DEP

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I began teaching part-time at the Vancouver Film School in the mid-eighties, for what I then thought was fairly decent remuneration.  I still teach at Langara College part-time, for wages that are two dollars less per hour than I was paid in 1986.  In Canada, disposable income has increased by just 10% since 1990; this while inflation totaled about 60% over that time.  In the U.S., one of two recent college graduates was unemployed or underemployed in 2012.  It’s all because of DEP.

DEP is an acronym of my own invention, abbreviating Downward Economic Pressure.  You’re welcome to use it anytime; feel free.  If your daughter, having completed an expensive university degree, seems able to secure little more than a minimum wage service job, you can shrug and simply say, “It’s DEP.”  Those auto workers in Ontario who have recently watched their jobs waft gently over the border to Mexico and the southern States?  They can put it all into proper perspective by just mumbling, “More DEP.”

Economic (and with it political power) is shifting eastward to Asia, and southward, to places like Brazil.  The glory days of North American prosperity are waning.   It’s a trend we’ve all heard of, but it’s hard to appreciate just how significant that trend is, or how lasting its effects may be.  Can anyone say, ‘British Empire,’ once the largest the world has ever known?

The median salary in Mexico is less than 3000 Canadian dollars; in Canada the median wage is about $46,000.  That about explains it, but again it’s difficult to overestimate the long-term implications of this divide, once global capitalism has its way.  And yes, I know that a few American companies have of late moved their manufacturing facilities back to the States, and I’ve heard that some plants in China have recently relocated to Viet Nam, where labour costs are still lower, but in the end the net effect is the same.  We in the West are losing our position of comparative affluence, and it ain’t coming back, not in our lifetimes.

Because this is precisely what ‘globalization’ means—the leveling of economic benefits across the globe, like water syphoned from one bucket to another, the liquid eventually finds its own matching level.  If wages are rising in India, they are falling in Canada.  And so it must be.

Or does it?  Someone like Linda McQuaid, the Canadian writer and social critic, doesn’t think so.  McQuaid, in books like The Myth of Impotence, would suggest that it’s indeed possible for governments to counteract the free-market effects of globalization with tools like the so-called ‘Tobin Tax,’ a levy proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin on international currency conversions.  And it may be possible, with some obvious benefits, but it’s not likely to happen, given the political power of those folks involved in international currency conversions.

But then, in contemplating the moral high ground held by someone from the left end of the political spectrum like McQuaid, I’m given to recall a tale told in Granta Magazine, years back, by a former British shipbuilder.  When some sort of technological change came around in the shipbuilding trade, requiring a shift from one union sector to another—from iron to copper pipe or some such territorial advance—it meant that many members from the replaced union sect were contemplating unemployment.  The industry’s solution, under pressure from powerful unions, was to institute an arrangement where the former pipefitter stood over the shoulder of the new pipefitter, ensuring that the job was done correctly.  Both workers would be paid equally.  Needless to say, the British shipbuilding industry slipped quietly away.

British Finance Minister George Osborne, austerity champion and someone who, a recent study indicates, appears more often in British nightmares than any other public figure, goes about these days saying that western nations must “do or decline.”  He may be right about that, and it can all be a little daunting, but, as I say, the trend is not going away, and maybe it shouldn’t.  Morally, can we assert that Western peoples, with their consumer lifestyle and broad social safety net, have any sort of inherent right to the preferred position?  Certainly colonialism put this sort of east-to-west economic flow in place, and perhaps we’re now simply witness to the final, just outcome of colonialism.

Equally perplexing is the question of whether the planet’s environment can sustain the rise of the non-western world to the same accumulative lifestyle that exists in Europe and North America.  All those cars, paid holidays, and insured medical expenses.  Time will tell, and the telling of this tale of macro-economic adjustments will get your attention, you may be sure.  We are all, it seems, subject to the ancient Chinese curse; we are all living in interesting times.

 

 

Referendum Politics

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An old friend once said to me that she thought voting should be a privilege, rather than a right.  She felt citizens should be educated on the issues before they would qualify to vote.  With that, presumably, would come the government requirement to take a course, complete a quiz, or somehow prove that you as potential voter were sufficiently informed to be eligible to step into the ballot box.

It’s a bit much for me, involving a bit too much faith in the benevolence of government, but, on the other hand, it’s not hard to empathize with the sentiment.  Anyone who has made any sort of sustained investigation into the illegality of soft drugs, for instance, will soon come to the conclusion that the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ is a colossal waste of police and legal resources, a policy which pitchforks money to organized crime, fills up jails with non-violent offenders, and delivers scant results in terms of decreased drug use.

And yet, until very recently—maybe—a majority of American voters favored retaining laws prohibiting marijuana use.  Why?  Well, two reasons I think.  First of all emotion, the historical residue of the hysteria generated by ridiculous government campaigns from out of the past touting the dangers of “reefer madness!”  Secondly, the simple fact that these people aren’t well informed about the issue.  They haven’t studied the facts.  They haven’t seen how much money is spent eradicating marijuana fields, taking down grow ops, busting teenagers, jailing small-time dealers.  They haven’t considered how much money flows to gangs, when it could be flowing in taxes to depleted government coffers.  They may be vaguely aware that the prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s didn’t work out that well, giving rise to the American Mafia, but they haven’t really had to examine the parallels between those events and the prohibition against marijuana.  Why have the majority of Americans viewed marijuana prohibition as a good thing?  They don’t know any better.

It’s just one example which raises the question of whether ‘direct democracy’ is a good thing.  The digital revolution is fast delivering us the means to hold a referendum on every issue, voting from our smart phones, tablets and laptops.  Should we go there?  If we do we could probably eliminate the need for those noxious politicians squabbling in cantankerous legislatures.  Then we could institute, just as my friend suggested, online courses which a prospective voter would be obligated to complete, before casting her vote on any particular proposed law.  Tempted?

The question can be more germanely asked, here and now, as whether an elected official is compelled to vote ‘the will of the people.’   Setting aside for a second the reality of a ‘party whip’ dictating to said official how he will vote, should our rep be free to vote according to his own personal assessment of the proposition, or should he be obliged to vote in line with what polls show is the view of the majority of his constituents?

Personally, I’m a believer in representative democracy, where we send our best and brightest to debate, study and confer on the issues of the day, and then vote according to their soundest judgment.  Referendums are a mug’s game.  If we are to see progressive change in our society, we’re better off avoiding them.  Why?  For one specific reason: voting ‘no’ empowers; voting yes does not.  We can frame the referendum question as carefully as we like, crafting it like obsessed ad men, but the fact is that the number of voters out there who feel at least mild resentment toward politicians dwarfs the number who may be uninformed about any particular issue.  These folks are generally not terribly happy with their lives, and the easiest place to direct the blame is toward the government.

Thus, when the opportunity arises to ‘stick one’ to the government, they’re going to take it; they’re going to vote no to change.  Voting no means that the power still resides with you—maybe I’ll vote yes next time, if you’re nicer to me in the meantime—but voting yes means you no longer hold any leverage.  The power has been passed on to people who may never care to seek your input again.

As I keep saying, change is constant; new problems will always arise, so we need change to contend with those problems—new solutions for new problems.  And referendums will always make that difficult.  They’re a political cop-out.  They amount to politicians dodging their responsibility.

 

 

 

The Netflix Experience

In the words of one young Youtube entrepreneur, Netflix Canada (Netflix.ca), “kinda sucks.”  The video-streaming service costs just $7.99 a month, and before you think this is yet another example of the truism, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not quite that simple.  Netflix provides unlimited viewing of any fare offered on the site, but our young capitalist makes the above comment in comparing the limited selection of movies and TV shows available from Netflix Canada to the vastly greater supply available from Netflix USA.  (Netflix also provides a DVD rental mailing service, but that much is not the subject of this post.)  Our hero offers this assessment, by the by, before then telling you how to subvert the restriction on Netflix merchandise in Canada and gain access to Netflix USA, and there are any number of other videos on Youtube instructing you on how to do the same, sometimes for free, with adverts, sometimes for a low monthly fee.  God bless the youthful rebellious heart of the internet.

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This international supply discrepancy may be nothing more than the math involved with 300+ million people potentially paying $7.99 a month versus 30+ million potential customers paying same amount.  Or maybe the folks at Netflix just didn’t bother including the Canadian marketplace in many of the deals they originally signed with distributors for their product; Canada is hardly a big slice of the North American pie.

Then too there is the political element.  Canadian broadcasters and cable providers are up in arms about the expansion of Netflix into Canada.  They point out that Netflix is sucking a fair chunk of change out of Canada, into their Los Gatos, California corporate headquarters, without putting much back in, save for the licensing of a few typically older Canadian shows.  They are not required, as are the broadcasters, to invest in the creation of new Canadian product.

The aggrieved broadcasters—whom no one in their right mind should ever feel sorry for—tried taking their complaint to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (the CRTC), but the federal regulator, in predictably ponderous bureaucratic fashion, has thus far not been swayed.  That’s only partly because they are ponderously bureaucratic; the fact is that they, like many people, haven’t quite fully awakened to the impact Netflix is having, and will have on the future of television.

Before saying more about that impact, it should be reiterated that Netflix does indeed provide a dodgy product in Canada.  Much of it is mediocre, nearly all of it is older, and the way it is provided is odd and shifty as well.  Worthy titles are buried beneath layers of ‘More Like This,’ and certain of them seem to come and go.  I once noted with pleasure, as I was trolling through the product, that Truffaut’s superb 400 Blows was available.  I made a mental note to watch that on a later occasion, but when that occasion arose I was nonplussed to find it no longer offered.  Netflix in Canada is far, far from fabulous, but it is just good enough to last, and ultimately prosper.

If it hasn’t already, Netflix will fundamentally change your television viewing experience.  My teenage daughter has never watched conventional TV, but us boomers grew up doing so, and the habit for me continued, albeit increasingly selectively, until recent years.  Not any more.

At this point in my life, the idea of watching television (with the sole exception of live sports) riddled with advertisements is just not something I’m prepared to face. Yes a few ads are clever and entertaining—the first time—but nearly all of them are irritating, banal and predictable, if not insulting.  And of course they are an unwanted interruption.  Netflix comes free of all this, comes to the ‘act break’ of an television episode, flickers briefly to black, then marvelously resumes a second later.  How much better is that?

Internet moguls complain as loudly as their broadcaster brethren about how many advertising dollars remain in the broadcast pot, despite the audience numbers flowing steadily to the web.  But this too will change.  60% of PVR users fast forward through the ads, and sooner or later advertising execs are going to wake up to such factoids.  It amazes me that anybody is still watching conventional, ad-laden TV, with the exception of live news and sports.

But none of this illuminates the truly critical difference with Netflix: Netflix takes long form viewing to a new level.  I think I first grasped the value of series long form storytelling in watching BBC shows like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs back in the 70s—longer story arcs, from the beginning to end of a 13-part series for instance, as opposed to from the beginning to end of an hour-long episode, had so much more depth, so much more space to develop characters and themes, and the nuances of both.  These series could track with much greater validity through long periods of time, setting the appropriate pace, and doing so in a way that was more telling, resonant, complete.

Despite these quality exceptions back in the day, as a movie critic friend of mine said to me not long ago, if anyone had said to me, back in the 70s, that there would come a day when I would be generally more interested in watching television shows than I would movies, I’d have thought said speaker was sadly not far removed from a complete psychological breakdown.  Not any more.  For my money, the quality of storytelling extant in a current series like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead is notably superior to almost all the fare being produced by mainstream Hollywood these days.  There are numerous reasons for that—television has always been a more writer-friendly environment—but chief among them is the ability to exploit the long form story potential of series versus one-offs.

And of course, not only does Netflix offer an ad-free, long form viewing experience, Netflix offers these shows at your own personal viewing schedule.  No waiting until next week for the succeeding episode, no obligation to watch until the credits roll in order to know how the current conflict is resolved.  Netflix will hold that show, at precisely the point where you pushed the stop button, ready for you to resume watching at your convenience.

The leap from episode to series story arcs has been a tough one for dramatic TV producer/writers to make.  Many of them still have not been able to summon the requisite courage.  (Hello, the team at Justified!)  Focus groups from out of the hoary past have told these creators that they didn’t want unresolved episode endings; they wanted story closure now, not next week, or at the end of the season.  Netflix changes that, forever.  That unresolved episode end is now just a couple of clicks away from the tale resuming.

The best television shows are the ones that embrace long form storytelling wholeheartedly, and Netflix allows you to in turn embrace these series at your leisure.  Enjoy.  You’ll never look back.

 

 

 

The Singularity

It’s the ultimate sci-fi concept.  Those infernal machines keep getting steadily smarter and smarter until, one day, shazaam, they surpass human intelligence and we arrive at “the singularity”—a point in time beyond which, almost by definition, the future is unknowable.

The idea has been popularized by science-fiction writers like Vernor Vinge  and Ray Kurzweil, who rightly point out that such an event would be more than a little disruptive to existing social and economic conditions.  Certainly we’ve seen that kind of disruption already with the effects of the digital revolution on nearly every industry out there.  It may have begun with music, but can you think of any industry now which has not been at least bent out of its former shape, if not turned on its proverbial ear, by the advent of digital technology, whether it be publishing, journalism, travel, entertainment or war?

Scott McIntyre, the CEO of Douglas McIntyre Publishers, the largest independent Canadian publishing house, tried to put the pressure on his industry into perspective during an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 21 of 2012.  He repeated the publishing bromide which states that the first book Johannes Guttenberg published, after inventing the printing press, was The Bible.  The second book he published was “a screed on the death of the publishing industry.”  A little perspective on any problem is always a good thing.  Sadly however, proper perspective or not, Douglas McIntyre filed for bankruptcy on October 22 of 2012.

Kurzweil suggests, in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, a scenario of “accelerating returns” on computer technology, whereby computers progressively design new and better computers along an exponential growth curve.  Like humans, computers become self-replicating.  It’s an evolutionary path which, Kurzweil believes, is inevitable.

It all relates back to “Moore’s Law,” the oft-cited axiom which states that the processing power of computer chips doubles every two years.  Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore provided the basis for the Law back in 1965, and his prediction has proven to be almost supernaturally accurate to date.  It’s interesting to note, however, that Intel itself has predicted that the trajectory may finally end as soon as 2013.  Moore has added that, “It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”

Computers, I am told, are very near reaching the human brain’s capacity for language recognition.  Can we safely predict from there that, as many have suggested, a computer will nonetheless never be capable of writing, say, King Lear?  I recall a university professor of mine, back in the day, who cast withering aspersion on the prediction that, by the day he was speaking to us, the chess champion of the world would be a computer, reminding us that Boris Spassky currently occupied that seat.  As we all know, the good Professor would be in no position for such easy defamation today, as not only is a computer chess champion of the world, IBM’s ‘Watson’ triumphed over the very best players of the TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity is more than the ultimate sci-fi premise; it also represents the ultimate faith in technology.  Kurzweil believes that we will soon be able to achieve immortality via an upload of our bio-techno-enhanced consciousness, that we will be able to revive the dead, so long as we have stored enough information about them before they physically disappeared.  Optimistic seems an inadequate descriptor for this view.  Others have suggested that as computers exceed our intelligence and go on, at the same exponential rate, to become super beings far eclipsing our powers in every capacity, they will come to regard humans as utterly inconsequential, much the way we regard mosquitos—periodically irritating, but a problem easily remedied with a decisive swat.

1) Change is the only constant, and 2) prognosticators of the future are like baseball players at the plate: the very best of them get it right only about a third of the time.  These are the only two axioms that occur to me as reliable when it comes to considering the future.

The digital revolution has far more in common with the industrial than it does the Gutenberg revolution.  Like the industrial revolution, it has a profound upside, and a profound downside.  It remains for us to collectively attempt to benefit from its upside, and protect ourselves from its downside.  (The demise of independent Canadian publishing is no small loss.)  On an individual level, it’s the very same challenge.

 

 

 

Cybernetics

Chop Wood, Carry Water, Write Blog

I was ten years old when my father got his first calculator.  It was 1963, and a few years before he had left his position as City Engineer in the just-barely-big-enough-to-be-called-a-city I grew up in to start his own engineering and surveying business.  The calculator was the size of, say, a slightly elongated 300-page hard cover book, but the thing was, it could do trigonometry, instantly calculating sines, cosines and tangents (and therefore distances) that my father had been laboriously calculating ‘by hand’ until then.

This was significant for my family because my father worked long hours in those days.  He left early, came home for lunch, kicked back in his recliner for a brief nap, returned to work, showed up again just ahead of dinner, and then usually headed back to the office after dinner for a few more hours of mental toil.  It was particularly hard on my mother, who was left to contain myself and my two brothers.  The arrival of the calculator, my mother announced, meant that we would all see more of my father.

It didn’t happen.  Any let-up in my father’s work schedule came only years later as the result of a growing business, and the hiring of staff.

The term I remember from the 70s for this same naive hope was ‘cybernetics.’  It’s a word that seems to have meant many different things to many different people over the years, but the meaning I recall touted was one which suggested that, given the incredible speed and efficiency evolving via modern science and technology, we would all soon be enjoying far greater amounts of leisure time.

It didn’t happen.  You may have noticed.

What a gloriously well-intentioned crock it all was, and another lesson in how poorly we predict the future direction and impact of new technology.  (No one, for instance, foresaw the rise of social media ten years ago.)  We know now that technology—especially digital technology—doesn’t save us time, it simply accelerates our lives.  It simply closes the gap between what we can do now, and what would have previously taken us longer to get to.  With an instant calculation, or instant information, or instant communication, that task which we would have formerly had overnight, or maybe two weeks to anticipate and ponder, is immediately upon us, demanding the doing.

The fact is, if you’d like more time on your hands, get off the grid.  Escape electronic technology altogether.  Chop wood, carry water, save time.

Until recently, the place on Galiano Island where I write this was off the communications grid.  No phone (no cell phone coverage), no TV, no internet.  Electricity and radio, that was it.  To come here was to immerse yourself in the pre-digital age.  That experience became the inspiration for this blog.

Thus, this the inaugural post for a blog intended to be about our changing times, about the accelerated change we are all living with on a daily basis.  Ken Auletta, who writes a column on communications technology for The New Yorker, has said that we are now experiencing a greater degree of change than at any time in our entire history, and I suspect he’s dead right about that.  (It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; the internet just four.)  And I further think that this condition isn’t given quite enough attention these days.

Make no mistake, the digital revolution has many, many positives.  The often-mentioned benefits of social media for the Arab Spring protestors should suffice as an example.  But so too do we have the catch phrase ‘digital Darwinism’ accompanying the ‘e revolution,’ as if to say that any who are not gleefully on board the digital train are doomed to an embarrassed extinction.  These purveyors of doom employ the word ‘exciting’ more often than any other in discussing the future of the revolution underway (Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, tells us, grinning, that we are still in “day one” of the revolution.), but let us make no mistake about this fact either: the burgeoning ubiquity of digital technology is driven by money.  Those who wax so enthusiastic about all of us participating in the social media game are themselves coaching from the sidelines.  They want to win alright, but the winner’s payoff for them is exactly as Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay for The Social Network would have us note: “Baby, you’re a rich man too.”  Those of us out there battling on the field are playing for very different stakes.  And for those on the field, the game is not without injury.

It’s not fashionable to say so, but the digital revolution warrants our skepticism, a critical rather than an eager or unthinking reception, and this blog is intended to facilitate exactly that.

The blogger's woodpile.
The blogger’s woodpile.