March 2016
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Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace

The streaming world

J.B. Bury published an influential book about a century ago called The Idea of Progress, in which he asked why we so uncritically think (or used to) that everything in life can be placed on an ever-ascending line chart. Over the years, technology has gotten more powerful and (usually) less expensive: my own lifetime has bridged the $1,000 to $2,000 computer with 256k RAM, two floppies and no hard drive, with the $250 or $500 machine which has the power and storage that only a Sun or RS6000 had twenty years ago.

Streaming of movies and TV shows, in this world-view, has been a really dysfunctional marketplace, in which things are getting worse. A few years ago, Netflix was a database of every movie and television show ever made, some available for streaming and the rest on DVD’s you got through the mail. Today, Netflix has about a third less content available than it did a couple of years ago: it has taken a serious hit through competition in both online and DVD content. Of course, competition is good, but the end result has been not that the content is freely available elsewhere, but that, in many cases, it is exclusively available somewhere else. As I wrote last month, it is as if you had to agree to pay Barnes and Noble $200 a year to enter their bookstore--and the novels of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling were available exclusively there. Having paid your $200, you learn that they have lost their Stephen King license and you must now pay Borders $200 to maintain access to him. Few of us are wealthy enough to pay multiple vendors annual fees for access, and under traditional notions of competition and antitrust laws, we should really not have to.

My sixty years of life have bridged several forms of defunct media. I disposed of hundreds of long playing records, hundreds of VHS cassettes,and then, having been burned twice, a dozen DVD's. Like a lot of my friends and acquaintances, I thought, about five years ago already, that DVD’s were also over; like many people I meet, I no longer have a DVD player attached to my television (I have kept a small portable with a tiny screen), and manufacturers of laptop computers no longer include drives that can read them. Now I feel that I acted prematurely. Content that can only be streamed from Prime or Hulu is still available on DVD from Netflix. I am thinking of buying a DVD player again. In that sense, the technology is sliding backwards, as if there was a reason to return to rotary dial phones.

The music marketplace has evolved in the direction that I would want the movie marketplace to take. There is very little exclusive content; if I want to add Creedence’s "Fortunate Son" or Screaming Jay Hawkins' "Little Demon" or Blues Traveler’s "Hook" to my playlist, chances are excellent I can buy it from multiple sources. I would like every movie ever made to be available for streaming at a reasonable price, without having to pay any annual membership fees to anyone.

Trump and Sanders

I was really taken aback the first time I saw a TV interview with an ordinary voter who professed to like both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I prefer to think nothing human is alien to me, but I could barely make sense of this. Finally I do understand it: both present as outsiders, both are talky, attentive and haimische. On the other hand, I believe that the people who see no difference have no radar, cannot detect the difference between sincerity and pretense, are easily conned. Our democracy since 1800 or so has worked hard to disprove Lincoln’s apocryphal dictum that you can’t fool all the people all the time. I blame a lot of converging trends, including the glorification of rhetoric over results (of which Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” remains an inglorious example) and the decline of liberal arts education. The saying that “The greatest trick the devil ever played is to convince mankind he did not exist”, which everyone attributes to the movie The Usual Suspects, can actually be traced back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The greatest trick twentieth and twenty-first century politicians have achieved is to persuade Americans to vote against their own jobs, homes, health care and security in old age.

Tairod Pugh

A man named Tairod Pugh has just been convicted of being an ISIS wannabe in federal court in New York City. An American contractor providing some sort of airport services in Arab countries, he traveled to Istanbul, was preventively arrested there, and sent back to the U.S. to be prosecuted based on an assumption he was trying to get to ISIS in Syria. The only evidence against him was an ambiguous letter to his estranged wife he never sent, and some web surfing he did before leaving. We are not very far from a world in which I could be convicted for doing a Google search on Tairod Pugh, then writing about him here.

Causation games

In my research and writing on the history of the idea of free speech, I have identified a human activity I call the Forgettery, which erases unpleasant and disorderly truths in order to create an Official Narrative. Walk out to the street right now and ask passersby whether the United States ever invaded Canada or Mexico, and most or all of them will say no when the answer is yes. Most people similarly will not know that we ever invaded Cuba or the Philippines (before World War II). We remember Woodrow Wilson as a liberal Democrat, unaware of the horrors which occurred on his watch, including the beating of Suffragettes, the firing of all black workers from federal agencies, the Palmer raids.

A major activity of the Forgettery is to erase any suggestion of human agency behind bad outcomes, encouraging us to think of them as if they were acts of God, just extremely bad weather. You can see examples of this everywhere you look: climate change, the 2008 mortgage crisis, the proliferation of global terrorism are all frequently, or always, treated this way.

I am thinking about causation games right now because, in the recent Supreme Court arguments on the latest abortion case, some of the right wing justices at oral argument challenged any linkage between the Texas legislation which has closed most of the state’s abortion clinics, and any actual denial of services to the women of Texas. In other words, there is no relationship between legislation closing abortion clinics and women not being able to get abortions. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Religion v. Obamacare

The right has already gained tremendous traction arguing that church organizations and even private companies with religious owners have a right to refuse to carry out portions of the health care law which ostensibly offend their principles. The problem with this is that, under Enlightenment values and the First Amendment, a religion is anything anyone says is one; we have no public right to inquire or reject. If the Little Sisters of the Poor can refuse to offer contraceptives to their workers, then Christian Scientists should be permitted not to cover any surgery in their health plans. I could found a religion tomorrow which holds that respiratory problems happen only to sinners, and refuse to cover albuterol or even the giving of oxygen. The ultimate absurd extension of this logic is that a religion decreeing that all women are obligated to have sex with powerful men could argue that equal opportunity and nondiscrimination laws should be suspended in a private company in which women must have sex with the CEO to receive promotions. The First Amendment only was ever intended to shelter religion in the private sphere, not to warp the way in which we protect citizens in the public one. (Incidentally, autocorrect on my phone does not know the word albuterol, rendering it as “arbiter ok”.)

Iphone encryption

There is nothing new under the sun; as long ago as the 1990’s, perhaps even in the misty 1980’s, we were already debating whether the government could force you to design technology in a way that facilitated government surveillance, and coming up with analogies like an architectural law which required huge bay windows with no blinds, or a postal regulation barring sealed envelopes and permitting postcards only. There was a lot of talk, and still is today, about Bentham’s Panopticon.

In the recent litigation, Apple made a fascinating argument that code is speech, and that forcing a skilled programmer to write a back-door into her code, is First Amendment-disfavored forced speech, like making a doctor say some words she doesn’t believe are medically valid before performing an abortion. The code is speech argument has also been around for a while; Lawrence Lessig published a book long ago named Code which made that argument. The forced speech claim is facially appealing, until you realize that it is almost identical to the argument that making the Little Sisters of the Poor offer contraceptives to employees is also forced speech. In the end, the problem must be solved upstream, by concentrating whether the world may be designed to support spying or not, rather than how it makes software developers feel to be ordered to do so.

The violent bible

It would be really funny to listen to Christians moaning about the violence of the Koran, if it weren’t so dismal and dangerous. Have they ever read the Old Testament, or large portions of the New such as Revelations? There is not a shade of difference; they are all violent books. The Bible like the Koran has been cited in support of a tremendous amount of murder and torture through-out history. These speakers are complaining of the beam in their neighbor’s eye without noticing that in their own.

The gig economy

When we praise the technology and efficiency of Internet-based entities like Uber and laud the “gig economy” we tend to ignore the fact that we are attaining an economy where workers have no job security, no health insurance unless they buy it themselves, no pensions or 401(k)’s, and no unemployment if hired as 1099’s. In other words, we are back to a 19th century world where employers laid off workers for part of every year, where destitution, homelessness, illness and even hunger were omnipresent. It’s all disguised under romantic and efficient high technology, but it’s only efficient in the direction of a new inequality and poverty.