Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Please Stop Working for Free

I was pleased to see that Stephen Colbert levied brilliant criticisms against CNN’s iReport social network on his Monday night show:

It’s wonderful to see a satirist or critic taking on the topic, but it’s important to keep in mind that CNN is far from being the only organization to uncompensated labor from the public, at the expense of actual jobs. If CNN is the worst offender, it is only by virtue of its being an exceptionally large and visible organization. But some content on the front pages of Yahoo! is drawn from its amateur contributor network. And while it does allow people to earn nominal payments based on page views, ultimately Yahoo! is relying on a large pool of writers and photographers who are willing to work for free and consider any compensation whatsoever to essentially be a gift. AOL and the Huffington Post utilize the same model, and of course the latter is also infamous for simply reposting paid content from other news sources. On top of that, there are various sites whose sole concept is to gather creative content from as many people as possible and then present some sort of prize to those that pay dividends on nothing. And each of them seemingly finds a steady supply of willing participants.

That willingness seems unlikely to become the focus of other critics, but I think it is the main issue here. So long as news outlets remain primarily concerned with making money, it is only natural that they will latch onto business practices that allow them to maintain output without the need to pay formerly requisite salaries. Quality be damned, if it brings them any revenue, it is worthwhile because it contributes nothing to overhead. There’s even a business term for this kind of acquisition of labor: crowdsourcing. It serves much the same purpose as outsourcing work to foreign countries, but is even better for the business, as outsourcing exploits the necessity of workers accepting appalling low wages because of their local conditions, whereas crowdsourcing exploits the willingness of workers to accept no payment at all because of their imagination of some future reward.

Certainly, I would be thrilled if there came a breaking point for the news media, and they came to realize that they have an obligation greater than the acquisition of capital. Each person can play a role in promoting that realization, primarily through his choice of what media to consume, but ultimately that breaking point is up to the executives of several corporations, and out of our hands. What ordinary people should realize instead is that they are enabling this sort of exploitation, and contributing to the rampant decay in the quality of news and popular culture. There is a breaking point that every writer and artist must reach, whereby we come to understand that we are being used, and that we are allowing ourselves to be used.

There’s really nothing in it for us if we keep giving away work for free. I’m sure that many people provide content for major websites purely in pursuit of fifteen minutes of fame, but I expect that many people also do so on the assumption that it will lead to some discovery of their brilliance, that the exposure to a wide audience of CNN viewers or Yahoo! readers will open doors for them. What they ought to understand, though, is that that pursuit of self-interest will ultimately prevent those doors from opening to anywhere. Every decent writer who offers free content in hope of future opportunities is evidently expecting someone to come along and pay for what everyone else is getting for free.

Of course, if the decent writers and artists realize this and drop out of the crowdsource, I suppose that would just leave behind the terrible writers and artists, and raise the question, would CNN, Yahoo!, AOL and the like continue to drink from a tepid pool? They might. But the subsequently accelerating deterioration of quality just illustrates the way breaking points work. If we keep quality content out of the hands of those who would exploit it for free, won’t there come a point at which the dreck they’re channeling into public view just isn’t worth looking at anymore? There simply must be a lower limit to what we’re willing to accept and popularize. There must be, even though there is apparently no lower limit to what many people are willing to accept as compensation for their creative efforts.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Kindle Ads

While I was at my mother’s home on Thanksgiving, I caught a new Kindle advertisement on television. In previous weeks, I’d seen the other installments in the same campaign, where a man holding a Kindle passive-aggressively debates its merit over paper books with a woman whom we are evidently supposed to think is stuck in the dark ages because she still reads things that take up physical space. Each commercial ended with the woman tacitly acknowledging that the Kindle owner was right to ridicule her, even though I as a viewer never found his explanation of the equivalence between books and e-books to be persuasive.

In the latest entry into the campaign, the dinosaur lady has evidently accepted the superiority of e-book readers completely, and she now appears as a fellow Kindle owner, sloughing off the last of her reluctance to the change. I am guessing that this development means that the advertisers are confident that e-book readers have handily won the competition, and that no further convincing is necessary. Perhaps they’re right; perhaps people like me will never be convinced, but everyone else has already gone over. It doesn’t quite seem fair, though. It’s not as though a coalition of print publishers and booksellers have been running ads in favor of the other side.

I earnestly wish that there was such creative competition going on. Whenever I saw those advertisements, I was fascinated by how ineffective they were for me personally, and it repeatedly occurred to me that the difference between an argument for and against physical books is just a matter of different interpretations of the same information. For instance, one of the Kindle commercials began with the Kindle owner commenting on the size of the shoulder bad that the woman was carrying. Beaming, she explained how many books and magazines it was capable of holding. When the man responds by pointing out that his Kindle holds 3,500 books and only weighs eight and a half ounces, we see the physical equivalent of that much literature piling up in the space around them.

I recall thinking when I originally saw that ad, “wait, are we supposed to take it for granted that having that much literature in one device is preferable to having it in the form of books?” From my perspective, the ad was presenting two distinct alternatives and essentially inviting me to choose the one that the advertisers are competing against. Given the choice between an eight and a half ounce piece of plastic and circuitry, and a personal library in my home lined with 3,500 individual volumes, there’s absolutely no contest. I would much rather have an array of books that I can keep on display, take down off a shelf when I need them, lend out to curious friends, and generally appreciate. That seems like the obvious choice to me, but I’m sure that there are a great many consumers who don’t think that much about it, and do accept the assumptions of advertisers. So I really wish I had the means to run advertisements disseminating the opposite angle on the same scene.

Another thing to consider is why holding 3,500 books in one place is considered an advantage for the consumer. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to or should, but are other people typically plowing through 3,500 books in a year? If not, why the hell would they need to carry that many with them on a daily basis? Again, if one owns that much literature, it seems to me that it’s far better off in a personal library. The only reason I can see why a person would own thousands of books, unless he was an antiquarian, is because he has been collecting them over the course of a lifetime. And of course people do just that with their paper books. But how many people hold onto and use the same piece of technology for decades? What, then, is the point of trapping decades’ worth of books in a single electronic device? Considerations like this leave me with the impression that if anyone is impressed with the fact that a Kindle holds 3,500 books, it’s purely because it’s a big number, not because of any practical advantage of that feature. Unfortunately, it would probably take a snappy television ad to make that fact known.

Another of the Kindle ads consists of the man smugly showing the woman that a Kindle can be read just like a real book, being unaffected by glare from the sun, and saving one’s place in the text just as well as one would save her place in a book by folding down the page. She feebly protests that he doesn’t get “the rewarding feeling of actually folding down the page,” then demonstrates, realizes that’s a ridiculous advantage for books, as asks to see the Kindle. This one strikes me as straightforwardly disingenuous. The woman starts by saying that she only reads real books, and the man casually responds that he is reading a real book. At that point I wish I could chime in and tell him, “shut up, douchebag, you know what she meant.”

I don’t think anybody who maintains a preference for physical, paper books does so on the basis of some misconception that you can’t read the words on a Kindle screen, or that you have to go to night school in order to navigate one. But there is a distinct, obvious difference between reading a physical book and reading an e-book. There really isn’t any argument to be made against that. Each individual is free to decide which one they experientially prefer, but to say that they’re the same and that technological convenience is therefore the only consideration is just demonstrably false.

I don’t dog-ear the pages of my books. In fact, I like to try to keep them in as pristine condition as possible. So I don’t get any rewarding feeling from actually folding down the page of a paper book. But I do like the fact that books are capable of acquiring personal character in that way. Again, there’s a place for a contrary advertisement here, emphasizing that there is an advantage to being able to manipulate and even manhandle your physical books. Every dog-eared page might remind a person of a time and place, or mark off personally meaningful passages so that they are more easily accessible than they ever could be while lost in the binary code of countless other passages in three thousand other books on an e-book reader.

And indeed, real books will take much more abuse than mere folded-down pages. If there was a market for advertisements promoting the simple practice of reading physical books, I would like to design one that depicts a single book being dropped and an entire library shelf shattering. The scene would ask the audience if such a thing has ever happened to them, and remind them that if they store all of their books on one sensitive piece of technology, it just might.

But unfortunately, there’s no one to present an alternative ad campaign, no unified front against the advance of unnecessary technological replacements. The fact that the Kindle has been selling itself by striving to undercut not its competitor e-book readers, but the actual concept of physical books strikes me as fairly unprecedented. It is as if internet service providers had run ads championing the obsolescence of television, or television manufacturers had produced commercials prompting people to throw out their radios once and for all. But if either of those things had happened, one would assume that television networks or radio broadcasters would push back against it.

Presumably, in the case of books, large publishers and distributers would stand to profit more from the sales of electronic downloads, given low overhead. Barnes and Noble seems to have no interest in safeguarding the future of its physical stores, seeing as every time I go into one, I am confronted with a kiosk promoting their own e-book reader just inside the door. It almost seems to implore people to walk in, avoid the bookshelves altogether, walk out, and do all their future shopping from home.

Meanwhile, small print publishers and local bookshops have no resources with which to try to change the public perception of the divide between e-books and print books. I think that if there was not such an imbalance of resources, people could be swayed in either direction. It may be selfish of me, but I lament the fact that media pressure pushes people in favor of the high-tech alternative, as I know that if the trend moves quickly enough in that direction, it will eventually mean the virtual extinction of print publishing, and with it the beauty of constantly evolving personal and public libraries, and an entire category of human experience. I can’t accept that future.

As it stands, there’s no relying on commercial media to counteract dominant trends, so I have to merely hope for enough people to reach breaking points in their experience of the negative aspects of e-readers or in their understanding of the irrelevance of their ostensible advantages, so that this relentless advertising, which targets physical media and unique identity as competitors, loses some of its power.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Limbaugh Speaks Through Racing Fans' Jeers

I heard a recent clip from Rush Limbaugh’s broadcast, in which he commented upon Michelle Obama and Jill Biden serving as Grand Marshals at a NASCAR event over the weekend. Evidently, a portion of the crowd responded quite negatively to them. Limbaugh took it upon himself to explain that reaction from a crowd that was, in his words, insulted by the first lady’s presence there. Most any viewpoint that I hear Limbaugh express raises questions as to how, throughout decades in broadcasting, the man has managed to insulate himself so completely from anything that resembles evolution of thought or self-awareness.

A quick glance at other mentions of this incident on news sites and blogs indicates that many people are focusing on Limbaugh’s use of the word “uppity,” and the evident racial element to that kind of terminology. And while that is worth examining, I don’t like to put too much emphasis on the semantics of people’s stupid commentary. I’m willing to give Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt on things like that, and accept that he was using the word in a colloquial sense to refer to arrogance and haughtiness. Perhaps Limbaugh is simply unaware of the racial history of the term stemming from its original use by blacks in describing other blacks who seemed too invested in moving upward in a white-dominated society.

It’s a bit presumptuous to claim that Limbaugh’s use of the word denotes racism, though it very well may, but I think it’s perfectly fair to conclude from it that either Limbaugh doesn’t pay any attention to the issue of racial sensitivity or he hasn’t realized at any point in his long career in radio that words have consequences.

Still, language is kind of an esoteric way to criticize commentary that is so much more easily cut down by pointing out self-delusion and rational flaws. What Limbaugh offered, apparently as the principal reason why the crowd saw fit to give Mrs. Obama such a disrespectful reception was this:

“The first lady has to take her own Boeing 757 with family and kids and hangers on four hours earlier than her husband who will be on his 747. NASCAR people understand that that’s a little bit of a waste.”

Now, his further comments suggest that he means “waste” in a purely fiscal, “those are my tax dollars” kind of way. I hope to God that that is indeed what he means, because if he thinks the people in attendance at an event where dozens of cars drive in a circle for five hundred miles are concerned about fuel conservation, he’s far more insane than I ever gave him credit for.

So, supposing that the source of the outcry is little more than the spending of public money, let’s look at this rationally. A jet like a Boeing 757 gets about three miles to the gallon, and the latest figures that I was able to find for the price of jet fuel place it at $3.20 per gallon. There’s about a thousand miles between Washington D.C. and Miami, so if that’s the trip we’re talking about, the first lady’s plane expended roughly 1067 dollars’ worth of fuel in getting there. If we ask for an equal share of that from just 150 million Americans – substantially less than half of the present population – then each of them is made to contribute just over two ten-thousandths of a cent to the trip. Of course, what Limbaugh seems to deem unforgivable is Michelle Obama going to the same place as her husband, except earlier. So we can double the per capita figure to about four-and-a-half ten-thousands of a cent. Is that personal loss what each of the members of the crowd was jeering at?

I recognize that the criticism of Mrs. Obama’s use of public funds extends far beyond one trip to Miami. I understand that the crowd wasn’t making so direct a connection between the first lady’s travel arrangements and their decision to give her such a cold reception. But my point here is to ask, does Rush Limbaugh understand that?

I think it was tasteless across the board for the crowd to boo Mrs. Obama, especially seeing as she was there to promote a charitable organization that serves our military veterans. But I don’t ascribe a single point of view, much less one so narrow in scope, to everyone who joined in on that chorus. I imagine that some people think she spends too lavishly given the state of the nation’s economy, but also that some were jeering at her as nothing more than a proxy for her husband’s political career. I also believe that some portion of the noise was probably coming from racists who just plain don’t like the uppity black woman taking center stage at their event.

I do not believe, however, that it’s possible to attribute Rush Limbaugh’s personal views to an entire crowd of people at a massive sporting event. Yet I think Limbaugh himself does just that in explaining just what it is that “the NASCAR people understand.” And by so doing, I think Limbaugh tends to shield his own very personal, unfair verbal assaults behind the imagined worldview of a group that probably possesses much more nuance in its collective thinking than is convenient for him.

I hope that some of the members of that crowd realize that the real insult against them is this kind of black-and-white thinking, which holds that there are only two ways of thinking about anything – the wrong way, and the Limbaugh way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Santa Claus is Coming to... Wait, He's Here?

As I have a friend who has a modicum of disposable income and I’m sometimes able to afford bus fare, the time I spend with her allows me to go places I would not go on my own, like shopping malls. Of course, I don’t much care for the places, but I’ll take anything that’s outside the realm of my day-to-day experience. Poverty aside, I’m quite an anti-consumerist person, so I wouldn’t buy much even if I could, and I recoil at the insane ravenousness with which some people shop. I actually enjoy going to the mall for the sake of watching the passersby and speculating about their lives, exploring the cultural trends and modern fashions on display in storefronts, and generally observing everything at one step removed. But from time to time, some absurdly over-zealous advertisement or sudden mad dash of customers will tear me violently away from my enjoyment of the scenery and leave me burning with aggravation at the worst of my culture.

It’s the way that corporations and ad agencies and salesmen push us in certain directions, and it’s the way we happily and thoughtlessly run straight in the direction we’re being pushed. Nothing provides a more lasting impression of that than the way in which consumerism manipulates the very passage of the seasons. The calendar seems to run a little differently each year, though the change is unidirectional. And as obvious and discomforting as it is to me, I see no means of stopping it. Indeed, I see no one expressing interest in it stopping.

I went to the local area’s largest mall with my friend over the weekend. I’d hoped that I’d be able to lose myself in the crowd for a while and generally forget about the nature of the place, but about twenty feet from the door, I realized that there was no escaping the consequences of my stubborn non-conformity. For it was about twenty feet from the door that I saw Santa. A little further in, I could make out the Christmas music being piped across the mall concourse, and I tried to override Paul McCartney’s voice, changing the words to “simply having a wonderful nineteenth of November.”

I take it for granted that people are expected to start their Christmas shopping earlier each year, and that they tend to act in accordance with that expectation. It frustrates me to no end, but I take it for granted. When I worked in a wholesale club a few years ago, I was dismayed to see that our Christmas displays went up on September 17th. This year, I saw autumn displays in a Rite-Aid in early August, and jokingly asked the employee working in that aisle how long it would be before all of that was cleared out to make way for the Christmas merchandise. He replied, “Actually, we got our first shipment this week.”

After Halloween was over, I was in a store that mostly sells seasonal merchandise and I saw that Christmas immediately sprang into full commercial blossom when October ended. I recall commenting that it now seems that from the point of view of retailers, Halloween ends in September and Thanksgiving simply doesn’t happen. How right I was, based on this weekend. And how unfortunate that the stores set the tone for everyone else. Two radio stations in my area began playing Christmas music 24/7 at the end of the first week of November.

I don’t like the emphasis on consumerism attached to all of our traditions. I make no secret of that. But what bugs me on a deeper level is way that this rampant commercialization of everything increasingly threatens to rob people of the actual experience of holidays and distinct seasons. I sometimes imagine that we’re spiraling towards a future in which citizens are constantly preparing for one upcoming holiday or another, but never pause to actually celebrate or enjoy any particular event. Perhaps someday the question “When is Christmas Day?” will be met with a quizzical look and the bemused response, “What are you talking about? Christmas goes from now until Valentines.”

The way I remember it, wasn’t the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade always the first appearance of Santa Claus? Weren’t we all supposed to have a collective feeling of warmth at that moment, knowing that the Christmas season began that moment? Even as a child and even living in the suburbs, I had a certain understanding that Thanksgiving marked the turning point at the end of harvest time, when the enjoyment of winter began. Because the parade was televised, all the children in America were able to enjoy the first glimpse of Santa together, and no one was able to lay first claim to the magic of the Christmas season the way they are able to lay first claim to a Blu-Ray player or laptop on Black Friday.

The only reason I can see for why a parent would take a child to see Santa Claus at a mall in the middle of November is out of a sense of opportunism. “Come on, Sally,” I imagine some young mom saying between gulping swills of coffee while holding out her watch, “let’s go see Santa now so we can beat the lines. This way he’ll know exactly what he needs to get when the stores open at eleven o’clock on Thanksgiving. So let’s go plop you on the man’s lap and get this shit over with.”

I think it’s awfully hard for adults to remember that the same things can be seen much differently through the eyes of children. Whereas standing in a line to declare your desires to a bearded fat man in a red suit may seem hellishly monotonous to many parents, for many children, though they may not be aware of it at the time, the prospect of having to wait with other children in order to talk to Santa makes the satisfaction of reaching him all that much more thrilling. And it’s a community experience, subtly reminding both parents and children that every reasonably fortunate family in the country will be getting much of what they want come December 25th, and that it’s not just a private, one-household glut of loving avarice.

I guess what I’m saying is if we have to define our traditions by orgiastic consumption, can we at least do it in a way that encourages us to recognize that we’re part of a shared society? But make no mistake, I’d rather we tone the consumerism way, way down. I know that it’s unreasonable to expect our consumerist impulses to be overturned. I know that well enough to be okay with hanging out at malls. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect us to show capability for valuing something other than consumerism, as well.

Making our purchases and listing our material expectations in a more structured way may give us a chance at integrating the remnants of a few other traditions or experiences into our shopping. But no matter how we go about it, the more we shop, the less attention we’ll pay to the other elements of each season. Amidst the increasing primacy of money, it seems to me that the first thing we stand to lose is the seasonal benchmark of Thanksgiving. And with consumption as the defining characteristic of every celebration that surrounds it, it seems to me that a holiday of gratitude and remembrance is what we can least afford to lose.