Social Media: A Public “Bad”?

A recent article in the The Atlantic has made the best case I’ve read that social media is an unmeritorious (or immoral) private good and a public “bad.”  Ayad Akhtar, in an essay entitled “The Singularity is Here,” writes:

“Adhesiveness.  That’s what the technology aspires to achieve, the metric by which it self-regulates and optimizes.  The longer we stick around—on YouTube or Facebook, on Amazon, on the New York Times app—the deeper we scroll, the greater the yield of information, the more effective the influence.  We are only starting to understand just how intentional all of this is, just how engineered for maximum engagement the platforms are.  In fact, the platforms have been built and are still being optimized to keep us glued, to keep us engaged.”

He puts the invention of this demand to govern our inner selves as the service of Mammon in the seeking of profits by private enterprise:

“John Stankey, the current CEO of AT&T, was unusually clear … in 2018, as he addressed his new employees at the just-acquired HBO:

“We need hours a day,” Stankey said, referring to the time viewers spend watching HBO programs.  “It’s not hours a week and it’s not hours a month.  We need hours a day.  You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Continuing the theme, Stankey added: “I want more hours of engagement.  Why are more hours of engagement important?  Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising, as well as subscriptions.”

Akhtar realizes that: “or the tech to be able to tailor and deliver advertising in its various forms, it needs eyeballs.  The more of them and the longer they stay, the more adhesive the platform becomes and the more revenue it can generate.”

Akhtar adds: “In pursuit of what John Stankey called more hours a day, the technology metes out its steady stream of tiny pleasures as the reward for your sustained attention.  Touch the screen—respond to the offered stimuli like a rat in an experiment—and receive what some are now calling a dopamine rush.”

“Embedded in this scheme of endless distraction is a deeper logic.  The system has come to understand the fundamental value of always reaffirming our points of view back to us, delivering to us a world in our image, confirmation bias as the default setting.  This is the real meaning of contemporary virtuality.  In the virtual space, the technology combats and corrects our frustrations with reality itself—which defies expectation and understanding, by definition.”

I seek.  I find what I know.  I enjoy this recognition of myself.  I am trained over time to trust in a path to understanding that leads through the familiar, that leads through me.  “I” am the arbiter of what is real.  What is more real than me?

“In its basest form—and make no mistake, the baser the form, the stickier the engagement—what we’re describing here is a profound technological support for primary narcissism.  We don’t need to know our Ovid in order to understand the perils of all this self-gazing and yet, we may nevertheless fail to appreciate just how pervasive the social attitudes engendered by this orientation have become.  Self-obsession as a route to self-realization is, of course, not a new idea.”

“Merchants of attention have learned that nothing adheres us to their traps like emotion and that some emotions are stickier than others.  The new and alluring, the surpassingly cute.  The frenzied thrill at the prospect of conflict or violence.  The misfortune of others.  Perhaps most emblematically, the expression of our anger, rightful or hateful.  All of this lights up a part of our brain that will not release us from its tyranny.  Our fingertips seek it.  To say that we are addicts does not capture the magnitude of what is happening.”

“The system is built to keep us riveted, to keep that neurochemical leak of dopamine steadily coursing and it operates with a premium on efficiency, which is to say, the platforms optimize for performance based on empirical feedback.”

“The platforms that churn through content with the greatest velocity shape the emotional responses of consumers almost in real time.  Watch a video on YouTube or like a post on Facebook or Twitter and you will be offered another and another and another.  Behind the suggested offerings is a logic of emotional response.  The technology is seeking your trigger, whatever draws you deeper and keeps you clicking.”

“Self-valorizing anthems abound.  “Me” and “my” have been elevated to epistemological categories.  And the now widespread misreading of the self’s fragility as resulting not from the contingent situation of selfhood itself, but from society’s failure to protect and recognize “me.”

Akhtar rightly perceives that putting my self-valorizing under threat and stress gets my attention. “Nothing quite does it like outrage.  Moral outrage.  Those we know are right to hate; those we love because we are united together against those we know are right to hate.”

“… And the logic of the increasingly truculent divide between right and left in America today. Driven by engagement and the profit that it generates, each side drifts further and further from the other, the space between us growing only more charged, only richer with opportunity for monetization.  The cultural clash in America today has more electrical engineering behind it than we realize.”

Akhtar’s insightful realism reminds me of Shakespeare’s not-dissimilar cynicism about our kind:

“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”

If we are not to be sheep, born to be herded and shorn by the lords of tech who feed themselves off us, what must we do?

We at the Caux Round Table have proposed a code of ethics for social media by which we each, on our own, take charge of our destinies.

A Japanese Approach to Moral Capitalism

I recently read a short book by Kengo Sakurada, President and CEO of SOMPO Holdings, titled Bushido Capitalism: The Code to Redefine Business for a Sustainable Future.

Sakurada takes the ethic of Bushido, the way of service as a Samurai, as interpreted by Inazo Nitobe.  Nitobe wrote his book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, in English for publication in New York in 1899.

I was taken by Sakurada’s recommendation of this virtue ethic for business because another Japanese business leader, Ryuzaburo Kaku, then CEO of Canon, contributed his Japanese ethic of kyosei to the Caux Round Table Principles for Business, the basis for a moral capitalism.

The experience of the Japanese over the centuries in articulating a balance between individual mindfulness – Zen – with participation in natural environments and community – Shinto – has given their culture insights into living well through virtue ethics.

The Bushido code has 7 principles, each of which Sakurada applies to business to enhance both its profitability and its sustainability.

The first principle is justice – achieving success through assuming responsibility.  Self-seeking narcissism won’t work.  Decisions must be supported by reasoned consideration and be in the interest of the many.

The second principle is courage.  Courage is needed to constantly ask questions, scrutinize everything high and low, near and far and be ready to leave the status quo behind.

The third principle is a duty of care.  Empathy, compassion, even a tenderness towards others, keeps them within the compass of our lives.  This principle is to acknowledge our emotions and not suppress them.

The fourth principle is politeness.  This should be a natural, free-flowing, outward manifestation of a sympathetic regard for the feelings of others.  Sakurada advises that respect should never be conditioned on selfish benefit.

The fifth principle is veracity.  This requires never exaggerating or underplaying your skills and being brave enough to admit mistakes and acknowledge your limits.

The sixth principle is honor.  Honor comes to us when we act as if we deserve to be honored and esteemed by others.  How you think of yourself in providing service and meeting your responsibilities rebounds in how others do or do not show you honor.

The seventh principle is loyalty.  Loyalty is commitment; accepting a vocation or higher calling which makes demands on you and tests your selflessness.  The virtue of loyalty enhances one’s ability to work with stakeholders.

In thinking about these virtues, I am reminded of the sensibility of the American poet, Robert Frost.  In his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he was evocative of a life worth one’s commitment to excellence:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The Creative Capacity of Capitalism?

These past couple of years, I have found myself more and more keen to find “facts” with which to advocate the objective constructiveness of the Caux Round Table principles of moral capitalism.

I presume that we have, in fact, passed into a “post-truth” global epistemology for the human endeavor. Facebook and Twitter decide on what facts are true to them. Xi Jinping thinks in terms of facts which will validate and extol his “China dream.” Intolerant Muslims will kill to impose their narratives on the rest of us. Joe Biden tells Americans to “follow the science.” But which scientists does he consider unimpeachable? Same with other ideologues. Intellectually and emotionally, we are drowning in narratives created – might I say, fabricated? – without respect for realities which do not yield themselves to the cause of human willfulness and narcissism.

To swim through the great waves of this inhospitable, post-modern geist, I look for stubborn facts, hard facts which resist any reframing to subordinate them as proof-points for our self-referential narratives.

So, I was delighted to read on the first day of 2022 some facts which point to an appreciation of capitalism.

What excited Adam Smith about the new economic system of wealth creation he saw emerging around him in the late 18th century was its capacity for innovation, disruption and bettering of the human condition. Since then, many advocates of capitalism have also looked to the creative destruction drive of free markets and rich-taking by private capital.

A corollary observation has been that small enterprises employ the majority of workers and new firms are the source of most innovation. The big firms are not always the best and the brightest when it comes to innovation and effective response to change and customers.

Now, in the U.S., it has been a worrisome concern for some social economists that large firms have taken on more and more market share and that the number of startup firms has been declining for years. Now, most industrial sectors in the U.S. are dominated by 3 or 4 big firms.

However, something to the contrary has happened in the US.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 4.4 million new businesses were created in 2020 – the highest total ever recorded. It’s also a 24.3% increase over 2019 and 51% higher than the 2010 through 2019 average.

While the 2021 numbers aren’t in yet, more than 500,000 businesses were started in the first half of 2021 alone and this during a pandemic.

I would hazard a guess that it was the very threat of, the disturbances created by the pandemic which provoked some Americans to, on their own without elite direction or government patronage and reduction of risk, to start a private business seeking to serve the needs and wants of others.

Christmas Stockings and the Morality of Capitalism

A somewhat off the wall article in the Wall Street Journal makes a case, by accident, for the value of capitalism.

The article was a short note on the history of Christmas stockings, part of the Christmas holiday ritual developed in the 19th century in Europe, especially in England.

One part of the innovative middle class celebration of Christmas was for children – Santa Claus, who brought gifts to children who had been nice, not naughty, during the year, then ending. Small gifts were put in stockings, hung from a mantle over the fireplace.

Stockings used for that special purpose evolved from stockings made for daily wear.

The first modern stockings were knitted by hand and by a machine invented in 1589 called a stocking frame. Foot-powered stocking frames evolved over time. By the mid-18th century, England had some 14,000 stocking frames. Stockings were no longer only for the aristocracy. Very ordinary people could acquire such status coverings for their legs.

In mercantilist France, stocking frames were restricted to protect hand workers.

In 1758, Jedediah Strutt invented a way of incorporating the purl stitch into the making of the fabric, resulting in ribbed stockings. With his profits, Strutt financed the first spinning mills built by Richard Arkwright, whose invention of the water frame transformed cloth making from a low-productivity craft to an industrial product. Arkwright’s invention took only minutes to make enough wool yarn to make a pair of knee socks, when previously that task would have taken five hours.

Cotton hosiery, more desirable than wool, was one of the first consumer products made from the newly abundant thread. What could be produced in quantity could profitably be sold at lower prices and so could become more affordable to more people and so also more abundant in the lives of the many.

And Christmas stockings, too, could become part of most every English family’s Christmas celebration.

Thanks to the capacity of capitalism to evolve technology, expand and expand productivity, new wealth, including ownership of stockings, was created, which could more inclusively devolve to the people.

Your Support is Most Appreciated

Our thanks to those of you who recently contributed to the work of the Caux Round Table during the Give to the Max special day of fundraising for non-profits here in Minnesota.

During the last two weeks, I have surprisingly received many emails from all kinds of organizations asking me for a personal contribution.  These requests seem here in the U.S. to be a new part of our holiday season, perhaps encouraged by increased use of Zoom and internet relationships over these past 18 months.

It is the end of our fiscal year and so I presume on your goodwill and concern to ask again for your financial support, particularly to defray the costs of our monthly newsletter, Pegasus.

From its inception in 1986, the Caux Round Table has provided its thoughts, reflections, principles, metrics and commentaries to the global public domain without charge.

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I wish you all the best in the New Year.

Is the World Turning Towards Nuclear Power at Last?

One of the surprises to me about the otherwise predictable and pedestrian meeting of leaders to “save” the world from global warming was the emergence of a new alternative or rather, the coming in from the cold of a well-known, but controversial technology for generating electricity.

As I have written, humanity’s mastery of technological innovation to generate power has brought about our current climate challenge and so reverse technological innovation is needed to get us out of the difficulties we are in, so I’m open to consideration of all new technologies, even those using nuclear fission.

Dan Byers, Vice President for Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, recently wrote for the Real Clear Energy website:

Walking the halls of COP26, one can’t go far without bumping into young activists in bright blue shirts emblazoned with a simple request: “Let’s Talk About Nuclear.”  Their accompanying social media hashtag—#NetZeroNeedsNuclear—speaks for itself and is indisputable: achieving net-zero global emissions is simply not realistic without significant deployment of expanded nuclear generation.  The activists and their allies seem to be getting their message across.  As the conference winds down and we take stock of the most meaningful outcomes, strengthened support for nuclear energy is likely to emerge as a major COP26 success story.

This stands in sharp contrast to prior meetings, where nuclear has long been ostracized, despite its role as the world’s leading source of emissions-free energy.

“This COP is perhaps the first where nuclear energy has a chair at the table, where it has been considered and has been able to exchange without the ideological burden that existed before,” according to Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N.-affiliated body responsible for promoting nuclear generation and safety.  Just two years ago in Madrid, Grossi attended the annual COP (Conference of the Parties) “in spite of the general assumption that nuclear would not be welcome,” but now he says the tide is clearly turning.

Enthusiastic support from the Biden Administration has provided a major boost.  Here in Glasgow, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has evangelized for nuclear at event after event, describing nuclear as a “holy grail” climate solution thanks to its ability to provide dispatchable, clean power around the clock.

The bullish rhetoric has been accompanied by numerous announcements, such as the Nuclear Futures Package, under which the State Department will partner with Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries to support capacity building for expansion of nuclear power.  

In another important announcement, Oregon-based NuScale signed an agreement with Romania’s Nuclearelectrica to help deploy the first small modular reactors (SMR) in Europe.  The State Department hailed the agreement as a “pioneering step” that “will build significant momentum for reducing emissions across Europe.”  They continued, “with 30 coal power plants in the region, including seven in Romania, SMRs are ideally suited to replace this baseload power and employ many of the same workforce.”

In addition, on November 9th, the U.K. awarded Rolls Royce 210 million pounds to pursue design and regulatory approval of SMRs in the U.K.  SMRs offer unique features and design advantages relative to traditional multi-billion-dollar, gigawatt-plus size light water reactors and efforts by the U.S. and U.K. governments to promote the technology represent the next step in the intensifying global race to deploy nuclear to advance climate and energy goals. Competition from Russia and China is significant—both have numerous SMR facilities under development, while China has announced plans to build at least 150 new reactors (both large and small) in the next 15 years—more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35 years, according to Bloomberg.

Elsewhere in Europe, a coalition of 12 countries are calling for nuclear to receive a “green” designation under the continent’s forthcoming sustainable finance taxonomy, thereby enabling cheaper build costs and E.U. economic support.

While Germany continues to oppose the designation as it inexplicably works to close its remaining reactors over the next year, advocates remain optimistic.  An E.U. industry representative recently commented that … “we have more and more member states recognizing that, in order to achieve the decarbonization goals, we need nuclear in the mix…But also [because of] the recent energy crisis, I think more and more people are starting to recognize the risk of depending on imports.”

Add it all up and the conclusion is clear: while the case for nuclear power has always been strong, growing political support from governments, businesses and environmental interests alike is making it stronger.  To reach our ambitious global climate objectives, we need every tool in the toolbox to reduce emissions and including nuclear energy needs to be a priority.  Of course, COP26 is just a brief moment in time and momentum will need to be sustained.  So, pass it on: #NetZeroNeedsNuclear. 

His report deserves our attention.