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Month: November 2021

Social Capital on the Internet

Social Capital on the Internet

One day when I checked my social media feed I was met with shocking news. Someone I recognized had been killed in a terrible car crash, along with his wife. He wasn’t someone I had ever met personally, wasn’t someone I had known for very long, but he was a mutual follower and he was a really friendly guy online. He was always supportive and only said nice things, which you probably know isn’t how everyone behaves on social media. I felt sincere grief that this man had tragically died, and donated to the crowdsourced fund for his orphaned children.

I bring this up not to showcase my charitable nature, but to point out that even though this person was only an acquaintance on social media, I felt connected enough to want to help his family in need. Arguably, by being supportive on social media, simply by liking my posts, this man had created enough of a bond between us that I felt a social obligation to him. One might cynically say that he had “bought” my support with a few clicks and some brief comments. But that’s just a way of saying that, by being a decent guy and following the etiquette of social media, he was building social capital.

“Social capital” is a concept from sociology that I have looked at before, when reviewing the work of Robert Putnam. This succinctly can be defined as “the value of social networks in providing generalized reciprocity.” I think the example I have just given is undeniably a case of this principle at work. I would say that all of cases of crowdfunding to help those in need, are examples of how social media is helping to reknit our society and forge the bonds of social capital. The loose associations of people on social networks are acting like the kinds of civic organizations that past generations joined, but that then fell off in membership, as Putnam has documented.

They might not form the progressive ideal of a social safety net, but at least they are something.

I Cleaned Up the Old Blog

I Cleaned Up the Old Blog

I started the In the Zeitgeist blog in 2017, and in one of the first posts I linked to an older blog I kept called Generation Watch. I started that one in 2002 and kept it up until, I think, 2007. Unfortunately I lost some of the content, so what I have up now stops abruptly in 2005. When I first referenced this older blog in that 2017 post, I had just moved it to a new domain, but the links were all broken so it was a mess and basically unusable. At long last, I have cleaned up all the internal links, so it is possible to navigate the site and access the content.

I only cleaned up the internal links, that is the links to other content I created on the blog, not the external links to other sites. I don’t plan to update those in any way, since my intention is to have an archived copy up. It’s the Wayback Machine version of my old blog. So you’ll have to pardon the occasional missing graphics and many dead links. Surprisingly, though, many of the external links still work, particularly the ones to major news sites that keep their articles up for a very long time.

One thing that’s interesting about the old site is how much of what I wrote looks like the same stuff I’m posting about today. The same old red zone vs. blue zone conflict is there, still unresolved today. Now the fault line is even deeper, even starker, as the generations have aged. Even though the post-elder Silent generation is still around and still in power, they aren’t so much the compromisers that they used to be (look at the last post on Generation Watch to see what I mean with that), as simply delayers of whatever final reckoning we are headed to as a society.

On the old blog you can see me struggling to understand what was going on around me in the 2000s. I was trying to wrap my mind around the changes happening and fit them into an understanding of cycles of history. I was also less partisan blue zone back then; you can even detect that 9/11 had brought out a bit of a patriotic red zoner in me. The train wreck that was the Bush administration put an end to that.

Back in the early 2000s blogging itself was relatively new. It was an exciting time when we bloggers felt like we were an army of Davids taking on the Goliaths of the old media. We linked to one another’s blogs in “blogrolls” and talked up the “blogosphere” like it was this groundbreaking new form of discourse. Now all the attention has moved on to social media platforms and blogging seems old-fashioned, like it belongs to an earlier phase in the history of the Internet. But either way you get that exciting sense of group participation – on the Internet everyone is a contributor as well as a consumer.

Subreddit of the Week: antiwork

Subreddit of the Week: antiwork

You may have seen a chart like the one on the right, which I took from Wikipedia’s page on workforce productivity. It shows labor productivity growth compared to wage growth since the end of the Second World War. What’s remarkable about it is how the two statistics track one another for a period of two decades or so, but then suddenly veer off, dramatically so for non-managerial workers. Workforce productivity starts growing much faster than nonsupervisory workforce compensation, as the latter curve flattens out.

What this means is that for a good couple of decades (the length of a generation), after 1948, as output per hour of work improved, so did the compensation for that work. The improvement in the value of labor was transferred to the workers themselves. But suddenly, in the early 1970s, gains in output were no longer matched by gains in wages. The improvement in the value of labor benefitted only those managing or employing the labor. This trend continues to this day, and is at the root of what is wrong with the economy, with its massive income and wealth inequality, and lack of economic opportunity for the working class.

There are actually a slew of economic indicators that shifted dramatically in the early 1970s, along with political and social indicators. They are all captured on a site here. This shift can be seen as the start of a new economic regime.

So what caused this shift to a new regime? Arguably, a shift in social priorities and the rise of a new generation into the workforce. In the early 1970s, that generation would have been the Baby Boomers. They brought a new inner-world, moralistic focus into American life. For Boomers, work was a personal mission, a matter of defining the self, not a matter of bargaining for rights and responsibilities as part of a collective.

Consequently, union membership declined as this generation entered the workforce, yet another indicator shift to join the ones on the site I linked above. Boomers were pursuing their own individual agendas through their work, not participating in building any kind of functioning system, as their union-joining forefathers had done. Boomers gave us the concept of the workaholic, someone for whom the work itself was the reward. Success in work became a status symbol for the inner-driven, wealth-obsessed yuppies of the 1980s – a sign of individual merit and self-worth.

By the time Generation X started working, labor rights had become completely passé. Gen Xers entered the workforce with an attitude of self-determination, as free agents, always looking out for the best deal for themselves. They gave us the concept of the perma-temp, the employee with no benefits or safety net, who drifts from employer to employer. As a Gen Xer might have put it, “it’s just a job.”

Gen Xers were the young adults of the boom times in the 1990s, when economic growth was high and productivity growth was on the rise. But in the new opportunistic economic regime, economic growth no longer acted as a rising tide to lift all boats. Instead, it was like a wave that some successfully rode, and others did not. Workers separated into economic winners and losers, with far more of the latter. Today, Gen Xers are middle aged, and one has become the richest person in the world. Many others have utterly washed out.

Now Millennials are the young adults in the workforce, doing much of the nonsupervisory production work which has experienced so little gain in compensation compared to the actual value it provides to employers. The “slackers” of Generation X, raised with low expectations, may have been willing to tolerate these circumstances. They may even, like Kevin in 1984’s Repo Man, have seen opportunity in them (see the video clip below). But not so Millennials.

Raised with high expectations, in a structured environment that rewarded following the rules, Millennials have not taken well to the free-for-all job market they have inherited from Boomers and Xers. Many Millennials have gone into massive debt for a college degree, only to discover that the jobs which a college degree opens up don’t pay well enough to justify the cost. Milestones of financial and personal success, such as buying a first home or starting a family, are elusively out of reach for Millennials, given the economic disparities that have grown over the course of the meritocratic, “neoliberal” regime established by Boomers and Xers.

Millennial disappointment with this state of affairs is visible in the many memes that fill social media feeds, comparing the economic circumstances of their generation with those of past generations and highlighting their disadvantages. Talk of “late stage capitalism” and enthusiasm for progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez point to disillusionment with the current economic system. Could Millennials even be willing to embrace – gasp! – socialism? Red zone pundits would certainly like you to think so.

This brings me to my subreddit of the week, /r/antiwork. This subreddit has taken off in 2021, in concert with all the news stories about the “Great Resignation” and the labor shortage.

On /r/antiwork, the workers of reddit unite to commiserate over the awful conditions and abuses suffered by workers today. They post about the absurdities of our system, like costly health insurance that provides almost no benefit, and low salaries for jobs with high education requirement. They proudly tell stories about how they quit their last position, and encourage and praise union efforts.

Do reddittors really think we can reach a state where no one needs to work? Or is this subreddit simply a forum for venting about the miseries of living on the flattened curve of low compensation employment, where so many are stuck today?

I think that what this subreddit is really bringing to light is the pent-up demand for significant structural economic reform. A new generation with new priorities is in the workforce, and a new regime is required to meet their needs for an economy that provides fair rewards for work, and fosters financial security and not merely the opportunity for personal achievement.

Unfortunately, the only policy the U.S. government can come up with is to borrow and spend to keep the economy hot. While that might relieve the pain for some in the short term, it’s doubtful it will change all those economic indicators for the better in the long term, or quiet the dissenting voices of /r/antiwork. For that, major economic reforms would be needed, to transfer the value of labor back to the workers themselves. Maybe then they won’t mind coming to work so much.

Young Gen Xers bullshitting about work in the mid-1980s.
The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

The Demand for Order in the Age of the Social

I see a lot of complaining about how evil Facebook is and how much they’ve abused their power. But how can this social media company have any power at all? It’s really simple and obvious how to destroy Facebook – all its users simply have to stop using it. Then it will vanish and never plague us again. What does this platform provide that is in any way essential, such that its users are compelled to use it? Where is its power coming from?

A couple years back I wrote a post about when I first joined Facebook, mentioning how it had connected me to people from my past, and how it continues to connect me to people in my present. This need to connect, to have a place of gathering and belonging, is what drives the demand for platforms like Facebook. In this crisis social era, that demand is high. It’s why we all can’t just quit social media.

Remember at the end of 2020 when, after the election went to Joe Biden, Red Staters were announcing on Facebook how they were leaving for a new platform? They weren’t quitting Facebook to go off and be by themselves. They wanted to have their own social media platform for people like them, who shared their view points.

The mission statement of the Facebook company (now called “Meta”) is, in fact, to build community and togetherness. And a primary complaint people have about the Facebook company is the ways it has failed at this mission, and instead caused divisiveness. Or, if not caused the divisiveness, at least irresponsibly permitted its platform to be used by others to promote discord and even violence.

A related complaint about Facebook is that the platform allows the spread of misinformation. Never mind that different factions in our society have different ideas of what constitutes correct information. I wonder: is it more that people want the platforms they use to reinforce, rather than contradict, what they want to believe?

This complaint does raise the question of why the platform should have any obligation to be responsible for the veracity of its content. What I mean is, if such a site is simply a social gathering place, why shouldn’t people be free to post nonsense and lies? Not to say that harm hasn’t been done by misinformation on social media, but why is it the social media platform’s obligation to control the information? If I tell a lie on a street corner, does the town the street is on get blamed for it?

Now there is the argument that misinformation spreads much more rapidly on social media then it ever could by word of mouth. But even here, without some specific platform available, another could surely be found. If we did destroy Facebook in the way I suggested (on the count of three, everyone delete their account…1..2..), couldn’t people still spread their lies via, say, email chains? That’s how we did it back in the ’90s, and I’m pretty sure email providers are off the hook for whatever content is sent through their servers.

My point is that it’s not really the technology behind these phenomena, it’s the people. People are spreading the misinformation, as they always will, and just happen to be using the means that are available today. Putting the onus on a social media company for policing its content is understandable, and a popular stance, but it speaks as much to what people want from these platforms as it does to how they are run as businesses.

We want a way to gather safely, and we expect the providers of such places to exercise some authority in keeping those places safe. That’s the demand curve of this social era. The problem is, social media companies are profit-making enterprises that derive revenue from user engagement, however it can be acquired (“Attention Merchants” is what Tim Wu calls them). So long as this tension exists, where private enterprises maintain our public spaces, we will have reason to mistrust Big Tech and the platforms they provide us, even though we couldn’t conceive of leaving them.

The New Religious Wars Thread

The New Religious Wars Thread

This is a Twitter thread I posted comparing todays Culture Wars to the Religious Wars of the Reformation Era. I’ve only dabbled with posting Twitter threads (chains of linked Tweets) because I honestly don’t get much engagement on that site.

This post is meant to capture the same text onto my blog since whatever I tweet technically belongs to the Lord of Twitter, whoever he is – one of the lesser known of the Great Technocrats. The numbers followed by the slashes at the end of each block are to keep track of the order in which the tweets are meant to be read, since by the nature of the platform, that information can be lost. Here are the 6 tweets:

Reading up on the Tudor Era in England has me thinking about the Culture Wars today and the irrational beliefs people are willing to stake everything on, just as in the Reformation Era 500 years ago people were willing to kill and die over minor points of theology. 1/

To me it seems absurd that people were once martyred over their beliefs about the doctrine of transubstantiation. Will future generations think it absurd that people today are dying over their beliefs about COVID-19? 2/

People are keen to know The Truth and once a belief is formed it is cherished and hard to release. 500 years ago this was a matter of faith; today we describe the same stubborn clinging to belief in psychological terms like “cognitive dissonance.” 3/

We call today’s conflict Culture Wars, not Religious Wars, but either way at the heart of it is differences in belief about what values should define how we live. Where political power is concerned, it’s not germane that those beliefs may not make complete sense. 4/

Just as in the Reformation Era, the set of beliefs to which one is committed ties one to a faction in a political conflict, and to recant those beliefs is a dishonorable betrayal of one’s group and one’s identity. 5/

And so we’re stuck in these Religious Wars between the Church of Woke and the Cult of Maga, with people as fanatically committed to their sects as the Protestants and Catholics of half a millennium ago. 6/

The Tudors Then and Now

The Tudors Then and Now

Inspired by our recent trip to see SIX on Broadway, we’ve been watching The Tudors, the old Showtime network series that ran in the late 2000s. Aileen already watched the show all the way through, but I only saw it previously up to Anne Boleyn’s beheading (oops – spoiler alert). Aileen has DVD box sets of all four seasons, so we didn’t even have to look for the show on streaming services.

At the same time, I have been reading Alison Weir‘s book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, also courtesy of Aileen. It is a very well written history of the King and his marriages. So much of what I’m reading in the book happens in the show, that I wonder if it wasn’t used as a writing source. But of course, there is much that was spoken and done in that time period that is recorded and appears in multiple sources, and that has since become well-known. And there are events on the show that I haven’t read about in the book, so even if this particular book was used, so must other sources have been as well.

The show calls itself The Tudors, but it really is just about Henry VIII and his wives. To me that’s a pity, because I would love to see a TV series that actually covered the entire history of the dynasty. It could start with the Battle of Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor defeating King Richard III, then progress to Henry’s reign and his consolidation of power around the Tudor name. Then it could move on to the reigns of his son, Henry VIII, and subsequently the reigns of all three of Henry VIII’s children: Edward VI and the Protestant reforms, Mary I and her attempt to reverse them, and at last the long reign of Elizabeth I. That would cover the foundation of a dynasty, England’s elevation to a true Renaissance kingdom and the origins of her Imperial destiny, the long and bloody struggle to determine her religious identity, and then finally one of the most glorious periods of her history, featuring victory over the Spanish Empire.

I guess that’s too ambitious for a TV show, so instead Showtime gave us the real juicy part – all the sex and drama in the court of Henry VIII, and surrounding the King’s six marriages. And there’s plenty of sex on this show, too, so much that sometimes it seems like we’re watching soft porn. The characters are cast younger and hotter than they really should be, which must just be the Showtime brand: giving audiences what they crave.

Don’t get me wrong; I like the guy who plays King Henry. I think he does a fine job of capturing Henry’s volatile temperament, which could swing from indignant fury to sweet sentimentality. But it’s undeniable that the actor is too young and too skinny; it would be nice to encounter the fat, balding Henry of the history books. But not on this show; no one wants to see that naked, so we get this inaccurately painted portrait of the man, instead.

The book I’ve been using to fact check “The Tudors.”

Having Weir’s book handy means I can compare all sorts of details in the television show to what really happened (I’m putting faith in Weir’s research, here). When I want to point out either a similarity or a difference, I tell Aileen, “In your book, it actually says…” and she replies, “you know, I didn’t write the book…” – it’s become a running joke between us.

There are always differences because the show does a lot of, shall we say, streamlining in its narrative, and I know this is because it wants to avoid dragging things out, and having too confusing a cast of characters. There are constraints of time and budget. So timelines of events get compressed, and some people do things which historically were done by others.

For example, Henry’s two sisters get combined into one, whose biography becomes a weird mix of the two lives it is based on. At the start of the show, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk are both prominent characters, but at some point Norfolk just disappears. Suddenly Suffolk is doing all this stuff Norfolk did. It hardly matters, since most of it is related to decisions Henry VIII has made.

Other details are just plain wrong. Did you know that Katherine of Aragon was a redhead? That Anne Boleyn wasn’t particularly pretty? That Jane Seymour was a lady-in-waiting in Katherine’s court as well as Anne’s, well before Henry ever noticed her? After watching The Tudors, you still wouldn’t know any of this.

But you would get to enjoy drama and intrigue that captures the spirit of the time, and the gist of what happened during Henry’s reign. You would also see a lot of sumptuous costumes and jewelry (honestly the highlight of the show), much of which matches descriptions I have read in the book. The scenery and interiors are lovely and authentic-seeming as well, though much of it was filmed in Ireland, and the panoramic shots of London are obviously CGI.

The production design and high caliber actors make the show, despite its many historical inaccuracies. As I already wrote, it gives the gist of the history. It’s the Tudor era through the haze of time, distilled down to the important events and the memorable moments and quotes. It’s the familiar story of a King and his six wives, done in steamy Showtime style, and by focusing on the wives, it underscores the point made by the Broadway show SIX: that we remember the man because of his women. After all, even the signature act of Henry’s reign – the break from Rome – was done for want of a wife.

As for all the sex? Well, in that era, sex and politics were inextricably entwined. How could they not be, when the fate of kingdoms and dynasties depended on marriage alliances and the production of heirs? The Queen’s bedchamber was, in a way, a branch of the government. It’s that confluence of passion and power that makes the stories of the King and his Queens such compelling stuff, and has made these historical figures the icons that they are today.