Interaction Effects: Human and Digital

How do humans communicate, emote, interact, and bond (or not) in the “Age of Digital Devises,” and what’s next? What, if anything, will be required of us in our “digital freedom”?

Often, it seems, the dog trains the master as much as the master trains the dog. Who is in control? Whenever we become involved with another, be it a person, a pet or a tool, certain obligations ensue, even if unconsciously. We have purposes and seek their achievement, but the means often become the end. When does a tool become an addiction? And, who is the dealer? Is this drug not such a thrill anymore? Well, here, I have another more potent.

Remember the PDA? (That’s the Personal Digital Assistant, for you really young ones.) It came along after the cell phone. But back then, a cell phone was still pretty clunky and didn’t do much else but communicate with other phone users. Gradually, the cell phone got smarter and eventually it was able to do just about anything a laptop computer could do, except serve up a large image display. So, why not a tablet, a clumsy marriage of the two? But, oh, it’s new!

So, where are we going with all this? What has anyone actually thought through, except on the sales side? Does anyone actually want to control and integrate her/his entire “digital life”? And what of substance do you want so carefully articulated? Do you really want all things known to your personal “devices” fully synchronized on the corporate “cloud”? Do you know how much electricity those server farms use? To whom does that matter?

Why not throw in the HVAC system with the garage door, your soon to be delivered self-driving car, Netflix account, and washing machine, along with your wearables, smartphones, laptops, and remaining desktops? It’s all out there on Facebook anyway, right? So, flesh out your full submersion into the “internet of things,” and help complete the circle of surveillance and control. But just remember, it won’t be just you who is doing the surveilling.

Texting while driving, eating, studying, working, just about anything ….texting-while-eating

Attaching identity to one’s device(s)…

Smarting the phone…

Computing the World…

Sharing every imaginary importance and all the unbounded unimportances of daily life… and to what end?  “No sé lo que significa,” as we say south of that imaginary WALL of expanded exclusion. Will your devices build bridges to beggars with mobile apps?

They thought radio and TV would ‘corrupt our youth.’ Then came the credit card, the computer, the cell phone, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and all the new wearable devices. Oh, we must not forget the pager and Blackberry! All that digital freedom, and nowhere to go… What is left to do in the actual world? Certainly not find a good job.

The whole sequence of digital-devise development, all the innovations in communication technology – if not content – have massively expanded the quantity of communications. We pay the NSA to store and search that swelling trivialized human database. Searching for tidbits legitimizes surveilling us all. We routinely contribute to increasing the indeterminacy of meaning, while also expanding central control, which, of course, optimizes opportunity for tyranny.

A whole new universe of meaning is emerging out there as we enter the New Great Transformation of how humans must relate to the world and each other if our species is to survive. It is not so surprising that most of us have not yet noticed the urgency of the lives we have digitally forgone.

Is that a fork in the road just ahead, or is it a dead end? Look up from your screen; it’s going to be a wild ride.

PS: I wrote this on my iPhone.

Capital Contradiction: The Fundamental Flaw that Dooms the Corporate-Growth Economy

The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.

As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.

Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage.  People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.

One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed.  As population grows, there are more people looking for work.  But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.

Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.

A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs.  Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.

But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.

As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated.  With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.

The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.

Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.

The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.

As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.

The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now.  How we can make that happen remains to be seen.

Science and Our Sanity: We Need the One to Keep the Other

The world has become so complex these days that it is often hard to find solid ground to stand on. The barrage of all kinds of claims to the truth is unrelenting. Not only arguments of fact and complex detail, but subtle and not so subtle images of glory or destruction compete for our attention. Every manner of powerful interests attempts to influence our emotions as a way to get to our intellect. Images often have more emotional impact and exert more power than words do.

We are bombarded with, in Carl Sagan’s words, “pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” Some especially egregious congressional apologists for ‘climate denial’ come to mind. But it is when we recognize propaganda and weigh it against the available evidence that we can retain our sanity and make reasoned decisions.

Marketing Democracy
Propaganda is everywhere. Marketing is its most pervasive form of ‘communication.’ Unfortunately, marketing is in part based on some fairly solid scientific evidence of how human beings can be influenced. Also unfortunately, the science of marketing has invaded the political arena in some very powerful ways. Nothing is off limits in the art and science of political persuasion. On top of that, the power of persuasion is exercised in extremely lopsided ways because of the accelerated impact of money on access to the channels of mass communications.

When money talks, democracy walks. When communication is controlled by a hierarchy of elites, democratic political deliberation is not on the agenda and is nearly impossible. Any debate that occurs is framed in the ideological terms chosen by the power elites. After all, they own the channels of mass communication. As U.S. society reaches unparalleled levels of hierarchy, communication is more and more controlled by the increasingly powerful plutocracy. No amount of ‘democratic’ formality can change that. Sheldon Wolin calls this “Managed Democracy,” with democratic appearing social formations which are actually controlled by the corporate state.

The congress has become the paid agent of the corporate elite. The cultural acceptance of directly observable political corruption never ceases to amaze. The pandering to corporate interests by both the congress and the Supreme Court is nearly grotesque. The president’s actions seem bounded by his obeisance to the Wall Street bankers who got him elected. It’s all such a tidy package.

The so-called ‘debate’ over the reality of anthropogenic climate chaos demonstrates the power of marketing over the power of facts. What is demonstrable scientific fact becomes politically debated by the crude application of pseudoscience and superstition. On top of that, crass rhetorical tricks and media filtration of information suppress even the most urgent real-world crisis. Interestingly, the recent surge of climate disruption all over the world, but especially in the U.S., has placed powerfully experienced facts right in the face of propaganda. When disruptive climate events become a personal experience, no amount of Koch brothers’ propaganda can override the factuality of damage to one’s farm, business, or household.

Science and Sanity
The powerful fossil-fuel corporate lobby will force congressional inaction and manipulate state legislators as long as it can. The petroleum-industrial-congressional complex would squeeze the last possible profits out of the petro-industrial era before being forced to change by the power of facts. If allowed, it would continue its insane course until the consequences bring down not just the whole economy, but threaten the survival of humanity. However, the evidence is now overwhelming and ordinary people can understand direct evidence of danger to them and their families. Threats to survival stimulate very sane responses, like paying attention to the science of climate change.

Years ago, Carl Sagan deplored the “decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media,” which constricts any meaning into 10 second sound bites. The result has been the blurring of facts with vague impressions and imagery, shaped for emotional impact rather than conveyance of information. Sanity may yet be saved by the direct experience of people. Although the U.S. education system has been ‘dumbed down’ for generations, the native intelligence of people cannot be overridden by propaganda in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Science shall prevail, and if it does soon enough, our sanity may yet survive.