Dec 312013

27151_10151576054439532_725188865_nPardon the silence. Lately I’ve come down with a case of omnisciencia.

It’s the debilitating state that develops when you try to keep up with everything that’s going on.

That’s my name for it. I invented it by combining the word omniscience, which is the state of knowing everything, with the suffix -ia, to do with afflictions.

My affliction has gone viral, but I know my word for it never will on because omniscience has too many letters in it for most people and Snapchat is easier to use than a dictionary.

But not caring if it goes viral happens to be the first step toward recovery.

Omnisciencia is a condition that leaves sufferers feeling like they’re always falling behind because they’re always being bombarded by things that are outside themselves. Twitter, Instagram, news, status updates, Buzzfeed listicles, Vines—they come tumbling (or Tumblring) in an incessant avalanche. It’s the gnawing anxiety you’re always missing something.

You opt in to an unattainable quest to keep tabs on everything the second you get online. Everyone else is constantly posting breaking news, having such fine meals, decrying bad service, snuggling in contented humblebrag with their new boyfriends, gushing bulletins about the things they’re doing and seeing and learning and the washboard abs that you don’t have—and everyone posts these things as an implied boast. They post partly to reassure themselves they have a handle on things, partly to feed their own omnisciencia, and partly to tell you that you ought to know about their universe, too.

It could be argued that it’s a form of weakness to feel the impulse to post every event and beautiful vision, to keep nothing just for yourself.

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Mar 142013

Screen Shot 2013-03-14 at 17.47.27I’m struck by how many local news Web memes center on low-grade minstrelsy.

The classic entertainment trope of the happy minstrel refuses to die. For generations, the biggest form of American entertainment was the minstrel show, in which actors (both white and black) made themselves up with exaggerated and blackened features, spoke in a comic dialect, and played the fool. In the minstrel show version of America, black people were full of personality but ultimately harmless simpletons. They loped and jived and ate watermelon and possessed a childlike naïveté about the world. In the minstrel version of America, blacks gleefully traded the misery and poverty of their everyday lives for the opportunity to sing and dance and make white folks smile with a catch phrase or a lively “coon song.”

In the 1890s, former slave George W. Johnson recorded “The Whistling Coon,” and it became one of the first best-selling singles by an African-American the United States. Contemporary audiences thought the inhumane lyric (“He’s a limpy, happy, chuckle-headed huckleberry nig/…With a cranium like a big baboon”) was hilarious, but they also probably saw it as a harmless goof. Here’s another standard minstrel show from the radio days. If anything, it’s milder than what Americans would have paid to see in the years after Reconstruction. Although contemporary audiences thought they were merely laughing at funny characters, it’s pretty obvious to our ears that they were participating in a dehumanizing exercise:

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Mar 212012
Clip Art suited man extending middle finger

"At our company, you're Number One!"

By now you’ve probably heard about this week’s news gossip that some business are now demanding the Facebook passwords of new job applicants so they can snoop around their private lives and approve of their private lives before hiring them. The media is noticeably short on names of specific companies that are actually doing it, but the debate has been opened — if you consider radio-button Internet polls to be debate.

Still, about 10 percent of people who responded to this Detroit Free Press poll said that, sure, they’d be wiling to surrender private password information in order get that elusive job. Granted, this is in Detroit, one of the most arid wastelands of the American employment ecosystem, and where people have lost dignity in a thousand ways long before clicking “vote.”

We’re sacrificing dignity because if we don’t, we won’t eat. Welcome to the new Low Self-Esteem Economy, in which the feeling that we’re lucky to get crumbs is a commodity employers can cash in.

The Huffington Post is building a news empire partly on the back of free labor; it doesn’t pay many of its writers and aggregates stories from other places. (It’s by no means the only publication doing this.) When a strike was called by the Newspaper Guild of America against it last year, its in-house flack said, “nearly all of our bloggers are happy with the arrangement, and happy to access the platform and the huge audience it brings.” Arianna Huffington herself, a famous liberal, blurted out a decidedly un-liberal denigration of a labor dispute, telling the media, ““Go ahead! Go on strike! What does it matter?… [N]o one really notices!” Maybe she was right. Five months later, the boycott was called off.

The message, of course, is that reporters and writers are lucky to get published at all. To accept any of this, you have to first accept that you’re not worth better.

I’m not sticking a knife in these companies for trying to get something out of people. I suppose that testing the limits of exploitation is the American way. It’s the bottom line of the free market system: Try to bleed profit out the other guy to the point where he cries foul — and there you find your market price.

I’m saying, with great concern, that we are happy to go along with it now. We are afraid to cry foul lest we go jobless.

A few people are objecting. There’s the former intern at The Charlie Rose Show who’s suing over alleged wage law violations. Who knows how much traction that’ll get, because as a culture, we accept no-wage situations when we’re beginning our careers. (I myself had two internships in the media when I was starting out; one at The Village Voice was unpaid, which I left the minute I landed a paid one at Entertainment Weekly, which indeed turned into an actual job with benefits.)

The trouble is that more and more of us are being told by powerful businesses that because the economy remains in a muddle, we’re all the equivalent of rank beginners.

Can you imagine if, say, Ernest Hemingway’s publishers refused to pay him for his first book, The Sun Also Rises, because he was “lucky” to see his name on a book at all?

If you have a great job right now, congratulations. Don’t brag too much about it, because many businesses already have us making huge sacrifices to retain our paychecks. We’re doing the work of all those who were fired in recent years. The trouble is that that employers have learned how to squeeze more out of us. While many of us toil to take one for the team, quaking in fear of retrenchment, the reality is that right now, corporations are recording record profit margins.

Economists fear that skeleton crew staffing has become the “new normal,” and that employers have seen they can wring maximum profits from minimum resources by demanded sacrifices from all. The Sword of Damocles, that mythic motivator that feeds on groveling, convinces us to give a lot of things we didn’t have to give up 10 years ago. Since businesses are racking up profits, why sheath the sword and hire more people again? Just as businesses have learned to operate under these lean circumstances, our tolerance as workers may have stretched so far it can never snap back to normal again.

What we’re seeing is a transfer of blue-collar terrors to white-collar résumés. Factory workers lived with oppression for generations, and they struggled with ways to fight back for just as long because often, there were few alternatives in their towns. Now cubicle professionals are being stretched to their hourly limit, losing already dwindling benefits, or donating labor without pay because the employers have convinced them they’re blessed for the privilege. It’s the old story with new middle-class players.

But, just as American factory workers learned long ago, it’s hard not to notice where the fruit of our labors is going.

I can only hope we’re nearing the end of this period an American industry that is underwritten by the low self-esteem of its workers. As the economy firms up, it will be more difficult for employers to hold onto this “new normal” of under-staffing and perennial internships. There comes a point, as people age and see their professional dreams wither, that they refuse to believe the manipulative lie that they’re simply lucky to have a job at all.


Vacation days around the world

Food for thought: Most American businesses only give about 10 days of vacation a year, and they don't even have to do that. Also: When you're dead, you're dead forever. (Source: CNN)

Nov 222011
Techno-Sphere Swatch

This was the Techno-Sphere Swatch. I owned one in the late '80s. It, too, is obsolete.

There’s pervasive concept that things that happen online deserve a whole different set of words to describe them. We contend daily with new words that there really don’t need new words for, such as hyperlocal, content, and that gossipy reduction of a complex social trend, meme.

In the beginning of our collective online existence, techies invented scientific-sounding new coinages as a way of legitimizing their offshoot world. But now that world has essentially merged with the Real Time world, but the colloquial segregation endures. For a movement that likes to view itself as expressively free and nimble, the onliners quickly burdened their communication with a lexicon of stultifying jargon, and they stubbornly resist using everyday language. Their writing is often as impenetrable and lifeless as the memos shuffled around in a mammoth corporation.

That’s annoying, but it’s not where the divisions end. The online world is treated like a separate kingdom even by those reporting on it.

Keep your ears open during the next newscast. Again and again, events are reported as being a story “online.” It instantly diminishes whatever happened.

If it’s a story, it’s a story, period. Why do we keep pretending that online happenings happen in some other universe?

When they talk this way, it’s as if TV journalists are still contorting to prove that they even know what the Internet is. We’re hip to the Twitter, gang!  So hip, in fact, that it’s going to take 45 minutes away from reporting news to make sure you’re aware it knows what Sassypants87 tweeted about Taylor Lautner.

Its probably a form of Luddism to hold technology in a separate sphere from the rest of life. But that’s what we are still doing, 15 years after most of us adopted email and the Web fully into our lives.

The TV news channel journalists would probably excuse themselves by saying they always name the source as a way of citing sources, but their patronizing presentation hints that’s not quite the simple truth: They often show Web comments on a separate screen, complete with the logo of the originating site. They condescend, they switch into a new style. It’s not as if they broadcast the logo of a newspaper if it happens to run salacious or controversial remarks by a political candidate.

If you wonder if I have a point, it may be that you haven’t noticed. Go ahead, listen. On Twitter, Kardashian defended herself… Here’s what the candidate said on Facebook… Nine times out of 10, you could strike the “online” or “on Facebook” from the script of any TV report. It doesn’t matter anymore. They said it no matter where it appeared. Our online lives are integrated with our other lives.

So much news is drawn from the Web these days, anyway (kitty-cat YouTube videos on NBC Nightly News? really?), that surely by now it’s redundant to keep repeating it in many cases.

If it happened online, it still happened. The Internet is part of our lives. Let’s absorb it, accept it, and start talking that way. All of us.

Mar 292011

Crappy job postings: Ernest Shackleton's ad solicited some 5,000 responses anyway

You’re going to think I’m nuts. But I’m growing convinced: The Web has trashed the American economy.

Back in the ’20s, mass production transformed the way we made and bought things. Henry Ford and his magnate brethren learned how to make vast quantities of consumer items quickly, and to sell those consumer items, they had to advertise to the masses. A symbiotic relationship was born and, in tandem, production and advertising became the twin cylinders of our economic engine. By the 1950s, our consumer society reached its apogee. Today, the capitalist formula is so perfect that many Americans would rather live deep in debt than within their means. Gotta have the latest stuff, or at least die pretending you do!

And then the Web came in. Online shopping mushroomed and today, it’s taking over. Last Cyber Monday, online shopping hit a new high of $1 billion in sales on single day. While we were busy chattering about what a novelty digital commerce was, it was sticking daggers in Mom and Pop’s backs.

Observers like to claim that newspapers and magazines are dying because Web journalism and social media are making them irrelevant. But I think they’re wrong about the true nature of what’s happening. They’re distracted by the shiny new baubles of Twitter and Facebook, and mistaking demolition for revolution.

Yes, the Web has impacted print media. Of course it has. But I think it’s because the Web eliminated advertising as a crucial medium. Why would a wicket manufacturer want to spend tens of thousands for display advertising when it could spend nearly nothing and simply appear at the top of the heap in a Google search? The great ad man, once an archetype of American business, is now something of a hobbyist. Advertising positions are skewing more toward marketing ones in which companies learn not how to master the art of the ad, but how to manipulate free social media gossip to work in their favor.

The end result: Far less money is now changing hands in everyday commerce.

Without advertising, one of the legs has been kicked out from under our economic dinner table.  Without advertising, too, millions of Americans will suffer from lost work: journalists, writers, actors, producers. Without big-ticket advertising, the few surviving media outlets that remain must hack budgets so far to the bone that previously professional positions will be filled by people getting bony wages. More businesses expect to be able to do things for free, and that includes staffing.

cart keyboard button online shopping

All the advertising a business needs these days

If you think that’s a scary prophesy, I hate to tell you it’s already true: An editor of one of the nation’s biggest travel magazines got up in front of the Society of American Travel writers conference last spring and said he’s getting away with paying writers 50¢ a word when a few years ago they got $2 a word. They’re lucky. One of the biggest “news” sites in the world doesn’t pay most of its contributors a cent. In a masterstroke of mining low self-esteem for profit, it tells writers that their payment is the opportunity to see their name on their website for free. All this is now reality because advertising is becoming a memory.

About six months ago, a friend of mine, who has worked in TV, newspapers, and in digital media, said something ominous to me: “I think the dirty little secret of Internet journalism is that no one really knows how to make money from it.”

Six months later, she was laid off by the troubled media corporation that employed her to save it. She was replaced by a kid right out of school whose chief skill is the mastery of SEO. In a downshift analogous to American commerce as a whole, another high-level position became a cottage-industry job, and standards descended with it.

First we were hit by outsourcing. Now we’re being slammed by downsourcing.

Even when I go to brick-and-mortar stores, I find the retail clerks have capitulated to the Web. So often these days, when I look for something that’s not in stock, I’m answered with a passive shrug. “You can find it online,” they tell me, absolving themselves of making a sale despite the fact I have cash in hand.

I would like to know if anyone has ever done a study to see how much money American businesses lose each year because customers refuse to return home, order the item online, pay the shipping, and wait.

The reason no one knows how to make much money off Internet journalism so far is that there are few advertising dollars behind it. Readers and businesses alike are finally used to getting everything for free. In a world where consumers can find what they’re looking for without outside assistance, they’re just not as necessary as they used to be.

Half the engine of our economy was removed even as we’re rocketing down the highway at 95 miles per hour.

It’s mad, man.