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Better and Better, Worse and Worse
March 10, 2013 1:10 PM   Subscribe

"My unprovable hypothesis is that obsessive upgrading and chronic stagnation are intimately related, in the same way that erotic fantasies are related to sexual repression. The fetish that surrounds Google Glass or the Dow average grows ever more hysterical as the economic status of the majority of Americans remains flat. When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes intransigent, you can take refuge in the virtual world..." - George Packer, Upgrade or Die
posted by beisny (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, obviously.

All the young people have left my area because there are no jobs. The average age is 53. The coolest happening around here is the summer steel drum dance at the old ladies' dog club event. The community radio station plays nothing but nonthreatening, uninspired muzak. I am a musician but would have to drive 200 miles to get to a venue where people would want to hear electronic music.

Can anybody blame me for taking refuge on the Internet?
posted by dunkadunc at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


"But when they left the darkened cinema house and returned to their harassed lives, did pundits and hucksters tell those audiences that everything really was getting better and better? Was there a nineteen-thirties version of the continuously improving iPhone and the TED conference? If so, did newspapers devote entire sections to covering them?"

yes virginia, there is digest...

"Publishers became economically squeezed as circulation and advertising profits declined. Even William Randolph Hearst (1910s, 1940s), who then owned the largest press empire, had to sell stocks and pump in personal funds to keep his newspapers afloat. Many readers switched to more economical condensed periodicals such as Time or Reader's Digest (see 1920/ Publications section) which gathered the most important articles from various publications."

so...
"The radio brought together the rich and the poor, of every race, nationality or creed in one audience rather than in many separate readerships in the print media. During the Great Depression, radio advertising revenues doubled (while newspaper and magazine profits were halved), because radio could reach a large national audience. Radio continued to focus on entertainment then news, until World War II where newscasts on the radio became more prominent."
posted by clavdivs at 1:23 PM on March 10, 2013


Peter Thiel—perhaps the only conservative libertarian tech billionaire who spends much time worrying about this situation, and who also contributes part of his fortune to finding the “cure for aging”—once told me, “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”

Wow. I sincerely hope Peter Thiel overcomes his own case of inequality as soon as possible.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:27 PM on March 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Wow. I sincerely hope Peter Thiel overcomes his own case of inequality as soon as possible.

By making himself neither alive nor dead? Zombie Peter Thiel!
posted by jeisme at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not really the point of the article, but does anyone know where I would address a sternly-worded letter to the person who is arguing "Sure, the iPhone design is okay, but it sure has a lot of buttons. Can we do something about that?"
posted by Riki tiki at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not even wrong.

Income inequality is not caused by innovation or incremental improvements in products. It's caused by economic policies written by people who already have money, for people already have money.

We have an income inequality problem because, culturally, everybody was taught to fear "socialism" and to idolize the rich.
posted by Foosnark at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2013 [36 favorites]


But I still wonder what the conjunction of perfectibility stories [...] and decline stories means? What relation do they have with one another? What is it like to keep encountering them together?

Not much; capitalism; alienating.
posted by RogerB at 1:58 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Actual Litch, Peter Thiel
posted by The Whelk at 2:44 PM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not even wrong.

Income inequality is not caused by innovation or incremental improvements in products. It's caused by economic policies written by people who already have money, for people already have money.


That is a misreading of the article. The more time society devotes to activity A, the less time it has to devote to activity B. The author doesn't deny the lens of inequality and spends 1/2 the article talking about just that; his additional point is that the ideological "techno-romantic" fallacy (a kind of thinking that is in some ways similar to scientism of the last century) that is so pervasive in society plays a key role as well.
posted by polymodus at 2:45 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related: Everything's amazing and nobody's happy.
posted by chavenet at 2:55 PM on March 10, 2013


his additional point is that the ideological "techno-romantic" fallacy (a kind of thinking that is in some ways similar to scientism of the last century) that is so pervasive in society plays a key role as well.

Well then, I disagree. I don't recall Google ever claiming that Glass would make health care affordable, nor Apple claiming the next iPhone iteration would feed starving children.
posted by Foosnark at 3:17 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't recall Google ever claiming that Glass would make health care affordable, nor Apple claiming the next iPhone iteration would feed starving children.

They kind of don't have to?
posted by mph at 3:20 PM on March 10, 2013


“Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”

I've read the article through twice now and I still don't get what Thiel is trying to say here. The quote comes at the end of a paragraph in which the author talks about differing life expectancies between the rich and poor, so maybe Thiel is pointing to inequality between people who survive longer vs. people who die sooner...but if so, that's a weird way to phrase it.

Did anyone else figure out what the guy's on about?

The author's point seems rather thin. I mean, there's something to the idea that we've been accepting style over substance in our economic pursuits over the past few decades, but there's a whole lot more to that than the peculiar tech-fetishism of the ever-thinning middle class. The latter's very much a sideshow when put next to mainstream media framing of the issues, or accelerating corporate political advocacy and political financing.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:25 PM on March 10, 2013


I suspect Theil is on about how unfair it is that his billions probably won't save him from the same long-term outcome as faces all the rest of us.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:54 PM on March 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I suspect Theil is on about how unfair it is that his billions probably won't save him from the same long-term outcome as faces all the rest of us.

If you combine Theil and Elon Musk you get the view of the future given by Ken Macleod in his Divisions and Fractions series of scifi books, that those tech billionaires want to live forever in space. If I didn't see it being pursued, I would have assumed it was complete science fiction.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:53 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


obsessive upgrading and chronic stagnation

Certainly there's a long-standing inverse relationship between the quality of a technical medium and the quality of content for that medium. Radio, music, TV, all too easy to see.

Almost all emerging things become more stolid, passive, and unexciting as their 'adult' forms begin to emerge. Even Harry and Hermoine. This is a fact more than it is a problem.
posted by Twang at 5:18 PM on March 10, 2013


“Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead.”

Well, that sentiment would be pretty insightful if he were instead pumping his money into environmental remediation or childhood leukemia.

That's why, when I join the mega-rich, I will publicly donate half my fortune into good works and the other half secretly into life extension. The plebes are more likely to defrost you that way! Darn Bill Gates is a lot further along in implementing my plan, though.
posted by Skwirl at 5:26 PM on March 10, 2013


The answer to inequality is pretty goddamn simple: higher marginal tax rates.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:57 PM on March 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't recall Google ever claiming that Glass would make health care affordable, nor Apple claiming the next iPhone iteration would feed starving children.

Eponysterical, since "how shall we cure the world's ills with technology" is exactly what I see coming out of Foo Camp the last couple of years.

It's true the manufacturers for those specific devices aren't making such grandiose claims, but there's definitely a sort of techno-zeitgeist out there that eg. giving tablets to all of the children of the world will result in mass literacy, something something economic opportunity, yay we have eradicated hunger and poverty.
posted by Andrhia at 7:21 PM on March 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Growing Up with Google Glass

Google Glass: the horror, the horror
posted by homunculus at 7:40 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz: "If you combine Theil and Elon Musk you get the view of the future given by Ken Macleod in his Divisions and Fractions series of scifi books, that those tech billionaires want to live forever in space. If I didn't see it being pursued, I would have assumed it was complete science fiction."

Freeside, Villa Straylight, Tessier-Ashpools! Wintermute?
posted by barnacles at 10:25 PM on March 10, 2013


Foosnark: "Income inequality is not caused by innovation or incremental improvements in products. It's caused by economic policies written by people who already have money, for people already have money."

Every kind of system, including one with no no redistributive effects at all is a policy. It's kind of an open question whether or not a government policy that had no redistributive effects will directly cause inequality. You might imagine a rich-get-richer scenario, but it's just as plausible that the rich are running out of good investments and end up competing to loan their wealth to the less fortunate who need more access to education, tools, and goods. Certainly, they've already driven short term interest rates for the federal government down to near zero.

Personally, I think even if we did fix the treatment of capital gains, we'd have the perception of a policy that increases inequality. Part of the challenge is that globalization is raising boats that don't count for much in American politics. Factory workers in China earning 10x what their parents earn doesn't show up on most people's radar as progress, even though wages have risen enough now that it's prompting manufacturers to look at other countries for new cheap low-skill labor.

What's more annoying under this scenario is that Chinese leadership has been intervening to prevent wages from increasing. Most international finance experts I've encountered seem to agree that China's currency should be stronger, and the number of goods it exports should fall as it's currency rises, leaving room for American (and other) manufacturers. On the other hand, it means iPhones are cheaper than they should be, so to bring it back to the article in hand, this does end up highlighting the digital divide.
posted by pwnguin at 10:42 PM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Google Glass: the horror, the horror

Well, that's a bit OTT and not OTT enough at the same time. When I think of the Google glass I immediately think of Ray Milland.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:28 AM on March 11, 2013


"What’s more tedious, shallow technoütopianism or shallow takedowns of same?"
posted by brennen at 8:27 PM on March 11, 2013


People who insinuate that there's some kind of equivalency.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:34 PM on March 11, 2013


is that door number 2....
posted by clavdivs at 6:39 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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