A Nation of Stooges

From the Archives

Apologies ahead of time, I’m a touch behind in the regular postings, but it’s because big things are brewing. So I thought I’d reach back a decade and see what was getting under my skin back then. Hmm. I’m not asking to be called a prophet but.. We do have something called cancel culture powered by social media do we not?

(Dateline: February 2010)

Something is becoming apparent to me. Slowly dawning. Because I know that people are flexible and susceptible to following whatever other people do.

I started watching YouTubes this morning. The first was office rage. It was YouTube's suggestion. I don't remember what the original thing was that left YouTube in the state to offer up its advice that perhaps the next thing I might want to see is a fat man in a tie destroy a dot matrix printer with his CRT. The video was in black and white from a stationary camera that could see the entire cube farm full of employees stand agape as the man went ape. So I watched a few more. A man in an elevator goes berserk after the fifth time someone opens the door at the last second to get on. And then there were the fakes. Obviously not from security cameras with the focus pulling and the two camera cuts. I sat for 3 minutes analyzing a chair commercial and how un-spontaneous was the rage of the actor. From the opening frame, I could see the snow shovel was a prop of desk destruction.

Somehow connected was bouncer footage. OK I get it. People fighting. There's a documentary called 'Bounce: Life Behind the Velvet Rope' out there somewhere. I knew an ex-cop in NYC with fascinating bouncer stories. I thought about it once, one night drunk with my homie; why not become bouncers? We were going to be twin stereotypes with big gold hoop earrings, bare chests and pointy shoes. But we sobered up and stayed in the software business. So I watched people get kicked out of clubs and even one with some excellent verbal judo by some professional fighter named Michael Kuhn. But his way of restraint didn't stop the YouTube suggestions, because next came broken arm and I was still curious. After broken arm came compound fracture, Joe Theismann and DeAndre Brown. At that point I had to stop.

How grisly did it have to get before my curiosity killed my appetite? What if my appetite were beyond the mere viewing to the shooting of the video, or even to the participation in the act? My senses deceive me into thinking this kind of behavior is everywhere, but I should know better. These acts are rare. That's why they have to be faked. That's why they have long tails. There are millions of viewers of the extreme, several hundred recorders, a handful of producers, and YouTube is the aggregator and distributor. It takes a global village to show me mayhem on demand.

Google Buzz invited me without my permission. Because Google wants to out-facebook Facebook. And Facebook wants to out-twitter Twitter. And Twitter wants to replace ordinary conversation with tweets, turning humanity into a flock of seagulls. Usually it takes several months for me, a first adopter who doesn't have to put numbers behind my email name, to get a new Google service. Then I send out invitations as the trickle them down to me. I guess they figured that didn't work with Google Wave. And of course it defies one of Google's old principles which is that they don't scale up their applications, they develop at scale. So Google gets tens of millions into their beta programs that go on for years. Cheeky, but since it's free, we go for it.

I now have 2.7 terabytes in a box on my home WAN. I can put all of my pictures, music, documents, website sources, all on one disk. And I use MediaMonkey and Picasa to manage all of that. It works very well. Google made Picasa and in the version I have, it does facial recognition. I can tell you that it has over 800 pictures of me and it knows the pictures are me. I've been up 90 minutes this morning helping it distinguish between my children. It's 80% correct anyway, but I perfect it. I don't know how many digital images I have of my family, but I estimate that out of the 1500 folders each with an average of 75 or 100 photos each, some ungodly number is all there. But these are all child's play for Google and YouTube. They process that much stuff every second.

Why does Google Buzz exist? Why does Twitter exist? Neither of them serve any economic function. We all eat free food, not because we're hungry but because it is free. If somebody can invent a weather machine that makes it rain meatballs, we'll all stop working. Teach a man how to beg for fish and he'll never learn to fish. Nobody is paying for Google Buzz directly. It's like the memory of the cop who is guarding the bank. He gets to see you every time you come in even though you're not the reason he's there. The memory of the cop is focused and fleeting. The memory of Google is unfocused and permanent. With a few algorithms it could be 80% correct. With some human help it could be perfected.

What might we humans perfect if we were given the chance to play with 700 terabytes of free content? I suppose that question as a practical matter might go the way my YouTube browsing went this morning. I mean I'm just wasting time driven by a bit of morbid curiosity. But what if I was purposeful? What if millions of us were?

No fewer than eight people told me how they contributed to the disaster in Haiti. I didn't ask to know. I consider my curiosity quite normal, and perhaps a little on the oblivious side when it comes to such matters. I know that there are many millions who prefer such opportunities. I have no doubt, nor should you, that our President chose the New Orleans Saints to win the Superbowl, not because he knows anything nor cares anything about football, but because of Katrina. The opportunism of Progressivism knows no bounds and has no scruple. Its morbid curiosity always attempts to perfect. It's a human hack, an emotional exploit, a political phishing scheme which is virulent, wild and successful. What might we humans perfect if we were given the chance to play with 700 billion dollars of free taxpayer's money?

It's kinda like Google. Nobody quite knows where the money comes from - yes of course it comes from somewhere but the point is that we get to use the products for free and they keep giving them to us at massive scale and their principles are to do no harm so why not?

There came a moment, as DeAndre Brown held up his destroyed leg at which I knew I couldn't stand to watch any longer. But it was too late. The rare incident that I never planned to watch when I woke up this morning became part of my experience because the infrastructure to provide that experience was already in place. All I needed was a little suggestion and I became part of the conspiracy. But what if it was something I actually cared about? What if YouTube suggested that I eyeball this mug shot and contribute to the discovery of child molester Moe? What if Google took their promise to do no evil and subtly suggested that they would be fighting evil? What if my eight friends and 8 million others just needed to click a button or put a name to a face to help Katrina, or Haiti or whatever heartbreak is next?  Or conversely, what if I decided to opt out and complain? Complain against Facebook, Twitter, Buzz, Flickr and all the rest of the digital reality aggregation? What if my restraint became controversial? What if my refusal to participate in the eyeball mob that funds YouTube somehow, made me 'part of the problem'? How many millions would point a finger at me?

It wouldn't cost them much.

I'm not paranoid. I don't care for my own safety much beyond that which I must do to raise my children. I've already made my contribution to society through procreation. I am many ways blessed by that and I never have to consider abstract ways to contribute to society. That's how I'm different than David Sedaris and Sarah Vowel and all of their subjects who are somehow rescued through the miracle of Public Radio from the stigma of being non- and bad- parents. If you merit an hour of 'This American Life'... well, let's put it this way, being a good parent will never get you an hour of 'This American Life', not for that mainstream act. You'd have to be the producer of rare and extreme incidents. That's what hacks the ears and eyeballs for the aggregators.

And it's different than imagination. Imagination give you Huckleberry Finn. We still don't know on which little boy he was based. And still he fascinated us. But today it's all about reality shows, and reality is authentic and that's what draws the eyeballs, the real and the drama and the anger and the crime and the violence. So much that we make videos of fake violence and fake drama to approximate what happens to the worst of us when we are at our extreme worst. Not when we sacrifice for values. And let's not confuse texting some number to give 5 bucks to Haitian relief with sacrifice. Let's not confuse punching a chad in support of universal healthcare with sacrifice.  Let's not confuse the drama of participation in an infrastructure that exploits your emotions with work or sacrifice. All you need is a little suggestion, to click or not to click, that is the question. Pump it or dump it? Would you hit that?

Every day I play Mafia Wars on Facebook an ad pops up. "Cartoon Yourself" it says. Yeah I play Mafia Wars. They have aggregated a mountain of clicks from me, and I have built myself to level 350 in some global online game. But I know it's a worthless game, an entertainment that has nothing to do with reality. I don't ever get the notion that I'm doing myself or anyone any favors by my participation. And I feel foolish every time I send Zynga some real money to buy fake points. But Zynga is but a small fraction of Google or Facebook. I can understand the game I'm playing with Mafia Wars, but what is Google Buzz really for, and why are we all getting it for free?

Nobody knows where Osama Bin Laden is. Or so goes the popular opinion. Neither the NSA nor Google has the balls, algorithms or data centers to go and find him, his family, his friends, his Yelped restaurants, or any of his clickstreams. He is immune to our reality networks, or so it seems. But you and I? We're not just knee deep, we're totally deep. We have an economy of bouncer videos and 140 character speeches of pathetic jihad. I don't even want to go to #TCOT to find one example. And we can't even stop it. We can't even get a 'Hate It' button on Facebook. Not only has Friendster died, Hatester died too. All of our digital expression, save this, the blog, the one where you have to think and type rather than just click and connect, well they're all directed. And the godless reality is taking over the imagination - well, I'm just old and cranky enough to think so. Yeah, I think the ad is redundant. We've cartooned ourselves without the benefit of Zwinky. Zwinky and Zynga. Any other Web 2.0 names you can think of? There are thousands of them, all trying desperately to become verbs like Google by getting millions of hacked ears and eyeballs and mouse fingers to do their bidding.

Well, I've got one for you. Fink dot com. (This wasn’t real at the time)

Oh we'll call it something heroic for a long time. We'll call it whistleblower or watchdog or sentinel or patriot or underdog or something like that. But I know that sooner or later, and by later I mean past the internet statute of limitations - the point at which quality news and reference information disappears beyond the time horizon of free into pay per view - all of that dog watching becomes selective. When the short attention span theater has left the stage all the activity goes down the memory hole. It'll all come down to finking. Because that's what millions of us can do for free. I see there's a program on TV called 'Cheaters'. No, I'm not paranoid. I just know that 15 years ago all the conversations were a lot less n-way. As n increases, so does Twitter's importance. How many people are following you? And now that they do, what can you actually say?  When you actually say what it is you have to say, what difference is it going to make? That depends upon whose infrastructure you're finking on. There's a Progressive solution out there just waiting to be born.

Did you ever read this book? It's called Fatherland. I highly recommend it. I'm sure Amazon has a link for you. I could probably get a nickel if I cared to be in that referral economy, but that's not why I'm writing today. I'm writing because I want to draw your attention to what is given to you for free without your asking for it and to help you understand what infrastructure is enabled by your participation in it. To make clear the distinction between sacrifice & charity and the harvesting of whims and sentiments at a massive scale. 

It is this final distinction that is most important for its moral distinction. The aggregation of sentiment can take us towards a nation of stooges. Reality entertainment is bad enough through its passive enjoyment - just wait until it's interactive.