Behind Charlottesville, economic violence

Earlier this morning, I wrote a little about my least favorite Rebecca Solnit essay. Now, having had time to reflect while driving to and from the grocery store, I’d like to write about one of my favorites. Though the essay is about the violence of climate change, it has much to do with what went down in Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday.

Solnit begins “Climate Change is Violence” with the below:

If you’re poor, the only way you’re likely to injure someone is the old traditional way: artisanal violence, we could call it–by hands, by knife, by club, or maybe modern hands-on violence, by gun or by car. 

But if you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part. You can, say, build a sweatshop factory that will collapse in Bangladesh and kill more people than any hands-on mass murderer ever did, or you can calculate risk and benefit about putting poisons or unsafe machines into the world, as manufacturers do every day. If you’re the leader of a country, you can declare war and kill by the hundreds of thousands or millions. And the nuclear superpowers–the United States and Russia–still hold the option of destroying quite a lot of life on earth.

In the page margin next to this, I wrote, “I spent hours this morning thinking these same things, less eloquently!” I’d specifically been thinking how much I now loathe the saying, “hurt people hurt people.” The kind of hurt it sets forth is a very narrow, limited kind of hurt compared to that wrought by a handful of people with enormous political and economic power. The people who say it are focused on violence at an individual versus social/structural level, thus concealing (from self and others) the kinds of hurt they passively participate in wreaking on people worldwide. They move violence to a micro scale that captures only a fraction of the macro scale hurt perpetrated today.

Further on in the essay, Solnit writes:

Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution. Almost 16 million children in the United States now live with hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and that is not because the vast, agriculturally rich United States cannot produce enough to feed all of us.

In the next sentence, she sums up the problem so succinctly it still strikes me breathless:

We are a country whose distribution system is itself a kind of violence.

What does this have to do with Charlottesville, exactly? My answer borne of a year’s worth of reading is similar to Solnit’s here:  Continue reading “Behind Charlottesville, economic violence”

The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.