Micro-consumerism and the looming cultural paradox





So we all understand money is fake, right? It's just paper with no intrinsic value beyond our ubiquitous acceptance of its role as currency. So what happens when our goods and services finally assume that same, immaterial quality that money possesses? Well strap in folks, because we are almost there, and the implications are terrifying (or foggy, at least).

First, it is necessary to briefly review some related components of the approaching challenge our society faces that no other society has faced in history.

The first part of the hydra is copyright law. In short, this is a regulatory field that allows content creators to monetize their work. No big deal, right? If someone writes a hit song or produces a great movie, they should be able to get paid for it, or at least have regulatory access to protect themselves from others who try to cash in on their works.

The second piece of the puzzle is the meteoric rise of consumer-based digital production technology. These include video cameras, computers, and online hosting services like YouTube, Instagram, and others. These, building upon latent internet capabilities, allow individuals around the world to easily create and distribute their own digital media. People use these services to broadcast everything from twerking and video game play to highly emotional political commentary and evidence of police brutality and other kinds of crime.

But the last piece of the puzzle is YOU AND I. We were once humans. Then we became consumers. In today's world, consumption is our primary function. Perhaps some among you are old enough to remember George Bush's famous response to someone asking him what the best thing American citizens could do to support the Iraq war effort. He said "go shopping." He was damned serious too! He even rushed through the Earned Income Tax Credit to put a few hundred dollars in everyone's pocket to facilitate this peculiar strategy.

Most people happily took the money and complied without criticism, even though Bush also said it was up to a future president to pay for that war. So what was so important about shopping? And what does this have to do with micro-consumption or YouTube?

That's where this gets complicated, so put on your foil hats and try to follow my poorly articulated train of thought.

Economy is and has always been the primary human institution. If you think it's religion, kinship, or education, you're living in yesterday's world and you would have been wrong then too. Without economy, or when economy collapses, it brings all the other institutions down with it. First, without tax revenue, there is no government. If there is no government, there is no military, no police, and therefor no defense of borders (and therefor no borders) and no laws. On the other hand, in a healthy economy, a little bit of money can go along way. You pay the grocer, who pays employees and merchants, who in turn pay their bills and grocers. At each stop, the government takes a piece of revenue. So Bush was urging Americans to keep engaging in the economy as consumers, instead of panicking, stocking up on water and bullets, and collapsing the economy, taking the government (and the military) along for the ride.

The reason I make this point is to highlight our inconsistent concepts of ownership and property in the digital age. We own the government, as People. But do we own the military as a result? More to the point, do we OWN the internet?

No. We RENT the internet, and we will never pay it off. Think about it. There are more than 100,000,000 internet subscribers, and probably two thirds of the country owns cell phones that themselves take years to pay off. So figure about $150 a month for your phone and internet. That's about an average of $1,800 a year for individuals, probably closer to between $3k to $4k for families. Multiply the mean by a hundred million per year, and annually, the tech industry is worth billions in cyclical revenue on subscription alone.

Here, it is critical to backtrack to the eighties, when cable companies were laying the fiber-optic infrastructure that facilitated this tech-boom in the first place. That infrastructure was fully funded from two directions: cable subscribers (doling out similar magnitudes of cash even then) and government subsidies. Either way, the money to build and maintain this infrastructure came from the citizenry.

Fast-forward, add a few hundred satellites and a few international under-water data conduits, and we're all basically still using the same infrastructure. All of the additional hardware, from your Samsung Galaxy 6 to your IPv6 compatible AT&T router-gateway combos, is all bought at profit. You technically own those devices, but without that international infrastructure, what you own is worthless and useless.

The (sub) point is, it's all been paid for already! Many times over! But we're all still paying the grotesque monthly fees to companies that didn't even exist when the first cables were being laid. The tech boom is still so new and fresh and exciting that most of us haven't even thought to question why. In fact, for this very reason, we are now allowing the transfer of this absurd economic principle into the very seams of our newly evolved culture.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, our culture is being digitized, copy-written, and stored behind a paywall. This will have a devastating cooling effect on our twenty-first century enlightenment.

The writing is already visible on the wall. How many journal articles and scholarly studies have you tried to access only to be asked to pay some obscene sum like $40 or $50 for 24-hour access? How many of you who were born in the Napster generation of file-sharing (which, make no mistake, is exactly the same thing the government used the internet for when it was still a DARPA project) who now pay monthly subscription fees for audio and video providers like Pandora? How many of you have been desperately trying to follow the crisis-coverage from modern news outlets only to be informed that you have X amount of articles left before you must subscribe (by paying)?

The rise of technology has quickly outpaced our ability to comprehend its actual role in our lives, let alone any idealistic or collectivist roles it might have evolved alternatively. But imagine a world in which every part of your socio-cultural construct came with a price tag. It isn't very far off. The music and movies that define your personality and values, the critical news information about the events that shape your world (events which you have a civic responsibility to be aware of or potentially respond as a voter, or a resident of a community), and even the industrial human capital so critical for maintaining (let alone improving or advancing) all the complicated systems upon which we have become so irrevocably dependent, all these are being quietly hidden behind a paywall.

In the old days, from Adam Smith to Maynard Keynes, the value of a thing was a function of supply and demand. That was the economic Stone-Age when goods were finite and susceptible to scarcity. In our time, a song or video can be sold an infinite number of times. A news article takes up what is literally an arbitrary amount of space. So instead of supply and demand, the modern economist must study something called a price-point. The Apple company decided the sweet spot for a downloadable song was about a dollar. Pandora decided the sweet spot for seemingly unlimited access to every song you've ever loved was about $40 per year. Netflix decided their viewers would probably not object to paying about $10 per month for access to its virtual library of films and documentaries. These numbers are reflections of how consumers with disposable incomes value these services, and not at all related to any intrinsic value of the products involved.

In America, we have been trained to demand our personal freedom at all costs, but we have also been programmed to treat any kind of Utopian conceptualizations of freedom as childish and idealistic. Well I was born with the internet, and grew up right alongside it. I was building websites in the 90's and working as an information systems tech with a security clearance during Shock-and-Awe. I know and understand the internet, and the pace of change has not left me breathless or confused. I struggle to articulate a thought which others will struggle even more to understand, but I'm telling you all right here and now that we have screwed up majorly. We paid for the internet, many times over. We pay for our devices. And we continue to pay for our services. As a consequence, we have created an economic construct that will eventually price us out of our own identities.

The emerging trend seeks to solidify cultural exchange as a byproduct of consumerism. And as consumers, we have no actual rights, because we have all failed to comprehend the distinction. We have failed to look back and understand the morals and principles which built the palace in which we have become prisoners. We all loved our file sharing services for a few blissful years of enlightened promise, and then a Republican evangelist from Texas named Lamar Smith took some lobby money from people who referred to files sharing as "piracy." He drafted something called the "Stop Online Piracy Act," (or SOPA) for short, and with almost zero debate, the G.O.P. jammed it through the House and Senate, and Barrack Obama signed it into law. Now, a fascist civilian organization called the Recording Industry Association of America tracks file-sharing services around the world for copyright infringement and targets teenagers and poor people who don't understand what a proxy server is for slam-dunk lawsuits which usually net thousands of dollars per head.

The tech community was horrified, but the population at large was just baffled. So, for all of you, here is a short summary of ways in which this particular phenomenon has affected your sociological institutions:

Regulation- your representatives accept bribes from big tech names to pass toxic, irrational legislation which prevents you from using for its intended purpose the technology you will pay for into perpetuity.

Economy- your self expression and interaction with your fellow human beings (with whom you are permanently trapped on a single planet) is being redefined as commerce. In order to have access to that which is generated by others, you must now trade your labor.

Religion- once on a concrete path towards marginalization and obsolescence, is now regaining its social advantage as a consequence of the restraints placed upon the internet as a method of information sharing.

Education- as a whole, is becoming progressively less available to the poorer classes that need it most. College has always been expensive and elitist, but all that material that could have been made universally available to anyone with access to an internet connection is now safely hidden away behind ludicrous paywalls which guarantee that only specialists will ever have access to industry critical information. The outcome can only be a population full of mindless, single-task, sensate drones with no clue what to tell their regulators, no escape from the meaningless labor, no hope against the mystics and sycophants who seek to brainwash them with nonsense, and no earthly way of knowing what they should expect from their educators.

In the words of Bruno Mars, "don't believe me, just watch."


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