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Power of the People is a great grabber of a headline, at least for me. But it’s a pitch for a report that requires filling out the form here on the right:

You see a lot of these: invitations to put one’s digital ass on mailing list, just to get a report that should have been public in the first place, but isn’t so personal data can be harvested and sold or given away to God knows who.

And you do more than just “agree to join” a mailing list. You are now what marketers call a “qualified lead” for countless other parties you’re sure to be hearing from.

And how can you be sure? Read the privacy policy,. This one (for Viantinc.com) begins,

If you choose to submit content to any public area of our websites or services, your content will be considered “public” and will be accessible by anyone, including us, and will not be subject to the privacy protections set forth in this Privacy Policy unless otherwise required by law. We encourage you to exercise caution when making decisions about what information you disclose in such public areas.

Is the form above one of those “public areas”? Of course. What wouldn’t be? And are they are not discouraging caution by requiring you to fill out all the personal data fields marked with a *? You betcha. See here:

III. How we use and share your information

A. To deliver services

In order to facilitate our delivery of advertising, analytics and other services, we may use and/or share the information we collect, including interest-based segments and user interest profiles containing demographic information, location information, gender, age, interest information and information about your computer, device, or group of devices, including your IP address, with our affiliates and third parties, such as our service providers, data processors, business partners and other third parties.

B. With third party clients and partners

Our online advertising services are used by advertisers, websites, applications and other companies providing online or internet connected advertising services. We may share information, including the information described in section III.A. above, with our clients and partners to enable them to deliver or facilitate the delivery of online advertising. We strive to ensure that these parties act in accordance with applicable law and industry standards, but we do not have control over these third parties. When you opt-out of our services, we stop sharing your interest-based data with these third parties. Click here for more information on opting out.

No need to bother opting out, by the way, because there’s this loophole too:

D. To complete a merger or sale of assets

If we sell all or part of our business or make a sale or transfer of our assets or are otherwise involved in a merger or transfer of all or a material part of our business, or participate in any other similar business combination (including, without limitation, in connection with any bankruptcy or similar proceeding), we may transfer all or part of our data to the party or parties involved in the transaction as part of that transaction. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that we and any purchaser of our business or assets may continue to collect, use and disclose your information in compliance with this Privacy Policy.

Okay, let’s be fair: this is boilerplate. Every marketing company—hell, every company period—puts jive like this in their privacy policies.

And Viant isn’t one of marketing’s bad guys. Or at least that’s not how they see themselves. They do mean well, kinda, if you forget they see no alternative to tracking people.

If you want to see what’s in that report without leaking your ID info to the world, the short cut is New survey by people-based marketer Viant promotes marketing to identified users in @Martech_Today.

What you’ll see there is a company trying to be good to users in a world where those users have no more power than marketers give them. And giving marketers that ability is what Viant does.

Curious… will Viant’s business persist after the GDPR trains heavy ordnance on it?

See, the GDPR  forbids gathering personal data about an EU citizen without that person’s clear permission—no matter where that citizen goes in the digital world, meaning to any site or service anywhere. It arrives in full force, with fines of up to 4% of global revenues in the prior fiscal year, on 25 May of this year: about three months from now.

In case you’ve missed it, I’m not idle here.

To help give individuals fresh GDPR-fortified leverage, and to save the asses of companies like Viant (which probably has lawyers working overtime on GDPR compliance), I’m working with Customer Commons (on the board of which I serve) on terms individuals can proffer and companies can agree to, giving them a form of protection, and agreeable companies a path toward GDPR compliance. And companies should like to agree, because those terms will align everyone’s interests from the start.

I’m also working with Linux Journal (where I’ve recently been elevated to editor-in-chief) to make it one of the first publishers to agree to friendly terms its readers proffer. That’s why I posted Every User a Neo there. Other metaphors: turning everyone on the Net into an Archimedes, with levers to move the world, and turning the whole marketplace in to a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

If you want to help with any of that, talk to me.

 

Sometimes you get what you pay for.

In this case, a good microphone in a bluetooth headset.

Specifically, the Bose Soundsport Wireless:

I’ve had these a day so far, and I love them. But not just because they sound good. Lots of earphones do that. I love them because the mic in the thing is good. This is surprisingly rare.

Let’s start with the humble Apple EarPods that are overpriced at $29 but come free with every new Apple i-thing and for that reason are probably the most widely used earphones on Earth:

No, their sound isn’t great. But get this: in conversation they sound good to ears at the other end. Better, in my judgement than the fancy new AirPods. (Though according to Phil Windley in the comments below, they are good at suppressing ambient noise.) The AirPods are also better than lots of other earphones I’ve used: ones from Beats, SkullCandy, Sennheiser and plenty of other brands. (I lose and destroy earphones and headphones constantly.) In all my experience, I have have not heard any earphones or headphones that sound better than plain old EarPods. In fact I sometimes ask, when somebody sounds especially good over a voice connection, if they’re using EarPods. Very often the answer is yes. “How’d you guess?” they ask. “Because you sound unusually good.”

So, when a refurbished iPhone 7 Plus arrived to replace my failing iPhone 5s two days ago, and it came with no headphone hole (bad, but I can live), I finally decided to get some wireless earphones. So I went to Consumer Reports on the Web, printed out their ratings for Wireless Portable Stereo Headphones (alas, behind a subscription wall), went to the local Staples, and picked up a JBL E25BT for $49 against a $60 list price. I chose that one because Consumer Reports gives it a rating of 71 out of 100 (which isn’t bad, considering that 76 is the top rating for any of the 50 models on the list)—and they called it a “best buy” as well.

I was satisfied until I talked to my wife over the JBL on my new phone. “You’re muffled,” she said. Then I called somebody else. “What?” they said. “I can’t hear you.” I adjusted the mic so it was closer to my mouth. “What?” they said again. I switched to the phone itself. “That’s better.” I then plugged the old EarPods into Apple’s Lightning dongle, which I also bought at Staples for $9. “Much better.”

So the next day I decided to visit an Apple Store to see what they had, and recommended. I mean, I figured they’d have a fair chance of knowing.

“I want a good mic more than I want good sound,” I said to the guy.  “Oh,” he replied. “I shouldn’t say this because we don’t sell them; but you need a Bose. They care about mics and theirs are the best. Go to the Best Buy down the street and see what they’ve got.” So I went.

At Best Buy the guy said, “The best mic is in the Bose Soundsport Wireless.” I pulled my six-page Consumer Reports list of rated earphones out of my back pocket. There at the top of the ratings was the Soundsport. So I bought a blue one. Today I was on two long calls and both parties at the other ends said “You sound great.” One added, “Yeah, really good.” So there ya go.

I’m sure there are other models with good mics; but I’m done looking, and I just want to share what I’ve found so far—and to implore all the outfits that rate earphones and headphones with mics to rate the mics too. It’s a kindness to the people at the other end of every call.

Remember: conversations are two-way, and the person speaking has almost no idea how good they’re sounding to the other person over a mobile phone. So give the mics some weight.

And thanks, Bose. Good product.

This post continues the inquiry I started with Making sense of what happened to Montecito. That post got a record number of reads for this blog, and 57 comments as well.

I expect to learn more at the community meeting this evening with UCSB geologist Ed Keller in the Faulkner Room in the main library in Santa Barbara. Here’s the Library schedule. Note that the meeting will be streamed live on Facebook.

Meanwhile, to help us focus on the geology questions, here is the final post-mudslide damage inspection map of Montecito:

I left out Carpinteria, because of the four structures flagged there, three were blue (affected) and one was yellow (minor), and none were orange (major) or red (destroyed). I’m also guessing they were damaged by flooding rather than debris flow. I also want to make the map as legible as possible, so we can focus on where the debris flows happened, and how we might understand the community’s prospects for the future.

So here are my questions, all subject to revision and correction.

  1. How much of the damage was due to debris flow alone, and how much to other factors (e.g. rain-caused flooding, broken water pipes)?
  2. Was concentration of rain the main reason why we saw flows in the canyons above Montecito, but not (or less so) elsewhere?
  3. Where exactly did the debris flow from? And has the area been surveyed well enough to predict what future debris flows might happen if we get big rains this winter and ones to follow?
  4. Do we need bigger catch basins for debris, like they have at the base of the San Gabriels, above Los Angeles’ basin?
  5. How do the slopes above Montecito and Santa Barbara differ from other places (e.g. the San Gabriels) where debris flows (and rock falls) are far more common?
  6. What geology-advised changes in our infrastructure (especially water and gas) might we make, based on what we’ve learned so far?
  7. What might we expect (that most of us don’t now) in the form of other catastrophes that show up in the geologic record? For example, earthquakes and tsunamis. See here: “This earthquake was associated with by far the largest seismic sea wave ever reported for one originating in California. Descriptive accounts indicate that it may have reached elevations of 15 feet at Gaviota, 30 to 35 feet at Santa Barbara, and 15 feet or more in Ventura. It may have even shown visible effects in the San Francisco harbor.” There is also this, which links to questions about the former report. (Still, there have been a number of catastrophic earthquakes on or affecting the South Coast, and it has been 93 years since the 1925 quake — and the whole Pacific Coast is subject to tsunamis. Here are some photos of the quake.)

Note that I don’t want to ask Ed to play a finger-pointing role here. Laying blame isn’t his job, unless he’s blaming nature for being itself.

Additional reading:

  • Dan McCaslin: Rattlesnake Canyon Fine Now for Day Hiking (Noozhawk) Pull-quote: “Santa Barbara geologist Ed Keller has said that all of Santa Barbara is built on debris flows piled up during the past 60,000 years. Around 1100 A.D., a truly massive debris flow slammed through Rattlesnake Canyon into Mission Canyon, leaving large boulders as far down as the intersection of Alamar Avenue and State Street (go check). There were Chumash villages in the area, and they may have been completely wiped out then. While some saddened Montecitans claim that sudden flash floods and debris flows should have been forecast more accurately, this seems impossible.”
  • Those deadly mudslides you’ve read about? Expect worse in the future. (Wall Street Journal) Pull-quote: “Montecito is particularly at risk as the hill slopes above town are oversteepened by faulting and rapid uplift, and much of the town is built on deposits laid down by previous floods. Some debris basins were in place, but they were quickly overtopped by the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of water and sediment. While high post-fire runoff and erosion rates could be expected, it was not possible to accurately predict the exact location and extreme magnitude of this particular storm and resulting debris flows.”
  • Evacuation Areas Map.
  • Thomas Fire: Forty Days of Devastation (LA Times) Includes what happened to Montecito. Excellent step-by-step 3D animation.

Montecito is now a quarry with houses in it:

So far twenty dead have been removed. It will take much more time to remove twenty thousand dump truck loads of what geologists call “debris,” just to get down to where civic infrastructure (roads, water, electric, gas) can be fixed. It’s a huge thing.

The big questions:

  1. Did we know a catastrophe this huge was going to happen? (And if so, which among us were the “we” who knew?)
  2. Was there any way to prevent it?

Geologists had their expectations, expressed as degrees of likelihood and detailed on this map by the United States Geological Survey:

That was dated more than a month before huge rains revised to blood-red the colors in the mountains above town. Worries of County Supervisors and other officials were expressed in The Independent on January 3rd and 5th. Edhat also issued warnings on January 5th and 6th.

Edhat’s first report began, “Yesterday, the National Weather Service issued a weather briefing of a potential significant winter storm for Santa Barbara County on January 9-10. With the burn scar created by the Thomas Fire, the threat of flash floods and debris/mud flows is now 10 times greater than before the fire.”

But among those at risk, who knew what a “debris/mud flow” was—especially when nobody had ever seen one of those anywhere around here, even after prior fires?

The first Independent story (on January 3rd) reported, “County water expert Tom Fayram said county workers began clearing the debris basins at San Ysidro and Gobernador canyons ‘as soon as the fire department would let us in.’ It is worth noting, Lewin said, that the Coast Village Road area flooded following the 1971 Romero Fire and the 1964 Coyote Fire. While touring the impact areas in recent days, (Office of Emergency Management Director Robert) Lewin said problems have already occurred. ‘We’re starting to see gravity rock fall, he said. ‘One rock could close a road.'”

The best report I’ve seen about what geologists knew, and expected, is The Independent‘s After the Mudslides, What Does the Next Rain Hold for Montecito?, published four days after the disaster. In that report, Kevin Cooper of the U.S. Forest Service said, “no one alive has probably ever seen one before.” [January 18 update: Nick Welch in The Independent reports, “Last week’s debris flow was hardly Santa Barbara’s first. Jim Stubchaer, then an engineer with County Flood Control, remembers the avalanche of mud that took 250 homes back in November 1964 when heavy rains followed quickly on the heels of the Coyote Fire. He was there in 1969 and 1971 when it happened again.” Here is a long 2009 report on the Coyote Fire in The Independent by Ray Ford, now with Noozhawk. No mention of the homes lost in there. Perhaps Ray can weigh in.]

My point is that debris flows over Montecito ae a sure bet in geologic time, but not in the human one. In the whole history of Montecito and Santa Barbara (of which Montecito is an unincorporated part), there are no recorded debris flows that started on mountain slopes and spread all the way to the sea. But on January 9th we had several debris flows on that scale, originating simultaneously in the canyons feeding Montecito, San Ysidro and Romero Creeks. Those creeks are dry most of the time, and beautiful areas in which to build homes: so beautiful, in fact, that Montecito is the other Beverly Hills. (That’s why all these famous people have called it home.)

One well-studied prehistoric debris flow in Santa Barbara emptied a natural lake that is now Skofield Park,dumping long-gone mud and lots of rocks in Rattlesnake Canyon, leaving its clearest evidence in a charming tree-shaded boulder field next to Mission Creek called Rocky Nook Park.

What geologists at UCSB learned from that flow is detailed in a 2001 report titled UCSB Scientists Study Ancient Debris Flows. It begins, “The next ‘big one’ in Santa Barbara may not be an earthquake but a boulder-carrying flood.” It also says that flood would “most likely occur every few thousand years.”

And we got one in Montecito last Tuesday.

I’ve read somewhere that studies of charcoal from campfires buried in Rocky Nook Park date that debris flow at around 500 years ago. This is a good example of how the geologic present fails to include present human memory. Still, you can get an idea of how big this flow was. Stand in Rattlesnake Canyon downstream from Skofield Park and look at the steep rocky slopes below houses on the south side of the canyon. It isn’t hard to imagine the violence that tore out the smooth hillside that had been there before.

To help a bit more with that exercise, here is a Google Streetview of Scofield Park, looking down at Santa Barbara through Rattlesnake Canyon:

I added the red line to show the approximate height of the natural dam that broke and released that debris flow.

I’ve also learned that the loaf-shaped Riviera landform in Santa Barbara is not a hunk of solid rock, but rather what remains of a giant landslide that slid off the south face of the Santa Ynez Mountains and became free-standing after creeks eroded out the valley behind. I’ve also read that Mission Creek flows westward around the Riviera and behind the Mission because the Riviera itself is also sliding the same direction on its own tectonic sled.

We only see these sleds moving, however, when geologic and human time converge. That happened last Tuesday when rains Kevin Cooper calls “biblical” hit in the darkest hours, saturating the mountain face creek beds that were burned by the Thomas Fire just last month. As a result, debris flows gooped down the canyons and stream valleys below, across Montecito to the sea, depositing lots of geology on top of what was already there.

So in retrospect, those slopes in various colors in the top map above should have been dark red instead. But, to be fair, much of what geology knows is learned the hard way.

Our home, one zip code west of Montecito, is fine. But we can’t count how many people we know who are affected directly. One friend barely escaped. Some victims were friends of friends. Some of the stories are beyond awful.

We all process tragedies like this in the ways we know best, and mine is by reporting on stuff, hopefully in ways others are not, or at least not yet. So I’ll start with this map showing damaged and destroyed buildings along the creeks:

At this writing the map is 70% complete. [January 17 update: 95%.] I’ve clicked on all the red dots (which mark destroyed buildings, most of which are homes), and I’ve copied and pasted the addresses that pop up into the following outline, adding a few links.

Going downstream along Cold Spring Creek, Hot Springs Creek and Montecito Creek (which the others feed), gone are—
  1. 817 Ashley Road
  2. 817 Ashley Road (out building)
  3. 797 Ashley Road
  4. 780 Ashley Road. Amazing architectural treasure that last sold for $12.9 million in ’13.
  5. 809 Ashley Road
  6. 809 Ashley Road (there are two at one address)
  7. 747 Indian Lane
  8. 631 Parra Grande Lane. That’s the mansion where the final scene in Scarface was shot.
  9. 590 Meadowood Lane
  10. 830 Rockbridge Road
  11. 800 Rockbridge Road
  12. 790 Rockbridge Road
  13. 787 Riven Rock Road B
  14. 1261 East Valley Road
  15. 1240 East Valley Road A (mansion)
  16. 1240 East Valley Road B (out building)
  17. 1254 East Valley Drive
  18. 1255 East Valley Road
  19. 1247 East Valley Road A
  20. 1247 East Valley Road B (attached)
  21. 1231 East Valley Road A
  22. 1231 East Valley Road B (detached)
  23. 1231 East Valley Road C (detached)
  24. 1221 East Valley Road A
  25. 1221 East Valley Road B
  26. 369 Hot Springs Road
  27. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  28. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  29. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  30. 355 Hot Springs Road
  31. 335 Hot Springs Road A
  32. 335 Hot Springs Road B
  33. 333 Hot Springs Road (Not marked in final map)
  34. 341 Hot Springs Road A
  35. 341 Hot Springs Road B
  36. 341 Hot Springs Road C
  37. 340 Hot Springs Road
  38. 319 Hot Springs Road
  39. 325 Olive Mill Road
  40. 285 Olive Mill Road
  41. 275 Olive Mill Road
  42. 325 Olive Mill Road
  43. 220 Olive Mill Road
  44. 200 Olive Mill Road
  45. 275 Olive Mill Road
  46. 180 Olive Mill Road
  47. 170 Olive Mill Road
  48. 144 Olive Mill Road
  49. 137 Olive Mill Road
  50. 139 Olive Mill Road
  51. 127 Olive Mill Road
  52. 196 Santa Elena Lane
  53. 192 Santa Elena Lane
  54. 179 Santa Isabel Lane
  55. 175 Santa Elena Lane
  56. 142 Santo Tomas Lane
  57. 82 Olive Mill Road
  58. 1308 Danielson Road
  59. 81 Depot Road
  60. 75 Depot Road
Along Oak Creek—
  1. 601 San Ysidro Road
  2. 560 San Ysidro Road B
Along San Ysidro Creek—
  1. 953 West Park Lane
  2. 941 West Park Lane
  3. 931 West park Lane
  4. 925 West park Lane
  5. 903 West park Lane
  6. 893 West park Lane
  7. 805 W Park Lane
  8. 881 West park Lane
  9. 881 West park Lane (separate building, same address)
  10. 1689 Mountain Drive
  11. 900 San Ysidro Lane C (all the Lane addresses appear to be in San Ysidro Ranch)
  12. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage B
  13. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage A
  14. 900 San Ysidro Lane Cottage D
  15. 900 San Ysidro Lane E
  16. 900 San Ysidro Lane F
  17. 900 San Ysidro Lane G
  18. 900 San Ysidro Lane H
  19. 900 San Ysidro Lane I
  20. 900 San Ysidro Lane J
  21. 900 San Ysidro Lane K
  22. 900 San Ysidro Lane L
  23. 900 San Ysidro Lane M
  24. 900 San Ysidro Lane N
  25. 900 San Ysidro Lane O
  26. 900 San Ysidro Lane R
  27. 900 San Ysidro Lane S
  28. 900 San Ysidro Lane T
  29. 888 San Ysidro Lane A
  30. 888 San Ysidro Lane B
  31. 888 San Ysidro Lane C
  32. 888 San Ysidro Lane D
  33. 888 San Ysidro Lane E
  34. 888 San Ysidro Lane F
  35. 805 West Park Lane B
  36. 799 East Mountain Drive
  37. 1801 East Mountain Lane
  38. 1807 East Mountain Drive
  39. 771 Via Manana Road
  40. 899 El Bosque Road
  41. 771 Via Manana Road
  42. 898 El Bosque Road
  43. 800 El Bosque Road A (Casa de Maria)
  44. 800 El Bosque Road B (Casa de Maria)
  45. 800 El Bosque Road C (Casa de Maria)
  46. 559 El Bosque Road (This is between Oak Creek and San Ysidro Creek)
  47. 680 Randall Road
  48. 670 Randall Road
  49. 660 Randall Road
  50. 650 Randall Road
  51. 640 Randall Road
  52. 630 Randall Road
  53. 619 Randall Road
  54. 1685 East Valley Road A
  55. 1685 East Valley Road B
  56. 1685 East Valley Road C
  57. 1696 East Valley Road
  58. 1760 Valley Road A
  59. 1725 Valley Road A
  60. 1705 Glenn Oaks Drive A
  61. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive B
  62. 1710 Glen Oaks Drive A
  63. 1790 Glen Oaks Drive A
  64. 1701 Glen Oaks Drive A
  65. 1705 Glen Oaks Drive A
  66. 1705 East Valley Road A
  67. 1705 East Valley Road B
  68. 1705 East Valley Road C
  69. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive N/A
  70. 1780 Glen Oaks Drive (one on top of the other)
  71. 1774 Glen Oaks Drive
  72. 1707 East Valley Road A
  73. 1685 East Valley Road C
  74. 1709 East Valley Road
  75. 1709 East Valley Road B
  76. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive A
  77. 1775 Glen Oaks Drive B
  78. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive A
  79. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive B
  80. 1779 Glen Oaks Drive C
  81. 1781 Glen Oaks Drive A
  82. 1711 East Valley Road (This and what follow are adjacent to Oprah)
  83. 1715 East Valley Road A
  84. 1715 East Valley Road B
  85. 1719 East Valley Road
  86. 1721 East Valley Road A (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  87. 1721 East Valley Road B (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  88. 1721 East Valley Road C (This might survive. See Dan Seibert’s comment below)
  89. 1694 San Leandro Lane A
  90. 1694 San Leandro Lane D
  91. 1690 San Leandro Lane C
  92. 1690 San Leandro Lane A
  93. 1694 San Leandro Lane B
  94. 1696 San Leandro Lane
  95. 1710 San Leandro Lane A
  96. 1710 San Leandro Lane B
  97. 190 Tiburon Bay Lane
  98. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane A
  99. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane B
  100. 193 Tiburon Bay Lane C
  101. 197 Tiburon Bay Lane A
Along Buena Vista Creek—
  1. 923 Buena Vista Avenue
  2. 1984 Tollis Avenue A
  3. 1984 Tollis Avenue B
  4. 1984 Tollis Avenue C
  5. 670 Lilac Drive
  6. 658 Lilac Drive
  7. 2075 Alisos Drive (marked earlier, but I don’t see it in the final map)
  8. 627 Oak Grove Lane
Along Romero Creek—
  1. 1000 Romero Canyon Road
  2. 1050 Romero Canyon Road
  3. 860 Romero Canyon Road
  4. 768 Winding Creek Lane
  5. 745 Winding Creek Lane
  6. 744 Winding Creek Lane
  7. 2281 Featherhill Avenue B

Below Toro Canyon—

  1. 876 Toro Canyon Road
  2. 572 Toro Canyon Park Road

Along Arroyo Paredon, between Summerland and Carpinteria, not far east of the Toro Canyon—

  1. 2000 Cravens Lane

Ten flanking Highway 101 by the ocean are marked as damaged, including four on Padero Lane.

When I add those up, I get 142 163* 178† among the destroyed alone.

[* This is on January 17, when the map says it is 95% complete. All the additions appear to be along San Ysidro Creek, especially on San Ysidro Lane, which I believe is mostly in San Ysidro Ranch. Apparently nearly the whole place has been destroyed. Adjectives such as “lovely” fail to describe what it was.]

[† This is on January 18, when the map is complete. I’ll need to go over it again, because there are subtractions as well as additions. Additional note: on March 22, the resident at 809 Ashley Road asked me to make sure that address was also added. There are two homes at that address, both gone.]

Now let’s go back and look more closely at this again from the geological perspective.

What we see is a town revised by nature in full disregard for what was there before—and in full obedience to the pattern of alluvial deposition on the flanks of all fresh mountains that erode down almost as fast as they go up.

This same pattern accounts for much of California, including all of the South Coast and the Los Angeles basin.

To see what I mean, hover your mind above Atlanta and look north at the southern Appalachians. Then dial history back five million years. What you see won’t look much different. Do the same above Los Angeles or San Francisco and nothing will be the same, or even close. Or even there at all.

Five million years is about 1/1000th of Earth’s history. If that history were compressed to a day, California showed up in less than the last forty seconds. In that short time California has formed and re-formed constantly, and is among the most provisional landscapes in the world. All of it is coming up, sliding down, spreading out and rearranging itself, and will continue doing so through all the future that’s worth bothering to foresee. Debris flows are among nature’s most casual methods for revising landscapes. (By the way, I am writing this in a San Marino house that sits atop the Raymond Fault scarp, which on the surface takes the form of a forty-foot hill. The stack of rock strata under the bottom of that hill is displaced 17,000 feet from the identical suite under the base at the top. Many earthquakes produced that displacement, while erosion has buffed 16,960 feet of rock and soil off the top.)

So we might start to look at the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and Montecito not as a stable land form but rather as a volcano of mud and rock that’s sure to go off every few dozen or hundreds of years—and will possibly deliver a repeat performance if we get more heavy rains and there is plenty of debris left to flow out of mountain areas adjacent to those that flowed on January 9th. If there’s a lot of it, why even bother saving Montecito?

Here’s why:

One enters the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming under that stone plaque, which celebrates what may be our species’ greatest achievement and conceit: controlling nature. (It’s also why geology is starting to call our present epoch the anthropocene.)

This also forecasts exactly what we will do for Montecito. In the long run we’ll lose to nature. But meanwhile we strive on.

In our new strivings, it will help to look toward other places in California that are more experienced with debris flows, because they happen almost constantly there. The largest of these by far is Los Angeles, which has placed catch basins at the mouths of all the large canyons coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains. Most of these dwarf the ones above Montecito. All resemble empty reservoirs. Some are actually quarries for rocks and gravel that roll in constantly from the eroding creek beds above. None are pretty.

To understand the challenge involved, it helps to read John McPhee’s classic book The Control of Nature, which takes its title from the inscription above. Fortunately, you can start right now by reading the first essay in a pair that became the relevant chapter of that book. It’s free on the Web and called Los Angeles Against the Mountains I. Here’s an excerpt:

Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.

The Genofiles were a family that barely survived a debris flow on a slope of Verdugo Mountain, overlooking Los Angeles from Glendale. Here’s another story, about another site not far away:

The snout of the debris flow was twenty feet high, tapering behind. Debris flows sometimes ooze along, and sometimes move as fast as the fastest river rapids. The huge dark snout was moving nearly five hundred feet a minute and the rest of the flow behind was coming twice as fast, making roll waves as it piled forward against itself—this great slug, as geologists would describe it, this discrete slug, this heaving violence of wet cement. Already included in the debris were propane tanks, outbuildings, picnic tables, canyon live oaks, alders, sycamores, cottonwoods, a Lincoln Continental, an Oldsmobile, and countless boulders five feet thick. All this was spread wide a couple of hundred feet, and as the debris flow went through Hidden Springs it tore out more trees, picked up house trailers and more cars and more boulders, and knocked Gabe Hinterberg’s lodge completely off its foundation. Mary and Cal Drake were standing in their living room when a wall came off. “We got outside somehow,” he said later. “I just got away. She was trying to follow me. Evidently, her feet slipped out from under her. She slid right down into the main channel.” The family next door were picked up and pushed against their own ceiling. Two were carried away. Whole houses were torn loose with people inside them. A house was ripped in half. A bridge was obliterated. A large part of town was carried a mile downstream and buried in the reservoir behind Big Tujunga Dam. Thirteen people were part of the debris. Most of the bodies were never found.

This is close to exactly what happened to Montecito in the wee hours of January 9th. (As of March 22, two of the 23 dead still haven’t been recovered, and probably never will be.) (In September 2018 a first responder I talked with said the bodies of a least one the two missing victims, a teenage boy and a toddler, were probably carried to the ocean.)

As of now the 8000-plus residents of Montecito are evacuated and forbidden to return for at least another two weeks—and maybe much longer if officials declare the hills above town ready to flow again.

Highway 101—one of just two major freeways between Southern and Northern California, is closed indefinitely, because it is now itself a stream bed, and re-landscaping the area around it, to get water going where it should, will take some time. So will fixing the road, and perhaps bridges as well.

Meanwhile getting in and out of Santa Barbara from east of Montecito by car requires a detour akin to driving from Manhattan to Queens by way of Vermont. And there have already been accidents, I’ve heard, on highway 166, which is the main detour road. We’ll be taking that detour or one like it on Thursday when we head home via Los Angeles after we fly there from New York, where I’m packing up now.

Expect this post to grow and change.

Bonus links:

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That was yesterday. Hard to tell from just looking at it, but that’s a 180° shot, panning from east to west across California’s South Coast, most of which is masked by smoke from the Thomas Fire.

We weren’t in the smoke then, but we are now, so there’s not much to shoot. Just something more to wear: a dust mask. Yesterday I picked up two of the few left at the nearest hardware store, and now I’m wearing one around the house. Since wildfire smoke is bad news for lungs, that seems like a good idea.

I’m also noticing dead air coming from radio stations whose transmitters have likely burned up. And websites that seem dead to the fire as well. Here’s a list of signals that I’m pretty sure is off the air right now. All their transmitters are within the Thomas Fire perimeter:

Some are on Red Mountain (on the west of Highway 33, which connects Ventura with Ojai); some are in the Ventura Hills; and some are on Sulphur Mountain, which is the high ridge on the south side of Ojai. One is on Santa Paula Mountain, with a backup on Red Mountain. (That’s KOCP. I don’t hear it, and normally do.)

In some cases I’m hearing a live signal but dead air. In others I’m hearing nothing at all. In still other cases I’m hearing something faint. And some signals are too small, directional or isolated for me to check from 30 miles (give or take) away. So, fact checking is welcome. There’s a chance some of these are on the air with lower power at temporary locations.

The links in the list above go to technical information for each station, including exact transmitter locations and facilities, rather than to the stations themselves. Here’s a short cut to those, from the great Radio-Locator.com.

Nearly all the Ventura area FM stations — KHAY, KRUZ, KFYV, KMLA, KCAQ , KMRO, KSSC and KOCP — have nothing about the fire on their websites. Kinda sad, that. I’ve only found only two local stations doing what they should be doing at times like this. One is KCLU/88.3, the public station in Thousand Oaks. KCLU also serves the South Coast with an AM and an FM signal in Santa Barbara. The other is KVTA/1590. The latter is almost inaudible here right now. I suppose that’s because of a power outage. Its transmitter, like those of the other two AM stations in town, is down in a flat area unlikely to burn.

KBBY, on Rincon Mountain (a bit west of Red Mountain, but in an evacuation area with reported spot fires), is still on the air. Its website also has no mention of the fire. Same with KHAY/100.7, on Red Mountain, which was off the air but is now back on. Likewise KMLA/103.7, licensed to El Rio but serving the Ventura area.

KXLM/102.9 which transmits from the flats, is on the air.

Other sources of fire coverage are KPCC, KCRW and KNX.

 

 

 

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The original version of this ran as a comment under Francine Hardaway‘s Medium post titled Have we progressed at all in the last fifty years?

My short answer is “Yes, but not much, and not evenly.” This is my longer answer.


In your case and mine, it has taken the better part of a century to see how some revolutions take generations to play out. Not only won’t we live to see essential revolutions complete; our children and grandchildren may not either.

Take a topic not on your list: racial equality—or moving past race altogether as a Big Issue. To begin to achieve racial equality in the U.S., we fought the Civil War. The result was various degrees of liberation for the people who had been slaves or already freed in Union states; but apartheid of both the de jure and de facto kind persisted. Jim Crow laws and practices emerged, and in still live on in culture if not in law.

The civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties caused positive social, political and other changes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 especially helped. But the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 put civil rights almost back where it was before its revolution started. I participated in civil rights activism in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time of both assassinations, and I can’t overstate how deep and defeating our despair felt after both events. And that feeling proved correct.

Small incremental improvements followed over the decades since, but no leaps forward like we had before those murders. (Even the election of Barack Obama failed to change a terribly durable status quo. Backlash against that election is at least partly responsible for Trump and the Republican Congress.)

We are still stuck with inequality for races, religions and so much else. Will we ever get over that? I think we will, inevitably; but only if our species survives.

One collateral victim of those assassinations in the Sixties was the near-end of non-violence as a strategy toward change. Martin Luther King Jr. used it very effectively, and kept the flame alive and well-proven until violence took him out. Martyred though he was, it was not to the cause of nonviolence or pacifism, both of which have been back-burnered for fifty years. We (in the largest sense that includes future generations) may never find out if non-violence can ever succeed—because violence is apparently too deeply ingrained as a human trait.

Back to tech.

I too was, and remain, a cyber-utopian. Or at least a cyber-optimist. But that’s because I see cyber—the digitization and networking of the world—as a fait accompli that offers at least as many opportunities for progress as it does for problems. As Clay Shirky says, a sure sign of a good technology is that one can easily imagine bad uses of it.

What I’m not writing at the moment are my thoughts about why some of those advantaged by power, even in small ways, abuse it so easily. I’m not writing it because I know whatever I say will be praised by some, rebuked by others, and either way will be reduced to simplicities that dismiss whatever subtle and complex points I am trying to make, or questions I am trying to ask. (Because my mind is neither sufficiently informed nor made up.) I also know that, within minutes for most of my piece’s readers, the points it makes will be gone like snow on the water, for such is the nature of writing on the vast sea of almost-nothing that “social” media comprises. And, as of today, all other media repose in the social ones.

Some perspective:

Compared to that, and its effects on the planet, all other concerns shrink to insignificance.

But, as The Onion said a few weeks after 9/11, A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.

Stupid bullshit is what the meteor of humanity hitting the planet cares most about. Always has. Wars have been fought over far less.

The only fully consequential question is how we end the Anthropocene. Or how it ends without us.

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dat is the new love

Personal data, that is.

Because it’s good to give away—but only if you mean it.

And it’s bad to take it, even it seems to be there for the taking.

I bring this up because a quarter million pages (so far) on the Web say “data is the new oil.”

That’s because a massive personal data extraction industry has grown up around the simple fact that our data is there for the taking. Or so it seems. To them. And their apologists.

As a result, we’re at a stage of wanton data extraction that looks kind of like the oil industry did in 1920 or so:

It’s a good metaphor, but for a horrible business. It’s a business we need to reform, replace, or both. What we need most are new industries that grow around who and what we are as individual human beings—and as a society that values what makes us human.

Our data is us. Each of us. It is our life online. Yes, we shed some data in the course of our activities there, kind of like we shed dandruff and odors. But that’s no excuse for the extractors to frack our lives and take what they want, just because it’s there, and they can.

Now think about what love is, and how it works. How we give it freely, and how worthwhile it is when others accept it. How taking it without asking is simply wrong. How it’s better to earn it than to demand it. How it grows when it’s given. How we grow when we give it as well.

True, all metaphors are wrong, but that’s how metaphors work. Time is not money. Life is not travel. A country is not a family. But all those things are like those other things, so we think and talk about each of them in terms of those others. (By saving, wasting and investing time; by arriving, departing, and moving through life; by serving our motherlands, and honoring our founding fathers.)

Oil made sense as a metaphor when data was so easy to take, and the resistance wasn’t there.

But now the resistance is there. More than half a billion people block ads online, most of which are aimed by extracted personal data. Laws like the GDPR have appeared, with heavy fines for taking personal data without clear permission.

I could go on, but I also need to go to bed. I just wanted to get this down while it was in the front of my mind, where it arrived while discussing how shitty and awful “data is the new oil” was when it first showed up in 2006, and how sadly popular it has become since then:

It’s time for a new metaphor that expresses what our personal data really is to us, and how much more it’s worth to everybody else if we keep, give and accept it on the model of love.

You’re welcome.

 

I’ve been wanting to fly on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” ever since I missed a chance to go on an inaugural junket aboard one before Boeing began delivery to the airlines. But I finally got my chance, three days ago, aboard United Flight 935 from London to Los Angeles.

Some context: United is my default airline by virtue of having flown 1.5 million miles with them, which has earned me some status. Specifically, I get on shorter lines, don’t get charged for bags, and have some choice about where I sit, which defaults to Economy Plus: the section of Economy that features a bit more leg room and is typically located which is behind business/first, now called Polaris.

I should add that I actually like United, and have had few of the bad experiences people tend to associate with big old airlines. And plenty of good ones. And not all the news about United is bad. For example, wider economy seats coming in refurbed 767s.

So. How about the 787?

It’s a nice plane in many ways, which Boeing explains here. Maybe the best in the air today.

But, hate to say, my experience with it was less than ideal.

The first problem is that, according to SeatGuru, the whole Economy Plus section is over the wing on both the airline’s configurations: 787/8 and 787/9. This means there is little or no view of the ground out the window. That view is one of the main attractions of window seats and why I love flying. See all these photos were taken out the windows of planes? Nearly all the planes I shot those from were United’s, and I have kindly tagged them #United as well. (See http://bit.ly/UnitedAerial.)

To be fair, all of United’s widebody planes (747,767, 777, 787) put most of Economy Plus over the wing. But in most cases a row or two is in front of the wing or behind it. Not, alas, on the new 787s.

So I booked a seat in the economy section. Fortunately, I don’t have long femurs, so leg room usually isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I like sitting in the back of plane, farther the better. That way as little of the wing as possible intrudes on the view. And the legroom actually wasn’t bad on this plane anyway, so that’s one plus.

The seat I chose was 37L, a window seat in a row that gave me 3 seats to myself, because the flight turned out to be less than full. This is another reason to book seats in the back. They’re the least likely seats to be filled on a less-than-full flight. (But be sure to check with SeatGuru, which warn me away from rows which have missing windows. Most planes do have some of those.)

My second problem turns out to be one of the 787’s biggest selling points: electronically dimmable windows:

It’s a clever system that eliminates the window shade, an ancient feature that actually gives the individual a simple manual control over the view, and of light coming in.

My problem isn’t with the windows themselves, which are relatively large (but with more added view toward the sky than the ground). My problem is with a loss of individual control, and an apparent preference by the crew for the equivalent of no windows at all.

So, for example, on this flight the crew turned all the windows dark just before the fjords and glaciers of Greenland’s coast came into view. They announced that this was so people could sleep or watch their screens without glare. But this flight wasn’t a red-eye. The plane left at roughly 2pm from London and arrived in Los Angeles at around 5pm, with daylight all the way. Yes, it would be the middle of the night (UK time) on arrival, but that was another six hours in the future, and the scene was amazing:

So I turned my window up to clear (which happens so slowly you wonder if it’s working at first), and a flight attendant came over. Here’s the dialog, as best I recall it:

“Sir, you need to darken your window.”

“I got a window seat so I could see outside.”

“But other people are trying to sleep or watch their screens.”

“I’ll darken it later. Right now I want to see Greenland. Have you seen this? It’s spectacular.”

“Please be aware of the other passengers, sir.”

In fact I was.

There were two empty seats in my row.The window seat wasn’t occupied in the row in front of me. (An older woman seemed to be sleeping in the middle seat.) And the only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in an otherwise empty middle row across the aisle from me. I was also talking geography with the people behind me, who were watching Greenland scroll by through my aft window (their row, 38, had no window) saying “Holy shit! Look at that! Look at THAT!” over and over. And with good reason. A United pilot once announced to a plane I was on that Greenland is the most spectacular thing one can see from a passenger jet.

So I really didn’t need to dim my window for others. But I felt like I was getting busted for some infraction of flight etiquette that made no sense, given that the 787, more than other planes was supposed to be about the joy of flying. (Louis CK enlarges on this kind of aviation irony with his “Everything is a amazing and nobody’s happy” bit. If you’re in a hurry, start about 2 minutes in.)

My final problem is also with the windows: they block GPS signals, I suppose as a secondary effect of the dimmable thing. This meant I couldn’t record the trip on my little Garmin pocket GPS, which I’ve been using for many years to keep track of where I’ve been, and to geo-locate photos.

So I’ll go out of my way to avoid United’s 787s from now on. They’re great planes, but not for me.

Nothing challenges our understanding of infrastructure better than a crisis, and we have a big one now in Houston. We do with every giant storm, of course. New York is still recovering from Sandy and New Orleans from Katrina. Reforms and adaptations always follow, as civilization learns from experience.

Look at aviation, for example. Houston is the 4th largest city in the U.S. and George Bush International Airport (aka IAH) is a major hub for United Airlines. For the last few days traffic there has been sphinctered down to emergency flights alone. You can see how this looks on FlightAware’s Miserymap:

Go there and click on the blue play button to see how flight cancellations have played over time, and how the flood in Houston has affected Dallas as well. Click on the airport’s donut to see what routes are most affected. Frequent fliers like myself rely on tools like this one, made possible by a collection of digital technologies working over the Internet.

The airport itself is on Houston’s north side, and not flooded. Its main problem instead has been people. Countless workers have been unable to come in because they’re trapped in the flood, busy helping neighbors or barely starting to deal with lives of their own and others that have been inconvenienced, ruined or in sudden need of large repair.

Aviation just one of modern civilization’s infrastructures. Roads are another. Early in the flood, when cars were first stranded on roads, Google Maps, which gets its traffic information from cell phones, showed grids of solid red lines on the city’s flooded streets. Now those same streets are blank, because the cell phones have departed and the cars aren’t moving.

The cell phone system itself, however, has been one of the stars in the Houston drama. Harvey shows progress on emergency communications since Katrina, says a Wired headline from yesterday. Only 4% of the areas cells were knocked out.

Right now the flood waters are at their record heights, or even rising. Learnings about extant infrastructures have already commenced, and will accumulate as the city drains and dries. It should help to have a deeper understanding of what infrastructure really is, and what it’s doing where it is, than we have so far.

I say that because infrastructure is still new as a concept. As a word, infrastructure has only been in common use since the 1960s:

In The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the InternetStephen Lewis writes,

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe…

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector… used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector…

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

As Steve also mentions in that piece, he and I are among the relatively small number of people (at least compared to those occupying the familiar academic disciplines) who have paid close attention to the topic for some time.

The top dog in this pack (at least for me) is Brett Frischmann, the Villanova Law professor whose book Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources (Oxford, 2013) anchors the small and still young canon of work on the topic. Writes Brett,

Infrastructure resources entail long term commitments with deep consequences for the public. Infrastructures are a prerequisite for economic and social development. Infrastructures shape complex systems of human activity, including economic, cultural, and political systems. That is, infrastructures affect the behaviour of individuals, firms, households, and other organizations by providing and shaping the available opportunities of these actors to participate in these systems and to interact with each other.

The emphasis is mine, because I am curious about how shaping works. Specifically, How does infrastructure shape all those things—and each of us as well?

Here is a good example of people being shaped, in this case by mobile phones:

I shot that photo on my own phone in a New York subway a few months ago. As you see, everybody in that car is fully preoccupied with their personal rectangle. These people are not the same as they were ten or even five years ago. Nor are the “firms, households and other organizations” in which they participate. Nor is the subway itself, now that all four major mobile phone carriers cover every station in the city. At good speeds too:

We don’t know if Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us,” but it was clearly one of his core teachings (In fact the line comes from Father John Culkin, SJ, a Professor of Communication at Fordham and a colleague of McLuhan’s. Whether or not Culkin got it from McLuhan we’ll never know.) As aphorisms go, it’s a close relative to the subtitle of McLuhan’s magnum opus, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man (Berkeley, 1964, 1994, 2003). The two are compressed into his most quoted line, “the medium is the message,” which says that every medium changes us while also extending us.

In The Medium is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (Gingko, 1967, 2001), McLuhan explains it this way: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive… that they leave no part of us untouched unaffected, unaltered… Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”

Specifically, “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot.The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric curcuitry, an extension of the central nervous system. Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptins. The extension of any once sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change.”

He also wasn’t just talking communications media. He was talking about everything we make, which in turn make us. As Eric McLuhan (Marshall’s son and collaborator) explains in Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto, 1988), “media” meant “everything man[kind] makes and does, every procedure, every style, every artefact, every poem, song, painting, gimmick, gadget, theory—every product of human effort.”

Chief among the laws Marshall and Eric minted is the tetrad of media effects. (A tetrad is a group of four.) It says every medium, every technology, has effects that refract in four dimensions that also affect each other. Here’s a graphic representation of them:

They apply these laws heuristically, through questions:

  1. What does a medium enhance?
  2. What does it obsolesce?
  3. What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to its extreme (for example, by becoming ubiquitous)?

Questions are required because there can be many different effects, and many different answers. All can change. All can be argued. All can work us over.

One workover happened right here, with this blog. In fact, feeling worked over was one of the reasons I dug back into McLuhan, who I had been ignoring for decades.

Here’s the workover…

In the heyday of blogging, back in the early ’00s, this blog’s predecessor (at doc.weblogs.com) had about 20,000 subscribers to its RSS feed, and readers that numbered in up to dozens of thousand per day. Now it gets dozens. On a good day, maybe hundreds. What happened?

In two words, social media. When I put that in the middle of the tetrad, four answers that jumped to mind:

In the ENHANCED corner, Social media surely makes everyone more social, in the purely convivial sense of the word. Suddenly we have hundreds or thousands of “friends” (Facebook, Swarm, Instagram), “followers” (Twitter) and “contacts” (Linkedin). Never mind that we know few of their birthdays, parents names or other stuff we used to care about. We’re social with them now.

Blogging clearly got OBSOLESCED, but—far more importantly—so did the rest of journalism. And I say this as a journalist who once made a living at the profession and now, like everybody else who once did the same, now make squat. What used to be business of journalism is now the business of “content production,” because that’s what social media and its publishing co-dependents get paid by advertising robots to produce in the world. What’s more, anybody can now participate. Look at that subway car photo above. Any one of those people, or all of them, are journalists now. They write and post in journals of various kinds on social media. Some of what they produce is news, if you want to call it that. But hell, news itself is worked over completely. (More about that in a minute.)

We’ve RETRIEVED gossip, which journalism, the academy and the legal profession had obsolesced (by saying, essentially, “we’re in charge of truth and facts”). In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari says gossip was essential for our survival as hunter-gatherers: “Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bisons.. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest and who is a cheat.” And now we can do that with anybody and everybody, across the vast yet spaceless nowhere we call the Internet, and to hell with the old formalisms of journalism, education and law.

And social media has also clearly REVERSED us into tribes, especially in the news we produce and consume, much of it to wage verbal war with each other. Or worse. For a view of how that works, check out The Wall Street Journal‘s Red Feed / Blue Feed site, which shows the completely opposed (and hostile) views of the world that Facebook injects into the news feeds of people its algorithms consider “very liberal” or “very conservative.”

Is social media infrastructure? I suppose so. The mobile phone network certainly is. And right now we’re glad to have it, because Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., is suffering perhaps the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, and the cell phone system is holding up remarkably well, so far. Countless lives are being saved by it, and it will certainly remain the most essential communication system as the city recovers and rebuilds.

Meanwhile, however, it also makes sense to refract the mobile phone through the tetrad. I did that right after I shot the photo above, in this blog post. In it I said smartphones—

  • Enhance conversation
  • Obsolesce mass media (print, radio, TV, cinema, whatever)
  • Retrieve personal agency (the ability to act with effect in the world)
  • Reverse into isolation (also into lost privacy through exposure to surveillance and exploitation)

In the same graphic, it looks like this:

But why listen to me when the McLuhans were on the case almost three decades ago? This is from Gregory Sandstrom‘s “Laws of media—The four effects: A Mcluhan contribution to social epistemology” (SERCC, November 11, 2012)—

The REVERSES items might be off, the but others are right on. (Whoa: cameras!)

The problem here, however, is the tendency we have to get caught up in effects. While those are all interesting, the McLuhans want us to look below those, to causes. This is hard because effects are figures, and causes are grounds: the contexts from which figures arise. From Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s Media and Formal Cause (Neopoesis, 2011): “Novelty becomes cliché through use. And constant use creates a new hidden environment while simultaneously pushing the old invisible ground into prominence, as a new figure, clearly visible for the first time. Every innovation scraps its immediate predecessor and retrieves still older figures; it causes floods of antiquities or nostalgic art forms and stimulates the search for ‘museum pieces’.”

We see this illustrated by Isabelle Adams in her paper “What Would McLuhan Say about the Smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the Smartphone” (Glocality, 2106):

 

Laws of Media again: “The motor car retrieved the countryside, scrapped the inner core of the city, and created suburban megalopolis. Invention is the mother of necessities, old and new.”

We tend to see it the other way around, with necessity mothering invention. It should help to learn from the McLuhans that most of what we think we need is what we invent in order to need it.

Beyond clothing, shelter and tools made of sticks and stones, all the artifacts that fill civilized life are ones most of us didn’t know we needed until some maker in our midst invented them.

And some tools—extensions of our bodies—don’t become necessities until somebody invents a new way to use them. Palm, Nokia and Blackberry all made smart phones a decade before the iPhone and the Android. Was it those two operating systems that made them everybody suddenly want one? No, apps were the inventions that mothered mass necessity for mobile phones, just like it was websites the made us need graphical browsers, which made us need personal computers connected by the Internet.

All those things are effects that the McLuhans want us to look beneath. But they don’t want us to look for the obvious causes of the this-made-that-happen kind. In Media and Formal Cause, Eric McLuhan writes:

Formal causality kicks in whenever “coming events cast their shadows before them.” Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time. The effects—those long shadows—arrive first; the causes take a while longer.

Formal cause was one of four listed first by Aristotle:

  • Material—what something is made of.
  • Efficient—how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  • Formal—what makes the thing form a coherent whole.
  • Final—the purpose to which a thing is put.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, “Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment”, adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes….The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

Thus railways were a formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure.  “People don’t want to know the cause of anything”, Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). “They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside, hoping perhaps to add another layer to their environment….”

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs:

Current theory in many fields—economics, history, anthropology—assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

Which brings us back to Houston. What forms will it cause as we repair it?

(I’m still not done, but need to get to my next appointment. Stay tuned.)

 

 

Who Owns the Internet? — What Big Tech’s Monopoly Powers Mean for our Culture is Elizabeth Kolbert‘s review in The New Yorker of several books, one of which I’ve read: Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things—How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.

The main takeaway for me, to both Elizabeth’s piece and Jon’s book, is making clear that Google and Facebook are at the heart of today’s personal data extraction industry, and that this industry defines (as well as supports) much of our lives online.

Our data, and data about us, is the crude that Facebook and Google extract, refine and sell to advertisers. This by itself would not be a Bad Thing if it were done with our clearly expressed (rather than merely implied) permission, and if we had our own valves to control personal data flows with scale across all the companies we deal with, rather than countless different valves, many worthless, buried in the settings pages of the Web’s personal data extraction systems, as well as in all the extractive mobile apps of the world.

It’s natural to look for policy solutions to the problems Jon and others visit in the books Elizabeth reviews. And there are some good regulations around already. Most notably, the GDPR in Europe has energized countless developers (some listed here) to start providing tools individuals (no longer just “consumers” or “users”) can employ to control personal data flows into the world, and how that data might be used. Even if surveillance marketers find ways around the GDPR (which some will), advertisers themselves are starting to realize that tracking people like animals only fails outright, but that the human beings who constitute the actual marketplace have mounted the biggest boycott in world history against it.

But I also worry because I consider both Facebook and Google epiphenomenal. Large and all-powerful though they may be today, they are (like all tech companies, especially ones whose B2B customers and B2C consumers are different populations—commercial broadcasters, for example) shallow and temporary effects rather than deep and enduring causes.

I say this as an inveterate participant in Silicon Valley who can name many long-gone companies that once occupied Google’s and Facebook’s locations there—and I am sure many more will occupy the same spaces in a fullness of time that will surely include at least one Next Big Thing that obsolesces advertising as we know it today online. Such as, for example, discovering that we don’t need advertising at all.

Even the biggest personal data extraction companies are also not utilities on the scale or even the importance of power and water distribution (which we need to live), or the extraction industries behind either. Nor have these companies yet benefitted from the corrective influence of fully empowered individuals and societies: voices that can be heard directly, consciously and personally, rather than mere data flows observed by machines.

That direct influence will be far more helpful than anything they’re learning now just by following our shadows and sniffing our exhaust, mostly against our wishes. (To grok how little we like being spied on, read The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Our influence will be most corrective when all personal data extraction companies become what lawyers call second parties. That’s when they agree to our terms as first partiesThese terms are in development today at Customer Commons, Kantara and elsewhere. They will prevail once they get deployed in our browsers and apps, and companies start agreeing (which they will in many cases because doing so gives them instant GDPR compliance, which is required by next May, with severe fines for noncompliance).

Meanwhile new government policies that see us only as passive victims will risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with regulations that last decades or longer. So let’s hold off on that until we have terms of our own, start performing as first parties (on an Internet designed to support exactly that), and the GDPR takes full effect. (Not that more consumer-protecting federal regulation is going to happen in the U.S. anyway under the current administration: all the flow is in the other direction.)

By the way, I believe nobody “owns” the Internet, any more than anybody owns gravity or sunlight. For more on why, see Cluetrain’s New Clues, which David Weinberger and I put up 1.5 years ago.

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