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intellectuals and influencers

By ayjay

Both the public intellectual and the public influencer play an instrumental role in shaping cultural ideals and tying them to the individual’s sense of self. When the public intellectual was ascendant, cultural ideals revolved around the public good. Today, they revolve around the consumer good. The idea that the self emerges from the construction of a set of values and beliefs has faded. What the public influencer understands more sharply than most is that the path of self-definition now winds through the aisles of a cultural supermarket. We shop for our identity as we shop for our toothpaste, choosing from a wide selection of readymade products. The influencer displays the wares and links us to the purchase, always with the understanding that returns and exchanges will be easy and free.

This from Nick Carr is short and sharp and smart. Please read the whole thing, especially the last paragraph, which ends on a zinger. (I feel zinged, anyway.) Nick’s post is a useful contribution to the understanding of what I’ve been calling metaphysical capitalism, which is the transformation of the commodified self into a religion.

Also, this gives me the opportunity to answer a question some people have been asking me: What exactly is the narrative promoted by the reporting of New York Times that I dislike so much? The short answer is: metaphysical capitalism. For the reporters on the Times, those who tell me that “I am my own” are on the side of the angels, while those who cast doubt on that proposition are to be cast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Thus genuinely Left movements get only marginally better treatment in the Times than religious conservatives.) That is the primary means by which Times reporters evaluate everything from political candidates to religious organizations to movies and books. There is not even the slightest attempt in those pages to be fair to people who question self-ownership, for what fellowship has light with darkness?

Whose Life?

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by the philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale, is a book anyone committed to public-facing scholarship ought to take note of. This is all the ...

The post Whose Life? appeared first on Public Books.

Impossible Belonging

If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves...

The post Impossible Belonging appeared first on Public Books.

Philanthropists Will Not Save Us

What unites Mark Zuckerberg and the Koch Brothers? For many, their politics appear to set them apart. At least before the Cambridge Analytica revelations ...

The post Philanthropists Will Not Save Us appeared first on Public Books.

When Big Business Backed Social Security

By Livia Gershon

This April, the annual Social Security Trustees report triggered a predictable round of hand-wringing by business-backed conservative analysts. The program’s trust fund is currently set to be exhausted by 2035. Although this outcome could be averted by raising the cap on contributions by high earners, conservatives have instead called for the government to essentially ditch the program in favor of private savings.

As economic historian Sanford M. Jacoby writes, conservative hostility toward Social Security has been present from the moment of the program’s birth. But Jacoby also finds that the current shape of social benefits is partly a product of big businesses pushing for public benefits to be organized in a way that helps them.

Jacoby focuses on the career of corporate executive and technocrat Marion Bayard Folsom. Folsom was a pioneer in welfare capitalism, the idea that corporations—not the government—should take responsibility for workers’ long-term well-being. He helped design programs for Eastman Kodak Company in the 1910s and ‘20s, including employee cafeterias, athletic facilities, funds for sick and injured workers, and profit sharing. Only a handful of big corporations offered such benefits in that era, but many reformers and academic experts saw it as the wave of the future.

Jacoby writes that the Great Depression was a blow to welfare capitalism. Public opinion shifted toward support for more public programs. To Folsom, the idea of expanding state-provided benefits wasn’t all bad. If the government taxed employers to provide benefits like unemployment insurance and retirement support, it would narrow the gap between Kodak and competitors who didn’t provide benefits.

But most employers adamantly opposed the founding of social welfare programs including Social Security. Jacoby writes that business groups attacked Social Security as an “immoral departure from the ‘American way.’”

Even Folsom worried that if government programs were too generous they would reduce workers’ dependence on their employer. He argued for minimal government benefits, combined with tax incentives to spur employers to provide a more generous set of benefits. Others, including populists like Huey Long, pushed for a more comprehensive welfare state along the lines of those that many Western European countries eventually established.

Ultimately, the package of benefits included in the New Deal fit fairly closely with Folsom’s vision. And, with the advent of World War II, other business leaders came around to his way of thinking. The federally-mandated wartime wage freeze encouraged employers to offer welfare capitalism-style programs like pensions and health insurance, and to support government subsidies for these programs.

Weekly Digest


Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election in 1952 represented the first Republican presidential victory in twenty years. By this time, Social Security had broader support. Instead of cutting it, Eisenhower modestly expanded the program. And, in 1955, he appointed Folsom to be Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Today, with the decline of stable, long-term jobs, there may be more need for government welfare programs than there was in the 1950s. But there may also be less incentive for businesses to back them.

The post When Big Business Backed Social Security appeared first on JSTOR Daily.

On the Absurdity of Ethical Capitalism

I worked two “jobs” during my first summer as a graduate student in Indiana. One involved telemarketing research, convincing people to answer telephone ...

The post On the Absurdity of Ethical Capitalism appeared first on Public Books.

The World Silicon Valley Made

A repairman at the Shenzhen electronic bazaar treks from stall to stall, gathering inexpensive camera modules, casings, glass displays, batteries, and motherboards ...

The post The World Silicon Valley Made appeared first on Public Books.

Farewell to Facebook. Mostly.

By Philip Nel

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been gradually drifting away from Facebook. Lately, the drift has become a decisive move. Last month, I downloaded my Facebook data — in order to better see precisely what Facebook was collecting.  Then, I removed Facebook from my phone and tablet.

There are many reasons for my move — most recently, Facebook’s pursuit of treason for cash. But, more generally, I am stepping away because — like so many “free” platforms — Facebook is a parasitic business that monetizes your attention and personal data. I don’t feel comfortable supporting Mark Zuckerberg’s reckless, lucrative, criminal enterprise. So, I’m on his platform less often.

But I haven’t yet closed my account. Two groups with which I am affiliated have Facebook presences; I feel a professional responsibility to maintain an account in order to manage those. It’s possible that I may occasionally pop in to post birthday wishes. I suspect, though, that my infrequent engagement with this predatory platform means I’ll miss a lot of Facebook friends’ birthdays. I’m sorry about that: I really enjoyed posting a different song each year.

Note to Self podcastMy move away from Facebook began with Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self podcast, which I started listening to at the beginning of 2017. Its “Bored and Brilliant” series (2015/2017) introduced me to the Moment app, which allows you to monitor your use of your iPhone or iPad. (If you have an Android phone, it recommends the BreakFree app.) Moment showed me how often I was using my devices, and helped me cut back.  Subsequent series — its “Infomagical” series (2016) and its “Privacy Paradox” series (2017) — also helped. I deleted apps I wasn’t using. I turned off notifications. I tidied up my apps into little folders.

If you wonder whether your use of technology may be hindering or even harming you, I highly recommend these three Note to Self series. If you have already noticed the ways in which apps and social media ensnare and prey upon your attention, then perhaps you have already taken the necessary steps to reclaim your life. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, I recommend reflecting on your relationship to technology. Not coincidentally, such reflection is the focus of the Note to Self podcast.

I used to make the effort to, say, check Facebook only twice a day — an effort at which I did not always succeed. However, in the past month or so, I have found it quite easy to stay off of Facebook. I actually find myself putting off checking Facebook. I’m simply not comfortable being there. Its willingness to aid Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is a major catalyst — selling Trump ads at much lower rates than Clinton ads (because Trump ads got more clicks), taking Russian money (in Rubles, even!) to fund pro-Trump propaganda & fake news, or allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest its users’ data (again, in support of the mendacious traitor who currently occupies the White House… well, when he’s not at one of his golf courses).

Mark Zuckerberg in Washington, DC, 9 Apr. 2018. Photo by AP

In his testimony yesterday, Mr. Zuckerberg said his slow response to Russian meddling is “one of [his] greatest regrets,” and promised to ban apps that are “doing anything improper.”  Earlier that day, he said he will make sure Facebook is “a positive force in the world.”  There is zero reason to believe him. First, he has made promises like this before — as in this 2009 interview, below.

Worth remembering this gem from 2009.. #Zuckerberg

— Ryan Paisey (@RyanPaisey) April 10, 2018

Second, there is no regulation that would compel him to keep these promises. Third, and as Tim Wu points out, the flaws of Facebook are not a bug but a feature. Facebook is designed to surveil its users:

The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.

Exactly.  If you sign up for Facebook, you’re donating your personal data and time to an enterprise built on manipulating you and selling others whatever you tell it about yourself. Because that’s what Facebook is.

Beyond the obvious fact that I don’t want to continue enriching Mr. Zuckerberg or supporting his poisonous enterprise, I simply don’t like being on Facebook. It feels like a sinister, perilous place to be.

I know, of course, that social media has always been far more dangerous for women, people of color, gay people, the trans community, and all whom society renders more vulnerable. And I am aware that many daily behaviors implicate all of us in injustices of various kinds. (How much child labor went into making your cell phone? Who made that chocolate and under what conditions? How much money does Twitter make from Russian bots or the traffic generated by Herr Twitler?) I realize that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle ourselves from all dubious products and practices. But Facebook is one that I can step back from.

I’ll miss knowing what’s going on in people’s lives, and I may well miss useful professional information. But I won’t miss the misinformation, the clickbait, the amplification of outrage, or that queasy, soul-sucking feeling of being on Facebook.

So, that’s why you have been seeing much less of me on Facebook — and will see even less of me in the future. I have yet to delete my account, but that day may come, too. We’ll see.

Twitter bird logoIf you need to reach me, email and Twitter (@philnel) remain more reliable ways of doing so. Those who know me know that Facebook was never the best way to reach me (though I once had the app on my phone and tablet, I never installed Facebook Messenger). But for those who weren’t aware, now you are.

Be safe out there.  Take care of yourselves.  And drop me a line if you need anything, OK?

Image sources: “Goodbye Facebook” from Anusha Sachwani’s “Facebook to Pull Support from These Devices!” (BrandSynario, 29 Mar. 2017); Note to Self logo from Note to Self podcast (WNYC); AP photo of Zuckerberg in Washington DC from “Mark Zuckerberg plans to tell Congress that as long as he’s CEO, advertisers won’t take priority over Facebook’s users” (Business Insider, 9 Apr. 2018); Twitter button.