Desperate Money: BitConnect And How to Talk About Ponzi Victims

I woke up this morning to the news that BitConnect, a cryptocurrency ‘investment’ platform widely accused of being a Ponzi scheme, had closed. The closure came after regulatory warnings from two U.S. states, but it also seems very reasonable to think the real cause was a liquidity crunch caused by a dramatic drop in the broader crypto market.  I want to consider how we talk about the victims of this, and other similar schemes, not all of which have bottomed out.

I should first acknowledge that I didn’t specifically have my eye on BitConnect, though I wrote about crypto ponzis and ICOs more generally for The Atlantic way back in May of last year. I don’t write about crypto full-time, so credit to those like Twitter user @bccponzi who are out there in the trenches.

And that’s the rub – there are a lot of trustworthy sources out there working, mostly without pay, to debunk the bad actors in cryptocurrency. A lot of response on Twitter today has made that point, celebrating the collapse of an apparently nefarious organization, and laying blame for individual losses squarely on those who ignored those warnings and were taken in by BitConnect.

Balancing that was a lot of empathy, though, which I think is justified in many specific cases, and as a general principle. There’s a very complex set of impulses, emotions, and cognitive patterns that drives people to put money into investments that are either known to be sketchy, or which they themselves just don’t understand. And I think a lot of it comes down to one crucial truth – this isn’t simply “dumb money.” It’s “desperate money.”

(I’m ripping this phrase off from another Twitter user whose comment I can’t find right now. If it surfaces, I’ll add an acknowledgment.)

“Desperate money” means people who are looking for a way out of a personal financial situation that’s either actively dire, or that just lacks any hope of really thriving. That obviously doesn’t just mean people who are desperately poor – the BitConnect collapse, and the broader crypto plunge, are already eliciting stories from people who had enough access to capital to lose a half-million dollars.

Instead, desperate money comes from those with no confidence in their ability to continue thriving – those with no real expertise, or skills, or enough capital to subsist on traditional investing returns. Desperate money is a mindset, one that free-market capitalism fosters in dozens of small and large ways. Without any sense of socially-guaranteed personal security, getting rich isn’t just a road to power, it’s the only way to avoid becoming a sad victim. Meanwhile, we’re pummeled with the mythology of wild success by a few – which Ponzi schemes obviously leverage directly by telling the ‘success’ stories of a core group of leaders and promoters, but which the culture itself generates in spades.

The people most likely to be influenced by this mix of fear and hope are those with the least leverage in the economy – older, less educated, or ethnic minorities. Here’s @bccponzi highlighting a BitConnect ad that targeted the elderly specifically.

Taking the lens a little wider, the excellent documentary Betting on Zero showed how Herbalife – which might not be a Ponzi proper but has decidedly questionable practices and rips off most of its agents – targets Latino and immigrant communities.

These are people who, I think it’s fair to say, are less likely to understand the complexities of cryptocurrency technology, or just of markets, period. Obviously that’s a broad brush, and race, age, or class background don’t have a direct correlation to how smart an investor you are. But at least in the U.S., and across most of the world, it’s simply a fact that we systematically under-educate the less privileged. And we under-educate everyone about finance.

There are definitely cases, then, where blame for ignorance can be laid at the feet of the individual. But as a society, we have to think about this lack of investment savvy as something we have a moral responsibility to mitigate, and further, as a systemic risk that endangers everyone. More specifically, cryptocurrency advocates need to look at ripped-off victims and see, not rubes who got their just deserts, but as a threat to what they’re trying to build.

The nature of cryptocurrency itself makes this all the more important. It’s very easy for people to buy in, which is often touted as a benefit, but also has obvious downsides. There’s a reason the U.S. has certain standards for accredited investors in high-risk ventures – it helps prevent things like the guy putting down a second mortgage on his house in the midst of a mania, and then losing it all. I don’t think there should be a push for that kind of accreditation for blockchain investors, but the lack of it is obviously a huge risk, both financially and reputationally, to the space as a whole.

This point should be of particular note to the many libertarians involved in crypto. I respect Erik Voorhees a great deal, but it disturbed me a bit when in a recent conversation he essentially said that all crypto investors are responsible for their own individual decisions on where and how to invest – even when they’re taken in by scams, which he doesn’t think should be subject to regulatory control. The importance of personal decision making and education is certainly true as far as it goes, but the libertarian-individualist mindset seems blind to the fact that a larger ecosystem creates the conditions for those individual decisions, and that some responsibility for those conditions lies with powerful individuals and the collective that influences that  ecosystem.

In other words, you have to hold both ideas in your head at the same time – victims of financial fraud, or just people who overextended their risk ratio and got burned, have made individual mistakes. They are also, at the same time, victims of broader problems that need to be tackled.

It’s clear that actors like @bccponzi and ezCoinAccess – who helped me with my writing about OneCoin – are working from that premise of collective responsibility. There’s no other rationale for working so hard to educate strangers. But unfortunately, the unfolding BitConnect fiasco, and the  durability of OneCoin, suggest that critical bloggers and tweeters just aren’t enough.

Like it or not, financial regulators are also representatives of a collective will to responsibility, and they have the muscle to do a lot more. They’re coming, and while they’ll definitely make things harder and perhaps less thrilling, those should be seen as a worthwhile tradeoff if there will be more protection for the weak. Willingness to make that tradeoff isn’t just a responsibility that comes with being strong – educated, healthy, wealthy, privileged. It is a defining element of what it means to be strong. If you don’t have enough power to give some up for your fellow human, how much do you really have?

 

Postscript

One of my personal regrets is that when I wrote about Bitcoin Miami back in 2014, I didn’t name the person promising “5% returns on anything.” It was Dan Larimer, founder of BitShares and a co-founder of Steemit. I hope Dan has matured since then, and BitShares has evolved into something at least a bit less obviously scammy. The problem is that sort of rhetoric – overpromising on even legitimate projects, or making it seem like there’s no risk, just increases the broader risk of desperate money.

 

Postscript: The Roots of the Speed Project

The following is a bit of intellectual autobiography I wrote while throat-clearing before my recent mission statement. It may be of interest to other writers and scholars.

I’ve successfully carried my interest in technology and its social impacts from academic social science into journalism, but I’ve only rarely managed to combine the skillsets of my two careers – the precision and care of the academic, and the verve and directness of the journalist. This project on speed will be my first sustained attempt to do that. It’s also an evolution of my intellectual interests nearly 20 years in the making.

When I was working on my PhD, my interests were mainly in the cultural impacts of the content of communication. My very earliest writing was criticism of books (as an English major) and music (as a music critic, my first writing job). So in my advanced studies, I was largely doing a kind of heightened literary-music criticism, deconstructing the cultural subtext of music videos and the like.

It was only slowly, over the course of five or six years, that my interest shifted to the technological underpinnings of communication. I entered academia with two points of reference for this, having lived through both the digital revolution in the music industry, and the controversies over sampling and copyright in the silver age of hip hop. Both of these issues, which came from my interest in music, pointed towards the direct link between technology and way of life.

It wasn’t until the very end of my abbreviated academic career, then, that I really explored this thought-space, in a deep analysis of automobile sound, power, and race, which I’m not embarrassed to say is now officially award-winning. I was still writing about music, but music as it is generated by a shuddering paper cone, carried by a complex motored machine, the content and mechanism working together to shape the daily lives of the human beings who had created them.

And from there – maybe because I’ve become a boring nearly-middle-aged man – the music faded away and I was left staring at just the machine, and the roads it traveled, and the political machinations behind those roads, and the echoing impacts on man, of the creation of the road and the machine by man.

Coming In 2018: Bitcoin, Autonomy, and the Annihilation of Space

In 2018, I will be focusing on a project that has incubated in my mind for years – a book-length consideration of the impacts of technological speed on human existence. A huge amount of work has been done on this subject, by many gifted writers and thinkers. But I have my own two cents to add, and we have new advances to contend with, including cryptocurrency, autonomous cars, and social media.

In broad outline, you’re probably familiar with the reshaping of space by technology. Railroads, automobiles, telegraphy, television, jet transportation, and smartphones have all had related impacts – knitting the world more closely together, making economies more efficient, and, arguably, contributing to the decline of large-scale violence.

They have also, of course, alienated people from their communities, amplifying fissures within societies that may have festered for centuries. They’ve amplified inequality and anxiety. They have pushed us further and further away from our fundamental species-being.

We live as no other people ever have – and, maybe, as no others ever will. We are bizarre creatures, ensnared in an infinitely complex and powerful web that we in no way comprehend, though we ourselves created it. We are goldfish who do not know we are in enchanted water. We also may not notice that we are being boiled in it.

This post is a starting attempt to identify a few lines of inquiry that will help me organize my efforts. The following list is not even remotely exhaustive – it is a seeding of initial nodes that will grow into a deep web of vectors and intersections. They will accelerate and intensify. Within each, there are the stories of individuals taking action, or being acted upon.

If you are part of any of these stories, please get in touch. Your contribution is invaluable.

 

The Impacts of Speed: A Litany

Productivity – Speedy communication helped open borders and weave the web of trade that has made humankind increasingly wealthy, numerous, and productive (though not necessarily increasingly healthy or happy). That’s primarily because it allows different regions to specialize in different productive activities that suit their unique geography, populace, or relative position in the world system (i.e. low wages become a part of this equation as they weren’t, explicitly, for Adam Smith). This is the single most important impact of technologies of speed, in terms of breadth of influence. All of the other impacts on this list stem from or, at least, run through this one.

Relationships – Transportation and communication create the possibility of direct, human connections over long distances, and across great cultural divides. However great the horrors of the 20th century, its technologies have led to a sense of global common weal that has no historical parallel. We have seen into the homes of our enemies’ children, watched them living lives much like our own. This is why the conflicts of the great nations are mostly played out over television or Twitter – because we regard our enemies as human, and most of us understand the reality of war well enough to hope to avoid it.

Dis/Connection – But even as international relationships become more constant, subtle, and widespread, the ties that bind countrymen to each other begin to fray. The long-distance connections in various ways come at the expense of the natural, human connections of proximity. In particular, regional urban centers may have closer relationships to one another than to the less dense and vibrant areas that surround them.

Isolation – There is a personal parallel to the strange dissociation of country from city. The fast person is also the isolated person. Slowness is oxygen to the fire of relationships, cooperation, and support. The man in the suburban home who telecommutes and takes occasional jet excursions to Atlanta is an alien to his neighbors, to the other residents of his city.

Power – Paul Virilio argued that speed is a determining factor in the structure of societies. At the very least, it’s correlative – the wealthiest people in a capitalist society have access to the fastest and most frictionless forms of transportation and communication (though interestingly, in the modern U.S. the divergence in communications access seems superficially to be shrinking). By the transitive property with the two above points, the rich are more likely to be fast, powerful – and isolated from their neighbors.

Regionalization – Bridging distances, somewhat ironically, helps make mid-sized regions more uniform in their culture and identity, above all through consumer goods and entertainment. This is not states, but nations and even collections of nations. Zones of ‘sameness’ are larger and more cohesive – though instabilities can and do emerge within these uniform spaces, in the form of subcultures that react against the sameness and generate difference. These subcultures can grow and either in whole or (more often) in part penetrate and become part of the cultural superstructure that beams over the wires and air.

The Compression of Time – Most of the preceding lines of inquiry are geographic or relational. But transportation and communication have also transformed the texture of the individual’s subjective life. We do more, we experience more, we learn vastly more, than those humans who came before us. We live many lives, instead of just one – both because we constantly form new connections that set us off on new trajecories, and because even in our most relaxed moments, we are absorbing and processing the experiences of others, which we regard as a form of entertaining distraction.

Transcendence of Nature – Before the arrival of fossil fuels, most transportation and communication moved no faster than the fastest animal – the horse, or the carrier pigeon. Mankind no longer has limits set by other living beings, or even by the landscape in which we move. At most, we are limited by the laws of thermodynamics.

Ecological Devastation – The first trains were compared to dragons. They consumed wood and coal in quantities that destroyed men and forests on a mass scale. Their legacy – the demand of speed they induced – led to a global breakdown in the mechanisms of heat distribution and the resulting weather patterns. This development may yet prove devastating for the lives of the humans who, again, created the machines in the first place.

 

This is, obviously, a wildly diverse list. It isn’t a list of chapters or even necessarily themes, just starting places.

Look for much more to come.

 

 

New York Journal: The Mystery of the Lower East Side

Yesterday, Georgia and I went to Central Park to watch the eclipse. Here, we only got about 70% coverage – in other words, just another eclipse, the kind that happen more or less all the time. There was more interest this time because it was ‘total’ elsewhere, much more rare. My parents drove to Kansas City to be in the path of totality, and they told me it got cold and dark in the afternoon. Existential.

I think more people paid attention to it here because of the national media coverage – those eclipse glasses were sold out everywhere, for instance – but still, not that many people were really watching closely. Maybe 1/4th of everyone in the park. That surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have.

After that we went to Lower Manhattan, first to The Evolution Store – which despite its high-minded name is really just an updated curiosity shoppe, full of fake sabertooth tiger skulls, whip-scorpions in amber, fossilized cave bear penis bones, and other biological oddities on the spectrum between revolting and sublime.

From there we ate some good yakisoba at a place called Dokodemo, one of many outposts of the huge Japanese expat community here. It’s comforting to have a way to reconnect with a place that has been such a huge part of my life, though so far that’s been strictly through consumption. I’m trying to strategize how to actually engage more, but I’m still not sure.

From there, things finally got really interesting. I wanted to check out Bluestocking, a political bookstore of a mostly feminist/queer bent. Places like this, too, are a part of my roots – not just bookstores, but those of the really fringe variety. It goes all the way back to volunteering at Monkeywrench Books in Austin 15 years ago, a place I’m infinitely pleased is still around. I used to ride my bike there even in the 95 degree heat (hardcore punx y’all) and spend at least half of my shifts there just reading, so I definitely got more than I gave.

Obviously they’re different projects, and I have no idea what Monkeywrench is like now, but the contrast to Bluestocking was interesting. A lot of the same sentiments were on display – political resistance, skepticism of late capitalism (to put it mildly), opposition to the prison system. But Bluestocking feels like feminism comes first and foremost, in terms of what they stock as well as the general vibe – less aggressively crusty, for one.

From there, we explored a bit more of the Lower East Side. It’s an anomaly, really the last trace of New York ca. 1970-1990, the pre-Giuliani hive of scum and villiany and offbeat creativity that used to define the city. We saw maybe a half-dozen crust-punk train kids, trawled through some truly interesting thrift shops (rare anywhere else on the island) and had beers at McSorley’s. McSorley’s was founded in 1856, making it the oldest bar in New York, but what’s special is that it seems to have barely changed (or been cleaned) in 160 years. I’d guess that if it were anywhere else in the city, it would have been either torn down or turned into a kitsch museum.

The part about all of this that mystifies me is – the rents in the LES are still exorbitant, at least for a livable apartment. I assume there are all sorts of rat-infested tenement walkups that you won’t find on Zillow, but a standard 2 bedroom is still nearly $3,000 a month. Yet somehow these places that are committed to the old and the fringe are hanging on down there.

And (for better or worse) they attract other elements of Old New York. As we were on our way to catch a train home, we saw paramedics leaning over a tall, tan man lying on the sidewalk. His face was streaming with blood, and a huge pool of mottled crimson was on the sidewalk below his head. We had no idea what might have happened – though there were no police, so maybe it wasn’t a fight. But it was the first time I’ve seen blood, here in the new, cleaned-up, oppressively expensive New York.

The Space of Bushwick – Late June, 2017

A laundromat open late, 5 or so people in there washing clothes, and somehow a sign indicating that above it, on a second floor with no visible windows, is the Brotherhood Boxing Club for Men, Ladies, and Youth.

Two little girls playfully stick their heads out a window at me.

Hey mister, we’re trying to raise . . . she struggles with the words. We’re trying to raise money for . . .

The other girl makes odd grunting sounds. They wrestle in the window, giggling.

You really do have to live at a different rhythm here, and get acclimated to different ideas of space. The day really doesn’t ever end, it just gets darker. And sometimes even in July there’s a cool breeze in that dark, and the city’s pretty safe now, so you can go out there and enjoy it and relax. It’s like a living room we all share. Sometimes I’ll just lean against a concrete fence or a trash pen and watch the world go by, and write it down.

Writers, the Library, and the Persistence of Geography

I’m getting to work on a new book. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about vaguely for a while – a book about, at this early stage, the complex consequences of transportation. I wasn’t able to get seriously down to work on it, though, until I discovered my new favorite thing – the Queens Public Library.

My fiancée and I moved to New York four months ago for our careers – hers in art, mine in letters – but mostly in my mind that had to do with jobs, with networking, with collaborators. I didn’t for a second think about the vast differences in public resources there would be between St. Petersburg and New York.

I’ve been thinking about this project for years, you see, but it never seemed to go anywhere. To be fair, there were many reasons for this. But one that I had barely registered was that whenever I tried to get my hands on an even vaguely obscure book related to my topic, the St. Petersburg Public Library didn’t have it. I would file the title away for later, but ultimately I would never get back to it.

Of course, I could have gotten nearly any of them from Amazon. But I, like most writers and researchers, read a LOT. In my grad school days, I’d have a stack of thirty or forty or fifty books in my office at any one time. Most of them, I scanned for a few relevant passages. Some, I read all the way through, taking meticulous notes – but from that point on, only the notes were important to me. Only a scant handful of works – maybe a dozen – did I come back to again and again during the research for my first (as yet unpublished) book.

You simply can’t do that by digging on Amazon, unless you’re willing and able to spend $300 or $500 a month on books that are mostly going to be wrong for your needs, or only very marginally useful, and end up in the trash heap. The Queens library – and note, I haven’t even needed to venture to the Brooklyn system, much less Manhattan, which I’m sure would each open up yet more dizzying vistas of knowledge – allows me, for free, the omnivoracious reading style that produces real, rounded knowledge, makes sparks fly, gets the blood boiling.

That’s not something that most people using a library system need, or even want, so when I compare it to a library system like St. Pete’s, my point isn’t that St. Petersburg is failing its citizens’ intellectual needs. They have a good system, for readers. But it’s not a system that’s sufficient for serious writers, at least of nonfiction, and probably of fiction, too. The access afforded by the internet can substitute for what I have here, but only partially – and only for the fairly privileged.

It’s all a stark lesson in the persistence of geography, the persistence of history, and the power of cities. Being in New York is a huge advantage for people in many fields, giving them access to the concentrated and accreted power of generations. Some of the books I’m digging out of the libraries here may not have moved for decades, but they’re there for me, now. I’m standing on the shoulders, not just of their authors, but of their previous users, their custodians, and their funders. It’s a privilege.

It feels like waking up.

Deep Trump (Part 1)

Well, that was unexpected – I’ll admit, I went into last night blithely confident we’d have a President Clinton. And I believe that Donald Trump is unstable and, most importantly, inexperienced enough that we’re in for at best a very chaotic few years, and possibly some real long-term damage to American power and prosperity.

But ultimately, I think it’s important to remember that Trump has connected with voters – real voters, most of whom are neither ignorant nor dupes, most of whom probably held their noses as they pushed the button for him (just as much as many liberals held theirs while voting for Hillary). Both the Trump surge as a whole, and last night’s surprise win, represent not just inarticulate rage, but several clear and subtle ongoing trends.

The Democrats Are No Longer the Party of Workers

Bill Clinton’s legacy is now profoundly tarnished. It was he who strategically shifted the Democrats away from protecting workers and ushered in the era of global neoliberalism. Manufacturing’s decline is a complex thing, and free trade deals are not the devil. But the Dems did little or nothing of substance to care for those harmed by the transition to a globalized world. They were asleep at the switch for a quarter century, with the possible exception of Obamacare.

Now the unions are gutted, service workers have few protections, and many voters are deeply, deeply desperate. They need help yesterday, and Hillary Clinton seemed completely oblivious to that. Of course, it’s unlikely Trump has any real answers, and he was ‘listening’ only out of a deep insecurity that drives him to pander – but at least he seemed like he was listening.

The Polls Are Broken

Between Brexit and Trump, pollsters clearly don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe this is a fixable problem – maybe we just need better outreach to rural voters, or better statistical models. Maybe it’s a one-time thing – both Brexit and Trump were stigmatized enough that people just didn’t want to admit they would vote for him to another human being. Maybe the massive shakeup of party lines he represents means people had a hard time getting a bead on their own feelings.

But there are always strange curveballs out in the world. It should be the job of poll-takers to identify and account for them. I suspect they’ve gotten used to just calling a thousand people, asking them questions, and dumping the numbers into a press release. That’s not enough.

America is America

Which is to say, we live in a deeply racist country. We literally invented apartheid. And for all the economic grievances that Trump effectively catered to, his xenophobia should have still been disqualifying, if we lived in the America that both many liberals and conservatives would like to believe we do. But in fact, we live in the America that rounded up and interned Japanese-Americans just two generations ago, and which is still engaged in a barely-covert war against black people in the guise of drug enforcement.

The danger of Trump is that the endorsements by the KKK and the like make it seem like his supporters are all white-hooded monsters. But racism is quieter, more complex, and more deeply systematic than that. We’ve done almost nothing as a nation to work to change that over the last ten years. Now any progress will stop, and there will be renewed, probably systematized forms of racism against Latinos and Middle Easterners.

(Oh, and the sexism, too).

And again, liberals can thank Bill Clinton for all of it.

The Sort – City States – Elites

On a personal level, I’m not tremendously worried about Trump. There may be economic chaos and social backsliding – but I live in New York. It’s a wildly segregated city with deep educational injustice, but it’s still a fundamentally multicultural place, where Trump is deeply loathed. And economically, New York can coast through even a catastrophic Trump Presidency on the fumes of its 25-year winning streak.

And that’s a big problem.

Cities like New York, Dallas, Austin, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and maybe even Chicago are now drastically different than either rural America or, perhaps more importantly, the hollowed-out cities of the Rust Belt. They are islands of prosperity, good education, and positive energy, where exurbs and small towns and Gary, Indiana are mired in drug addiction and despair. That isolation explains much of the failure of pollsters and journalists in understanding this election.

It also helped fuel Trump – ironically, since he’s a New Yorker. I’m projecting, here, but I think it’s a safe bet that many Trump voters deeply resent urban elites, and equated them with Clinton.

Education is Broken

This is the big one, the underlying dynamic that gave Trump a wide lane. Americans as a whole are poorly educated, because American schools are poorly and haphazardly funded and administered. What’s worse, they know they’re very poorly educated, because they’re constantly being told they need to go to college to get a good job – which, callback, is a reality Democrats didn’t do anything to insulate people from.

I taught until fairly recently at a state school with lots of unprepared and first-generation college students, and saw firsthand the struggles those kids face. Lots of them drop out. Meanwhile, they continue hearing how important education is, and how it’s their responsibility to get it, a message they hear from a very well-educated, privileged ruling class who have done relatively little to improve everyone else’s chances (because why would they, really?). That can’t help but make people deeply bitter.

That’s how you end up with not only resentment of elites, but a dangerously deep-seated anti-intellectualism. When people can’t have something, they are pretty likely to simply reject it and rearrange their values around that rejection. So you get a double whammy – people haven’t been given the tools to identify the flaws and inconsistencies and total absences in Trump’s explanation of his plan for America. And they positively embrace their incomprehension.

Again, we saw this in a milder form with GWB in 2000 – at least in terms of his incoherence, he was a proto-Trump. And Barack Obama wasn’t able to do much to make college more affordable to all the people who needed it to get out of their desperate, dead-end situations. (His AG managed to shut down many for-profit colleges, which is in fact pretty huge, but that’s hard to communicate).

And Hillary had almost nothing to say about education whatsoever.

This educational gap, by the way, isn’t new. But it’s newly relevant because of economic restructuring, and it’s newly impactful on politics because of the internet, which is a perfect home for incoherent and/or hateful memes, and for the self-reinforcement of people able to share their sentiments with each other directly, rather than through the media.

All of this is, obviously, very deep-seated stuff. It’s long-term. It’s a country, at least from one perspective, paying the price for neglecting people who can feel they’re being neglected and ignored and marginalized. I honestly think that’s more fundamental than the xenophobia, which is really just a particular channel/outgrowth of economic anxiety – it’s a lot easier for people to get along, in general, when there’s enough food to go around.

Now the question is how we actually fix all of this. Because while Trump may wind up actually making some good economic policy decisions – he’s not bad on infrastructure and the minimum wage, for example – we can’t have a continuing slide into indiscipline, incoherence, crudity, and anger. Whatever you believe on substance, that’s no way to have a country.

Is Anti-Globalization Inevitably Fascist? Thoughts on Brexit.

Probably the wisest thing I heard today was from a BBC Newshour man-on-the-street respondent.

“I won’t be sad to see the back end of the capitalist European Union. But I’m sorry it had to be on such right-wing terms.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that just about sums up the duality of Brexit. On the one hand, the motives behind it are real, not sentimental. Globalization has been almost uniformly terrible for the working and even middle classes of the developed world. Disentangling global systems, including not just the EU but trade agreements such as NAFTA and the rapidly-approaching Trans-Pacific Partnership, is at least theoretically a way to regain national control of things like wages and working standards.

It also, of course, robs everyone, working and middle classes included, of the real benefits of global trade flows, which increase the total sum of global wealth by spurring innovation, specialization, and efficiency. There’s a reason globalization has been accompanied by a broad and real reduction in global poverty.

But that argument simply doesn’t have much sway for those who supported the Brexit, or for their counterparts in other countries. Check out a map of Brexit results and you’ll see a very clear division between London, which has benefited hugely from globalization and broke hard for Remain, and the rest of England – the U.K. equivalent of American ‘flyover country,’ where workers have been hurt worst by free trade.

And that’s the rub – globalization may not be a zero-sum game, but those who have benefited the most from it have been grossly negligent in managing its negative impacts. And now those chickens are coming home to roost, globally.

But, back to that initial quote. There is an undeniable legitimacy to those who oppose the EU and free trade. But those legitimate beefs have been channeled into hatred-shaped containers lined with reactionary sentiment. Those praising the Brexit referendum as a “victory for democracy” on the international airwaves today were almost uniformly representatives of groups with, to put it politely, reputations for racist and fascistic rhetoric. Marine le Pen of the Front Nationale has been perhaps the most rapid and vocal to applaud the Brexit, along with other damn-near-literal Nazis like Geert Wilders and the BNP’s Nick Griffin.

Also pro-Brexit has been Alternative for Germany, which, despite its best efforts to exclude them, has at the very least been widely praised by its country’s far right. An Alternative spokesperson on the BBC today argued that it was unfair to characterize wanting to control one’s own immigration and trade policies as “nationalist.” In the current environment, that’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t even think there’s a word for a pro-nation state mindset that doesn’t come part-and-parcel with a disdain not just for immigration, but for immigrants, and, seemingly automatically, for gay and nonwhite people, to boot.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump, who also loudly praised the Brexit result, and whose own protectionist nationalism is more than spiced with race-baiting, personality cultism, and a fondness for authoritarian violence. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t have much of a chance in the U.S., because the contingent of nationalists is smaller, and shrinking (like Trump’s constituency, pro-Brexit voters skewed much older than Remainers).

Is there a way to separate anti-globalization from fascism? The far-left anti-WTO protests of the late nineties failed to ignite a mass movement, arguably because they didn’t connect with the cultural sensibilities of those with the most directly at stake. And now, even the most anti-fascist of the anti-globalization groups can’t quite keep their nose clean. American Libertarians in the Rand Paul mold have come the closest, I’d argue, but their domestic policies are abysmal.

I’d say for right now, things look pretty hopeless. There is no third way.

But there is a potential bright side to Brexit – two, in fact. I hold out hope that, first, Brexit becomes a global wake-up call for political elites, a finally really concrete consequence of the decades-long failure to reckon with the consequences of economic liberalization. And second, I hope that by sharply foreshadowing the consequences of isolationism – we are going to start hearing a lot about British job losses and economic chaos – it sobers up just enough people to slow down similar forces elsewhere.

That might be wishful thinking. Trump and the Front National are clearly feeling emboldened right now. But one of the most revealing bits of tape to surface today was that of a British voter whose entire family apparently instantly regretted their Leave votes.

Britain probably won’t get a do-over. It would be as destructive as, say, trying to deny Donald Trump the Republican nomination (parallels within parallels, eh?). But the rest of the world can, perhaps, look at that regret, at the far-reaching, already-catastrophic effects of isolationism, and maybe, just maybe, think twice.

Open Access and Ivory Rot

Recently, Phil Cohen, a sociologist studying families, highlighted a statement by the American Sociological Association more or less defending the current academic publishing model against open access, in part because it generates revenue for disciplinary organizations like theirs. As Phil points out (and I’m definitely putting words in his mouth here), that’s utter crazytalk, because it prioritizes internal disciplinary stuff over the mission of spreading knowledge.

That argument – economics vs. mission – is an important one. But I wanted to make a semi-related point based on my (now three years in the past, thankfully!) time in academia. Which is that I don’t think all the logical advocacy for a new system is going to make as much of a dent as it should, because so many academics are invested in another aspect of the current journal system:

They will never say it, but many academics like the fact that nobody can see their work.

 (Note: What I’m about to write is based on my experience in the social sciences. If it resonates further, fine, but I’m not extending the claims).

I’ll cite just three quick experiences to support that assessment, though there are more.  The first came in my third or fourth year of grad school. At Iowa, we had a weekly department seminar where grad students and faculty shared rough drafts of their works in progress, to an audience of other grads and profs.

I’d later find out that even this was a remarkably open setup – many academic departments don’t have any formal collaboration or sharing process at all. But it occurred to me that encouraging undergrads to attend the seminar might help open their eyes to some of the bigger stakes of the field, particularly since many of them picked Communications as a kind of vanilla default, unaware that it was actually a big and robust intellectual tradition. I made a suggestion publicly that we should do things like put up flyers around the department, and encourage students in our classes to attend the seminar.

This was met with a wave of withering scorn and venom that it still pains me to recall to this day, with long email rants about how undergrads weren’t prepared to process what we were doing, would ruin the atmosphere of the seminar, etc. Very condescending stuff. It was hard for me to understand why grad students at an elite program – who I should remind you are adult professional teachers – would not want to draw out their students, push them, and learn from them. But there was clearly a sense that sharing our work outside of a very select circle was extremely intimidating to many.

And this isn’t just a mindset shared by graduate students. Several years later, I was tangentially involved in organizing a conference. A suggestion had been made (this time, not by me) that the proceedings should be recorded and provided online for those who couldn’t make it to the event.

Cue a stream of invective almost identical in tone to my earlier encounter. This time, there was a slightly more valid point being made – that publicizing the proceedings of a conference violated a safe zone of intellectual exploration. But in retrospect, even that seems like a silly, fearful objection – a lot of professional conferences are made public, some VERY public, and there is at once a sense of exploration and a sense of responsibility for what is said. And people who are willing to speak their minds still do.

For me, both of these cases felt like a group of professionals rising up in resistance to what is their basic social function – to create and spread knowledge. My most generous interpretation is that academics tend to think that the ‘final’ form of their knowledge – a journal article – is the extent of their responsibility to that calling.

The less generous interpretation is that many academics don’t actually want anyone to see their work, in progress or complete, at all, because they have no confidence in its inherent worth.

One final example helps illustrate why this feeling may actually be perfectly rational. At a conference on globalization, I was lucky enough to hear an unimpressive little man, an assistant professor at an unspectacular but perfectly respectable school, outline his so-far-successful strategy for career success.

“You just take something someone else has written, and you find a problem with it. And you write a paper about that. Or you take someone else’s big idea, and you break it down into a dozen little parts, and you publish a paper on each one.”

I was gutpunched. At that point I was a postdoc, and I’d published I think three big papers, each one an attempt to tackle a large question head-on, dive deep, and come up with not just something new and significant to say, but a complex array of related things to say. I had spent upwards of a year on each one, and I had, according to a guy who outranked me, been wasting my time. It was maybe one of the most stomach-churning exchanges I ever had as an academic.

Of course, there’s something to be said for the approach he describes, not just as a career path, but intellectually – sometimes problems are small but interesting. But that’s not an approach for a 25 or even 15 page, densely-cited and heavily peer-reviewed journal article. That’s something that needs to be public, part of an ongoing dialogue, part of the path towards something bigger.

But (and I know this has been said before) the structure of journals and academic careers discourage that public, collaborative approach. Journals themselves are so little read even by academics that nothing resembling a dialogue emerges from them. And guys like my unimpressive interlocutor are happy for that, because in that setting the content of their work matters not a tiny bit. All that matters is that they can write it into their C.V.

The whole thing is a giant waste of some genuinely gifted minds.

So, open access journals wouldn’t just be a financial boon for university libraries, and they wouldn’t just give the public more access to the work they are, after all, paying for. They would change the tenor of academic work by making it available – and thus accountable – to an indefinite but large audience.

While there are many vocal academics pushing for open access, there is pretty clearly a silent majority doing nothing to make them happen. And when I think about that, I think about all the people I’ve met over the years who are very happy to have a “PhD” next to their name, without ever having to show their work to anyone beyond a roomful of conference attendees and a half-dozen editors.

And it’s not these people’s fault, per se. They’ve been born and bred into that insularity. In fact, they’re victims here, because really successful academics don’t tend to fall into their camp – people who really love their work, and therefore truly excel at it, also tend to look for opportunities to spread their ideas around, get them dirty, mix it up.

Open access journals would make doing that more normal, and bit by bit, less frightening. Would work be misconstrued and misused by the media? Almost certainly. And then academics would have to engage with that misuse, publicly defend themselves, help people understand.

I know – the horror.

I’m being snarky, but of course I do understand that this fear is real, and justified. I now write a huge amount, for a large national publication, and making mistakes in that context is gut-wrenching, terrifying, tear-jerking. But the fact is that everyone makes mistakes, and honest mistakes rarely end careers. It’s part of the social contract when you’re part of an ongoing dialogue – you’re allowed to get things wrong. But that’s not how academics think now, or are trained to think by their context. Because there is no dialogue, everything has to be final and perfect and right before anybody sees it, and so there is no dialogue.

And round and round forever.

Place in Knowledge, Knowledge in Place

“There was no personal or world problem whose solution did not exist in some hexagon.”

-Borges, “The Library of Babylon”

The 19th century was defined by transportation innovation – the locomotive, the automobile, the airplane. Of course, most of those innovations didn’t reach their full potential until the 20th century, and communication technology, in the form of the telegraph, itself had profound effects on things like the U.S. Civil War and westward expansion. But in the 20th century, as much as people loved their cars and planes, it was information – an overwhelming flood of information, from radio to television to cable to satellites to the Internet – that truly and fundamentally transformed the world.

Now, we’re entering a new century – one that I’ve argued will be largely defined by the confluence of information and transportation. Vehicles with smart telemetry connected to global wireless data networks – a category that already includes not just cars, but trains, planes, and buses – are going to be ubiquitous in a matter of a decade.

But figuring out why this matters, and more importantly, what it will feel like, is a tall order. Vehicles will be where they’re expected and needed, increasingly without active human intervention. By extension, that means both people and things will increasingly be where they are needed, or where they want to be, without applying the level of physical effort, or even the level of conscious will, that we now have to exert simply to move.

Now, if you were to explain that scenario to, say, a leading futurist in the early 1990s, their likely response might be some variation of “so what?” That’s because the dominant intellectual paradigm of that time – just as the Internet was emerging – held that information would eliminate the relevance of space. That we would live wherever we wanted, and still have access to the whole breadth of human experience. That we would consume fewer physical goods, and spend more time in virtual worlds.

That, clearly, has not happened.

I say this from a place of real experience. I live in Florida, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is, by most measures, high. I work, primarily, for an organization based in New York City. I consume media from around the world, and order anything I could possibly want online.

You could say I have the best of all possible worlds – and yet I’m planning on moving to New York fairly soon. Given the absolute explosion in urban real estate over the last 20 years, I’m obviously far from alone in believing that “being there” is crucial to living richly.

To understand why space still matters – maybe more than ever – it’s worth turning to a strange story by the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. The story, titled “The Library of Babel,” is on the one hand the sort of gnomic, mind-bending fantasy that I spend time obsessing about over on my other blog, Blown Horizonz. It is also an amazing metaphor for the intersection of information and transportation.

The premise of the story is simple, though bizarre. In the world described by the story’s narrator, all of human existence takes place within an infinite library, extending in all directions, its books containing every possible scrap of human knowledge.

The hangup is that, unfortunately, the library is entirely random – not just the arrangement of the books, but the arrangement of the letters within the books. The library contains every possible configuration of the 25 symbols of basic written Roman script.

When the infinite nature of the library is discovered, there is a brief period of elation, fueled by a sense that all knowledge is simply there for the taking – a direct mirror of the most optimistic takes on the Internet (even though Borges was writing in the 1950s). Borges also predicted the inevitable fallout of this revelation of total knowledge: the inquisitors who journey the halls of the library seeking answers are soon enough reduced to shells of their former selves, their hope and optimism extinguished after years of wading through randomness, discovering little or nothing of use.

Of course, it’s trite by now to say that the internet is a cesspool of bad information, and to reiterate it would be missing Borges’ point. There is a much more specific failure of the mythical Library of Babel that make it such a mind-bending vision, such an acute tragedy – and such a touchstone for the promise of intelligent transportation.

The library is a failure not of knowledge, but of organization, which Borges depicts as a failure of location. None of the books are where they should be – they are randomly scattered, and so might as well not exist. Even in a society that is understandably book-centric, this keeps any community from forming around bodies of knowledge. The only communities that grow from Borges’ totally disorganized knowledge are nihilistic doomsday cults.

The greatest imaginable library lacks the relatedness and context that give information its value (hence the title’s allusion to Biblical incomprehension). To really know something also means to know who else knows it, and to know what you can accomplish with your knowledge. Without human communities organized around and acting on knowledge, the librarians soon resort to suicide. (That also basically sums up my reasons for leaving academia, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Even in a world of total information, location remains vital. Knowledge is everywhere, as omnipresent as water or air. But it is the people who interpret that information that actually give it meaning, who embody it through what they do with it, with each other.

And that “doing with” is often anchored in the physical, in building, in gathering, in making, in nourishing. McLuhan wrote of media as “the extensions of man,” but they are obviously only one of man’s extensions, and at least on the surface a fairly ephemeral class. The more obviously substantive extensions of man are machines – trains, boats, threshers, grinders.

But if knowledge floating in space is maddening, physical power undirected by knowledge is equally pointless. By giving the library to machines, we are also give machines to the library – giving physical form to the abstract encoding of our own accumulated wisdom. And after that uploading (and/or offloading) our consciousness, the possibilities are limitless.