George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America — October 7, 2014

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Tattered American flag

I’m familiar with two George Packers. On the one hand there’s Condescending, More-In-Touch-With-The-People-Than-Thou George Packer, who came to us in [book: Central Square] and [book: Assassins’ Gate]. In [book: Assassins’ Gate] we see Packer very publicly agonizing over his support of the Iraq War, lecturing at the rest of us who knew from the very beginning that it was a lie delivered to us by criminals. In [book: Central Square], Packer works with the homeless in my beloved neighborhood, and spends a couple hundred pages telling upper-middle-class white people that they’re doing it wrong.

His heart is in the right place. At his best — in [book: Blood of the Liberals], for instance — he wants to understand why people have turned away from liberalism, and why they would support something like the Iraq War. At his best, he spends his time with people who disagree with him. At his best, he tries to remind the rest of us what the real problems are that liberalism needs to solve (rampant income inequality, the disappearance of good jobs), and explains why ordinary people believe that liberalism has lost touch. At his worst, he doesn’t realize that we’re already thinking about this, and spends his time lecturing us while we all reply, “We know, George, we know.”

[book: The Unwinding] is by Good George Packer. While it’s actually impossible for him — for anyone — to avoid inserting an authorial voice into a book like this, Packer basically stays out of the way and lets his characters talk. He interviews a single mother in collapsing (collapsed) Youngstown, Ohio; an entrepreneur (who’s also, maybe, possibly, kind of a crank) in the South who’s trying to combat peak oil with his Next Big Thing based on canola oil; a whole host of folks in Tampa, who ride home prices up and fall down just as catastrophically when the bottom falls out of the market; Jay-Z (sic); Oprah; Elizabeth Warren; and Jeff Connaughton, self-described one-time Biden Guy and author of <a href=""%5Bbook: The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins].

Each of these people has something to say about the structure of today’s United States. While Packer is a little angry at the Oprahs and Jay-Zs of the world for their unbridled materialism, I think he sees them more as instances of a bigger problem. There’s such desperation in the U.S. to get a good job and do right by your family, and there seem to be so few opportunities to make it, that people latch onto whatever impossible roads to riches they can find: flip homes, have Oprah toss some baubles your way, and be a big player like Jay-Z who can raise his middle finger at everyone while the money rolls in.

It’s sort of a bleak story, with no real good answer at the end. There are bits of hope, like Elizabeth Warren, or the entrepreneur who, despite all evidence to the contrary, jumps out of bed every day convinced that today’s the day he strikes it rich and changes the world for the better. It was sort of a half-hearted optimistic ending for Packer; I think he’s actually pretty sad about the state of the world. And I don’t know that he has any answers, other than to find people who love their country and who want to do right by it.

I don’t get any great morals out of [book: The Unwinding]. In fact I find the exact opposite of great morals: Packer tries hard to let everyone speak without interruption, to the extent that he even lets their verbal tics (e.g., “frickin'”) slip through. And every time someone says something that’s probably false, Packer lets it through. These are just individuals, speaking their minds. This is a book about a problem; it’s a portrait of a country. If you’re into that sort of thing, this one is quite good. In 50 years, people will read this and get a very sad — though very true — portrait of what life was like for a lot of Americans.

George Packer’s piece about Amazon is terrible — February 14, 2014

George Packer’s piece about Amazon is terrible

I have a deep love for George Packer’s work, going back many books. [book: Blood of the Liberals] is one of my all-time favorite books, though viewed in the context of the other books and articles he’s written, it’s condescending: *his* deep desire to find a liberalism that can appeal to the common man is somehow at odds with everyone else’s. Likewise, when George Packer came to oppose the War in Iraq, *his* ultimate decision to oppose it was thoughtful and well-meaning, whereas everyone else’s was reflexive and irrational.

The piece on Amazon is a long string of [foreign: ad hominem]s, including the requisite slam on engineers: “Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They dont know how to talk to novelists.” That one example, it seems to be, contains the key to what’s wrong with the whole piece: throughout the piece, you ought to be asking, “Compared to what?” People with an engineering focus can’t talk to novelists, sure. So I assume Random House is filled with artsy types who are willing to forego a profit to take a flyer on some unknown, promising author? I have no experience in the publishing industry, but I am willing to wager huge quantities of money against that premise. Take a nice anonymous survey of authors — including aspiring or failed authors — who’ve worked with large publishers and let’s see what they think of the publishers’ author-friendliness.

Amazon is terrible for local bookstores, sure. But compared to what? How about you Google for [bookstore market share 1998]? Up comes a [newspaper: New York Times] article from that year titled “Independent Bookstores Struggle Against the Tide”. Quoth that article:

> In Tarrytown, the American Booksellers Association, a trade association, reported that while the independents held a market share of 31 percent in 1991, that number had dropped precipitously to under 19 percent five years later.

So let’s not romanticize the world that Amazon inherited. It was dominated by Borders and Barnes & Noble. At one point there was Waldenbooks, too.

It’s hard to find a sentence in Packer’s piece that doesn’t contain a tendentious interpretation of data that we all already experience. To pick just one:

> The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value, Johnson said. Its a widget.

Did Amazon create this attitude? Who you gonna believe: George Packer, or your own lying eyes? Here’s what my impression tells me: back in the day, I used to buy music CDs, each of which I treasured and obsessed over. I’d buy an album or two, then spend the next few weeks digesting it lovingly. I’d read all the liner notes; I’d listen to it until I’d memorized every lyric and every last bridge. Then MP3s happened. Now I don’t see any liner notes; I don’t see cover art. For a time I used Napster, which allowed me to get unlimited access to free music. Each individual track, then, was valueless — literally costless. Nowadays I use Amazon MP3s, where most tracks cost $0.99. I also use Rdio, which allows me to stream most any song for free. I’ve used Songza and Pandora for similar purposes. In fact the default now seems to be that music is free (ad-supported). I don’t know, but I assume none of these services pays artists particularly well.

So music, in any case, has long since moved from a model where each work was an individual perfect snowflake to a model wherein it’s all basically wallpaper: you can get all the music you want at any time of day or night, and each individual track is a fungible commodity.

As for print media: you could argue that Amazon turned any individual bit of writing into a commodity, but that’s obvious nonsense. The presence of blogs had much more to do with that than did Amazon. The fact that I can get my hands on any newspaper from anywhere in the world had much more to do with that than did Amazon. My Instapaper queue is enormous, meaning that I have mountains of fungible text awaiting me. Amazon did not invent the commoditization of everything electronic; the Internet did.

Listen, I’m not 100% happy about this. I wish this blog post you’re reading were the most brilliant thing you’ll read all week. I wish you carried it rolled up under your arm; that you highlighted interesting passages with a pen; that you photocopied it at work and shared it with all your officemates. But that’s not how the world works anymore. Someone writes an article in a newspaper or magazine, and within hours thousands of blogs have digested that article for you. Now you can choose among thousands of blogs, each of which approaches that newspaper article from thousands of perspectives. I’m sure I could find a libertarian gun nut’s take on George Packer’s piece if I looked long enough in benighted corners of the Internet. But the point is that it’s all a commodity now. George Packer’s apparent dream, wherein each book is treated as a perfect, crystalline work of art, is many years out of date.

I think it’s even out of date for beautiful books published by reputable publishers. Years ago I read Yochai Benkler‘s [book: The Wealth of Networks], which is really a lovely book published by one of the best university presses. A university press! Shouldn’t they be the last bastions of hope for authors who aren’t chasing a profit? University presses are associated with non-profit institutions whose goal is to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. Yet even Benkler’s book, which is sort of a landmark in the field, was horribly edited. When I asked around about this, the word I got back is that authors are now expected to do their own copyediting, and are expected to submit “camera-ready” manuscripts. So much for publisher support.

At the risk of waving my hands too broadly at “society”, I am willing to blame capitalism just as much as I’m willing to blame Amazon or the Internet. Eventually everything becomes a commodity. Eventually everything gets driven down to marginal cost. If Amazon didn’t do it, someone else would.

I don’t mean to absolve Amazon. In fact I mean to praise them, which Packer is somehow unwilling to do. Everyone loves Amazon, right? They’re good for customers. Here’s Packer:

> Those were sweet words for a company that declares itself to be Earths most customer-centric company. Even its bitterest critics reluctantly admit to using Amazon, unable to resist its unparalleled selection, price, and convenience. When Bezos talks about serving the customer, its as if he were articulating his purpose in life. The customer is almost theological, James Marcus said. Any sacrifice is suitable for the customer.

That’s basically the extent of Packer’s praise for Amazon, which is incredibly odd. This is a company whose success is changing one industry after another, and Packer’s piece somehow attributes all of that success to malign influence — such as the infamous engineering attitude. How about this: it’s succeeding because it does right by its customers? Packer is just unwilling to admit that, because it would undermine the entire rest of the article — an article whose premise is that Amazon’s band of barbarians is toppling a once-civilized industry. This premise gets no support from Packer’s article. And somehow Packer never really addresses a question that ought to be fundamental: how could something be good for readers and not good for books, or good for authors, or good for publishers? I’m open to the possibility that there’s a conflict there, but really Packer ought to be asking: does Amazon make people read more, or less? Offhand, I assume that it makes them read more, because books are now cheaper. When people read more, that’s good for authors and publishers. That seems to be the fundamental calculus here, and Packer never once addresses it squarely.

I hate to say it, but Packer’s piece is garbage. I hope you read it in costless form on the Internet. When you do so, I expect that Packer will shed a single proud tear for the commoditization of his heretofore priceless work.

__P.S.__: The costlessness of the Internet means that my own blog post here is just a disposable commodity. Either I learn to deal with that, or I don’t. The dialectic doesn’t care especially much what I think about it.

The modern world is interesting for reasons other than the Internet — October 20, 2010

The modern world is interesting for reasons other than the Internet

William F. Buckley, chin held way up, looking thoughtful with his hands near his chin in some sort of weird 'wait, how did your hand end up in that position?' kind of postureJessa Crispin linked via Twitter to a piece about novelists’ difficulty talking about the Internet. Should their characters be like a lot of us, constantly switching between Facebook, Twitter, email, phone calls, text messages, and the rest? Should their books deliberately *avoid* writing about those things, and instead focus on (here I adopt a Brahmin chin tilted 30 degrees up from the horizontal; imagine Bill Buckley saying this) “the eternal present”?

Listen, the Internet is important. Many of us spend a lot of our time on it. But we spend a lot of our time doing lots of other things, too. How about focusing on rampant job insecurity, for instance? How about focusing on what happens when people lose jobs and realize that there’s virtually no social safety net left?

I’m not saying that writing has any obligation to be socially relevant; it doesn’t. As a practical matter, writers only have an obligation to do what pays the bills. (Or not! They might not be able to make money writing, so they do whatever else they need to do to pay the bills, like sling lattes at Starbucks while they write on the side.)

What I *am* saying, though, is that we have a tendency — either when we look at the world we live in now, or at former worlds — to focus on one detail and obsessively assert that That’s What Everyone Spent All Their Time Thinking About. Look at slavery, for instance: it’s really hard to read about the era between the signing of the Constitution and the Civil War without getting this picture of everyone just counting the days until society was torn apart by war. Or England from the late 18th century through the mid-19th: there’s this picture of people toiling away in the dark Satanic mills and thinking nonstop about What Industrialization Meant when they weren’t Suffering The Ill Effects of Industrialization. Surely these things were important — world-historical, even — but so were lots of other things.

And in the grand scheme of modern living, the Internet is *time-consuming*, but it’s not at all clear that it’s *important*. Spending time with your family is important. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising are important. Not needing to drink yourself to sleep at night is important. Inasmuch as work-related stress impinges on all of these things, work is very important. Facebook is not important.

So why are there so many more stories and essays about the effect of the modern media environment on fiction writing than there are about the effect of job insecurity? David Foster Wallace, for instance, spent just about his entire career obsessing over television’s and the web’s effect on fiction writing: his essay “E Unibus Plurum” [sic], which was included in [book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]; [book: Infinite Jest] itself (about a movie so addicting that you’d sacrifice anything to keep watching it); an essay or two in [book: Consider the Lobster]; and a good fraction of the post-[book: Infinite Jest] interview with Wallace in [book: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] focus on the media. Wallace is considered an “important writer” largely on that basis.

Where are the people writing novels about job insecurity? It sounds a little silly when phrased that way; no one would really want to read that. But it’s not clear, stated abstractly, that anyone would want to read a novel about the effects of television on American [foreign: ennui], but there you have the shortest possible description of [book: Infinite Jest].

Hypothesis: Wallace’s fiction — and all other fiction coming from people who obsess more about the media environment than they do about the rest of life — appeals more to urbane single dudes in their 20s and 30s, whose biggest concern is that they use Twitter too much, than it does to folks who are having trouble making ends meet.

Then again, the last piece of fiction I can remember reading from someone who was self-consciously trying to Engage With The People was George Packer’s [book: Central Square], about my beloved neighborhood. I give Packer credit for trying, but that book was condescending, as virtually all of Packer’s writing since then has been. (Though you really, really, really need to read his [book: Blood of the Liberals].) Condescension may be inevitable when you’re deliberately trying to make a point through your fiction; you engage in telling rather than showing.

So maybe the idea should be: don’t write a novel that tries to talk about income inequality, or talk about job insecurity, or talk about the pernicious effects of Angry Birds. Just write a novel that respects its characters enough to depict them honestly, and hope that anything you want to say will emerge naturally from that. When I find such a novel, I’ll let you know.

Why to get a smart phone — August 10, 2010

Why to get a smart phone

My friend Carl a while ago expressed some confusion about why he’d ever want to get a smart phone. It’s a reasonable question: carrying a computer on your person at all times is remarkably distracting. If you don’t send text messages, it may seem pointless.

This morning, as I edited the details on a calendar entry on my phone, it struck me that that’s the main thing I couldn’t do without. I enjoy when my phone rings to tell me that I have some event coming in an hour. I enjoy editing events on the phone and knowing that they’ll be synced up with the Google Mind, so that I’ll see the same information right away if I visit the Google Calendar website.

You might justify getting a smart phone by the sheer efficiency of the thing: if you’re carrying an iPod and a phone, why not combine them into one device (manufactured by Apple or otherwise)? Nowadays that efficiency argument seems weaker to me: if it helps me avoid spending endless time online, I’d prefer to have an iPod separate from a dumb phone. But then, iPod+camera+telephone+texting device? I wouldn’t want to carry four separate devices. And it’s really great to have a camera on me at all times. Taking photos and then uploading them immediately to some public service is something I don’t need; people can wait an hour or two to take a look at the food I just ate in a nice restaurant. So it’s not the instant nature of the photos that makes camera phones valuable; it’s being able to take photos at all.

The aggregate effects of omnipresent technology are interesting. For instance, some guy exposed himself on the T the other day, and Twitter helped catch him. That wouldn’t have been possible without omnipresent camera phones and (to a lesser degree) omnipresent social networking on mobile phones. We’re all carrying cameras nowadays; that has to have a marked effect on lots of things (think “police brutality”).

Texting is an interesting phenomenon: as has gotten a lot of notice recently, people are using their phones for voice calls a lot less nowadays, and replace those calls with quick texts. I certainly use my phone that way: for most anyone other than my girlfriend, I make initial arrangements for outings via email, then send little texts as the time approaches: “I’ll be 20 mins late”; “I’m there”; etc. These don’t take away from real in-person socializing at all; I certainly feel like my social life is better than it was 10 years ago when cell phones and texting weren’t so omnipresent.

When I hang out with my girlfriend’s 13-year-old son, I realize that this sort of *what does it all mean* conversation will be completely gone in 15 years, and that the 13-year-old would look at me as though I were the world’s dumbest man if I tried to have it with him now. Kids text much more than they speak on the phone. Period. We can try to shake our fists at the sea on this issue, but it would be incredibly pointless to do so. (Likewise, arguing against MP3s and in favor of physical media, or inveighing against casual file sharing between friends, has long since become the most wasteful use of your time. People share MP3s. Period. We may be unhappy about this because it denies artists some money, but it is a fact.)

One thing I definitely don’t miss from the dumb-phone era is that silly thing where you lose your phone and then email all your friends, “Hi, I lost my phone. Please send me your contact information.” That is totally played out. I sync all my contacts to Google now; if I lose my phone or get a new one or wipe and reinstall the OS, I take 30 seconds to create a new Google account on the phone, then start it syncing. Within a couple minutes I have all my contacts and all my calendar entries on the device. I enjoy that very much.

“Contacts” here also includes a lot of businesses; for some of those businesses I only have a physical address. It’s awfully handy, for someone with a sense of direction as bad as mine is, living in a non-Euclidean city like Boston, to be able to use a map, compass, GPS, and Google Maps to find my way from wherever I am to a favorite café.

The rest of what’s on my phone count as nice-to-haves. It’s nice to be able to write email from my phone, but I can certainly wait until I get in front of a full computer for that. It’s nice to have a web browser, so that I can settle some point of curiosity in the middle of a conversation; but as I think we’re all discovering, it would be a lot better for society in general if we put the phones away during any outing. So I’d actually contend that a mobile browser turns out to be a slightly net negative. Having Facebook and Twitter apps on the phone is probably a net negative: they’re little distracting games.

I’d say, then, that the main reasons to get a smart phone are

* never again needing to bother your friends with requests for contact information
* your calendar and contacts, available at all times and synced with an external service
* not needing to carry a separate camera, iPod, and phone

Everything else is nice to have, or actively harmful to your attention span.

I’ve certainly found that having a mobile computer has reduced my attention span. When I’m reading a book, I typically pull out my iPhone every few minutes: email, Facebook, Twitter, repeat. Sometimes I put my iPhone and laptop in another room while I’m reading. When I go on vacations, I leave all technology behind and bring a stack of books with me. (My lovely girlfriend, bless her heart, realizes that all I want to do on vacation is read books and spend time with her, and she’s more than willing to accommodate me on both.)

These reactions to my own distraction are possible because I remember when it was otherwise. I’m very curious how life will be for Stephanie’s sons, who didn’t exist before the Web and who became conscious entities during the era of the cell phone. They may not realize that a world with longer periods of focus is even possible or desirable.

Lest you think that I’m going to predict doom and gloom, I’m not going to. When I read John Ruskin, I saw an earlier generation of this descent-into-darkness brand of pessimism. Ruskin saw his beloved pastoral England destroyed by mass production and the dark satanic mills, and assumed that cities would always be destructive to the human soul. It’s possible that he was right: maybe, if you transplanted me back into late-18th-century England, I’d be brought to tears by the beauty of that lost world. Granted, though, that macro changes often bear no resemblance to the desires of any individual actor, I think people tend to adapt the world around them to what they want. The city I live in now serves my needs pretty well.

In 150 years or so, I suspect the techno-pessimists of today (like George Packer) will look a lot like Ruskin: correct in some points, maybe tragic in their correctness, but shortsighted and naïve and futile.