My son had to come up to the Bay Area from LA the other day to take care of some personal business. Instead of flying and putting up with the security and the Covid risk, he decided to take his newly acquired Tesla 3 for the drive. When he arrived, he was just raving about the Autopilot experience. He programmed the percentage of speed that we wanted vs. the speed limit, set acceptable following distances, and other factors. Then he jumped into the car and basically took his hands off the wheel for four hours, listened to music, texted his friends and business associates and arrived at the time he programmed. What could be simpler?
I started my "adult" career by landing a copy editor's job at a car magazine in the early 80's, when computers were mainframe lab specimens and cars were, well, cars. You know, with manual shifters, balky air conditioning, single-digit fuel economy and God save us, an occasional Opera window. An AM radio could be an option and the idea of Apple Car Play, subwoofers and onboard spatial sound processors was about as realistic as a "Beam me up, Scotty" transporter. There were no air bags, crush zones, or accident avoidance sensors such as those that saved Tiger Wood's life yesterday. If you got into any kind of serious accident, chances were good that you were going to get hurt, if not killed. In that context, it is just astounding how far the technology has come. And how far from physical reality we've fallen.
By far, the most rewarding and challenging car I ever drove while at the magazine was the CEO's red Aston Martin DB-6 Volante Convertible. There are few cars in history more beautiful, but with its manual steering and brakes, it was a real handful to drive. I almost put it into a wall within the first five minutes and wondered how the hell anyone drove this car at real speed. But there is was: a perfect example of the intense physical relationship between man and machine. It wasn't until years later when I lucked into a Porsche 997 Coupe that I fully appreciated the rewards of really having to work for it--having to be fully present when you drove a car, sensitive to steering input, pitch and yaw around turns and the yowl of a perfect engine at the redline. Because like the DB6, if you're not fully engaged with a 911, it will drive you--into the wall, off the cliff or into the weeds. That's why so many Porsche Turbos end up in the boneyard. For me, that sense of engaged presence is what makes it all worthwhile.
A former client of mine was one of the first in LA to have bought a Tesla 85. I hopped in, put it into gear and it took off like a fast cloud. Zero to 60 in a blink and a half. "Holy shit, this thing is quick! I said to him. But thought to myself, completely inert and even more soulless that some of the most soulless econoboxes. It was a moving spec sheet, not a vital experience. You can sneer, "OK Boomer" and call me a Luddite or a hopeless romantic, but Teslas, while they become more ruthlessly efficient, have redefined the driving experience as total functionality. Aside from watching the scenery silently rush by, it's like driving an iPad.
It's no accident that Tesla came from Silicon Valley, where the gestalt of man/machine singularity is steering literally trillions of dollars of innovation and intellectual energy. The rough idea is that our brains, even our souls, can be translated into code and through that transition, we'll achieve immortality. Other than extreme narcissism, it's hard to fathom why this is a good idea. It's the surrender of our "inferior" biology and humanity to a vastly more efficient and infallible set of ones and zeros--as if precision execution is the ultimate goal of mankind. It's unity by default. As we become more dependent on seemingly helpful apps like Google Maps and Spotify, and as AI becomes the command and control of our species, we become more stupid and enfeebled.
A case in point:
Since I was a kid navigating my bike through our neighborhood, I have developed incredibly strong visual memory. I rarely get lost. If I've been somewhere one time, I can usually find it again, even years later, in cities that I rarely visit--with the strange exception of Phoenix, where everything is a beige strip mall on a grid. When I drive with Google Maps yakking at me, I go blind. I stop taking in the environment and looking for visual cues, and wait for the voice to tell me, "In two miles, take Exit 24..." If I have to go to that location again, I have no idea how to get there and have rely on my digital tormentor. It pisses me off. But there are no maps, no one gives directions any more--they just give you an address knowing full well your phone will tell you how to get there. In those moments, I'm completely disconnected from physical reality. I may get around more efficiently, but I'm not better for the journey.
That disconnect from physicality has crept into almost every aspect of our daily lives--the isolation of Covid has accelerated it even more rapidly. The choice and immediacy of shopping on Amazon comes with the brutality of likes and product reviews that have all the discipline and credibility of an angry mob. You have to know what you want to buy and choose among competitive products--not to mention checking with crowd to see if you've made the right choice. In a store, it's not so linear. There are random acts of shopping--something emerges in your line of sight that you never thought you wanted and a surprise discovery and happy purchase is made. The cold delivery of recommended products served up by some algorithm is no substitute. It just isn't.
This is especially true in streaming music. Having the entire catalog of western music at your disposal, neatly organized by genre, playlist and AI-generated soundalikes should open the door to tons of new music and discoveries. For me, it's just the opposite. I'm overwhelmed and stay in my lane and listen to the artists I typically listen to. Finding a new artist or genre to explore is rare. When music was distributed physically, album covers not only defined generational aesthetics, they encouraged discovery. Again, it was line of sight, being physically present to spontaneously seek out new things.
This has reshaped and impoverished our culture in almost every aspect of our lives. Our dialog, if that's what we want to call it, has become so coarse that if it were to take place physically IRL, someone would have lost a molar or two. This reality disconnect or "alternative reality" as the Capitol mob would have it, is a clear contributor to the rage of the January 6 insurrection. Like it or not, we all have monkey minds that, overly repressed and stimulated, are going to act out.
There's no place where that is more true than Silicon Valley itself. I've traveled the world and grew up in New York for Chrissake and never seen a community that is more entitled, self-absorbed and passive-aggressively rude. It's what happens when the coin of the realm is programming and making gobs of money. The crusade to code everything, to reduce every aspect of our lives to 1/Zero, On/Off, Pass/Fail is either an inevitable biological adaptation to an increasing toxic world that cannot support us physically or a technology-driven suicide pact. Either way, we're mutating in ways that despite the overwhelming wealth of the technology sector, make us far poorer as human beings.
I was rifling through some previous posts the other day and came across this one, which I wrote in 2016 for my then-employer, R&R Partners, a business transformation/marketing firm headquartered in Las Vegas. At the time, my peers thought I'd hit the world's biggest bong and had some kind of dystopian brain failure. Little did I know that in five short years, nearly all of this has become part of our daily lives. The only difference being that it isn't just IoT that's the culprit, it's emerging AI that's fueling this radical dehumanization of our world. Read on....
Just Because We Can, Doesn’t Mean We Should: The Internet of Things and its Impact on Advertising
JULY 22, 2016 DAVID ELLIS, SVP STRATEGIC CONSULTING COMMENT
About 20 years ago, Edward Tenner wrote a prophetic book, Why Things Bite Back: The Revenge of Unintended Consequences, in which he identified the “revenge effects” that result from some of the technology advances that have defined our improvement-obsessed society. Things like superbugs emerging from antibiotics, carpal tunnel/back pain from computer usage, and crop control that actually attracts pest populations rather than eradicating them.
It’s a case study of Murphy’s law. So as we continue to live in the exciting world of the Internet of Things (IoT), the question of revenge effects looms large. It’s the “Jurassic Park” conundrum of “can” or “should.” IoT is both the chaotic bleeding edge of technology and the absolutely certain path of how we will conduct business and commerce in our connected future. According to a recent Forrester study:
“(IoT) solutions help companies bridge the physical and digital worlds, ingesting information and context through sensors from the physical world into the digital and taking actions in the physical world via actuators based on digital insights.”
What that means in plain English is that virtually every interaction you’ll have with a product, service or piece of technology will eventually be tracked by sensors and transformed into data on the cloud. The data then will be harvested by companies, service providers, marketers, insurance companies and government agencies who will slice and dice it into the products, services and information your profile says you want and need.
To be clear, IoT is not something in our far, far off future. Adoption is happening at a blistering pace, right now. Market research company Gartner estimates that “6.4 billion connected gadgets will be in use worldwide by the end of (2015), rising to almost 21 billion by 2020. Roughly 5.5 million devices are hooked up to the Internet of Things every day.” The New York Times recently reported that within a year of starting its operations, “Microsoft cloud handles a trillion sensor messages a week.”
Let that sink in for a minute. Then multiply that number by the immense server capacities of Google, Amazon, Apple, the Telcos, and literally thousands of worldwide data centers, and you have an inkling of the sheer scale of this transformation.
For now, most of the activity in IoT is happening behind the scenes—supply chain management, inventory control, shipping and tracking. But the frenzy over this technology among consumer businesses is mind-boggling. B. Bonin Bough, VP of global media and consumer engagement for snack food juggernaut, Mondelez, has stated that, “Mondelez might become one of the biggest technology companies in the world.”
Here’s a hypothetical scenario:
Mondelez puts sensors on its products, like Chips Ahoy! and Oreos. These sensors can track inventory, sales velocity and replenish rates, freshness, store locations and much more. When you pick up that package of Oreos at your local Kroger, it’s scanned at checkout and merged with other sensored and scanned purchases you’ve made. Those purchases could be linked to your debit card, which now inexorably links the Oreos to your household, personal data, bank account, contact info and, ultimately, your smartphone.
From here, depending on your view of push marketing, you’ve either entered the kingdom of heaven or all hell just broke loose. Kroger could aggregate your data into a personal shopping list that includes all of the items you typically buy. They’ll send you a text to confirm the items and price—the items will be delivered to your door within the day (by drone or driverless car) and the balance due will show up on your debit or credit card.
Couldn’t be easier.
But as Guthy-Renker says, “Wait, there’s more!” With emerging machine-to-machine interactions (M2M), this data can interact with data from other devices. For example, if your home is secured and heated by Nest, Google knows which rooms you enter, when. It knows when you’re home, which lights you turn on and for how long, when you use your washer/dryer and how long it takes to blow-dry your hair. Which can then be tied to personal care products, laundry soap, travel and leisure among myriad other things—all of which have sensors of their own that generate even more data.
Nest could also know when you open your refrigerator, which is tracking the contents inside, including the Haagen-Dazs chocolate gelato that’s almost empty. At some point, you’re going to get a message on your smartphone stating that it’s time to restock the Haagen-Dazs, and most likely the Oreos. If you restock your gelato every other day, the frequency can be noted by the home health care app on your phone, which relays that data to your health care insurer, which recommends a fitness program or raises your premium. Even with this seemingly absurd hypothetical, you can see how interconnected data can become a lot more than a convenience.
Fortunately, we’re not there. Yet. Because of the enormous range of sensors, customer scenarios and providers, there are no industry tech standards, or worse, privacy guidelines or security protocols. But they’re coming. As this blizzard of sensors and data hits us, there will be a ton of profound questions.
Setting security aside, the implications for advertisers, marketers and society at-large are unprecedented and profound. From a marketer’s perspective, exactly what should a brand target, a living human being or his/her data set? If purchase behavior is so granularly tracked and reliably predictive, why market to people at all if they’re satisfied with what their data is delivering? Will our notion of choice be redefined? Is there any need for advertising, branding or marketing of any kind if the purchase process is predetermined by data and the efficiencies it delivers?
IoT could become both a micro-segmentation and rationing tool to develop highly calibrated marketing campaigns. The idea of affinity groups of consumers becomes irrelevant in the context of a technology that can efficiently target millions of consumers one at a time. Marketers can pinpoint geographic product distribution as part of a penetration strategy to either flood a market to kill a competitor or create product scarcity to raise prices. Taken to an extreme, IoT could even become a vehicle for social engineering. Consumers’ preferences and credit ratings could dictate which products are made available to them, creating new exclusivities and inadvertent social divisions. Regardless, the role of marketing, brands, consumer choice and control will be revolutionized and dramatically different from anything we know right now—with potential revenge effects that are too numerous and daunting to begin to contemplate.
II'm not prone to panic attacks. In fact, I've never had one in my entire life. But I think I was on the verge the other day. It was raining up here in NorCal, welcome relief from months of out-of-control fires and persistent drought. In these Covid-fraught days, I've gotten used to being restricted, but for some reason it hit me harder. I realized that my day consisted of moving from screen to screen to screen. From iPhone to iPad to Mac to TV, with little physical environmental or human interaction. Yes, there were Zoom meetings and yes, I was productive working through a start-up project I've taken on and learning more about the differences between Lightroom and Capture One. But I felt like I was experiencing a kind of claustrophobic vertigo, spinning into some sort of artificial, noisy void from which there was no escape.
Perhaps it's because of the intensity of the moment we're living in. Our Capitol was attacked by mobs of anarchists. We had a legitimate, fair election, but the 200+-year old processes by which it was determined are somehow fungible and in doubt. It's unnerving to say the least. The attacks come from within, from groups of people who have been led believe to their marrow that there is a deep state conspiracy in which a good portion of our leadership, both Republicans and Democrats, is engaged in cannibalism, child trafficking and oppression of everything they believe is right and good with America.
As the insurrection arrests continue and defenses are explained, the really twisted part is that smart, fair-minded citizens--your neighbors, your cousins, and work colleagues--truly believe that following the directives of this mystical and unknown "Q" and of the most venal and cruel president we've ever had is an exercise in patriotism. Collectively, they've lost their minds and there is no intervention, no reprogramming effort that's big enough to turn this around. Reality is colliding head-on with the propaganda and there's no telling at this stage which will win.
As a result, there is a crying need for accountability and a restoration of reality-based consequences that I'm worried will never come. GOP members of the Senate, people who were directly terrorized by this mob, who hid under tables and desks praying they wouldn't be discovered and executed, want to give the president who initiated this a pass. The overwhelming sense of futility that I'm feeling politically is compounded by an accelerating Covid death count, confusion over vaccines and whiplashed public policies coming from every direction as well as my frustration and anger of being locked down for almost a year. Vertigo, indeed!
I've written in the past about my pet theory that the internet is more than an information technology--it's a biological adaptation that recognizes that given climate change, an exploding population facing severe shortages of resources, and the certainty of more pandemics, we're going to have to be less physically connected to survive. The internet seems to me to be a pillar of that adaptation. But I looked at it agnostically from a "product/technology" standpoint and didn't fully acknowledge the moral and social obligations that such a sea change requires. It's become clear to me that we're in the early stages of a web-enabled global psychosis which has the very real potential not to save us, but to destroy us. And it's happening more rapidly across more aspects of our society than I ever thought possible.
Here's a case in point. Day traders on subreddit site, Wall Street Bets have been jacking Wall Street around for months, having as much, if not more, influence on specific stocks than the expert analysts in institutional investment houses. GameStop is its current darling, thanks to more than 10,000 hits extolling the virtues of the stock. Of course, the bloated valuation of the stock is about as real as Democratic Senators eating children, but this gambit has got real financial implications. GameStop, a minor retail chain on its way down, achieved a real $23 billion valuation at its peak. This campaign is basically an unaccountable pump and dump scheme designed to kill hedge funds that went short on GameStock. It's a visceral reaction to a market where the elite consistently make a killing but most people just get killed. And it is of a piece with the antiestablishment, anti-expertise trend that's tearing down the foundations our democracy, economy and culture. As the Entrepreneur article states:
"When you are able to feel like you're a rebel going against the establishment, that's a very powerful emotion," Smith said. "It's absolutely part of what is contributing to this gain stock event." He continued: "You read the language on the message board, it's very 'us against them.' That's so powerful."
It's impossible to know whether this is a healthy correction where people assert power over the powerful or whether this is truly the barbarians at the gate. Ironically, either way, most of the people who hopped on this stock to falsely accelerate its value are going to get hurt, unless they get out of it now. We live in time where the challenges are so big, the threats so deeply existential, that the technologies that elevate the rage of the individual into real-world damage will certainly do us in. At the same time, Internet-distributed content and services are part of our salvation as a species because we are going to have to be less physical, buy less stuff and find different ways to connect. We have no choice.
The first step toward fixing this is to rigorously restore faith in the truth, first by strongly asserting and second, clearly punishing those who trade in fear, lies and demonstrably false narratives. In other words, call bullshit on the bullshit when you see it. Every time. The second step is to hold these companies accountable, or even better, break them up. They are media, no different than the NY Times which are held to libel laws and other regulations. Facebook should be no different. The third step is to require that people to put their real names and at least their city location under every post. No one should be allowed to post anonymously--no more screen names. That will stop the most of the cyberbullying and conspiracy theories. And finally, we need to find value in things that can't be Googled, SnapChatted or Twittered. Like junkies in recovery who find God, we need to find and cherish a higher, more human purpose. But that's a discussion for a later date.
It's been months since I've been able to write, not because there wasn't anything to write about, but because I've been flooded. My intellectual/socially critical nostrils barely break the waterline before I'm dragged down into the gloomy depths of Covid terror, isolation, and the reality that we are indeed living in a country informed by two parallel universes. The 2020 Election in all of its surreal, ultimately homicidal dissonance rages on, two months after the free and fair outcome has been rendered. Our Capitol has been ravaged by an organized horde of murderous anarchists. But for the courage and quick thinking of a Capitol Policeman who had the foresight to lead the mob away from the Senate chambers, dozens of bodies would have had "Ds" and "Rs" after their names.
Next week, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States in front of more US troops than are stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, combined. D.C Looks like Santiago at the height of its revolution or Havana in 1959. New video from the insurrection of January 6 only deepens our horror that whatever we thought we saw live as it was happening was so much worse. We live in a time where there are metal detectors in front of the entrances to both houses of Congress. But worse, there are members who refuse to go through them. There are members of Congress who are fearing not only the barbarians with horns, furs and zip ties, who literally shit on the floor of our Capitol, but some of their fellow members who have sworn allegiance to Q-Anon over their oaths of office. They worry with good reason whether their Alt-Right colleagues will shoot them dead.
It's no secret how we got here and there are hundreds of books and think tank studies that can be reviewed and debated. Question is, what's next? From my view, unless the Alt Right movement is purged and utterly destroyed along with its communications/media infrastructure, we're going to be in an asymmetrical civil war for decades to come. It won't be an all-out "blue-gray" confrontation, but a series of smaller terrorist events; an assassination here, a blown-up power plant there. Cyber hacking and kidnapping. Unless there is a concerted, national focus on true law and order, holding people accountable from Trump, Giuliani, Beavis and Butthead, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to the QAnon Shaman, this nascent civil insurrection will bring the country to its knees. This means prosecution and punishment to the full extent of the law, no exceptions. And holding the media machine that fuels it accountable for its content.
It can be done, but I doubt the resolve of the Biden Administration and the Democratic Congress. Over decades, they have shown an incredible inability to read the room. If past is prologue, they lack the vision and more importantly, the courage to uphold the laws and mores that truly make America great. Instead, there is too much empathy, compassion and taking the high road when commitment and guts are required. America is collectively holding its breath, relieved that adults will finally be back in charge, but on edge because the momentum of the people who constructed nooses and chanted "Where's Nancy?" and "Hang Mike Pence" hasn't slowed down a bit. It's just laying low. This is a pivot point in our history much like the the run up to the Civil War in 1861 or the McCarthy era where we cannot afford to make a wrong turn. The question remains whether January 6 is the equivalent of Fort Sumpter or a one-off pressure valve blowing off steam. Regardless, the anger remains. We'll see.
Like the Kennedy Assassination and 9/11, this is one of those days when you'll remember exactly what you were doing when you heard the news that Donald J. Trump who has Covid, is boarding a helicopter to Walter Reed Hospital.
The unsurprising, yet surreal event is the latest and largest of a series of shocks that have roiled this country since his election, no less the last three-to-four weeks. This seminal event, the boomerang of Karma on a president hellbent on denying reality, on whipping up a set of self-serving fictions about a pandemic that have cost 210,000 Americans their lives (as of this writing() exists against a backdrop of truly cataclysmic developments, any one of which would have defined an era.
Here's where thing stand as of October 2, 2020:
What's primary is the continuing, willful destabilization of our societal norms and rule of law. Use of the White House as a partisan prop for a wanna-be Mussolini, Untruthful health status statements. Internal truth vs public truths. Russian-borne conspiracy theories ending up as "facts" in Senate investigations. The invective and sneering dismissal of expertise and the transformation of opponents into mortal enemies. There is a concerted effort by Trump to overthrow our democracy is not some wild conjecture. There is no objective analysis of the facts that leads to any other conclusion. None.
Now, with Trump getting the plague, the wrench of truth gets thrown into this toxic mix, flattening the Grifter-in-Chief and Putin's most precious useful idiot. Thirty-two days away from Election Day. Yet the nagging feeling that the worst is yet to come persists. The polarities can't be resolved by dialogue or finding common ground. It's going to explode because it has to. This is an historical imperative, much like the ones that have driven fascist movements in Europe. The only question is how will it be ignited?
Let's level-set where we are today, September 21, 2020:
There is not nearly enough room to go through the extent of the American carnage wrought by the corruption, cruelty and incompetence the Trump Administration and its GOP enablers.
I've just read three pivotal Trump insider books from Mary Trump, Michael Cohen and Bob Woodward, each of which come from different perspectives, each carefully documenting the worst things you can think about Donald Trump and his utter lack of fitness for the job he's in. For all of it, the page after page of outrageous observations, the insight that sticks out for me is one from Michael Cohen, who gets to the heart of why Trump wanted to run for President in the first place. According to Cohen, a consummate insider who always was in the room, it had nothing to do with serving the country, building a movement or taking some ideological stance. It was to be "the greatest infomercial in the history of politics."
People are dying. Institutions are collapsing. Global treaties have been torn up along with our sense of common cause and common decency. Our environment is becoming more toxic every day, not just to humans, but to all life on earth. All the consequences of a brilliant con artist who (again, quoting Michael Cohen) thought it would "be cool to be president," and pulled together a branding campaign that he was sure wouldn't really hurt anyone or lead to the Oval Office. Like most of us, Trump expected to lose, then close the real estate deal he was making with Putin for his dream hotel in Moscow.
Ever since I can remember, the biggest fears were annihilation from nuclear war. The threat was made very real every time I flew under my desk during those random "drop drills." When my family moved to California, the big existential threat was earthquakes. And getting into the wrong crowd. And taking drugs, especially bad drugs.
Who knew the biggest threat to human existence would be marketing?
Yet here we are. Addictively feeding toxic algorithms on faceless Facebook and Twitter. Living in fact-free Russian created disinformation and in Q-bubbles spouting conspiracy theories that would embarrass the most limber Hollywood action/conspiracy writers. We're trained monkeys. Trained to buy things we don't want or need. To measure ourselves against unattainable standards of beauty and wealth. We're never good enough, smart enough, rich enough or thin enough. Which primes us for a sociopathic carnival barkers like Donald Trump, who knows how to catalyze our collective unworthiness into a mindless mob that denies the daily deaths that are so close to us all and the flames that are incinerating ecosystem after ecosystem. A mob that denigrates science and expertise and makes excuses for the most venal of lies--even in the face of videotape proof to the contrary. It's an easy exchange. A society conditioned to "need" more stuff, more "likes," more "me" can be easily traded off for corruption, repression and absolute power under the guise of individual freedom and "draining the swamp." So long as they are pointed to "those people" they can fear and blame. The casualties are rest of us, objective truth, expertise and the laws and mores that make America truly great.
We're all stunned that this is happening all at once. But if we were really paying attention to our world, we shouldn't be. Rachel Carson, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and virtually every climate scientist on the planet have been warning about this day for decades. Jimmy Carter had it right in the late '70s, which was the last opportunity to systemically pivot and solve the climate issue. The climate scientists called the sequence of events and the timing we're experiencing right now almost perfectly. First Australia, then California. Point of no return, 2030.
But our marketing mindset makes it impossible to accept anything that doesn't accrue immediate value to the "mighty me," no less make the radical moves and sacrifices that are necessary, right now, to assure survival of life on earth. Instead, we're being deliberately polarized and enraged keystroke by keystroke by algorithmic technologies triggered by foreign adversaries and our own bad habits. For as individualistic as we like to think we are, we're an easily stampeded herd. We're trapped by our own reflexive consumer selfishness on the one hand, and by a planet that is protecting itself on the other. We cannot give up the drug of endless entertainment and self-actualization. At the same time, IRL we are living too close to native habitats and are exposed to animals and viruses for which we have no defense. Add our unchecked consumption habits and refusal to embrace the new technologies we already have, and we're headed into a period of global chaos, if not the brink of extinction.
Joe Biden said the other day (paraphrasing) that Covid was "too big" for Trump to handle. In the context of global warming, Covid is a proportionately small beta test which we've clearly failed. The destruction of our environment is paralleled by the destruction of the governmental agencies that can save it. For every burning acre, there are decades of knowledge, infrastructure and expertise being burned to the ground in the Trump' Administration's homicidal pursuit of dismantling the mythical "deep state" and the pursuit of toxic selfishness. The big test is here, right now. And we're clearly failing that, too.
More insanity in the most bewildering time perhaps in our history. We learned that shooting an unarmed Black man seven times in the back was the equivalent of "choking" a 3-foot golf putt." We learned that a plane full of "thugs" dressed in black were ominously on their way to the Washington DC coronation known as the RNC with the expressed goal of disrupting the convention. Who they were, and most importantly who they were working for, was "under investigation." Really? By whom? There were at least a dozen other dizzying developments in yesterday's news (8.31.20) that defy reality, gravity, the laws of physics, the rule of law and just plain common decency.
There are only a couple explanations: Trump seems like a feral madman, chained to his dogma on the one hand and tied to a reckoning of an encroaching undeniable reality on the other. He seethes, twists and spits venom at anything that doesn't comport with his world view as God's chosen savior. As he said upon acceptance of the 2016 nomination, "Only (he) can fix it." After three-and-half-years of grifting, chaos, egregious lawlessness, provoked violence, not to mention the sociopathic acceptance of nearly 200,000 dead Americans in the worst health catastrophe in 100 years, he's left with one, an only one, inescapable truth. He alone, broke it.
That we have an incompetent, psychopath as president who is suffering advancing dementia would be scary enough. But it pales in comparison to the second plausible explanation. Which is that all of this is deliberate.
Almost from Day One, when Sean Spicer tried to gaslight America into believing Trump had the biggest inaugural crowd ever, and Kellyanne Conway's claim of "alternate facts" to Sergei Lavrov romping around the Oval Office with Trump as he shared Top Secret Israeli intel and Trump's supplication to Putin in Helsinki, it has been clear that we are in the middle of a profound threat to our democratic system and values.
More than a threat, we are in the middle of an active insurrection, right now--fueled by extremists and foreign enemies, executed by Putin's captive idiot, Donald Trump and enabled by a feckless and greedy GOP that couldn't care less about its own values, their oaths of office or the safety and values of the people they were sworn to protect. The violence on the street, ginned up not by BLM, but by an emboldened cadre of Alt-Right extremists, will spill over into mainstream events. I worry about the election, the peaceful transfer of power and the inauguration. Time will tell, but the signs are ominous.
.Let me set the scene as it is today, August 22, 2020. Northern California is an out-of-control inferno. At one point yesterday, it was reported that the area had more than 300 active fires, the largest of which were near Vacaville, outside of Sacramento and Santa Cruz, which is due west of San Jose. Smoke from these fires have made outside activities dangerous with particulate readings ranging from 240-385 PPM. Here in Santa Clara County, we're still under stay at home orders due to COVID, with no end in sight. Every time a county or city tries to open up, the virus explodes, forcing officials to backtrack and lock things down again. We're not testing and tracing or playing whack a mole, which is what it takes to kill a pandemic. We are a collective Sisyphus, led by a venal psychopath who believes COVID will "go away like a miracle." He believes that injecting people with bleach is an idea who's time has come and that there is a secret cabal of child molesters and cannibals hellbent on destroying our country.
This lunacy and ignorance hides a very real, ultimately inevitable reality. Our future looks more like this than what it did pre-COVID. The reason NorCal is ablaze is not arson. It isn't due to the malfeasance of PG&E like the awful Camp Fire a few years ago. It was due to 12,000 dry lightning strikes--a weather phenomenon that people here who have lived in this area for 50- 60 years have never seen before. An event like this is no surprise to many of us who have been calling climate change the single most important issue of our time. It's so big that no one can see it and act on it. So we fritter our precious time in fits of social media-fueled conspiracy theories and delusion. In thinking that the stock market is reality, that explosive economic growth is a physical law of nature, even though we know damned well that economic growth as we currently define it is a pathogen hellbent on destroying our existence. And the virus marches on. Soulless, ruthless and indiscriminate. And climate catastrophes like fires, mega-storms and droughts are just part of normal.
It is Day Four of the Democratic National Convention and while this is the first Zoom/Webex/Skype meeting in US history, it's had some unexpected, positive consequences. We got to see 50 states in the virtual nomination roll call instead or a bunch of drunken conventioneers wearing funny hats, pushing and shoving to get air time. It enabled us to have an appreciation for the diversity, not only of our people, but of this incredible land that we're blessed to live on. It was something to celebrate at a time when there is so much pain, tragedy and division. You would think we'd be unified about our incredible landscape, wouldn't you? Maybe not...
Biden's campaign theme and strategy is based on decency and normalcy, neither of which has been in great supply during the past 20 years, no less the last four. The metamessages were pretty clear too: We're better than this. This crazy quilt of people, backgrounds, ethnicities and skills are what's always made America great. And finally, all this is under existential threat and worth fighting for. We're all in and all in this together, because if we're not, William Butler Yeats becomes even more prophetic,
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In some ways, this was as much about media as message. Without the histrionics of 20,000 people and the need for speakers to command a chaotic room, this convention was far more thoughtful and intimate. By necessity, we were one-on-one with each speaker, not at all influenced by camera angles, intensity of applause, or cutting to reaction shots of the crowd. It was pure. It was direct. Whether it will be successful as a campaign tool is yet to be seen.
Political strategists often talk about trying to encourage confirmation bias for their candidates and their ideas. Much of that comes from crowd reactions--people seen applauding, waving signs, and talking together--which is why mass-media TV remains a more powerful advertising medium than one-to-one digital media. When lots of people support a candidate, that in itself is validation. Which is why Trump is so addicted to his rallies--he gets instant confirmation that his every narcissistic utterance is good and right. It's the living version of the dopamine hit people get when their social media posts are liked and attract thousands of followers--on a grand scale.
So, on the eve of what promises to be perhaps the most brutally negative and polarizing convention since the South seceded from the Union, it remains to be seen how media as a vehicle will play. Initial post-DNC polls show Biden holding steady and not getting a big bounce in preference, but gaining significantly in enthusiasm. Wonder how much of that was due to the presentation, not the content--one can only imagine what might have happened if the same themes were delivered in a room of 25,000 people.
It remains to be seen how this will play for Trump, who's base is set in concrete, much like his hatred and contempt for our country, its laws and mores. He needs to bring new people in, not activate an insurrection if he's going to win. From what I can gather from the pollsters and pundits from both sides who know these things, there is about 6%-8% of voters in play--Trump needs everyone of them. But his tactics will makes that virtually impossible. It is clear that he's conceded any chance of winning a legitimate election and is working overtime to ensure the entire process is either deemed illegitimate or that the process itself is so broken that is simply cannot function. He's been crystal-clear about his intentions. Why he hasn't been locked up for sedition at this stage is a mystery.
Author, comedian, former hedge fund manager, lifelong New Yorker, James Altucher wrote a gut-wrenching epitaph to his beloved city in a recent article in the NY Post, in which he declared the most vibrant city in the world "dead forever." I was in the city last Fall, just a few months before Covid. If New York was facing terminal conditions, they were terminal affluence and complacency. It was Epcot, a Potemkin city with the sheen and veneer of perpetual superiority. With more than pep in its step and the swoosh of Armani meeting Louis Vuitton, New York seemed all the world like the nexus of power, progress and creativity. That it would be proclaimed "dead" a short six to eight months later was unthinkable.
Yet here we are. Altucher reads the tea leaves of the city's current plight and they're not promising. Ninety percent of the city's hundreds of millions of office square footage are empty and not likely to be refilled any time soon. New York's famous for many things, not the least of which is its restaurants. More than 60% are closed, no telling how many of them, permanently. Cultural fixtures like Broadway, museums, jazz clubs, concert halls, art galleries, dance clubs and neighborhood hangs are closed, suffocating any chance of keep the city's metabolism working at its usual high speed.
Most of the people who can leave, have left for garden spots like Florida, Denver and Phoenix. Sure, Phoenix is spread out and it's cheap. But I've spent a lot of time in Phoenix and well, it's Phoenix. NYC rents have cratered. Celebs like Jennifer Lawrence are taking multimillion-dollar hits on the sale of their condos just to get out--something unthinkable a few months ago. With vacancies comes price reductions and depression. With vacancies, neighborhoods die and crime escalates.
Of course, New Yorkers boldly claim this is a short-term circumstance--New York always bounces back. After all, neighborhood establishments like Jonah Shimmel's (above) have seem WWI, The Spanish Flu, the Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Crack & Mafia '70s, 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy come and go. NY will survive Covid, and it always bounced back, so goes the conventional wisdom. But Altcher isn't so sure this time and points to the real culprit: better bandwidth. He writes:
"In 2008, average bandwidth speeds were 3 megabits per second. That’s not enough for a Zoom meeting with reliable video quality. Now, it’s over 20 megabits per second. That’s more than enough for high-quality video. There’s a before and after. Before: no remote work. After: everyone can remote work.
The difference: bandwidth got faster. And that’s basically it. People have left New York City and have moved completely into virtual worlds. The Time-Life building doesn’t need to fill up again. Wall Street can now stretch across every street instead of just being one building in Manhattan.
We are officially AB: After Bandwidth. And for the entire history of NYC (and the world) until now, we were BB: Before Bandwidth. Remote learning, remote meetings, remote offices, remote performance, remote everything.
That’s what is different."
For decades, the march of technology has gobbled up whole pieces of the human experience: Commerce, engineering, creativity, music, photography, painting, meeting with friends, large-scale manufacturing, journalism, objective truth, travel, education. That a simple seemingly innocuous tech spec like increased bandwidth would so quickly and completely subvert one of the most sophisticated cities in the world is shocking, but it should come as no surprise.
It is important to remember the larger context of the times we live in. We are in a period of radical adaptation, not merely social political and institutional cyclical change. Since the advent of the PC, every digital advance, from Ethernet to 3D printing and Quantum Computing has not been just another step-up in capabilities, but a more robust way to preserve ourselves. As a species, we're clearly threatened by the climate holocaust our past technological advances have wrought. It was 130F in Death Valley yesterday. California had a rare "firenado," a tornado caused by a fire so big and hot, it created its own huge funnel cloud. Thousands of acres in Iowa were devastated by a Derecho, a rare inland hurricane. These events are not random, but are quickly becoming the norm with greater frequency and intensity.
As all species of plants and animals are instinctively on the move, so are we. But in a very different direction. On a deep biological basis, we know we are going to have to be less physical to survive. The air will be toxic, climate too hot, energy resources, too scarce to just hop in a car or on a plane to see the sights, visit family and friends or do business. Like Maryland Blue Crabs that find themselves off the shore of Maine, we find ourselves migrating to a digital tier. Text replacing conversation. Zoom replacing conference rooms. Streaming replacing DVDs and CDs. Ablelton and Pro Tools replacing orchestras and guitars. 3D printing supplementing and ultimately replacing large scale manufacturing.
The speed of this transformation has more or less mirrored the rapid increase in greenhouse gases and temperature. But with the Trump Administration hostile to any consideration of climate change as part of its policies, humans have been losing ground. Until Covid. While pandemics have been planned for for decades and much of the devastation clearly predicted, the speed and potential finality of an event like Covid was clearly underestimated, in some cases, deliberately. That New York City would be almost totally unraveled in less than six months is the tragic consequence of callous ignorance on the part of our leadership on the one hand, and a lack of awareness and imagination as to the true fragility of our seemingly bulletproof way of life on the other.
Most of us will get through Covid. But it's a wake-up call. If we remain on the same path regarding climate change, no such assurances can be made.