Anxiety and surveillance: pillars of the new economy

The terms addiction and compulsion tend to be used loosely and often interchangeably. But in an article in the Wall Street Journal, science writer Sharon Begley draws a simple but illuminating distinction between the two psychological disorders: addiction is born of pleasure, while compulsion is anxiety’s child.

Behavioral addictions begin in pleasure. But compulsions, according to a growing body of scientific evidence, are born in anxiety and remain strangers to joy. They are repetitive behaviors that we engage in repeatedly to alleviate the angst brought on by the possibility of harmful consequences.

The drunk seeks to regain the sense of well-being that the last shot of bourbon provided. The compulsive hoarder seeks to alleviate the dread that something valuable has been lost. Compulsion is both “balm and curse,” writes Begley. A compulsive act briefly mitigates feelings of anxiety, but the very experience of relief reinforces the anxiety. The anxiety ends up feeling more real, more pressing — and even more in need of relief. Anxiety and compulsion become a self-reinforcing cycle.

Compulsions can be so severe as to be debilitating. But they also, and much more routinely, take milder forms. They alter our thoughts and behavior, sometimes in deep ways, without making us dysfunctional in society. In fact, by tempering our anxiety, they may serve as a kind of therapy that protects our social functionality. Since ours is, as Auden suggested, an age of anxiety, it’s no surprise that it is also an age of compulsion.

The near-universal compulsion of the present day is, as we all know and as behavioral studies prove, the incessant checking of the smartphone. As Begley notes, with a little poetic hyperbole, we all “feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO — the fear of missing out — fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.” With its perpetually updating, tightly personalized messaging, networking, searching, and shopping apps, the smartphone creates the anxiety that it salves. It’s a machine almost perfectly designed to turn its owner into a compulsive.

Needless to say, a portable, pocket-sized product that spurs and sustains compulsive use can be a very lucrative product for any company able to tap into its hypnotic power. The smartphone is the perfect consumer good for the age of anxiety. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that, from a commercial standpoint, the smartphone is to compulsion what the cigarette pack was to addiction.

In a recent post, I highlighted the business scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s idea that, with the arrival of the internet, capitalism has begun to take on a new form. Traditional product-based competition (sell an attractive good at a fair price) is being displaced by data-based competition (collect the richest store of information about the identity and behavior of individual consumers). In this new industrial system, which Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, “profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.”

While surveillance capitalism taps the invasive powers of the Internet as the source of capital formation and wealth creation, it is now, as I have suggested, poised to transform commercial practice across the real world too.  An analogy is the rapid spread of mass production and administration throughout the industrialized world in the early twentieth century, but with one major caveat. Mass production was interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are largely ignorant of its procedures.

The concept of surveillance capitalism helps explain the dynamics of a growing part of the economy. But it doesn’t explain everything. It focuses on the supply side (what motivates companies) while largely ignoring the demand side (what motivates consumers). I’d suggest that the secret to understanding the demand side may lie in the anxiety-compulsion cycle. What motivates consumers is anxiety — not just the fear of missing out, but also the dread of becoming invisible or losing status, the worry that others might know something that you don’t know, the nervousness that a message might have been misconstrued, and so on — and this anxiety spurs the compulsive behavior that generates ever more personal data for surveillance capitalists to harvest. We divulge our secrets because we can’t help ourselves.

This powerful, compulsion-fueled business model may have emerged by accident — I’m pretty sure that Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t found Google with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems — but it is now sustained by design. Facebook doesn’t hire cognitive psychologists and maintain a behavioral research lab for nothing. Rewards now flow to the competitor that is best able to maximize consumer anxiety in a way that spurs more compulsive behavior that in turn generates more valuable consumer data that can, to complete the cycle, be deployed to further manipulate consumer psychology.

That’s a dark way of putting it, to be sure — it ignores the real benefits that consumers gain from many online services — but it does seem to explain the governing logic of what we once happily termed “the new economy.”

Photo: University of Alaska Anchorage.

On Robert Pollard: “Man Called Aerodynamics”

[No. 02 in a Series]

“Man Called Aerodynamics,” the opening track of the 1996 Guided By Voices album Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, hits you like an anxiety attack, if an anxiety attack were indistinguishable from bliss. Like “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” the first song on the second side of the band’s 1994 breakthrough Bee Thousand, it starts with a disorienting jolt, as if someone had bumped into a turntable playing the Nuggets compilation. For the first couple of seconds, it sounds like pure noise, the multitracked guitars (all played by Robert Pollard) flying off in different directions. Reminiscent of Love’s “7 and 7 Is” and the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun,” two notable punk-rock precedents, “Man Called Aerodynamics” feeds on its own self-destructive urges. It uses entropy as its energy. It’s a motherfucker of a song.

It’s also one of the very few songs in the history of popular music to have the word aerodynamics in its title. Webster: “The study of the properties of moving air, and especially of the interaction between the air and solid bodies moving through it.” Pollard’s fellow Daytonian Wilbur Wright once likened an airplane to a “fractious horse.” An aircraft, he explained, had to be fundamentally unstable in order to be maneuverable. The machine had to be out of control for the pilot to wield control over it. The moving air had to have a say in things if the solid body was to resist gravity’s squalid despotism. Wright’s revelation pretty much sums up the wild flight of “Man Called Aerodynamics.”

What makes the song a masterpiece, though, are the vocals. Arthur Lee, on “7 and 7 Is,” and Johnny Rotten, on “Holidays in the Sun,” incorporated the violence of the music into their vocals. Their singing, angry, aggressive, adolescent, reflected and reinforced the punk thrust of the instruments. Pollard’s vocals are completely different. As the music rages around him, he sings the song slowly and deliberately, drawing out each word. He’s the calm pilot, within and yet removed from the surrounding turbulence. The song rushes forward recklessly, but Pollard gazes backward ruefully.

Find deep within your memory coat
a cricket bag you ate from,
its sweet smiling apology,
acceptance awaits you —
don’t be afraid to cherish it.

The lyrics are strange, even by Pollard’s standards. But it’s clear, both from the haunted imagery of the words and the melancholy mood of the singing, that this is a song about guilt and its expiation, the shame of the past and the possibility of forgiveness, if not redemption. It’s about discovering a place of calm, a still point, at the center of the chaos of memory. And somehow, just as the buoyancy of the solid body is inseparable from the moving air, the calm is inseparable from the chaos. The man is not just called aerodynamics. The man is aerodynamics.

Look it up in the bookmobile,
look it up in the gun rack,
in the magazine rack,
and the map.

For it is only after the fence comes down
that the cartoon bubble explodes
and the new party begins …

The secret to finding what you’re looking for is to look for nothing in particular — but to look for it fearlessly.

Image: Detail of “Super Hard” by Robert Pollard.

On Robert Pollard: “My Zodiac Companion”

[No. 01 in a Series]

Please Be Honest, the latest Guided By Voices record, opens with a dirge. Over spare, unsteady acoustic-guitar chords, Robert Pollard slurs an ode to the otherworld:

Orbital ghosts
attract sparks,
aftermath heavens.
The unborn called:
they miss you.

The verse ends, but despite a slight quickening of the guitar line the song, called “My Zodiac Companion,” can’t muster the energy to drag itself out of its minor-chord funk. No chorus arrives, no lift. The song seems fated, like so many other Guided By Voices songs before it, to collapse in on itself. Entropy echoes through the lyrics of the second verse:

The stones are dead,
the different fathers.
The vulgar souls,
equal in torture,
fly torn apart.

We’re among damaged spirits, beings coming undone, a patrimony in cosmic disarray. It’s as if the fate even of angels is to be ripped to pieces in time’s whirlwind. “We are stardust,” sang Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock,” her loopy 1970 mash note to a hippie Eden, and the opening of “My Zodiac Companion” feels like Pollard’s belated, despairing rebuttal. Dust is dust, whatever its origin, and to be fashioned of it is a horror.

“The stones are dead.” But also: “The Stones are dead.” (The submerged allusions to the Rolling Stones in the first verse — “aftermath,” “miss you” — rise to the surface at the start of the second.) Pollard is often thought of as a primitivist, an avatar of lo-fi, but he’s the opposite of that, really: a formalist. His formalism is not the comforting formalism of the traditionalist but the anxious formalism of the modernist. His challenge as an artist is to take classical forms (in Pollard’s case, the song and album forms created by rock bands — “the different fathers” — during the second half of the 1960s), dismantle them, and remake them into new things that fulfill his own aesthetic and emotional intentions. He follows Ezra Pound’s command: “Renovate, dod gast you, renovate!” The terrible question that runs through “My Zodiac Companion,” and all of Please Be Honest, is whether renovation is still possible.

An electric guitar enters the mix, shimmering with distortion. There’s a clatter of pots-and-pans drumming. The song swells, tentatively, toward a chorus. “Come back to me,” Pollard calls out into the chaos, “my zodiac companion.” There’s no reply. The muse remains silent.

The chorus deflates, and the drunk returns with his loosely fingered acoustic. The clock spins backward. We’re among children in a nursery, the antechamber of youth, awaiting a sign, harboring a “nebulous wish.” The kids in their innocence play adult games — of war, of chance, of marriage, of faith:

Umbrella swords
with which we play-fight,
sixes and sevens,
saucers and cups —
for Magdalene.

It’s clear by now that Pollard is leading us on a quest, guiding us in the direction of some clarifying origin, some source. The path we’re on is similar to the one Robert Frost took in his great poem “Directive”:

First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.

It’s a quest — in search of the as yet unbroken home — that runs through much of Pollard’s work. It was there, desperately so, in one of the most famous of his songs, “Game of Pricks”:

I climb up on the house,
weep to water the trees,
and when you come calling me down
I put on my disease.

Among the playthings in the playhouse of the children — the saucers and cups, the guitars and drums — Pollard finds what he’s after. The random stars come together into patterns, coalesce into zodiacal signs. The tentative chords turn into power chords. The song delivers its hook, becomes a swirling, sad anthem. Pollard is on stage, looking out over an acre of pumping fists. He is more than an orbital ghost. He is, as his fathers were, a star.

After two minutes and twelve seconds, “My Zodiac Companion” reaches its terminal chord. The dust is universal, and the song, as long as it lasts, is the only shield.

Image: Detail of “47 Holes Randomly Punched and 15 Replaced” by Robert Pollard.

You’ve got mail

From an essay on Radiohead by Mark Greif, in his book Against Everything:

A description of the condition of the late 1990s could go like this: At the turn of the millennium, each individual sat at a meeting point of shouted orders and appeals, the TV, the radio, the phone and cell, the billboard, the airport screen, the inbox, the paper junk mail. Each person discovered that he lived at one knot of a network, existing without his consent, which connected him to any number of recorded voices, written messages, means of broadcast, channels of entertainment, and avenues of choice. It was a culture of broadcast: an indiscriminate seeding, which needed to reach only a very few, covering vast tracts of our consciousness. To make a profit, only one message in ten thousand needed to take root; therefore messages were strewn everywhere. To live in this network felt like something, but surprisingly little in the culture of broadcast itself tried to capture what it felt like. Instead, it kept bringing pictures of an unencumbered, luxurious life, songs of ease and freedom, and technological marvels, which did not feel like the life we lived.

And if you noticed you were not represented? It felt as if one of the few unanimous aspects of this culture was that it forbade you to complain, since if you complained, you were a trivial human, a small person, who misunderstood the generosity and benignity of the message system. It existed to help you. Now, if you accepted the constant promiscuous broadcasts as normalcy, there were messages in them to inflate and pet and flatter you. If you simply said that this chatter was altering your life, killing your privacy or ending the ability to think in silence, there were alternative messages that whispered of humiliation, craziness, vanishing. What sort of crank needs silence? What could be more harmless than a few words of advice? The messages did not come from somewhere; they were not central, organized, intelligent, intentional. It was up to you to change the channel, not answer the phone, stop your ears, shut your eyes, dig a hole for yourself and get in it. Really, it was your responsibility. The metaphors in which people tried to complain about these developments, by ordinary law and custom, were pollution (as in “noise pollution”) and theft (as in “stealing our time”). But we all knew the intrusions felt like violence. Physical violence, with no way to strike back.

You’ve got mail! That old AOL audio announcement always felt perfectly anodyne — so anodyne that it almost seemed fated to become the hook for a romcom starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Yet at the same time, and this has become clearer in retrospect, it was a threat. The computerized voice, chipper, friendly, always feigning surprise and excitement at the news it delivered, carried a demanding and judgmental undertone. It was a parental voice. You’ve got mail — and you need to go to your inbox and attend to this new mail quickly. Right now, in fact. Only a churlish, sad, unsociable creep would let a new message sit unread in an inbox. You don’t want to be a churlish, sad, unsociable creep, do you?

A threat, and a prophecy. Even as AOL faded away, you’ve got mail burrowed deeper into our consciousness. It became more than a voice in our heads. It became the voice in our heads. It was never a voice of our own — it comes out of the mouth of a stranger, a stranger with an agenda — and yet it now runs through our minds as if on a continuous tape loop. Its implicit command no longer feels like a command. It feels, almost, like a natural phenomenon. We do its bidding intuitively. To be irritated by the voice, even in passing, is, as Greif suggests, to admit to a smallness of self. And so we bury ever deeper that sense of being violated. It’s not the messages that matter anymore. Messages come and go. It’s the messaging that matters. Messaging has become our state of being, the atmosphere in our heads.

And, yes, you’ve got mail.

From Fordism to Googlism

From “The Watchers,” an article by Jonathan Shaw in the new issue of Harvard Magazine:

[Shoshana] Zuboff says that corporate use of personal data has set society on a path to a new form of capitalism that departs from earlier norms of market democracy. She draws an analogy from the perfection of the assembly line: Ford engineers’ discovery a century ago, after years of trial and error, that they had created “a logic of high-volume, low-unit cost, which really had never existed before with all the pieces aligned.” Today, many corporations follow a similar trajectory by packaging personal data and behavioral information and selling it to advertisers: what she calls “surveillance capitalism.”

“Google was ground zero,” Zuboff begins. At first, information was used to benefit end users, to improve searches, just as Apple and Amazon use their customers’ data largely to customize those individuals’ online experiences. Google’s founders once said they weren’t interested in advertising. But Google “didn’t have a product to sell,” she explains, and as the 2001 bubble fell into crisis, the company was under pressure to transform investment into earnings. “They didn’t start by saying, ‘Well, we can make a lot of money assaulting privacy,’” she continues. Instead, “trial and error and experimentation and adapting their capabilities in new directions” led them to sell ads based on personal information about users. Like the tinkerers at Ford, Google engineers discovered “a way of using their capabilities in the context of search to do something utterly different from anything they had imagined when they started out.” Instead of using the personal data to benefit the sources of that information, they commodified it, using what they knew about people to match them with paying advertisers. As the advertising money flowed into Google, it became a “powerful feedback loop of almost instantaneous success in these new markets.”

“Those feedback loops become drivers themselves,” Zuboff explains. “This is how the logic of accumulation develops … and ultimately flourishes and becomes institutionalized. That it has costs, and that the costs fall on society, on individuals, on the values and principles of the liberal order for which human beings have struggled and sacrificed much over millennia—that,” she says pointedly, “is off the balance sheet.”

Privacy values in this context become externalities, like pollution or climate change, “for which surveillance capitalists are not accountable.” In fact, Zuboff believes, “Principles of individual self-determination are impediments to this economic juggernaut; they have to be vanquished. They are friction.” The resulting battles will be political. They will be fought in legislatures and in the courts, she says. Meanwhile, surveillance capitalists have learned to use all necessary means to defend their claims, she says: “through rhetoric, persuasion, threat, seduction, deceit, fraud, and outright theft. They will fight in whatever way they must for this economic machine to keep growing. … This is an economic logic that must delete privacy in order to be successful.”

The Uber advantage

The Guardian reports:

Uber has admitted that there is a “problem” with the way autonomous vehicles cross bike lanes, raising serious questions about the safety of cyclists days after the company announced it would openly defy California regulators over self-driving vehicles.

Maybe it’s the bicycle riders who are the “problem” here. You’d think they’d have sense enough to get out of the way of the future, particularly in San Francisco.

Uber will lose some $3 billion this year, after losing $2.2 billion last year. Even by the exuberant standards of the internet industry, the company is a remarkably effective cash-burning machine.* By comparison, the largest annual loss posted by, no slouch when it comes to losing money, totaled $1.4 billion, back in 2000.

We’re often told that companies like Uber and Amazon are masters of business innovation and industry disruption. But an argument could be made that what they’re really masters of is getting investors, whether in public or private markets, to cover massive losses over long periods of time. The generosity of the capital markets is what allows Uber and its ilk to subsidize purchases by customers, again on a massive scale and over many years. It’s worth asking whether these subsidies are the real engine behind much of the tech industry’s vaunted wave of disruption. After all, the small businesses being disrupted — local taxi companies and book shops, for instance — don’t have sugar daddies underwriting their existence. They actually have to make money, day after day, to pay their employees and their bankers. They have to charge real prices, not make-believe ones.

Some will argue that the capital markets are acting rationally, investing for future returns. But if those future returns are predicated on the killing off of competitors through years of investor-subsidized predatory pricing and other economically dubious behavior, how rational are the capital market’s actions, really? At some point, it starts to smell like a market failure rather than a market success.

Uber will reportedly meet with officials from California’s attorney general and motor vehicles departments later today to discuss its rollout of self-driving taxis in apparent violation of state law. The company likes to present itself as a juggernaut, an inevitability, but really it’s more of a paper tiger. It may have succeeded in exempting itself from the rule of economics, but it shouldn’t be allowed to exempt itself from the rule of law.


*It’s hardly a surprise that president-elect Donald Trump would pick Uber CEO Travis Kalanick as one of his strategic advisers. The league of gentlemen who require ten figures to report their annual losses is quite small.

Thomas Schelling, polarization and the web


Thomas Schelling has died. Schelling’s pathbreaking work in game theory had enormous influence during the Cold War and ultimately earned him a Nobel Prize. It also helps illuminate some of the unexpected consequences of the internet as a medium for information-gathering and conversation — in particular the technology’s tendency to breed ideological polarization (a tendency that shaped political discourse during the recent presidential campaign). In my 2008 book The Big Switch, I discussed how one of Schelling’s papers, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” holds important lessons for making sense of social dynamics online:

In 1971, the economist Thomas Schelling performed a simple experiment that had a very surprising result. He was curious about the persistence of extreme racial segregation in the country. He knew that most Americans are not racists or bigots, that we’re generally happy to be around people who don’t look or think the same way we do. At the same time, he knew that we’re not entirely unbiased in the choices we make about where we live and whom we associate with. Most of us have a preference, if only a slight one, to be near at least some people who are similar to ourselves. We don’t want to be the only black person or white person, or the only liberal or conservative, on the block. Schelling wondered whether such small biases might, over the long run, influence the makeup of neighborhoods.

He began his experiment by drawing a grid of squares on a piece of paper, creating a pattern resembling an oversized checkerboard. Each square represented a house lot. He then randomly placed a black or a white marker in some of the squares. Each marker represented either a black or a white family. Schelling assumed that each family desired to live in a racially mixed neighborhood, and that’s exactly what his grid showed at the start: the white families and the black families were spread across the grid in an entirely arbitrary fashion. It was a fully integrated community. He then made a further assumption: that each family would prefer to have some nearby neighbors of the same color as themselves. If the percentage of neighbors of the same color fell beneath 50 percent, a family would have a tendency to move to a new house.

On the internet, making a community-defining decision
is as simple as clicking a link.

On the basis of that one simple rule, Schelling began shifting the markers around the grid. If a black marker’s neighbors were more than 50 percent white or if a white marker’s neighbors were more than 50 percent black, he’d move the marker to the closest unoccupied square. He continued moving the pieces until no marker had neighbors that were more than 50 percent of the other color. At that point, to Schelling’s astonishment, the grid had become completely segregated. All the white markers had congregated in one area, and all the black markers had congregated in another. A modest, natural preference to live near at least a few people sharing a similar characteristic had the effect, as it influenced many individual decisions, of producing a dramatic divide in the population. “In some cases,” Schelling explained, “small incentives, almost imperceptible differentials, can lead to strikingly polarized results.”

It was a profound insight, one that, years later, would be cited by the Royal Swedish Society of Sciences when it presented Schelling with the 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics. Mark Buchanan, in his book Nexus, summarized the broader lesson of the experiment well: “Social realities are fashioned not only by the desires of people but also by the action of blind and more or less mechanical forces—in this case forces that can amplify slight and seemingly harmless personal preferences into dramatic and troubling consequences.”

Just as it’s assumed that the Internet will create a rich and diverse culture, it’s also assumed that it will bring people into greater harmony, that it will breed greater understanding and help ameliorate political and social tensions. On the face of it, that expectation seems entirely reasonable. After all, the Internet erases the physical boundaries that separate us, allows the free exchange of information about the thoughts and lives of others, and provides an egalitarian forum in which all views can get an airing. The optimistic view was perhaps best expressed by Nicholas Negroponte, the head of MIT’s Media Lab, in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. “While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices,” he wrote. “Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”

But Schelling’s experiment calls this view into question. Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an e-mail message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in some small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected to people similar to ourselves—ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences—we would, like Schelling’s hypothetical homeowners, end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.

Image: “Checkers” by Emily Cline.