Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

A short trip to the Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast is a region of mainland British Columbia just up the coast from Vancouver. Originally inhabited by the shíshálh people, the area was settled by westerners in the mid-nineteenth century. Now, about 27,000 people live there. The Sunshine Coast is less than two hours from downtown Vancouver, accessible by transit, and gets just half the rain of Vancouver. Its small-town feel, yet nearness to the city makes it popular with retirees.

My wife and I visited the region for the first time. I took almost 500 photos and videos. I put some of them up on Flickr, splitting them into albums for each leg of the trip, as detailed below.

sunshine_coast-horseshoeWe took the Greyhound to Vancouver ($34), then a city bus from downtown to Horseshoe Bay ($3.75). From there we walked on to the ferry ($7.50), and after crossing over took a short bus ride ($2) into Gibsons. Once in Gibsons we used the Coast Car Co-op, a carsharing outfit partnered with our local OGO Carshare Co-op. It was nice since I just used my regular fob to get into the vehicles.

sunshine_coast-gibsonsWe spent just two nights at the Sunshine Coast. We were based in Gibsons, and explored the area including the marina where Molly’s Reach is located. This is the restaurant featured in the long-running CBC show The Beachcombers which was set in Gibsons. We drove around the various neighborhoods, checking out the town, and down to the beach at Chaster’s park. My wife was so happy to see the ocean. I am always amazed at how green and verdant the coast is with its temperate rainforest. Even the rocks on the beach were green with seaweed and moss. The whole area is teeming with life, especially when contrasted with dry Okanagan.

sunshine_coast-davisUnfortunately it rained heavily the second day. We drove to Davis Bay, where the weather started to clear up. There is a long sandbar jutting out into the ocean at low tide, and a number of people were fishing at the tip, where a freshwater stream emptied into the ocean. I asked a fisherman what people were catching and he replied with a smile, “Salmon!” Of course… why didn’t I think of that.

sunshine_coast-secheltThe weather started to clear and we visited Sechelt, the center of the Sunshine Coast district. I had caught a cold in Vancouver on the first day of our trip and was feeling pretty terrible. We viewed a number of totem poles, and enjoyed the waterfront as it started to warm up. Unfortunately the shíshálh museum was closed. I was looking forward to learning more about the nation and the original four settlements in the region.

sunshine_coast-smugglersWe drove east to Halfmoon Bay and the sun started shining. Finally, the Sunshine Coast we came to see! There are a bunch of hiking trails so we took one into Smuggler’s Cove, the location of an aboriginal settlement which was later used to smuggle alcohol during the the prohibition years. The hike only took an hour or so, and there was a surprising number of people we met along the way.

Davis Bay, Sechelt and hiking to Smuggler’s Cove made for a busy day. We headed back to the Garden Cottage B&B (which I highly recommend, see my tour video here) and relaxed, viewing the stars as they came out. The next day we headed back to Vancouver via ferry and bus, and then back to Kelowna. It was a whirlwind trip, and we enjoyed it so much that we plan on going back next spring.

All 99 photos and videos can be viewed here →

Listening in — a short review of “Between the World and Me”

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When I think of my long struggle to “try and be a writer”, my confidence is shattered upon reading such a poetic, insightful, heartfelt piece as this. This is writing — the naked intimacy of it. Even if I cannot fully grasp the primordial fear documented in this book, Coates’s excellent writing gives me a peek into a world I cannot — by definition of my class and race — ever truly know.

I cannot know the fear, but I can understand it. And it can move me.

The message of this book will certainly have different effects on each reader. Had I read this in my younger years, I might have had more difficulty in understanding. But after a decade and a half of being married to — and properly educated by — a feminist, living every day in an immigrant family, and being a father to two multiracial girls, I have a much better sense of how those who think of themselves as white are so blind to the system that their ancestors put in place, and that they propagate every day at work, at school, at the supermarket, on the bus, and in their homes. Ever since returning to Canada five years ago, I have struggled with my own whiteness, struggled with the strained politeness of a country that is multicultural by policy yet not by practice, keenly aware of that sickly sweet, maple-scented smugness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched me with this book, likely in an unexpected way. I do not know if this book will touch you in quite the same way, but it is a powerful and beautifully written message that we should all heed and consider, and hopefully some day act upon.

C.R.E.A.M.

The War on Cash is an informative piece about the battle against the cashless society. I have been cash-only for a few years, mainly for two reasons: protecting my personal information and financial discipline.

In the old days, a transaction would involve two parties: a merchant and a customer. Nowadays, barely a transaction is processed where a third, invisible party benefits — and more than by simply providing a convenient transaction process. I became more sensitive to protecting my information leading up to and in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Having worked in the online ads industry for the last three years (today is my final day, in fact), I have become even more aware of all the tracking, repackaging and reselling of personal data that goes on. Therefore, I choose to opt out of the personal information industrial complex that powers so much of our world today. 

In 2010 I quit Facebook. In my browser I use prophylactic extensions like Privacy Badger. I use services that protect me and opt out of information-sharing and activity tracking wherever possible. I delete cookies.

In the real world, your credit card is your cookies.

I stopped using credit cards and refuse networked loyalty points cards. I even switched cellphone providers, once I learned how my old one was tracking me.

It is nearly impossible to live completely cash-only in this world. A few years ago reporter Janet Vertesi tried to hide her pregnancy from the “big data dragnet” and found out how difficult opting out really is.

Mine is not a perfect system, but I do what I can.

“Cash-centric” is probably a better descriptor, since I use non-cash options sometimes. Large payments (eg. rent) I pay through online debit. Online shopping can be done with anonymous, rechargeable credit cards. And sometimes I want the card companies to become aware of the services I buy or subscribe to. I want them to be aware of a specific customer segment, and I use my credit card to pay for those items. For example, every month I let Visa and all its data-sharing marketing and consumer intelligence partners know about Ogo Carshare Co-op. If they are market other co-ops to me or people like me… victory?

Productivity hack: Use notes to keep track of things

The second reason I went cash-only is related to our downsizing journey, and our attempt at financial freedom by ridding ourselves of debt. Not using credit cards is the first step, and you will find no budgeting tool works as well as a limited supply of cash in your wallet. Each payday I take out a specific budgeted amount of cash from the bank, turn most of it over to my wife to run the household with, and am left over with a very limited amount which much last me to the next payday. The scarcity is corporeal. Every time I open my wallet, I know how I am doing in regards to my budget.

It is actually a very Japanese thing to do. I remember being in Japan in the late nineties and early oughts, and agreeing with all the neoliberal riducule of Japan’s cash-centric society as being backwards and inefficient. Now I understand the value in such a system, and have adopted it here in Canada. Just like not having a Facebook account, always using cash confuses people, but it sparks some meaningful conversations.

These are the main reasons for my choice to be cash-centric. I have not touched at all upon the impact of a cashless society on minority communities and the poor, and all the other reasons to continue carrying cash until the morally right solution comes along. To learn more about these issues, there is no better place to start than the article: The War on Cash.

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

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If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.

More people than bots?

In 1975, BusinessWeek magazine imagined the rise of the paperless office as computer use became more widespread. Of course, over the following two decades, consumption of paper doubled. A couple more decades on, we are finally seeing year-on-year decreases in office paper use, at least in North America and Europe.

One recent tech fascination is bots. Retailers are especially interested in bots which will allow consumers to ask unstructured questions about products and help them order pizza or whatever. Bots may be the latest advance in customer service automation, but, they aren’t quite up to scratch. There are still plenty of limits to overcome with machine-learning and natural language processing. It will not likely take four decades like the paperless office, but automated sales bots are still a ways off. In the meantime, what is likely to happen? To put it another way, how will the “paper double”?

Continue reading “More people than bots?”

Minimalist wall-hangings

People who think I am a downsizing/minimalist fundamentalist, are surprised when they come into my livingroom and see a number of wall hangings. We don’t have many, but almost all of them are handpainted art (like the family portrait featured in this post). They are all gifts, and have a personal touch.

For example, the piece in the photo above was made for me by a calligrapher I met near Babolsar in northern Iran, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is the opening line from an Omar Khayyam poem, that translates into English as “Arise o gracious treasure!” I originally hung it up over my bed.

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The artist, Farhangi, was knowledgeable about Japanese calligraphy, and wanted to show me how it was done without a brush. He wrote this out, signed it and gave it to me, joking about its potential worth. I put in a camel bone frame bought at a bazaar in Tehran and have had it hanging in every home I have lived in since receiving it in 2004. It is an important token to me, a good story-piece for when people come over, and the poem is pretty good too!

If I really wanted to, I guess I could get rid of it… . But it costs nothing to own, either in terms of space or environmental impact, and it spruces up the place a bit, making our living space interesting without any clutter. Besides this piece, we have our family portrait, a Japanese calligraphy piece, a painting of the Seven Lucky Gods, and this piece by a local artist and friend of my wife. None are mass produced, or kitschy, so I do not feel they impinge on our downsizing lifestyle, though admittedly they will have to go if we ever transition to a tiny house.

You don’t tell me when I should speak English — multicultural parenting and language rights

From @@JRhodesPianist
From @JRhodesPianist

Last month, this story from Wales:

The most perfect thing I have ever seen just happened on the replacement train bus service between Newport and Cwmbran:

White man sat in front of a mother and her son. Mother was wearing a niqab. After about 5 minutes of the mother talking to her son in another language the man, for whatever reason, feels the need to tell the woman “When you’re in the UK you should really be speaking English.”

At which point, an old woman in front of him turns around and says, “She’s in Wales. And she’s speaking Welsh.”

Perfect.

Apocryphal maybe, but perfect nonetheless. It’s got all the elements of a great story: some ignorant rube makes an ass of himself in public and gets his comeuppance.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of publicly ignorant rubes get away with it. Continue reading “You don’t tell me when I should speak English — multicultural parenting and language rights”

Danshari — thinking about “stuff”

When people find out about our efforts at minimalist living, bearing in mind our Japanese background, many ask us about Marie Kondo and her “life-changing magic of tidying up.” The KonMari Method is the latest in decluttering techniques. It seems pretty effective for many people, but we have not read any of her books.

We don’t subscribe to any one methodology. Our homebrew system is a mix of learnings, mostly informed by the Socratic method, based on the discussion of various principles. A key term of discussion is danshari. Continue reading “Danshari — thinking about “stuff””