My thesis project for NYU-ITP has been Galapag.us, a tribe and ecosystem for promoting the idea that we should be radically open and transparent with our data so that we can form and share metrics to measure our progress and success in different areas of our lives. More info at the front page of Galapag.us.
I came up with the idea in 2006. An email I sent to my Army buddy in April, 2006:
I sort of had an idea but it seems like it’ll be difficult to build out. My idea would be for something similar to Xbox Live’s ranking system. Except it’s for your life. Privacy issues aside, people would volunteer to put in as much personal info as they want. At first it might seem cumbersome putting in so much info but I think as myspace and other services have shown, people are willing to do it if it means it cultivates their identity.
So for instance you put in your income and number of kids and connect your accounts for online game rankings (like in Halo or Battlefield 2) and your exercise plan and your birthdate and your finances and investments and how many web sites you’re on (like myspace, digg, yahoo, etc.) and from all that data, the company would generate statistics that break down your life and give you info about how much time you spend on certain tasks, how efficient you are with your money, what your online reputation is. Stuff like that. The core would be statistics…anonymous statistics I think so people won’t have any incentive to forge their results. The point would be to turn peoples’ lives into a numeric game where they can see how they rate in certain aspects of their lives. Think of all those online quizzes people take about what kind of lover they are or what their personality is. That could be tabulated into the statistics, which could be searchable or broke down any way the person wanted.
At the end of a year, we could look internally at our statistics and go visit the top overall people in person to go verify their data and videotape their lives, interview them. Then a winner would be announced…like the best person award. Heh…there’d be so much controversy and whining and competition if it caught on. Then we could write a book about our experiences going out and discovering what makes someone “the best” compared to everyone else.
So…that’s my idea so far. Sort of like a real-life RPG. Perhaps we could offer points for real-world scavenger hunts or traveling to different countries around the globe. What about having life coaches for certain segments, if someone was weak in an area like professional development? I was thinking we could also offer points for accomplishing certain tasks like humanitarian work.
A lot of stuff happened in the meantime: I got out of the Army, went to study foreign policy in DC, worked for Homeland Security, moved to NYC for school. And so now I’m wrapping up the thesis, which allowed me more than a semester to work just about full-time (including any waking moment) on trying to make Galapag.us a reality before I can either A) get funding or B) get an engineer/developer job after school.
So I present Galapag.us for thesis on May 15 at NYU. I have two weeks still to work on it before then. I think I’ve gotten it to a point where I can start letting alpha testers in to explore, and think about it. My work log has been tracked on the thesis blog.
node.js/express.js: So easy to build a site using this framework.
varnish/nginx+ngx_pagespeed: Caching, run-time optimizations for faster page loads/downloads. Routes to https and socket.io server too.
python scripts for maintaining server default state
celery for queuing
redis for temporary data dumps and lookups
mongodb for permanent data storage
angularjs for the comment system
I know the site’s confusing — like an airplane pilot dashboard. It’ll become more cohesive over time. A lot of things aren’t quite working yet, or they have filler data to get them going. Apologies for that. For more familiarization, try the welcome demo.
But here are some features that are worth checking out:
Comments will be available for tribe forums, formula critiques, peoples’ profiles. I decided to use angularjs so I could learn how to build SPAs with it!
By tracking individual data, one can also track internal company metrics and state-level happiness metrics too!
Each island has its own weather, environment, and bonuses/penalties for certain user behavior, so it benefits you to live on the island that incorporates your style best.
Professions and Skills
What does it mean to be “good” at something? Are companies hiring the most qualified candidates? How do we standardize that?
A profile for your data. You get reputation scores in different areas. Those scores are determined by which formulas you choose to use. You can also see your internet of things (devices, pets, objects) is on the bottom right, while you’ll also be able to create gaming characters using your own data.
You can complete quests within Galapag.us to gain experience. Some tasks will be data-gardening for other people, some will be to introduce gaming elements, others will be to visit lesser-seen parts of the site. But mostly the quests should be geared towards helping others.
[This was one of our initial assignments for our ITP thesis projects. Come up with a pie-in-the-sky review of your thesis idea.]
[FAKE] The Economist: A (Fake) Review of Galapag.us
Reputation and identity
The internet was a house of nil repute, until Galapag.us
An NYC startup is providing an ecosystem for people to build reputation metrics using any of their data
Forays into the online world have been fraught with peril, uncertainty, hucksters, intrigue, and irresistible indulgence of curiosities. Despite a need for truth-telling and fact-checking, social networking sites have been unable to establish reputation as a measure of quantifiable value to provide the unicorn of positive user experience.
However, a New York City-based startup would like to change that. Galapag.us, so named after the chain of islands made famous as Charles Darwin’s Eureka! moment for his theory of evolution, as well as for its American heritage and social emphasis (.us), has built up a loyal tribe of Galapag.users who promote its cause.
The tribe promotes openness of data and identity as a way to create measures for reputation, under the idea that being radically public will create more value for individuals and for society than governments, businesses, and nefarious individuals can take away through violations of privacy.
Surely other companies have attempted to reëvaluate reputation metrics, but as Ben Turner, the “discoverer” of Galapag.us says, “Companies either focus on low-hanging fruit from Foursquare and Facebook APIs, or they can only measure data in small spheres of peoples’ identities such as diet, exercise, or desktop PC productivity.” The strength of Galapag.us, Turner says, is in its ecosystem of data, variables, and formulae cutting across the spectrum of peoples’ identities, such as their professional progress, their hobbies, what they spend the fixed-limit twenty-four hours of the day doing, etc.
The other strength is indubitably its passionate tribe, made up of early adopters, quantified selfers, data science geeks, academic researchers (who have access to large-scale anonymized organization- or “tribe-” level data), and even recovering patients whose lives have been made quantified in order to survive their maladies.
For now, Galapag.us is closed only to members who vow to be open with their data, even though granular privacy controls with an “opt-in” only mentality are available. But Turner envisions a future where Galapag.us will provide reputations and identities to everyone — and every thing — on the planet, as a way to combat trafficking, bullying, undervaluation of good behavior, and other social problems.
The company can walk the walk, with an organic, thriving user base, as well as with its discoverer being a Texan and a former Army sergeant with an intelligence background, technical capability, and New York City Silicon Alley DNA. In an age where Internet users feel as though everything is being taken away from them, it is a breath of fresh air that Galapag.us is trying to return more value to people — and to society — than they need to provide on their own.
An underlying theme in my projects at school has been thinking about potential versus actual. And one common question that people ask when my classmates introduce their project ideas is, “Will this be illegal?”
How well is our society fulfilling its potential right now? Is it under-performing based on its many inputs? Is it being constrained by the law, policy, culture, tradition, taboos? Or are we doing okay right now, from a broader perspective at a wider time-horizon?
These particular moments seem to arise when all the restraints and boundaries are cast off in necessity or after great struggle or strain. What held them back was partly health-related (Black Plague, Great Influenza), societal readiness (Civil Rights), fit of technology (post WW2), etc., but I bet it had mostly to do with tradition, culture, and policy. Such factors can be massive force multipliers — for good and bad.
So my classmates, obsessed with coming up with new ideas, startups, expressions, reinterpretations of old media, mashing up, etc., are haunted by questions of copyright, legality, restraints foisted upon them by a highly litigious entertainment culture which has spread to other industries and cultural spheres. Right now our chief societal constraints are shitty policy, over-privatization, and domination by lawyers (lawyers and CIOs, the banes of any innovative team or division).
Entertainment’s the big one. It can be hard to employ fair use for remixing and sharing music and videos and movies and art. Are you in as much disbelief as I am that Spotify hasn’t been shut down yet? The MPAA and other consortiums perhaps pushed too hard on PIPA and SOPA recently, but until governments and politicians see those consortiums as parasitic, detrimental to the public good, but still a necessary middleman in the industry (e.g. they’re seen as one of many competing interests), they will continue to ask for the whole pie in the form of favorable legislation and court rulings.
But look where the public good has been battered back for the last few decades: agricultural patents for rice and genetically modified food, privatization of water and other public services, control and monitoring and censorship of communications networks worldwide, normal functioning of public-good-protecting agencies like the EPA and public health policies like contraceptives vs. abstinence, copyrighting and patenting of software. It’s no longer just a game, involving pirating just movies and music.
I guess this isn’t really big news, but I see an overarching trend that’s, for most citizens, just really exhausting and debilitating to keep identifying, organizing, and fighting against.
The restraints being placed on societal advancement are now affecting core human needs (water, food) and basic human rights (rendition, warrantless wiretapping, freedom of assembly, and voting representation). As a result of my comparative democratization class at Georgetown, I came to see the internet in more of a political and cultural dimension, where it serves as a gathering place for dissenters from the status quo. Having a gathering place for dissent outside of the mainstream or government’s absolute control is crucial towards any free society, or the progress towards citizens’ freedom. In Latin America and Eastern Europe, the Catholic Church often stood as a place where people could organize and discuss higher ideals for their restrictive societies. The same often exists for Muslims, as mosques and weekly juma’a are where potentialities and dissent are tested, refined, and propagated. Hence from this way of looking at things you can see just how volatile it is for American security forces to invade mosques and to, in New York’s and other cities’ cases, actively infiltrate them. The threat of removing the internet as a public sphere for free expression is one of the greatest we’ll probably have to deal with in our lifetimes, even if it’s not as immediately threatening as nuclear apocalypse or global societal collapse from disease, war, etc.
What I’m really waiting for is the eventual breakdown of corporate advantage in lobbying Washington, and a return to more balance of public interests vs. private interests. Certainly as an entrepreneurial sort, I would not want to see a society overly zealous with a public interest at the expense of private startups and innovative ideas, but it’s far too unequal right now toward the other direction.
What will make the difference in the next couple decades will be the emergence of meshnets, darknets, and long-distance wireless. When individuals, citizens, and free speech organizations can set their routers to repeat and mesh up with each other, to transmit data over large swaths of physical territory without having to use the networks, which are already well-infiltrated by the NSA, local police, FBI, crackers, anyone with the knowhow to get in, then we can perhaps live up to the principles of free speech that we were raised to believe in in America. When politicians realize that free speech in a genuine definition is worth protecting again, the two factors combined could lead to a remarkable tech renaissance which has long been promised but never delivered. Right now, though, any emerging technology or idea is treated as inherently infringing upon something else that’s already established. The war is being fought out on the edges, and the rest has just stopped because of chilling effects of judicial threats and adherence to law. Certainly the freedoms of anonymity and encryption that should exist also affect the ability of law enforcement and security to track terrorist cells, murderers, etc. But strict warrants, empowered intelligence analysts, and flattened intel bureaucracy have been and should continue to be sufficient without impacting the majority of people who would benefit from having their freedom of speech lionized.
Where is WiMAX? It is supposed to be able to broadcast wifi at higher speeds than we have now, with better transmission through building materials, from distances up to Baltimore to DC. If not WiMAX, why not something else? What is the hold up? Can you imagine the impact our being able to share wifi across entire cities would have for communications companies which try to enforce one internet hookup per residence or occupancy? They will get drowned when this internet capability is fully unleashed, so predictably you would expect that there’ll be tons of attempts to stop long distance wifi. But it comes as a massive hit to the public good to protect cable companies. What is worth more to us, as a society and as a species?
I’m still encouraged. Hacker hardware is coming — Arduino and open source and circuit diagramming is now more available to the masses, and I’m hoping that breakthroughs in building meshnets will spread like wildfire.
Not only that, open source software is booming. I used to want to know three or four spoken languages when I was younger, but I could never hack it — I was never talented enough to just pick them up automatically, and I never took the chance to immerse myself in a foreign country for long enough. So I ended up not knowing very much about any particular language, but knowing a little bit here and there. Arabic I know the most about, but even that is pretty weak.
I see a lot of discussion about linguistics focus on these spoken languages — linguistics seem highly insular to spoken languages. But as I’ve gotten more technologically-inclined, I’ve drifted towards the languages that are truly growing and forking: computer languages. How come linguists never talk about these? Is it because there’s such a massive divide between computers/coding and traditional academic tracks?
The degree of self-organization and self-correction among open source coders is high enough that it can create software far more useful than corporations, save perhaps for the heavyweights, could ever do with their best talent.
Looking forward, I just have a sneaking suspicion that something great will come about, somewhat subtly and under the radar, out of the open source movement and breakthroughs in open technology. It’s not quite there yet, but it may offer hope for our other massive, systemic societal problems. At the same time, I think the public’s been somewhat invigorated by Obama’s election (the apathy of loss of hope is now gone, if not replaced in many peoples’ hearts by bitterness or wonder at Obama’s post-election behavior). I think the public is far more aware of the large systemic issues than it was just a few years ago, and this may lead to breakthroughs in organizing movements against concerted lobbying efforts by wealthy individuals and powerful private interests.
I’m encouraged, and hopeful. I would love to see the walls come down, to see innovation be something we can act upon and not just dream about, to see the pie get bigger for all of us, to see peoples’ hearts warmed by the possibility of ideas that could work. I am hopeful we will see a uniquely 21st century Renaissance we can call our own, within our lifetime.
For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet. I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it. It’s the same thing on Twitter. Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest. A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts). One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.
Maddening. I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.
Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS. These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests. On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes. While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.
It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009. And during the anti-war protests. Mocking or ignoring.
I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC. I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights). The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.
While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad. The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.
I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today. We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for. In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator. That is the danger of singular cause movements. It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.
Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.” Were you just supposed to know it intuitively? No, you have to go read about it and study and research it. There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands. There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point. It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands. Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.
So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out. I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself. The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff. If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit. I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future. When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.
Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement. They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work. He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results. It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over. But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement. Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience. It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s. If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.
Anonymous has been interesting. It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks. I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days. I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities. Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered. It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks. It was kept at bay by apathy.
But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has. Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.
So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo. There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service. Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!
The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic. Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line. Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government. It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts. That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face. But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally. The Army keeps rolling along.
So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating. Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.
I think that might be the only time I really get pissed. When people denigrate the efforts of others. When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better. That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures. Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.
Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world. She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to. But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger. She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.
Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.
The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society. Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate. We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well. Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world. If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?
That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.
When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq. There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!
Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal. You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.
Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity. You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids. But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble. You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people. You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion. You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.
And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels. You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance. All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes). You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid. You won’t “succeed” in life.
I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job. One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law. Or you work as a barista. There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities. It hollows out society. And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons. You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.
I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future. Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).
I don’t fault the companies so much. They are doing what they should be doing. Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally. They are winning the policy war in DC.
Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests. We have a complete failure of political leadership. And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.
We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream. I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.
This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through. It’s a depressing state of affairs. People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other. These are not crazy concepts. These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.
I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason. It has fringe. Yes, of course. Everything inclusive has fringe. Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it. We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind. How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”? Have they given up on life already? Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings? I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it. Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”
So here’s a challenge I guess. Who do you want to end up being? Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s? What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it? And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others? Will you try to work with them to build something better? Or will you keep your head down? Are you your fucking khakis?
A final note. Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with. All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this. He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in. You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things. I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.
Ever since I downloaded my first MP3 in my freshman year of college in 1996, amazed at how small the file was (I think it was a Shaggy track), I don’t really think much has changed in the music industry with regards to copyright. The timeline is (pock) marked with the detritus of used-up and destroyed start-ups and companies that tried to find a way around the RIAA. Spotify and turntable.fm and others are the latest to find temporary ways to sidle into the prickly graces of the recording companies…until they are shut down or bought out and taken apart wholesale. Google, Apple, and Amazon, with their priorities being to build distribution platforms via hardware, are the only real challengers short of a Renaissance of digital thought in Congress.
The arms race between downloaders and labels has been escalated to a fairly sophisticated level, resulting in an unofficial detente in the courts. While I think to a large degree, even with the death of the physical act of interest in buying a CD, that the music industry has managed to formalize a lot of piracy through iTunes, Amazon, and other sources, what has been happening over the last fifteen years is defined more by what HASN’T happened than by what has.
The chilling effect is something I’m particularly sensitive about, since getting in trouble in the Army for blogging about my time in Iraq (though nothing was ultimately found to be wrong), and after witnessing the censorship efforts on communications networks during the Arab Spring and in Oakland during my time working for a Homeland Security contractor. The RIAA has lost most of its momentum (and the MPAA will soon enough be there too, but it’s still dangerous enough to conduct psyops and bully telcos into sending warnings to individual IPs), but it has certainly managed to turn artists against each other (not particularly hard, I guess), turn music fans into private consumers of music because they can’t remix and share and admit to downloading illegally, but most importantly perhaps the RIAA has turned its product, “art”, into something smeared as commoditized and fake, while at the same time making the act of obtaining music illegally an act of political defiance.
Rohter’s NYT article revealed two things to me that I think are worth investigating further: 1) the recording industry itself has significant disagreements about the public face of its position, and 2) the current Congressional trend is to argue in favor of extending the length of copyrights. The first is instructive because, since we can’t rely on artists to really share much of an opinion with each other, even in their attempts to unionize, we might find that the solution might be as simple as lobbying to prevent the current revolving door of recording industry executives into public policy positions in Washington (FCC, mostly) where they will argue for their RIAA masters. The second is interesting because it’s another representation of a chilling effect: block information and art from reaching the public domain where it can be freely remixed and reused.
Thankfully the internet has provided enough creative off-the-radar networks of music fans and technology to allow “illicit” sharing to continue. While I do hope that artists can be paid for their works, I also think their main input to society is their labor — that is, relying on a one-off artistic creation to provide a lifetime of income is absurd, and that any human’s main contribution will not be one or two projects, but a continuing font of creativity and execution — in other words, labor which is rewarded with at least some basic regular wage.
The Garnett/Meiseles article was a rare take from both the copyright holder and the copyright abuser. I understood Meiseles’ take on defending the context of Arauz’s act, but I strongly disagree with her. Frankly I think she assumed far too much credit for Arauz, as if she became his guardian after taking his picture. She certainly did her job as a photographer, and even followed it up with figuring out who the people were in her photo. I would love to see a digital connection between people, objects, and locations in photos and the context for them, available through some sort of touchable interface, so that I could touch the kissing couple in New York City after World War II ended, and find out how they met, and what happened to them afterwards (they were strangers, I believe).
But once that photo was put out to the public, it’s game on. It’s up to be remixed. It’s up to be reinterpreted, reused in different contexts. I thought immediately of Shepard Fairey’s famous HOPE portrait of President Obama, which now (somewhat contentiously) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in DC now.
Did Meiseles ever criticize non-Americans, outside of her legal system, for remixing the image outside of her own private context? There was not evidence of her doing so in the article, nor would she be able to do much about bringing a Sandinista rebel to, er, copyright justice. Meiseles was taking the position of a journalist here, but not of an artist, for she cared more for the importance of investigating the context than reimagining the emotion the image evoked. She should be happy someone else found her image so powerful as to use it for another work. It begs the question of whether we need alternate systems for rewarding people, beyond a simple copyright or job system. There is also the gift economy and the reputation economy. If Meiseles were properly rewarded in the reputation economy (for taking a powerful photo), then perhaps this would un-burden the hulking inefficient system we currently have, which rewards in only one currency, the almighty dollar.
Naturally I loved Lethem’s essay for Harper’s, for its subtlety in addressing the underlying issues and for calling for the practical necessity of a gift economy. Copyright holders who defend their turf have, in my opinion, made defiance and rebellion “cool” in the eyes of downloaders, anti-corporatists, etc. I fully welcome their attempts to blow holes in the oligopoly which exists, and the mere acts of developing software and networks to circumvent weak and hamfisted attempts to block them have become acts of art in themselves. Today’s artists and musicians are too beholden to the system to veer very far from it, so one is not likely to see many artists in today’s generation challenge copyright regimes without a lot of help from others.
But I would expect the generation of kids who grew up in the downloadable world of art (and in the age of Anonymous and 4chan) to create their own music outside of the formalized system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the system assimilated that style of music as well, but it would bring along with it, perhaps, a better model for rewarding artists and avoiding chilling effects against their fans.
[Note: The New York Times article was made available via PDF for class, but it does not include the second page. Clicking the PDF's second page link will take the reader to the web site though. Suggest inclusion of second page into PDF for future students' accessibility to the whole article.]
We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided. You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1″ on Google+. Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews. Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair. Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.
It goes further. The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way. Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.” But this forewarning was ignored. If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick. The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.
The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago. Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months. This is essentially an ideological move. Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous. It’s that last point regulators focus on. They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero. Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up. The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely. No short sellers would be covering their positions.
And this says something else about markets. Very few people actually understand how they work. Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG. You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up). He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant! The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets. Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work. The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.
I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about. Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs. The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.
I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are. Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable. Basic economic principles were ignored. But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.
I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society. I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics. We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives. Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.
Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @umairh's concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”
The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves. The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life. The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.
These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively. They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities. But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.
Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data. The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto. Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.
The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality. In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita. It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:
They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.
In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society. Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”. We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives. But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity. A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there. A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.
“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project. It is an ecosystem for reputation. All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design. The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top. We would not be constrained to just GDP. We could build our own metrics. Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level. The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.
The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability. If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization. Being criticized is not always a bad thing. If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it. If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements. We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place. We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions. Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.
Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):
“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”
“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”
Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.
“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”
“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”
There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues. But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself. Gnowthi seauton. Jared Diamond-type stuff. Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.
Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built. Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful. Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.
The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.
Ever since I was in the Army and learned about force multipliers, it’s been a term with magical meaning to me. When I arrived at my Special Forces Group to begin my assignment as an intel dude supporting the ODAs, we’d be getting an even more precise force multiplier speech than the one we got in basic training.
Someone with solid training, the aggressive spirit to take the initiative, and cool demeanor can lead others during an event which would cause most people to lock up in fear and uncertainty. The training is designed to give some muscle memory and reinforced learning through mistakes, but more importantly, training to react to scenarios helps people keep a focused mind and communicate to those around them who may be distracted.
It’s the person who runs into a conflict, not away from it, and begins verbally commanding people to do very specific tasks, since simpler commands are easier for people to comprehend when they’re distressed. Thus one person begins utilizing other people to perform one task, shortening reaction time and coordinating multiple efforts. That leader is a force multiplier because the net benefit derived from the group is only achieved, in a short timespan, through quick decision-making.
In the Special Forces context, the Special Forces teams are supposed to, as part of their mission, train indigenous forces for specialized tasks. SF soldiers can take a group of ragtags and train them enough so that they can run their own missions effectively, and they can be mobilized quickly. The SF soldier makes something out of very little. He is a force multiplier.
Unleashing the Gays
Our country needs force multipliers. The government and social services need to be seen as force multipliers. Regardless of how churches and social structures adjust to the inevitability of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, the plain and simple truth for the civic mind is that gay marriage is a force multiplier. Having more potential loving parents to raise children will raise social capital, and perhaps enrich the overall supply of social capital since it will offer social DNA by way of a creative, active gay community. Any people we can find who pursue love and happiness and justice will make great parents and role models, and we can use all the help we can get right now. Gay marriage is a force multiplier.
Government providing a basic standard for health care is a force multiplier. I do believe in a mixed system, where everyone has a right to basic care, but can pay more for a specialist if the money is available. Competition between not just different for-profits but also between different models (not-for-profit, govt, for-profit) means a better mix of interests. As an employer I do not want to worry about providing health care, and as an employee I want to know I can shift jobs or careers without having to worry about losing health care coverage. Also, a sensible government outlook towards preventative care provides a unified message for improving the general health of all Americans. Healthier Americans means more productive Americans. A force multiplier. It’s a high cost, yes, but the net benefit to social capital, generational momentum, and economic productivity must be far larger.
Public Goods As Force Multipliers
The “public good” is often a force multiplier. Twitter I considered a public good for a while. Its search tool was phenomenal. It gave access to tons of data. The API is still the best example of how to build a public good that an app and developer ecosystem can thrive off of. Now Twitter has lost some of its key developers and is trying to be more of an advertising, consolidating monolith, and it’s begun to lose some of its utility. The search box is far less useful than it used to be, apps are getting shut down in favor of Twitter’s own limited functionalities, and the public good is wilting.
Parks, mixed-use urban design, libraries, interstate road systems, public education, these are all public goods, thought to be provided by the government. Government funding for basic research is a public good. Such public goods allow for innovation and creativity and perhaps most of all, experimentation and social networking.
These days, public goods are hated as wasteful and inefficient. Anything new and innovative that manages to creep up between the cracks on the internet or in New York City or somewhere else gets smacked down with lawsuits. We are not allowed to do anything anymore. Not only is it not creative, but it is a chilling effect. Why even bother if you know you’ll get sued? This kills the pipelines and ecosystems that are needed to raise force multipliers.
Naomi Klein made a good point in her book “No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs” about how the public space is gone. I remember when my buddy and I went to a mall (which was the social spot of choice for kids my age, since it had an arcade and a pet shop and a computer game store) to videotape something. Within minutes of filming, a guard came out and told us we weren’t allowed. This public space, though owned by a private company, was off-limits for public space uses. Now just extrapolate this to business properties all around your city, and the reduction of park space along with fewer trees and places to sit and all the things humans like around them when they gather. This kills public goods and spaces, thus killing innovation and curiosity, thus killing the force multipliers and the people who show the force multipliers to the world.
“…innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit those new combinations—by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges—will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration. The infinite variety of life that so impressed Darwin, standing in the calm waters of the Keeling Islands, exists because the coral reef is supremely gifted at recycling and reinventing the spare parts of its ecosystem.”
I envision it as an expanding circle of knowledge, with innovators pushing the border of the circle out further so that it may touch more things outside the space.
“The question is how to push your brain toward those more creative networks. The answer, as it happens, is delightfully fractal: to make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring the boundaries of the adjacent possible. Certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links of association. But these patterns of connection are much older than the human brain, older than neurons even. They take us back, once again, to the origin of life itself.”
In Richard Florida’s “The Rise Of The Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community And Everyday Life”, he talks about how George Lucas’ works pushed the limits of special effects, having the add-on effect of creating a group of workers who experimented with new techniques and became experts in their field at them. Then those people went on to create companies of their own, or create new movies and works, thus making new art and products that created jobs and made a ton of money. The adjacent possible was expanded through a small group of people (and a notable leader) who created a whole new industry. They were force multipliers.
When I think about NASA losing much of its personnel and funding, I think about the loss of force multipliers. The cutting back of funding of basic research in government because people consider certain individual projects as wastes of money? Loss of force multipliers. Not everything works or spawns something big, but companies are not always going to reliably fund basic research, particularly for public or national goods, on their own. Not only that, but whatever they do find, they silo away within their own companies’ vaults. It does not become public knowledge.
The current ideological debate that is occurring before we can transition to the next stage of human development, between government and business, is a total farce. It is not whether we have to choose. We need a blend of the public good, the government’s nationalist interest, and the economic powerhouse of business. They need to balance each other to varying degrees based upon a culture’s values and competitive pressures within a geostrategic reality. China’s system will not look like America’s system, which won’t look like the European Union’s system. What we should focus on, moving forward, is restoring a balance, particularly with the motivation through policy to see government as a provider of public goods and force multipliers, which allow the citizenry and businesses to do what they do best: build families and liveable communities (for citizens) and build goods and services (for businesses).
Most of all we need smart leaders. Leaders who love business and the art and drive of making money, but who also are seen as able to promote the public good (e.g. making America a better place for all) above any one lobbyist’s interest (preferably with some civic or military service time), and who also know basic leadership skills, in terms of motivating others and being force multipliers themselves. The kind of leader who sees a new business idea that could work, but weighs it against the detriment it may cause to the livability, civility, and fairness on the street amongst the people. Could we build this into requirements for running for office? Could we create schools that specifically encourage this tripartite blend of leader?
Eating out is expensive, especially if you have a few drinks. The nicer restaurants run even higher in terms of price. I’ve been able to go to some very nice restaurants for special occasions, but most of the time through grad school, I was eating sandwiches from the school co-op food store for meals. After living by myself for a while, I still buy most of my meals as I eat them, instead of getting groceries, though I certainly get groceries more than I used to. Living in DC is not quite like NYC, but I can still scrounge up a meal nearby if I need to.
But these expensive meals. Yes, they use unique ingredients, and they are well-cooked. But are they marginally worth the large increase in price? Is the service so good that one enjoys a meal quantitatively better, as if as respite from a harsh day of mistreatment? Are there so many people paying for meals on corporate cards/on someone else’s dime that price is meaningless?
I do like to apply the Chipotle Theory to meals, when I go out. The theory is as such: am I enjoying this expensive meal, that I had to wait for the kitchen to cook, to deal with waiters and whatnot, more than I would just going to Chipotle and eating a $7 burrito?
Most restaurants can’t come close to equaling the happiness/dollar ratio that Chipotle has. Granted, some people don’t like Chipotle, and others require Chipotle-Away:
Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs says that, after working with people who have the dirtiest jobs in America, they’re happier than most people. And they’re getting rich by going where everyone else wasn’t; they’re not following their passion.
1) Time differentials. Wall Street works very often 100-120 hours a week. This doubles the minimum hours worked by corporate America. So that affects time scales; Wall Street is constantly trying to create profit through liquidity and exchange and deals. Corporate America works on a much slower timeline, to create products or services. It is a more human scale. Wall Street works not for salary but for bonuses, which are created through quantity and size of deals. It doesn’t get compensated for long-term corporate success.
2) A large number of students from Ivy League Plus schools chase the money into finance. They get paid a fortune if they can cut it. But the net loss is to society — these brilliant minds do not seem to be employing their money back into philanthropic pursuits, ambitious programs, or bettering the world. The money is put into unsustainable, wasteful lifestyles which the east coast thrives off of. (read the Washington Post’s article about Rhodes Scholars herding into finance)
3) CEOs and executives care about “shareholder value” and the stock price, but these things are no longer linked to the internal health or long-term success of a firm. It is corporate raiding.
4) Wall Street is transferring wealth away from those who create it, by facilitating “deals” which leak commissions to the banks. How many deals have you seen executed by public companies lately which actually make any sense? Remember AOL and Time Warner? That was the pinnacle.
5) Wall Street wasn’t destroyed in 2007 — it did what it always does; quickly it reinvented itself, laid people off, and adapted. No other sector is able to reconstitute itself so quickly. It does this by pursuing talent at any cost. It recruits the best, unattached minds in the nation from the top universities, and promotes a cult of personality of “smartness” — you will be among the best people if you go to work on Wall Street. I saw the degree to which Wall Street pursues talent; one of my classmates at Georgetown had a standing job offer even throughout the 2007-2008 financial crisis!
6) Downsizing is good to Wall Street. If a company lays off workers, this means the company is reducing its overhead. Wall Street does not care about Main Street. It pulls from the elite, and the job does not care about how Main Street is doing or whether workers are suffering. Wall Street enjoys higher unemployment as long as productivity increases and costs are reduced — and as Professor Ho points out, this job insecurity mirrors what Wall Street is constantly under the threat of.
7) Even within Wall Street, there is segregation. Cost center people, like support staff, take different elevators within buildings than the people who make the profits for the banks.
8) Investing in the stock market is a sucker’s game. Owning stock in a company is not worthwhile, because common stock is so diluted that it doesn’t constitute any sort of ownership in the firm (and Professor Ho points out it never did). The stock market is its own entity and should be treated as a quick trading vehicle: volatility and liquidity are the only things that matter.
9) Neo-liberal economic theory permeates Wall Street, but it is unsustainable for most people. While Wall Street is made up of the best and brightest who easily transition from job to job, Main Street would not be able to withstand this “creative destruction”.
This is a sobering book, but also a fascinating move for anthropology: I think most people associate anthropology with studying small, backwards, tribal groups. But this studies incredibly modern, adaptive Wall Street tribes.
As a citizen I’m deeply concerned about how easily the finance sector controls what happens in this country, and even President Obama has succumbed to a lot of the banks’ demands. What’s worst is that finance is intellectual magic to create new ideas and derivatives and “products” while the actual economic base of development in the US has taken a back seat. How long can that last, with our greatest minds essentially creating nothing but instability, instead of new technologies, theories, and breakthroughs?