Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2013

Obamacare’s Achilles Heel

Filed under: computers,health and fitness,technology — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Signing up for Obamacare

My political career (for lack of a better word) began in 1967 just one year before my professional career as a programmer/analyst. The software career came to an end in August 2012 but I am still going strong politically. With such a background, I probably had a keener interest in the lead article in the NY Times today titled “From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal” than the average person. The lead paragraphs should give you an idea of the depth of the problem. While it is too soon to say if the technical flaws of the Obamacare website will doom a flawed policy, it cannot be ruled out.

In March, Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the Obama administration’s new online insurance marketplace, told industry executives that he was deeply worried about the Web site’s debut. “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience,” he told them.

Two weeks after the rollout, few would say his hopes were realized.

For the past 12 days, a system costing more than $400 million and billed as a one-stop click-and-go hub for citizens seeking health insurance has thwarted the efforts of millions to simply log in. The growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House, which has refused to say how many people have enrolled through the federal exchange.

Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low.

“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

I got my first inkling of how screwed up the system was from my FB friend Ted Rall, the well-known leftist editorial page cartoonist who started off as an engineering student at Columbia University and who is technically proficient. You can find his scathingly witty account of trying to enroll here. I got a particular chuckle out of how the system responded when he entered his SS number:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.08.01 PM

Once he got past the SS number snafu and began the enrollment process he was shocked at the rates he would have to pay for “affordable” health care.

For this 50-year-old nonsmoker, New York State’s healthcare plans range from Fidelis Care’s “Bronze” plan at $810.84 per month to $2554.71 per month. I didn’t bother to look up the $2554.71 one because if I had $2554.71 a month lying around, I’d buy a doctor.

$810.84 per month. $10,000 a year. After taxes. Where I live, you have to earn $15,000 to keep $10,000.

Not affordable. Did I mention that?

I was surprised to see that the primary consultant for the Obamacare website was CGI, a Montreal-based company that was one of the chief competitors of Automated Concepts Inc., the consulting group I worked for in the late 70s and early 80s. I have no idea when ACI went out of business but CGI has obviously become a major power. What I found most shocking was the late date at which programming began: “The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process.”

For a project of this size, it would be difficult to meet a target date of Fall 2013/Winter 2014 if it had started in Spring 2012 let along Spring 2013. I am amazed that it is even 70 percent complete, as the Times reports. My guess is that is probably only half-done.

There’s a lot of ass-covering going on now. Oracle, the company whose registration software gave Ted Rall such headaches, says, “Our software is running properly.” Oracle’s CEO is Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America whose yacht just won the America’s Cup in San Francisco. After 9/11 Ellison offered to supply a National Id card system to help weed out terrorists. With all of Ted Rall’s SS number woes, we can be thankful that his offer was turned down. Or else half the population would be in Guantanamo right now.

Like Bill Gates, Ellison got rich exploiting the intellectual breakthroughs made by others. Oracle was one of the first relational database systems marketed to corporations in the early 80s, along with Sybase, the proprietary software I supported for twenty years at Columbia University. Relational databases (basically a rows/columns approach similar to the spreadsheet concept) were invented by the mathematician E.J. Codd who made much more of a contribution intellectually than Ellison but never had ambitions to be a billionaire.

The Times has a graphic to illustrate the problems of the Obamacare website at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/13/us/how-the-federal-exchange-is-supposed-to-work-and-how-it-didnt.html.

This particular feature would seem to explain not only the technical challenges that make the system difficult to implement but also a fatal policy flaw:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.38.01 PMThe government is offering what is called a “many-to-many” relationship in database terms: many applicants choosing from many plans. This is historically a challenge to implement in financial systems such as the kind found typically in investment plans.

It would have been a lot easier to simply extend Medicare to the entire population. Not only would the private insurance companies be eliminated, the existing software would have only required a relatively minor change—eliminating the 65 year old criterion.

And going one step further, what is the purpose of having a bunch of different insurance companies competing with each other to provide the same service? Why not a single payer like in Canada that can be run on a nonprofit basis? And, then, to make it even more manageable why can’t we implement a public health system like in France with doctors functioning more as servants of the public rather than entrepreneurs? This sounds rather utopian, I realize, but only in terms of the resistance we would meet rather than the feasibility. Instead of policies that are economical and rational, we get jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg systems that can barely get off the ground like Howard Hughes’s plywood super-plane.

As long as we are talking in utopian terms, managing an economy would be a whole lot easier if we eliminated the profit motive that pits private enterprises against each other basically offering the same goods and services. I defy anybody to tell me why he or she picks one detergent against another. There will always be a need for small businesses such as restaurants (something the Cubans unfortunately did not realize until too late—not too late, one hopes) but the commanding heights of the economy?

If you think in terms of spreadsheets (or relational database systems), planning an economy is not that big a deal. You think in terms of resources, labor, and social needs that can be arranged in rows and columns. From that you allocate on a rational basis and according to the priorities a democratically elected government deems wise—such as spending more on public transportation than automobiles.

Of course, until an aroused population takes control of the economy and puts people like Larry Ellison and Barack Obama on a secluded island where they will be stripped of the power to exploit and to destroy, those hopes will remain utopian. For me, the need to defend such an orientation will remain with me with every living breath.

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.

August 29, 2012

Side by Side

Filed under: Film,technology — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Opening on Friday at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Center in New York (nationwide roll-out information is here), “Side by Side” is a brilliant exploration of the tensions between traditional film and emerging digital technologies. As someone who has recently spent around $2700 on a JVC prosumer camera and accessories in order to take part in the DIY revolution, the issues are of keen interest to me (see my Vimeo story of the search for a near-perfect video camera below). But even if you own nothing more than a cell phone equipped to take videos or a modest digital camera with the same capabilities you will be richly rewarded if you see this documentary since it touches on a universal experience—going to the movies.

The film was co-produced by Keanu Reeves who also conducts interviews with a virtual Hall of Fame of directors, including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, and David Lynch among others. If you—like me—have considered Reeves a lightweight, you will be surprised by his intelligence. He allows the various directors to weigh in on the future of an emulsion-based medium that has already suffered a virtual extinction as testified by Kodak’s outcome.

One of the greatest values of “Side by Side” is its ability to make seemingly obscure technical fine points relevant to the novice. While I am relatively up to speed on digital cameras and editing, the passages that dealt with traditional film were a revelation. For example, there are certain physical limitations in the standard can of film that is used in a traditional camera like a Panavision.

You see that round can on the top of the camera? You are physically limited to 10 minutes worth of shooting per can. After the clapboard is sounded and after the director’s assistant cries out, “Lights, camera, action”, you can only film ten minutes. Not only that, you can never be sure of what the film contains. An inadvertent intrusion of a boom mike means that the entire shot is wasted. After a day’s worth of shooting, the film cans are transported to a laboratory where “rushes” are made and viewed on the following morning in a screening room. This process should be familiar if you’ve seen any movies that have been made about movie-making, especially “Sunset Boulevard”.

Digital cameras change that completely. Monitors attached to the camera give you an instantaneous “WYSIWYG” version that makes slip-ups immediately correctible. Furthermore, there are no limits to the length of a scene being shot. With flash memory capable of recording up to four hours or so, the director has the ability to allow the actors to stretch out. If the film involves improvisation such as John Cassavetes’s classics, you can imagine the power this gives the director and the performers alike.

The earliest use of digital cameras in feature films surprisingly enough was made by the Dogme 95 group that violated its own precept that “The film format must be Academy 35 mm.” Lars Von Trier tells Reeves that digital cameras proved far more useful in conveying another precept, namely that “Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).” The wiki article on Von Trier clearly demonstrates his affinity with John Cassavetes who surely would have opted for digital:

Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting.

If digital cameras empower those with an experimental bent and a low budget, they also have been particularly seductive to big-budget, mainstream directors such as George Lucas and James Cameron. After his initial success with the first “Star Wars” film, Lucas converted to all-digital with the dismal results of “Attack of the Clones”. As one director, still committed to film, tells Reeves, “You can give a thousand people a pencil and paper, it is unlikely that anything memorable will come out of it.” Cameron, on the other hand, was far more successful with “Avatar”, a film that creates a totally artificial world that seems more real than the real one. As Marianne Moore once described poetry: imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

By the same token, the “old guard” using film is faced with the same problems. Even though film has conveyed a much richer visual experience (until very recently with the advent of new cameras from the RED and Arri corporations), you are still left with the challenge of making a compelling story. One of the fiercest bulldogs committed to emulsion is Chris Nolan, the director of the Batman trilogy. Frankly, it matters little to me what kind of camera he uses since the finished product—however it looks—will be a milling, incoherent, reactionary mess.

The bottom line is economics. Digital will eventually replace film because it is cheaper. It will allow a democratizing of the film-making business even at the risk of a lowering of standards. This was what occurred to me during the interview of the uber-hyped Lena Dunham, whose “Tiny Furniture” was shot with a Canon 7D still camera. She states that she never would have made the film if she had to bother with the expense and the logistics of traditional film, with all its overhead and steep learning curve. She says that she came to film as a writer and didn’t want to be encumbered with all the apprenticeship into a virtual priesthood that 35-millimeter requires. Unfortunately she needed much more apprenticeship in writing before she got involved with movie-making.

For those of you who have been even the least bit amused or informed by my own forays into film-making, the video below should serve as a guide to what to look for (or avoid) when dipping your big toe into buying a video camera for productions on the Internet. While “Side by Side” is geared to big-time theatrical productions using cameras that cost upward of $100,000, the rest of us have to make decisions based on a working stiff’s budget. Some of the most compelling videos on Youtube or Vimeo were made with a cell phone. But if you are interested in doing anything like a traditional documentary, as is my intention, you have to think hard about what will suffice, especially with respect to sound reproduction as I learned a bit too late. So without further ado:

November 13, 2011

Barbershop Punk; A People Uncounted

Filed under: Film,media,Roma,technology — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

As a grandfather, self-described libertarian, registered Republican and ex-cop, Robb Topolski would appear to be the least likely opponent of corporate malfeasance one can imagine. But when this barbershop singer and aficionado suspected that Comcast was preventing him from sharing files of historic recordings with other aficionados, he decided to get to the bottom of things. As a professional network engineer, he had the know-how to examine TCP-IP logs and discover a pattern, in this particular case one that revealed Comcast’s disregard for what would become known as “net neutrality”.

The documentary “Barbershop Punk”, now playing at the ReRun Gastropub Theater (!) in Brooklyn, a theater seemingly created for such offbeat fare, is must seeing for anybody who needs to be informed about the threat posed to the Internet by corporations with a political agenda. (Plus, the $7 admission includes free popcorn and a cocktail.) Unless an informed citizenry acts, they can turn the Internet into a commercial and politically sanitized medium just as they have done already to radio and television. This is especially true in light of how both the Egyptian and American governments have pressured ISP’s and companies like Facebook to squelch leftist ideas. Perhaps pressured is not the operative term when we are dealing with knocking down an open door.

The punk part of the film’s title derives from the participation of two seminal figures from this world, Henry Rollins and the less well-known Ian McKaye of Washington’s legendary punk band Fugazi (I owned one of their records back in the day.) Rollins and McKaye are both men of the left and could be expected to denounce Comcast’s attempts to regulate free speech but Topolski’s crusade against the corporate giant would appear at first blush to defy conventional expectations.

However, this does not account for the deeply engrained beliefs in free speech in the United States, a nation where such liberties were not won by appeals to Platonic ideals but by blood in the street. Topolski’s immediate reaction to discovering that his mp3’s were being blocked was outrage, just as my regular readers would react to learning that an email containing references to the words socialism or Marxism had been blocked.

First-time co-directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield draw upon a wide range of interviewees, both pro and con net neutrality. On the pro side, we hear from John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier and a Grateful Dead lyricist (admittedly not a punk band). On the con side there’s Scott Cleland, a particularly oily character. At first blush, Cleland comes across as a giant-killer inasmuch as he has campaigned against Google’s monopolistic tendencies. But a review of the members of his netcompetition.board should leave no doubt about his intentions: AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, Time Warner, Qwest, et al.

Last Thursday the Senate voted to block Republican attempts to overturn net neutrality. President Obama is on record as stating that if any such bill came his way, he would have vetoed it—a rare example of him standing up for the rights of the 99 percent versus the one percent.

But it would be a huge mistake to rely on the Democrats considering the role of Mike McCurry, one of the “cons” interviewed in the documentary. In a valuable article by Counterpunch regular Joshua Frank, we learn:

There is quite an underhanded campaign going on by Net Neutrality opponents called “Hands off the Internet” who claim to want to protect the internet from regulators and Big Government. In the past year they have even run deceptive ads on blogs and other websites in hopes of pulling internet readers in to their camp. Some of the big names behind these cunning ploys include AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon.

Co-chair of this group is the ex-spokesman for President Bill Clinton and other Democrats, Mike McCurry who writes an occasional column at the Huffington Post. McCurry claims Net Neutrality will kill the internet.

Fact is Net Neutrality is what has gotten us this far. Yet McCurry writes, “The Internet is not a free public good. It is a bunch of wires and switches and connections and pipes and it is creaky. You all worship at Vince Cerf who has a clear financial interest in the outcome of this debate but you immediately castigate all of us who disagree and impugn our motives. I get paid a reasonable but small sum to argue what I believe.”

So how much does this guy get paid? Well, not sure how much the big telecom giants are dolling out, but McCurry charges $10,000 and up per speaking gig, so it’s likely he’s bankrolled by the telecommunications industry. Hands off the Internet wants to destroy the web just like the radio goliaths have killed the airwaves.

Stay vigilant!

Not long after I accepted an invitation from the publicist for “Barbershop Punk” to review a screener, she asked me if I would also be willing to review “A People Uncounted.” While the film has not yet been scheduled for theatrical release and is currently only showing in film festivals geared to independent works, I strongly urge everybody to keep track of the film on its official website to see if it is being shown in your area. As the definitive documentary on the oppression of the Roma people, this is a film that must be seen by progressives and revolutionaries everywhere.

Until now, every film on the Roma has pretty much been the exclusive creation of the very gifted Roma director Tony Gatlif. Even in the case of “Korkoro” (the Roma word for freedom), a fictional tale about a Roma band exterminated by the Nazis, Gatlif’s emphasis has been on personal stories rather than the social and political context in which Roma have become scapegoats.

All of the principals behind “A People Uncounted” are Jewish, including the children of concentration camp survivors—the producers Tom Rasky and Marc Swenker. In acting as tribunes for the Roma people, they represent Yiddishkeit at its best.

The film is divided into two parts. The first is an examination of stereotypes about the Roma people and the threats they currently face in an economically stressed Europe. The second, drawing from the information gathered in the first part, is very much in the vein of Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” and consists of extremely moving interviews with Roma survivors of the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps no other people in European history have been the victims of vicious stereotyping than the Jews and the Roma. In one of the more powerful moments of the film, we see a sorry procession of pop singers like Cher singing songs with lyrics like this:

Gypsies, tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

Like the Jews, the Roma were very much circumscribed by the economic conditions laid down by the majority nationality of each country they found themselves in. In countries where they were prevented from owning land or businesses, they would travel from town to town in search of day laborer or where they could ply their trades as musicians or metal workers. This explains the “love of the road” attributed to them. When laws were passed to give them the same rights as other nationalities, they bought houses and settled into a stationary existence.

The film benefits from the expert testimony of some of the world’s leading Roma scholars, including Ian Hancock (née Yanko le Redžosko), the dean of Roma studies. About forty years ago, I read his history of the Roma people and can’t recommend it highly enough.

The European left has a big responsibility to help defend the Roma against increasingly deadly attacks by ultranationalists who want to make scapegoats of this community in the same fashion as the Nazis. The film has footage of the Jobbik Party in Hungary, modeled on fascist movements of the past. Harping on “gypsy crime”, the party openly calls for ethnic cleansing along the lines of “Hungary for the Hungarians”. It has organized a paramilitary called the Hungarian Guard that parades in uniforms that resemble the Hungarian fascist movement of the 1930s.

Things are not that much better in “civilized” and prosperous France where Sarkozy, of Hungarian descent, has declared open warfare on the Roma, expelling “illegals” by the hundreds.

“A People Uncounted” is a major contribution to civil rights movement that is unfolding throughout Europe. In our day, the famous words of Martin Niemöller would require some changes to reflect new realities:

First they came for the Roma, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Roma.

Then they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

October 19, 2010

Social Networking in an atomized society

Filed under: financial crisis,socialism,technology — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

While the social isolation that led Catfish’s Angela Pierce to construct multiple identities on Facebook in a bid to break out of that isolation does not fit neatly into the standard Marxist analysis, it is broadly speaking symptomatic of a society that has become increasingly atomized. While most people understand that a deficiency in food, shelter and health care is immediately traceable to the economic circumstances capitalism foists on a defenseless population, there are broader needs that the system cannot deliver.

In 1995 Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote an article titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in the Journal of Democracy published by the National Endowment for Democracy, a government body best known for its meddling in places like Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, etc. The article was expanded into a best-selling book of the same title in 2000.

Putnam frets over the decline of civic engagement and community but as the reference to “social capital” would imply from the standpoint of making the capitalist system function adequately:

The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the performance of representative government. That, at least, was the central conclusion of my own 20-year, quasi-experimental study of subnational governments in different regions of Italy. Although all these regional governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of effectiveness varied dramatically. Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs–these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.

Putnam tries to pin the blame for a decline of social capital on a number of trends that have gathered momentum since the 1960s:

1. The movement of women into the labor force: This has reduced the time and energy necessary for groups such as the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Red Cross, according to Putnam.

2. Mobility: A population that picks up and moves every few years will tend not to put down roots of the kind that would lead to civic engagement. Putnam writes: “It seems plausible that the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced the social rootedness of the average American.”

3. Other demographic transformations: The family has traditionally provided the foundation for social ties but “fewer marriages, more divorces, fewer children” undermine their formation.

4. The technological transformation of leisure: Technological trends, especially television and the Internet, are “individualizing” the use of leisure time. We can assume that Putnam’s 2000 book would certainly have identified the Internet as another atomizing trend.

Putnam considers the same question that bedeviled V.I. Lenin in a concluding section titled “What is to be Done”. Facebook, which he does not refer to by name since it did not exist in 1995, would be ruled out:

What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley–or even in a saloon–but hard empirical research is needed. What about the development of social capital in the workplace? Is it growing in counterpoint to the decline of civic engagement, reflecting some social analogue of the first law of thermodynamics–social capital is neither created nor destroyed, merely redistributed? Or do the trends described in this essay represent a deadweight loss?

As we might have expected from a Harvard professor, so accustomed to the role of gatekeeper to the capitalist system, there is no understanding of the role of the economic system in creating an atomized population. Marx called attention to the impact that the new social system was having on traditional binds in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

In the face of the melting of old relationships into air, reactionaries try to breathe life into institutions that have lost their viability: the nuclear family, the church or synagogue and an idealized small-town community. It is the kitschy Reagan-era iconography that people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin want to shove down our throats even as they work day and night to strengthen the corporate dreadnaught that is destroying the possibility for “the way things used to be”.

The United States probably leads the world in smashing the kinds of social ties over which Putnam waxes nostalgic. It has all but destroyed the family farm and turned rural America into a wasteland that will not support an economically viable population of small shopkeepers and factory workers enjoying lifetime employment at a paternalistic firm. The naked drive for profit what is destroying the Norman Rockwell version of America more than anything.

While it is inconceivable that the pretty, bright, young things that made Catfish could have ever concerned themselves with the conditions of life in Ishpeming, I was struck by the abandoned horse farm and office building that were supposedly the place where Nev Schulman’s idealized lover and her sister’s artwork would be found respectively. Both were obvious victims of Michigan’s economic collapse.

In the 1930s and the 1960s people came together and formed new social ties largely as a response to an economic and social crisis. While few people would want to see a return to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression or the unending warfare of the 1960s and 70s that cost the lives of American servicemen by the tens of thousands and Vietnamese villagers by the millions, there was something positive about people coming together collectively to fight against injustice and to develop social ties through a common interest in economic justice and peace.

It is too soon to say whether the current crisis will have the same exact effect, but there is little doubt that a need for survival will force people away from their televisions and their computers and into what Putnam calls “civil society”. The capitalist system has a way of creating its own gravediggers and we might as well enjoy each others’ company while we go about our work with shovels in hand.

October 17, 2010

Revolutionary politics and social networking

Filed under: media,press,revolutionary organizing,socialism,technology — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

In a recent issue of the New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell found fault with activism based on Twitter and Facebook. Titled Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, it draws a contrast between the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s and more recent protests that rely heavily on social networking.

Ironically, one of the iconic images of this period was a Woolworth’s sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi on May 28, 1963 with a young Native American professor named John Salter sitting next to Black civil rights activists being assaulted by racists:

Salter describes the incident thusly:

This was the most violently attacked sit-in during the 1960s and is the most publicized. A huge mob gathered, with open police support while the three of us sat there for three hours. I was attacked with fists, brass knuckles and the broken portions of glass sugar containers, and was burned with cigarettes. I’m covered with blood and we were all covered by salt, sugar, mustard, and various other things.

John Salter goes by the name Hunter Gray nowadays. Now I don’t know if Hunter uses Twitter or Facebook, but I do know him as an enthusiastic user of Internet resources from his authoritative website http://www.hunterbear.org/ to his participation on Marxmail, a listserv I launched in 1998. Hunter also moderates at least two listservs himself, not worrying about whether this passes muster with Malcolm Gladwell.

It does seem a bit out of character for the New Yorker Magazine to be dispensing advice about how to build any kind of mass radical movement. In the 1950s the magazine published Rachel Carson’s articles on DDT. In 1969, it published an article by Daniel Lang that documented American atrocities in Vietnam. But after Si Newhouse took it over, the magazine became less liberal and began catering more to the yuppie tastes of a targeted market of hedge fund managers and real estate brokers. The best analysis of the magazine’s decline (although it has prospered commercially) came from Daniel Lazare in the Nation Magazine, where he wrote:

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim.

Gladwell is fairly typical of the new New Yorker. Wiki reports:

Gladwell began his career at The American Spectator, a conservative monthly.[10] He subsequently wrote for Insight on the News, a conservative magazine owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, before joining The Washington Post as a business writer in 1987.[11]

His most recent book, titled Outliers, tries to account for peoples’ success. We learn that Bill Gates became fabulously wealthy because he was fortunate enough to be sent to a high school that had computers. The fact that his father was a wealthy corporate lawyer matters less to Gladwell, who sees capitalist society as a kind of crapshoot. Of course, apologists for that society will always try to explain why some are losers and some are winners. Needless to say, the apologists themselves never have to worry much about where their next meal is coming from.

Before turning to Gladwell’s arguments about Twitter and Facebook, I want to offer my own reflections on the Internet as a way of uniting and strengthening the left. My own doubts about social networking software has more to do with their corporate nature. Anybody who has seen “The Social Network” or reads the left media online knows that Facebook’s founder is a complete scumbag who is not above censoring Facebook pages that he objects to. Look for Karl Friedrich’s comments under my review of David Fincher’s movie for more information on this.

About a year after I began working at Columbia University in 1990, I noticed an email announcement two or three times a week courtesy of the IBM Listserv system that the university’s mainframe supported. You could join a “mailing list” that would be devoted to southern quilts or model railroads, for example. Eventually I asked the email administrator who worked in a nearby cubicle what this was all about. Ah, he told me, that’s the Internet.

After he showed me how to get a listing of all the mailing lists that were based on IBM’s email software, I reviewed them carefully to see if any would be up my alley. It turned out that the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) would be my first mailing list. As someone who has been subbed to PEN-L from 1992, it must be emphasized that I have had a relationship to it for 18 years now—7 years longer than my stint in the Trotskyist movement. Of course, the relationship to the SWP was far more intense but also far more destructive. Gladwell would describe my relationship to PEN-L as a “weak tie”:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the civil rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

About a year after I subbed to PEN-L, I found myself in an intense debate about market socialism and Mondragon. A Columbia University sociology professor named John Hartman sent me some reading recommendations on Mondragon offlist that led to a friendship in real as opposed to virtual space. He made an observation once that has stuck with me over the years. He said that PEN-L was made to order for some 60s radical who went to graduate school and got a job as an economics professor in someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska. Without a soul to exchange ideas with at work, PEN-L becomes a crucial way to stay in touch with likeminded souls.

It was obviously the way that Hunter Gray saw the Internet. As a retired professor and longtime activist, it seemed to make perfect sense to launch a website and look for kindred spirits in mailing lists.

In 1994 or so, I learned of a new mailing list that was even more relevant to my background than PEN-L. Something called the Spoons Collective had started up a Marxist list that would complement their postmodernist/cultural mailing lists. They reasoned that since so many people like Bataille and Foucault referred to Marx, it would make sense to add a list on Marx. That was not quite the way I saw his importance, but was happy to subscribe to a list that would at least allow me to define things the way I saw fit.

That list turned out to be deeply problematic since the Spoons Collective was opposed to moderation on principle. It became permanent trench warfare between insanely sectarian Maoists and Trotskyists until I decided enough was enough and launched Marxmail. After seeing the wasted bandwidth on the original list, I stated that the new list would dispense with the Stalin/Trotsky debate. It began with 60 subscribers in 1998, largely defectors from the old Marxism list, and now has nearly 1300 subscribers from every quarter of the world.

I have never seen the list in terms of social networking and even resisted efforts to see it as a kind of nucleus of a revolutionary party. My good friend the late Mark Jones, who tended to the manic on occasion, was always writing about the need to “start something”, which in his eyes meant calling together a conference of Marxmail subscribers somewhere to declare a new international or something.

I had a different take on things than Mark. I saw Marxmail as performing something of the same role as Iskra in the early 1900s. Lenin thought a newspaper was necessary to tie Russian socialists together so as to facilitate debate. Of course, that debate was integrated with the need to build a party—something that does not make sense in terms of the “weak ties” Gladwell refers to. On the other hand, given the debacle of the Soviet Union and the collapse of organized Marxism nearly everywhere, Marxmail had a big job on its hands trying to figure out what “went wrong” and what was needed in the future.

Gladwell, never at a loss for an opinion, tries to draw a contrast between organizing based on social networking software and traditional organizing in terms of networks versus hierarchies:

This is the second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant: social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

I found this distinction intriguing. Back in 1982 when Peter Camejo launched the North Star Network, I found the idea of a network compelling. Not only was it a departure from the hierarchical structure of the SWP, it was also the model for the kind of database I had just begun to work on. I had started out working on IMS databases, a proprietary IBM product, a few years earlier but switched to IDMS, a competing product based on the CODASYL, or network model. The industry considered IDMS a much more useful database because it was able to mirror business realities more accurately. There are many instances when there is no “top” or “bottom” that the IMS database was modeled on. And, as far as I was concerned, the last thing the left needed in 1982 was an organization based on a pyramid. I had had my fill of that.

Gladwell tends to shoehorn reality into this schema. It is particularly glaring when he discusses the P.L.O.:

The Palestine Liberation Organization originated as a network, and the international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones argue in a recent essay in International Security that this is why it ran into such trouble as it grew: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms—made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.”

This bit of pedantry obscures the real problem that the P.L.O. faced. It was not doomed because it adopted a network model but because the Arab bourgeoisie decided it was expendable. Since Gladwell is a good buddy of ex-New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who is a past master of obfuscating Mideast realties, I am not surprised that Gladwell follows suit.

I doubt that most people using Facebook or Twitter to publicize one struggle or another view these products as a substitute for traditional organizing. Gladwell simply does not get why they are resorting to such technologies. As A.J. Liebling once said, freedom of the press belongs to those who can buy one. In an age of growing corporate control and monopolization, the Internet provides an alternative to the ruling class’s political agenda.

The Internet has as revolutionary a potential as the Gutenberg press had in the 1600s. Back then a press could be used to churn out tracts that the Protestant rebels could use against the Catholic Church and its allies in the feudal estates. A peasant was no longer at the mercy of the clerical scribes who were the only ones who could turn out printed material approved by the Establishment.

That’s the position we are in today. We no longer are at the mercy of a crappy magazine like The New Yorker that propagandized relentlessly for the war in Iraq. Through the Internet we can spread the word without relying on the high priesthood of the corporate media, like Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman or Bob Woodward. That, I think, is what disturbs Gladwell more than anything even if he doesn’t admit it.

In my final post in this series, I will discuss social networking, focusing more on the personal rather than political relationships, and the Facebook phenomenon in particular.

October 14, 2010

The Social Network

Filed under: Film,technology — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

If I had not been a programmer for the past 42 years and a missionary for Marxism on the Internet for the past 14, I doubt that I would have found “Social Network” so compelling.

I can see the logic of my NYFCO colleague Armond White who, even more so than me, has little use for such over-hyped movies:

Hollywood and the journalism industries—both cowed by the Internet breathing down their necks—have perfected a method to curtail individual response to movies, thereby dictating widespread enthusiasm for this shallowly complicated film. To Fincher and Sorkin, Zuckerberg represents a new cultural avatar who (like other snarky Internet avengers) must be worshipped, not held to account. They inflate Zuckerberg’s story as a “creation myth” (as one lawyer calls him), the better to concede victory to a tycoon of new technology rather than apply normal social or professional standards to his hostile relations with people. The Social Network sucks up to successful, wealthy young powerbrokers.

Prairie Miller, my other favorite NYFCO colleague who is one of the country’s sharpest radical film journalists, wrote:

And while the film is always about brains rather than brawn, The Social Network is strictly guy territory with mental bawling providing the main action, in a peculiar Harvard essentially sexed up and dumbed down. And a main character spouting such an insanely intellectualized rowdy rap minus the music, and seemingly psyching himself into a fast forward run-on sentence karma of hyper-capitalist high, that any social logic to this unfocused infomercial in biopic clothing, falls by the wayside.

Despite my alienation from the main characters, I found the movie to be an extraordinary look into the process of software development with a scrupulous attention to the technical details. After Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg in a superb performance) gets the inspiration for what would eventually becomes Facebook as a Harvard sophomore, he begins to cobble together a web application using the same combination of programming and database tools that I use at Columbia University for more mundane tasks, like keeping track of the school’s billions of dollars. When I got into the profession (a craft, really) 42 years ago, the programmer’s workbench was a lot less accessible to the non-professional but with the dissemination of personal computers and tools such as spreadsheets, html, etc., it becomes a lot easier to identify with the main character even if his personality traits are as off-putting as a bucket of phlegm.

The movie is something of a morality tale about the new media but with much less of a bite than “Citizen Kane”. If Orson Welles’s newspaper magnate, based on William Randolph Hearst, is a monster of monstrous proportions, David Fincher’s Zuckerberg is a garden gnome by contrast. Hearst used his newspaper to start imperialist wars, while Zuckerberg ‘s biggest sin, according to the screenplay written by Aaron Sorkin, is stabbing his business partners in the back. Most people realize that this hardly amounts to a sin in the business world; a mere peccadillo is more like it.

By now, everybody has probably heard that the movie is based on a paradox, namely that the inventor of a system that provides an automated “social network” had no social skills to speak of. Throughout the movie, we see a brilliant geek after the fashion of Bill Gates acting like a total prick, starting with the opening scene when he tells his girl-friend from Boston University that she is lucky to be dating a Harvard man who will introduce her to the elites there, even if at this point they would regard him as a dog with fleas. She breaks up with him on the spot, saying:

You’re going to be successful, and rich. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

Zuckerberg dreams of being accepted at one of Harvard’s old-boy’s clubs, especially something like the Porcellian—Harvard’s version of Yale’s Skull-and-Bones that included Theodore Roosevelt as one of its members. So when two of its members–twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer, the great-grandson of the oil tycoon who had close ties to the Kremlin)—show up one day asking him for help in creating a social network website for Harvard students, you’d think that he would ingratiate himself to them to gain their acceptance. They were everything he wasn’t: wealthy, tall, athletic (members of the crew team who would participate in the Olympics) and WASP (he was the son of a Jewish dentist.)

After agreeing to do the programming for the brothers and their partner, an Indian business major named Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), he almost immediately begins work on his own project behind their backs. Silicon Alley Insider got hold of some I.M. communications between Zuckerberg and a friend that revealed how he planned to deal with the Winklevoss’s:

FRIEND: so have you decided what you are going to do about the websites?

ZUCK [a nickname used only by his friends]: yea i’m going to fuck them

ZUCK: probably in the year

ZUCK: *ear

In another exchange leaked to Silicon Alley Insider, Zuckerberg bragged about his access to student body information:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb fucks

Dumb fucks indeed. One of the biggest complaints about Facebook today is the cavalier treatment of the privacy of its members as ZDNet reported:

Social-networking sites such as Facebook are eroding their members’ privacy in the interests of their business model, according to BT’s chief security technology officer Bruce Schneier.

The security expert said on Tuesday that social-networking sites deliberately encourage people to disclose personal details about themselves so the sites will have content to sell to advertisers.

“These CEOs are deliberately killing privacy — it’s their market — and Facebook is the worst offender,” Schneier told reporters at RSA Conference Europe in London. “In the end, Facebook will do its best by its customers, who aren’t you [but advertisers].”

Clearly, Zuckerberg must have anticipated how profitable Facebook could have become from the very beginning. This, after all, was how Google’s founders became billionaires, by linking their search engine to paid advertising geared to a searcher’s preferences. And Google, like Facebook, has postured as just a “cool” way for people to become connected, not some sleazy old-fashioned get-rich-quick scheme.

Despite Zuckerberg’s assertions throughout the film that he was only interested in providing some “cool” way for people to get connected, it was clear that he had baser ambitions from the start. As soon as he gets the idea for Facebook, initially a social network for college students, he recruits economics major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), a Brazilian Jew, to be his Chief Financial Officer, largely on the strength of his business acumen and wealth. Saverin put up $18,000 as seed money for the new operation and received a 35 percent stock ownership.

Not long after the business begins to take off, one Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake in a bravura performance) learns about it from a Stanford woman he has spent the night with. What’s that cool website she had on her laptop, he asked. Oh, that’s something called thefacebook, she replied, referring to its original name.

Sean Parker turns out to be one of the co-founders of Napster (Shawn Fanning was the other) who has a sixth sense about which software is capable of being “revolutionary”. In a profile that appeared in Vanity Fair, Parker comes across as a mixture of Karl Marx and a hedge fund operator:

Reggae plays in the background at Shawn Fanning’s huge 40th-floor apartment, directly over San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. It is late at night. Parker stretches back on an easy chair and bemoans what he sees as the scarcity, in contemporary culture, of revolutionary thinkers on the level of, say, Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac. “They were capable of folly,” he says, “and willing to take risks in terms of their message. We live in an extremely repressive era, and we fail to realize how repressive it is, because we’re told that all these outlets for rebellion, like listening to rock music, are no longer satanic. Smoking weed—that’s sort of O.K. and acceptable in some circles.” To Parker, the implication is that people in his position have almost an obligation to do what they can with the tools at their disposal—software and the Internet—to free up society through disruptive technology. As he muses, it is clear that he sees entrepreneurship and invention as handmaidens of social transformation.

Once Parker hooks up with Zuckerberg, a conflict develops between the two and Saverin, who is depicted as technologically and entrepreneurially challenged. Parker’s first contribution is to propose that the “the” be dropped from thefacebook. That was “cooler”. Parker also persuades Zuckerberg to move out to Silicon Valley and concentrate on the new company rather than wasting time at Harvard. Saverin remains on the East Coast trying to drum up advertising for the infant social networking site against the objections of Sean Parker who feels that it would distract from its “coolness”. He tells Zuckerberg at one point, ” “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

Parker also lines up venture capitalists that are eager to pump millions into the new enterprise, thus making Saverin’s wealth puny by comparison. Not only does Parker have access to venture capital, he introduces Zuckerberg to a life style filled with hot “babes” and drugs. The house in Silicon Valley that serves as the initial offices for Facebook development is like something out of Animal House, an ongoing toga party in effect. Eventually, the cops show up at one wild party and arrest Parker for cocaine possession.

It happens that Jesse Eisenberg’s character is very similar to the one he played in Holy Rollers, another film about a middle-class Jew who yields to the temptation of drugs and wild parties. He played a 20 year old named Shmuel who is recruited to  a drug-smuggling ring made up of Hasidic youth who were able to avoid detection at airports because of their innocent appearance. Eisenberg has a flair for playing prodigal sons it would appear.

In a deal cooked up by Zuckerberg’s lawyers, Saverin is persuaded to sign a contract that appears on the surface to cement his role as co-founder of the company and trusted insider. It turns out to be a ruse that effectively all but fires him from the company.

In a series of flashbacks that run throughout the film, lawyers hear a case against Zuckerberg filed by the Winkelvoss brothers who argue that they have been robbed of their intellectual property. Saverin testifies on their behalf, making the case that his ex-partner cannot be trusted. Unlike most court cases that are dramatized in a Hollywood movie, this one lacks a likable protagonist a la Erin Brockovich. The Winklevoss’s evoke bruised WASP entitlement sensibilities while Zuckerberg is insufferable, arrogant and condescending throughout the proceedings. You feel that all of them belong in jail.

While most critics, including me to a very partial degree, have judged this film to be one of the year’s best (97 percent favorable on Rotten Tomatoes), there is acceptance pretty much across the board that is more fiction than fact.

To start with, the script is based on the book Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal that was written by Ben Mezrich last year. Saverin, who was looking for somebody to do a hatchet job on Zuckerberg, approached Mezrich with a proposal that looked like a potential blockbuster, even if it was likely to be as untrustworthy as a Zuckerberg contract. Mezrich cooked up a tale that the New York Times describes:

Though we cannot know exactly what went through Ben Mezrich’s mind as he wrote “The Accidental Billionaires,” his nonfictionish book about the creation of Facebook, we can perhaps speculate hypothetically about what it possibly might have been like. After all, wild guessing was, or could have been, or possibly seems to have been, Mr. Mezrich’s own working method. He didn’t have a lot of access. He didn’t have a lot of information. Most crucially, he didn’t have Mark Zuckerberg, the former Harvard student who is famed for having cooked up the Facebook algorithms and is at the heart of the Facebook story.

So Mr. Mezrich had to do some guesswork about Mr. Zuckerberg. And guesswork — long, lyrical, hash-slinging, protracted feats of guesswork, based only glancingly on the rare incontrovertible detail, like the fact that Mr. Zuckerberg liked to wear flip-flops in college — is Mr. Mezrich’s specialty. It served him lucratively, if not well, in “Bringing Down the House,” the book that became the basis for the film “21” (another story of smart college kids striking it rich in the real world, in that case in Las Vegas casinos). It should not go unnoticed that Mr. Mezrich started out as a writer of science fiction.

In “The Accidental Billionaires” he so enthusiastically favors hot air over specifics that he waits until the end of the book to offer up three little words that speak volumes about Mr. Zuckerberg’s Sphinx-like persona. However shy, vague, withdrawn, affectless and computerlike Mr. Zuckerberg is said by this book to be, he turns out to have business cards that say “I’m CEO — Bitch.” That phrase outweighs all 258 pages of Mr. Mezrich’s stalling. (The last two pages of this 260-page book are devoted to a list of published sources. Mr. Mezrich relied heavily on The Harvard Crimson.)

If Mezrich’s book took liberties with the facts, Adam Sorkin’s screenplay can best be described as a hot air balloon that has become detached from its moorings. For example, in the opening scene where Zuckerberg’s girl friend breaks up with him for being an “asshole”, no such thing happened in real life.

Also, despite the attempts to turn the Winkelvoss’s into technologically challenged jocks who are totally reliant on Zuckerberg’s skills, the facts are that they simply did not have the time. In an interview with the London Times, Cameron Winkelvoss states:

We had the ability. At the age of 13 we taught ourselves HTML [programming language] and started a little web-page company. We had the aptitude, but with our major and our rowing we just didn’t have the time.

Also, Zuckerberg was not quite the nerd of the film representation. He was captain of the fencing team at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school designed to place people in Ivy League schools. He also was a member of the crew team there, just like the Winkelvoss’s.

With respect to Sean Parker being busted for cocaine possession, this did happen but not in the house that Facebook used for its first office. He was arrested in North Carolina in a house that he was using during a kite-boarding vacation having nothing to do with Facebook.

Also, despite the movie trying to paint Eduardo Saverin as a victim left stripped of his Facebook holdings by Zuckerberg’s machinations, the truth is that he owns 5 percent of Facebook shares today, worth $1.3 billion.

Sorkin took elements of the truth and fiction and wove them into a saga about life in the fast lane. As we know, biopics often take liberties with the truth but Sorkin’s manipulations have come under more scrutiny than usual. You can find a pretty good dismantling of the movie’s authenticity at Slant Magazine that concludes:

Sorkin, too, has left us with a myth, and the mythmaker has washed his hands of the mythmaking process. Some critics call this a brilliant meta-disclaimer, an acknowledgment that there is no universal truth in the Zuckerberg story. It’s not. It’s an abdication of responsibility for a story that pantomimes Zuckerberg and is poised to transform Mezrich and Sorkin’s version of reality into whatever passes for truth these days.

Alas, here’s the rub: The Social Network is also a lot of fun. Go buy a ticket. Just don’t buy the story.

In my next post, I will review Catfish, a documentary about the role Facebook played in a strange relationship between a young, hip and handsome New York photographer and a lonely housewife in Northern Michigan. Like The Social Network, it also plays fast and loose with the facts.

April 3, 2010

My youtube maiden voyage

Filed under: financial crisis,Latvia,technology — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Why I am getting into youtube:

Jeff Sommers talk on Latvia, part one:

Jeff Sommers talk on Latvia, part two:

My youtube channel

December 3, 2008

Technological Inheritance

Filed under: economics,technology — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Back in 1994, I came across an article by Gar Alperovitz titled “Distributing Our Technological Inheritance” in the October issue of Technology Review that I found very useful as a rebuttal of the kind of libertarianism that was thriving in Silicon Valley. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“Many times a day,” wrote Albert Einstein, “I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow-men, both living and dead.” The genius of an earlier era saw clearly how contemporary knowledge and technological advance depend to an extraordinary degree on the efforts of many contributors, not to mention a continuing cultural investment in science and numerous other areas of human endeavor. In fact, very little of what we as a society produce today can be said to derive from the work, risk, and imagination of citizens now living. Achievements from earlier eras, including fundamental ideas such as literacy, movable type, simple arithmetic, and algebra, have become so integrated into our daily lives that we take them for granted. What we accomplish today stands atop a Gibraltar of technological inheritance. Seemingly contemporary transformations inevitably build on knowledge accumulated over generations.

For example, Richard DuBoff, an economic historian at Bryn Mawr College, observes that “synthesizing organic chemicals…could not have been done without an understanding of chemical transformations and the arrangement of atoms in a molecule. After 1880, this led to the production of coal tar and its derivatives for pharmaceuticals, dyestuffs, explosives, solvents, fuels, and fertilizers, and later petrochemicals…By the early 1900’s the new chemicals were already becoming an essential input for metallurgy, petroleum, and paper.”

Present-day entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest individuals with a personal fortune estimated at $8 billion and hailed as a technological genius for inventing software for the personal computer, should therefore be seen as beneficiaries of this long and fruitful history as well as of significant public investment.

The personal computer itself–without which Gates’s software would not be possible–owes its development to sustained federal spending during World War II and the Cold War. “Most of [the] ‘great ideas in computer design’ were first explored with considerable government support,” according to historian Kenneth Flamm in a Brookings Institution study. Now a specialist in technology policy in the Department of Defense, Flamm estimates that 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the federal government, and that in most of these cases the government was the first buyer of new technology. For example, Remington Rand Corp. delivered UNIVAC, the original full-fledged U.S. computer, under contract to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.

The government’s shouldering of huge development costs and risks paved the way for the growth of Digital Equipment Corp., which created its powerful PDP line of 1960s computers. In turn, Gate’s colleague [and now fellow billionaire] Paul Allen created a simulated PDP-10 chip that allowed Gates to apply the programming abilities of a mainframe to a small, homemade computer. Gates used this power to make his most important technical contribution: rewriting the BASIC language, itself funded by the National Science Foundation, to run Altair, the first consumer-scaled computer. And indeed, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, Altair’s developer, could never have placed a microcomputer of any variety on the market without the long preceding period of technological incubation.

Thousands of links in a chain of development–our shared inheritance- -were in fact required before Bill Gates could add his contribution. But if this is so, why do we not reflect more full on why Gates, or any other wealthy entrepreneur, should personally benefit to such a degree? If we admit that what any one person, group, generation, or even nation contributes in one moment of time is minuscule compared with all that the past bequeaths like a gift from a rich uncle, we are forced to question the basic principles by which we distribute our technological inheritance.

Apparently, Alperovitz has turned this article into a book, based on this review in the current issue of the Nation Magazine. I plan to read and review it myself first chance I get, despite the rather lukewarm Nation Magazine review, which characterizes it as “Fabian”, a charge that strikes me as the pot calling the kettle black:

Spreading the Wealth: Knowledge as Social Inheritance

By Mark Engler

In crediting luck, Buffett not only points to the birth lottery, in which some people are born into more privileged circumstances than others, but also recognizes that to a great extent he owes the accomplishments of his professional life to the manifold contributions of other people, known and unknown, past and present. They have collectively done Buffett enormous favors, affording him security and education, providing modern infrastructure, science and communications systems and creating a sophisticated market in which he could do business. Because of this, Buffett claims, “society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.”

“But if this is true,” ask Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly in Unjust Deserts, “doesn’t society deserve a very significant share of what [Buffett] has received?” This question clearly indicates how thoroughly Alperovitz and Daly want their new book to upend commonplace notions about the relationships between economic growth, productivity and wealth. The duo cite “extraordinary developments” in the study of knowledge and economic growth as the foundation of their contentions. But they are actually returning the economic discussion to where it started, with Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Marx–to moral philosophy and debates about the values that should inform public policy. Their foremost ethical question is, given that we owe most of our productivity to a common social inheritance, to what extent can we say that we have “earned” our personal wealth? If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants, the argument goes. Therefore, a large portion of what we claim as payment for our productivity should actually go to the Goliaths who are doing the heavy work of holding us up. Even if your eyesight is much better than average, your individual claim is limited.

Most of us with regular work lives get up in the morning, expend our energy and intelligence to meet the day’s challenges and retire, depleted, in the evening. In this respect, Alperovitz and Daly claim, we toil away our workdays just as, for example, subsistence farmers did for thousands of years. What makes us more “productive” than these forebears–in the sense that they often struggled to ward off starvation, while we, relatively speaking, are surrounded by abundance–is not our individual strength, initiative or daring. Rather, it is our inheritance of thousands of years of cultural knowledge, innovation and discovery. Owing to this legacy, a person in the United States working the same number of hours as an American from as recently as 1870 will produce, on average, some fifteen times more economic output.

As early as the 1950s, economists began establishing a greater role for socially accumulated knowledge in mainstream understandings of economic growth. Alperovitz and Daly note that Robert Solow “calculated that nearly 90 percent of productivity growth in the first half of the twentieth century (from 1909 to 1949) could only be attributed to ‘technological change in the broadest sense.'” This suggestion was a radical shift away from accounts that stressed the more specific agency of capitalists and entrepreneurs–or of laborers, for that matter–in expanding our economy.

But would progress in the realm of science and technology truly have happened without the grit and determination of hard-working innovators? Because Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, a creation of tremendous social value, doesn’t he deserve to be exalted as a genius and richly rewarded for his patent? Not necessarily. The telephone, as it turns out, was simultaneously invented by another innovator, Elisha Gray, who visited the patent office the same day as Bell with a superior design for transmitting vocal sounds but who lagged behind Bell in completing the patent process. Five years earlier, an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci had declared the invention of a “voice telegraphy device”; he merely lacked the $10 required to register his work. With or without Bell, the telephone would have arrived.

This example is not an isolated incident. As Alperovitz and Daly write, the pattern of simultaneous invention “is so obvious to modern scholars that it is no longer considered controversial.” New innovations rely upon thousands of previous advances in understanding and technical capability: “What is called an ‘invention,’ is always a combination of diverse constituent elements, mostly drawn from existing technology.” Yet even as mainstream economists cite the increasing role of this socially accumulated legacy in driving our “knowledge economy,” inequality grows ever more severe. In 2004, the top 1 percent of American households held almost half of all “non-retirement account stocks, mutual funds, and trusts” and Bill Gates’s net worth alone “was more than twice the direct stock holdings of the entire bottom half of the U.S. population.”

Avoiding the Marxist tradition, Alperovitz and Daly tap a long stream of philosophical thought, running through Locke, Ricardo and Mill, that distinguishes between “earned” and “unearned” gains. “Nothing is more deeply held among ordinary people than the idea that a person is entitled to what he creates or his efforts produce,” they note. But if a person reaps gains through no effort of his own, society has a quite different view of his deservingness, or what philosophers know as “desert.”

One complication of using the “standing on the shoulders” metaphor to explain the notion of desert is that the “giants” in question are not discrete living beings. Past greats like Einstein and Newton are not around to claim their cut of your paycheck. What’s left, then, is the state. Ultimately, what Alperovitz and Daly dub the “knowledge inheritance theory of distributive justice” offers a much deeper justification for government-imposed taxation than what Americans are normally challenged to consider. The closest we have come to hearing these arguments in contemporary political debate was in the recent fight over the estate tax, a levy dubbed by conservatives as the “death tax” and by some defenders as the “Paris Hilton tax.” “Responsible wealth” advocate Chuck Collins, who wrote a book with Bill Gates in defense of the estate tax, has argued that the justice of such a tax is rooted in an appreciation of social contributions to prosperity, an idea that has previously been recognized in American political life. In 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Hate Taxes, Collins quotes Andrew Carnegie, one of the key figures of our country’s first Gilded Age, who approved of taxing accumulated wealth: “Of all forms of taxation this seems the wisest,” Carnegie held. “Men who continue hoarding great sums all of their lives, the proper use of which for public ends would work good to the community from which it chiefly came, should be made to feel that the community, in the form of the State, cannot thus be deprived of its proper share.”

In various articles and in a book published in 2005, America Beyond Capitalism, Alperovitz has rejected the statism of former Communist bloc economies, and he has expressed a desire to craft a progressive vision that “takes us beyond both traditional systems” of socialism and capitalism. Yet this type of “neither right nor left, but forward” rhetoric represents a fairly weak dodge. The actual political tradition Alperovitz and Daly seek to revive has deep roots in classical economics and represents a long-established strand of non-Marxist socialism. The authors show sympathy for nineteenth-century American reformer Henry George, who drew an international following with his belief that land should be the common property of humanity. George promoted free trade and productive business, but he wanted state control of monopolies and argued in his bestselling Progress and Poverty for a steep tax on parasitic rent-seeking landlords. Alperovitz and Daly also align themselves with many of the leading lights of the Fabian Society, a group of British intellectuals who were influential in shaping the early Labour Party around 1900.

Just as unionists who believed in the productive power of labor were critical of George’s sole focus on land, the leftward ranks of today’s political economists may be skeptical of the overwhelming weight of “knowledge” in Alperovitz and Daly’s formulations. But most would probably agree that the authors strike upon a vital topic when they highlight the need for the benefits from productivity gains to be shared throughout society.

As recently as the 1970s, there were discussions on college campuses of how people would while away all their spare hours after modern timesaving technology improved efficiency and inevitably shortened their working days. Since then, productivity has indeed increased dramatically, but working people have experienced a bitter twist: owing largely to the waning power of organized labor, real wages have been stagnant and hours at the office have only lengthened.

The Marxists of old criticized the gradualist tactics of Fabianism, accusing the British reformers of being naïve utopians who wanted socialist ends without the class struggle. Whatever the moral validity of Alperovitz and Daly’s argument about wealth, following through on its public policy implications will require a long and hard fight. And it’s not clear from their book that Alperovitz and Daly are up for a rumble. When it comes to how we might “take back our common inheritance,” their concluding call to arms tepidly invokes a “renewed moral and political understanding of [our] responsibilities.”

The best Alperovitz has suggested in his recent writings is that policy-makers concern themselves more with taxing wealth than income, and that they focus on going after the top 2 percent of households, leaving those few elites vastly outnumbered by the remaining 98 percent of the population. This is a sound position, but it is hardly a silver bullet. At the same time, the nation now seems uniquely prepared for a new debate about value and desert. Few moments could be riper for revisiting the connection between our economy and our social ethics. As housing values–the bedrock asset of the American middle class–fall, stocks plunge and retirement investment accounts are wiped out, there is an acute awareness that things do not find their worth just in the market’s valuation on a given day. And even without unusually candid voices like Warren Buffett’s fanning their doubts, Americans have begun to conclude that CEOs are not so worthy as their bloated compensation packages suggest.

There is a growing consensus, too, in favor of a more robust public compact to regulate the conditions under which we are together able to live, save and retire. Recent scholarly notions about “the developing trajectory of the knowledge economy” likely have less power than Alperovitz and Daly imagine to bring about a shift toward the social. But amid the ruins of our new Gilded Age, a devalued and depressed American public may nevertheless be ready to demand more.

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