I’ve been thinking about how the Internet, and its associated constellation of technologies, has been disruptive to the old order recently. I started thinking about this after seeing some frankly alarming triumphalism online (in a private space, so I won’t link to it) among certain software engineers who assert that disruptions to the old order, particularly the old economic order, are an unblemished good. That if old manufacturing jobs are made obsolete, this is a good thing. That is old service jobs are made obsolete, this is a good thing. It was stated that bluntly. These assertions were part of a larger argument that disruption of the economic status quo would create space for newer, better forms of commerce to thrive. They believe they are creating forms of commerce that empower the individual, and level the field.
And if some auto worker or legal assistant is made obsolescent along with everyone else in her industry, well…so what? Stacked against acquiescing to the continued dominance of an increasingly arrogant global oligarchy, how can a few economic bumps in the road be allowed to slow progress? There’s an element of hero worship here, especially of those (almost always white male) programmers who got in legal trouble after they released some bit of data to the public, or struck some other bold, romantic blow against (sometimes imagined) injustice. The government and its corporate backers tend to wildly overreact to these events, and that only further convinces techno-libertarians of their virtue. Unilateral action against an unjust order can feel good. It can feel righteous. You’re crusading for the common good, who could stand against you? It’s very easy to begin to think of opponents of change as corrupt, especially when so many of them truly are.
But not everybody who cautions against a blind rush into the glorious distributed future is a shill for power. In any system, particularly ones with an unjust distribution of wealth, most people develop strategies for finding some measure of stability. The more unjust the distribution, the more intricate and delicate the strategies become. Disruption of that order may be needed, may even be overdue. But the towering edifice of Mammon you hate so much has a whole lot of little people clinging to its edges, because that’s the only place they could find that was above water. When that tower falls over, what happens to them? Where a programmer might see a bold, brave decision to let data be as free as it wants to be, someone whose job depends upon being able to navigate, curate, and disburse that data for a fee sees a trip to the welfare office.
All change, good or bad, has its costs. It is very easy to discount those costs, especially when they fall on people who aren’t like you or your friends. The sneering answer I got back when I poked at that was that individuals must adapt to change. If someone doesn’t want to learn to program and become a tech, well, fuck’em. Tell that to the 58 year old who is looking at a stripped out pension because his entire industry just got replaced by a beige box. Look him in the eye and tell him he should have joined a growth industry. That disruptive innovation you assumed was going to benefit all of society might simply lead to newer, different forms of injustice never seemed to occur to them.
I’m not just making things up to be scared of them. There’s a real world example of disruptive innovation being terribly destructive to many people, while enriching a privileged few. Amazon.com has virtually killed the brick and mortar bookstore in the US. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but I live in a city that you know is particularly literate with a particularly powerful book culture simply because it still has brick and mortar bookstores. And with the destruction of the old distribution channels, many of the mid-list authors have been more or less shut out of the market. Publishing is an industry that distributes information; new forms of information distributions have sent it through convulsions that have thrown thousands of people out of their life’s work, with very little to show for it.
I guess they should have all ignored their aptitudes and passions and gotten computer science degrees, instead.
This is going to be harder than I thought.
The idea was to read a different non-fiction book every month, and report back about them. I’d expand my horizons, learn new things, and have material to chew over when I’m writing fiction. My current books happen to feature characters who move around the very highest levels of the military and government of their country, so I thought a great place to start would be The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks, a study of the US Army leadership from World War Two to present.
Holy fuck this book sucks.
It starts well, very well, with a quick, brutal takedown of the myth of un-compromised American heroism in the days and months after the invasion of Normandy. The hapless 90th infantry division sustains 100% casualties as its general struggles to find his ass with both hands. Senior officers are getting replaced left and right. Finally, General Eisenhower finds an officer capable to getting the 90th out of its rut and pushes the Germans back and takes its objectives, weeks behind schedule.
Sadly, as soon as the author moves past recounting the events and into analyzing them, we get into mush territory fast. I must admit defeat, because I was not able to read much further than the lengthy first chapter, which covers World War Two, and part of the second, which covers Korea. I’m not sure how fair of me it is to critique a book I did not finish, so I will confine my criticisms to the sections of the book that I did read.
What I learned from the first chapter: the Marshall system for selecting, training, and replacing combat generals was both a very effective policy that produced good results and also frequently arbitrary, unfair process that relieved competent officers from their commands. Further, this system both shaped Army policy for decades to come, and also was something that later generals would ignore. Under this system the US Army both underwent a sea change from a skittish, amateurish force to a dynamic powerhouse, and at the same time was a sluggish behemoth that was hopelessly outclassed by the Wehrmacht for the entire war. Which of course did not prevent the German commanders from being awed by how quickly Americans adapted to changing circumstances. I learned that since Eisenhower most generals who try their hands at politics have fared quite badly, but not why it was different for Ike. Everything I learned was contradicted by something else that I learned, as if Ricks does not really know how to contextualize contradictory evidence in a way that explains the tensions in his thesis without undermining it. It is a book length freshman term paper, and I’m regretting the 15 bucks I spent on this thing.
And that’s just chapter 1. I’m not going to be pressing on through chapter 2.
So this Non-Fiction Challenge is getting off to a rocky start. After several unsatisfying days slogging through Ricks, I got distracted by the shiny and never really went back. I’m adding a new rule to the Non-Fiction Challenge. I will not feel compelled to finish books that lose my interest. This rule is necessary because I’m going to be following it, one way or the other. Additionally, I think I will scale my ambition down from a monthly event to a bi-monthly one. It’s taking me some time to get my hands on the next book, which is going to be some kind of literary examination of the Gothic tradition. I haven’t settled on which one yet.
So that’s month 1 of the Non-Fiction Challenge. Hooray! Now, I’m off to salve my wounds with a nifty new recommendation I got from a friend.
She’s cute, and quirky, and enthusiastically malicious. When you meet her, she’s quick to let you know that she’s sexually available in a mild, nonthreatening kind of way. It’s a dark and terrible lie. She has no visible means of support, but does not appear to live in poverty. (Her victims fund her well.) This gives her plenty of time to enjoy visiting funky local shops, eating street cart food, and torturing cats with hacksaws.
Bump into her on the train, as if by chance. No chance about it. Her perspective on the world is so unique and free spirited. She’ll show you the joy of giving up on society’s stodgy rules and marching to the beat of your own drum, and also of arson.
Her room is filled with salvaged antiques and hand-drawn posters. A mobile hangs above the bed; bones and feathers and squirrel pelts. She says she’s into taxidermy. The walls are a familiar reddish brown, a color you recognize but can’t quite place. The paint is strange, and kind of crumbly.
One night when you’re sleeping over at her place, you hear loud thumping and wailing from beneath the floor. Just the downstairs neighbors having noisy sex she says. She disappears to ask them to be quiet. For some reason she takes a hammer with her. Later, you can’t recall ever seeing the entrance to a basement apartment in her building.
One night you start to wonder if she’s right for you. You thought you saw her across the street from your apartment, standing in the shadows under a tree, but when you went out to look, you found nothing. Now you’re wondering what that sudden bolt of fear was about. And why’d you bring a knife?
Picnics in the park, running around with your arms spread out making airplane noises. This hamburger tastes interesting, is it pork?
She says you spend too much time at work. You joke that she should take it up with your boss. The next day she’s in there screaming at him. The day after that, the building you work in burns down. Now you can spend all your time with her! Isn’t that great? Yeah, just…just great.
It’s not working out. The chemistry is gone. You’re afraid to sleep without locking the door. She takes the news well. Where’d your dog go?
Your new job has an anthrax scare, the letter billowing with white powder. They find your fingerprints on the envelope. The door to your holding cell opens, and in she walks. You tell her to leave, she says something kooky and sweet. You scream for the guard, but they don’t hear you. She won’t explain how she got in. She won’t explain how she got your fingerprints on the envelope, or your saliva on the stamp. She explains, with great disappointment, how you just weren’t good enough, and now she’s got to stand up for herself. She’s shows you a small wad of cash, says it’s all that remains of your accounts, but don’t worry; some public defenders are actually pretty good. Somehow, at trial, the prosecution produces video of you packing the envelope. She sits alone in the audience and stares at you with a quiet smile on her face. You try to ask your lawyer to call her to the stand, but when you point at her, he can’t see who you mean. Her smile grows wider.
No actual anthrax involved; you only get 8 months. When you get to the halfway house, there’s a laptop waiting on your bed. It boots up when you enter the room, and there she is, welcoming you back. She’s the Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl. She’ll ruin your life, and then send you cutesy videos where she uses your dog’s severed head as a puppet.
Last year I managed to keep my new year* resolution: survive until December 31st. The prior year, 2011, saw me suicidal on a cycle so regular you could almost literally set a calendar by it. Happily, I am past that now, and looking for a greater challenge.
So here they are, Resolutions 2013:
So that’s it, my slate of new year resolutions. I’ll be looking back at the end of the year to see how well I did. This of course presumes that I succeed on the last one, of course.
*It bugs the unholy fuck out of me to refer to it as a new years resolution. You only get one new year at a time.
I need to read more non-fiction. I need to read more, in general. My reading habits are embarrassingly poor. I promise myself, over and over, that I’ll break out of my rut, and over and over I fall back in. So, no more excuses, I am vowing to read one non-fiction book a month until I give up and become a lazy, cosseted pulp drone* once more. (Speaking of which, I’ve got some thoughts about Cold Days I want to get to later. Zing!)
First up in my campaign to expand my taste and mind is The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks. Maybe it’s an overreaction to coming of age during the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the associated recruitment propaganda that such an adolescence entails, but I find myself intensely attracted to anything which promises to examine military life and war without the hagiographic excesses that characterizes most American discussions of our military. I think you can draw a direct link to the lack of experience most Americans have with the military to our embarrassing hero worship of them. We’re all shamed by how poorly the veterans of Vietnam were treated and are terrified of making the same mistake twice, but because the vast, vast majority of us have no personal experience with the armed forces we overcorrect and act like these departments of the government are staffed by infallible supermen. Early press on Ricks’ book is that he goes hard in the other direction, calling out structural deficiencies in how the Pentagon conducts itself in a fair, but scathing critique. Most readers at Amazon rate it highly. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype later this month.
*not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I didn’t know what my book was about until a week after I finished writing* it. Partway through writing it, I thought I knew what the main theme was, but I was wrong. Close, but very wrong. One of the things I’m looking at in my rewrite is if my anxiety that my book was going to make me look like a horrible, evil rape culture apologist (or worse, proponent) actually crippled what at the end turned out to be a pretty striking damnation of the character who embodies the worst excesses of the society I set my story in. That stuff I was scared of was just my fear coming out on paper, and it convinced me to change the course of my book before I was even at my destination. Now I have to go back and see if I undermined myself, and what I can do to fix it if I did.
It’s been a productive mistake. I’ve taken a lesion: have faith in yourself. If you’re writing and you’re afraid that what you’re writing is revealing something deep and horrible about you, or you’re afraid that it will look that way, remember that until you’re finished with the first draft, you don’t actually know what you’re saying.** Remember that talking about something does not mean endorsing it, and writing about things that scare you means you’re going to be afraid. Some of our darkest fears are tied up with our desires, and trying to hide from that is a disservice to myself and my readers. Theme is tricky and mercurial and comes up organically, at least for me, and trying to force it down a path that my political conscience approves of sucks my work dry of passion. So from now on, I hope not to do that anymore.
*Writing is different than editing. When I get to the last sentence of the last scene, I’m done “writing” but only about a third to halfway finished with creating a manuscript suitable for shopping around for publication. And then, once the publishers get their hands on it, I hope to run it through another round of edits and refinements before it hits the presses.
**Well, maybe you’re a genius and you do. But I certainly don’t.
Regardless of what I wrote in my spooky story, I am very glad that Barack Obama won the election. While he is not nearly the man I hoped he would be on economic issues, and while his foreign policy is marred by his dedication to drone strikes against civilian targets, he has in many ways been a good President. His (however tardy) championing of the LGBT community in particular is something I am thankful for. I’m glad he won.
The alternative would be Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Romney, if elected, would have been a disaster for women, queers, poor people, brown people, really anyone who wasn’t like them. Romney’s conservative support was always flimsy, and to avoid an intra-party fight that would neuter him in his first year, he would have been obliged to hand much of his domestic policy apparatus over to Ryan. Ryan, who sees eye to eye with Todd “legitimate rape” Akin. A Romney/Ryan administration would mean coat-hangers coming back in style. It would mean that my marriage rights would, again, be stymied, dismissed, and devalued at the Federal level. It would mean an all-but-open acceptance of discrimination against workers for anything that makes them even remotely incontinent to their employers, regardless of the cost of shattered lives and trampled dignity that such policies would entail.
It is good for this country, and frankly very good for me, that Mitt Romney lost.
But even before the final states had finished reporting, I heard calls for reconciliation, and statements urging us not to revel in our victory. We should come together as a country now, and look forward to the future, and engage in all manner of similar platitudes.
For me, this election was about if I get to stop being a second-class citizen sometime in the near future. This was an election about if being a woman would be even more of a financial handicap than it already is. This was an election about my equality, and I am not particularly interested in joining hands and singing songs of friendship with the kind of people who would vote for a world where I am not the equal of any man. I am not your friend. I will not comfort you in your defeat. I will not respect you in the morning.
It’s a good day for America. When the rest of you are willing to grow up and join the 21st century, we’ll be waiting for you.