Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest piece in The Atlantic is My President Was Black, and it’s stunning. While hundreds of writers have recounted or will retell the story of the Obama years, Coates is one of the smartest and most talented writers alive, and it’s hard to imagine who can put the last decade in context better than him.

As a political junkie, not many of the Obama details were new to me; as a white guy, however, it was extremely educational. Here, Coates explains why Obama’s literary voice is unique among African-American writers.

Historically, in black autobiography, to be remanded into the black race has meant exposure to a myriad of traumas, often commencing in childhood. Frederick Douglass is separated from his grandmother. The enslaved Harriet Ann Jacobs must constantly cope with the threat of rape before she escapes. After telling his teacher he wants to be a lawyer, Malcolm X is told that the job isn’t for “niggers.” Black culture often serves as the balm for such traumas, or even the means to resist them. Douglass finds the courage to face the “slave-breaker” Edward Covey after being given an allegedly enchanted root by “a genuine African” possessing powers from “the eastern nations.” Malcolm X’s dancing connects him to his “long-suppressed African instincts.”

If black racial identity speaks to all the things done to people of recent African ancestry, black cultural identity was created in response to them. The division is not neat; the two are linked, and it is incredibly hard to be a full participant in the world of cultural identity without experiencing the trauma of racial identity.

Obama is somewhat different. He writes of bloodying the nose of a white kid who called him a “coon,” and of chafing at racist remarks from a tennis coach, and of feeling offended after a white woman in his apartment building told the manager that he was following her. But the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of his generation—beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building—were mostly abstract for him. Moreover, the kind of spatial restriction that most black people feel at an early age—having rocks thrown at you for being on the wrong side of the tracks, for instance—was largely absent from his life. In its place, Obama was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools—all of which spoke of other identities, other lives and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant. Obama could have grown into a raceless cosmopolitan. Surely he would have lived in a world of problems, but problems not embodied by him.

Given this background, Coates explains that Obama nonetheless voluntarily embraced “blackness,” capturing a feeling of authenticity among the African-American communities. The process by which Obama signaled this is obviously foreign to me, but was extremely educational and interesting. Likewise, the fact that he could signal “blackness” to one community while maintaining his unprecedented appeal to white voters is fascinating.

Coates’s essay is wonderful start to finish; he even gets an interview with President Obama after Trump is elected president. I can’t recommend it enough.

Published on under Orange is the New Black

In the immediate aftermath of the (remarkably close) presidential election, you can ask twenty different people what made the difference and you’ll probably get twenty-one different answers. “Facebook failed to prevent the spread of hoaxes at best and propaganda at worst” is a popular answer, and whether or not it determined the outcome of the election, the story behind it has been fascinating to watch. Let’s start in 2012.

Alex Kantrowitz, writing for Buzzfeed News, notes that a photo shared on election night 2012 by the Obama campaign was shared over 500,000 times on Twitter, and less than 100,000 times on Facebook. Twitter has a fraction of the number of users that Facebook does, so this disparity is even worse in the proportional “shares per user” metric that I’m sure Facebook uses to measure this stuff.

Here’s where we pick up Kantrowitz’s story of How The 2016 Election Blew Up In Facebook’s Face:

Published on under Getting it All Out There

Leigh Beadon at Techdirt: web sites’ Traffic Is Fake, Audience Numbers Are Garbage, And Nobody Knows How Many People See Anything.

Where should we start? How about this: internet traffic is half-fake and everyone’s known it for years, but there’s no incentive to actually acknowledge it. The situation is technically improving: 2015 was hailed (quietly, among people who aren’t in charge of selling advertising) as a banner year because humans took back the majority with a stunning 51.5% share of online traffic, so hurray for that I guess. All the analytics suites, the ad networks and the tracking pixels can try as they might to filter the rest out, and there’s plenty of advice on the endless Sisyphean task of helping them do so, but considering at least half of all that bot traffic comes from bots that fall into the “malicious” or at least “unauthorized” category, and thus have every incentive to subvert the mostly-voluntary systems that are our first line of defence against bots… Well, good luck. We already know that Alexa rankings are garbage, but what does this say about even the internal numbers that sites use to sell ad space? Could they even be off by a factor of 10? I don’t know, and neither do you. Hell, we don’t even know how accurate the 51.5% figure is — it could be way off… in either direction.

There’s a sci-fi story waiting to be written about a world where the humans have all killed one another off, but the machines keep the internet running because their purpose in life is to index and spam everything.

Published on under Computers Talking to Computers

Om Malik, in the New Yorker: Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum.

Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. […] If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.

Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a 120 mile driverless delivery of 50,000 cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk. Truck driving is one of the few decent-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college diploma. Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.

Malik’s argument is more nuanced and richer than “it’s the economy, stupid” and I encourage you to read it, but let’s stick to the economic bit for a second. When those two million truck drivers are all out of work, that money doesn’t just disappear. It goes into the pockets of Otto’s founders and investors, of which there are significantly less than two million. Even if the driverless trucking industry turns out to be Otto and their two hundred biggest competitors, that’s a staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few.

Save Your Fork

And that doesn’t even cover the worst offenders. In 2014, Kevin Roose described a category of startups called Profitless on Purpose. His personal highlight was a startup named SpoonRocket, which delivered a sirloin and roasted cauliflower lunch to his front door in 11 minutes for $8.

But SpoonRocket doesn’t have to make money, because it’s just raised $10 million in venture capital expressly so it can keep its prices low. The metric its investors care about right now is user growth, not profits. And if, indeed, the company is selling meals for less than they cost to make, those investors are willing to fill the gap. […] They’re simply taking millions of dollars in venture capital with the hope of keeping prices low, pushing rivals out of the market, and eventually finding a way to turn a profit.

There are several worrying things about this new, profitless-on-purpose way of doing business. First is that the while some of the money used to fund money-losing start-ups comes from rich Silicon Valley investors, some large amount of it comes from public pensions, college endowments, and other, more modest sources. Lyft backer Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has gotten investments from the Imperial County, California, Employee Retirement System and the University of Michigan; the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System invests money with SpoonRocket backer General Catalyst.

If you asked them, I’m sure that firefighters in Memphis and public schoolteachers in El Centro would have no idea that their retirement funds are being used to lower the price of my delivery lunches and rides across town. But that’s exactly what’s happening. And when these venture-backed price wars happen in dozens of high-end service sectors all at once, you have a strange cultural phenomenon in which Main Street dollars are being used to finance the lifestyles of cosmopolitan yuppies.

SpoonRocket ended up raising $13.5m in total before shutting down in March 2016. It was acquired for an undisclosed sum by another startup, iFood, which has $92m of other people’s money. Got that? The one startup that spent investors’ money to (unsuccessfully) stay afloat is now owned by the other startup with even more money.

But Wait, There’s More

Now, I like to pick on technology, and Silicon Valley and startups everywhere are a convenient punching bag; but Wal-Mart has spent decades hollowing out businesses in Middle America (and then leaving). And Barnes & Noble killed your local bookstore while Starbucks killed your local coffee shop. People who lived in your town used to own these businesses; now many of them just work in someone else’s. You don’t have to be a card-carrying Marxist to see how this could be upsetting.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the populist support for Donald Trump, and understanding that cool apps, record stock market highs, and annual GDP growth hasn’t trickled down to Middle America seems like one important element.

Published on under Naturally Abhorrent Things

Jonathan Chait, for New York Magazine, pointing out the irony in David Brooks’s lamentation of the failure of the political center:

If Obama offered a deal to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody was willing to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements. If Obama favored education reform, an infrastructure bank, and more high-skill immigration, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody favored those things. When Obama supported market-oriented health-care reform, Brooks opposed it as an extravagant government takeover. Then later he wrote a sad column about how “we’d have had a very different debate if we knew the law was going to be a discrete government effort to subsidize health care for more poor people” rather than “an extravagant government grab to take over the nation’s health-care system.”

The effect of all this commentary was not to empower the moderate ideas Brooks favored, but to disempower them. Brooks was emblematic of the way the entire bipartisan centrist industry conducted itself throughout the Obama years. It was neither possible for Obama to co-opt the center, nor for Republicans to abandon it, because official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand. The well-documented reality that the parties were undergoing asymmetric polarization was one they refused to accept, because their jobs was to be bipartisan, and it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon not understanding it.

That bit about the “midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand” really resonated with me. Brooks is far from the only political commentator who has inadvertently found himself dragged rightward by Congressional Republicans’ steadfast opposition to even the most centrist of President Obama’s policies and proposals. However, the lack of awareness Brooks shows here is not promising.

Published on under David Brooks Is Probably a Nice Guy

A quick piece by Jay Rosen on The Gamergate model of press relations:

Recently Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed’s news operation, wrote: “The big story of 2014 was Gamergate, the misogynistic movement championed by Breitbart and covered primarily by new media. That turned out to be a better predictor of the presidential election than any rubber chicken dinner in Iowa (or poll by a once-reputable pollster).”

Ben is right. The Gamergate model in press relations posits that high-risk tactics should not be ruled out of consideration. It says that rejection and ridicule by the mainstream media can be a massive plus, because events like these activate — and motivate — your most committed supporters: your trolls. The Gamergate model proposes that transgressing the norms of American democracy is not some crippling defect, as previously believed, but a distinct advantage because the excitement around the transgression recruits new players to the fight, and guarantees the spread of your content.

Rosen coined the phrase “View From Nowhere” to describe the ontological agnosticism of the press. He has also argued that asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. If Rosen is correct here, political campaigns are never going to be the same.

Published on under We Really Screwed This Up, America