I just read the Jill Lepore essay in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” It’s yet another semi-sweeping assessment of the sort I get to see and choose to read periodically about what has decayed about the relationship of Americans – ordinary Americans, the 99% – to work. The conclusion I reach is always the same.
We are doomed. Increasingly, moment to moment, day by day, and it’s been a fate imposed for some time now, at least a half century. It would appear from the way Ms. Lepore has structured the factual underpinnings of her thesis that 1970 or so is a watershed in the turning of a delicate balance between the rewards to management and owners of business off the sweat of their workers whose wages, and mixed ragged assortment of benefits, they paid, and the just compensation that the workers received in this transaction that permitted them to feel like they were supporting themselves, not just by way of scant and necessary sustenance, but in such a way that there was sufficient surplus that there was a basis for feeling like they were thriving, or at least leading productive and satisfying lives. I’ve avoided the use of the word “meaningful” for the reasons that Lepore examines, wherein during the history of radical deconstruction of the relationship of work to the sense of the quality of life enjoyed by the people, that is, the preponderance of the working population, who do the actual work. As here:
“Meaningful work” is an expression that had barely appeared in the English language before the early nineteen-seventies, as McCallum observes. “Once upon a time, it was assumed, to put it bluntly, that work sucked,” Sarah Jaffe writes in “Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone” (Bold Type). That started to change in the nineteen-seventies, both McCallum and Jaffe argue, when, in their telling, managers began informing workers that they should expect to discover life’s purpose in work. “With dollar-compensation no longer the overwhelmingly most important factor in job motivation,” the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange wrote, “management must develop a better understanding of the more elusive, less tangible factors that add up to ‘job satisfaction.’ ” After a while, everyone was supposed to love work.
That is, there was a shift in the basis of perception and the value of work was transmuted into an assessment of how meaningful the work was to the person who performed it, with the suggestion that such a value transcended and superceded the actual emolument in material forms, such as wages and benefits to which a dollar value could be attached.
In other words, we are doomed because somehow a great grift was performed whereby the American worker was not merely in some blunt, if not brutish, way traduced, but subtly and slowly, to most people imperceptibly in real time, induced to accept – not to believe necessarily, but to accept as an ineluctable quality of the nature of work in the larger fabric of their day-to-day existence – an abstraction, hardly provable, and always elusive, dependent as it was on a too-often fleeting and evanescent sense of their internal state of well-being, as a substitute for the hard material reality of adequate compensation in the form of sufficient coin of the realm to meet their needs for subsistence, plus something else, also usually in the form of abstractions, that allowed them to feel that life is “worth living.”
We are doomed now, because we have systematically, if obliviously (which is a polite way of saying being willfully unheeding of what is as plain as the most stark quotidian realities, like whether the sun is shining, or the color of the sky overhead during daylight hours – probably not for the sake of plausible deniabiity, because there clearly are no penalties for the omissions, transgressions, and impositions put in place, each another brick in the wall, a small brick, always, but many of them, and relentlessly and unceasingly being laid which resulted in a barrier to the kind of former life enjoyed by workers, who had secure jobs, with regular and predictable hours, and whose wages were not some egregiously monstrously tiny fraction of the compensation of their bosses. One of the more repugnant testimonies provided, involuntarily, as a quote by Lepore of the CEO of Dunkin’ Donuts, whose compensation was doubled to over 10 million dollars a year, yet who called the proposed rise in minimum wage for salaried and hourly workers in the organization to $15 an hour, “outrageous” (easy for him to say, computing as it does, absent any other benefits, to an annual wage of just over $31,000, that is, 3/10 of one percent of his income for that same year).
These would seem to be inequities that will be hard, even over a long period of time, to bridge to a condition that approaches being called egalitarian by reasonable human beings, who might still posit some faith in the economics of capitalism in a true democracy. Not without punitive (and doubtless insupportable by the current crop of legislators, who would have to craft the political and legal and economic apparatus necessary to effect such a change, even incrementally) sanctioned measures to bring down the highest allowable income level of American executives (in the way that certain other Western democracies have instituted, especially in the Scandinavian countries), even while raising the minimal salaries, and other necessary paid benefits, like sick leave, universal health insurance, parental leave, and job stability (though I’m not sure what this would mean in a way that is conceivable in an economy now largely based on service-related jobs within the current management apparatus designed to provide predictable just-in-time efficiencies while also optimizing the level of profit potentially to be derived, that is, in a labor market that has been gutted of any structure that supports the needs of the workers, except in the form of what we now glibly, if not merely unthinkingly – see notes on “willfully unheeding” above – refer to as a “gig economy.” It always seemed to me long since that the more apt term would be a gag economy. In every sense: it’s a joke of universal proportions, and it’s designed to keep workers in a state of perpetually feeling like they’re just short of being choked to death.
“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”
From the rear of the store, to the front, Bath Tissue and Facial Tissue (and, note, Paper Towel as well). Appropriately, Aisle 13. Friday the 13th, March 2020, 10 am. Giant Supermarket, Wynnewood PA
It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.
I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.
I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.
And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.
The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.
Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.
The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).
I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.
But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.
And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.
I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.
I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.
Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).
At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.
I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.
I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.
It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.
And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.
Corporate sorry from Giant, for running out of toilet paper, facial tissues, in fact anything absorbent made of paper. The sign, you should note, is tucked between the “Sensitive Wet Wipes” and the “Gentle Clean Wet Wipes” shelf talkers.
The following transcribes my email to a correspondent who provided the original link to this blog entry by Corey Robin. I used to see these (and comment) on Facebook. But I’ve managed lately (like for the better part of a week) so far to stay away from Facebook, except at arm’s length.
Email to a friend, today’s date, about the current Corey Robin blog entry
I am predicting you won’t mind my lapse into old ways and responding directly to what I saw was a recent post while making one of my lightning checks of Facebook.
I feel so much better, incidentally, these days, avoiding Facebook consciously, indeed mindfully, as it’s still necessary to resist the unconscious reflex after perusing this or that news site on the web to drop down my bookmark menu for “Social” and click on the blue F (good title for a murder mystery, “The Blue F”). I realized without undue mental exertion that what depressed me was not the news—though it’s surely no cause for joy or a sense of well-being—but the peculiar embellishment of the effects of relentless dispatches from the front lines of anarchy, otherwise known as the White House (have you noticed that increasingly the news media have taken to iconizing the actual physical seat of executive administration of the government, just as the Brits did decades and decades ago with 10 Downing Street? My theory is, it’s a way for the news “good guys”—what we usually call, as if there were something vaguely blasphemic about the epithet, the establishment news or the mainstream media—to continue to separate the Trump administration from the rest of the government, which they hope not only metaphorically to quarantine, but to do so literally, lest the contagion spread uncontrollably like the super bacterium it is [trying to think of another metaphor yet, to throw into the mix, but that’s enough], and also, of course, as a way, literally as well, to avoid having to set the name Trump in type yet again, bolstering the data mining results of the future). It’s not what the news media say, though enough of it constitute crimes against English, if not against truth altogether, beyond mere execrable writing.
The Making of Donald Trump bookcover
In any event, thanks for the Corey Robin link [to his review of the David Cay Johnston book, The Making of Donald Trump], as it, if for no other reason, reminds me that I have to subscribe to his feed or I will no longer, in the medium to long run, be reminded by you to see if there are a few unbruised fruit and un-blighted seeds to harvest from his particular tree of knowledge.
Nice to see that he seems to have put back under control his tendency to foam at the mouth.
This was a nice review, and true enough, I’m sure, but it’s evidence of the continuing crime of recycling old news. Why is it that so many liberals, if not those further left on the spectrum, think that the regular glance “rere regardant,” as Joyce put it in Ulysses, is necessary to keep from repeating old sins? Or, more likely, as if keeping the misfortunes of our time in the forefront of our consciousness will somehow ameliorate the abstract condition of our lives by halting, through a sheer act of collective will, the progress of the ill effects of the latest form of exploitation (like enough, surely, ever more virulent—there’s that super bacterium metaphor again…), in this case aka “the White House.” I won’t even talk about what Johnston is doing with such a book, aside from a public service of course for those not paying attention to the last 30 years. It was likely a lot of work, and I don’t criticize that, or begrudge him the rewards of an appreciative marketplace.
So, finally, and then I’ll let this, and you, go. He (Corey that is) says, “the systemic corruption of our rentier economy,” which is a nice twist I guess on a slightly shopworn locution. Except, as usual, I must take, indeed, exception to the use of “corruption,” suggesting that, at some previous time, the system of which we all are part, was sound and pure and unsullied by decay. Which I don’t believe. I think it (the system) has some genes deep within that, though not manifest at conception, inevitably prove an almost unavoidable tendency to develop a cancer. Back in the day, I mean 1781, they simply hadn’t yet conceived of the banking laws we are so clever to have ginned up starting back in the 1920s, if not earlier. For example.
And, I would prefer had he (Corey) stuck to the more prevalent condition in the use of the phrase—which was used most poignantly for me when my shrink told me at some point during the analysis to which I subjected myself for about four years back in the 1980s, when I had money to donate to my shrink’s mortgage holder, “we’re all renters.” True enough, I’ve come to discover, especially in that the phrase applies in all situations, just like “this too shall pass.” It’s only a very small number of self-privileged ones, somehow impervious to the corruption in which they thrive (what is evil, after all, to the devil?) who can legitimately call themselves, as well, “rentiers.” So. Not so clever after all. It’s just rubbing it in.
This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk
First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.
I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.
Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?
He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.
In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).
I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.
The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.
I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.
What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.
Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.
It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?
Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.
If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…
And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?
Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.
However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.
The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”
As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.
I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.
Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.
What always vitiates the value of these kinds of discussions is the emphasis is always on the economics, when, it seems to me, the real conflict is in the arena of ethics.
Where the two converge is about a cultural phenomenon, always a part of the ethos of American life, but especially since the advent of broadcast media, that is, radio and television, whereby there is an expectation of entitlement about that which is offered unbidden and is always received passively. What these media taught the entire economy and all of its constituents, but especially the largest segment, that of consumers, is that somehow what entertains them—the substance of the transaction that occurs between producers and consumers—is free, because, after they acquire access to the means of reception, it costs them nothing but time, the time of consumption. This phenomenon, and the underlying attendant matrix of the value proposition, has only intensified, of course, and likely has exponentially, if not logarithmically, multiplied since the advent of the Internet.
It’s rarely asked expressly if this is fair. I would go further and point out that except among the producers and the talent (or artists, if you prefer that terminology) this question never ever arises among the consuming population… neither expressly, or even implicitly.
And of course, culprits must always be found, without so much as lifting a finger to exercise even the most rudimentary tools of analysis. Spotify is the latest avatar of the rapacious spectre of technology, exploiting, if not virtually raping, the talent that provides the raw flesh so eagerly devoured by an increasingly voracious public. A 30-second inquiry online reveals, with figures and charts supplied by Spotify themselves (who, whatever else they may be desirous of hiding, are not hiding the gross statistics about who pays and what’s being paid). It seems that as of the latest figures, just slightly more than 20% of the listeners to Spotify are paid subscribers (why this category is always called “premium” is not only mystifying, but, as well, gets my hackles up for its small contribution to the degradation of meaning in the language). Presumably whatever other revenue Spotify receives arrives in the form of advertising, which is undoubtedly not offered at premium prices (I don’t know much, but I know about advertising, and the fact is, ironically, true premium audiences—high spending, well-heeled consumers of carriage trade products—are accessible through media that can command higher prices for such access). I have no doubt, unless the owners and management of Spotify are utterly unscrupulous, that if the ratio of paid to unpaid subscribers were reversed, there would be a lot more hard capital to distribute and there would be far less talk of how the musicians are exploited.
But people, that is, the consuming public, don’t want to pay for anything (from taxes for public services to the cost of certain consumer goods and services in the economy that have been devalued systematically because of a long history of deferred and indirect payment—for example, marketing costs are part of the purchase price; or, the entire infrastructure of the Internet, constituting a system, and utterly blind to and ignorant of the actual content of the data stream, which is the sole product of that system, is a closed economic engine, with disproportionate distribution of the flow of revenue, with the least of it going to the preponderance of those actually creating that content).
It’s always been the case, since the invention of radio, that people cannot be educated to value creative goods. As long as art is seen as a luxury (and that is its history), it will be expected that truly only the rich can afford it. If people paid for their Spotify or their Pandora, the increasing imbalance (with artists getting the increasingly smaller share of the distribution of wealth) will only worsen.
All of this is in the context of free enterprise, of course, and no one (for practical purposes) is questioning that Spotify or whoever is entitled to find a way to create a product or service that people will use, and in using it somehow will generate revenue at an acceptable level of profitability. What is not clear (as unclear as it is to David Byrne what he is actually being paid in royalties by Spotify, if anything) is whether there is a formula stipulated whereby someone knows what proportion of their subscribers must pay for the service so that artists get a fair and equitable share, given their contribution and popularity.
Finally, and I’ll say the least about this, even though there is more to be said about this than any other factor, greed as a factor is incalculable, because greed is the first thing that gets hidden, whether it’s in demeanor, facial expression, or the double-entry accounting. Eliminate greed, and you eliminate a lot of the murkiness of the economic picture. But ethics is where I started these remarks, and as for greed, the notion that “radix malorum est cupiditas” was ancient even before Chaucer immortalized it The Canterbury Tales (for which he was paid handsomely, in kind).
Despite many promises, often repeated, and most frequently by the more liberal politicians, that all Americans deserve and will have high-speed Internet connectivity, we are not there yet. Many Americans, especially in rural areas, do not. Like so much else that gets promised and then forgotten, until the heat of the next campaign demands new or renewed pledges, if it bothers anyone making the promises, there is no sign of it.
I write from a booth in a “family style” diner and restaurant in a town called both poetically and ironically somehow, “Woodsville” (remembering that the town in David Lynch’s perverse and perverted masterpiece Blue Velvet was Lumberton… which Woodsville decidedly is not, nor could it have served as a model, but the ethos Lynch sought to satirize, if not demonize, with some ham-handedness, is in the air, as it has been since long before any of us were born). I am able to connect from my seat in this two-person booth because they are kind enough along with the generously sized pancakes and the vaguely decadent apple-bacon omelets, to offer a Wi-Fi hotspot of middling capacity in terms of throughput and bandwidth. Wisely they put more emphasis on the quality of the food than on the strength of what I admit are geekish parameters of performance few patrons expect, never mind demand.
Most of the patrons of Shiloh’s in Woodsville, from outward appearances, are either “Middle Americans,” in the sometimes seemingly indelicate, surely insensitive taxonomy of sociologists and economists, or they are working farmers (and I operate under the romantic sentiment that all lifelong farmers are workers, even if officially retired—not in the middle, by any means, but at the foundation of our existence; surely the intensity of their exertions add up in some account to a lifetime of what anyone would consider real work). They are drawn, or so I infer from a periodic survey of the license tags of the vehicles in the parking lot, and this largely in the summer, from the surrounding towns in the county and neighboring Vermont. Otherwise they are drawn from kindred origins elsewhere in the country, farming communities as far afield as Texas (surprising the number of Texans, and distinguishable if I may say so, mainly because of those license tags, that is, everyone has a country drawl of one kind or another, and I don’t listen too closely). and as relatively nearby as New York State—these seem to have more of a recognizable linguistic marker than others, but I was born in New York City and have a particular sensitivity to the accent.
I am guessing that the home towns and villages of the patrons are also farming communities, in fact, if not in spirit. From their dress, mainly peaked caps with embroidered logos of companies serving that profession, t-shirts emblazoned similarly and almost without exception marked in some way with printed matter, text or images or both. Nondescript trousers, dark, of gabardine or denim. The women are in equally casual garb, sometimes in a dress, sometimes in shorts and a t-shirt, usually the difference being a function of age. Further, Woodsville and the other hamlets and villages of Haverhill, the county seat, are decidedly not tourist destinations. Not so much that you’ve seen one dairy farm, you’ve seen them all. Rather there is not much to see in a community that is dedicated, essentially, to hard work when the earth is clear, and then to hunker down, except for feeding the animals from a store of food laid down in part as a result of that hard work, when the fields and roads and hills are covered in snow.
Around here, the farms that make up the larger part of the area of any of the surrounding towns and villages are, indeed, dairy farms, producing milk for local consumption, as well as its by-products, cheese and yogurt and ice cream. Or they are contributors to much larger cooperatives. Cabot, by far the largest of these that produces branded products, based in Vermont, has its trucks ply the roads hereabouts as well as much farther afield. Other mass aggregators, unencumbered by the demands of keeping a brand top of mind among the public, gather milk in anonymous tankers. Then they no doubt dispose of it in markets to major conglomerates. Hood, and all the major supermarket chains come to mind.
The farms, being largely populated by a variety of breeds of bovine creatures also offer up their fair share of grass-fed beef. However, and again I’m guessing, I suspect most of the product of this lesser cottage industry, except for the consumption by the sparse number of nearby restaurants, whose patrons would arrive driven in part by a discriminatory desire for locally raised grass-fed meat (for in addition to beef, there is lamb, and from some farms, pork and veal) is not aged, or even freshly slaughtered. These restaurants would prefer a steady if narrow stream of fresh product, it’s true, and they get it (proudly publishing on the menu the provenance of that choice cut of sirloin or filet—none of your fancy hipster cuts, like tri-tip or hanger steak, and only one place, nearly an hour away in cosmopolitan White River Junction, VT offered flat iron). However, for the most part you can still fill your trunk with as much meat as it will hold, but frozen, hard as the rocks so strenuously dug out of the resistant soil in the surrounding hills. And that’s year round, when the grills are cold and the restaurants, the less stalwart ones in any event, not fully committed to the needs of patrons in these austere climes, are closed for the winter. It seems there is no dearth of local beef (and veal, and lamb and goat). In 2013 local slaughterhouses, of which there were three at the time—these are slaughterhouses meeting USDA approval, meaning spending millions of dollars and creating accommodations (an office and a separate restroom) for a full-time “resident” Inspector—were turning away customers. Apparently there were, and remain, inefficiencies in the logistics of coordinating the needs of a surfeit of small time operators. The slaughterhouse in North Haverhill, brand new, and state of the art, whose owner, a fellow named Pete Roy, said, “it was necessary to go big [as in 10,000 square feet big, as opposed to two thousand in the previous plant] or go home.” They can process 40 or 50 beef a day in that space, but still do not possess the equipment and manpower to handle that capacity. Demand is too sporadic and unpredictable to make the investment.
All of this industrial grade capability, incidentally, is well-hidden. I haven’t asked, but I also continue to have no idea where this sizable operation might be located, and I have been in North Haverhill, where it is based, for over three years now. I can, on the other hand, point out many of the farms easily enough. They are quite visible, as are the crops that grow alongside the cows.
Aside from the pasture and meadow land accessible in the line of small towns on either side of the Connecticut River, which straddles the state line, most of the farmland, some of it rolling seemingly without end to the edge of the distant woods that girdle the rich earth, is visible from any negotiable country road, and often grows right to the shoulder of that byway. For the most part it is given over to corn. Of what type I cannot, with my city-boy ignorance, say by a glance or even a studied look. However, I can’t help but notice it grows wondrously high. Given the sparsity of the market for fresh produce however (for example, in the 2012 count of souls dwelling in Woodsville, a scant thousand residents, almost exectly divided by gender, were counted out of upwards of 440 households), the relatively short growing season, and an abundance of eating corn at a handful of farmer markets and farm stands, plus an even larger inventory in the chain supermarkets that service the local populace, also featuring “fresh” produce, but, not surprisingly, from wholly other venues far afield, I am guessing until I can suss out the data from a reliable source that the corn I see is of another variety. Likely that which was made infamous by food writer and social critic Michal Pollan. At least, I surmise, it some grade of feed corn, not fit for direct human consumption.
The Feds are of service here, with their relentless data collection, which we ordinary citizens never see. No NSA required. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its Farm Service Agency, openly solicits and collects surveys on a monthly basis from farmers who wish to certify their yield (no doubt in service to Byzantine tax-related subsidies and credits, based on even more arcane laws buried deep in the code). A moment’s Google search, with the right terms, through the good offices of the ‘good enough’ wi-fi accessible to me in my booth at Shiloh’s, iPad propped up next to my plate of an egg-white omelet chock full of onions, peppers, spinach and good cheddar cheese, local whole wheat bread and home fries crisped on the grill, and I’m home… with a spreadsheet to download that covers every county in every state of this great nation. It takes a couple of minutes to download.
Sure enough, all of Grafton County is planted over to three kinds of corn. There’s sweet corn, the kind we like to eat right off the cob, buttered or not, and in other forms no doubt. Sweet corn, irrespective of Mr. Pollan’s opinions of the uses of #2 Feed Corn (about which more in a few moments), is a favorite of a great many Americans. We consume, according to recent figures (2012), just shy of 34 pounds of corn products (which includes not only the kernels, but cornmeal, flour, etc.). But let us suppose, because it’s easier, we are talking about corn on the cob, the edible portions. The yield of a bushel of corn, at a little over 15% moisture, is about 56 pounds. This means a bushel of sweet corn will satisfy the average annual needs of almost two Americans.
I’ve saved all of you readers the math and the research time. Here’s a further breakdown of what all of Grafton County, in which Woodsville is situated, and of which Haverhill, the township into which Woodsville is incorporated and is county seat, has dedicated to corn farming. Sweet corn (what we put directly into our mouths) is just short of 1% of all those rolling hills and fields of the tall crop, or about 4400 bushels, or enough to feed 7-1/4 thousand people their corn for a year. That many people, assuming they consumed all of Grafton County’s corn, constitute a tad over eight percent of the county’s total population of 89 thousand souls. Doesn’t leave much for tourists, unless they’re the ones scarfing up all that delicious corn.
But as Mr. Pollan will tell you, that’s nothing. Not compared to the 453 thousand bushels of yellow corn, on 90% of the farmed acreage in Grafton County, corn that is dedicated to silage production. Silage, which this now informed city boy has learned, is for forage, that is, it’s stored for the winter, mainly to feed milk cows (which makes eminent sense, given the cow population), and consists of most of the plant that’s growing above the ground. That’s stalks, leaves, green corn (it’s generally not allowed to mature into grain) and all, cut up and chopped into a form that’s easily stored. Pollan talks a lot about Corn #2, which is largely used by way of harvesting the grain, some fed directly to live stock, and preponderantly processed into high fructose corn syrup, the great contaminant of our food chain, and responsible, ostensibly for everything wrong in our diets and metabolisms, from diabetes to obesity.
Feed corn is grown in Grafton County. It accounts for the other ten percent (if you’ve been silently doing the math) of the crop in 2013, and it mainly is devoted to providing seed for next year’s (that would be this year’s) silage planting, and for the usual uses of feed corn, that is corn byproducts, like corn meal, and alcohol.
So the farmers of Woodsville, I’d say, can rest easy as they’re not contributing much to the degradation and debauchery (as one anthropologist I read calls it) of the American standards of nutrition. They’re barely serving the needs, if the numbers here are anywhere near accurate, of the average demand for good fresh sweet corn, one of the pleasures and treasures of summer dining, especially here in the hinterlands so close to the source. It’s a wonder then that Woodsville, population of barely upwards of a thousand people (evenly divided almost exactly between men and women) make such a poor living. The average household makes slightly over $31 thousand, which is almost exactly half the average household income for Grafton County. Moreover, as a kind of reality check on the actuality of these figures, the average valuation of residential real estate in Woodsville is, again, almost exactly half of what it is in the rest of the country, that is, just barely north of $100,000. Hardly a castle.
Woodsville, and much of surrounding Haverhill, is far and away predominantly white. It is poorer (even than the rest of Grafton County). Generally, the county is older, better educated, and less employed. All of these demographic data seem to point to some internal contradictions, but nothing discernible, not to me. And least of all, in terms of the potential demand for a convenience (I’d call it a utility, like water or electricity, but that’s me) and that’s access to the Internet, which is the subject that inducted me into this meditation.
Being poorer than the rest of New Hampshire, which, according to coverage maps, especially in the southern part of the state, is pretty well served by service providers, I’d expect less demand. There’s also much less call, as I infer from the kinds of stores supplying staple items and other groceries, for natural products. Consumer package goods are generally the same to be found all over the country: over-processed, loaded with high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, salt, and preservatives with long convoluted chemical names. Only one market chain has a store nearby (in Vermont) that has an organic produce section. The same store offers bulk bagels, wholly local oddly enough. This is the kind of anomalous product discovery, like the home-made breads in the local general stores, made from whole grain ingredients and fewer additives of no nutritional value whatsoever, right next to the candy bars and the chips and the Tasty-Kakes, I stumble on from time to time. It’s as if the region, for so long mainly populated by people who worked hard, kept their heads down, fought for lower taxes (or none at all) and willing to live in the kind of community that is perpetually sleepy and a little behind (that’s poetic and romantic euphemism) the zeitgeist that drives the 24/7 news cycles those of us who are denizens (or addicts) of the Internet culture that fills our days, has no need, in fact, for high-speed Internet.
It’s not clear what they’d do with it, even if it’s offered, which it is from time to time, though I guess with no takers, by the local phone company, who bought all the lines and the equipment from Verizon, happy to let them go as this was one of the few money-losing regions of the country of their far-flung profit machine. Life here is idyllic in many dimensions and likely for the locals in this dimension as well. There simply is no call to check into Facebook, Buzzfeed, or send hundreds of images a day via snapchat and Instagram.
Teenagers and even younger folks I see in restaurants are well enough outfitted with smart phones. In fact they are the only people I see in public exercising the right of the plugged-in generation to dispense with etiquette, never mind the basic social graces. Their elders do not sit hunched over tablets and smartphones. They sit looking each other in the eye, and having real honest-to-god conversations. They chat with neighbors at other tables, including “new” neighbors, which is to say, the strangers in the next booth, who may as easily be from Berryville, Texas (population 999) as Wells River, Vermont, the town just across the bridge from Woodsville.
Just across the road from Shiloh’s is a relatively new Walmart, whose parking lot fills fairly early in the morning and stays full until closing. Residents of more than a few years attest that even before the Walmart arrived, the small stores on the classic main streets of the area, and Woodsville’s is as classic as it gets, with banks, merchandise specialists, a railroad stop, beauty parlor, even a bookstore at one time now represented by the empty store fronts they once inhabited, had emptied out or were emptying. The virtue of Walmart, if nothing else (and someone else’s critical apparatus may be tuned to a different set of parameters), is that it is open early and stays open late, so if you need the odd ingredient, or have the odd fixation, you can satisfy it even at ten o’clock at night, when most good farmers have probably already been asleep for a bit.
There’s no shortage of personal computer and mobile electronics, including the latest Kindles and iPads and phones, with many accessories and even the equipment required to pull bits out of the ether, including wi-fi routers. Though who buys and uses this merchandise is unclear, and how they “jack in” (to use William Gibson vaguely distasteful coinage) is even less clear. It’s true the major carriers of cellular voice and data signals have finally (as of a year and a half ago) managed to bring their fastest technologies, 4G and even LTE in spots, to the area. This means that in a region where there is still not critical mass to entice a cable company to pull coax or fiber, and most television is transmitted digitally solely by satellite dishes, which festoon every house, trailer and double-wide, not matter how posh or dilapidated (and there is a broad range of wealth and lifestyle even here in the boondocks), most other digital communication is by phone. I guess the locals surf the Web on those tiny screens.
We live in what is a secondary house for us (we also have another, as I have documented and told of in story and fable, in a medieval village in rural France, about 45 minutes from the foothills of the Alps; there we have DSL service and connect to France Telecom and the world) in North Haverhill. I have spoken repeatedly to the local phone company, a struggling enterprise called Fairpoint, which continues to buy up old Verizon assets here in northern New England and New York. They have DSL service as close as Pike, another unincorporated part of Haverhill, and which consists of mainly a sign on a utility pole that informs you that you are in Pike. We pass the sign on the last leg of the trip here from our urban cocoon, seven hours to the south, and then, two or three minutes later pull into our driveway. But we are still too far from the switch in Pike for them to offer even the barest of essential high speed service.
They are always apologetic, are Fairpoint, but simply cannot say even with cloudy uncertainty when they might muster the justification for installing another piece of equipment another critical mile closer to our house. It’s easy to surmise, there is not much call from our neighbors.
All of this kind of inconvenience, one of the deprivations of the truly spoiled, but still speaking to the more fundamental issue addressed only briefly and by allusion alone in my opening sentences, points to yet another inequality in the United States. The disparity between the access to those aspects of modern life that serve more than a basic set of needs. In an age long since established as a digital age, the digits, it would appear, stop somewhere just beyond the city line. And our rural brethren, both the dying breed of farming stalwarts, who provide so reliably the most fundamental of needs, and the merchants who sell them seed and feed and tractors and wheelbarrows, not to mention the restaurateurs who make them breakfast, are clearly, by default, de facto, and by some not very deep cost benefit analysis not in any way equal to the lowliest urban dweller. The government has long since acknowledged this disparity, but like all other disparities, use it as lyrics to the mouth music politicians like to play.
What I can’t figure out, though I do not by any means question it, is why Shiloh’s, an oasis of family cooking, is also a lone outpost for Internet warriors like myself, so seldom do I show up at their door, and so few in number, clearly, in these parts are my brethren. They don’t even require a password.
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