This past week found America in a soul-searching mood. Two mass shootings, one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead and scores injured, and an aching nation demanded answers as to what, or who, was to blame for this chaotic, unsettling state of affairs. Some looked to President Trump, others to the National Rifle Association or Fox News or white supremacism. But if you want a clearer view of our collective decline, just ask Sally Robey.
The mother of four from Wilmette, Illinois, was the subject of a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal that captured, far better than most political coverage these days, just what it is that’s currently wrong with America. Tired of paying excessive fees on her family’s seven phone lines, Robey called AT&T and asked if a better deal was possible. She was a loyal client of the company since George Herbert Walker Bush was president, so when she called to report a counteroffer she had received from Verizon, imagining that a friendly and attentive representative on the other end of the line would do his best to match it.
Instead, the representative declined to do anything at all. But when Robey went ahead and began switching her numbers to the competitor, she told the Journal, AT&T rushed in and made her the very offer it had previously claimed was impossible.
In corporate speak, the company was waiting for the “breakpoint,” the precise moment in which a person breaks and is no longer willing to suffer abuse. And if you’re following the advent of our technologies even haphazardly, it will not surprise you in the least to know that the calculation of breakpoints is now big business in Silicon Valley. Some dashing new startups, for example, now monitor customer service conversations in real time, directing the call to various service providers depending on the customer’s perceived level of exasperation. “Voice,” the chief strategy officer of one such company waxed poetic in the Journal, “is the last offline data set.”
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with mass shootings, political mistrust, and the other ills of our moment in time, simply imagine the staggeringly uncomplicated Platonic ideal of the sort of call Sally Robey was trying to make. It’s the sort of call each one of us makes at least once a month if not more frequently. Ideally, when you call a customer care line, you expect a friendly and knowledgeable person on the other end to do their best to resolve your concern. Even if they don’t offer any concrete help, we’ve plenty of research to suggest that just feeling heard and appreciated can go a long way toward making us feel like human beings and not like contestants in some less violent but equally cruel version of The Hunger Games.
Why can’t we get that nice person who listens when we pick up the phone and call for help? Three reasons come to mind, which happen to be the same three that are behind our contemporary bundle of sorrows. They are the advent of global capitalism, the dizzying rise of the technology sector, and the erosion of traditional mores and institutions.
This may not sound all that new and exciting. But consider the evidence, beginning, if you will, with the humble call center. What has made that industry bleed jobs—18,200 of them lost in 2017 alone? Two academics, John Burgess and Julia Connell, edited a book on the subject, the sprightly titled Developments in the Call Centre Industry: Analysis, Changes and Challenges. It’s a good read, but the volume’s conclusion hardly requires a Ph.D. in sociology, economics, or any related fields: Call center jobs were lost or sent abroad because corporations, pressured by shareholders to produce higher revenues and goaded by consultants demanding cost-cutting galore, looked around for something expendable. They landed on that least quantifiable, least commodifiable asset—interpersonal relations.
What happened next doesn’t take a genius to guess at, either. Big Tech jumped in like a Hallelujah chorus, ensuring CEOs that they were making the right decision by subjecting the exchanges of humans to an algorithm, which is how you get a culture that thinks of our voices—the instrument with which we declare our liberty from tyranny, say, or our love for our children—as nothing more complicated than an “offline data set.” In turn, those two thrusts toward a colder, crueler world were made possible because the very institutions we’ve erected to guard against them—the church, the family, the community—have been systemically and repeatedly eroded by decades of activists who, seeing tradition as a particularly nefarious sort of oppression, argued for rampant individuality as our primary virtue.
Economy, technology, morality: Rattle these big three, and soon folks may start feeling a little unsettled and a little more prone to anxiety and depression—and to acts of desperation. And rattling these three is what the last 20 years of American life has been all about.
It’s a wild story best told wildly, and it goes something like this: Some very smart and very ambitious people decided that profits, like hope, ought to spring eternal. Boosted by a host of factors that enabled them to take their businesses global, they saw their fortunes soar; this is why, in 1978, the average American CEO was making 30 times as much as his or her company’s lowest paid employee, and why that number has since soared to 271 times, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
This surge did little to improve the lives of average Americans, though. As a recent Pew survey found, while Americans’ paychecks have gotten bigger over the past 40 years, many of their expenditures have gotten more costly, which means that their purchasing power hasn’t budged much.
This profound inequality is the sort of soil from which revolutions bloom, and so our economic betters began peddling the narrative of history’s inevitable march forward. They told us, in a tone bordering on the bemused, that manufacturing jobs were no more likely to return to America than the Diplodocus, neglecting to add that the only reason that would not happen was that they preferred their revenues in the billions rather than the millions.
When rumblings about income inequality persisted, and got louder, during the Obama years, the turbo-techno globalist classes tapped into capitalism’s mighty power for reinvention and began embracing the wonders of wokeness. This is why Nike, to use an obvious example, makes so much of Colin Kaepernick: It’s much better to have people fume and fight over whether or not athletes ought to take a knee while using identity politics to peddle expensive sneakers to inner city kids and their suburban emulators than to have to address hard allegations of worker abuse, child labor, and massive tax evasion.
Luckily for Nike, and for every other corporation covering its sinful ass, launching orchestrated campaigns of mass distraction is easy these days, thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the other platforms owned by the tech gods. Social media destroyed the careful craft of gathering and disseminating information just as Amazon ravaged the intimacies of commerce and just as every 20-something with venture money and an appetite for disruption giddily reduced intricate human exchanges to a series of simple and convenient transactions.
The ability to capture human desires with apps meant that a simple swipe could replace meaningful human interactions, like sex with someone you actually know, or walking over to your local farmer’s market and chatting with the people who grew your food a few miles away.
Tech’s titans were glad to pay the requisite price to stay in the hollowing-out business: Firing an engineer who had said unkind things about women, they realized, was all it took to buy complacency, no matter what their products did to the hopes and dreams of actual women. It is, after all, much easier to demand a modest increase to the minimum wage than to note that the so-called sharing economy has robbed millions of American workers of hard-earned protections, turning them to de facto vassals who have been stripped of the familiar protections of labor laws and antitrust legislation. Depredations like these are best understood and resisted on a communal level, which is a feat a society as thoroughly atomized as ours can no longer achieve.
The champions of progress, whether well meaning or purely profit-driven, have spent decades portraying every priest as a potential predator and every parent as a petty tyrant, leaving families and religious groups and other foundations of any society too broken down and stressed out to put up much of a fight. Instead of these familiar structures, progressives aim to create their own social verticals, rooted in the idea of “identity,” which will supposedly do what families and churches and bowling leagues did, only better.
Will they? The advantage of institutions like the family is that they have been around for a very long time. Whether identity politics-driven “civil society” verticals on Facebook will actually welcome anyone home for Thanksgiving or pay their rent or provide the intimacy and inevitable disappointments of familial love and care is an open question—if you come from Mars. For anyone with any experience of human existence on planet Earth, the idea is at best a joke or a con, and at worst a nightmare.
But the most terrifying thing is that these same forces that have already eroded American civic life so thoroughly aren’t even halfway done yet—because they are aware that what they have broken can’t be glued back together with likes and retweets and the fetishization of sneakers. Instead, their actual vision involves imposing ever-increasing degrees of technologically mediated surveillance and control over increasingly atomized societies.
Tech companies already monitor every word we type or say. Smartphones note our location and the patterns of our movement. Lists are compiled, saved, and analyzed of everyone we know and everything we buy. Cameras record our every move. Facial recognition software is making anonymity increasingly difficult.
If you wonder where all of this is going, look no further than China, where a complex, tech-driven social credit system is already in place, awarding citizens points for doing good things like volunteering and docking them points if they, say, neglect to pay a parking fine. The government’s tracking system is intricately linked up with those of several tech behemoths, which means, quite literally, that everything you do online can and will be used against you if the authorities so please.
America is not quite there yet, but it’s not too far behind, either. Amazon, for example, is already using its popular home alarm system, Ring, to record video it then shares with local police departments, which is in large part why the company’s cloud-computing enterprise, Amazon Web Services, mushroomed from a $200 million business five years ago to a neat $2 billion today—federal and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies are paying top dollar for speedy access to the world’s largest and most layered database, compiled by a company that has ears in our homes, eyes on our doors, and an exhaustive knowledge of everything we consume.
Perversely, some activists—and even some presidential candidates—are calling for more, not less, control, urging social media companies, say, to censor the speech of political foes. This is a disaster, as well as the pathway to a deeply un-American future in which liberty is compromised and freedom forgotten.
It’s not too late yet for us to wake up from our collective nightmare, and start building a society that isn’t driven by profit-hungry algorithms, and doesn’t drive so many of its members to go berserk. But to do this we need to stop shrieking about the president or the gun lobby or other bogeymen and instead address, as good liberals liked to put it, the root causes of our ongoing social carnage.
Regulating social media companies—which pronounce themselves platforms even though they make their mint by running content and charging for advertisements, just like traditional publishers—is a good first step, one that both Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump claim to agree on. We have firm laws in place to hold our media accountable, and to ensure that with the great power of freedom of speech comes great responsibility. Another good move would be to crack down on industries, like Big Pharma, that have made a killing while literally killing tens of thousands of Americans each year with addictive opioids. A third may be to explore policies that empower not just individuals but entire communities, be it through faith-based groups or otherwise.
None of these are as satisfying a battle cry as “Impeach Trump” or “Ban All Guns.” But they are sustainable solutions, the only ones a society teetering on the brink of collapse can afford.
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