I’ve lived through a technological boon the likes of which the world has never seen before. We’ve gone from Atari 2600 to Playstation 5, leaded gas guzzlers to EVs, TVs that had to “warm up” before you could see anything to smart TVs that can spy on you when switched off, all in a single generation.
We’ve reaped the rewards. Efficiency, productivity, and the sheer quality of data gathering, and analysis has been nothing short of miraculous for businesses and governments worldwide. We can spy on our neighbors from space, detect changes in an atmosphere hundreds of light years away, and stage increasingly weird “get me a napkin” videos where millennials tear the shirts off their buddies.
Yet, as we sit right now, the products of this revolution surrounding us, none of us – not the most skilled high-tech worker or the everyday user – can go a single day without a baffling software update, a completely inexplicable software crash of a key application that you’re depending upon to work, or something that no matter how hard you try you just can’t get to work like it used to. Whether you’re analyzing financials, ordering a pizza, or playing a game on your console or PC, at some point during this day it will fail, and you won’t know why.
The reasons for the failures are many but they’re mostly due to bugs: code that was written to consider every possible situation a user would think of except for whatever it is you happen to be doing right now, which caused it to crash. The software wasn’t designed by people with tons of user experience or excessive amounts of imagination. It was designed by companies that got a bunch of venture capital based on a cool idea – an idea that was incomplete, un-designed, and in most cases didn’t work – which then led to a series of speedy code sprints to a product that just barely works, so they could get more money and “fix the problems later.” Unfortunately, “later” never happened.
That company went on to grow and grow, all atop that stuff from the very beginning – the stuff that was designed to just barely work – until by now it’s gotten so complex, huge, and unwieldy, that every now and then it just crashes for no obvious reason. Slap goes a code band-aid.
Rinse and repeat this same process over every piece of software you interact with daily, and you’re left with the inescapable conclusion that technology is garbage. We live in a world full of half-assed solutions to complex problems that don’t work like they should. And when they inevitably fail, we are either left with a (at best) cryptic message that makes us feel stupid until we Google whatever nonsense phrase they’re showing us – which results in a long, meandering distraction down the always unhelpful rabbit hole of angry internet racism – or nothing at all except maybe a “error message” which doesn’t say anything helpful and delivers blanks on Google.
The kicker is that we’ve all gotten so used to this garbage, not only don’t we care anymore, it’s baked in to the entire experience of our lives. How many times have you been using something that just suddenly crashes, breaks, or malfunctions, and your instant, passive reaction was to “reboot” instead of scream in anger or stop using whatever it is altogether?
We have come to expect SO LITTLE from our half-baked technological wonders that the billionaire moguls who foist off all this crap on us take it to the bank. They know we’re gonna buy whatever gadget they’re selling because it’s cool, looks helpful, or whatever, regardless of whether it works reliably or not. They’re banking on the training they’ve instilled in the world’s population to accept substandard garbage and pay a premium for the privilege. They could make a smartphone that didn’t just “freeze,” suddenly stop using the same WiFi connection you’ve had for years, or crash right in the middle of a killer poker hand you’ve been waiting weeks to get just before you won. They could do that. They don’t because garbage is quicker and working that hard is hard. Why bother if you’re a billionaire either way?
We should expect MORE from our technology, not LESS. Like it or not, we’ve pinned a substantial portion of humanity’s future on our technological inventiveness, and the stakes are getting higher. Do we really want to hand over more and more responsibility to AI systems that suddenly decide, for no apparent reason, that maybe that popular German dictator from World War II had some good ideas after all? Or maybe that a movie called “Airplane!” is some sort of instructional film, and a solid model to mimic when used in the fancy new autopilot system? Or how about when that fancy new pacemaker decides it’s time to constantly reboot after a failed firmware update?
Hasbro recently announced at an investor’s meeting they were going to slightly deemphasize the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” in their popular line of vegetable toys, releasing both versions under a unified “Potato Head” branding. Under ordinary circumstances I have to believe this wouldn’t even have been mentioned in anything other than obscure trade zines like “Strategic Corporate Branding Quarterly” or “Inside Marketing: The Zine.” Industry folks would’ve read it and said, “Humph, look at that,” and immediately went on with their day trying to foist erection pills and absurdly titled heart medicines with more potentially lethal side-effects than benefits to a COVID-weary American public.
But these are no ordinary times. RIckles just guffawed from the grave.
Having 24 hours of “news” to fill for a still largely captive audience means you have to substantially lower the bar on what you’re willing to categorize as “news,” and thus an erstwhile obscure branding decision – perhaps designed as an ever-so-slight nod to LGBTQ sensitivity – was instead thrust into Silly Manufactured Controversy territory. In short, media folks were looking for stuff to write about.
Right-wing news went nuts, drawing a direct line between this toy branding decision and a “Democrat-led House of Representatives is taking up a vote on the Equality Act” according to Kylee Zempel in The Federalist, and prompting Fox News to mention a toy’s minor rebranding effort almost 40 times. Apparently even a bald vegetarian icon can warrant Right-Wing Wrath in the post-T****ian newscycle, freshly emptied of his endless supply of self-promoting shenanigans. I’m not typing his name anymore. Not for ideological reasons just because I’m sick of it.
Why? Asinine political overlays aside, do conservatives put so much more faith in minor rebranding efforts of toy manufacturers than their own abilities to parent their children that this is a tangible threat? Aren’t they going to instill their values into their next generation regardless of whatever Hasbro branding gurus decide?
Of course they are, which is why this is more artificial silliness than a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s Facebook page.
Advocates on the Left spectrum also dove in, for similar reasons and because they could, reaching into botanical metaphors, like Alex Knapp at Forbes: “the science of potato reproduction, [is] far more complicated than male and female. And the toy company’s impulse towards a gender-neutral toy isn’t just more inclusive, it’s closer to the actual science of potatoes.”
The science of potatoes and the Equality Act? All they did is take “Mr” or “Mrs” off the TOP OF THE BOX, it’s still there at the bottom. It’s not science. It’s not politics. It’s no vast conspiracy or politically motivated ploy by Democratic sympathizers. You’ve just got column inches and “breaking news” segments to fill and it’s silly.
If your kids are learning about gender identity from the top of a toy box, parent better.
They say timing is everything. The day after I wrote Coup d’Doh, making fun of all the ham-fisted attempts to overturn the election through wild lies and dozens of asinine court battles, the mob of “very special” insurrectionists breached the Capitol after a raucous Trump rally when he encouraged the crowd to “take back their country.” At least five people were killed. They used American flags to beat down police. They used riot shields and fire extinguishers to smash through windows. They erected some scaffolds on the Capitol lawns and went searching for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi. They were “loved” by our current president who watched it all on T.V.
In the aftermath, the House voted to impeach Trump a second time. None of this bothered senate Republicans who, once again, acquitted him, letting him get away without repercussions while simultaneously deriding Democrats as “bitterly partisan.” George Orwell is smiling from his grave.
Do and say whatever you want while simultaneously deflecting attention away from your horrible behavior by screaming that someone else is doing exactly what you’re doing. A lie in full view, don’t bother hiding it, just scream the loudest. This is the level of bullshit we’ve come to folks: we’ve arrived at our horrible destination. The post-Trump era is giving a lot of Republicans a lot more room to show off what they’ve learned by grinding what’s left of the country’s tattered democracy into a thick fluid of fascist populism.
This is traditionally the time to start the “a pox on both your houses” argument, where I show that Democrats are equally guilty of the same Orwellian doublespeak. Believe me I tried. But don’t worry: once it’s firmly established that just lying loudly is a vote winner, because voters either don’t care or aren’t really paying attention to anything but volume and repetition, others will pick up the newspeak rhetoric all on their own. It’s a helluva lot easier than having principles you have to defend or an actual position on anything. Why bother?
The most terrifying realization here is that this proclivity was lying dormant here all the time. Bullshit and Orwellian tactics weren’t invented by the former president, and 74 million people from the Republican base didn’t just wake up one day ready to accept a steaming heap of conspicuously obvious lies. They were ready all along.
At this point the question isn’t can we put this B.S. genie back in the bottle. The question is whether it’s worth it.
Much has been written about the last four whirlwind years in American politics, mostly focusing on political division and a Pandora’s box of contradictory messaging, policies, anecdotes and leadership. It was a boon for political, news and comedy writers. You sure didn’t have to wait long to find something to write about. In fact choosing which fetid piece of bizarre-itude out of the maelstrom of choices was the central problem. It went something like this:
President: (says incoherent stuff for about 20 minutes until the entire press corp is numb from the onslaught of subject changes and then says he’d love to be a dictator)
Press: (rubbing neck from whiplash) Whew. Ok… so do we write about:
When faced with so many choices and limited column space, it’s a lose-lose situation. No matter what you pick, you’re ignoring the fact that the man with the nuclear football is standing in front of modern-day professional journalists rambling like your great-grandpa Huck, who used to compulsively collect used toilet paper tubes and build likenesses of confederate generals out of them until he couldn't find the door to his house. Even if you did write the “meta-story” fully half the readers would cheer him on, rather than stare at their phones in horror like they just watched a #covidiot tagged YouTube video of someone who did “The Clorox Challenge” recovering in the I.C.U.
This, as weird as it seems, created the context for nearly an entire nation all but ignoring an active coup attempt, while the rest of the world, presumably, laughs at our comeuppance. Such bizarre behavior has been indulged for so long, that a sitting U.S. President can openly mount a coup attempt while everyone sloughs it off. Generally trying to overthrow a lawfully elected government is taken somewhat seriously. Jim Garrison in J.F.K. wasn’t howling with laughter in the courtroom, and Tommy Lee Jones only smiled when it was particularly sinister.
Then again, the omnipotent diabolical forces portrayed in J.F.K. were competent, organized, and secretive, whereas this latest coup attempt was seemingly put together on the back of a bar napkin written in “Just For Men” hair dye and televised each day on every news outlet. Comical execution aside, we should probably take seriously someone trying their damnest to overthrow the government, even if “their damnest” sucks, particularly when that someone is the President of the United States and that government is the oldest democracy in the world.
Reality really is more bizarre than fiction. Particularly if we’re talking coup d’états.
As we all hunker in our bunkers this year, scarfing down microwaved turkey dinners and staring into the middle distance to Dark Side of the Moon, I thought it would be interesting to look back at Thanksgivings past to get some perspective. COVID has given us plenty of time for reflection, and that’s rarely a good thing.
I think we all have an idea of what Thanksgiving should be. We don’t see it in reality, but it’s there in myths and legends, fed by advertising campaigns and old movies. “Sure, my Thanksgiving is a dumpster fire,” we think, “but somewhere out there people are having a great time and eating noodle salad!”
The fact that other people out there are normal is comforting. It’s kinda like Bigfoot: you never see him yourself, but it feels good to know some grizzled prospector-type guy is out there with a flashlight and his phone looking for him. We want to believe.
Or so we thought. I mean, what inhumanely torturous process turns cranberries into gelatinous slop anyway? Do we really know anything?
Turns out that the Thanksgivings shown in a lot of movies aren’t the romanticized versions from our advertising-addled cranium. In fact, some have a downright horrible lesson, right there in front of us the whole time but we weren’t paying attention.
So crank that guitar rift, sit back and choke down that disgusting jellied cranberry sauce from 2018 as we explore some darker lessons Hollywood has secretly taught us about our favorite turkey day over the past 40 years.
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