Sunday, September 15, 2013

If technology is the tool, why am I the one getting used?


Technology's great isn't it. 

"There's an app for that" and increasingly there's hardware for it. too.  The next decade promises an explosion of technical doodads that will be able to do anything from having your favorite latte' ready when you wake to alerting you to failing health.

Ain't it grand.  Our entire lives, every need, every whim, every action collected, recorded, monitored and stored.  Today, a newborn baby can expect a record of everything they've ever done from cradle to grave.

How convenient, how secure, how exciting this gilded cage we're making for ourselves.  Until we found out about the antics of the NSA recently, the concept could be brushed off as the ramblings of a crank.  Regardless of the level of technical expertise governments may or may not have, the event shocked a technology addicted populace even if only for a moment.

For the next few months at least, anyone selling anything with the word "privacy" is sure to do well until the next shiny bauble comes along.

Short of an EMP pulse from space knocking us back to the 19th century, change never happens overnight.  It's gradual no matter how exponential Moore's law becomes.  Today it's a fingerprint reader on an Iphone or the convenience of storing your private data in the cloud.  Most people wouldn't give a second thought to what it really means to swap out an Android phone and find all their personal data and settings automatically downloaded to its replacement. 

It's just  cool because it's so convenient.  Never mind someone else has control of your stuff...

All you have to do is stress the utility of that new toy and privacy goes out the window.  That anyone who uses a  Smartphone expects the data on it to be private in the first place is laughable but they do. 

 You can choose not to participate but soon find yourself ostracized.  Socialization, personal economy and even careers increasingly demand you jump on the bandwagon.

Technology isn't a bad thing so long as it remains a tool but it seems we're moving toward an age where the tool is used against us.

Consider a world where your smartphone snitches to your health insurance company via its NFC payment capability while your car verifies your location via GPS.  There's no denying it, you got the supersized fries and your health premium is going up because of it.

Consider your car insurance company monitoring every mile and basing your premium on what they find out.  It's already happening with at least one major insurance carrier.

Maybe you get a discount for driving 5 miles under the speed limit and ordering the salad instead of the burger.  That makes it all ok, right?

It's the small changes in what is considered acceptable that gradually erode personal freedoms and liberties.  Consider that for your discounted premiums you've essentially subjected yourself to a set of values you may not share.  As it becomes a more accepted practice you become more powerless.

Companies are essentially demanding compliance from their customers.  What happened here?  Since when does a customer have to justify themselves to  the cashier?

It's simple really. 

You're a prisoner, worse, you pay dearly for the privilege while the whole time doggedly defending your right to treated as such.

Technology is seductive, slowly evolving our dependency to the point where it's inconceivable for most to live without it.  We're convinced we need it even if we don't.  We must be continually connected and have instant access to everything.

We even create workflows of nonsense just to justify having it.  Is it really that important to be able to talk to Google?  What if all your queries were recorded, compiled and used to create a profile about you that you knew nothing about?

The sad fact is that the services we rely on often don't have our best interests at heart.  Profit and  Philanthropy make poor bedfellows.  So does power.

Once governments discover this voluntary abdication of civil liberties it's nothing for them to exercise control over our cherished providers of our technological fix.

And it is a fix.  If you can't imagine a day without your smartphone you're just as addicted as anyone on crack cocaine.  You think you need it but in reality you don't.

Technology is a tool but there's no reason you should allow yourself to be used by it.  Get your context straight and you won't have to worry about privacy or security.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dow Jones, an index of shame

I happened to be channel surfing the other day when I stopped on a PBS station.  The Nightly Business Report was on and the hosts were putting their best spin on the latest "non-event" Apple announcement ( 2 new versions of the same old phones). 

Financial correspondents understand charts, trends and indicators.  None of which have any basis in reality.  Well,  at least not to anyone with a net worth of less than 7 figures.  They have their own reality and it doesn't involve keeping the lights on or the kids fed. 

That's why Wall Street is a farce.  That anyone treats it as an economic indicator is laughable.   That is, unless you consider1% of the population a reliable demographic.
I almost switched the channel after suffering clueless commentary about yet another tech bauble.  I stopped when I found that following story concerned 3 companies being dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA.) 

The DJIA supposedly reflects a cross section of American based companies publicly traded on the stock market. 

It's the "I" in the industrial average that's amusing.  The 3 companies that didn't make the cut were:

Alcoa     Bank of America     HP

No love lost for B of A but what replaced them were:

Nike      Goldman Sachs     Visa

The criteria for membership in the exclusive DJIA club is simple, share price.  The highest performing and generally most expensive stocks make the cut so long as they continue to "perform." Performance is measured in a consistently high share price.  Often brought about by ruthless worship of the bottom line; many of these companies reflect the worst in corporate pandering to shareholders.

Much has been made of the inequity of the index affecting the entire market with just a handful of "representative" stocks.  Regardless, the DJIA is still the daily number most reported and most relied on as the de facto indicator of the economy.

If that's true then perhaps a name change is in order.  Perhaps something more along the lines of the DJFI or Dow Jones Fantasy Index.  Think of it like fantasy football except you lose real money when you pick the wrong team...

God knows most people with 401K's see it that way...

When the DJIA first came about in 1896 there were only 12 companies that represented the nation's industrial sector.

They were:

General Electric, American Cotton Oil, American Sugar, Chicago Gas, Distilling & Cattle Feeding, Laclede Gas, National Lead, North American, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad, U.S. Leather and United States Rubber.

What's the common thread?  They all actually made something tangible.

Let's look at 2013's class...

3M, American Express, At&T, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco Systems, Coca-Cola, Dupont, ExxonMobil, GE, Goldman Sachs, Home Depot, Intel, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, JPMorgan Chase, McDonald's  Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Travelers  United Health Group, United Technologies, Verizon, Wal-Mart, Walt-Disney

Look at that list closely.  Only a handful of the constituent parts of the DJIA are companies that actually produce any kind of tangible product and of those most of them produce their wares somewhere other than U.S. soil.

The rest is comprised of mostly banks, insurance companies, big pharma and other followers of the cult of  the bottom-line.   

It's all about the money but it's not about reality unless you think that an economy driven by outsourcing, medication and interest charges reflects its "Industry."

McDonald's and Wal-Mart, low price leaders known for low wages and substandard products.  Often the butt of jokes from those concerned about a failing career. 

Visa and JPMorgan Chase known for questionable financial products and poor treatment of their customers. 

Intel and Microsoft, tech pioneers but respectively proponents of offshore labor and unfair business practices that harm consumers and workers alike.

Insurance companies whose bottom line is best served by denying coverage even if the result is death. 
Pharmaceutical companies who lobby congress to artificially inflate profit margins and force the elderly to choose between medication and food.

If this is a cross section of American industry we might as well give up.  Nothing is being produced but misery and to celebrate the practice is madness. 

You can't blame globalization for the decline in American industry.  We are where we are because of the lesser parts of our nature.  Avarice, ignorance and ego,  Global markets have just allowed us to nurture the darker sides of our ambition.  Worse, we aspire to dwell in some corner office atop the glistening skyscraper producing nothing but the wages of our own sins.

We value those whose success was built on exploitation and dismiss all others.

Change may have come to America but real change involves a change in values.  Hard to do when popular media continually drives home the edict, "Greed is Good."  Openly we reject  it but secretly we hold it to be true.


That's why we fail.  

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pop Culture is no longer popular or culture

There's no accounting for taste...

Well at least not on the Internet.  Maybe I'm just a grumpy old man but all these new creative outlets have left popular culture in chaos.  What else can explain over 2 million YouTube views of a flatulent dog let alone that Miley Cyrus gets even one ITunes download. 

Even commercials are senseless.  I mean c'mon, 80's hair metal to sell a Honda Minivan?  I may be old enough to remember what MTV was like before Rap music but even I'm not that lame.  The rise of Reality TV in the last century certainly didn't help either.  Maybe it's the cause of all of this. 

It's got to be tough to be a TV writer these days.  The opportunities are few and far between when the big networks are crowded with such "gems" as Survivor and Big Brother.  

I guess we didn't know how good we had it when we were wondering who shot JR or whether Fonzie was going to make it over that shark. 

Maybe that's when popular culture jumped the shark.  Oh yeah, in case you don't know, the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps a shark on water skis is commonly regarded as the point where the series finally lost popularity with viewers.

It seems that was also the point where popular culture developed a severe case of ADD.  Take a look at your local TV schedule these days and you'll soon find that if you want something other than reality TV or infomercials there's going to be a monthly charge attached.

Ok, ok I know.  Ol' Grandpa hates that evil rock and roll and Elvis is corrupting our youth and you can get pregnant from sitting on a public toilet. 

Though before you judge me too harshly, let's look at a few examples of popular music  from the past few decades.  I happen to believe an era's music says more about its popular culture than any other medium.

1960's - Let's spend the night together, The Rolling Stones.   Risqué for its time but harmless.
1970's - Go Your OwnWay,  Fleetwood Mac.  At least we were thinking above the belt on this one.
1980's - I Still Haven't  found what I'm looking for, U2.   Maybe a bit cerebral ,not that it's a bad thing.
1990's - Smells likeTeen Spirit, Nirvana  A Ha!, there it is, I mean with a chorus of ...

Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

Hey, it's a great song and all but it might as well be the ADHD anthem.  Soon to be followed by a pop  culture confused by its own identity or a lack thereof.  Gender bending pop-stars pushing limits nobody cares about anymore and talentless hacks that even their peers can't stand.  I'm lookin' at you Bieber...

I'm not even going to bother with the 2000's, they're part of the problem with so-called popular tracks like "Poker Face" and "Give it 2 u" which never get above the bikini line let alone the belt...

Oh but the great equalizer that is the Internet, where anyone with a YouTube channel can be "discovered."  It's led to gushing pundits proclaiming the end of the "gatekeepers" and "curated" entertainment.  Evidenced by 2.7 million views of a bad fart joke.

Funny thing is that you're never going to see anyone get a Grammy or an Oscar based on YouTube views or ITunes downloads.

Maybe we need the gatekeepers.  For all their rumblings over piracy and copyright their real problem is that they  don't know how to read the public anymore.  It's true that business  concerns should never trump talent but we've gone too far in the other direction.  The entertainment industry has become  more flaky than a Wall Street broker with oil futures.

However, it's still a fact that nobody becomes successful without the blessings of the gatekeepers no matter how fickle  they are.  Some of them have even moved into the "New Media" space but in the end the new media is really just an extension of the same old construct.

That's a problem, because the gatekeepers have lost their focus by trying to entice a popular culture that doesn't know what it wants.  The result is a product only marginally better than YouTube fare.  It caters to the lowest common denominator and that part of the equation has gotten lower.

We're literally awash in cat videos, Jackass wannabes and bad movie trailers.  Hollywood is clueless, stuck in an endless cycle of formula sequels and kid friendly animation that would be better suited going straight to video.  They've become so bereft of creativity that any recent list of the top ten movies will undoubtedly include films based on either comic books or games.  

The rest usually involve vampires, werewolves or somebody's organs violently being removed from their body.  Let's not forget the new trend of "reboots" that Started with J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" and has moved on to 80's slasher flicks.    

Maybe I am too old but it seems I've managed to find a lot of things to like about every generation of popular culture.  Even those I wasn't around for. 

Something's different now.

Even with the overwhelming quantity of content it seems the quality has become insignificant.  Make no mistake, every era has had crap.  Face it, there was good reason why most of the hair metal bands didn't  manage to get past their first album.

Now imagine if all those bands were still around clogging up Pandora or Spotify.  You'd waste a lot of time wading through crap just to hear what you like. 

Art needs curation and entertainment deals with artists.  Pop culture is inextricably intertwined with art.   That means there needs to be some level of quality control.  Even if it runs against the whole "free and open" argument . 

Imagine the alternative. 


Would any museum be worth visiting if any hack with a paintbrush could throw up their paint by numbers portrait of Elvis?