Los Angeles: A New Beginning

From now on when I get triggered by a panel discussion featuring our mayor’s underlings, rather than run home and report on it I’m just going to make up what I’d have rather heard. This little imagined scenario was inspired by hearing the mayor’s current and former sustainability director spend an hour discussing pie in the sky notions that, in my cranky opinion, will never materialize. The mayor and his people seem to think that self flying vehicles are the solution to our current crisis. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to gift a LA River crayfish dinner in ten years time to the folks that prove my more down to earth climate change solutions notions wrong. So instead of waiting for that flying Uber, let’s trim the sails and plot a course for a different utopia . . .

Los Angeles, 2025
Enveloped in the white arc of a exploding battery, the mayor’s self driving electric limo careened off the road and ground to a halt along side of a mini mall convenience store at the corner of Temple and Alvarado. Who knew that the limo’s algorithms favored raccoons over human passengers?

Three hours later an autonomous ambulance pulled up.

“I’m Siri the paramedic,” said a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker next to a dirty and stained touch screen. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I think so,” said the mayor. “But I can’t see.”

“An Uber is being dispatched,” said the screen.

Later that evening, after a long and painful Uber ride, Garcetti awoke at KFC General Hospital. He would have many hours to reflect on his record as LA’s longest serving mayor while enjoying the ever popular Cheeto Chicken Sandwich™ that replaced the bland hospital fare of his youth. At his side was Lauren his sustainability minister.

The mayor put down his sandwich and began to stammer, “Bi, biiiiii bi biiiiii”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Lauren.

“Biiii, biii, biiii, biiiiiiiiii, biiiiicyyyyy . . .  bicycle,” said the mayor.

It was the first time in his many years as mayor that anyone had ever heard the mayor say the word.

“You mean those things kids use?” said Lauren.

“Maybe we could have protected lanes for them,” said the mayor. “That way you’d be safe and you wouldn’t get stuck in all the self driving car jams. Maybe more people would use them.”

“That’s insane. It will never happen,” replied Lauren. “I mean, it’s over 120º for most of the summer here now thanks to climate change.”

“Maybe that’s why we need ttttttt . . . trrrrrrr . . . trrreeeees . . . trees,” replied the mayor.

“What’s a tree?” asked Lauren.

“I think it’s some kind of self growing thing that makes oxygen and shade,” replied the mayor.

“Won’t they block the solar panels?” asked Lauren.

“Ba, ba, bu, buuuuuu . . . bus,” said the mayor.

“Huh? Mr. Mayor are you okay?” said Lauren.

“It’s . . . it’s like a car but carries over 100 people,” said the mayor.

“We’ll have to run that past minister Musk,” said Lauren as she gazed out the window.

“We could have lanes dedicated to buses,” blurted the mayor. “Maybe there could be affordable housing too?”

“With trees and bicycles? That’s impossible!” said Lauren. “How will we keep the coders employed?”

“Wait, who’s this minister Musk?” asked the mayor. “Is he that guy who accused a diver of being a ‘pedo’ so that he could buy some more time to make his own boy sized mini-submarine?”

“Really? He said that?” exclaimed Lauren.

“Yeah, I think that’s him,” replied the mayor. “Why the hell did I trust him so much?”

“Are you okay? Can I get you more Cheetos?” asked Lauren.

But all the Cheetos in the world wouldn’t bring the mayor back to his former self. Fredric Jameson once said, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” But that’s just what the mayor began to imagine thanks to the unlikely conjunction of an algorithm and a raccoon.

He realized it was well past time to learn to dig not learn to code. It was time to build sea walls instead of apps, bus lanes instead of battery packs, affordable housing instead of Olympic villages. With all the freeways gone he was able to make room for gardens and orchards.

It was a new start. The people of LA were no longer consumers in a climate change crisis but, instead, neighbors working hard to assure their children’s bright future.

Cybernetics: A Fatal Flaw

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Last week I wrote about an archive of 1970s appropriate technology publications called Rain. I still contend that there is much to be reclaimed from this movement but it’s also healthy to look at what went wrong. A provocative and controversial book I just finished, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet makes note of what may have been the fatal flaw in the movement: cybernetics, the dream of self organizing systems as an alternative to the messiness of politics. As the author of Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine, puts it,

Back in the 1960s, many of [Stewart] Brand’s New Communalists built micro-communites based on cybernetic ideas believing that flat hierarchies, social transparency, and radical interconnectedness between individuals would abolish exploitation, hierarchy, and power. In the end, the attempt to replace politics with technology was the fatal flaw: without organized protection for the weak, these would-be utopias devolved into cults controlled by charismatic and dominant leaders who ruled their fiefdoms though bullying and intimidation.

As an example he cites a New Mexico-based commune, known as The Family, that went particularly bad.

The Family quickly transformed into a rigid hierarchy, with men addressed with titles like “sir” and “Lord,” and women forced to wear skirts and assigned conservative gender-based work: cooking, child care, and washing. A founding member who called himself Lord Byron presided over the group and reserved the right to have sex with any woman in the commune . . . “There was constantly a background of fear in the house–like a virus running in the background. Like spyware. You know it’s there, but you don’t know how to get rid of it.”

Levine contends that this type of “cybernetic utopia gone bad,” birthed in the idealistic pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, is how we ended up with Google and Facebook’s spyware based business model. Think for a second about how absurd it is that Mark Zuckerberg seems to believe that algorithms can parse the subtleties of all the world’s languages and flag the sort of hate speech that leads to deaths in countries like Myanmar and India.

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Levine also cites one of my favorite documentaries, Adam Curtis’ three part All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Part II is about the problems of cybernetics, the failure of communes and the mistaken belief in a “balance of nature.” You can watch it here. I also recommend parts I and III.

Unfortunately it seems that what we got out of the idealistic ecotopian movements of the 1970s was cybernetics not composting toilets. Counterintuitively, I think that instead of abandoning idealism and utopian thinking, we actually need to walk away from the dystopian stories we’ve been telling each other for so many post-Mad Max years and begin to tell utopian stories again, just different utopian stories than the last round. I’ll have to develop this idea further in future posts, but in the meantime, do yourself a favor and spend an evening with Adam Curtis and let me know what you think.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!

2018: The Year in Review

Walter Crane: Christmas Card, 1894.

As Kelly noted in our Christmas letter it was a non-eventful year and sometimes that’s a good thing. We had no visits to the emergency room and no unexpected problems or crises. We have full stomachs, health care and a roof over our heads, all luxuries in this unjust world.

We spent most of the year on a home restoration project, putting the house back to exactly the way it was configured when built in 1920. A crew fixed our back patio and will return sometime this year to do some hardscaping for our neglected garden.

The blogging year involved a lot of kvetching, a veritable casserole of complaints with blog posts on the Thanksgiving holiday, squirrels eating all of our fruit, hoarding food and books, smart phones, junk mail, open floor plans, as well as proof that I’ve gone full Luddite.

Speaking of old Ned Ludd, the most commented upon post was the one in which I announced the deletion of my Facebook account. Let me note that I’ve not regretted it one bit and please allow me to toot my prognosticational horn by noting how news about Facebook went from terrible to, well, beyond terrible by the end of the year. When I first blogged about Facebook I thought I might have been too harsh. In fact, I probably wasn’t harsh enough.

As far as 2019 goes, I long ago gave up on New Years resolutions. But I know partly what is in store for 2019: finishing home improvements and working on that neglected garden.

How did your year go? What do you have planned for 2019?

That Time I Got Deplatformed

There’s been a lot of publicity, including an article in today’s New York Times “Patreon Bars Anti-Feminist Hate Speech, Inciting Revolt” about “deplatforming” or being booted off internet services due to controversial content. Most of the cases have involved alt-right figures such as Alex Jones and Sam Harris.

But even if you’re not a prominent trouble maker you can be deplatformed suddenly, without warning and with no recourse. I didn’t blog about it at the time, but back in September of 2017 a Meetup group I ran, The Los Angeles Bread Bakers got booted off its payment system, a Paypal competitor called WePay (as of October 2017, owned by JPMorgan Chase). Mike of WePay’s Orwelian “Customer Delight” department sent me this astonishingly rude email:

Mike (WePay Support)
Sep 1, 2017 1:56 PM PDT

Hi there,

We apologize for the inconvenience, but WePay is no longer able to process payments for your account. Our banks and processors hold us to a strict guideline on what we can and cannot process through our site. All information regarding our review process is proprietary so typically, no additional information is available in these instances. Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide you with our services. We wish you all the best moving forward.
Best,
Mike
WePay | Customer Delight

In other words, we’re kicking you off, not telling you why and don’t bother contacting us. I tried to take up the issue with Meetup, but I had too much going on in my life at that time to resolve the issue.

Without the ability to process payments for classes WePay had, effectively, made the Los Angeles Bread Bakers Meetup useless. Meetup does not allow you to integrate other payment services such as PayPal. You have to use WePay if you want to use Meetup’s registration/reservation system. Thankfully, Roe Sie of the King’s Roost took over LABB and runs class payments though his business. But, without Roe’s help, the LABB meetup would have folded.

LABB never had any complaints about payments or refunds for classes. Maybe it had something to do with an anti-Trump bake sale that was organized by some members of the group a few weeks before we got booted off. It could also have been a simple credit card problem. Or maybe they were cleaning up things ahead of being purchased by Chase. But I have no way of knowing since WePay refused to disclose their reasoning.

Kris De Decker, who runs the awesome blog Low Tech Magazine just had the experience of getting caught in a Facebook “fake news” algorithm when the company rejected an ad he had taken out for his blog post on energy security.

This incident combines the idiocy of Silicon Valley’s monopoly over content with their belief that algorithms can parse the nuances of all the world’s languages. No intelligent person would confuse Kris’ carefully researched, non-partisan writing with “fake news.”

I’ll conclude with some advice: if you are a small business person or someone who hopes to run an internet based business, if you can, make sure that you are not dependent on any one platform. And have a contingency since it’s probably not a matter of if, but when you will be deplatformed even if you’re not spouting conspiracy theories or hate speech. It’s also time for us all to think about, as Kris De Decker has, of starting some alternatives to the big Silicon Valley platform monopolies.