Monday, October 11, 2021

Notations On Our World (Weekly Edition): In America As A New Week Dawns (Updated)


It is Indigenous People's Day here in the United States and a Federal Holiday.

As a new week dawns, our team captured a scene from our skyline in our hometown that in some ways reflects the state of our World as COVID-19 rages on, economic challenges continue to persist along with Foreign policy challenges.   We captured this courtesy of the team at Politico about the state of the Biden Presidency:

Biden Report Card: ‘Are voters giving up on him?’

Biden Report Card: ‘Are voters giving up on him?’

The weekly White House Report Card finds President Joe Biden continuing to struggle with his own party over the nearly $5 trillion infrastructure and social welfare program, the national debt, jobs, and inflation.

Read the full story here.

BLOW-ING IT — You know things have taken a really bad turn for Democrats when liberal NYT columnist CHARLES BLOW describes the state of the party in terms you’d be more likely to read on the WSJ op-ed page. Here’s a sampling of Blow’s latest, headlined, “ Democrats, You’re in Danger”:

“They just aren’t getting enough done. … The warning signs are all around. ...

“Democrats are still wrangling over their infrastructure and social spending bills. … There is still a crisis at the border. … Then there is the massive, widespread assault on voting rights … [and] it is still not clear if there are enough votes in the Senate to pass voter protections … As for police reform, negotiations … completely fell apart. …

“Not to mention that Covid is still killing far too many Americans . … Democrats have been unable to deliver much to make their voters happy … As a result, many recent polls have shown Biden’s approval ratings plummeting to the lowest level of his young presidency … Black voters continue to be Biden’s strongest supporters on many of these metrics, but even their support seems disturbingly soft.”

Lest you think this is all a windup to an admonition to pass the infrastructure/reconciliation package … not quite. In Blow’s view, even that might not cut it: “[T]hose investments may come too late to discharge growing dissatisfaction.” Otherwise, the outlook is great!

We also present a sampling of the discourse on the week that was:  


Joe Biden became the first U.S. president to observe Indigenous People’s Day on Friday, and today, more than 70 cities are honoring the resilience of Native Americans instead of the controversial figure long credited with “discovering” America. At least 36 public monuments of Christopher Columbus have been removed since the 1970s, but most Americans aren’t ready to part with the federal holiday or the many venerations of the explorer who remains “a part of a larger many-sided quest for an American national character,” as one historian put it.

There are still 149 statues and 6,000 places that commemorate Columbus, including college institutions, streets, rivers and even entire cities. Kriston Capps looks at the history of celebrating Columbus today on CityLabWhy There Are Still 149 Statues of Christopher Columbus in the U.S.

-Doyinsola Oladipo

More on CityLab:

How cities turned against a controversial holiday.  

From children’s boats to snails and a giant thumb, the spaces drivers pass around are now islands of creativity. 

If the floods don’t get you, lack of electricity or a swamped hospital might.

What we’re reading:

  • When bad weather and bad landlords collide (The New Republic)
  • To combat gun violence, clean up the neighborhood (New York Times)
  • Hybrid working is fueling demand for more tech and bigger homes – both are bad news for the planet (The Conversation)
  • Lawsuit filed in Florida over mural showing city’s first Black female firefighter depicted with a White face (CNN)
  • Here’s why leaf blowers are evil incarnate (Wall Street Journal)

We close out with this courtesy Marc Cooper on the state of affairs in America today:

Coop Scoop: (Resend) It's All Zuck's Fault

A failing political class finds an easy scapegoat

October 9, 2021

By Marc Cooper

Good news, my fellow Americans!

The two major political parties who, with an assist from the Media Establishment, have shaped and managed the Squid Game known as late American capitalism that has, in turn, produced the greatest environmental, political, public health, informational and overall socio-political crisis in our recent history has finally identified the source of all evil: Facebook! Up against the wall, Mark Zuckerberg!

From Liz Warren on the Liberal Left to Josh Hawley on the Neo-fascist Right, a sweeping consensus has overtaken The World’s Greatest Dysfunctional Chambers on Capitol Hill. The alarm has been loudly sounded. Break up Facebook! Reign in Big Tech! Do it now or we face demise.

Hey, it’s not my job to defend billionaires like Zuck nor behemoth greedy monopolies like FB, but are you frickin’ kidding me? Blaming all of our ills on social media in this society is like a country full of Very Ugly people deciding to smash all mirrors.

How convenient this ploy is for a failing political class, desperately trying to halt (or in the case of the GOP to hasten) the decay of the empire and trying to confront the rise of popular anger. There’s plenty wrong with FB (I will get to that in a few minutes) but with what moral credibility and trust do our elected officials decide taking down Big Tech is some sort of a solution to our myriad problems?

Before even getting into and rebutting some of the details of the proposals, I must say that a lot of the decay laid at the feet of social media can actually be traced back to the dominance of television in our culture. It was TV, not the Web, that was (and continues to be albeit now in the shadow of the Internet) the Great Disruptor of a literate, linear and rational culture.

Television bulldozed the past (“too boring”), erased exposition and context, elevated sensationalism and commercialism, perfected superficiality and reduced “the news” to bloody entertainment that simultaneously tuned out the rest of the world. National narratives were (and are) established and then fixed with 9 second soundbites and great international crises reduced to a 1:59 story told by a correspondent who could also pass for a runway model.

Before the Web, it was the TV screen that was on an average of 7 hours a day and that persuaded children that sugared cereals, Coca-Cola, and Barbie dolls were existential needs. Neil Postman’s 1986 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, remains the comprehensive indictment of TV as the primary wrecker of a rational information world. If you have not read it, do so before mouthing off about social media.

Television succeeded by broadcasting the lowest common denominator, making it easy for 5 year olds and 50 year olds to watch the same crap programming. It propagated (and continues to a great degree) all of the biases, myths, and preferences to as many people as possible, all to make a buck. If it needs to be Ozzie and Harriet, OK. If today it needs to be Woke, that’s ok too. Whatever works.

Big Tech merely takes that same principle and reverses it by narrowcasting its content. What has been revealed the past 2 weeks by the FB whistleblower is what we have already known for years i.e. that FB vacuums up and builds your data profile and then spoon feeds you the content that most emotionally and viscerally keeps you on the platform or preps you for targeted ads (only in America can you now click on so many sites and choose the kind of ads you will be bombarded with).

What on earth is the difference between that web model and the model of network TV? Narrowcasting and broadcasting, respectively, with the identical goals of maximizing profit and not caring a whit about the quality of the content itself. In both cases it’s only about aggregating eyeballs.

Algorithms? Yes, FB has perfected the art and science of pushing your buttons. The mainstream media has also used its own sort of algorithms for decades, long before Zuck was born.

When you take the global events of the day and compress them into a mere dozen of “stories” over 22 minutes of TV you better damn well bet you are using an algorithm, dressed up and sanitized as “good news judgment.”

No computers are involved. No, these decisions rely on accumulated myths about what “will not make the audience’s eyes glaze over.” This is why there is virtually no foreign news on network TV. This is why in California, 40 years ago, L.A. stations shut down their state capital bureaus and redirected the money to buy helicopters to film freeway chases. This is why, for two solid weeks last month, TV news happily pushed the non-news event of Gabby’s Disappearance.

I could go on, but you know this already about TV.

But…but… there’s the bulwark of the print media to protect us against the fake news of the web, right? I mean, there’s no algorithms there, right?

Yes and no. Yes, there’s plenty of real news in the pages of better papers like the New York Times. There’s also a lot of bullshit. The Times also shoots for maximum profitability. And it’s algorithm is called The Front Page. Hundreds of decisions are made every day in every news organization about what should be pushed to the top of the newscast or to column A1. Reporters (and editors) are given no censorious handbooks. But just like a centerfielder who comes to bat and doesn’t need anybody to remind him his job is to score a hit, reporters KNOW when not to suggest the production or promotion of a story that might be worthy but might also be, um, boring.

Until the last 25 years, the unofficial algorithm that dominated American print and TV newsrooms was clearly the Cold War. The mass adoption of this stance greatly narrowed the range of opinion allowed in the American press, granted media legitimacy only to those who shared the same world view and consequently influenced, informed and tainted almost all coverage to some degree or another.

The last few decades after the demise of the Soviet Union saw a replacement of this code with a new one based simply on superficial entertainment and a certain outrageousness (is “reality TV” any more healthy than Instagram? Is Dr. Pimple Popper or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills more edifying than a FB quiz?).

The worst aspects of social media, and they are truly pernicious, flourish only if you have a population prepared and ripe for such manipulation. So who takes responsibility for getting the American audience to be such fallow ground for errant social media? Better said, how did the American public get so damn stupid in the first place?

It’s one thing to read some disinformation on FB claiming that mask wearing makes grammar school a Nazi concentration camp. It’s quite another when a gaggle of Tennessee adults believe this crap, go to a school board meeting and threaten those who disagree. No, facebook did NOT make them do it. They did it. Stupid is as Stupid does.

Facebook did not create the growing class gap in America. It did not wipe out rural America with opioids. It did not burden students with mammoth debt. It did not de-industrialize the heartland. It did not raise the carbon level into the red zone. It did not teach cops to be assholes. It did not block the path to national health care. All that, and much much more, can and must be credited to the same politicians now pointing their fingers at Big Tech as the source of all that is bad.

There are concrete reasons why half of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, why only 17% of young Americans can find Afghanistan on the map, why Americans are among the most politically ignorant people in the developed world. For that, my friends, you can thank our fine schools and world class media.

I had to laugh on Friday morning when the Washington Post ran a story titled: Why does ‘Squid Game’ resonate so well in the U.S.? It may be its portrayal of economic despair.

Y’think? What made me laugh is that this ran in the TV section as a critic’s theory while the meat of this argument should, instead, be daily fare for its news pages. He opines that Squid Game is merely telling truths the American media is too squeamish to fully cover:

There is, [in the U.S.] of course, great homegrown entertainment about the working class. NBC’s “Superstore,” which wrapped up its six-season run last year, was an uncommonly smart (and funny!) sitcom about the ways minimum-wage workers are regularly and systematically screwed over by their employers, and ABC’s “The Conners,” now in its fourth season sans Roseanne, remains a bittersweet delight. But neither of those shows really capture the rage and despair of our broken capitalistic system, in which young people are crushed by debt, social mobility feels like a joke, power and capital are hoarded by unreachable oligarchs and elected officials are too impotent or indifferent to help. Television and film can serve as a distraction from these urgent issues — and anyone who’s seen “Sullivan’s Travels” knows that’s important, too — but audiences are clearly clamoring for something more…It is absolutely a step in the right direction that services such as Netflix give audiences easier access to cultural products from other countries, in other languages and social contexts. But their success should also inspire us to rethink what kinds of stories we haven’t been telling about ourselves and which truths we’ve been unwilling to face.”

The slogan of “break up Facebook” rolls easily off the tongue but I’ve heard virtually nobody explain what that would actually mean. We assume that in such a move, it would be Instagram and Whats App that would be sheared off from FB and sold. And I have to wonder just what difference would that make? How would that in any way change the user experience?

Would teen girls view Instagram any differently if it was owned by a faceless equity group? And just how would new management differ from FB given that they would also seek maximum profitability? Would the new owners of Instagram seek success on an image-driven platform by somehow downplaying the most visual, the most “engaging” of content?

The web is by nature viral. Its nature is to expand. Breaking up Facebook might offer some much needed schadenfreude for its critics but I am not sure what problem it is solving. And most likely it is creating a new one: Three massive Facebook-like platforms spinning on.

Trying to impose “content moderation” on Facebook would also be futile, and not really a very good idea. While I do not a draw complete symmetry between the two products, imposing censorship on Facebook is no different than censoring The New York Times. It’s an obvious but imperative question: just who is going to decide what is true and what is not?

The only path to wringing out a lot of the harmful misinformation on Facebook is to legislate its removal from underneath the so called “230 rule” that grants FB status as a non-liable “platform” rather than as a publisher with all of its attendant responsibilities. Remove 230, let Facebook continue to publish whatever it wants, but it will then be exposed to civil and even criminal statutes just like every other publisher in the U.S. for any injurious content.

This will create a great internal burden for Facebook, somehow vetting the firehouse of data it rakes in before publishing it. Yet, it seems to me to be the only solution to paring down the harmful propaganda on the site.

Folks who understand Tech much better than I do also suggest regulation that allows rival sites interoperability of Facebook, allowing them and us to see its internal architecture. We also need the passing of a Federal Individual Privacy Act. This seems to be a great idea and an effective counter-measure to data peddling.

Of course, any proposed act of congress under current conditions seems a fantasy. That’s how we got here in the first place: a dysfunctional government, an enraged populace and a distinct sinking feeling.

I am relatively sure that much of this congressional rage over Facebook will soon abate, in any case. Facebook has become too important to Republican propagandizing and the Democrats have become far too dependent on Big Tech donors to do very much about this, no matter the right or wrong course. Congress has much other work to keep it busy in the meantime: funding the Pentagon, pleasing its special interest donors, making sure that social insurance programs remain minimal, and — of course— winning re-election by lying to and manipulating its own audiences. Much like FB does. +++

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