Tag Archives: valley

The Dreamt Land – Mark Arax


The Dreamt Land

Chasing Water and Dust Across California

Mark Arax

Genre: Nature

Price: $15.99

Publish Date: May 21, 2019

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

"You can't understand California without understanding water, and no one is better at doing that than Mark Arax, whose depth of knowledge about the Central Valley is organic and unparalleled. Plus, he writes like a dream." –Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters A vivid, searching journey into California's capture of water and soil–the epic story of a people's defiance of nature and the wonders, and ruin, it has wrought Mark Arax is from a family of Central Valley farmers, a writer with deep ties to the land who has watched the battles over water intensify even as California lurches from drought to flood and back again. In The Dreamt Land, he travels the state to explore the one-of-a-kind distribution system, built in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, that is straining to keep up with California's relentless growth. This is a heartfelt, beautifully written book about the land and the people who have worked it–from gold miners to wheat ranchers to small fruit farmers and today's Big Ag. Since the beginning, Californians have redirected rivers, drilled ever-deeper wells and built higher dams, pushing the water supply past its limit. The Dreamt Land weaves reportage, history and memoir to confront the "Golden State" myth in riveting fashion. No other chronicler of the West has so deeply delved into the empires of agriculture that drink so much of the water. The nation's biggest farmers–the nut king, grape king and citrus queen–tell their story here for the first time. This is a tale of politics and hubris in the arid West, of imported workers left behind in the sun and the fatigued earth that is made to give more even while it keeps sinking. But when drought turns to flood once again, all is forgotten as the farmers plant more nuts and the developers build more houses. Arax, the native son, is persistent and tough as he treks from desert to delta, mountain to valley. What he finds is hard earned, awe-inspiring, tragic and revelatory. In the end, his compassion for the land becomes an elegy to the dream that created California and now threatens to undo it.


The Dreamt Land – Mark Arax

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11 takeaways from the Washington Post’s climate ideas op-ed

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In 1956, journalist Waldemar Kaempffert published an article in the New York Times warning of future environmental catastrophe — including global temperature rise — if humanity failed to curb CO2 emissions. “Such a comparatively small fluctuation seems of no importance,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it can bring about striking changes in the climate.”

Kaempffert’s climate assertions, unfortunately, did not set a precedent for the decades of environmental coverage to come. For many years, many top media companies have neglected to cover climate change — and when they do pay attention, it’s usually only because President Trump did or said something about it.

But anecdotally, it seems like climate change coverage might be picking up steam. This past weekend, NBC’s Meet the Press devoted a full hour to climate change — a first for a weekend news program.

Then on Wednesday, the Washington Post Opinions Staff went full-out Waldemar Kaempffert and presented 11 ideas for drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, each one written by climate policy leaders and experts.

If you’re too busy to read the full Post article, don’t stress. We’ve got the CliffsNotes version right here:

  1. Pass local emission goals. Look, we all know the federal government isn’t moving on this anytime soon. The Trump administration has been systematically dismantling Obama-era Clean Air regulations and continues its love affair with coal power. So we need all levels of government and businesses to green up and curb global warming.
  2. Reduce the use of air conditioners, which contain hydrofluorocarbons, a more potent greenhouse gas than even CO2. “Globally, a phasedown of HFC refrigerants could avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by 2100,” wrote Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
  3. Make electric vehicles easier to use and more affordable. Electric vehicles need not only be the way of the Silicon Valley. Federal tax credits, expanded infrastructure (i.e. charging stations), and incentive measures could make EVs the car of the future.
  4. Keep existing nuclear plants running… for now. Nuclear power is controversial but the Post article posits they’re necessary until more low-carbon solutions are available (lest they be replaced by natural gas).
  5. Design cities to encourage people to walk, not drive. How do you encourage more cyclists and pedestrians? For starters, well-lit intersections, covered bus stops with clear signage, and protected bike lanes. If you need more inspiration, check out this video from about how Grist’s very own Even Andrews (aka Umbra) gave up her vehicle.
  6. Curb food waste by avoiding unnecessary production. In an actual embarrassment of riches, the world lets a third of its food supply go to waste. Composting, and food recycling help place limitations what edible items end up in the landfill heap, but the best strategy is to avoid unnecessary food production in the first place.
  7. Incentivize carbon farming. That’s right – farming doesn’t need to lead to plumes of CO2 and pesticide runoff. With the right techniques (and legislation!), farming can give back to the earth, sequestering carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
  8. Secure a moratorium on new factory farms. Factory dairy and meat farms lead to a lot of earth-warming methane (and they don’t even need to report emissions). The article recommends rural communities transition to more resilient, carbon-effective agriculture models by halting new construction (and subsidization) of these massive productions, and focus on reducing overproduction at existing facilities.
  9. Adopt a carbon tax. Former Florida representative (and a 2017 Grist 50 Fixer) Carlos Curbelo writes that carbon taxes are “the best way to inspire such a wide-ranging, meaningful change, at the pace that we need it.” Curbelo proposes using carbon tax revenue to “robustly fund our nation’s infrastructure, help coastal communities adapt to the immediate effects of climate change and give low-income Americans and displaced workers assistance in the transition.”
  10. Stir up competition between electricity companies to get them to retire inefficient plants. In theory, companies will switch to cleaner fuels when they become cheaper.
  11. Pass a Green New Deal (aka the ‘Medicare for all’ of climate change) to get our economy to run on renewable energy. The idea, offered by 2018 Grist 50 member Varshini Prakash, is to create jobs while simultaneously prioritizing the communities most impacted by climate change.

“Radical change from one state, or even the whole United States, won’t address climate change on its own,” writes the Washington Post Opinion section staff, “but taking these actions could help start the planet down a path toward a better future.”

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11 takeaways from the Washington Post’s climate ideas op-ed

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The bad news about your favorite Mexican beers

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Best enjoyed ice cold, the beers of Mexico are red-hot in the United States. Between 2013 and 2017, sales of brews from south of the border surged 44 percent, even as domestic beer sales dipped 3.5 percent. A single company benefits most from this cerveza boom: New York-based beverage giant Constella­tion Brands, which bought the U.S. rights to Mexican megabrands Corona, Modelo, Victoria, and Pacifico as part of a $4.8 billion deal back in 2013.

Constellation’s properties now account for about 1 in 11 brews sold in the United States. For investors, this fact has gone down like a frosty Corona on a broiling beach: Since June 2012, when Constellation first signaled it would take over U.S. distribution, the company’s stock has risen seven times over, driven largely by the explosive growth of its beer division.

But Constellation’s Mexican beer assets are complicated. The company can only sell the products in the United States (the Belgian-Brazilian behemoth AB InBev owns the Mexican rights), but the beer must be made in Mexico. To minimize hauling costs, the Constellation megabreweries are situated along the border. The company touts its flagship facility in Nava, Coahuila, less than 30 miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas, as “one of the world’s largest and most automated breweries,” churning out one case of beer for every drinking-age U.S. adult a year, as a promotional video puts it.

As U.S. demand for Constellation’s beer grows, the company plans to invest $1.8 billion in expansion over the next three years. A big chunk of that will go toward a massive new beer factory in Mexicali, a midsize city at the northeastern corner of Baja California. Mexicali sits in a blistering-hot desert that gets an average of three inches of rain per year and relies on the overtaxed Colorado River for its water needs. That’s not a great situation, given that the once-mighty waterway’s average annual flow between 2000 and 2014 was nearly 20 percent less than it was in the 20th century, a trend that will likely continue over the next decades as the climate changes. And some of Mexico’s portion of that water goes to Tijuana (pop. 1.8 million), as well as one of the country’s more productive farming regions. According to Mexico’s federal water agency, the Mexicali Valley water table is overstressed, with annual withdrawals far exceeding recharge.

Once it’s up and running in about two years, the Constellation brewery in Mexicali plans to make more than 132 million gallons of beer each year. A Constellation spokesman says the company’s breweries typically require about three gallons of water for every gallon of finished product. That’s at least 396 million gallons of water per year — the same amount it would take to supply more than 14,000 people with running water, at a time when about 200,000 Baja Californians already lack access to this basic necessity.

The company insists water shortages aren’t likely — the spokesperson said the new brewery will draw from Mexicali’s municipal waterworks and require at most 2 percent of the water supply annually. But in its yearly report, Constellation acknowledged that “there is no guarantee” there will be sufficient water for beer production. Indeed, back in 2016, the mayor of a town near Constellation’s Nava plant accused the brewery of taking so much water that his residents’ taps went dry. (Constellation says the water problems in the area were the result of poor infrastructure.)

Meanwhile, Constellation hails the economic impact of the new project, claiming it will create more than 500 permanent jobs. But the brewery will also use some U.S.-grown hops and barley, meaning limited benefit for the local farm economy. In short, our Mexican beer is brewed under a maquiladora model that has thrived along the border for decades: Factories import many of the components of manufacturing, slap them together with low-wage Mexican labor, and send them north, providing little long-term economic development — and in this case, potential ecological trouble.

In early 2017, a group called Mexicali Resiste began to oppose construction of the brewery, accusing local government officials of giving Constellation a sweetheart deal on water access. Several confrontations this year between protesters and police at the construction site have turned violent. No one can deny the appeal of a cold Corona on a long, hot summer day. But water-stressed Baja Californians are wondering what’s in it for them.


The bad news about your favorite Mexican beers

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These 5 Southerners are fixing up Dixie.

Producing artificial snow used to be a desperate move taken by ski areas within striking distance of surfing beaches. Now, the practice is commonplace, even high in the Rocky Mountains and the Alps.

As a headline in Powder Magazine read last year, “Like It or Not, Snowmaking Is the Future.”

Utah’s Alta ski area has doubled its snowmaking capacity in the last decade. To make sure all those big machines and water pipes don’t detract too much from the scenery, they’re painted to blend in with the background, according to a dispatch from Wired. At Snowbird, also in Utah, each snow gun has its own weather station, allowing the machines to start, stop, and adjust water flow all on their own.

California’s Squaw Valley spent $10 million on machines that automatically change their water pressure and amount several times a second. Heavenly Ski Resort, at Lake Tahoe, can cover 3,500 acres with fake snow.

All these machines run on electricity, which comes from the still-mostly-fossil-fueled grid. That means making fake snow increases the rate of The Great Melt, which in turn creates demand for … more snow machines. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle of job security for these snow-bots: Is this the way Skynet becomes self-aware?

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These 5 Southerners are fixing up Dixie.

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Climate change will have its Scopes Monkey Trial this week

In 1925, a Tennessee substitute teacher was indicted by a grand jury for teaching evolution to his high school class. That case, the Scopes trial, became famous for pitting science against the Bible, and it helped pave the way for educational reform.

On Tuesday, a case in California could do for climate change what the Scopes trial did for evolution. Last September, San Francisco and Oakland filed major lawsuits against five of the world’s largest oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell.

All of those companies are constantly being sued for making large and sometimes permanent environmental messes. But the people of California aren’t suing BP and co. for spills, explosions, or other easily traceable disasters. Rather, they’re suing because those companies:

  1. knew about climate change decades ago,
  2. continued doing business as usual, and
  3. engaged in a world-wide public relations campaign to sow confusion over climate science.

California says the companies have been using deception to profit as the planet warms, and they should pay for the infrastructure the state needs to protect itself against rising sea-levels.

The lawsuits join others in a new wave of court cases: the climate suits. Two weeks ago, a climate change lawsuit filed by 21 kid activists against the Trump administration was cleared for trial. A week later, Arnold Schwarzeneggar announced plans to sue Big Oil for committing “first degree murder.” And New York City hit polluters with a double whammy in January: the city decided to divest billions of dollars in pension money from fossil fuels and filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest polluters in the industry.

The cases pit people against industry and government, and, whether or not the people win, the legal battles could mark the beginning of a shift in the way fossil fuel companies are held accountable in court. This particular case is especially novel, thanks to an unorthodox judge named William Alsup.

The judge presiding over the Bay Area cities-vs.-oil companies case isn’t your average federal justice. Alsup’s the guy who blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA, taught himself how to use a programming script for a Silicon Valley lawsuit, and, as part of another tech battle, asked two ride-sharing services to give him a tutorial on self-driving cars to make a better-informed ruling.

Alsup’s quest for a well-rounded education means that before this trial moves forward, both parties must give him a two-part, first-of-its-kind tutorial in climate science in no more than two hours each. It’s a highly unusual request from a judge, experts say, and it will give Americans the opportunity to follow along as big polluters finally go on record about climate science and climate denialism.

Judge Alsup has submitted 14 questions for each party in the case to answer, including:

What caused the various ice ages?
What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
Why hasn’t plant life turned the higher levels of CO2 back into oxygen?

Most of the 14 questions could be answered by a precocious fifth grader. But the hearing, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, will be the first time oil companies defend themselves in court against decades of climate science.

“Up until now, fossil fuel companies have been able to talk about climate science in political and media arenas where there is far less accountability to the truth,” Burger says.

The complaint

In addition to providing answers to Alsup’s questions, the plaintiffs will likely present evidence that oil companies knew about the harmful effects of CO2 on the atmosphere at least since the 1970s. They may also highlight the prize-winning 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News, which revealed that Exxon purposefully misled the public about the risks of fossil fuels in order to protect its business. Despite having long known about the dangers of fossil-fuel consumption, California will charge that the “defendants continue to engage in massive fossil fuel production.”

As CO2 levels spike and global temperatures increase, melting glaciers have caused flooding in California’s coastal cities. The state’s argument rests on the charge that fossil fuel producers have caused a public nuisance. While the accusation sounds like something you’d call a drunk guy making a ruckus in the street, in legalese, it’s dead serious, constituting a crime that jeopardizes the welfare of a community.

The defense

While the oil companies are unlikely to deny climate science, they are expected to highlight areas of uncertainty on its specifics. Even though climate science has made leaps and bounds in the past decade, scientists still readily admit how hard it is to pin down exactly how much sea-level rise we can expect in the next 50 to 100 years. You can be sure Big Oil’s lawyers will question the validity of some climate science’s conclusions in court.

But they won’t stop there. The defendants will probably try to get the case dismissed on the grounds that the complaint “calls into question longstanding decisions by the Federal Government regarding, among other things, national security, national energy policy, environmental protection, development of outer continental shelf lands, the maintenance of a national petroleum reserve, mineral extraction on federal lands.” And the lawyers will rightly point out that their clients have “produced billions of dollars for the federal government.” In other words, they’ll try to argue that, by putting this case on trial, the government is biting some of the hands that feed it.

The defendants have already achieved one victory — they requested that the case be heard in federal instead of state court, where local laws are tough on big polluters. Just Friday, fossil fuel companies suffered a blow when a different set of lawsuits from three Californian counties were successfully moved to state court. But, for this case, Judge Alsup agreed with industry, saying a “patchwork of 50 different answers to the same fundamental global issue would be unworkable.”

What happens if California wins

If San Francisco and Oakland win their respective suits, the five oil giants might have to pay billions of dollars into an “abatement fund,” a reserve that the cities can use to pay for seawalls and other infrastructure to protect their citizens against rising oceans.

But the case might not even make it to trial. California could quite possibly ace the upcoming climate change tutorial and lose the case nevertheless. The tutorial puts climate science in the spotlight, but the oil companies could persuasively argue that California’s sea-level concerns (and the damaging storm surges that accompany sea rise) can’t be pinned on individual companies.

“There are legal obstacles that could prevent this case from ever going to trial,” Burger says. “The science could play a role in some of these preliminary arguments, but the ultimate questions about whether the science equates with legal liability for these plaintiffs, the factual connection between these particular parties’ actions and the particular harm suffered by these cities, may never get heard.”

In other words, California could win the battle but lose the war. The oil companies hope the case will ultimately get dismissed or shunted up to the Supreme Court where legal precedent favors polluters. That doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the future of the climate suit.

If the court ultimately rules in favor of the defendants, there’s a long line of similar lawsuits waiting for their day in court. Buckle up, polluters! You’re in for it now.

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Climate change will have its Scopes Monkey Trial this week

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Striking teachers in West Virginia call for raising taxes on coal and gas.

A new review paper pulls together all the research on what farming will look like in California in the coming decades, and we’re worried.

California has the biggest farm economy of any state, and “produces over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts,” according to the paper. In other words, if you enjoy eating, California agriculture matters to you.

Alas, the projections are mostly grim, with a few exceptions. Alfalfa might grow better, and wine grapes might be able to pull through, but nuts and avocados are in for a beating.

David Lobell et al.

The changing climate could make between 54 to 77 percent of California’s Central Valley unsuitable for “apricot, kiwifruit, peach, nectarine, plum, and walnut by the end of the 21st century,” according to the paper. That’s, in part, because many fruit and nut trees require a specific number of cold hours before they put out a new crop.

Milder winters will also mean that more pests will survive the cold and emerge earlier in the spring. Perhaps most importantly, the state is projected to lose 48-65 percent of its snowpack — a crucial storehouse of irrigation water to get through hotter, drier summers.

Maybe we’ll live to see conservative California farmers convert to cannabis, or move north to plant almond orchards in British Columbia.


Striking teachers in West Virginia call for raising taxes on coal and gas.

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We’ve lived through one wild year of Ryan Zinke.

A new review paper pulls together all the research on what farming will look like in California in the coming decades, and we’re worried.

California has the biggest farm economy of any state, and “produces over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts,” according to the paper. In other words, if you enjoy eating, California agriculture matters to you.

Alas, the projections are mostly grim, with a few exceptions. Alfalfa might grow better, and wine grapes might be able to pull through, but nuts and avocados are in for a beating.

David Lobell et al.

The changing climate could make between 54 to 77 percent of California’s Central Valley unsuitable for “apricot, kiwifruit, peach, nectarine, plum, and walnut by the end of the 21st century,” according to the paper. That’s, in part, because many fruit and nut trees require a specific number of cold hours before they put out a new crop.

Milder winters will also mean that more pests will survive the cold and emerge earlier in the spring. Perhaps most importantly, the state is projected to lose 48-65 percent of its snowpack — a crucial storehouse of irrigation water to get through hotter, drier summers.

Maybe we’ll live to see conservative California farmers convert to cannabis, or move north to plant almond orchards in British Columbia.

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We’ve lived through one wild year of Ryan Zinke.

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Facebook’s Not Designed to Create a “Global Community”

Mother Jones

In the early 1960’s, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village.” He predicted that electronic technologies would come to connect citizens around the world, forming one huge community. Mark Zuckerberg, whose company Facebook has 1.8 billion users worldwide, continues to echo the idea in his public talks, including in February when he apologized about the spread of fake news on his platform and restated his mission to “build a global community that works for all of us.” But was McLuhan right? Have the internet’s inventions brought us closer together?

Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor at UCLA, raises this question in his debut book Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World. As a researcher focused on the relationship between technology, politics, and society, Srinivasan proposes a deconstruction of Western tech company narratives. He points out that today’s most popular technological tools were developed by just a few men in Silicon Valley. And while their social media platforms may be wildly popular, these founders tend to get too much credit for influencing events around the globe. For instance, Srinivasan points out that there is a belief that the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring in 2011 was only possible thanks to Twitter and Facebook—actually, less than 10 percent of Egyptians had access to those platforms in their homes at the time.

Srinivasan also shares his own experiences about community empowerment through technology with Native Americans in California and New Mexico, and with locals in Egypt and in rural India. In addition to greater transparency in contracts established on the Internet, the author urges for the creation of more tech tools that respect cultural values ​​and the voices of local communities.

Mother Jones: Why did you write this book?

Ramesh Srinivasan: The book really comes out of my own personal experience. I am a former engineer and I was really excited about the possibility of building better technology to serve humanity. A lot of us as engineers have this belief that if you build a tool you somehow can empower humans economically or socially. The idea of building a better technology often means more efficiency. When I was in graduate school at MIT I was trying to think about how to develop software and systems for farmers and villagers in India. In the process of doing that, I realized that my reference point was internal to the laboratory, rather than in the communities that I was wanting to serve. So in a sense I was not necessarily thinking about the values, belief systems, and the realities that are being experiencing by the communities that I was supposed to be working with. I realized that I could no longer assume what a good technology looks like from inside the laboratory; instead, I had to be in the world with people. Not just designing for them but with them.

MJ: What is the real meaning of technology to you?

RS: Technology is nothing but an expression of human values. It’s not neutral, it’s not about efficiency, it’s about people’s values and their knowledge. If you share information widely, but you present that information in ways that fits your own view, you’re actually still misrepresenting. So instead what you should do is figure out ways to build systems that allow people to experience and classify their information in ways that are meaningful for them.

MJ: What is the “global village,” and why is it a myth?

RS: It was a term that was stated by Marshall McLuhan; his prediction was some kind of electronic communication technology would emerge to instantaneously connect the world so much so that the whole globe would be like a village. The question isn’t about global village but whose global village. The point I’m trying to make is if these networks of communication technologies are owned, monetized, surveilled, and classified by those with power—very few people, mainly white men in Silicon Valley—then it is a global village build upon the ideas, visions, words, and protocols of the few. So it’s not global—it’s like Epcot center. It’s like Disneyland: a small worldview of the larger world.

MJ: As you said, Twitter and Facebook were accessed in fewer than 10 percent of Egyptian homes in 2011. Why do people believe the revolution was led by this kind of technology?

RS: Some of the activists of course were using social media. But overall in the country, including in Cairo, a very small percentage were using it. They were using these tools to influence journalism, to influence the international coverage. The Egyptians used every form of organizing they could think of and they built coalitions. A lot of the people that were involved in this had been organizing for 30 or 40 years.

MJ: Why do you say that inequality today is a major part of the story of the internet?

RS: In its early days the Internet seem to be a counter cultural space and an anti corporate space, now is the place for corporate economic production. What the internet is now isn’t what it used to be and it doesn’t have to be what it turns into. Instagram was sold to Facebook for $1 billion with 13 employees in the Bay Area. In the same year, Kodak, which had employed more than 40,000 people, was bankrupt. What is happening in a digital economy where 40,000 people lose their jobs and 13 people become super millionaires? Those systems are created in such way that support the capturing of data, keeping of data, buying and selling the data to support what we call corporate surveillance. These are things that are happening right now and they’re really bad.

MJ: What are the main conceptual changes that the World Wide Web has faced since the 1990’s? It was a more decentralized structure before, right?

RS: Absolutely, it was horizontal, decentralized. It was like being in Wild West, the frontier. There is a reason why Electronic Frontier Foundation is called that way. It was supposed to be this open place where all sorts of crazy stuff could happen, like unpredictable, uncontrolled space, that really supported autonomy and privacy, but still worked because people had an idea of social contract. You could kind of be free and expressive but you already knew when you joined the internet, you knew that you should not be a troll. So what happened? Part of it is the internet scaled to such a degree so the kind of idea of a social contract or a community became increasingly difficult to maintain. Part of it is that platforms took over the open internet. You began to experience the internet through platforms that were themselves controlled by specific companies, technical instruments of those companies, like search and retrieval and ordering and classification.

MJ: Isn’t it also a problem of scale?

RS: Scale doesn’t need to mean the absence of decentralization. If you create networks that allow people in their own local systems to have power and agency and sovereignty in their own systems. The idea that people could just know what’s happening with their data. You could work with the platform, in communication with it, more than “I’m just like experiencing as a blind person in a black box”.

MJ: Do you think we should have more legislation about privacy?

RS: Not just about privacy, but also about community sovereignty. Communities that are using the internet should be aware of what the terms of their contract are with these platforms and they don’t even know. Google and Facebook extend internet access across the world, but the access is generally speaking to an internet that is focused on the advertisers to those sites. So I’m really interested not just in privacy for the individual but respect for the local communities. And I think we have a problem with both and whenever industries kind of become almost monopolistic they have to be challenged to be more responsible. We can challenge them in the press, in the courts and in regulation.

MJ: I’m afraid that government ruling the internet might not be a good thing either.

RS: I think the governments need to encourage these companies and convince them that they can be extremely profitable without necessarily spiraling out of control. Without becoming monopolist. But we are getting close to the point where as every platform of tech that has any level of scale gets bought by either Google or Facebook or sometimes Microsoft. We are getting to the point where we see some oligopoly in terms of behavior online, and that it’s really problematic because the oligopolies are completely non transparent, they are terrible in terms of labor and economic equality and they support systems of surveillance. It can create a world where we are all placed in bubbles, where the systems themselves can be manipulated by people who don’t have our best interests in mind. The fake news thing came out that system. Fake news is a product of the internet that is not transparent. Fake news can spread online because as users we have no idea where any of the content we see comes from.

MJ: What do you see happening with the big tech companies right now?

RS: We are at a moment that some of the Silicon Valley companies are feeling the pressure. These days the founder of Twitter apologized that his company promoted some of the things that elected Trump. You don’t see that much of these apologizing from Google. From Zuckerberg you are hearing a little bit more of it, but he is a little more “Oh, well, this is what happens because the internet scaled up and everybody has fake news; oh, we are gonna build a better technology”. This is what engineers in Silicon Valley typically do. “Ok, well, of course there are some problems of our technology because it is so excellent and is so global so we are just gonna build a better one.” What do you mean by better? They are not understating that they are so politically and socially and culturally central in the world. They would probably never have thought that they would become like this. But now that they are, what are they gonna do about it? I have a lots of friends who work in these companies: it’s about taking responsibility.

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Facebook’s Not Designed to Create a “Global Community”

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Unroll.me Is Latest Victim of Two Minutes Hate

Mother Jones

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Have you heard of Unroll.me? I hadn’t until they suddenly popped up in my Twitter feed because everyone was telling me to uninstall their app and never do business with them again. It turns out that Unroll.me is a company that scans your email and unsubscribes you from all your spam. Useful! And free! So how do they make money? By selling data to folks who will pay them for it.

In particular, it turns out that one of their clients is Uber, which was interested in keeping tabs on its biggest competitor, Lyft. Unroll.me helps by scanning email for Lyft receipts and telling Uber whether Lyft’s business is up or down. This is what caused the commotion.

My initial reaction was: Duh. What did you think Unroll.me was doing to make money? I didn’t bother writing anything about it because I didn’t really care that much, but today co-founder Perri Chase (who’s no longer with the company) comes to the defense of her friend and Unroll.me CEO Jojo Hedaya:

Anonymized and at scale why do people care? Do you really care? Are you really surprised? How exactly is this shocking?

Or maybe you just hate yourselves because you think Uber is gross but you use them anyway and “why are these tech founders such assholes” that they have to ruin your experience where you need to delete your apps? And you love Unroll.me and you feel righteous and you have to delete that now too because you need to take a stand against these plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service practices.

….Let’s look at why we are really in this situation. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is out of control and no one can stop him. No one except a board who refuses to hold him accountable for his disgusting behavior. Yeah. As a woman I think he is disgusting. As a founder, the truth is I’m like DAMN. That guy is willing to do whatever it takes and I have a mild amount of envy that I’m not a shittier human willing to go to those lengths to be successful. See, Silicon Valley rewards it. He is setting the example for the future founders who want to “crush it” and be unstoppable. It’s gross. You don’t hate that Unroll.me sells your data. You hate that Unroll.me sells your data to Uber.

I still don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I’m distinctly unthrilled with the fact that that we all give companies access to so much personal information about ourselves—and we do it for a pittance. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that I’m in a tiny minority. Even when people know precisely what’s going on, they mostly shrug and sign up anyway. That’s the world we live in.

Chase’s “plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service” defense is pretty disingenuous since she knows perfectly well that nobody reads the terms of service for the apps they use. But even if they did I doubt that Unroll.me would lose more than a few percent of their customers. Most of them probably wouldn’t care if Unroll.me sold their names and email addresses to Uber, let alone a harmless bit of aggregate data.

For what it’s worth, what I’d like to see from companies like Unroll.me is a really clear explanation on their websites of what they do. Maybe just a short, punchy bullet list: Examples of what we will do and examples of what we won’t do. That’s what I’d like. And a pony.

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Unroll.me Is Latest Victim of Two Minutes Hate

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If You’re Reading About "The Circle" on Facebook, It’s Already Too Late

Mother Jones

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Tomi Um

The Circle, published in 2013 by the prolific novelist (and McSweeney‘s founder) Dave Eggers, is a dire prophecy for our wireless world. Protagonist Mae, fresh from college, goes to work for the eponymous social network, a hyperdriven mashup of Facebook and Google that won’t stop until it knows everything about everything—and everyone. The story is an unsettling glimpse of a generation trained, like Pavlovian Instagrammers, to crave the rush of a post going viral, and it leaves you asking: How much privacy should we hand over to Silicon Valley? How much knowledge is too much? The movie adaptation, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, was directed and co-written (with Eggers) by James Ponsoldt—a deft choice given The End of the Tour, his brilliant 2015 film about David Foster Wallace. As an author with a rosier view of technology, I jumped at the chance to chat with Eggers and Ponsoldt about their dystopian vision.

Mother Jones: How did the film project come together?

James Ponsoldt: I’ve been a fan of Dave’s writing since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I loved The Circle and I was terrified by it. My wife and I were on the verge of having our first child, and I recognized that we were both able to have childhoods that were undocumented, for the most part, and I didn’t know if my son would have that luxury. I felt really sad.

MJ: And what made James the right person for the job?

Dave Eggers: The book is about a young woman, and James has always done an amazing job with young actors and actresses. He’s not much older than Mae and has grown up swimming in the same waters she’s in, more so than me—so much of what I was doing was extrapolating what would come, as opposed to describing what is. That combination of expertise in technology and then a deeply humanistic point of view made him seem like a perfect fit.

MJ: Dave, when did you start thinking about the implications of how social media is altering our lives?

DE: For me, it didn’t have much to do with social media, actually.

MJ: Oh!

DE: You always write one book and people read a different one. Laughs. I’ve been in San Francisco since 1992. I saw the Bay Area tech world reinvent itself many times, but it wasn’t until maybe 2007, 2008, 2009 when the concentration of wealth and power started to concern me. Also the surveillance aspect—the inability, increasingly, for us to opt out of being watched. I feel pretty strongly that a citizen under surveillance is not free. We have passively acquiesced to this, to the point where it’s almost a foregone conclusion. I think that was the impetus.

MJ: I’m not even sure we acquiesced so much as happily participated. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman writes that we were worried about Orwell’s version of surveillance, but it was Aldous Huxley’s that won out because it’s our own desires that have enslaved us. James, tell me about your evolving relationship with technology.

JP: It’s complicated. I was raised by ex-hippies, but I grew up worshipping a television set. I am skeptical of a lot of things, but I was on Myspace and Friendster, and I have a fascination with the new. My wife and I met on Facebook! We were on opposite sides of America, and a mutual love of Vic Chesnutt, a musician from Athens, Georgia, began a conversation. So I certainly can see everything it has to offer—and what we give up in that exchange.

DE: I always say to the college kids I talk to that I have no objection to people posting pictures and sharing stories online. That’s the beauty of the internet. But I try to talk to them about who owns that data and what are they consenting to, and that’s a conversation people don’t want to get into. A funny thing happened on the way to utopia: We’ve turned into this surveillance society and become a race of spies, where we track our kids and we track our spouses and we track our friends. I think very soon there will be an obsolescence of trust, because it’s much easier to access a person’s location than it is to ask—or to trust. When I ask 50 college kids who is conflicted about their technology use, 49 hands go up.

MJ: One of the things that struck me reading The Circle was the nagging burden that the need to participate in the public sphere places on Mae.

DE: Yeah, for 12 years I had a high school class called the Best American Nonrequired Reading. Not all the kids had smartphones, but there was a sense of near-constant social obligation, with fairly high costs for being absent for an hour. In the absence of the “like” there is the implicit “don’t like,” and that becomes a source of angst and want. I saw it happen to friends in their 40s who would say those very sad words—”Like me on Facebook”—to me. I thought, “Something really radical has changed when these dignified, educated people are saying those four sad words.” There are so many phenomenal things about these platforms, and the unintended consequences are either very tragic or very funny. I was trying to balance those two. Twitter has been instrumental in getting the word out about human rights issues or protests, and then you also have it as this horrific platform—a would-be despot in Trump uses it to spout falsities to 26 million people. So you’re giving a very dangerous megaphone to a cretin.

MJ: I’m curious how Silicon Valley folks responded to your book.

DE: I’d say half the people I’ve known here over the last 25 years are in tech, or have been. They found it terrifying in all the right ways.

MJ: What were the challenges in turning this book into a movie?

DE: When you adapt a book, you really have to cut it to the essence. James did an amazing job of finding that essential through-story and then picking and choosing parts to buttress that—because books are just big, baggy monsters full of speculation and a thousand notions. A film is a much more poetic medium.

MJ: James?

JP: For me it was just trying to bottle the way Dave’s book made me feel. I found it insanely funny, darkly funny. I see myself deeply in the protagonist—her occasional pettiness and anxiety and her desire to not want to die anonymous. She’s really complicated and I wanted to do justice to that.

MJ: Will the ending be as bleak as the one in the book?

DE: Laughs. It does not turn the ending around and make it happy—but it’s different. Adaptations are a corollary, but without being dutiful.

MJ: So are we doomed to a future in which corporations increasingly manipulate our behavior and control how we express ourselves?

DE: Well, the bigger and stronger monopolies get, the harder they are to break. That said, none of these companies have been around for very long. James mentioned Friendster and Myspace—it always makes me laugh hearing those words—and then AOL, AltaVista, and on and on. If we look at the history…

JP: Dave’s right. And then, there’s really not a precedent for an industry whose value system is to help facilitate dialogue about how to think, how to find information and share it. Most of my friends in tech are progressive and idealistic, but they’re also making a lot of money. And it’s hard to stop making a lot of money. Companies don’t break themselves up voluntarily.

DE: You also have to look at companies like Facebook and LinkedIn. Their stock price only rises with increased usage and increased frequency of usage. So that creates a very unnatural and I think tyrannical pursuit of what I called in the book “completion.” Which is, these companies are infinitely more valuable the more they can study a complete group of users, without exception. I feel like that is going to be the next dangerous spot we find ourselves in—what companies will do to get all of this demographic, all of that region, all of this occupation, and you see them coming at you 19 different ways. At a certain point growth will stop, and that’s what’s curious. At 2 billion Facebook users, will it be allowed to stop? One of the themes in the movie is making voting mandatory through The Circle, which is very plausible under a privatization scenario. Politicians say, “Well, you have to vote, and you have to vote through The Circle, so you have to have a Circle account.” Not that Trump wants everyone to vote, but you get the idea.

MJ: James, for the past year or so you’ve used Twitter, somewhat presciently, as a platform to tell outrageous lies and crazy stories. Will you be tweeting about The Circle?

JP: Laughs. In some probably indirect way, sure. I’m living aspects of the movie, I guess.

MJ: What about you, Dave? Any chance we’ll ever see you on Twitter?

DE: Awkward silence, then laughter. I don’t think so. It’s really an old-dog-new-tricks kind of thing for me. McSweeney’s tweets. They can do it. I just don’t—no, no plans to.


If You’re Reading About "The Circle" on Facebook, It’s Already Too Late

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