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By Rusty Guinn
We humans are not very good at thinking about non-linearity.
When a process interacts with another process – or itself – our usually deep capacity for pattern recognition and estimation goes out the window. I could be referring to viral spread, or why we have concerns about B.1.1.7 becoming dominant in the US. I could be referring to the effects of leverage, concentration and liquidity in investment portfolios.
But not today. Today, I am thinking about the effects of a vastly larger world population and the effects of always-on social media that is deeply embedded in our lives. I am thinking about how these two things interact. I am thinking about how in our lifetimes it has become significantly harder to trust the quality and balance of information we receive and incorporate into our decision-making.
And no, I don’t mean garden variety media bias on some political dimension, like the left-wing bias of MSNBC or the right-wing bias of Newsmax. I mean bias – a measurable tendency toward a particular framing, presentation or interpretation of information – as an endemic feature of media. The systematic presence of Fiat News on a million different dimensions.
To that end, I’d like you to read this opinion piece on NBC News. It rose to the top of our Zeitgeist for unsurprising reasons. Super Bowl commercial coverage always does.
It is going to make you angry.
Dolly Parton’s 2021 Super Bowl commercial is playing a rich man’s game [NBC News]
If you did read the piece, I am sorry. If you elected to skip over it, allow me to give you the highlights: an NBC News opinion contributor watched the Squarespace Super Bowl commercial in which Dolly Parton switches her classic tune to “5-to-9” as part of celebrating how website-building technology can help people surviving office drudgery express themselves or start their own business or passion outside the office. The contributor then calls this “The Gig Economy” and spends a few hundred words tut-tutting Dolly for playing a role in it. After all, she should have known better given the obviously subversive intent of her original song and all the good work she’s done, but apparently she’s just about that “filthy lucre.”
Ignore that a hit piece being about Dolly Parton is prima facie evidence that your argument is wrong. Ignore that it’s a damn commercial. Asserting that Big Tech promotes memes of financial independence! around the actual gig economy is NOT preposterous. Asserting that businesses have long promoted memes of workism and “family” in manipulative ways is NOT preposterous. Yet the fulcrum on which the entire article rests – that dreaming and working and making your LIFE about anything other than your job is The Gig Economy! and all of the memetic badness that represents – is absolutely preposterous.
Towards the end of this NBC News piece, you see where it is going:
I’d bet my bottom dollar that the true horrors of the gig economy and of America’s broken economic system never came up.
The premise, if you will, is that someone contributing a song to a 30-second commercial spot for a website hosting company should have leavened their participation with the consideration of whether celebrating after-work passions appropriately accounts for the often poor treatment of labor in America. It is “but why didn’t you talk about…” with the volume cranked to 11.
I think you could dismiss this as part of the hot take economy that has infected all traditional media. You wouldn’t be wrong. I also think you’d miss something if you did. The world of 2021 is big enough, prosperous enough and connected enough to support literally any beat. There is no shtick so salacious, no conspiracy theory so cockamamie, no narrative so niche that it cannot attract an adequate community to sustain it. If there is a cancel-culture beat, a cancel-culture-isn’t-real beat, and a there-isn’t-a-cancel-culture-isn’t-real-beat beat, you’d better believe there is an everything-is-about-corporatism-manipulating-labor beat.
One way or another, a piece about the intersection of the Super Bowl and labor was going to be written. After all, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Friends, make no mistake: we are a hammer, too. We are able to exist because of these forces. We see narrative and missionary behavior everywhere. We see the widening gyre of a polarized America everywhere, too. These are our hammers and a lot of things look like nails to us. We are happy if you read what we publish. We are even happier if you subscribe.
We also really hope we aren’t even close to the only thing you read.
I described this as a force of non-linearity because I think it is a change in kind more than it is a change in magnitude. That is, it isn’t just that news is becoming more biased on some continuous scale. It is that the average piece of information you consume today is far more likely to have been produced by someone wielding a very specific hammer.
It is easy for us to take a look at the outlets, social networks, lists, substacks, authors and podcasts we consume and judge whether we think we’re getting a good mix of various biases on common dimensions like politics or opinions about how markets work. It is much harder to think about whether our sources are sufficiently large to insulate us from persistent idiosyncratic frames.
In the past, we have counseled that fellow consumers of mass information ask often the question, “Why am I reading this now?” I’d suggest one more regular query:
What are their hammers and what are their nails?
It did not make me angry. The “eight hours for what we will” has always been the fuel for an economic engine unrivaled in the world. That doesn’t change the fact that what “eight hours for work” has become is highly problematic, at least for this professional who has seen real earnings for the work that I do decrease on the order of 40% over a career spanning 35 years. I’m still doing well enough to have the luxury of not needing a side hustle to be comfortable, but prosperous/comfortable and comfortable/not are two very different things.
Was the author wielding a hammer? Sure he was. I still think that it’s safe to say that the possibility that some of the subtleties of the economic forces driving the growth of the gig economy could be lost on Ms. Parton is a more apt description of his major premise. I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe that the relentless reduction in the benefits accruing from “yay, productivity!” is right at the top of the list of things that need to be BTFD rather than normalized.
I agree that it was just a commercial, and a fairly clever piece of advertising at that. Not much about the game was as well conceived and executed.
This reminds me of a trend I noticed in the world of movie criticism a while back. Forgive me for the length here, but I think it dovetails nicely into what you’re saying.
Movie critics are of course a sad and morose bunch. No one denies this. But the good ones, the ones who make a full fledged career out of reviewing films, have an eye for detail and subtlety that perhaps most of us don’t. Unfortunately the supply of people willing to write about movies far, far outweighs the actual demand. No matter. Demand will be created artificially (or in the case of most failing, cash-burning websites) it will be ignored altogether. That set of circumstances resulted in a flood of clickbait-hungry “critics” flooding the culture with their smoldering hot takes. And many of those takes had the same format. Here is a recreation:
Critic: Well, I enjoyed parts of this film–especially [nod towards some technical aspect that was at least passable] but I feel like [director/writer] could have taken a different direction overall.
Critic: The ability of [director] to achieve [some pedestrian task] is laudable, but he missed the chance to tell [whatever story the movie wasn’t telling] and for that I cannot recommend you see this.
There are other variations, but they all end up in the same place. And that place is summed us as “Yes, it was a good movie, but it wasn’t the movie that I would have made.” Critics didn’t used to be encouraged to come right out and say “why didn’t they make this movie the way I wanted it to be made?”, yet that is an acceptable critique of a film in the year of our Lord 2021.
This is an extension of the overall lurch towards narcissism as a form of currency. (I’m almost shocked someone hasn’t figured out how to tokenize the self-centeredness of bloggers) The NBC article upon which this note is based is merely the logical extension of that economy of Narcissistic Takes at Scale. “Dolly Parton did a commercial I don’t like, here’s 700 words about it”. We’ve always been ok with cultural criticism, it’s a vital part of, well, culture. But when we shifted from the technical–this film failed to develop an important subplot, that album drowned out the vocals, this play is too long and why the Hell is it about a bunch of cats?–to the personal we lost the plot entirely. No longer can a movie (or Super Bowl ad) simply be a thing that exists as the work of those who made it. It must be dissected and rearranged in the minds of bored would-be wine moms (if only all men weren’t TRASH) or crabby incels (if only all women weren’t mean and scary) and then their musings, which have no cultural purchase outside of the scant few people who edit them, are foisted upon us as if they are of some value. If I didn’t know better I would say that the corporate media conglomerates who own vast chunks of the Narcissistic Takes at Scale business were doing it on purpose, knowing that dumbing down the culture is as much a contribution as building it up can be, but alas that is too clever by half. Instead I suspect that this is the natural course of evolution. Ex nihilo nihil fit.
Thanks for writing, John! I’m in the same camp as you on “yay, productivity”, although I am a believer in the dignity value of work in the non-memeified version of the idea. That said, that isn’t really the point here. The point is, in my opinion, that the author was very clearly determined to force a square peg of an event (a silly, harmless, perfectly reasonable commercial for a web host) into that circle. It is when we deeply believe in that circle (the hammer) that I think we are most prone to see everything as a nail.
Yep. Affinity archetypes, you might call them, if hammers doesn’t suit - content which auto-tunes to a template that scratches an itch for some self-sustaining sub-set of the population. Somewhat related to Ben’s rage/mirror engagement framework for social media in particular.
Narcissistic Takes at Scale is feels a bit damning of the genre for my taste, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Just a bit depressing.
If the commercial was promoting a (blank) night school from 5 to 9, that would have been bad too?
I believe a ripple effect of this type of article is to muddy the waters for people / groups that are advocating in good faith for change around an issue. Labor issues merit serious discussion by serious people, and broader participation (or higher-quality participation) in the benefits of capitalism is a worthy aim.
The underlying issue not withstanding, this article is weak. When positions in important debates are backed by weak “evidence,” the positions can be correspondingly weakened, which is a disservice to those trying to advance the issues.
I read this Hammer and nails piece and am lost even though I’ve been reading your essays for months. Define your terms, please.Epsilon Theory has developed it’s own specialized vocabulary and the meanings are not self-evident. Is it on me to read a dozen previous pieces to get vague idea of your meaning? I suggest you put your specialized vocabulary in one document that can be used as a reference for newer people.
Some examples would help. Are you referring to motivation toward a particular narrative??
OK, impatience finished. Does this make you my morning nail?
The phrase hustle and flow comes to mind. If we swim in financialization, and it’s always been about flow, not price, this is the effect. Especially after the Telecommunications (Monopolization) Act funneled the gates.
“57 Channels and Nothing’s On” came out in 1992. How many “channels” now? Is it even possible to put a number on it? Content for an “infinite” number of channels can get a bit wonky for sure but how about the argument used for drugs, pornography, guns etc. that the supply of these items is due to an overwhelming demand by consumers?
Throw out a narrative like chum on the water wait for the fish to come to the boat.
What is it that is actually being fed?
Methinks thou dost protest too much. Not about the Hammer and Nails. As usual, your main thrust is impeccable. It is about this particular choice. Sure, it’s much ado about nothing, and who knows what NBC’s angle is? But Dolly’s trajectory is indeed changed by this add, for whatever it may or may not be worth.
I’m certain that the fact that I had read your piece before seeing the bit influenced my perception of it. Still, 5 to 9, cute turn of phrase that it is, strikes me as a babbling brook emptying into the 9 to 9 sludge that we’re increasingly swimming in. I don’t think that silly and somewhat sinister are any more mutually exclusive than are the empowerment that Squarespace is selling and what the author calls “the true horrors of the gig economy.” As someone who also venerates Saint Dolly I thought that this riff on 9 to 5 was a bit tone-deaf. The “filthy lucre” rip at the end of the article was definitely a bridge too far. I see the hammer, but I’m going with slightly oversized dowel rather than square peg.
When the only tool you have is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.
The TL;DR version is basically be careful not to silo yourself off from the broader world of news and opinion because you will eventually see everything through your own distorted lens. When Rusty says that we are all hammers he means that longtime readers here see things through the prism of narrative building by purveyors of fiat news. We see everything as narrative (or if you will, a nail) and our particular ability to identify said narrative is itself a hammer. Perhaps we will inaccurately ascribe motive to someone because we are viewing them not objectively but subjectively. Does that clarify things at all?
Hard to say. I think the fact that Squarespace feels like “Big Tech” made ascribing a workism motive a lot easier, although I’d hesitate to guess that wouldn’t have been possible with for-profit education, which has real and meme problems of its own!
A glossary is an entirely fair request! We’re actually working on a video series that tries to explain some of our terms of art. If anything is ever opaque, fire off an email to either me or Ben! We’re happy to be your nail!
In this case, the hammer-and-nail idea, as Desperate_Yuppie notes, is a common phrase about forcing a framing or interpretation on every topic that that I introduce here. A new term of art to think about rather than an old one you’d have to know.
I think D_Y did a better job than I would of describing the intended meaning, but let me know if there’s more you’d like - or better yet, hop and the forum!
Protesting too much is an occupational hazard, so you are almost certainly right about that! I don’t think you’re right about Dolly - I doubt if more than 1% of Americans a year from now think of this ad in the first 10 things they’d think about Dolly - but if I was wrong about this, it wouldn’t even be the first thing today I was wrong about.
If only we could enjoy the luxurious circumstance of our reassessing Dolly’s trajectory a year from now, rather than calling out (protesting!) 2022’s latest clutch of looming catastrophes. Protection in numbers!
Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum