half in the bag

I used to have Bag Glee, every bit as much as Phone Glee or Car Glee or Shoe Glee. I don’t know when exactly it began – probably when I got my first laptop in 1999, if I had to guess – but for years I was constantly trying to find the perfect bag for everything, whether backpack or Kensington Saddlebag or some weird hip-slung thing or whatever Timbuk2 had come out with. My very first post on this very blog – almost thirteen years ago – mentioned my chagrin at their discontinuing the Ace pack. And once I got into a mode of carrying one laptop back and forth every day – which was the case for seven or eight years – I was constantly fixated on what would best handle my loadout, and what that loadout would consist of.

As it happens, about five years ago I settled on a very minimal Timbuk2 black backpack, enough to hold the computer and not much else. Because I genuinely can’t remember the last time I traveled with a laptop other than for work. Maybe 2010, during the netbook experiment – but even once I had an iPad, it rarely left the house. Not that we did all that much traveling in the first few years of my iPad experience, but even then, my goal was to get to the iPad mini and fit it in a coat rather than a bag.

Because really, in the smartphone age, the goal is to have a phone do everything. Worst case scenario, you add a Kindle for reading and a battery pack to recharge everything and fit it all in the right jacket, which can be most anything these days. The iPhone X has meant that I don’t even bother with the Kindle, and so anything will work: linen blazer, Uniqlo blouson, Harris Tweed, Filson trucker jacket, Rickson bomber, pea coat, rain shell, zippered sweatshirt.

I still have my Rickshaw messenger, and my slightly larger custom Timbuk2 messenger, and they generally do for a carry-on (the Timbuk2 will even do for a weekend getaway bag, especially if no flights are involved) but I haven’t gone looking for new bags in a long time. The closest thing I’ve been tempted by at this point is a duffel bag, something to substitute for a suitcase going abroad at an age when I don’t have to schlep my life around on my back like an impoverished student on a EurRail pass.

But more and more aging backpacks and laptop sleeves and the like are finding their way from the garage or the closet to Goodwill these days. Which is just as well. There are things that are surplus to requirement with no sentimental value or prospect of future utility, and those are the things to get off your hands as quickly as circumstances allow.

defense in depth

You can’t trust anybody anymore. A blithe enough cliche, but then, cliches don’t get to be cliches because they’re wrong. In a purely professional sense, this crops up in the concept of “zero trust” – the idea that in computing, you never trust and always verify. Credentials at every step, least required privilege, and the use of certificates to automate the authentication process so that you can be forced to prove who you are literally every step of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re inside the company network: you still have to authenticate to a VPN to access internal resources, and must log into those resources individually, and and and. The key thing being identity access management – the ability to prove who you are and thus move along.

Which made me think about what a zero trust society looks like.

The story of the 21st century is the tale of how the Internet, filter bubbles, social media and a firm belief that you’re entitled not only to your own opinion but your own facts created a post-truth universe. Ultimately, there are people with whom you can no longer communicate because the ground rules for what constitutes reality no longer obtain. You have no recourse to authority, because there is no authority. Ironically, all those postmodern academics that were the bete noire of conservatives during my college years are now underpinning the entire project of the right. There is no meaning beyond whatever narrative you can enforce, and if people don’t believe that narrative, there are no grounds on which to correct them or even come to some sort of understanding. We already have the very notion of science being kicked to the curb, while Fogust in NorCal is suddenly hotter than a two dollar pistol at an Alabama flea market.

Part of it, I think, is because of the old line about not being able to get a man to believe something if his salary depends on not believing it. Only inverse. Fox News makes its money because people believe conspiracy theories are real. WeWork and Uber and AirBnB make money because investors believe they are tech companies and not real estate, taxi or hotel companies. Scientology makes its money because…who knows. But as long as you can sell people something they want to believe in, they’ll pony up the cash. Maybe talk show hosts and tech startups are what replaced televangelists. Trade your cash for salvation.

And I think part of it is because people want to believe a simple story, no matter how absurd it is. Ross Perot, all those years ago, had a simple story, and got 19% of the electorate to buy it, which should have been a fucking siren red alert to everybody: if one-fifth of the electorate can be convinced that platitudes and internally inconsistent bullshit will make the Presidency an entry-level political job, it’s no great leap to expand that to one-half over the course of twenty-five years, or close enough to make a disaster possible. People want to believe that you can magically get a cab from your phone without needing cash, or to tip, or to do anything at all, and that this money-losing service will somehow be sustainable and that the company behind it will be worth more than General Motors because [FILE NOT FOUND] – because, presumably, if you get in at the right time you can achieve jackpot wealth when it goes public. And we’re starting to see how well some of these companies survive first contact with a public market. It’s not pretty.

It annoys the shit out of me to have grown up in a world where imagination was suspect and only the hardest of reality was permissible six days a week (notwithstanding the premillenial dispensationalism fanfic of Sunday mornings in the 1980s Baptist church), only to find myself approaching age 50 in a world where it’s okay to believe whatever you like because there’s always someone on the internet or cable TV to validate it. Because…what do you do? You can’t shut down all the websites. You can’t shut down Twitter and Facebook, as much of a blessing as that would be on the world at large. You can lead that horse’s ass to water, but you can’t make him think.

Maybe that’s a big part of what makes me think about retirement away from Silly Con Valley. If you don’t much like or trust people these days, it doesn’t make the sense to plant yourself in the middle of three and a half million of them. My retirement dreams these days tend more toward Galway or Half Moon Bay or some even smaller possibly fictional seaside village on some Celtic coastline that won’t tumble into the sea before I turn 99. But then, I grew up in a town of three thousand, and below a certain threshold of population, it’s easy as pie for literally everyone to be in your business. Paradoxically you might have to move someplace with a million people to get some privacy, because there will inevitably be a social decision that you have to leave people alone in order to get on with your life. Which in a way, I suppose, is its own form of defense in depth.

so much for that

The continuing drama around 8chan and 4chan and other networks – and whether Cloudflare was right to kick off 8chan less than 24 hours after defending them as necessary to the cause of free speech – has only reinforced my thinking that ultimately social media will do for the 1st Amendment what the NRA did for the 2nd. I mean, think about it, and follow the bouncing ball:

1) Truth is a defense to libel, but libel is still a crime. Therefore, there is already a legal standard against deliberate lies.

2) The “fire in a crowded theater” argument already weighs against the absolute guarantee of free speech. Speech that is intended to do harm is expressly not protected.

3) If you combine 1 and 2, you can make a clear-cut case that a private company has no First Amendment obligations that force it to deliberately propagate malicious falsehood. And yet, here’s Twitter out here blithely selling itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and Cloudflare defending its need to keep offering services to extremists even after the Christchurch shooting and Facebook doing…well, whatever the fuck it is Facebook does besides masturbate in a pile of money all day.

We’re in the middle of a war. Liberal democracy as we have idealized it for decades – flawed, imperfect, still struggling to include everyone, but trying – versus the open embrace of oligarchy, of dictatorship, of kleptocracy. William Gibson nailed it yet again: the klept is real and it isn’t funny at all. Russia. China. And now, a pretty clear case that Brazil, and India, and even the United States and Israel are on that track with the UK hurrying behind. We’re looking at a very real chance that the EU, a handful of Pacific Rim nations, and maybe a few others will be the bulwark of liberal democracy when the world’s largest and emerging economies are deciding that democratic values are an impediment to getting rich – or to the kind of conduct that you need to inflame the hayseeds into supporting the rich.

And the arguments are the same. Free speech was one thing when it was speech and printing, just as the right to bear arms was one thing when a militia of muzzle-loaders was the local military. Now, when foreign powers can whip up tens of thousands of bots to individually target a single person’s online presence as easily as an AR-15 can empty a clip on semi-auto, absoulute guarantees of protection don’t fly anymore.

What this means is that personal liability has to be a thing. If Mark Zuckerberg is going to control over 50% of Facebook stock, then it’s on him when another Cambridge Analytica comes down the pike. If Cloudflare is going to sell air cover to racist websites, that needs to be known and documented to their other customers, who need to act appropriately. The solution to these issues isn’t technological, it’s cultural. Things that are wrong have to be shunned, have to be abjured, and those who facilitate them have to face consequences. Otherwise, we don’t have a society.

Of which.

root hog or die

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The paradigm was The Jetsons. Someday robots will do all our work for us, and we will live lives of leisure (as filtered through whatever the suburban middle class white paradigm of the Mad Men era decreed). The notion that we would work more and more for less and less didn’t really factor into it. Certainly the idea that you could be reduced to a human robot in the service of a phone algorithm, so that millennial Eloi in San Francisco can have you do for them what their mother doesn’t anymore, was never part of the plan.

(It also wasn’t part of the plan that Uber and Lyft, which are definitely absolutely positively not taxi companies, no sir, would end up representing one out of every seven cars on the streets of San Francisco, some of them driven from two hours away in search of gig income. But I digress.)

The problem is that we need money. Because money is the quickest way to achieve freedom from consequences. Have enough money and it doesn’t matter what happens, for the most part. Have enough money and you can live somewhere safer, be more secure in life, not be at the mercy of every little thing. And what is the fastest way to get money? Have someone hand it to you. What’s the fastest way to have money handed to you? Be famous. What’s the fastest way to be famous? Social media sideshow freak – sorry, “creator” or “influencer”. 

Which makes sense, because we’re building a world around selfish egotism. See above about ridesharing being one-seventh of the traffic in the city; if it seems like it’s impossible to get around San Francisco these days, maybe it’s because of a double-digit increase in vehicle traffic that simply wasn’t there before. Susan Faludi touched on this in Backlash: the paradigm of masculinity went from being a good soldier and a team player to being the biggest swinging dick on the block. Abuse the commons for fun and profit? I Got Mine, Fuck You? Spartan worship and rugged individualism as the only way forward, no matter whether there’s a way forward or not?

I mean, think about it. People act as if separate vacation and sick leave, or defined-benefit pensions, or a modicum of job security are some kind of wild-eyed socialist plot. Instead, they’re the things that used to be there for everyone, and are now only around for the most legacy class of government employees or certain nonprofit corners of academia or the like. Vacation, sick leave and even paid holidays are now bundled up into “PTO” that you can choose to take whenever you like – including when you get sick or if the calendar says December 25 or July 4. Pensions become 401k plans and you have the choice of how to invest your retirement, either going against the predators of Wall Street yourself or paying them protection money to shepherd your life savings through the swamp. Retirement? Why would you want to retire if you could still be crushing it at age 70? Get out there, you hard charging hustler, and show that just because you’re a grandparent is no reason you can’t work just as hard as a kid straight out of college with six figures of debt!

There were things that were absolutely taken for granted a generation ago that are presently classed as unrealistic expectations, and which will be construed as a fantasyland that never existed within another generation. Time was, each generation wanted their kids to do better than they did – and now the Boomers have essentially pulled the ladder up to make sure they got theirs, no matter the cost. The only way you can avoid the spectacle of an endless grind for fifty years is to somehow come up with as much money as possible as quickly as possible. No wonder the kids are all trying to get rich quick, because nobody has enough life left to get rich slow any more.