October 14, 2018
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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

The Anonymous Op Ed

The anonymous op ed in the Times supposedly by someone close to Trump already seems ancient history, but I have three little words for its author: "Resignation in protest". It is not hard to imagine a similar op ed written by one of the more presentable people in Hitler's orbit, maybe Speer. The message accomplishes the opposite of what is supposedly intended: "You can feel safe, we've got this" actually legitimates Trump's Presidency.

Technology and Monopoly #1

My IPhone doesn't work. Ironically, the buggiest app on the device is the phone app, the one thing you would feel confident Apple would get right. Playing a voicemail sometimes results in a crash, which can only be cleared by turning the phone off. I have had this happen when the voicemail said, "We are on the conference call with the mediator, where are you," and "Hi, I'm a reporter on deadline...."

The IPhone is a parable of what happens when customers become consumers and are then seen as serfs, when monopoly power mushrooms, when there is no antitrust enforcement, because, hey, its high tech, when the emerging paradigm of customer relations appears to be airline security beating passengers.

Technology and Monopoly #2

I have used PayPal for years. I never keep more than a few hundred dollars in my balance, as a convenience for impulse buys on sites such as Amazon and Etsy. A few months ago, PayPal removed my balance as a choice for making payment, allowing me to use PayPal on the payment side only as a convenient way of using a debit card without retyping the information. The one thing I can do with my balance is withdraw it. I had three or four separate conversations with customer support, who were unable to see any change in my account (or claimed they couldn't) and who offered various inconsequential suggestions that fixed nothing.

It seems clear to me that PayPal made a decision to discourage people from keeping and using balances. Why? Because mine was too small? Because I don't have a great credit score? Because they don't like me? I may never know. Either their support people were also in the dark, or were given a script for lying to me about it.

Monopoly power not only engenders incompetence, but also arrogance. What a wonderful combination. PayPal changed my account and felt it had absolutely no obligation to tell me the truth about it.

Democracy and science fiction

As a genre, science fiction reflects our beliefs about our future; the optimistic, diverse “bridge of the Enterprise” vision was a product and a teacher of Enlightenment values. By contrast, since the origins of the genre, almost anyone other than Gene Roddenberry envisioning a very distant future in which humans have spread to numerous planets, however, imagines an empire or autocracy. Examples include Asimov's Foundation, Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, Ann Leckie's Ancillary series, Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire, and of course Star Wars, though I hesitate to call that science fiction.

In the latest volumes of the series by Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee, there are remarkably similar moments in which someone mentions democracy, and someone else asks what that is. After hearing a description, the other remarks that it sounds quaint, or would be very hard to manage.

Our last pages

I just finished Mark Blyth's Austerity, which posits almost in passing that democracies always vote themselves into crippling debt. I am not an economist (though I do know a joke about one with the punchline "Postulate a canopener!"), but I had an interesting view-from-the-balcony of a somewhat alien world in which the economy is the invisible elephant trampling other things I do see and care about. In that world, the 2008 mortgage crisis elected Donald Trump. Events like our government's failure to aid Puerto Rico, and allowing Obamacare to die of neglect, make me envision a future in which Presidents and Congresses similarly let Medicare and social security fail, where the role of government becomes to chatter, lie and insult, but never to act.