Trump is severely mentally ill (which is understandable considering he was raised by a sociopathic father), and he needs accountability and treatment, not re-election. Re-election will not address, but rather will intensify and project his mental health struggles onto the world. That is not healthy for anyone, including his political supporters.
Part Two of a two part series exploring the human relationship with technology.
From moral dualism to contextual ethics
In part one, I introduced the concept of vulnerabilities, the hackers who try to understand them, and the economic and social context in which those hackers operate. I end in a transition from software/hardware hacking to explain how corporations like Facebook have successfully hacked and exploited vulnerabilities in the human psyche for profit.
In part two, I will explore the deeper history of the human relationship with technology, and what it means for the development of a more humane outcome that acknowledges and respects and appreciates humans holistically: mind, body, spirit, relationships, environment.
The innate human vulnerabilities I mention in part one didn’t come out of nowhere. Likewise, they aren’t as simple as software to patch. Lastly, we need to be careful what we label as “buggy behavior,” as it is highly situation-dependent, and we will quickly end up in a victim-blaming, socially-darwinistic tailspin of naively labeling more sensitive or susceptible people as “weak.” What we often consider weakness or vulnerability in today’s social climate have, for most of our species’ existence, served us as strengths.
For example, consider breathing process and fight or flight (sympathetic nervous response). When we perceive a threat or stressor, our body prepares to fight or flight, and floods itself with oxygen and adrenaline that it expects to use in an amazing feat of confrontation or escape. This maximized our chance of surviving physically-dangerous encounters. But in a modern context, both chronic and acute stressors are often socially-constructed rather than directly physical. In this context, fight or flight doesn’t serve us well in two ways: 1. physical fight or flight often gets us into even more trouble, and therefore causes more stress damage from social consequences we are trying to avoid in the first place, and 2. the flood of oxygen in what is a “sedentary stress” situation (such as checking email) becomes excessive. Instead of helping us get out of a bad situation, it often perpetuates and extends or even creates the bad situation by translating into oxidative stress and inflammation, which can lead to depression, anxiety and irritability. Where does depression, anxiety and irritability get us? It quickly becomes a vicious cycle. In the past, our evolutionary stress response helped us avoid further stress. Currently, it contributes to greater stress, provoking more frequent and severe stress responses. Our health and relationships suffer.
I call this vicious cycle of previously-good characteristics becoming liabilities in today’s modern world “evolutionary dysregulation.” In this particular case, physical stress responses have become virtual, decoupling the stress with the actual need for more oxygen. Our evolved response does not actually match our modern sociocultural circumstances. We are simply not well-adapted to the circumstances we have created.
Breath is a drug. It is not good or bad. How we breathe matters. Likewise, technology is also a drug. How we “technify” matters. In the same way that breath work is important, we can mitigate bad outcomes in part through education and training. But while this helps us respond more effectively to bad situations, it doesn’t address the bad situation itself. What other leverage points do we have? If we created the circumstances in which we suffer, can’t we also create circumstances that help us suffer?
1. We can’t really mess with our evolutionary heritage. It is what it is. We are a long way from gene hacking, and can barely wrap our minds around the ethics of software hacking. So we have to work with it. That means we need to focus more on other opportunities, such as…
2. Environmental factors (context). Contextual factors determine whether something is beneficial or detrimental. In other words, nothing is inherently “good” or “bad.” This occurs in two ways with regards to genetics:
a. The behavior or gene or other characteristic itself doesn’t change, but will become an asset or liability purely due to change in context. Example: sickle-cell anemia in a malaria-prone context makes sickle-cells beneficial due to their innate resistance to infection, even though it comes at the cost of decreased red blood cell function otherwise.
b. The behavior or gene expression actually changes (epigenetically) based on context. This describes epigenetics: not only do which genes you have matter, but also whether/when and where/how they express themselves. Different circumstances can turn certain genes on or off, or change when or how they activate. Thus, while we can’t directly hack our genes, we can hack how the genes we do have express, by working with the circumstances in which those genes exist. That means our diet, lifestyle, social and ecological context.
A signficant part of our lifestyle includes the type, amount, frequency and duration of our exposure to various technologies throughout our lives, especially during heavy development phases (childhood and adolescence). We (as individuals and as a species) can have an immensely positive impact on our lives by changing when, where, how and to what extent we engage with a given type of technology, and also the type of technology we engage with. What do technologies that only engage us on our terms, to our benefit, look and act like? In what socioeconomic context do they make sense?
We can ascribe two major labels to technology: informational (IT) and mechanical (MT). A chainsaw is mechanical. And a computer, smartphone or TV is obviously informational. But these are not hard distinctions. IT involves MT, and MT involves IT. A chainsaw mediates our relationship with the rest of the world, as does Facebook. It acts as an “informational server and filter.” It takes in information, rejects certain types of information as invalid (which therefore becomes non-existent), and formats the remaining information for compatibility and distribution. It then redistributes that information to interested parties. Facebook takes information from users and clients (advertisers). Then it filters, formats (transforms) and redistributes it to users and clients. A chainsaw takes in information from our senses, and then filters it and redistributes to our hands to operate the chainsaw.
Thanks to the leadership of the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), we can now clearly sub-categorize the IT label based on how it interacts with our sociobiological programming: Does it attempt to hijack our vulnerabilities, as a proxy for black hat work, or does it attempt to expose and “patch” our vulnerabilities with good habits, as a proxy for white hat work? Does it distract us from life, or help us develop and share our gifts? The lines aren’t always so clear. I wouldn’t call a chainsaw (or Facebook) inherently bad, but it does have a tendency to hijack our perception to make itself useful. I have seen this over and over again with both MT and IT. My permaculture instructor, Toby Hemenway (RIP 2016), first made me aware of this phenomenon in 2006. In the same way that, “if all you have is a hammer, then all your problems start looking like nails,” likewise, “spend enough time behind a chainsaw, and a forest starts to look like a collection of trees (with some other “unimportant” stuff thrown in), and then the trees start looking like board-feet.” Before you know it, you are clear-cutting forests.
Technology enables the extractive economy. But does technology determine extraction? If so, it seems we would be doomed as a species to self-extinguish…We need a better understanding of our vulnerabilities with technology, precisely because we evolved to depend on technology for our survival. Our bodies are designed to develop and make use of technology. We are mostly hairless — we need clothes and foot protection. Our big brains and dextrous hands imagine, build and wield tools that enhance our strengths and mitigate our weaknesses. To naively dismiss technology as inherently “bad” would call into question the basis for the existence of our species. Likewise, to naively embrace all technology as inherently or innately “good” has gotten us into our current situation. A simple moral philosophy of bad/good ignores and distracts from the actual depth and complexity of the issue. Other species can make and use tools, but they don’t depend on them to the level we do. Who, for example, disputes “clothing” as a basic human need alongside food and shelter? What other species also uses clothing to protect itself from environmental hazards?
As we depend on technology, we must reconcile our relationship with it. To accomplish that, we must also understand our historical relationship with it. (what follows is a very dense condensation of a much more complex topic that ignores interesting nuances and does not apply to all humans everywhere at all times, but certainly applies to the species as a whole)
Humans have excessive brains per body weight compared most other species. We are also weaker and slower than almost every other species, per body weight or size. At our best, we can’t climb, run, jump, bite, scratch or hit to compete with most other large species, prey or predator. So how do we survive? With the same brain that makes us so vulnerable. We invent — and heavily rely on — tools of defense and assault.
The large brain we have also happens to require an incredible amount of calories per body weight. We evolved to meet this caloric need through animal fats. While vulnerable to other more adept predators, we may have used rocks to smash open bones and eat the nutritious marrow leftover from a kill after a succession of more dangerous predators took what they wanted. Predators kept our population and behavior regulated, until we began using weapons. First blunt weapons such as rocks, then later, the edge, which became knives and spear tips and bows and arrows that gave us ranged attacks and made us deadly predators and competitors almost overnight. Through these inventions, we escaped predator regulation and our ecological niche changed from prey/scavenger to apex predator, almost overnight. We could not only hunt and kill our own prey, but we could effectively defend the food from competitors. But we maintained a prey animal/scavenger mentality inappropriate to our new role as apex predator. Whereas predators ask, “What do we need, when do we need it?” A scavenger might ask, “What can I get?” Technologically-empowered with an answer of, “Anything we want,” that question becomes pathological. Similarly, our fear of apex predators became problematic when we became an apex and often the top predator.
Free from regulation, our population grew exponentially, and bands of hunters split and migrated. We invented clothing to protect ourselves from increasingly extreme conditions as we searched for more food. We began a phase of migratory overkill lasting thousands of years, following and decimating herds of prey species and the other predator species dependent on them. Everywhere we went, massive extinctions and loss of biodiversity followed, without exception. The Bible as well as anthropological record both echo this story. While technology freed us, we could not embrace the responsibility that came with such freedom. We struggle with it today.
From population growth, overkill and extinction we entered a period of prolonged food scarcity and desperation that still marks our psyche. We design and operate entire societies based on the presumption of scarcity. With few or no large animals left, we began eating lower on the food chain, making use of foods with increasingly less balanced and bioavailable nutrition and greater toxicity. We began to eat more of what our disappearing prey used to eat: the parts and children (seeds) of plants. Our control and use of fire allowed us to more efficiently hunt remaining prey and cook increasingly difficult-to-digest food substitutes, even as our use of fire in hunting and ecosystem management contributed to more overkill and extinction, creating fire-adapted and desertifying landscapes. Our dependence on these new carbohydrate-rich food sources enabled sedentary, permanent human settlement through agricultural development with intensified ecological degradation. Sedentary, carbohydrate-rich populations exploded. We began replacing and converting land and biodiversity into more humans and technomass into constructs we now call “cities” — the basis of civilization.
Settlements grew in social complexity, developing institutions and hierarchies. Populations in excess of Dunbar’s Number (the social carrying capacity of the human brain) became common, and the increased social alienation and stress required dedicated administrative attention and tools to retain social order. Humans evolved with linguistic capacity and a capacity for symbolic thought and understanding. We combined these two capacities to create the written language, the predecessor and foundation of all modern IT. As an administrative and accounting tool, writing has in its origins an association with sociopolitical power. It still holds that same sway today. We say, “knowledge is power,” and we tend to associate literacy with (access to) knowledge and power.
Literacy became linked to power and prestige in the first race to the bottom, where literate people of influence soon found their eyesight suffering, due to atrophy of the focal muscles. Eye problems and other chronic illness in civilization stem from two main causes: malnutrition and technological ergonomics (how often we blink and change focal points). IT, starting with the written language, decreased blinking (lubrication and moisture) and initiated the atrophy of the optical focal apparatus by putting us in front of non-fluctuating, near focal points for increasing times at increasing frequencies. A secondary impact of decreased moisture and increased focal muscle atrophy is the enhanced stiffening of the focal membrane with age. Modern multimedia technology intensified the problem, with more attention-grabbing features like strategically-designed flicker that have even demonstrably lowered our blink rate, causing the eye itself to dry out and become brittle.
In a physical sense, and as an example of fundamentally-unergonomic technology design, reading and writing is not really good for us. Literacy is literally bad for our eyes, locking us into a near-sighted state of increasing blindness. It can also be bad for our posture, neck, shoulders, and is strongly-correlated with chronic illness linked to physical inactivity. We also suffer regular and widespread hearing loss from loud noises of technological origin. Today’s typical civilized humans enjoy a fraction of the physical and sensory capacities that our ancestors and indigenous cousins enjoy(ed). Some part of our collective consciousness must understand this, as the popularized depiction of aliens as bald little pot-bellied figures with very large heads and advanced technology caricatures and predicts the relationship between technological development and physical degeneration.
Our (mis)use of technology in our role as a brand-new apex predator helped our species play a central role in the global extinction of most of the world’s modern megafauna, both predators and prey (about 70-90% extinction rates wherever we migrated). It did not seem to concern us that the speed of this transition into severely-augmented capacities gave most other species very little chance to adapt, until it was too late and entire populations and even species disappeared. This pattern of extinction occurred with simple technologies such as blades and spears and clothing and shelter (which allowed us to inhabit harsh climates and biomes away from the tropics), long before the appearance of the first civilization. If a piece of technology is inherently good, you needn’t consider when, where or how to use it. You just use it.
It soon became common for humans to have relatively little direct interaction with and feel alienated or independent from the rest of the biosphere. From this alienation, we developed the erroneous belief that technology is inherently “good,” even to the point of being capable of providing salvation: “Technology will save us.” More technology. New technology. Better technology. Technology will deliver us from scarcity, rather than reproduce it. And to some extent, as this account attests, it has. Technological advancement has opened new resources for us to exploit. But our relationship with it up to this point also entraps and threatens to destroy us and everything we love.
Our struggle to design and use technology ethically goes back thousands of years, at least. You might even say that it is baked into our DNA. By extension, the modern problems with technology we face today evolved out of our struggling relationship with the world and our place in it. The problem of Facebook manipulating our perspective has had thousands of years to develop, neither recent nor original. While humans are a fundamentally technological (and tech-dependent) species, we are not fundamentally literate. We created a new way to communicate where we really craved greater connection, a tragic pattern that prototyped all social media to follow. We became a highly communicative, although not necessarily more connected, species. The written language has had a profound impact on our cultural psychology and evolution. The rest, as they say, is history…written history, to be exact.
Do not mistake me for arguing against or hating technology. I write this essay on a modern Core i5 laptop running linux kernel version 5.0. I am not a luddite. Nor do I think our species can afford or acheive ludditism without millions of years of evolutionary development toward that capacity. The point of this brief history was to highlight how deep and integrated our struggles with technology are in our identity and even existence as a species. The modern problems of technological addiction and the negative impacts of technology on our development are outgrowths of this more fundamental issue that runs in the history of our species. This is a problem that is embedded within the developmental journey of our species, a species-wide crisis of identity bigger than any government or non-profit or certainly any single person, no matter how much breath work or change in diet and lifestyle we (try to) do, no matter what positions of socioeconomic privilege anyone holds. These are structural issues that we have to work with highly coordinated collaborative attention to change.
I believe the root problem of technology is fundamentally relational. We can think of technology as an amplifier of impact, for better or worse. We have often suffered from unintended consequences past whenever we engaged with technology naively, both in terms of unexpected or excessive outcomes. Blaming or giving credit to technology has rendered us blind to the relationship between technology and context, unable to assess when, where and how a given technology may prove appropriate. An outgrowth of this context-blindness has enabled the naive “more is better” mentality. Specifically, more power and more technology. If an axe works, a chainsaw must work better. If “chopping down as many trees as quickly as possible” is the only value reflected in the use scenario, then that is true. If the use scenario also represents our values of safety, health and fitness, resilient thriving ecosystems and renewable energy sources, then our answer might change.
We, humans, can create, modify and destroy those use scenarios. We haven’t addressed the issue of an ethical relationship with our technical capacities only to the ironic extent that we haven’t turned our technical capacities toward that task, yet. I see that beginning to change, which gives me hope. We are beginning to hack into the barriers and threats to our development and existence as a species. We are beginning to hook ourselves into the problem of technological addiction and abuse. The main components of this paradigm of struggle involve our innate characteristics, our beliefs about technology, and the circumstances in which technological design and use occurs. Circumstances include the state of ecosystems, culture, laws, economy, socioeconomic psychology and the extant sum of technomass with which we currently exist, and a holistic and accurate understanding of the consequences of making and using that technology in a given context.
As we cannot ethically or effectively modify our genetic evolutionary heritage, our first barrier is moving past the falsely-dualistic “technology good/bad” belief paradigm. We must acknowledge our technological dependence and end our worship/fear of technology. In doing so, we shift from a falsely-dualistic moral philosophy of technology to an ethical philosophy capable of considering both use and context in addition to inherent design. Instead of blaming ourselves or the technology, we must accept responsibility to pursue the opportunities available to us from this point. Once we transcend the dualism, we can begin to engage differently with our understanding of the current and appropriate role(s) of technology in human existence. We are neither victim nor perpetrator, nor is this a question of individual willpower.
We also need to consider the context of the technology itself. Just like every tool has a technique, a way in which it was designed to be used, it also has an appropriate context which determines whether and to what extent it can contribute to general welfare. The context interacts with the design and use to determine appropriateness. For example, in the context of the Cold War, a nuclear stockpile made sense in the context of an arms race, to get us from “assured destruction” (hegemony) to mutually-assured destruction (stalemate). The stalemate gave way to detente, and eventually, the demand for nuclear non-proliferation. Our ongoing struggle to implement nuclear non-proliferation and decommission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which the Cold War persists.
It also made sense to develop nuclear weapon capabilities in the context of where several warring nations were attempting to gain strategic superiority. In this context, all outcomes except one affirm the existence of nuclear development. All nations would have to back out of it together in order for it to matter, which is impossible in the context of a power struggle. Unilaterally backing out would affirm the superiority of any nations who didn’t. And participating only further spurred the arms race. In this context, it becomes a bit more understandable why nations such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea are developing nukes, when the US, Russia, UK, France, China, and Israel all have them. Our ongoing struggle to decomission nuclear weapons indicates the extent to which nations still struggle and compete for power and control. Until the relationships between nations change away from power struggles, nuclear weapons will persist.
The example of nuclear proliferation exemplifies the parable of the tribes: one tribe mobilizes for power, and surrounding tribes must either do the same or perish. Nuclear proliferation remains one of the most universally-held examples of “inherent technological evil” and a “race to the bottom” from the old morally-dualistic paradigm. This example demonstrates how a technology can (re)create and affirm the context in which it makes sense for it to exist and operate. We can say the same of assault weapons, cars, literacy and social media. As a young teenager, I saw an overnight transition one year when, where and how all my friends and cohort socialized. It came about due to a new invention: AOL Instant Messenger. Friends used to hang out in the neighborhood after school. But then some of them stopped. And the rest of us asked what they were doing. They were going home immediately after school. And then getting on the computer to use AOL IM to chat with each other. It emphasized some substantive benefits. It made chatting with multiple people from multiple cliques at the same time very easy. I felt like I could take time and space to compose my interactions on my terms, and it was easier to say “goodbye” online than on the phone or in person. In reflection, I ended up making the transition simply because everyone else had made the transition, not because I felt it was a superior way to socialize. I wonder whether everyone else felt the same.
All history is naturalized. But it is not deterministic. While development and use of technology itself may be baked into our DNA, what we develop, how we use it, and to what effect, is not. But we have some catching up to do. As entemologist EO Wilson reflected, our modern struggle emerges from the fact that we have paleolithic emotions (and bodies and genes), medieval socioeconomic institutions, and god-like technology. We need to redirect the capacities we have used to create that god-like technology toward the redesign of our institutions to respect and affirm rather than manipulate our emotions (and bodies and genes). We are a clever species. We just aren’t very wise, yet. That is our struggle, and that helps describe the struggle and mission of the CHT: the pursuit of technological wisdom and ethics to steer us away from our historic tendencies.
What, fundamentally, were we trying to accomplish with developing and using AOL IM or nuclear weapons? To what extent did we actually accomplish it? How do we feel about the outcomes? By understanding the context in which our current technological struggles make sense, we can begin to explore context shifts and the work necessary to bring them about. That means clarifying our values and matching our education (structure and process as well as content), economy and institutions (such as government, law and organizational structure) to our values.
The comparison between AOL IM and nuclear weapons may feel jarring, but I wonder whether we could use something like a “social media non-proliferation treaty” in a context where everyone is trying to “out-hook” or “out-proliferate” everyone else. Nuclear proliferation in this example serves as an analogy for how the “race to the bottom” occurs as a social construction. To undo that social construction and change our behavior, we need to move away from the context in which such behavior makes logical sense. This partly comes in the form of a completely novel psychoeconomic model of an IT marketplace, transforming competition for attention and dependency to competition (and even competitive collaboration) for demonstrative positive (humane) outcomes.
Context shift differs from merely writing new apps or designing new technologies, such as Loop Habit Tracker, which aim to use the “hooked” model of addiction for higher purpose. Doing so helps contribute to that context shift, but has severe limits ignoring the context of an overall race to the bottom of the brain stem. It is not enough to add some good into a harmful context. We must at some point also directly address the contextual factors that lead to undesired tendencies in order to continue past harm reduction toward positive outcomes that address our core existential and developmental needs.
This means creating an economic context that seeks, values and rewards (socially, financially, psychologically, spiritually) humane tech design. Part of this transition can involve “hooking” Silicon Valley with Humane Technology habits using the hooked model itself to reinforce more traditional efforts to empower well-meaning allies with education and training, policy and design work and other transformative tactics and strategies. It also involves a transformation of economic production, uncoupling it from socioecological degeneration and recoupling it to socioecological regeneration. The Regen Network exemplifies this sort of work.
Likewise, policy in large part forms the legal context in which markets operate. Populist responses to the issue of accountability typically involve more targeted regulation of markets (e.g., https://www.npr.org/2019/05/09/721685211/facebook-co-founder-hughes-says-zuckerberg-must-be-held-accountable)
I do not oppose regulation. However, micromanaging markets through highly-specific regulation is a futile game of whack-a-mole. What are the conditions we need to bring about to create and use IT (and other technology) in ways that enhance the pursuit of human quality of life rather than exploiting it? The Community Rights movement has made strange bedfellows of the political left and right as it explores a very similar question about the relationship between liberty, rights, prosperity, sovereignty and quality of life. The Community Rights movement works to create a legal context based completely on recognizing and protecting the inalienable rights of natural entities to exist and flourish, especially wherever they conflict with legal fictions (such as governments and corporations). Likewise, a discussion of regulation ignores the extent to which economic transformation may address issues of ethical behavior. Economic transformation does not serve as an alternative to policy work, but depends upon it. As the Community Rights movement demonstrates, we must use laws and other policy process far beyond targeted regulation to change the fundamental behavior of markets.
Finally, we must clarify our values to find our sense of belonging in nature and with the land and planet that ultimately birthed us and supports our existence more fundamentally than any technology. Only then will we be able to ask question about what our technology needs to accomplish to support our existence and values and affirm our sense of belonging and connection. Once we start asking that question, we can start looking at how design interacts with intended outcomes appropriate to context. In this phase of human transition and development, we have a contextually-appropriate need for technologies of transition and development. We need to make sure our proposed solutions are not band-aids sitting on top of poorly-designed and targeted reward systems. Understanding this, we can use principles of biomimicry to design technological and other contexts that better meet our evolved needs and support our individual and collective development. Permaculture and other ecological design sciences, have much to offer in this respect, by way of pattern languages and design principles for appropriate technology and human habitat.
For example, oral traditions were optimal in uncivilized societies of relatively small groups with high amount of trust, as they affirmed connection to and between land and people using innate capacities. Literacy evolved merely as a means to a greater end of the problem of storing and transmitting knowledge and experience in a manner that builds and maintains trust (i.e., through the “written record”) in the context of complex social structures where people interact regularly with others whom they know only in very shallow ways. However, our modern technology capacity has given us the opportunity to turn our focus back to the more fundamental problems of humane social structure and knowledge systems appropriate to our needs and the needs of the planet. Combined with modern understandings of biomimicry (using nature as inspiration for solving complex human problems), we can guide information technology to honor our evolutionary roots in oral tradition, and also create new ways of distributing and engaging with information that help rather than harm our bodies, relationships and landscapes, and that helps create sociobiologically-appropriate conditions for our lives that foster connection, belonging, purpose and fulfillment — a switch from dopamine-centric responses to serotonin-centric responses. A paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance.
Our relationship with technology is a never-ending, iterative process requiring constant monitoring, planning, and intervention, because it represents a type II chaotic system: Not only is it inherently difficult to predict outcomes and trends (like weather reports), but also the interactions that arise from our understanding of the system change the way it behaves. Imagine if accurately predicting the weather actually caused the weather itself to change. That is the amount of complexity we are dealing with. The ony framework I have encountered up to this point that can help us ethically and effectively engage with such unpredictable and chaotic systems is something called Holistic Management, which is a decision making framework for managing complexity. At its most general, managing holistically involves four components:
1. Understand the most important elements of our context (Whole Under Management, WUM) with regards to our decision-making, and “checking” our decisions against that understanding.
2. Maintain access to a full set of management tools (keep your options open)
3. Explore and understand the appropriate application of tools to context
4. Create a feedback loop through ecological, social and financial planning and monitoring.
Without any of these components, management becomes completely reductionist. Reductionism simplifies complexity and destroys life processes, including ecosystem and quality of life. Therefore, the management process itself also requires monitoring as to whether it trends holistic or reductionist (as per the four criteria above). Given the complexity of the Whole Under Management, we will likely never achieve even a momentarily perfect implementation of HM. Monitoring management itself not only allows us to move toward more holistic approaches, but also allows us to assess the quality of adoption rates among those of us claiming to manage holistically. Thus monitoring management itself supports higher rates and quality of adoption and implementation, ensuring the integrity of management.
The recent WhatsApp debacle and even the bigger question of Facebook and its role and impact in society represents merely the tip of the iceberg of the challenges we face as a species in our relationship with technology. There is lots more to do to bring about a revolution of humane technology, but the current work of CHT gives me hope that enough people are interested and willing to try and bridge the gap between our ability to design and create technology and our ability to use it appropriately.
Part one of a two part series exploring the human relationship with technology
A white hat approach to the information economy
In Part one, I introduce some basic concepts in the sociology of technology and economy to examine the current state of information technology. In Part two, I introduce human’s historical and evolutionary relationship with technology to explore the implications for development of an ethical relationship with technology.
The recent reveal of an Israeli hacking company (NSO Group) secretly selling security exploits to governments explains why closed source publicly-held companies often don’t like open source ethos. We can examine this situation by looking at the two different classical types or intentions of “hacking” from the perspective of proprietary, for-profit (esp. publicly-held) software and IT solutions development. WhatsApp is a closed-source messaging app owned by Facebook, which is in-turn publicly-held.
Hacking itself is merely figuring out how to gain access to something. In the process, it involves learning how something works, and what might break it, or what could fix or improve it. What lessons someone learns from a hacking project, and how they use that knowledge, depends largely on the type of hacking they do.
“Black hat” hackers are traditionally known as the “bad guys.” Their work encompasses three primary objectives:
1. Find weaknesses, vulnerabilities or bugs in current design
2. Figure out how to exploit them
3. Make money or gain prestige
a. through direct exploitation
b. through the “black hat” marketplace
This is reportedly what the NSO Group did: it found exploits, and rather than responsibly reporting them to WhatsApp, they sold those exploits for money to government agencies interested in spying on people’s communications. Social conscience and implications be damned.
In contrast, “White hat” hackers also pursue three similar objectives:
1. Find weaknesses, vulnerabilities or bugs in current design
2. Figure out how to exploit them
3. Make money or gain prestige
a. by reporting the bugs directly to the company, and/or when the company doesn’t respond,
b. by making the bugs public, often to put pressure on the company to fix its problems and resecure the data for which it is responsible
White hat hackers are classically the “good guys,” because they feel concerned about others’ vulnerabilities, and work to identify and strengthen those vulnerabilities. Open source software developers make up a large subset of white hats. They don’t do it out of complete self-interest (they benefit from social prestige and income), but they attempt to integrate their self-interest with the common good. Often, hacking falls into a grey area, for example, because black hats also do white hat things (like make the exploit public, but after playing around with it or benefiting from it in some other way), or vice-versa, as white hats sometimes break laws that conflict with their ethical intentions.
I associate the white hat/black hat terms with the Mad Spy vs Spy comic, a critique of the Cold War where two nearly-identical spies were locked in endless and often-deadly competition with one-another. They were identical in appearance and behavior, differing only in the color of clothing they wore. In contrast, white and black hats of the hacking world actually derive from the Western movie genre, where bad guy archetypes wore dark hats and clothing, and white archetypes wore light hats and clothing in a simple moral dualism that our culture finds comforting. Spy vs Spy serves as an analogy for general confusion between the surface-level similarities of the two categories of hacking: all three objectives are the same. Yet the devil is in the details and intentions. White hat hackers seek to solve problems, whereas black hat hackers seek to exploit them. So why do we struggle so much to distinguish between them? Our society has a tendency to “shoot the messenger,” and white hat hackers by-definition tend to position themselves as messengers. Black hats tend to turn vulnerabilities into greater problems by exploiting them. In contrast, poor socioeconomic reactions to well-intentioned white hats tend to make mountains out of mole hills. In either case, white and black hats get lumped together as troublemakers, which in turn creates a negative general opinion of “hacking” as if it were synonymous with troublemaking.
The ethics of making exploits of software public knowledge stem from the collision between closed-source (proprietary/secretive) and open-source models in our current economic context. Black hat has immediate financial incentives attached to it. White hat doesn’t. You have to gain notoriety and become a security contractor before your contributions to security are recognized as legitimate and legal. And even then, your accomplishments and the skills they represent lead many to treat you like a liability. So immediately, here, the scales are tipped against the white hat. At their worst, white hat hackers act like whistle blowers. Nominally, they simply operate with an open source philosophy: shine a light into darkness. With transparency of open source values comes accountability.
However, accountability is expensive: it takes time, expertise and money to track down, fix and verify vulnerabilities and other flaws. It takes less to not look for them, or ignore them completely. When a company successfully avoids accountability, it can externalize those costs (such as security vulnerabilities) onto its users. This externality often takes the form of what economists call “intertemporal discounting,” where you reap benefits now and deal with the snowballing consequences somewhere “in the future.” If that “someone else’s problem somewhere else at some other time” mentality sounds familiar, it describes a lot of how our society functions, and helps us understand some of the hidden costs of goods and services offered to us for “free.” Previous and current generations regularly make choices without considering how they would impact their future, let alone the lives of subsequent generations. We often end up paying for our short-sightedness later, somehow. It would do us well to assume a cost exists, and ask who, what, when, where and how, rather than “whether.” Put another way: Free now, but you’ll typically pay for it later, one way or another.
Sooner or later, an unaddressed vulnerability or other flaw in software design becomes public. But when, where, how and to whom it becomes public matters. When a company sits on an unknown security vulnerability (or ignores a known one) for long enough, black hat hackers eventually get ahold of the information they need to pursue an opportunity. They typically get ahold of it first, simply because they are actively looking for such opportunities. When they get to the vulnerability first, they are off to the races to exploit it before a white hat finds and reports or (in an open source circumstance) fixes it. Thus, fixing vulnerabilities is a race between white hat and black hat hackers.
Ideally, white hats find vulnerabilities first, and no opportunity for black hat exploitation occurs. But publicly-owned companies operate with concern to quarterly profits. To maximize current or even next quarter profit, it is rationally better for a company to suppress or even ignore vulnerabilities rather than allow them to become public, even though this has major repercussions further into the future. Although we, the users of such technologies (and primary victims of its flaws), all want vulnerabilities and other flaws discovered by the “good guys” and patched or otherwise-corrected ASAP, that doesn’t necessarily make sense to a publicly-held, closed-source company. They a. simply can’t see that far into the future and b. are far more concerned about immediate profitability, anyway. Once a consumer purchases and “owns” a product, providing warranty and support is only expensive. It positively impacts profit only inasmuch as it contributes to company reputation and customer loyalty. While black hats are a bigger threat to a publicly-held closed-source company, white hats keep the company on their toes, increase their (short term) expenses (although often by helping them avoid the black hat threat), and even publicly embarass them. To such companies, this results in the worst of both worlds: all the extra work (to fix exposed flaws) with none of the positive PR. As long as such corporations think they can avoid accountability, all hackers (black or white) are liabilities, annoyances, or threats…with one important exception that I will discuss later.
In many cases, closed source proprietary philosophies and practices make a self-fulfilling prophecy out of white hat intentions. In closed source circumstances, white hats can only identify problems, and don’t have access to the source code to even propose or collaborate on solutions. And the closed source proprietary perspective may view anything they do submit as evidence of a violation of proprietary secrets. Thus in an economic milieu that values and protects secrecy of information, white hats get lumped with the “bad” black hats. It’s not that competition doesn’t exist in open source circumstances. It’s just that competition and collaboration behave very differently, and often even coexist in the same time and space. In contrast, closed source circumstances tend to dichotomize competition and collaboration as mutually exclusive. You are either a competitor or a collaborator. In open source, you can actually be both at the same time thanks to upstream/downstream project contribution and forking. Many people — even those heavily involved in open source projects — suffer from cognitive dissonance. As a result, it often becomes difficult to structure effective collaborations, and I have seen many react inappropriately to the presence of competition as “bad” or collaborative gestures as “disingenuine.”
Coming back to the moral ambiguity of Spy vs Spy, the view of black hats as “bad” itself is a bit more complex. Closed source philosophies and practices evolved out of and depend upon a paradigm of scarcity that itself leans heavily on a zero-sum analysis: if I have more, you have less, and the value of what I have increases. That is currently how money currently operates: its value comes not only from collective belief in it as a medium of exchange, but also from its limited presence and unequal distribution to create and maintain artificial gradients of supply and demand. If only a few people have a million dollars, that million dollars is worth a lot. However, if everyone has a million dollars, then they might as well only have one dollar, because it is all worth the same. In a scarcity-based economy, distribution of the resource matters. In other words, it’s not so much how big the pie is (economic growth), but how the pieces get divided and distributed.
However, technology development — especially information technology — deals primarily with ideas and concepts (information). And the rules of scarcity do not apply to information, which is more like the pie recipe than the pie itself. My possession of information neither devalues nor excludes your possession of the same or different information. In fact, our mutual possession of information (same or complementary) can actually add value to what we currently have. However, the context of the scarcity economy tends to infiltrate and redefine our thinking about information according to its rules. My recipe quickly becomes a guarded secret. Thus a major conflict exists between the “economic” and “informational” aspects of our modern information economy preventing us from exploring and engaging with the full potential the information economy promises, which would likely be based on open source principles that embrace or even depend upon a pre-analytic vision of abundance vs scarcity. We may need to develop new monetary systems and related institutions to replace outdated ones and overcome this conflict. At the same time, pursuit of a fully-empowered (open source) information economy also provides us an opportunity to adopt and apply abundance-based paradigm to other aspects of socioeconomic organization. We can just as easily design an economy that ties its value to the health rather than exploitation of the commons: the commonweal. Doing so uncouples economic production, for example, from environmental destruction, and recouples economic production with environmental regeneration and other forms of net good as byproducts of economic activity.
Black hats exist primarily as an outgrowth of artificial concentrations and gradients of information, money and power created by scarcity-based models of distribution and social dynamics. Nature abhors a gradient. Another way to look at it: bank robbers only make sense in a society where banking represents the accumulated financial interests of an elite few. In this sense, the problem of black hat hacking is a vestige of an elite minority wanting to “have their cake and eat it, too,” in terms of wanting to accumulate power, money or information without incurring the inherent security risks of doing so. So we can’t accurately blame the black hat problem on the “immoral” choices or “moral weakness” of individual black hats. Likewise, many white hats in the same economy often have grey ethics with regards to their motivations and methods. Like many of the corporations that black hats antagonize, they simply see opportunity. A capitalist society does not make moral (let alone ethical) distinctions between “good” and “bad” economic opportunity. The legality of pursuing “black hat” opportunities often arises more from how it impacts the interests of a politically well-connected elite rather than from ethical considerations. If they see such pursuits as opportunity, then it tends to become legal. If they see such pursuits as liability, then they tend to become illegal. Morality, ethics and actual impact be damned.
In the best of circumstances, white hats become appreciated and valued security consultants or contractors, and find a socioeconomic niche rewarding (rather than punishing) their ethical focus. And that’s part of the problem: We exist in a cultural, social and economic milieu that, for all our complex laws and rhetoric about accountability, very heavily rewards unethical behavior, and often punishes or discourages ethical behavior. The two paradigms of open and closed source are completely alien from one-another, and it confuses people to no end. In an open source context, competition and cooperation co-exist and converge. Self-interest and altruism also tend to converge. This has a tendency to lower the stakes from “fight for life” to “play,” the same way wolf pups will “play” ferociously with one-another, but will break it up or take a break before someone gets seriously hurt. Through this process, individuals explore and negotiate the limits and qualities of their strengths and weaknesses, relationships with one another and ultimately their social role or niche. They clarify and develop both their identities as individuals and members of the pack, they find their optimal niche, and they contribute to the overall viability of the pack by increasing its strengths and mitigating its weaknesses. That, by way of analogy, is the goal for our economy.
So, to change this dynamic in the software field, we have a few (and potentially coincidental) options in social design:
1. Enforce decoupling of closed-source and public holding (you can be one but not the other). In other words, you can be open source and publicly-held, or closed source and privately-held, but not both.
2. Somehow change the stock market time frame to prioritize long-term outcomes over short-term (quarterly) outcomes. The longer the timeframe, the more universal interests become. “Self-interest” and altruism tend to blend seemlessly into one-another. This change in scale of focus also leads to a substantial difference in accountability and behavior choices — not just the choices made, but even the range of choices that seem available and viable in the first place.
3. We might consider the implications of requiring an open source ethic for all technology development, as doing so completely changes the ethics of social and market dynamics by inherently supporting transparency and accountability.
4. Incorporate broader consideration of liabilities and assets beyond profit and loss analysis into economic function and valuation. For example, the Center for Humane Technology’s ledger of harms seeks to render visible the previously-ignored externalities of technology design and use. What impact does the technology have on its users? On society? On ecosystems?
The second and fourth options have positive implication far beyond the design and development of technology, extending into all investment activities.
Extending this analysis further: In today’s climate, social media and related app development have largely functioned like “black hats” with regards to social psychology of software and telecommunications development. They hack and exploit vulnerabilities in human hardware and software for profit. This is the basis of the “hooked” model for user experience design: find the vulnerabilities in the human social psyche and exploit them to reap greater attention, screen time, advertising and therefore profits. You “hook” users by designing software to maximize addiction by lowering the work threshold to receive a positive reward (dopamine response), until the user internalizes motivation and acheives dependency or even addiction.
Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology identified five core vulnerabilities in human social psychology that companies like Facebook exploit to maximize the time people spend in their interface:
1. Inaccurate forecasting (how long will this task, project or distraction actually take?)
2. Intermittent variable rewards (aka the infinite scroll, “click next” vortex)
3. Loss-aversion (fear of missing out (FOMO) with regards to something important; but even unimportant things gain importance when they come via a trusted connection)
4. Fast vs slow thought (mindless reaction to quick and easy stimuli vs mindful behavior)
5. Stress and altered states (we enter fight or flight easily, and make impulsive decisions)
While a company like Facebook (and by extension, WhatsApp) may fear and hate both white and black hat hackers…they do so with a failure to acknowledge or admit their role in society as a black hat biohacker of the human psyche, keeping us plugged into their machines for the maximum time possible. Facebook doesn’t hate hacking generally or even black hat hacking specifically. Facebook simply doesn’t care for any hacking that doesn’t help it produce greater short-term profit. Does this make Facebook evil? I don’t think so.
Black hats compete all the time for the same scarce resource: access to a potentially-lucrative vulnerability. Their opportunity lies in access to vulnerabilities for them to exploit. While they all compete, they don’t just despise white hats for making their access to a scarce resource even more scarce and tenuous. White hats represent an ethical system (e.g., open source values) completely alien and unintelligible to a black hat economy. Black hats at least make sense to each-other. They know what they do and why they do it. But white hats don’t make sense to black hats. Hacking is all about understanding and access. If something is alien and unintelligible, it remains inaccessible and unavailable to us, for better or worse. Black hats not only hate what white hats do (ruin opportunity), they also don’t understand why white hats do what they do. In this sense, widespread comprehension of the motivation and ethics of white hats may serve to indicate a significant shift in social affect toward open source principles.
Unfortunately, Facebook is not an exceptional case, but merely a case study in the rule of an extractive economy. This same pattern, for example, perfectly describes the infamous Opium Wars between the British Empire and China. Nearly 1/2 of the entire Chinese population had become addicted to opium, simply because British merchant corporations found it to be profitable. Nothing personal, just business. They didn’t want to create widespread misery. They just didn’t care about (or have to deal with) the consequences of profiteering off of opium sales. They only had to deal with a drop in sales when China tried to intervene out of self-defense, which kicked off the war. China lost the war, ceded Hong Kong and begrudgingly made opium legal in a tragedy from which it is still trying to recover. The British people (merchants and shareholders) responsible for the Opium War were not evil people. They were simply investors seeking to maximize their profit, much like many of us today who hold stock in the stock market.
We all operate with the same vulnerabilities that make us susceptible, e.g., to social media manipulation. Hackers rarely concern themselves with strengths. Rather, they focus on weaknesses — a difficult topic for our society (perhaps even our species) to address. But we must accustom ourselves to acknowledging and addressing weakness and vulnerability. What are the weakest links that render us most vulnerable to manipulation and hijacking? Likewise, what are the weakest links of the manipulation and hijacking chain of production?
The unfortunate pattern of the extractive economy will continue until society develops and enforces clear values that consider not only long-term implications of a profit scheme (to prevent intertemporal discounting), but also non-monetary externalities, such as the impact on public health, social fabric, or ecosystems. That describes the basis for the triple bottom line: not just profit, but also people and planet. Not just economics, but also ethics and environment.
Who or what will bring about such change? Again, the white hat/black hat distinction applies to this level of hacking. The Center for Humane Technology (CHT), in contrast to an outfit like Facebook, represents the first real example of what I would consider a “white hat lab” with regards to those same innate weaknesses and vulnerabilities that Facebook exploits, for example, creating a “ledger of harms” to track the true cost of our current and historical relationship with technology. Beyond a simple accounting process, such information could become embedded in monetary systems pegged to public welfare rather than reductionist profit. Imagine economic growth not just from sales, but actual, measurable growth in general public welfare, in a holistic monetary scheme that accounts for and discourages externalities with an embedded accounting process. Under such a scheme, only ethical projects would prove profitable. Sound far fetched? Check out the Regen Network. They are creating an economic currency whose value is tied to the verification of regenerative outcomes. Both the Regen Network and CHT give me hope that we (or they, if you see yourself as a passive bystander) might positively shift the role and impact of technology in human life.
In Part two, I will explore the deeper origins of the human relationship with technology, and how that might inform our way forward.
During the last week of her life
she stops eating, recoiling at the offer of any food.
She follows me friskily around the house, into the shower, even
dropping her usual annoyance at the threat of water.
Still, she does not eat.
During the last days of her life, she feels the unquenchable thirst.
During the last days of her life, I sit beside her and cry.
Still, she purrs readily when I pet her
slipping back into sleep within moments of my touch.
During the last day of her life, I watch while she makes her rounds
through every room of the house, visiting every favorite spot.
During the last day of her life, she stops purring.
I can no longer give her love.
Not like this.
She seems restless, yet moves less and less.
Progressively heavy, weary and weak.
Having barely broken through my fear and doubt
Having only barely begun to let go
I fetch the case, crying.
I lay it softly by the front door.
She awakens (not having moved for hours)
to collapse unconscious next to the case.
Still, ready to go.
During the last hours of her life, I cannot see her breathe
but I can clearly hear the struggle of each breath.
During the last hour of her life
I step outside into the mist of the day to dig her grave
knowing I would not have the strength later…
I want to be ready.
During the last hour of her life, she awakens
to the flow of fresh air, and slips outside through the front door.
She musters great effort to make her way through the gentle damp
around the house, to the back patio, where she lays
exhausted, recovering her strength.
Still, I watch with spading shovel in hand as she floats
down the path, by the blueberries
to sit resting on the steps leading to the creek.
I break the surface of the soil underneath her favorite fig tree.
The shovel catches on a sprinkler head. The handle breaks.
I feel doubt swell within me, and check on her.
During the last minutes of her life, with the last of her strength
she basks in the muddy shallows of the creek
unpurturbed anymore by muck or fear of falling in.
A conspicuous line of five wild waterfowl hover before her
so close, the honorary flottila almost grounds itself ashore
disinterested in and unpurturbed by my presence.
I find comfort in this, and follow their lead.
I find another shovel, and return to my task.
When finished, I fetch the case from inside the house,
set it on the patio
and rejoin her in the muddy shallows
a few feet south along the bank
upstream, past the infamous Gate to Nowhere
(a gift of beavers to mark the return of life to the stream).
Smaller and shorter steps
Smaller and shorter breaths
before the current takes her
and delivers her into the ready hands of Entropy.
I wish it could happen here, in the mist, among the birds
in the water, with neither suspicion nor interruption.
Lacking sufficient courage, I wish others of my species could understand.
Instead, I scoop her up. She does not complain.
I hug her securely to my chest as I walk against gravity
up the steps to the path
past the blueberries, past the fig tree, shovel and grave
to the patio. I lay her in the case, sad and satisfied
she has said her goodbyes.
During the last minutes of her life, we drive together to an office:
White rooms, hard corners, harsh lights.
During the last seconds of her life, I hope something smells familiar to her.
“It’s like falling asleep,” professional strangers reassure me with confidence.
I know this. Except now she sleeps with her eyes open
and part of “how” means “where,” and I can’t help but wonder,
“What is the last scene she wants to feel?”
But I know.
She already told me.
This moment always feels like a long time coming.
I take her limp body back with me
wrapped in cloth
clutching it tight
as the colonies and communities and individuals
who had once warmly cooperated and collaborated and schemed and dreamed
to create her
cool and disintegrate and return to the earth
perhaps to pursue some other form.
This final work comes easy
aided by the ubiquitous forces of entropy, gravity, currents
I feel no struggle in death
As I walk downhill to the grave.
I cover her gently with familiar dirt.
It takes me thirty three years to grasp the relentless weight
anything but subtle as it gives meaning to the exceptional role
emerging, for a little while to move playfully
against the gradients and inevitable tendencies
always at the margins, poking, prodding, testing.
I feel the final vestige of fear dissipate.
The end no longer exists — only origin and context.
In this, I find and embrace my own death.
In this, I find and embrace my own life.
A year ago to this day, a tree fell on my house. It also smashed up my life pretty thoroughly, too. The developer to the north cut its north-facing “anchor” roots. Trees grow southwardly. Lots of rain softens the soil. Lots of wind loosens the roots. It almost fell directly on me and some arborists as we were assessing how best to remove it before it fell.
What constitutes a “large claim” for you probably differs from me. Insurance companies handle multi-million dollar claims. Mine came in well-under half-a-grand. It was still the largest single lump sum or concentrated stream of money I’ve ever handled in my life. I’ve never written checks that big before, whereas I know that others (the 1%) deal with similarly-sized sums on a daily basis, like it’s candy. Although this experience focuses on house insurance, many (if not all) the lessons probably apply in some form to other (e.g., car, health, etc) insurance.
I’m actually still in the middle of my claim. I am naively posting this advice now in hopes that by doing so it will confirm that don’t have any more mistakes to make or lessons to learn. Sadly, that’s probably not true.
Here is what I learned from the insurance part of the experience, consisting of mistakes I made as well as things I actually maybe did right (you guess which is which):
1. Don’t go with a low bid. That doesn’t mean “don’t go with a low bidder” — go with whomever appears most appropriate for your situation. But bump the bid up to somewhere near the highest bidder. Expect and budget for contingencies and extra expenses that occur or get discovered along the way. This will drastically reduce the number and severity of fights in request for additional money you will need to make. Insurance companies use two metrics: first is an absolute maximum reasonable figure, and then an “estimate creep” percentage. They then use the adjuster and line-item assessments to determine whether to hand out more money. They always try to hand out less money, whenever possible. So by submitting a low estimate, you are setting yourself up for a fight later when you inevitably need more money. Get at least three estimates, and then bump the estimate of whomever you go with up to something close to the highest estimate.
2. Figure out your priorities. Do you want the place “back to normal” ASAP? Or do you want a bit more involvement and control over a more personal and slower process? This will determine whether to go with the big insurance-based contractors or a smaller (e.g., one or two person) remodeling outfit. The big “ambulance chaser” contractors primarily only do insurance work. They fly in, get the job done, and fly out. It’s a short, intensive, well-coordinated process. Insurance companies can’t legally admit it, but they prefer such companies, because these companies pamper them, and do their work for them and show them everything they want to see and nothing more (even to the point of using the same software), drastically allowing them to cut their own labor expenses for each claim. They are often much higher in their estimates. Expect to do more work to coordinate between insurance and a smaller contractor for the benefit of more control over the project. You can cut down on that work drastically by asking the contractor to make their initial estimate more in line with a higher estimate.
3. More transparency is not always better. Insurance companies operate heavy caseloads. Keep communications simple, to four items: how much we think it will cost, how much it actually cost, new expenses encountered, and a new total summary estimate. Document everything on your end, but don’t show them any additional paperwork unless the situation requires it, because your claim rep is already handling a few dozen other cases and is buried in paperwork. Show them what they want to see: figures matching up. They get suspicious when things turn out “too high” (why wasn’t the money we gave you sufficient?) or “too low” (what did you do with that extra money we gave you?). The Big Contractor software does this automatically. You and a small contractor will have to do this sort of thing by hand. If you are doing extra non-insurance work or repairs at the same time, there’s no need to send that documentation to insurance. That might just confuse them and raise questions that no one really wants to ask in the first place.
4. Adjusters have a lot of discretionary power. The claim reps in the office do not. The adjuster is the “eyes and ears” verifying that you are being honest and that the money you need for repairs really is reasonable and appropriate to the situation. The people in the office have to use simple formulas and can only approve small adjustments. Be nice to everyone. They all play important roles in getting you money to get your life back in order. Being mean or taking frustrations on on them will only hurt that process. Regardless, if your claim, for whatever reasons, falls outside their internal calculations, rules and discretionary power, you might have to lawyer up to get it resolved. Just like the “insurance chasing” contractors, there’s an entire industry of “insurance chasing lawyers” who do that sort of work, because it’s such an unfortunately-common need.
5. Get the house stabilized, then decompress and take your time before jumping into the repair process. It might sound wrong to let the momentum subside. It might make sense to “do it all in one fell swoop.” By rushing, you risk picking a bad contractor, or a good contractor who’s not a good fit for you or the project. Assess their honesty. A mistake in choosing a contractor will set you up for a lot more hurt down the road. Get estimates from only well-established, highly-recommended contractors. If anything “feels off,” then trust your feeling and keep looking. Choose between three solid options (ideally, a high, low and mid). Decompressing also gives you time to do a thorough job discovering and thus ensuring that all the damage gets repaired. Yes, technically, you can open reopen a claim within two years for additional discoveries, but it’s a lot easier for them and you if you can cover everything in a single process.
6. Ask the insurance rep or adjuster to keep emergency funds separate from the repair estimate. Otherwise the insurance company will fold them into the estimate, effectively eating into the startup money that your contractor actually gets, unless your contractor also factors them in. Likewise, emergency funds can go to you directly, and don’t need to be co-signed by your mortgage company, making it easier to get the repairs done and paid off so you can focus on the bigger project with a calm, clear mind. Less work for everyone.
7. Work out cash flow expectations with your contractor on the front end. It can take several months for the next insurance check to arrive. Several weeks to process it, then send it out to you, then you have to send it to your mortgage company for endorsement, then you have to get it back, deposit it, and wait for the hold on funds to release. An initial high estimate gives you some additional leeway, but make sure your contractor is prepared to stretch initial funds or work on a delayed payment. The worst case scenario involves your contractor needing funds to continue work, whereas the insurance company needs work to complete before they hand out more money! It’s like insurance gridlock. Break down the project into phases. You should have enough startup money for the first two or three phases, and should update the insurance company on actual and additional expenses before your startup money runs out, so you can get the next check before the last bunch ran out. The higher your initial estimate, the fewer times you will need to go through this process.
8. Be proactive. Keep your own records in order. Insurance companies design their record keeping to err on the conservative side. If you don’t keep your own records in order, you might be leaving money on the table and paying much more out of pocket for repairs. Track emergency funds separately from repair funds. Tally all money coming in and going out. Your contractor should account for all money spent. Claim early, claim often. This doesn’t mean submit multiple reports per claim event (e.g., windstorm or falling tree). Instead, take your time and submit everything all at once per event. Open the claim and document the damage fairly quickly. You need to keep proof. Then submit an addendum after a thorough search for other damage. Maybe the fence mortally wounded a sapling you planted. Expect at least two addendums to the initial claim. Don’t wait for an incident to happen if you can prevent or mitigate it. $4,000 might sound like a lot to take down a tree that’s leaning, but it’s nothing compared to the emotional and logistical (and often financial) disruption of the tree falling on your house. Alas, in spite of our most proactive efforts, trees still fall on houses. That, ostensibly, is why we have insurance.
Lastly, since I’m a tree-huggin’ earth muffin, proactivity means also leaving things on good terms. I feel thankful that I had a chance to say goodbye to the tree the moment I noticed it leaning.
The rhetoric of love is as hurtful as the rhetoric of hate. Trump populism, for example, uses the rhetoric of fear and hate, targeting women and people of color. But the empty positive, loving rhetoric on the part of a pro-establishment “progressive” liberal left does at least as much harm.
Domestic violence abusers and stalkers regularly use the phrase, “I love you” to both justify and distract from actions and impact that embody considerable hatred of themselves and others. It is designed to break consent. If we agree to do something, and then I use that agreement to do something else entirely, it breaks consent. Usually, the break in consent exists strategically to extract something from or otherwise exploit another party against their will. Malicious lawyers use this “bait and switch” tactic all the time, by getting people to “agree” to things entirely different than what they believed they were agreeing to.
If you ask me to do the dishes before you get home, and I say, “Sure thing.” That’s a positive, affirmative response. Then I think about doing the dishes. Then I talk about doing the dishes. Maybe I even study the issue with diligent rigor. When I use an affirmational, positive and loving response as a strategy to shut you up so you stop asking me to do things, then I am exploiting and breaking consent using the “bait and switch” rhetoric of love. That amounts to a lie that I told you. Moreso than this, it amounts to an act of manipulation and abuse. In exploiting language and trust, I cause harm to our ability to communicate and relate to one another and our relationship. It is a form of social control — controlling violence, and results in alienation, trauma and suspicion.
Rhetoric of the Political Establishment Left
The establishment left — which includes many self-styled liberals and progressives — often uses the rhetoric of love to protect rather than improve the status quo. For example, as Ellen Mavrich points out, many self-styled leftists and progressives hide their passive conservatism or even active animosity toward contemporary social justice movements using the rhetoric of love. We use the rhetoric of social justice to support the status quo, deny contemporary issues, or even criticize and undermine liberatory struggles. Mavrich acknowledges that progressives “love to emphasize [their] radical past”, and challenges us if we “pretend to be a community leading the future while we actually slink around the sidelines hiding from the bully, [then] we need to stop aligning ourselves with the truly brave people who came before. That is also an injustice.”(1)
More locally, we have cities that adopt “progressive” stances that have no real-world impact, such as “sustainability commissions,” that have no authority nor scope of work beyond doing unnecessary “research” and creating non-binding “recommendations” for decision-makers to ignore even as they trumpet their “green credentials” in reference to such commissions. We have politicians who express empty “concern” for an issue or feigned “outrage” over systematic police brutality, but who do little or no crusading to back up their words.
The report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption,” says 24 states have preempted local minimum wage increases; 17 have stopped paid sick or family leave; three have voided anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals; three have stopped laws aimed at home sharing (like AirBnB that has tightened affordable housing options); 37 have blocked local regulation of ride sharing (that compete with the more heavily licensed taxis); 17 have blocked municipal broadband (challenging telecom monopolies); and 42 have limited local taxation and spending.
The result? Pre-emption crushes social innovation. “Progressive change” gets funneled into increasingly-narrow and tightly-choreographed, heavily-scripted and regulated pro-establishment lobby theater. Such change strategies take it as a given that they must “collaborate” with and accept institutions and interests of dominant culture at the table and take into account or even give them precedent and priority, rendering results meaningless and empty — change in name only (CHINO, if that).
Meanwhile, the participating activists have spent countless (often-unpaid) hours of labor to help make this happen, becoming, in effect, willing corporate slaves or stool-pigeons who drain precious resources from, marginalize and hide more effectual organizing strategies designed to circumvent, short-circuit or call-out this process. Such establishment leftism does immense harm toward actual liberatory struggle, and it will continue either until the establishment crumbles or someone disrupts it. For this reason, the pro-establishment left may constitute a higher strategic priority for direct action work than the corporate or other authoritarian institutions of dominant culture they claim to oppose, precisely because they so-effectively “run interference” as a vanguard of pro-establishment defense processes.
A Way Out and Forward
It often takes considerable courage — especially in this brave new world — to enact love beyond disposable and disingenuous rhetoric. In contrast, using the rhetoric of love as a strategy to avoid enacting love is an act of cowardice and manipulation. Many of us are so deeply programmed this way by our enculturation that we can’t even tell the difference in our own or others’ actions. Whenever and wherever we can, we must stand firm to enact and embody love in spite of considerable opposition from the fear and hatred of others. Unfortunately, it often means taking a path of more resistance. It means holding ourselves and others accountable whenever our rhetoric diverges from our embodied actions. This must occur not only on individual and relational levels, but institutional levels.
On deeply personal level, we can feel overwhelmed as soon as we engage in an accountability process that exposes empty rhetoric we or others around us use. It means slowing down, scaling back and getting a more solid personal and relational foundation beneath us. It means not promising things we can’t deliver, no matter how “well-intentioned.” It means having a clear and honest understanding of our capacities, and holding others to account for their promises. It can mean shifting allegiances away from behaviors, attitudes and institutions that remain unwilling or unable to remain accountable, or even actively oppose or undermine accountability itself. Only then do we know what we actually have to work with, and only then can we plan and execute effective, sustained social change strategies that move beyond personal and relational work to target society’s institutions.
A Community Bill of Rights is one important tool among many for us to use in such processes of accountability and integrity, by helping us recognize and hold both individuals and institutions to locally-enforceable, legally-binding account when their rhetoric and “intentions” diverge from their behavior and impact. Moreso than this, Community Bills of Rights are useful tools to help the intention and rhetoric of love re-engage with our behavior and impact, in three important ways:
1. They allow us (we, the people) to enforce already-recognized rights locally when non-local (e.g., state or federal) institutions that supposedly recognized those rights refuse to enforce them (passive violations), or even actively violate them.
2. They allow us to recognize and elevate previously-unrecognized rights fundamental to the health, safety and welfare of natural and human communities, such as the Rights of Nature, or the right of every person to a safe shelter, or a life free from relationship violence.(2) It allows us to bring our actions and impact closer to our intentions and rhetoric without asking distant and unaccountable authority figures for permission.
3. Community Bills of Rights allow us to address several outstanding issues of fundamental rights violations. In a single Bill of Rights we can address workers’ and immigrants’ rights, the Rights of Nature, women’s right to body sovereignty, and other important issues of fundamental integrity. By addressing many different issues on a single structural platform, we can create greater solidarity by building broad coalitions of support for the Community Bill of Rights. People of privilege can use their privilege to truly listen to and address the needs of the community and lead for progressive change, which in turn creates greater community.
(2)This was a right that existed briefly on the federal level, but was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the early 2000’s. It depends on the Federal government’s authority to enforce such rights through the Commerce Clause, which treats everyone and everything in the world as a dollar value and ironically also allows the government considerable control over human behavior. Regardless, if the powers that be can’t slap a dollar sign on it, they can’t enforce it. This is how they enforce the EPA and civil rights laws: by converting humans and nature into corporate profit and loss figures. Is that right? Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FsgPwZQtlIQDnOCDoMhZiBW1598ccSOYEELwlkHwp7M/pub#h.k8ugw2yjpmty
This is a strategic framework for surviving or even progressing in the midst of repressive political regimes, focusing on bystander organizing.
My partner is currently helping someone apply for US citizenship. I can imagine that process feels pretty harrowing normally, let alone in today’s climate, with a xenophobic predator in chief at the figurative head of the government. Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from cities who act as sanctuaries for the people he intends to persecute.
Our society has a lot of active xenophobes and misogynists. Such people worked hard to elect someone like Trump in the first place. They have already started acting more boldly. A lot of xenophobes and misogynists work in public and private institutions, which magnifies their potential destructive influence. They may start to feel empowered with a mandate from above in what people perceive as the “highest political office of the nation” (more accurately it is a symbolic position that has as much power as we delegate to or allow it). The xenophobes and misogynists are coming out of the woodwork. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a form of social and cultural honesty manifesting itself. We know who — and what — we are working with. They don’t have to hide. They don’t police themselves and hide behind political correctness, because the social norms have changed. We know how bad things truly are, and how much work we have to do to create a democratic culture of love, courage and respect.
However, the shift in the balance of power also means that many otherwise-non-misogynist and non-xenophobic people will start to silence themselves and passively “go along” with whatever tendencies emerge. As the xenophobes and misogynists emerge and many other, competing value systems go into hiding, a progressive institution can seem to shift rather abruptly to a regressive and repressive institution, seemingly-overnight. This happens first through a collective change in social affect, where xenophobia and misogyny become dominant norms. Shifts in norms then create a silence amongst a passive majority, or even draw them into compliance as they seek to maintain social harmony. Then actual shifts in policies, rules and directives occur, further marginalizing and mitigating the remaining people who refuse to remain silent.
This shift can do lots of damage. We can prevent that damage.
The remaining people who refuse to remain silent have the simple, albeit very difficult, task to slow, stop and even reverse these institutional shifts through strategic action. Whether and how such people act in this shifting climate will determine in large part the extent and quality of the damage that the xenophobes and misogynists are able to do with their growing institutional power. Strategically, we can act to limit the damage, viewing this as a “temporary shift in climate” while ignoring its roots in our culture. We can call this the “Tough out the four years” strategy. It is a strategy that both assumes and facilitates failure. More fundamentally, we can work to awaken and activate bystanders from their state of passive silence and compliance. The more proactive we are with this, the easier our task of limiting damage and holding a line against authoritarian regression will become. The longer we wait, the harder the task will become, up to the point of becoming impossible.
Bystander activation itself becomes much more effective through a strategic process of triage. We can call strategically-focused bystander activation “bystander organizing.” We target and activate those most sensitive and courageous first (before we get bound, gagged and dragged off to the gallows), and then use our growing numbers to increasingly activate others in turn and normalize a culture, first of resistance, and then prevention. When bystander activation and organizing occurs promptly, an institution can effectively hold a line against social regression, or even continue progress making — even leaps and bounds of progress (albeit in the midst of a lot more conflict) — during an authoritarian regime.
Isolated institutions, when transparent and public about their activation, can in turn inspire and agitate others, transforming pockets of resistance to a unified solidarity network. So anyone in a position of public or private institutional influence can use their institutional power responsibly, act strategically. We have work to do to make this land more just, more free, more inclusive. We have people (such as xenophobes and misogynists) to identify and hold to account, including, but not anywhere-near limited to, the new predator-in-chief. Including friends, family and coworkers. Our bosses and employees. Trump emerged from US mainstream culture. Until we change the culture, the threat he symbolizes will remain: his supporters, those who comply, and those who consider him an alien rather than emergent threat.
Indicators of Institutional Shifts
Indicators of shifts in institutional culture include both informal and formal factors, such as memos, new “policies,” personnel behavior, and enforcement of accountability for professional, ethical behavior, and institutional mission or focus. Examples of shifts in sexism include increased harassment of women, male coworkers or employees behaving in oppositional or defiant ways to female coworkers or bosses (which can include more gender-based “jokes” about female authority), and bosses silencing or exploiting female employees. Gender minorities may also receive similar treatment. Similarly racist or classist behaviors may start to occur.
The adoption of discriminatory policies (let alone behaviors and attitudes), even when technically-illegal or unconstitutional, may appear (or actually) have the support of the President of the US. Such policies can focus inward, on the management of the institution itself (e.g., stripping female employees of paid maternity leave, or claiming to “recognize white genocide” or “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as a real issue requiring affirmative action or equal opportunity or “increased accountability”). Likewise, such policies can project outward, toward the people whom the institution should ostensibly serve (such as in the administration of health care or insurance, or work training and placement programs, or with immigrants applying for US citizenship).
Initial shifts can occur more subtly, with a “testing of the waters,” occurring through increased frequency of racially- or sexually-charged “joking,” a vanguard of indicator and agent of shifting cultural norms. These initial shifts can easily and disable any extant accountability structures, policies or processes that were probably overwhelmed and under-responsive to begin with. Those who have already faced such challenges in their work life may notice an increase in both frequency or intensity of behavior or other indicators of a cultural shift into line with the repressive regime. Regardless of the level of formality, these shifts occur due to a perceived (and often real) sense of support or even mandate from those higher in the social hierarchy, and a perceived lack of consequences for abandoning what was previously the politically-correct behavior. In fact, such people are simply adopting (sometimes passively, sometimes willingly and actively) the new politically-correct behavior, which happens to include misogyny and xenophobia.
The fact of the matter is, though, that enough caring people exist, generally-speaking, in every institution for that institution to hold a line against slipping toward repressive culture or policy. What matters is whether we act strategically in a manner to amplify our impact and influence.
for David Rakoff (I ask that the reader channel the gentle cadence his voice humming softly in their ear)
and Phil Ochs (for obvious reasons)
to honor the youth (that they may one day similarly smote my mole hill of praise upon the mountain of their triumph)
in memory of Toby Hemenway’s beautiful vision of direct action toward collective liberatory struggle.
Ye Olde Whyte Liberals
the literally self-appointed gatekeepers of progress
the practice of Deep Green Navel Gazing, or
the weighty philosophy of the Practicality Police
(choose either one to)
sandwich yourself between:
a Salem Sustainability Circle Jerk
(not even the courtesy of a reach-around)
i crash the celebration of mediocrity
(how’s your relationship? sustainable? meh…
but even still, mediocrity is a better goal than what we currently have, so)
I’m glad you all agree, what do you plan to do about it, though?
while comfortable, pampered straight middle class white men
tell me what “we” can get (who is “we?”)
without any discussion of what we, the people, need
because justice for the homeless, and
clean, breathable air, and drinkable water are impractical.
Sanctuary and respect for the rights of (migrant) workers is impractical
(someone might slap our wrists).
Women who want the vote are impractical. They got their wrists slapped.
Abolishing slavery is impractical. Sorry, are “we” being too uppity?
Are? Were? I fail to see the distinction between
Yesterday and today’s guardians of the status quo
self-styled “allies,” the first enemies of justice,
and the first to (pro)claim victory whenever it prevails.
In spite of, not because of their participation.
But not according to history, as they write it:
white-washed, man-washed, class-washed
clean and pure
in a rich, soapy lather of unexamined privilege.
Liberal? conservative, with a small “c.” But only if “we” are (were?) lucky.
Otherwise, reactionary. Like the rest of the establishment types:
I pledge allegiance
To the Status Quo, and
the injustice for which it stands.
One Pyramid Scheme
With Liberty and Justice
In the State of Denial.
“State of denial?”
their reproachful echo arrives on-time
almost gasping with well-practiced confusion
at the mere suggestion of imperfection
yet the condescending correction inevitably comes with dough-eyed precision:
“Dearheart…this is Oregon.”
Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)
This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.
10 RED FLAGS
1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).
Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”
See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.
2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.
In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!
3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).
Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.
4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.
5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?
6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family. Cue the burnout!
7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”
8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.
9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve. I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.
10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”
This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.
I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.
Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.
Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:
- The fact that our legal and economic and cultural systems often exhibit open hostility toward — let alone near-complete lack of support for — such projects, and
- We all bring baggage into cooperative project spaces — both individual and institutional (e.g., colonizing processes and participation in imperialist structures of the larger society).
If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.
I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives. Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:
How long will it take for farmers to free themselves of the shackles of cooperatives and make their way to independence?
Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools. Like any tool they can be used to exploit others. Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.
I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.
An alienated insider’s guide for those who have never been, those who will never be, and those who will never leave.
written 082915, dedicated to the memory of David Rakoff
Geographically, the desertifying lump of civil concrete we call Salem sits in between Portland and Eugene, the other two largest concrete lumps of capital accumulation in the once-lush Willamette River Valley of the Pacific Northwest. Neither the largest nor the smallest, Salem seems to disappear comfortably somewhere in the cozy middle of nowhere. People arrive in Salem for two main reasons: 1. They are passing through on their way north or south along the I-5 transportation corridor, and perhaps hope to find a serviceable gas station bathroom and sandwich shop that doesn’t serve as a front for a child sex trafficking operation or 2. They have economic or political business with the State or its minions.
We might call Portland the eldest of three siblings. While New Yorkers call Portland a “quaint little town,” Oregonians know it as the Big City of Oregon. Rose City, Rip City, P-town, Stumptown, PDX, Pornland, it has more nicknames than some of the most renowned narcissists in the annals of history, and wears them with ironic — if solid — pride. Eugene, the southernmost of the metropolitan siblings, serves well as the youngest of the three, right on down to its liberally-entrenched sense of baseless entitlement to everything Portland has and more.
Eugene is the seat of the University of Oregon, the second-largest of six state universities. Eugene finds much of its cultural and economic footing in the College Town trope. Hip, cool, perpetually young. Likewise, Portland houses the most-populous Portland State University, while Corvallis (a fourth, adopted child of Oregon we will not concern ourselves with in this essay) houses third-largest Oregon State University and as such will forever play second fiddle to Eugene.
In contrast, Salem itself has no large university. A malnourished Western Oregon University cools its heels rather quietly on the inconspicuous outskirts of the Salem Metropolitan area, in a suburb known as Monmouth. Instead, Salem houses Willamette University, a small private liberal arts college that every year attracts into the crystal clear waters of its cozy little pond a new school of well-funded (if deliberately under-dressed) “middle class” Big Fish who, as a general rule, throw four years’-worth of their parents’ ample money and misguided attitude at Salem before they inevitably migrate north to the cooler waters of Portland, whereupon they find that they fit in better with others who share their dialectical mix of disaffected optimism disguising a deep-seeded sense of personal discomfort (for all their feigned classlessness, Willamette graduates don’t dare stay in Salem, with its affordable rent, for as every trendy new Portlander surely knows, if you can afford to live there, it’s probably not worth it).
Who can blame them? Whatever the bottomless soul of the consumer-citizen desires, Portland claims to have it (as the kombucha capitol of the country, in some parts of the city you can spy small gentrifying neighborhood collectives cooperatively raising goats and chickens in lieu of children). Portland, in its manic-depressive attempt to be Everything to Everyone(1), sprouts coffee shops at densities approaching one per caffeine-addicted resident (this much-romanticized colonial drug commodity trade manages to avoid a clash with Portland’s self-styled counter-culture couture in large part through enthusiastically ubiquitous ejaculations of signage everywhere proclaiming, “local brew!” which, if we take in their sum totality at face value, apparently means that the coffee plant somehow now grows somewhere in the the Pacific Northwest! Why aren’t there more people talking about this revolutionary breakthrough in plant breeding and post-colonial economic practice?). This constant flood of caffeine mixes with tattoos and irony to provide ample chemical and social fuel for arm-chair politiking and micro-entrepreneurial efforts to further subdivide already severely-dissected market niches: If enough people continually throw themselves at bad ideas, then those of us outsiders who watch with an air of overwhelmed confusion will inevitably miss their stale crash and burn after a few months (normally) or years (for the relatively successful ones), buried somewhere amidst the endless incoming torrent of newly-minted bright-eyed, bushy-tailed micro-entrepreneurs fresh off the printing press. Collective failure starts looking like a grand success in the apparent-absence of unexamined attrition rates. Suddenly, someone’s childhood dream (from three weeks ago, fueled in equal parts by caffeine and disaffected desparation) of opening a Micronesian Tex-Mex “ethnic fusion” grocer catering specifically to smartphone app-wielding ride-thru bicyclists might not seem like such a bad idea after all…A specialty store focusing specifically on salts and chocolates? Sure! What the casual, outside observer might call a grab-bag collective of random mishmash specialty trends, the Portlander affectionately refers to as, “inspiration!”
Portland contains PDX, that is to say, the Portland International Airport (whose abbreviated name the city took for itself during a period of narcissistic identity acquisition). If you, Dear Oregonian, want to fly anywhere else of “significance,” you have to go through PDX first. The bus and train run through Salem, though. Economically, Salem is neither really rural agricultural nor mercantile nor based on the presence of a large education institution nor culturally hip. Not even Burgerville, a local staple of the northwest fast food landscape with the odd outpost in rural Monmouth(!) and Albany(!), will bother with Salem-proper. Instead, Salem possesses the unique political burden of housing the State capitol of Oregon, including many of its State administrative offices (the rest reside deferentially in Portland because…well, “it’s Portland”). That is to say, Salem’s economy depends almost entirely upon the State administrative class, that is to say, upon pedantic rules, their robotic followers, their eery enforcers and the bureaucratic hives they inhabit for the exact equivalent of eight hours five days a week minus vacation and sick days. Lobbyists of both well-funded private and unfunded public interests also play a vital role in the nested parasitism of the State political economy.
While Salem may lack the “higher” (than thou) educational institutions of its younger and bigger siblings, it does not generally lack in the presence of state-run educational institutions per se. Salem serves as the bed and breakfast for nearly half of Oregon’s euphemistically-labeled “correctional” facilities (Mill Creek Correctional [sic] Facility, Oregon State Correctional [sic] Institution, Oregon State Penitentiary, Santiam Correctional [sic] Institution, Hillcrest Youth Correctional [sic] Facility, and Oak Creek Correctional [sic] Facility) as well as the Oregon State (psychiatric) Hospital, housing well over a quarter (27%) of Oregon’s total inmate population.(3) When the convicts and mental patients get released, they find their way into Salem first and foremost, alongside its similarly-disproportionate slice of the growing homeless and discarded veteran populations. Strategic on their part as social outcasts, for in the shadow of the government, they will forever remain the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the general populace.
The anglicized word “Salem” comes from Hebrew/Arabic “Shalom”/”Salaam,” meaning “peace.” So we might accurately (and redundantly) call Salem the “City of Peace.” While I don’t dispute this label, I will probably quibble with the exact vision of “peace” that Salem supposedly pursues.
On the one hand, the municipal corporation of Salem itself exists in the shadow of the State capitol, creating a perennial “mini-me” Napolean Complex for those who, if we wish to believe the bumper stickers, “give a shit about Salem,” and want to “Make Salem Awesome.” If we see the cities as siblings, and the State as their parents, then Salem and her inhabitants become the pitiful Offspring Who Never Left The Nest, remaining intimately mired in all the familiar baggage that drives the other siblings to keep their distance. In return, Salem residents receive the dubiously over-funded services of eerily-reliable, empowered Meter Maids and enthusiastically-zealous Code Compliance Officers who role out of bed every morning with a smile on their face as they start another day of diligent and rewarding work to make the City of Peace the “most compliant place on earth.” The host City, after all, must remain friendly to the State parasite.
On the other hand, when the State collapses, so will Salem’s economy. Call it a co-dependent, love-hate relationship, and you might be right. Nevermind its independent history before the rise of the state — Salem now exists, in large part, as an empty shell, a host for the bureaucratic parasite, although sometimes I question exactly who parasitizes whom.
Both Portland and Eugene have well-established and well-hyped reputations and identities. They have branded themselves: hip(ster), young, trendy, green(washed). “Sustainable.” “Progressive.” Tattoo’d. Spectacled. Unwashed. Gentrifying. Bereft of Adult Supervision. This branding has infected the minds of their youngest, whitest, trendiest inhabitants, many of whom brought the infection with them in the first place. Both cities have proudly developed proprietary rebrands of pseudo-radical politics, something they seem to pull off quite effectively given the glows of admiration and glares of derision they receive from the political left and right, respectively. The ruralites tend to stay away from these places, except to do reluctant business with them, giving only occasional pause to wonder where the money of their more cosmopolitan counterparts actually comes from (nevermind legality or inflation — is it hip and trendy enough for Portlanders to print their own?).
Many people in Salem reject these trends in conflicting fits of ironic jealousy. “We want those things…we just don’t want to work for it.” In all fairness, trendiness entails an awful lot of work — more weekly work than most of us want to do, already exhausted from six days’ worth of oiling creaky gears and hinges and servicing the stiff pistons of the State apparatus all the while feeding its busy (if not necessarily productive) worker bots and bees. The willful self-exploitation of micro-enterprise is sexy right now, and Salem is simply not hot enough to pass muster after a hard day’s work. Instead, Salem’s philosophy of “peace” may rest more in a spiritually-cynical faith than raw, material sex appeal. Those trends that Salem finds unavoidable, thanks to an endemic “Me, too!” chorus of Napoleonic Mini-Me’s, receive a particularly half-assed implementation of the “too little, too late” variety. Food carts? Sure, we’ll do those. Days late and dollars short, Salem and the suckling State will milk a few food carts for all they are worth (or maybe it’s vice-versa) before the trend (and perhaps the economy itself) collapses completely.
A peculiar pathology of a more mundane sort infects the minds of Salem residents, encapsulated in the Krishnamurti quote, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Many of us exist mired in and subservient to myriad State bureaucracies and their municipal minions and Mini-Me’s. Others want to (sort-of) do the awkward “me too’s” of trendy Portland and Eugene. And a well-trained semi-professional militia of yawning mouths stands ever-ready to meet, patronize and sabotage any earnest effort (no matter how small or slight) toward optimistic change, even those of the “too little, too late” sort. Mental patients and convicts take note: the inmates run the asylum. It seems salient that I found some solace in a famous sociology study entitled, “On being sane in insane places,”(2) upon moving to Salem so many sleepy years ago.
Cities entice us through a Mumfordian Magnificent Bribe. As centers of accumulation (in Portland’s case, specifically the accumulation of trends), they offer us the potential of access to copious resources (people and stuff), but only if we accept the myriad shitty downsides as well. The City looks down at us, folds its arms and says, “All or nothing.” When we see cities as bodies of sorts, then we might recognize the Religion of Urbanism as a particularly repressive form of Catholicism treating “that icky stuff coming out the other end” with fear, shame, loathing and disgust. Yes, everybody poops. Cities like Portland and Eugene ignore, minimize and externalize their shit (City of Roses, you say?). Deep Green Navel Gazing and other so-called “sustainability” practices help as cities pimp themselves into positions of ever-greater accumulation in their willing pursuit of All. Show me a city that offers you All the benefits yet None of the drawbacks, and I will show you a perfect marketing lie immersed in the inverse magic of low expectations (How’s your marriage? Is it “sustainable,” as well?). This strategy works for a time but, as every good Catholic knows, it catches up with us eventually. Things seem great, then suddenly you find yourself neck-deep in the mountains of shit (yours and others’) that you can no longer ignore and should have dealt with years ago. While Portland and Eugene make vain-but-valiant Johnny-come-lately efforts to hold their nose and compost their new-found (and growing) backlog of excremental output, Salem takes a different approach to this same problem: As realistics, we take the All or Nothing resolution for granted, and err on the side of Nothing. We don’t want to deal with the shit, so we just won’t eat. Less accumulation, less opportunity, but also, in the long run, less icky stuff comes out the other end for us to deal with down the road. Nutrient cycling be-damned.
A small-but-committed group of Salem residents seem to see opportunity and resilience within this self-imposed austerity. This phenomenon manifests as a mutual refusal to feel well-adjusted to the profoundly sick urbanizing rat race. Many of these people seem to have strong spiritual foundations grounded in the material realities of everyday life. And therein lies the realist promise of Salem: less shit than Portland and Eugene. Salem’s promise lies not in its race toward utopia, but toward the potential it has to avoid dystopia (inasmuch as we can find any meaningful difference between the two). Salem lives not with a longing gaze toward the Heavens of Unlimited Possibility akin to ambitious sister cities Portland and Eugene, but in an abject aversion to Hell, perhaps because those who live here feel like we’re already there. Whether Salem will live up (or down, as it were) to this potential remains to be seen…but if cities must exist, I like the apathetic odds of Salem better than the even fates of Portland and Eugene, cities that thrive in denial even as they drown in the shit they produce while trying to keep their heads above the rising tide of shit (that they produce).
“Salem” may mean “less awesome” when projected through the insecure eyes of her more ambitious siblings, but it also means, “less shitty.” I propose a new bumper sticker for Salem, more suitable to the city’s tendencies: Keep Salem Sleepy. To Hell with Municipal Ambition. I say, abandon the rat race, coddle the state parasite if we must, embrace the awkward self-conscious confusion and get rid of the self-imposed Napolean Complex confining Salem to the lumpy whims of Portland, Eugene and the predictable grind of the State machinery. Salem will survive in some manner and find its salvation in a special form of sloth representing its strategically-cynical resistance to the shitty pathology of Urban Optimism. When cities the world over finally fall apart in the coming years of the apocalyptic collapse of pretense that eventually consumes every civilization, Salem will yawn, pull the covers up and promptly return to the pleasant dream it was enjoying before something so rudely disturbed its peaceful slumber. Salem will not fall into the abyss and break, because it’s already at the bottom. Salem, like The Dude(3), abides.
The author resides in an unremarkable place approximately 45 miles south of Portland, where they enjoy spending time outdoors burning large stacks of Portland Monthly magazines in effigy as part of their small effort to make the world slightly less disgusting.
(1) Except black people, homeless people, or especially, homeless black people, of course
(2) Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, 1973
(3) data from Wikipedia
(4) (of the Cohen Brothers’ eponymous Big Lebowski)