Our Week in Pictures

There’s too much going on at the Root Simple compound for a coherent Monday blog post. Our backyard resembles a strip mine in the aftermath of removing a poorly designed concrete patio (a concrete mess done in a style that Root Simple reader Peter describes as “mid-century incompetent”). We also thought it would be a good idea to start a bunch of interior projects at the same time.

In the midst of the chaos I managed to make an unfashionable lamp from these Wood Magazine plans:

And I finally, after much experimentation with finishes and ammonia fuming, I completed a reproduction of a Stickley #603 tabouret:

Better known as a cat stand:

While hunting for a window for our new/old closet I spotted this Moroccan style ceiling at Eric’s Architectural Salvage and wished that I had the lifestyle that would justify its purchase:

Instead of a that lifestyle, which I imagine involves robes, hookahs and a reclined posture on a couch, I instead find myself at the Glendale Home Depot which features this statue of a hot dog applying ketchup and mustard to itself:

If we were still in the 1990s I’d be tempted to write a whole book written in obtuse, post modern theory-speak on the recursive nightmare that is this hot dog statute but I’ve got contractors to juggle and more unfashionable furniture to build.

What projects are you tackling this spring/summer?

Does Facebook Actually Work for Promoting a Small Business or Non-Profit?

One last comment on Facebook and then we’ll move on to more pressing problems like growing tomatoes and keeping the squirrels off the peaches. My favorite podcaster, who goes by the initials KMO, interviewed contrarian journalist and advertising consultant B.J. Mendelson for episode 524 of the C-Realm podcast. In the interview Mendelson addresses one of the concerns that many of us face in our relationship with Facebook, namely that we have to be on it in order to promote our business or non-profit. Mendelson reminds us that Facebook is selling an advertising medium and that Mark Zuckerberg and other social media moguls might just be exaggerating its actual effectiveness.

Any of you who administrate a Facebook page for a business or non-profit will know that unless you pay, Facebook’s algorithm will bury your posts. Some other points Mendelson makes in the interview:

  • A 1% click through rate on a paid post is often as good as it gets.
  • Eighty percent of Facebook users are outside of the U.S. If you’re a local business, like say a plant nursery, what good is paying to reach someone in Latvia?
  • Bots equal 60% of internet traffic (something to think about when looking at your stats).
  • What happens if you rely on Facebook as a platform for your business and, like so many other internet companies of the past, Facebook goes out of business?

To illustrate how social media companies exaggerate their advertising power Mendelson offers a personal example. He has 700,000 Twitter followers. When he sent out a tweet about his new book he sold, not hundreds or thousands of copies, but exactly 28. A tweet to his 700,000 Twitter followers asking for a donation to a breast cancer charity netted just $1. While acknowledging that social media can, occasionally, be an effective advertising medium, for most of us it’s probably a big waste of time.

If you listen to the end of KMO’s interview you’ll get a code to download a free copy of Mendelson’s book, Social Media is Bullshit.

I Deleted my Facebook Account

I can’t remember where I heard this, but I really like the interpretation of the hellish upside down world in the Netflix series Stranger Things as a stand in for the internet. As in the upside down world of that show, the internet has become a very dystopian place lately. Monsters unleashed in the virtual world of the internet regularly come to haunt us in the real world. Those same monsters abduct us into endless hours in front of our computer screens.

Let me first say that I’ve been reluctant to write this post. It’s a privilege to be in a position where one can delete a Facebook account. Many people have to use Facebook at work or because they are part of a group that uses Facebook to communicate. Ironically, the less fortune in our culture are more likely to be chained to services such as Facebook or doing a computer’s bidding (think Uber or TaskRabbit). But there are many more of us, such as myself, that thought we had to use Facebook (in my case a promote books and a blog) who, in fact, could do quite well without it.

The heart of the problem
My issues with Facebook began long before the recent scandals. I spent the period of Lent, not giving up but, instead, meditating on my relationship to social media. I used this period to question my motivations. If I had the urge to post something on social media I first asked myself why I wanted to do this. I also read books, articles and listened to podcasts by media theorists exploring the mechanics of social media. In the end I came to the conclusion that the privacy problems of social media are minor when compared to the spiritual and psychological ones.

It seems to me that the main systemic problem of Facebook and other social media platforms is that they have taken the entwined vices of individualism and narcissism and made a business model out of them. You post something and then you want to immediately check back to see if you’ve been “liked” or commented on. The tech bros of Silicon Valley have figured out that if you harness this addictive narcissism you can, as a side benefit, harvest a lot of data to sell to advertisers.

One could accuse this blog of having the same narcissism problem and in my worst posts you’d probably have a point. But there are important differences. I don’t harvest your personal data when you look at or post a comment on this blog. I do try to provide useful information rather than just seeking approval for my latest harebrained homesteading project (though, admittedly, I sometimes fall short).

Facebook claims to not be about individualism but instead to bring us all together. Mark Zuckerberg, in his recent testimony to a bunch of clueless and out of touch senators kept repeating that Facebook is about creating community (which I think he actually believes). But Facebook does just the opposite. It leads to the illusion of community while actually encouraging many hours spent alone in front of a computer. Since deleting my account I’ve found myself setting up in-person meetings with people I don’t see very often rather than just looking at their Facebook posts.

But it would be wrong, I think, to blame Facebook for pulling us apart. Facebook, as Patrick Deneen put it, “elicits loneliness from a deeper set of philosophical, political, and even theological commitments,” namely the “do it your way” consumerist cult of the individual that dominates both the ideologies of the right and the left in this country. The reason those clueless senators could not get to the bottom of the problem with Facebook is that they aren’t even aware of their own shared philosophical assumptions about individualism.

I could go on. Even if you subscribe to a radical individualist take on the world, the creepiness of Facebook’s business model should scare you. I’ve been reading Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. It’s a sobering 429 page nightmarish list of social media’s many sins. Then there’s Jeremy Ashkenas who, in a series of tweets, dug up some of Facebook’s patent applications. As others have pointed out these patents read like Black Mirror episode summaries. If that isn’t enough, there’s Facebook’s attempt to exploit depressed teenagers for advertising revenue.

Ironically, much of the privacy intrusions of Facebook are probably pointless. When I downloaded my Facebook data prior to pulling the delete button, I found a fair amount of on-target information. Facebook knows that I’m an epee fencer who practices urban homesteading, reads Rowan Williams and goes to Nick Cave concerts (damn, that’s all pretentious!). But it also seems to think that I’m an African-American who grows with hydroponics, rocks out to the Queens of the Stone Age and loves Honey Baked Ham. I suspect much of the data Cambridge Analytica gathered was, similarly, off-target and useless.

How to #DeleteFacebook
As many have noted, if something is free on the internet you’re not the customer you’re the product. But the solution is simple. You should consider paying for access to quality information on the internet. I’ve spent the last year doing an intensive self-study of woodworking. Towards that end I have an online subscription to Fine Woodworking. Their website is an encyclopedic compilation of articles and how-to videos all vetted by that increasingly rare bird known as an editor. I’ve also subscribed to the online version of The Idler magazine (which readers of this blog will enjoy). And I support my favorite podcast, the C-Realm as well as my favorite YouTuber Garden Fork via Patreon subscriptions. None of these websites or podcasts are addictive. They don’t harvest your data. They provide useful, thought provoking information and live up to the original promise of the internet as a place to share and learn. And let me also thank the Patreon subscribers of Root Simple at this point as well as all of you who have bought our books or attended one of our workshops.

Should you come to the same conclusion I did here’s some instructions on how to delete Facebook. It wasn’t that difficult but you do need to first review any website or app you may have used a Facebook login for and change your login information. You can also download a copy of all your Facebook images and posts which will also show you some, but not all, of the information Facebook has gathered on you.

Facebook doesn’t let go of you easily. If you login to Facebook within a few weeks of deleting your account, Facebook signs you back up. When I tried to delete my Instagram account, I found that I would have to log back into Facebook to do so and that would sign me back up for Facebook. Should you not want to delete your Facebook you can also deactivate it temporarily to see how things work out.

I haven’t missed Facebook one bit. As for book and blog promotion I’m planning on starting a sporadic newsletter that you can sign up for that will also list events and some fun off-topic stuff that I think you might all be interested in. Stay tuned. Together we can shut Mark Zuckerberg’s inter-dimensional portal.

Building a Counter-Anticulture

What a surprise to find, in the last chapter of Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen’s incendiary little book Why Liberalism Failed, a shout-out to radical homemaking, a.k.a urban homesteading.

Some background: the “liberalism” of the book’s title does not refer to the popular use of the word as in someone who is on the left end of the political spectrum. Rather, by “liberalism,” Deneen means a political philosophy that has as its central organizing principle the promotion of freedom of the individual. We have two dominant political parties in this country that are markedly different but share a common liberal DNA. One advocates protecting individual rights with more government and the other with less. Liberalism is the invisible operating system of modern life. As Deneen puts it, “This political philosophy has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence.”

What could be wrong with freedom of the individual? How about political, economic and ecological chaos? But Deneen does not suggest turning back the clock. We would not want to walk back on the civil rights movement, for instance. But, Deneen suggests, we really do need to more forward and correct liberalisms consequences: out of touch bureaucracies, an eviscerated educational system, alienated work and, probably worst of all, an impending ecological crisis in the form of climate change. To address these thorny problems we’ll have to pop the hood and look at our culture’s liberal operating system.

Deneen’s mention of radical homemakers (he footnotes Shannon Hayes’ excellent book of that title), comes in the context of offering solutions to liberalism’s “anticultural” tendencies. Deneen says,

Liberal anticulture rests on three pillars: first, the wholesale conquest of nature, which consequently makes nature into an independent object requiring salvation by the notional elimination of humanity, second, a new experience of time as a pastless present in which the future is a foreign land; and third, an order that renders place fungible and bereft of definitional meaning. These three cornerstones of human experience–nature, time and place–form the basis of culture, and liberalism’s success is premised upon their uprooting and replacement with facsimiles that bear the same names.

The radical homemaking alternative is one of the key solutions to our current crisis. Deneen says,

The building up of practices of care, patience, humility, reverence, respect, and modesty is also evident among people of no particular religious belief, homesteaders and “radical homemakers” who–like their religious counterparts–are seeking within households and local communities and marketplaces to rediscover old practices, and create new one, that foster new forms of culture that liberalism otherwise seeks to eviscerate.

Often called a counterculture, such efforts should better understand themselves as a counter-anticulture . . . A counter-anticulture also requires developing economic practices centered on “household economics,” namely, economic habits that are developed to support the flourishing of households but which in turn seek to transform the household into a small economy. Utility and ease must be rejected in preference to practices of local knowledge and virtuosity. The ability to do and make things for oneself–to provision one’s own household through the work of one’s own and one’s children’s hands–should be prized above consumption and waste. The skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting not only undergird the independence and integrity of the home but develop practices and skills that are the basic sources of culture and a shared civic life. They teach each generation the demands, gifts and limits of nature; human participation in and celebration of natural rhythms and patterns; and independence from the culture-destroying ignorance and laziness induced by the ersatz freedom of the modern market.

Deneen, in this passage, summarizes what has been the project of our blog and books for the past ten years.

A related thoughtstyling on Facebook
While we’re on the subject of counter-anticultural activists, in addition to Shannon Hayes, let me also suggest Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler. Reacting to this month’s scandal, Hodgkinson quotes a Guardian article he wrote in 2008, on why he chose not to open a Facebook account,

I am going to retreat from the whole thing, remain as unplugged as possible, and spend the time I save by not going on Facebook doing something useful, such as reading books. Why would I want to waste my time on Facebook when I still haven’t read Keats’ Endymion? And when there are seeds to be sown in my own backyard? I don’t want to retreat from nature, I want to reconnect with it. Damn air-conditioning! And if I want to connect with the people around me, I will revert to an old piece of technology. It’s free, it’s easy and it delivers a uniquely individual experience in sharing information: it’s called talking.

We have a lot of work to do to build that counter-anticulture but that the project unites as eclectic a crew as Patrick Deneen, Shannon Hayes, Tom Hodgkinson, Rod Dreher and Cornell West gives me great hope.