Who’s Processing Whom?

Digital Commons, Digital Blinders, and a Fraught Social Future

This blog post is really too long, I admit it, at over 8500 words… but it’s based on nine different books that all spoke to each other that I read in the past months, and it all dovetails rather strongly with my own personal history, where this blog begins. At the end I list the nine books with links, and I encourage you to read all of them!

Random graffiti on Harrison Street in San Francisco, summer 2019.

“Are You Doing the Processing, or Are You Being Processed?” —Processed World #1, April 1981

This … signals the metamorphosis of the digital infrastructure from a thing we have to a thing that has us. (p. 204, Zuboff)

…“smart” is a euphemism for rendition: intelligence that is designed to render some tiny corner of lived experience as behavioral data. Each smart object is a kind of marionette; for all its “smartness,” it remains a hapless puppet dancing to the puppet master’s hidden economic imperatives. Products, services, and applications march to the drumbeat of inevitabilism toward the promise of surveillance revenues hacked from the still-wild spaces that we call “my reality,” “my home,” “my life,” and “my body.” (Zuboff, p. 238)

Almost four decades ago I was working at an “information desk” at 4th and Mission in San Francisco in the lobby of the Downtown Community College Center (it later became part of City College of SF). From there I was able to take a class learning a new skill: word processing! Upstairs we were taught to use magnetic cards in the shape of old IBM punch cards to record our typing. When we wanted to edit or fix errors on our document we reloaded the magnetic card next to the IBM Selectric typewriter, and by counting down lines and across words and letters, we arrived at what we hoped was the spot where the change was to be made, and inserted it. When we later printed the document again we could see if we were correct.

From this training, I was suddenly eligible to work for any of the many multinationals in downtown San Francisco who were hungrily seeking newly skilled modern office workers, and the starting wages were twice what I’d been getting at the info desk, $12 vs. $6 in 1980. Before long I was on a longterm “temp” job at Bank of America at 1455 Market (a building that weirdly is now home to Uber’s HQ and San Francisco’s Department of the Environment) where I worked on a glowing green CRT terminal connected to a DEC minicomputer. I worked on a team of word processors producing manuals to train bank tellers in Florida how to use BofA’s computer systems (this was still several years before interstate banking was deregulated and in 1980 BofA did not yet formally own any banks in Florida).

When that gig ended, I hopped around among Arthur Anderson accountants, T. Rowe Price brokerage, and other forgettable corporate offices. When my friends in Berkeley asked if I would be interested in working at their hippie computer collective (Community Memory) I said yes, provided it was a four-day week. I became the 3rd employee of their for-profit marketing company Pacific Software, and spent the next year and a half producing marketing literature for their two state-of-the-art software programs, a relational database system and a packet-switching program that facilitated communications across the early internet. I typed and printed an endless procession of nondisclosure agreements for everyone from defense contractors to banks and government agencies to other software companies, all eager to see the best software computer-loving hippies could make.

Community Memory had started in the mid-1970s as an effort to create a public access computer network with public terminals in places like libraries, community centers, and even Leopold’s Records. The assumption back then was that the government, the military, and IBM would never allow computers to become available to the general public, and there was little sense that a vast publicly accessible Internet could grow based on telecommunications hardware and the worldwide web (first invented in the early 1990s). Hobbyists and tinkerers around the 1970s Homebrew Computer Club (which later begat Apple and Microsoft among many others) were all trying to invent small, accessible machines that anyone could build and play with, without really knowing what they would be used for. This was also the post-Watergate era when Senate hearings had revealed vast spying by government agencies on citizens, sparking outrage and promises of reform. Behind the scenes, the Pentagon’s efforts to advance cybernetics, computing, and networks were proceeding rapidly, and the Arpanet connected a number of prestigious universities and research facilities—students at those universities were among the early experimenters, including the Berkeley-based Community Memory group.

By the time I became the secretary for its marketing arm, the collective had developed two very sophisticated pieces of software for their planned public network, that were also at the cutting edge of the beginnings of the commercial computer business. When I went to work there, too, I had already been publishing, as part of a different collective, Processed World magazine for almost a year.

In the pages of Processed World we gave voice to our expectations that as the newly automating office developed, proletarianized white collar workers would band together to resist, subvert, and sabotage the new organization of work, and hopefully find the collective power to shortcircuit capitalism at the point of circulation. My early word processing skills helped me learn phototypesetting, and through serendipitous events we had acquired a machine and it was in our house. This was the foundation on which Processed World could publish, and a few years later, it was the foundation of my self-employed small business life that I turned to after Community Memory, and spared me years of languishing in the dungeons of corporate America.

At Pacific Software I had an early experience of the now-familiar saga of the tech startup. All of us were given shares in the company but one day in 1981 came the Monday morning massacre… after rapid expansion to over 25 employees and great expectations of future profitability, the company ran out of money and backers and we went from 25 to 5 employees in one brutal wave of firings. Our stock was worthless of course. I was supposed to remain and do the work of five of the fired workers. That sounded pretty bleak, so I waited til the next day to announce my resignation, with an offer: I’d stay for three weeks to train three people to do the work they expected of me, provided they laid me off and did not contest my unemployment benefits claim at the end of the three weeks. That bargain was struck, and I never had a “real” job again, though self-employed small business life is certainly full of its own compromises and dissatisfactions. But I always controlled my own time and from then on, any time-saving efficiencies resulting from my skills and personality benefited me directly without harassment from bosses or coworkers who expected me to “look busy” when I finished tasks early.

During those short years as a temporary corporate nomad (I even worked briefly in the Boston area for a big defense contractor Bolt, Beranek and Newman) I honed my bad attitude towards the stupidity of modern work. The activities that I carried out on my various jobs were nearly always pointless. It was hard to fathom how these big-name corporations could be so completely inefficient and redundant at every turn. The obsession with behavior, attitude, appearances, etc., overwhelmed any concern for the purpose of the work, or carrying it out in a timely manner. Bosses were always dumber than the temps, and were usually sad individuals with very limited horizons for whom bossing the temps was a brief high point where they had some authority and power. The pettiness of their reigns was the most prominent characteristic of the office environment (captured well years later in TV’s The Office). For the most part, though, their efforts to assert control and to establish their credibility as small-time tyrants rarely succeeded. It was very easy to hide both on and off the job in those days.

Since that confusing period at the dawn of neoliberalism, things have definitely gotten much worse. Processed World weathered the 1980s only to finally run out of steam around 1994 (with a couple of surprising returns to form for two issues in 2001 and 2005, after which the effort ended for good—I recently wrote a brief political history of the magazine here). During the 32 issues we published steadily from 1981-1994 we covered every angle we could on the reorganizing of the modern workplace, as well as the occasional eruptions of dissent and organized and disorganized revolt in that period. We knew that workplace surveillance was growing with keystroke counting and automated systems of observation. We knew that government surveillance was ongoing, tracking movements against nuclear war, nuclear power, and dirty wars in Central America and the Middle East, as well as ongoing domestic policing. This earlier surveillance system depended on public and private contractors who were spying on political activists and groups. But the gross incompetence of the average corporation informed our sense of what was certainly a parallel incompetence by government and private surveillance efforts. We didn’t really fear repression in that era, so much as find it ridiculous.

Sandcastle festival at Parksville, British Columbia Community Park… a Russian, Dimitry Klimenko, and an American, Sue McGrew, had some fun together making this..
Who took Lenin’s head on the day after the festival?

By the time the 1990s began, and the Cold War collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it was clear that the U.S. was becoming giddily belligerent on the world stage. The first Gulf War gave the warmongers and their cheerleaders on CNN and network TV a brief sense that they had finally overcome the Vietnam Syndrome’s public aversion to war. The rise of Clinton and Blair as pseudo-progressive avatars of neoliberal hegemony reinforced the trajectory launched by Reagan and Thatcher towards hyper-individualism, a breakdown in social solidarity, and an ever more frayed sense of community and connection among atomized people who no longer knew their neighbors or coworkers very well, if at all. The enormous disruptions in formerly stable economic lives resulting from the rapid globalization of the 1990s and 2000s, with its attendant race to the bottom that predictably emerged as formerly unionized work was shipped out to low-wage regions like China and Mexico, left a much more unequal society in its wake.

Continue reading Who’s Processing Whom?

This Land is WHOSE Land??

July 2, 2019, protest at Senator Feinstein’s office at Post and Montgomery.

For a nation whose vaunted freedom was secured at the point where mass human bondage met genocidal expansion, what we are experiencing today is like a series of afterimages—the past-present that is these United States.
—Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War, p. 122

The 1924 Immigration Act, then, had an explosive effect. On the one hand, the limits it placed on the numbers of European and Asian migrants who could enter the United States reinforced Mexico’s importance as a source of cheap labor for the United States’ expanding economy. On the other hand, it created an agency—the U.S. Border Patrol—that institutionalized a virulent form of nativism and concentrated its animus on Mexican migrants.
—Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, p. 124-125

I live on stolen land, and you do too. Here in San Francisco we all live on unceded Ohlone territory. After the Spaniards came along with Catholicism and cows, the local folks were mostly wiped out by overwork and disease. But not everyone died, and descendants have emerged in the past decades. California’s First Peoples are working hard to undo the ignorance and cultivated amnesia that repeats the false tale of their complete genocide.

After Mexico gained its independence, the lands that the Spanish crown had allocated to the Missions to hold in trust for the “neophytes” (the new colonists that they hoped to make out of the Indians they brought into their Inquisition-shaped world), were usurped by the Californios. Bernal, De Haro, Noe, Vallejo, Peralta and many others were soon lords of tens of thousands of acres of prime California real estate. But their paradise didn’t last long. The United States provoked a war in 1846 and used it to seize the northern third of Mexico, and within a couple of decades all the original Mexican ranchos had been squatted and stolen, often with legal sanction by U.S. courts.

It’s remarkable how much this blatant and venal theft at the origins of American California is left out of the narratives taught children in schools. But then on second thought, it’s not really so surprising. Early historians of California (and before that, historians of the United States) held strange, race-based ideas that escaped historical analysis. In one of the books I’ll be discussing here, Greg Grandin’s excellent The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, he makes this point:

If the study of history is the study of change, these early historians of the United States were decidedly ahistorical. Their germs were something like the physicists’ Big Bang, sudden and pristine. When the Puritans landed, “their institutions were already perfected,” George Bancroft, among the country’s most influential historians prior to Turner, wrote. Woodrow Wilson, who studied with Turner under Adams at Johns Hopkins, argued in 1899 that early Christian settlers “were inventing nothing”; ideas that would later result in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were already fully formed upon their arrival in the New World. Americans, Wilson said, were “simply letting their race habits and instincts”–as developed in Europe–”have natural play.” (p. 114)

Writing in Race and America’s Long War, Nikhil Pal Singh delves deeper into the psychology of settler colonies like the United States. He reveals the very structure of thought that makes it so difficult to hold any self-awareness of the barbarism that accompanied the founding of the nation.

… in the United States, (and other settler colonies), invasion, occupation, and territorial dispossession constitute not a singular event but a structure of reasoning, feeling, even imagination… one that demands fealty and that orients attitudes toward the present and future. (p. 24-25) … The military tradition conferred by the Indian wars included practices of “extirpative war” that observed no distinction between combatants and civilians, combined with the adoption of forms of exemplary, extravagant violence said to have been learned from the savages themselves, such as scalping. Settler frameworks, in turn, consciously blurred the lines between war and policing, investing ordinary citizens with an expansive police power. (p. 26)

Dyke March on 18th Street, June 29, 2019

At the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the United States continues to flaunt its military but it is an increasingly empty and ineffective demonstration of pointless violence. Bombing multiple countries regularly, having torn up the Middle East and left whole swaths in smoking ruins, and maintaining military and spy installations in well over 100 countries around the world, you’d be hard pressed to explain why the so-called indispensable nation, the “most powerful country in the history of the world,” has such a hard time getting its way these days. The protracted decline of U.S. power is staring us in the face, but politicians go on blithely proclaiming the unique goodness of the American project as though it were 1949 or even 1962 (not that it was any good then either!).

Constant rituals glorifying the military amidst crumbling infrastructure and stark social decomposition, incessantly claiming “we’re #1,” requires a great deal of ignorance and self-delusion. Digging deeper into the complicated past lets us trace a quite different arc than the syrupy self-congratulations that passes for history. It turns out that the United States has been on the wrong side far more often than not in its bloodthirsty, racist efforts to dominate the world. The roots of this despicable orientation are not hard to find in the very founding of the country, and have been advanced by awful, mean-spirited, politicians and their wealthy sponsors again and again.

Colin Galloway’s fascinating book The Indian World of George Washington provides a nuanced and detailed look at the land-hungry speculator who became the first president of the United States. It’s strange to realize that the first four years of his presidency, 1789-1793, were characterized by an active “foreign policy” that mostly involved days- and weeks-long visits from dozens of visiting dignitaries from the cultures of the southern United States, i.e. Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, and others. Washington knew he had to make peace with these militarily powerful civilizations that occupied most of today’s deep South, because his priority at the time was to wrest control of the Ohio River valley from the Shawnee and their many allies. It also required him to continue an ongoing peace with the Iroquois confederation. His goal was to avoid facing a wider alliance of indigenous peoples who together at the time could have blocked the expansion of the United States westward (and by so doing, made Washington’s investments in thousands of unceded acres in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio worthless). Galloway is a fantastic historian of Indian North America, with many other books covering the Plains Indians, the Shawnee, and others. He recounts the ill-fated first U.S. military expedition led by General Arthur St. Clair that was wiped out by a broad alliance of Indian tribes in 1792 not far from today’s Pittsburgh. In this book he unpacks the fraught relationships that Washington and his allies made and broke both before and after the Revolutionary War with various tribes of eastern North America. It helps makes sense of the longer trajectory of genocidal violence that the U.S. pursued consistently through the following century—a history that looks so bad that few have been willing to give it the central importance in national history that it deserves.

Continue reading This Land is WHOSE Land??

Ice and Oil

I’m standing on Pulpit Rock, a granite outcropping over Lysefjord a couple of hours from Stavanger, Norway… the power of ice carved this fjord long ago…
Greenland from the plane ride home….. ice in Greenland is melting faster than ever recorded…

It’s been nearly a half a year since I’ve blogged! The time between posts has grown longer and longer largely because it’s mostly self-serving to publish here. I can say anything I want, I have maybe 1000 readers (probably much less after such a long hiatus), give or take a few score. I am glad for feedback when I get it, but it has become exceedingly rare.

I took a trip to Norway at the end of April with Adriana, to root her on in her appearance for the Mexican National Curling team at their first-ever appearance in the Curling World Championships in Stavanger, a town that is the home of Norway’s oil industry. Stunning fjords carved by ancient glaciers characterize the coastal areas of Norway, which is as far north as the middle of Alaska. Already in late April the sun was setting slowly long after 9:30 pm. I visited the oil museum in Stavanger. I ate a minke whale steak while in Bergen, a town that honors its role as the northernmost Hanseatic League town in the 1500s, when salted cod was its greatest export. The photos accompanying this post are mostly from the trip to Norway.

The Mexican Curling mixed doubles team achieved many firsts. Adriana scored the first-ever point in Mexican Curling history! and her rock assured the first-ever 3-ender for Mexico against Norway! (they didn’t win any of their matches, regrettably)

I, like many people, have fallen into a kind of trance these past months, frozen in the face of the inexorable march of bad news, watching our world descend from its everyday horrors into a spectacular form of barbarism. It’s not like we didn’t know that Obama was “more of the same” following the madness of the Bush-Cheney years, which in turn were a (notable) worsening of the already horrible Clinton era, which itself was a full capitulation to the logic of neoliberalism that the Reagan regime had launched on the foundations laid by Jimmy Carter’s pusillanimous four years to wrap up the 1970s, all of which put an end to the legacies of the half-century New Deal. The New Deal was never so great anyway, in spite of some my friends’ enthusiasm for it and its recent reinvention in a Green cloak. Based on the bedrock of private property and the private accumulation of capital, and ultimately the guarantee of prosperity by a globe-spanning militarism, both nature and humanity took a terrible beating during the slow dance called the Cold War that spanned the New Deal era. But it was by shaking off the “constraints” imposed by the wealth-spreading deals of European social democracy and the U.S. New Deal that the globe began its final descent into what is now an irreversible and catastrophic decline in terms of habitability for life as we’ve known it.

Not only has wealth concentrated at rates not seen since the end of the 19th century, but its necessary complement, extreme poverty, has also grown by leaps and bounds. The streets of San Francisco have seen a 17% increase in homelessness just in the past year, and that’s after a persistent population of 8,000-10,000 living on the streets and in cars since the early 1980s. Other cities like Los Angeles and New York report similarly entrenched populations living at the edge of survival amidst our much-touted prosperity. In the vast middle of the country, people work multiple low-wage jobs to make ends meet, often only managing due to ever-growing debts. Student loans have topped $1 trillion and WILL NEVER BE PAID. Opioid addiction, alcoholism, and general despair are rampant. One in five California children live in desperate poverty according to a recent radio program I heard, the worst in the country.

Everyone knows the emperor has no clothes, whether it’s the blatant venality of Trump and his minions, or the overarching fakery of the modern economy whose self-referential numbers all proclaim wild success even when so many are suffering a steady decline in quality of living. All the factors that produced the near-collapse in 2008 are still in place, worse than ever, with incalculable amounts of debt-derived money pushing along a fictional illusion of well-being. The concentration of capital in finance and land, and the extortionary inflated rents and home prices that funnel so much social wealth into the coffers of the criminal syndicates who built this house of cards, is as fragile as an old rickety chair, and as likely to shatter as fine crystal. The much-touted success of Google and Facebook is entirely dependent on advertising, a parasitical and worthless activity that can and will suddenly crumble when the chickens of climate and financial insanity come home to roost.

Stavanger is the home of Norway’s oil industry, based in the North Sea. This is a photo of the Oil Museum there, and inside is a well-designed, informative history of Norway’s oil… starting in the late 1960s when North Sea oil was discovered, to today when the country is extremely wealthy thanks to decades of successful exploitation of the fossil fuels that have brought the planet to the brink.
A scale model of the technologies invented to exploit deep sea oil and gas deposits
The pipeline map showing all the gas and oil lines running from the deep sea to the northern European countries that depend on it.
Another scale model of a deep sea platform from the Museum in Stavanger
A photo of the actual cement platform sunk in the deep sea.
The Ten Commandments of Norwegian Oil!!
An small-ish oil platform in for service along the interior coast of Norway, seen from our ferry ride to Bergen.
The drill bits that go through the bottom of the sea.

History is pounding on the doors in the form of decades of combustion and carbon emissions—the burning of millennia of organic wastes turned into carbon-rich oil, coal, and forests. Had we begun to slow—and ultimately stop—our dependence on fossil fuels in the brief sweater-wearing winter of Carter’s presidency, much of today’s record-breaking heat (guaranteed now to be superceded by far worse when the burning 1980s, 90s, and 2000s reach their full impact in the decades soon to come) could have been averted. Hell, we might have stabilized a new world order that actually promoted the flourishing of human cultures, natural systems, and generalized abundance! Oh yeah, that was NEVER on the agenda!

Continue reading Ice and Oil