The Economy of Stuff

Not too long ago Wal-Mart drew many comparisons to the Borg. The Borg, for those who might not know, played the part of the new über villains on Star Trek The Next Generation. They were unstoppable, “you will be assimilated” was their catch phrase. The Borg operated as a collective, adding to their operating system anything unique that a species might offer and discarding the rest. Hence the comparisons to Wal-Mart.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s Wal-Mart was the commercial goods super power. When a Wal-Mart store opened two other events were likely to occur. First, any lesser store selling anything similar to Wal-Mart went out of business, namely the mom & pop stores. Secondly, the real estate around Wal-Marts were soon populated with McDonalds, Applebees, and similar consumer driven shops that thrived off of the corporate model.

And now there is Species 8472. The Borg encountered only one enemy that was capable of not only defending itself, but also able to destroy the Borg with only the slightest effort, Species 8472: also known as Amazon.

Amazon started off as a bookseller. I remember discovering Amazon in 2006, looking for a compendium on social stratification (oh the irony). It is not likely that people can remember the first time they bought something from any given store, but this case was memorable for the fact that the title I got completely fell apart (bad glue on the spine) upon taking it out of the box. When I called to complain the person helping me was extremely polite and sent me a new copy next-day air. Having put myself through undergrad working retail I have a special appreciation for great customer service. I was hooked.

Amazon’s model grew well beyond books. There is seemingly nothing that Amazon cannot provide, all with 2 day shipping if you have an Amazon Prime Account. Amazon even has a built in bar code scanner for smart phones that allows you to price shop. Wal-Mart has always offered price matching but you had to drive all the way to the store. With Amazon you can walk into almost any store, scan an item, and have it shipped to you in a matter of days. Completely dismissing the human interaction that helped you find the product in the first place.

The hatred that Wal-Mart received for driving down wages, selling cheap products, running locally owned shops out of business, and just about anything else seems to be missing from criticism of Amazon. Amazon is just as guilty of anything Wal-Mart did and more. A point of clarification, what Amazon and Wal-Mart did was to take advantage of a market system that champions creative destruction. Anyway.

Amazon is not immune to criticism, but it would appear that Amazon is being treated much differently from Wal-Mart.

One of the many differences is that Wal-Mart’s business model relies heavily on human interaction. People go to a Wal-Mart to find things, even things they did not know they needed. The store has to be arranged and cleaned. Wal-Mart is a tangible experience where you are likely to interact with at least one person during your shopping trip (even if you use the self checkout). Amazon uses human labor, but it is unlikely to actually see an Amazon employee. The Amazon shopping experience is completed entirely through Human Computer Interaction.

Virginia Eubanks visited IU last Spring to talk about her new book, Automating Inequality (which Amazon just told me I purchased on January 17, 2018). First off, it is a great book and offers many unique insights towards the use of technology in society, go pick up a copy. During her talk Professor Eubanks mentioned how technology provides us with a kind of empathy override; that if technology makes a decision that potentially ruins someone’s life that we are able to distance that tragedy by acknowledging that the computer did it.

The relatively subtle criticism of Amazon seems like empathy override, afforded by Amazon’s business model of hiding its human capital. We cannot easily see the working conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center, in fact getting any kind of a picture of these places is next to impossible. Furthermore the average Amazon shopper is likely to be solidly middle class. Amazon customers likely have a bank account, a fact many people take for granted. Avid Amazon shoppers are not likely to know anyone who actually works for Amazon.

Amazon provides a wonderful platform that allows customers to buy almost anything. The shopper remains entirely unaware of the human expenditure necessary to maintain this model. It is very difficult to criticize things that are not understood. Social criticism of Amazon is growing, but it pales in comparison to that experienced by Wal-Mart. The reason is likely due to the fact that much of Amazon’s negative impact is hidden from its shoppers.

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Social Media!

Social media cannot and will not save or elevate journalism. Twitter might have value to some people, but it is not the place for journalist to communicate anything. Two recent Tweets from journalist (who should damn well know better) illustrate this point.

Jake Silverstein is an editor for the NYT. He re-tweeted a photo from the Obama era of children at a deportation center. Silverstein later stated that he was, “distracted w family on the weekend.”

David Frum is the editor of the Atlantic. The Tweet reads, “Suppose President Trump punched the First Lady in the White House (federal property = federal jurisdiction), then ordered the Secret Service to conceal the assault. POTUS has Article II authority over Secret Service. Is that obstruction? Under Sekulow/Dowd, apparently NO.”

Full disclosure, I subscribe and read both of these publications. I appreciate the dedication to journalism that both institutions embody. Yet statements like these are a pretty good indication that Twitter + Journalism = Not-Journalism.

For Mr. Silverstein, the statement “distracted w family” is particularly jarring. If you are with your family, but the damn phone down and pay attention to your family. He did point out that one should be more careful with rt (re-tweeting). Yes, that is true. That is especially true in an era of post-truth when any such slip-up could cause this kind of distraction.

For Mr. Frum. President Trump not qualified to shine the shoes of Trent Lott. Regardless of how vile one might find the President it is not acceptable to involve the First Lady in this kind of hypothetical situation.

Journalist should concentrate on journalism and being careful with their word choices. However reckless the President, or anyone else, wants to be with communication is beside the point. Journalism has been ravaged since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the subsequent rise of Internet news. Journalism was key to the success of the early republic and is one of the few hopes to keep democracy functioning.


Posted in Information Literacy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Facebook, Deleted

In September 2017 I deleted my Facebook account, or so I thought. Several searches online made me think there were bits and pieces of my account still alive. On March 18th, 2018 I attempted to log back on to Facebook and lo-and-behold. It was as if I had never left. There is, apparently, a special set of steps you need to take to delete your account completely, but I doubt it is ever really gone. Once something goes online it lives there forever.

The things I missed during my time away from Facebook amount to a tremendous pile of nothing. Many people I know, or have previously known, experienced many things in their lives. Some great, some terrible. There were probably hundreds of memes I missed out on, darn. At least two people I know had babies (spoiler alert, all babies are the same (even mine (if anyone thinks other wise they are just fooling themselves))).

For some people, Facebook and social media mean a lot. Who am I to judge? Ok, I am very judgmental, but if someone else enjoys social media then ok. But exactly what is social media good for? Sharing things? Photographs, News Stories (that no one actually reads), memes?

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Let’s Fix Fake News with an App!

Much of the narrative surrounding the plague of fake news in society is that this is a problem that can be solved by technology. Technological Determinism is a phrase that I use, perhaps, a bit too much. At times, I feel only a step away from becoming the grumpy old man in black shoes and white socks yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

For as many problems solved by a new technology countless others appear. Too often technology is favorably viewed as an answer (even to the problems created by the presence of technology). Too much screen time? Make your phone grey-scale, or better yet, use this app to remind you to put your phone away: Technological solutions to problems solved by simply turning the device off.

So, Fake News.

First, it is important to start with a definition. Fake news is, at least in the discussion here, a partially or completely fabricated recounting of events for the purposes to either misinform or unduly influence. Something along the lines of “Pope Francis endorses Trump for President.”

There is a growing chorus calling for a solution to this problem. Within the library world, many have created Libguides (online electronic guides librarians create for the purpose of teaching) to fight fake news. Still other solutions come in the form of Apps or even more sophisticated algorithms. Blah Blah Blah.

The rise of fake news was/is due to people’s attention spans, or lack thereof. Social Media newsfeeds reinforce individual comfort zones, making it very difficult for consumers of this media to realize what is going on. The solution to fake news is not an app. Nor is it a new algorithm, big data, machine learning, or any other asinine technological buzzword, no matter what complex network researchers tell you.

The solution is to read, both purposely and carefully, but this is not what people want to hear. “There’s an app for that.” Or, “this new website will tell if you the news you are getting is….” All of this is an exercise in futility. Just as you cannot legislate morality, neither can you create a technological solution as an answer to the morality of finding information.

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Perhaps it is time to pay attention, just a little

Over the past few days I have checked the NRA’s website to see what (if anything) they might say about the shooting in Florida. Nothing is the answer. But what really struck me was what is on the NRA website:

This is an advertisement for insurance you can buy in case you ever shoot someone, NRA Carry Guard. This is not a joke. The #1 cheerleader for people’s right to carry guns (apparently everywhere) also happens to sell insurance to help with legal bills/fees in the event you ever need to shoot someone. Please note, they go out of there way that this is only for people who lawfully carry, and discharge their weapons in self-defense.

Think about that. No, just really think about that. Would you have a problem if RJ Reynolds Tobacco also sold Iron Lungs? Or, chemotherapy drugs?

The insurance is provided by Lockton Affinity. Conveniently, this is a privately held company so absolutely no information about their investments is known. The insurance is underwritten by Chubb Insurance, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland.

Also, and this is just a pure coincidence I am sure, but Chubb Insurance, Sturm Ruger, Orbital ATK (parent group of several ammunition manufacturers) and American Outdoor Brands (Smith & Wesson) all have the same admirers.

Charles Schwab Investment Management owns…..

Chubb 1.5 million shares (6th largest holder)

Sturm Ruger 149,000 shares (3rd largest holder)

American Outdoor Brands 440,000 shares (2nd largest holder)

Orbital ATK Inc 239,000 shares (5th largest holder)

Again, that is purely a coincidence, I’m sure. Oh, don’t look now, but someone just updated something on Facebook….

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Finding Information

The most rewarding part of my day is helping people find things. Interaction with students, faculty, and anyone else who needs help gives me the opportunity to my job as a librarian. This might seem silly to some, after all Google can find anything you might need, right?

Over the past week I have taught 8 classes and had research consultations with almost two dozen students across all skill levels. Even for researchers that I consider advanced, there seems to be a reliance on Google (and Google Scholar) searching that seems blindingly devotional. Everyone does not need to use the Web of Science or SCOPUS with the greatest of skill, but when I talk to a student who is ABD in the social sciences and they have never heard of either of these resources I get a little cranky.

This issue sits squarely on the responsibility of librarians to the populations and institutions they serve. Prior to the avalanche of information, provided via the Internet, the library was the cultural institution of knowledge. The perception that “everything is on the Internet” was/is largely unchallenged (except for librarians who love to talk about this with other librarians).

Fake News is the latest topic that gives librarians the opportunity to teach about how to find information. Regardless of what anyone says, the answer to fake news is not technology. Yale held a“>hackathon to build an app to fight fake news. It is obtuse to believe that technology will fix the problem of fake news. Technological advancement has brought many convinces to society. But at its core, technology is reducible to a mathematical formula and humanity is not.

The only way for people to be better researchers and fight fake news is to read, and to do so carefully. How often do you repost something on Facebook without reading it? Do you consider the sources? Do you consider how that survey on parenting was conducted?

Yes, this is being annoyingly nit-picky. However, being informed requires more than just a glance at your Facebook newsfeed.

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Cell Phones & Health Care

Justin Chaffetz stated that people might need to choose between getting the new iPhone and paying for health care.

Former President Obama said much the same thing, albeit more eloquently.

Both of them are wrong.

Cell phones and Internet access were luxury entertainment items in 2000, but not any more. Having a cell phone is crucial to being able to operate in modern society. While it is possible to use a more basic cell phone, having a smart phone allows people access to services that are increasingly available only through the Internet.

You Do Not Need the Latest & Greatest.

This is simply wrong. Cell phones have a lifespan, a short one at that. Apple admits that iPhones are only expect to last three years. Personally, I find this laughable. Memory size is key to having a phone that will last those three years, as developers of these devices seem determined to create huge mandatory software updates that slowly eat away at any free storage space. This is not to mention how fragile the devices are themselves.


Posted in Culture, Digital Divide, Technology | Leave a comment