nothing here but one trillion trees

issue 062 - 1st November, 2020

CJW: A bumper issue this time around, and it’s been a while since I had to say that.

The latest bonus is The high cost of convenience about Amazon’s bodycount, poor working conditions, their stance against worker’s rights, and the ways the pandemic has helped them further consolidate online sales. Dan’s doing important work over at 20minutesintothefuture, tying together disparate strands to demonstrate the full depth and breadth of the damages Silicon Valley is wreaking on our society, economy, etc.

I had an idea the other day - what if we could change it so every Amazon link was changed to read “Make Bezos Richer.” Would that stop people from clicking that link? Any Chrome Add-On developer who wants to take that idea and run with it, go for it. Bonus points if it also points book links to Bookshop.org (which, if you didn’t already know, works as an aggregator for indie bookstores, to help you find a local store you can support instead of just clicking that Amazon link. US-only, currently).

Anyway, to get access to Dan’s latest bonus, future bonuses, and the full archive, just go here to become a supporter. Unlocked bonuses are here (and yes, I’m unlocking new posts every couple of weeks, so it’s worth keeping track of).


The Team


Articles

CJW: The great unravelling: 'I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse' - Joelle Gergis at the Guardian

As we live through this growing instability, it’s becoming harder to maintain a sense of professional detachment from the work that I do. Given that humanity is facing an existential threat of planetary proportions, surely it is rational to react with despair, anger, grief and frustration. To fail to emotionally respond to a level of destruction that will be felt throughout the ages feels like sociopathic disregard for all life on Earth.

This is a really great (and possibly depressing, depending on your mood) essay that is very much in line with my thinking on climate change, with a focus on the Australian context.

The national conversation we urgently needed to have following our Black Summer never happened. Our collective trauma was sidelined as a deadly pandemic took hold. Instead of grieving our losses and agreeing on how to implement an urgent plan to safeguard our nation’s future, we became preoccupied by whether we had enough food in the pantry, whether our job or relationship would be intact on the other side of the lockdown. We were forced to consider life and death on an intensely personal level.

This is something I noticed a few months back - though I was thinking of it in terms of our useless fuck of a Prime Minister. If the pandemic hadn't happened I think his party would have stabbed him in the back 6 months ago because he was so widely hated in the wake of the bushfires (we're calling it the Black Summer now?).

How long until enough people realise that the right-wing and centrist liberal answer to climate change is basically “Cook them all, and let God sort ‘em out.”

//

CJW: Tiny Algae and the Political Theater of Planting One Trillion Trees (via Sentiers)

This is the power, and the potential promise, of algae. Rather than the single benefit of reducing CO₂, it is the combination of benefits that matters most: It’s small, it can grow wherever there is water, and it contains proteins that can be repurposed into a myriad of different products. But this isn’t to say algae alone can save the world; our strategies to counter climate change need to be as diverse and multi-faceted as algae can be. Our ecosystems are deeply interconnected and multifaceted; so why can’t our climate change strategies look the same way?

A really interesting read about algae's potential to help us save the future. And Parametric Press looks like a publication to watch.

MKY: mmmm algae

//

CJW: The challenge of reclaiming the commons from capitalism

The original freedom fighters against the enclosure of common land, groups such as ‘the Diggers’, were remarkably less mystified than their modern compatriots: no one is free, they declared in 1649, ‘till the Poor … have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons’. [...] Legally ‘set free’ to sell their labour power, the landless were instead reduced to a state of abject poverty where they became the unwilling ‘masses’ populating the satanic mills of early industrialisation – freedom as a choice between misery or death.

A great piece on the commons, privatisation, etc. This bit really spoke to me:

Here perhaps is the crux of our technocratic era: we value what we measure. When we measure the wrong things, the result is perverse. Today, what matters most to a thriving life is not counted at all in our dominant economic performance indicators. A natural environment that will continue to provide us with fresh air, clean water, rich soil – not counted. Communities that educate and nurture their members – not counted. Forms of governance with a stable degree of accountability – not counted. In the end: our ability to continue life on Earth (what is meant by the word sustainability) – not counted.

Technocratic solutions will only be solutions when the right data is being taken into account, and currently when it comes to climate change, the environment, and economics, it’s all the wrong data that’s being given the most weight.

//

DCH: Hidden cameras and secret trackers reveal where Amazon returns end up

A Marketplace investigation into Amazon Canada has found that perfectly good items are being liquidated by the truckload — and even destroyed or sent to landfill. Experts say hundreds of thousands of returns don't end up back on the e-commerce giant's website for resale, as customers might think.

In Canada, the pandemic has doubled ecommerce sales. Most of that is going to Amazon’s coffers. What’s worse is that 30-40% of all Amazon sales in the country are returned.

CJW: We've brought up different examples of this before, but basically, returns cost too much to be processed properly (see online mattress retailers in particular), and recycling is (in practice) a lie.

//

DCH: As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

The death of local news is a direct outcome of social media’s business model and big tech’s monopolistic advertising practices. Pink slime news sites like The Maine Business Daily are springing up to fill in the gap. And to that the zombification of outlets like Newsweek and we have a real fucking problem.

CJW: The only surprising part about this is that it’s not already more widespread. Media outlets have always had their own politics and bias, but this (not just this, but in the media more generally) move toward further ideological siloing of “news” outlets can only have a negative effect going forward.

The Australian media already regurgitates press releases on a regular basis, so, as ever, the real problem is the lack of funding for actual journalism.

DCH: Plus it’s never been easier to spin up a global media empire and influence machine. Again thanks largely to social media. Real shame only the bad guys seem to be any good at it.

//

DCH: U.S. Accuses Google of Illegally Protecting Monopoly

“For many years,” the agency said in its 57-page complaint, “Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire.”

Anyone that reads my writing knows I support regulating big tech into oblivion. That’s why I’m so fucking livid that this rush job with it’s limited scope will amount to a wasted opportunity to reign in Google’s power. Hell, it could even get nixed by Biden because it’s so slap dash. Or even worse be easily won by Google. Which is real shame because their monopoly power really does hurt us all.

CJW: Hey, Google, leave those Bings alone!

MKY: -snort-

//

MJW: Melbourne success is inspiring Ireland: COVID-19

With five million residents, the city of Melbourne has a population similar to that of Ireland. Now, following one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, the state of Victoria reported just one new COVID-19 case and the easing of restrictions there could be accelerated if it continues to do well. It is an example one of Ireland’s leading epidemiologists says Ireland should draw lessons from.

Melbourne/Naarm did an amazing thing. We did a thing that anyone who wasn’t here probably won't understand unless they have to go through it themselves. It took us 111 days (though ‘cause of my postcode I did 125.) It cost us a lot. I’ve never been simultaneously so stressed, so nuts, and so bored. I’m pretty sure I lost touch with reality several times, which was horrifying and heartbreaking. Domestic violence is up, mental health is waaay down and the reduction of our government support (or the denial of it to some, especially international students who are unable to leave the country) was needlessly cruel and contributed to the above shit. But we saved a lot of fucking lives, and unfortunately this is what we have to DO to keep saving lives.

//

CJW: Is this real life? (via Sentiers)

It’s not just that we bend reality in our social media narratives, we also play different characters. As Chris Poole already pointed out years ago, we all have multiple (online) identities. There is not just one reflection of yourself – identity is prismatic. Twitter-Julian (armchair intellectual) is not the same as Instagram-Julian (hobby photographer) or Facebook-Julian (high-school drinking buddy). Google Circles and Facebook Lists always got this wrong: They let us change who we shared with, but not who we shared as.

This is why social networking is not a winner-take-all market. We need different channels for our different, contradicting online personas.

A lot of interesting stuff in this piece - I particularly liked the above observation about the nature of online identity, which I think highlights why I enjoy social media less now...


Newsletters

CJW: Insight - a Newsletter from Zeynep Tufekci

We’ve talked about Zeynep Tufekci a bit lately, so her new newsletter is an easy suggestion. Currently there’s a bit of talk about the US Election (I haven’t been on twitter for months and I’m still sick of hearing about it), but she still manages to tie it in with bigger concerns, like this piece on the Hunter Biden story and the media’s gormless response to it (and so many other “leaks” and hacks in recent years). I don’t agree with everything in it (I shouldn’t have to say that - we share things here when they’re interesting, not when they’re somehow perfect or ideologically pure [as if that’s ever possible]), but it’s interesting nonetheless.


Books

MJW: I cannot read rn. I can kind of re-read, sometimes. But I miss books and don’t hate me but I signed up for Audible and now I have a book playing in my ears almost all the time. It helps to keep my brain distracted from the VIRAL AND SOCIAL FUCKING CATASTROPHE WE’RE LIVING THROUGH. For some reason listening to horrific books is my jam now? Anyway, two that I’ve read that I can feel some vague threads connecting are Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do and Ginger Gorman’s Troll Hunting. These are two fucking brave books written by two brave Australian women on the subjects of family violence and predator trolls respectively. Look, if you can handle the worst of humanity, or if you’re like me and for some reason find it almost comforting (emotions are fucked up, amirite?), these two books go a very long way in examining the issues, going super fucking deep into shit that will make your toes curl. It’s fucked and it’s hard to read (or hear), but it’s real and it’s soooooo important.


Movies + TV

MKY: The Good Lord Bird

TL;DR I found the badass role model I never knew I needed: John Brown.

//

MJW: I’m not finished it yet, but I’m watching I May Destroy You and it’s fucking essential viewing and if I can sit down and concentrate on the telly soon I’ll prb write more about it. In the meantime, watch it, and then talk to me about it, because it feels vital and important.

DCH: Seconded. On top of being an immensely powerful story it’s also a masterclass in narrative construction. It’s flawlessly built. Coel rewrote some scripts over a hundred times I’ve read somewhere. No writers room bs here… just one singular pure voice and vision.

CJW: Related: Michaela the Destroyer: How a young talent from East London went from open-mic nights to making the most sublimely unsettling show of the year.


URL

CJW: More Than a Feeling

Emotions, by his logic, should be subject to scientific reduction as well. He proposes to decompose “feelings” or “emotions” into constituent parts, a step toward quantifying them like temperatures or speeds. [...] If institutions buy into these sorts of assumptions, engineers will continue making such machines that try to actualize them, cajoling customers and patients, workers and students, with stimuli until they react with the desired response — what the machine has already decided certain emotions must look like.

Imagine a future where you have to smile a certain way the whole time you work because your natural smile isn't recognised by the emotional register subroutine of your workplace's facial recognition (read: facial surveillance) system. And if you aren't smiling the whole time you're at work, the same surveillance system could flag you as disgruntled and send you straight to HR. You finish work with a tension headache from all the fake smiling, but you still can't stop because you have to get him without the police facial surveillance system flagging you as an anti-social agitator. It sounds like a cheap dystopia, but it also sounds like a very SV, technocratic view of the future, doesn't it?

//

CJW: COVID-19 is not a pandemic (via Paul Graham Raven)

Two categories of disease are interacting within specific populations—infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and an array of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These conditions are clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies. The aggregation of these diseases on a background of social and economic disparity exacerbates the adverse effects of each separate disease. COVID-19 is not a pandemic. It is a syndemic. The syndemic nature of the threat we face means that a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to protect the health of our communities.

[...]

The most important consequence of seeing COVID-19 as a syndemic is to underline its social origins. The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly paid with fewer welfare protections points to a truth so far barely acknowledged—namely, that no matter how effective a treatment or protective a vaccine, the pursuit of a purely biomedical solution to COVID-19 will fail. Unless governments devise policies and programmes to reverse profound disparities, our societies will never be truly COVID-19 secure.

Really interesting paper that looks at the ways COVID-19 has exacerbated existing patterns of inequality. This is something that has been mentioned elsewhere (and that we’ve linked to previously), but by calling COVID-19 a syndemic not a pandemic it provides us (or hopefully, the people in charge) a different way to think about the virus and how it intersects existing structural and systemic issues.

//

CJW: Support Mechanism

The intimate lives of these caregivers are often erased by technosolutionism — a preoccupation with “innovation” in managing illness or disability obscuring the fact that people are still required to enact care. These technologies may help in managing disease symptoms and lowering costs for hospitals and for-profit healthcare providers, but they require a legion of generally unpaid and unsupported users and maintainers to do so.

There are a couple of different elements to this essay, both of which are important on their own. First of all it looks at the way the privatisation of health care has led to more unpaid in-home care. Obviously in-home care is a good thing (for reasons that are detailed in this essay), but there’s an invisible cost - hours and hours of unpaid labour that society and medical professionals rarely acknowledge. We’ve talked before about how “automation” is often a lie - in actuality it relies on either the user to provide free labour (ie self-serve checkout) or it relies on remote, underpaid workers, often from the global south - and this is along those same lines. New advances in medical technology allow better care in people’s homes, but due to for-profit healthcare in the US and underfunded healthcare elsewhere, primary carers are left to perform procedures that should really be done by a trained nurse.

Since most homes and objects are designed without disability in mind, the collision of everyday objects and complex medical care in homes generates friction. From this friction emerges an ingenuity that reflects Cass Hartblay’s notion of disability expertise, which is “enacted knowledge specific to disabled people, acquired through life experience in non-normative bodyminds.”

The second thing the essay delves into is the necessary ingenuity of people with disabilities and their carers - when their particular bodies and needs are so often ignored or are inadequately addressed by device manufacturers they have to come up with their own solutions. This ingenuity and creativity itself is fantastic, but again they should be better served in the first place. It’s only when society more generally acknowledges the value of non-normative bodyminds that we might properly come to appreciate their ingenuities and abilities.

There’s also a part about the importance of maintenance and repair (whereas commerce gears everything toward the production and purchase of the shiny and new), which we are proponents of here.

//

CJW: Nemesis Global - The DOOM! Report

It has been said that today’s teens are the “gender neutral generation”, thus signaling an end to the gendered division between male and female. This is true at a purely anecdotal level, but also true on a more abstract level. COVID-19 has introduced a sexless threat into the human race, and as a result, gender no longer serves any purpose.

As a huge fan of William S. Burroughs and someone who has played around quite a lot with the Cut-Up Method, I find myself generally less entertained by GPT-3 experiments than others seem to be (though I still expect I’ll be surprised and delighted one day when I get around to experimenting with GPT-3 myself). But here’s something interesting and a little playful from Nemesis Global, who we last mentioned when they released The Umami Theory of Value.


Music

DCH: Ghost Cop - End Credits

What a great way to ring out a spooky season. New Ghost Cop drop. Swope & Dack bring the slow-mo techno-horror bangers. A love letter to Carpenter for sure. Go listen and then buy.


CJW: And that’s it from us. I sincerely hope that next issue we aren’t forced to share articles about the latest American judicial and media coup…

Look after yourself, please. This year has been rough for so many reasons, and maybe you’re struggling. I don’t want to promise things will get better, because the future certainly has some more strangeness and trouble in store for us, but we will adapt - individually and collectively. That’s our greatest strength as human beings. Stand strong against the bullshit and the hate. Look to those around you for support - both offered and needed. We’ve only got each other.


Cutting Room Floor