December 30, 2016

The Rise of The Tribe

"Postmodernism" started it all. That "liberating" doctrine initiated the quest for the exaltation of the self. I'm entitled to my own opinion. I will not be a conformist. Look how passionate I am! Doing things out of anger (er, I mean, out of "passion") started being more important than accepting objective reality, because no one wanted to be the dull robot who followed the rules. Individualism --uniqueness-- was cool.

There used to be a time when we accepted that we couldn't assimilate all the information available around us (because, logically, we couldn't experience it all for ourselves), so we outsourced that knowledge to a credible source. We took it from them, at face value. We trusted.

But oh, no. Postmodernist gave us agency. We now know better. Our guts tell us so.

With time and the inflated prominence of one's (and most importantly, one's opinions) worth came the disdain for the unwitnessed fact, and the privileging of the individual's point of view over the point of view of the better-informed, better-equipped professional fact-deliverer. Only what's experienced can be believed. Never mind that there's no way our experiences can objectively inform us of reality.

The consequence was a detachment from the authorities that were supposed to know better than us. A rebellion of belief (of sorts); the untethering of monolithic collective discourse. That social contract broke down. Why should we trust a questioned, sold-out institution with veritable pernicious hidden interests that does not necessarily has my interest in mind?

Welcome to the disruption of truth.

The internet (for better and worse) democratized the voice of anyone willing to type a point of view (yes, yours truly included), destroying the barriers of entry that erstwhile well-recognized institutions enjoyed. Algorithmic-driven social media simply amplified the intensity of what we had to sayThe seeds of distrust were planted, and now they've blossomed --with good reason-- into the obliteration of the reputation of the much derided "mainstream media." What is CNN after all, if not the US version of RT.com?

We don't trust anymore.

The societal glue that kept us from buying a gun because we trusted that dystopian marauders wouldn't kill us at their whim came unstuck. We don't trust that the government will spend our money wisely, or that they won't spy on us. We don't trust that your currently crappy public school will get better only if you send your middle class kids there. We don't trust that your cragslist-sourced plumber won't show up with a chainsaw to decapitate you.

And as this social disengagement (social distrust) touches alarming levels, a counter cyclical trend arises: the hyper-engagement in the tribe. After all, we're genetically in need of connection. Loneliness kills. Allegiances are being withdrawn from the Nation and re-pledged towards a more narrowly defined niche --and in some instances, to a Nation that ceased to exist a long time ago.

Social capital is depleted at the National level, but it continues to build up among tribes, and that is a very dangerous place to be.

November 21, 2016

The Disruption of Truth

Technology has finally broken the Media's choke-hold of Society's Collective Conscience and I don't know if that is a good thing or not. Truth and fact have been disrupted, making way for the rule of emotion and intuition over rationality and knowledge. I don't think The Zuck ever stopped to think about the true consequences of making people more connected all over the world. But the reality is now in the open, and we can all attest to it now: Interconnectedness drives instability.

What started with the seemingly innocuous (and commendable) goal allowing people to share baby pictures among family members morphed into allowing activists to organize political demonstrations. And then giving Alt-Right trolls a megaphone. Goading is so much fun! Until the reaction is border militias with elite-training itching to kill imaginary ISIS invaders at the SW border with very non-imaginary AR15s.

Actual bloody revolutions still rage, efficiently kindled by the smartphone's interconnectedness magic. Massive refugee migrations burden nations that are ill-equipped to host them. Maybe the Arab Spring and the role of social media in overthrowing decades-old, stable regimes should have been a warning for this new regime ruled by emotions. I'm pretty sure that positioning Facebook as the airwaves for broadcasting nonvetted, fake, and slanted stories was the last thing preoccupying The Zuck. Who cared if they "polluted the air" for everyone else? What matters is engagement, and that Macedonian teenagers seize it. Everybody makes money out of those gullible eyeballs. Besides, he is too busy thinking about the long game.

But hey, "the truly bad guys are just a couple thousand people. You're just magnifying the problem." Right. I'm sure they are just passionate supporters who mean well and that they don't have an influence of the national conversation.

As days go by, we go through the pains of the disruption of truth. There's now an old world, inhabited by people stuck in a (now) defunct place where TV still shapes society's mindset and the New York Times is still respected as a news source, and a new one where facts don't matter precisely because they are delivered by the New York Times.

Trust just broke down between the Media and the population. The Media's erstwhile power to build --some would say concoct-- consensus has evaporated, and a tweet linking to a Nobel Prize-winning PhD claiming the Arctic is melting faster than expected looks exactly the same (and most likely gets less engagement than) a tweet linking to a Milo post calling women lardasses.

Truth, in this new regime, is now completely malleable. Psy-ops and social media hoax blitzes of propaganda are more powerful than what we acknowledge (or even understand). All of this is, like it or not, just the latest iteration of a failing economic model that has left a huge swath of people hopeless.

We might as well just adapt to it, just like coal miners will have to adapt to the disappearance of their jobs for good.

September 13, 2016

The Trillion Dollar Disruption That Hasn't Happened.

Of all the revolutions that we are currently living, technology is the most promising one. It has killed industries, obliterated professions, and elevated the standard of living for those consumers who have participated in the bonanza.

Technology (or more specifically, the internet) has disrupted the taxi monopoly on urban transportation, broken the chokehold of the prescription eyeglasses industry, and more generally, commoditized information

But, if the internet has destroyed the margins of information dispersion companies...

Sad news for journalism majors :(
... and made many disappear...

more sad news for journalism majors :(

Why is it, then, that the internet, which fundamentally is a revolutionary way to distribute (and potentially instill) knowledge, has not contributed to the commoditization of the Educational function of the University (whose mission precisely is to distribute and instill knowledge)?

The answer, as certain South African entrepreneurial bored genius simply explains, is reputation:


Alas, social animals that we are, we crave validation. We guide our actions based on the effect those actions will have in the perception others have of us. We buy status symbols that imply success. You don't buy a "puny" Nissan GTR if you have more than $100K to blow spend on a car; you get an Aston Martin, a BMW, or a Mercedes-Benz with that money --even though these might arguably be less powerful cars. Once a convention has been established socially about the implication of a brand (be it an Ivy league diploma, or the emblem in the hood of your car), we don't mind shelling out inordinate amounts of money to buy that implication

We might actually debate the value of spending 100k's buying the implication that you're smart over doing the same thing in exchange of the implication that you're a "winner", but the fact remains. You don't really need a College Diploma to escalate the social ladder, just like you don't really need those Louboutins to improve your self-esteem. 

No one would equate the magnitude of student debt to malinvestment either, but it would seem right to question our fetishization of IQ. Especially considering that only 10-20% of life success is tied to IQ. But somehow, we all follow this flawed logic, which is why the industry of "unstupidization" thrives so well. We keep buying Baby Einstein CDs for our little ones because we all want our babies to grow up smart; we spend money on "brain training" apps to "improve our IQ", even though they've been proven a sham.

Playing to the perception of others to improve your chances of success in life is something that sounds bad, but it's a reality that's difficult to avoid. People believe that University is supposed to improve your chances in life. And statistically speaking, it does. Just not always.

A ticket for a show that statistically improves your chances in life, is (understandably) a very inelastic good. No wonder why there's a trillion dollar debt from people pursuing those tickets, along with a swarm of rent-seekers promising to get them to you. 

Upending the University Diploma's Reputational Standard --creating a mechanism that mimics the implication of the reputational value embedded in that stamped piece of paper-- would unlock more than a trillion dollars of value. Whoever does that will be the next Zuckerberg --if that is even doable by a single person. The question is: how will it look like? Will it follow the creation of an online platform that emphasizes P2P evaluation a la eBay where freelance teachers build up reputation through feedback and let the gig economy do its magic? Will it take the form of an app that screens prospective students as rigorously as Stanford and then dumps incredibly hard content on those smart enough to pass? Or will it take the model of a pencil-based test graded by an enthusiastic network of people who refuse to use technology at all and every year churn out tens of thousands of "graduates" with a superbly respected certification that costs only $1,400 a year?

We still don't know. One thing is certain. The University is broken. And if we are to remove the next trillion dollar cloud from the sky of future generations, we might as well spend some serious time looking for ways to "kill" this model. 

August 01, 2016

Asteroid Trump

I tried very hard folks, I honestly did. My five years of writing in this space without resorting to talk about Trump come to an end today. (ok, ok. I kind of did before, but at least didn't use his name).

Considering that yours truly used to take silly pride in not having the need to wade into the slimy, polarizing, inebriating, shallow, pontificating, and (above all) utterly futile world of "Let-me-shout-to-the-socialmediaverse-my-political-leanings-while-attempting-to-persuade-my-opponents-that-my-political-views-are-the-right-ones", this post is kind of embarrassing.

The Author taking pride among friends about NOT talking about Trump

Even as entire ecosystems literally collapse decades before predictions (and devastate the communities linked to them) as I type this; even as the Russian permafrost thaws --unleashing into the atmosphere anthrax spores that had been frozen there for decades; even as there's a massive die off of starfish (a marine keystone species, mind you) going on right now from Alaska to Baja California, and this year being the hottest on record (yet again), nothing feels as apocalyptic as Asteroid Trump. The choke-hold that this moronically mesmerizing political campaign has had over the collective conscience of the U.S. --and over the world, really-- has been ruthless . Save for the equally painful short spell of Pokemon Go coverage that flooded the news cycle for one dull, agonizing week, the theatrics of this political reality media circus have dominated every waking hour of our lives to the point of nausea.

The horror of being ruled by a narcissistic megalomaniac has finally set in. First, they ignored him. Then, they (we!) laughed at him. Then, they attacked him. Now, they've (we've?) gone full chicken little. Evidently, they (me included) didn't see it coming. Just like they didn't see Brexit coming. It's not like no one warned about the festering problems in the world. The time bomb was ticking, but few were paying attention. Now, The Donald is the giant middle finger that a huge portion of the U.S. population is giving the "elites" (a.k.a. the "establishment") for failing them so miserably. And just like Brexit was a self-inflicted wound perpetrated by a frustrated electorate looking for revenge against a semi-abstract enemy (east-European "foreigners"), the angry mob this side of the pond is rooting for the orange asshole because they want the head of the political class on the proverbial stake. They want to napalm the crap out of Washington with a short-fingered, unloved millionaire Molotov cocktail of anger. Even if that means bringing a clueless sociopath to the oval office whose strategy is to default on U.S. debt to repurchase it at lower levels.

Now, the impending doom is palpable. Asteroid Trump is in collision trajectory and no amount of Democrat attacks, Republican rebukes, or cowardly lukewarm veiled criticisms seem to make his followers "understand" that this individual is a real danger. Ok. Maybe they do understand. But when you're blinded with rage, rationality goes out the window, which is precisely what mainstream (old and new) media has finally realized about The Donald's supporters at this point.

Irrational? You bet. Stupid? Perhaps. Unjustified? Not so sure. Bernie was definitely on to something when he made the U.S.' crushing inequality the single most important element of his campaign. The electorate's tantrum, fueled by their own personal economic depressions, is on course to drive us into the precipice of rule by a protofascist, racist, bigot, nativistmegalomaniac, hateful individual with the mere promise to "shake things up". Those disenfranchised people rooting for him must feel so damned dispossessed, lost and impotent (stripped of their manly identity, even) with their current economic situation that they're willing to let shit hit the fan with the hope of getting a regime change.

Guess some people react to instigators; others, to motivators.

And all I hear is "but hey, there's no reason to be angry about the economy, I mean, unemployment is at its lowest since the Great Recession, the price of gas is at its lowest in many, many years, criminality is going down, why are these people falling for that disgusting individual?"

Well, because that age-old adage is still true: all politics is local. 

One individual manufacturing worker will go to the streets to protest NAFTA because he lost his job due to a plant relocation to Monterrey, Mexico, but you won't see a bunch of people resort to activism to advocate for free trade because they're able to buy cheaper avocados in their neighborhood supermarket. I mean, don't get me wrong, avocados are awesome, but they're just not the stuff people is willing to block streets and be thrown in jail for. And when you're told that the national crime rate is going down, try to reconcile that with the fact that if you're a New Orleanian, you face the same odds of being killed as if you lived in Honduras. Or those of El Salvador if you live in Detroit (Seriously.)





So, when I see that spot in the firmament called Asteroid Trump in collision course towards earth, I fear. Not because this is the fault of fake-haired caricature who inhabits a world in which he gets to pick how much he's worth today based on the intangible value of his last name (US GAAP's allow you to accrue that --seriously) so he can brag about it; but because the conditions that produced him, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the spike in the number of new KKK local chapters will linger well past the presidency of the first female POTUS -or, God forbid, President Donald Trump.

March 20, 2016

The Air We Breathe

Broadcast speech is a public good. Like air. You don't really see it, but it's there; permeating every aspect of your life. You silently feed off of it. You pollute it, and you mess it up for everyone else around you. You know it's dirty. You know it's toxic, and you try to avoid the malicious part of it, but it's always there, a nagging background noise that drones and drones incessantly, chipping away at your sanity.

No one really wants to be in charge of keeping it clean, because it's next to impossible to do it. Yes, some high-level, clumsily written rules exist, but nothing that really prevents you or anyone else from spoiling it for everybody else.

Oh, yes. The slippery slope argument. You can't contain free speech in any form because then you have to forbid all speech under this magically simplistic view. And no one wants to live in an oppressive society, right? God forbid someone is forced to use some basic common sense to avoid mocking the disabled. Or spew out flat out hate. Hey, it’s free speech. And we need. To. Stop. Being. So. Whiny. About. It. To hell with this political correctness madness!

Our right to be assholes if we choose to needs to be upheld.

And we pollute the air with the toxic, yet mesmerizing scent of tell-it-like-it-is. Hail the heroes that put the political correctness police to shame!

And, alas, tribal animals that we are, our imitative behavior exacerbates toxic (but still free) speech. And our confirmation bias makes us gravitate towards core lumps of opinion, fragmenting the atmosphere into clumps –fiefdoms—of monolithic like mindedness. Everybody please run for cover into the cozy caves of cacophonous like-minded primates.

Those outside of it are the enemy. Beware of them, lest we become them. Ugh.

Meanwhile, those with loudspeakers broadcasting toxicity keep pushing us into succumbing to the rule of the lowest common denominator. Breath that rotten air. It's the only one we have, and no one's cleaning it up for you. A bad outcome indeed. 

And just like that, the tinderbox is set for you. 

Just add a pinch of misery, a spoonful of racial resentment, a pint of massive underemployment, and the spark of an unpredictable, mean, racist, elitist, vindictive, narcissistic, fraudster, scammer, lying, cheater, and closeted incestuous egomaniac...

And the whole fucking atmosphere is about to be set ablaze. 

But, hey. At least we are a free society, right?