near a hot spot or a 3G/4G mobile data connection to America’s shameful and sclerotic wireless broadband network. So, to review, what Glasses does is combine: a) the weirdness of public displays of talking to one’s self, with ; b) the douche bag fashion statement that a bluetooth headset in one’s ear makes, with ;c) the moronic futility of talking to an inanimate object with d) slow, crappy networks.

I’ll concede it might be great while driving, sort of like some fighter jet’s HUD with all sorts of useful stuff sort of painted over the real world (“He’s up my Six Maverick!”) and I can see the Xtreme Sports Crowd give up their GoPro helmet cameras to narcissistically share a vertiginous attempt to injure their crotches just like the stars in Idiocracy’s  top television game show, “Ow, My Balls”  — but to walk into a dive bar and order a beer and then say out loud, over the din: “Take a Picture and Tweet It” is going to mark one as the paste-easter (played by Don Knotts) who ordered sarsaparilla before being called out and gunned down on the streets of Laredo by Blacky (played by Robert Mitchum) who is going to squirt a stream of tobacco spit all over the pencil neck’s corpse. That’s just the early adopters, and as Alexis Madrigal hysterically writes in The Atlantic, there have already been early adopter sightings in the dive bars of the Mission in San Francisco. Madrigal’s piece begins when a bar owner posts on Facebook:

“Last night around 9:45 two people walked into the bar. Looked me square in the eye, and acting as if everything was normal they ordered beers.. Oh did I mention they were wearing Google Glasses! In public! In A BAR!”

I used to wear glasses. I started in 7th Grade. I never liked wearing glasses. They rubbed holes in the bridge of my nose, got smudged and dirty, and were bad to play sports in. I was a geek. Then I got contact lenses and I was still a geek, just a little less obvious. I wore glasses until my mid-40s when a combination of very early cataracts and then a freaky detached retina basically made it impossible for me to wear glasses again (I could, however, wear a monocle). Now it looks pretty inevitable that at some point in the next five years I am going to get one of these things and stick it on my face, and open my mouth and say, “Google. Take a Picture.”

And I’ll be one step closer to the Idiocracy.

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