Titans of Cultural Industry

I was reading this reddit thread about the creator of Spongebob Squarepants passing away. A lot of the commenters were mentioning the shared culture in the USA regarding the shared cultural references that the show provided, as millions of children in the US grew up watching the series. It reminded me of something I wanted to write about: the change in default culture in America.

Think about founding fathers America: what was the default culture? Probably the Church. It makes sense back when everyone was either a white farmer or a black slave, because the slaves were also basically pressed into spiritual chains along with literal chains. As everyone attended church and were mostly NOT Catholic, I’d guess the system of power in the culture was decentralized – sure, the churches all wielded power in their own communities, but they didn’t have to report back to the Archdiocese and the Pope. So each community would practice their own forms of Christianity with their little sprinkles thrown in to make them snowflakes. What does this mean? In the broad strokes, people in America could hold assumptions about their neighbors that would be broadly true: They believe in a hell. They believe our lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us all from eternal damnation and so forth, for the major tenets of Christianity. But because each church is left to their own devices, they can come up with weird, separate interpretations of the core tenets. Think of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons: radically different flavors of Christianity, but still beholden to Christianity nonetheless.  However, in modern times, this is no longer true.

Modern Americans are moving away from religion. Christianity, as the default religion in America, is also going into a decline in terms of membership rates. The Church is no longer the pillar of the community. Being Christian is no longer the default for America as a whole, though it is in many pockets of America. What does this mean? Churches don’t have as much sway in controlling culture in America. Instead of people hanging out and bonding in Church, they moved on to different things. For a period, it was watching TV. Which brings me to my starting point: people on the internet talking about Spongebob. TV was also a centralizing force: sure, there were tons of different channels, but in reality there was only a pocket full of channels aimed at specific demographics. If you were a 10 year old kid, you probably weren’t going to be watching Fox News – you’d generally watch Disney Channel, Nickolodeon, or Cartoon Network. (In my case, I also watched a lot of Iron Chef on Food Network. To this day, I believe the dub for IC remains one of the best localizations done for a show period. Super Canadian though.) If you were a kid in America during this certain period, you would therefore expect your fellow kids to watch television as well. Of course, the era of TV peaked a while ago, and now we’ve moved on to the next phase: The Internet.

Internet is different from the two previous eras in that watering holes are much more balkanized in comparison. There’s still an oligopoly – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc all control large swathes of the internet. But what’s different about the internet is there is no arbitrary restrictions on where people can go: there’s way more niches that exist inside and outside of these watering holes. Reddit, while being a centralizing force, also decentralizes interest groups into thousands of smaller subcommunities that pursue their own interests, while still being in unifying them with a larger default community. All the other social networks have their niches, but not as explicitly structured as Reddit.  These companies feel like juggernauts that will stick around for some time, but you have to think all the previous titans felt similarly. Now look at TV numbers: it’s like a damn that has started breaking through. It makes me think: What’s the next cultural titan on the horizon? My money is on Earth stewardship in the vein of Avatar, after the environment rises up and destroys large swathes of humanity. Or maybe Mad Max style “The strongest rules” enclaves sweep over the littered remains of humanity. As for what I’m hoping we get? The AI revolution, with Matrix cocoons for all. I’m egalitarian like that.

Devaluing Content – On the Internet of Shit

If you look at the current wave of the internet, the dominant financial force is the move to social media. Reddit, Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s no longer the hot new thing, but a part of entrenched conglomerates coming after your time and attention. Here’s a hot button issue that’s increasingly talked about now: drinking from the internet firehose. Back in the 90’s, the internet was a small place. Now, everyone’s connected, and everyone’s consuming content. There’s a never ending stream of new content being produced relentlessly for people to consume, and huge incentives to keep producing more. Most of it ends up being shit. This is normal.

One interesting thing about the rise of social media is the decentralization of content production – instead of having curated sources for content, like broadcast television and movie theaters pre-internet, now anyone can make something and upload it to the internet. The part that’s been centralized is the distribution process, the part owned by these social networks. Now, I’m not going to say this decentralization is all inherently bad – that would be a broad and sweeping generalization. There’s some great stuff about opening the floodgates for people to make stuff; If I have an issue fixing my car/electronics/etc, the first thing I’d think of doing is hopping on youtube to see if someone has made a video detailing the repair process. A lot of niche subjects are routinely disseminated on youtube, to the benefit of the niche groups and to passive consumers. But as one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.

One group that’s suffered tremendously from the advent of social media is the pre-internet content producers. I’m thinking of media conglomerates that own TV studios, newspapers, music production companies, and so forth. While I give approximately zero shits about the RIAA, I do feel like newspapers drawing the short stick is bad for everyone. While newspaper companies aren’t the sole source of investigative journalism, they are the source of like 90%* of investigative journalism in America. Therefore, financially ruining these institutions have a negative effect overall, assuming you believe journalism is a necessary service to the good of your country.

Discuss how constant media production devalues content in general. Link this to devaluation of journalism because content is expected to be free now, or supported solely by advertisements. Mention unavoidable costs of investigative journalism and come to conclusion that it’s unsustainable for man to live on ads alone. Talk about reverting back to patron model with patreon, and NYT asking for handouts.

Newspapers need to move to new model – but what is sustainable that includes hard costs of doing business? Needs to be reliable – thus subscription model. People aren’t paying for content, but expect it anyway and it should be cheap and plentiful. The meat and potatoes ends up being investigative journalism. People have to be incentivized to pay for it somehow. I’m optimistic that there’ll be a sustainable revenue stream for journalism in the future, when we hash out the economics of doing business on the internet. In the meantime, though, journalists are fucked.

*These numbers are sourced from the department of made up bullshit

On Culture Fit

I’ve been on a bit of a culture kick recently – how to propagate an organization’s culture, how to prevent culture takeover, and onboarding newcomers to your existing culture. It really interests me because of how general this concept is – it’s applicable to any group that grows beyond a single person.

I’ve also been looking for a cheap, good value server to use as a personal virtual private network. As a result, I did some research into my options. One of of the sites I browsed for results is lowendtalk. I saw something pretty funny about the culture there that I wanted to talk about.

I ran into some funny threads that encapsulated the culture of this forum. Basically, some customers complained about the service of their hosting providers, and the overwhelming majority of the other forums posters came out and ragged on the thread starters for expecting the hosting providers to go above and beyond their terms of service. It was actually pretty cool to see shitty customers get their comeuppance, because customers are typically treated as king even when they’re wrong. However, in the field of cheap web hosting, things are reversed. Customers are expected to be savvy to the expectations of the service providers, because at these margins, the onus is on the customer to handle anything other than hardware issues. My current hosting provider for this blog, No Support Linux, actually had a similar review. Customer s for some reason expect managed hosting services at cut rate prices. To me, it’s completely obvious that a customer shouldn’t expect much more than the service provider to keep their machines up and running, because at $1 a month, there isn’t much margin for support. I just find it refreshing to see culture that goes against the norm. Keep up the good work!

On Crucibles

Hazing rituals at frats are falling out of fashion nowadays, but I think the core concept of the ritual is valuable to any organization. Pressure is a tried and true way of establishing rapport and building intimacy between a shared group. It’s not something that is guaranteed to build relationships, but it’s certainly conducive to it. Think of situations like army troops that survive multiple battles together. There’s no way something like that doesn’t build a certain kind of bond or trust between people – those are people who know their comrades will have their back in a life or death situation. Hazing rituals can only begin to scratch the surface of that.

I think hazing is a pretty multi faceted form of onboarding to fraternities. First, they create a ritual that is shared experience between pledges, and gives them common ground with older members of the same organization. Second, it gives their entry into the organization a sense of value – it’s not something that anyone could just join – we had to work for it. Third, the pressure of the environment is a natural environment to create tighter bonds between pledges. Crises are like a hyperbolic time chamber for relationships – you can accomplish way more in a shorter period of time depending on the intensity of the crisis.

The hazing ritual at fraternities is tangential to what I wanted to talk about, which is work environments. Different work environments can be conducive to different relationships between coworkers – this should be self evident. High pressure work environments that force death march hours onto all of its employees can almost be a blessing in disguise in that they can build strong that work really well together – I’ve heard this used to be pretty common in game development, when games were hitting their release date, the developers would enter a period called “crunch mode” in which they basically lived in the office.  You can imagine those teams being tight.

Environments where individual performance are the top priority can lead to situations where people will bend or break the rules constantly without worrying about the common good, because they know only individual performance matters. This is pretty common in sales – top salesmen don’t usually have set hours, and they get a ton of leeway to sell a client, including expense accounts that aren’t necessarily scrutinized at the level that due diligence would ordinarily be called for.  They can get bigger asks from other departments, even if their asks can negatively impact departments as a whole. You don’t have to work together with your coworkers as the top performer. Instead, you can demand more from others. That’s not to say that this is always the case, of course. This type of environment is just less conducive to teamwork, because it gives more leverage to individuals who produce more. It’s harder to work as equals with someone when you know the other person can say, “Nah, I don’t wanna do this work. You do it.” and you actually have to do the work if you want to keep your job.

Working dynamics is a fascinating topic.

On Context and History

I started watching this documentary on Netflix called The Eighties, which is about the zeitgeist of the 80’s. One of the focuses of the series is the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s presidency struck me particularly because of its relevance to our current political situation – the looming Donald Trump presidency.

When I hear the name Ronald Reagan, I think of him as president first, actor second. He’s an American president who used to be an actor. However, I’d imagine that people who’ve lived through his presidency have a completely different view of Reagan. They’d probably see him as the actor turned president. Like Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s run for governor, I see him as the famous body builder and action star who also become governor of California. Kids in California who grew up when Schwarzeneggar was governor probably view him differently. So it goes with Donald Trump.

Decades from now, when a student cracks open their history textbook (or more likely, some webpage or ebook), they’re going to have a chapter on how Donald Trump, the greatest president of the United States who solved inequality and climate change, was a wealthy businessman who used to have his own TV show. For those who haven’t lived through a world with Donald Trump, they’d get an intellectual understanding of Trump’s career, but they’d miss out on the context of history surrounding Trump and his rise to presidency. This is a common theme of history books – the facts are reported, but the general mood surrounding the time period aren’t conveyed.

Another topic in the documentary was the AIDS epidemic. I wasn’t alive at the time, so I missed out on the initial wave of panic as this unknown virus spread throughout the population. By the time I was aware of AIDS, I knew it as a horrible disease that, while survivable, would need a lifetime of medication to with reduced quality of life to get through your day to day life. Now, with current medications, for the most susceptible populations, there’s a clear path to prevent contracting HIV. PrEP, or pre exposure prophylaxis, is recommended for the biggest at risk populations, and if taken on a regular basis, prevents the contraction of HIV. Looking at the CDC web page on its effectiveness, it states PrEP reduces the risk of contracting HIV through sexual contact by 90%. That’s amazing. I think AIDS would be horrible to contract, but I don’t see it as a death sentence. I can’t imagine people who’ve lived through the AIDS epidemic would feel the same way, especially those in the gay population. Even if they feel that AIDS is now treatable,  I’d imagine their feelings on the disease would be forever shaped by the numerous deaths of their loved ones due to AIDS. I think if an educator could convey those feelings to their students, they’d have a much easier time understanding history.