The Decade in Review: Blog Posts
Revisiting bright(?) ideas from ten years ago
The end of the 2010s has many of us thinking back on the decade. What have we accomplished? Eh, mixed bag. How much older do we look? A lot older. Who defined the decade? Meme makers, platform creators, political activists, Barack Obama, you-know-who...
Thanks to the internet’s one-click-away archive of all our past thoughts, offensive jokes, and badly lit photos, I’ve been revisiting the ideas I was blogging about at the turn of the 2010s. (As I wrote in 2008: “What is particular to our generation is that we are constantly surrounded by the images and culture from both sides of [our] shattered childhood[s].”)
How have my old ideas held up?
Here’s a selection of a few OG “Urbane Sprawl” posts, with some ruminating on what’s stuck and what’s changed since I wrote them.
“Infomercials and Attack Ads” (September 2008)
As the Obama-McCain campaign crescendoed, I conjectured that “simple lying might be as effective as aggressively spinning the truth”—that bold-faced fictions can be as insidious as bullshit:
Two months ago, John McCain said that Barack Obama would “rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” This is a statement that no reasonable person, even a McCain supporter, would believe. Add to this other scurrilous rumors — Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim; he was childhood friends with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — that are either conspiratorially unbelievable or quickly, easily falsified. Yet these clearly false attacks persist — probably because they are effective.
I’d say the last decade—and especially the rise of “fake news” and its actual practitioners, characterized in the last election cycle by Russia’s “firehose of falsehood”—has borne out the effectiveness of lying. Why finesse the facts when ignoring them altogether can get people to just stop paying attention?
And the aughts’ technological advances have made matters worse. Whether sprouting from the Oval Office or flowing from distributed factories of disinformation, lies can now catch fire across vast social media networks uninterested in being in the business of policing the truth.
An Open Letter to the New York Times (September 2008)
Before we all started listening to Serial, I wondered why the New York Times wasn’t doing more to leverage audio:
Many people (like me) love the content from the Times but just can’t read every article. We like the actual paper for the variety, depth, and quality of its coverage. In contrast, the local and even national TV news and news radio lack this quality and depth, and lack the user-side control of clicking around on the Times Online.
Add to that the efficiency of using iPods for purposes other than music. For instance, I download History Channel documentaries and listen to them while I walk around.
So what’s the prescription? The Times should team up with Apple to offer a daily download of the paper, divided into tracks for each article. It shouldn’t be too difficult to have a few voice artists record the articles every night; use one artist for the dozen or so articles in each section — a Diane Sawyer type for International News; a Ray Romano sound-alike for Sports; for the Metro Section, Fran Drescher (she might be available for this, right?).
I have no recollection of downloading History Channel documentaries, and I now see that an all-article audio version of the Times wouldn’t fly in today’s saturated aural landscape. But the runaway success of The Daily (launched in 2017) proves that we’re excited to get the news straight into our earbuds.
Starbucks Baristas and Incentives for Store Activity (October 2008)
This is a fun one, since it’s the seed text for what ultimately became DipJar.
After chatting with a barista at my favorite Cambridge, MA, Starbucks, I wondered why a busy coffee shop wasn’t benefiting the hardworking baristas:
After all, it’s the baristas who have to stay cheerful and diligent while ringing up long lines of customers and making drink after drink.
Nope. Their salary stays the same no matter how busy the store is. And, though at one point an all-day rush would’ve left the baristas flush with tips, these days almost everyone pays with a credit card; there’s little change changing hands — and even less being dropped into the tip jar.
Now I’m less inclined to pay attention to tips—a band-aid on the gaping wound of income inequality. Still, the shift from cash to plastic led to an invisible pay cut for service workers who, for better or worse, rely on them.
Yes, this post ended up leading to DipJar, which has now processed tens of millions of dollars in new gratuities—but DipJar focuses on the nonprofit market now. That’s because baristas have been served by a tech change I didn’t imagine in 2009: iPads as point-of-sale systems. Starbucks partners are still missing out with their legacy NCR registers, but many quick-service employees are getting credit and debit card tips via the post-transaction buttons on their iPad’s screens.
Another trend has also helped. The Fight for $15, which began in 2012, has drawn attention to the role that a higher minimum wage should play in compensating service workers. One major learning of the 2010s is that there’s only so much that tech-savior startups and philanthrocapitalists can do to make vulnerable Americans’ lives better.
At some point, we just need better public policy.
Fresh off reading a lot of Edith Wharton for my college senior thesis, I was primed to see the world through the lens of extremely punitive social expulsion. So I was shocked when the New York Times gave a prime Vows column to a couple (of opera singers) who met while cheating on their spouses:
Sure, love doesn’t always happen neatly, but should adulterers be rewarded with a profile in the Sunday Styles section? The Times chooses whom to include in their highly competitive Weddings pages — isn’t the inclusion of the cheating coloratura and her Divo an implicit (bordering on explicit) endorsement of flouting marital bonds?
The devout “little church girl” shouldn’t have to be marked with a scarlet A, but shouldn’t cheating on her spouse disqualify her from being celebrated in a national newspaper?
In today’s parlance, I wondered: “Shouldn’t these people be canceled?”
Cancel culture didn’t exist as a concept until 2016; but, seven years earlier I concluded that ostracism was alive and well, because deviations from norms of good behavior were drawing censure:
A few weeks ago, after Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s address to Congress; after Serena Williams told a line judge at the U.S. Open that she’d shove the f-ing tennis ball down her f-ing throat; and after Kanye West assured Taylor Swift he was really happy for her and he was gonna let her finish, but Beyoncé’s video was one of the best of all time, the blogosphere punditocracy’s take-away message was that civility was dead.
The institutions which these individuals represent — Congress, professional tennis, the United States of America — made clear that their constituents’ actions were not in line with their institutional values.
Now, institutions are doing a much worse job policing the actions of their participants. For example, no one in the White House is being rebuked for praising white supremacists — or being them. Not one Republican is indicating that he (let’s face it — they’re mostly he’s) will punish the president for an endless parade of impeachable offenses.
The failure of institutions to police bad conduct is what has forced the masses to take the mantle on ourselves. Cancel culture isn’t political correctness run rampant—it is public protest at the impotence of our institutions to police themselves.
Thanks for reading! Who knows what platforms we’ll be nostalgic on in 2029, but hopefully the ideas I’m sharing these days will hold up to some degree—hopefully the world will still be around for us to reflect on at all.