Author - Paul Schatzkin

Dystopia Now Redux: Opportunistic Indignation and the Rush to Judgment

“…what if we all behaved as if we were being watched? It would lead to a more moral way of life. Who would do something unethical or illegal or immoral if they were being watched?” — David Eggers, The Circle

“Who am I to judge?” —Pope Francis I*

Our media effect us in unseen ways…

Who will watch the watchers?

Who will watch the watchers?

I think I liked the Internet more back when it was an unexplored wilderness of untapped potential.  Now that it’s a fully domesticated homeland, umm… maybe not so much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love ordering merchandise from my lap instead of going to the mall. I do think that having instantaneous access to most of the world’s recorded music is a worthy marvel (even as the “content providers” continue to rail against the emerging business model).  And I love having all of my documents synchronized so that I can open them anywhere, on any device – even if I know that means that the Corporate Intelligence Complex can also open and read them at will.

But I do try to tune my antennae to sub-surface effects and tendencies, and some of the things I think I’m detecting now are, well, a tad disturbing – even for an old guy who likes to humor himself that he is readily adaptable to new technologies.

So what follows is said, hopefully, with all the deference that a self-ware  junkie should have for his own needle.  These are the observations of somebody who has been “online” in one form or another more than thirty years.  I have personally seen the digital universe evolve from 300 baud dial-up and a prehistoric service called “The Source” (that was before Compuserve, which was before AOL…), to the global network of networks at 25Mbps. So maybe I have some idea whereof I speak.

Now this network has woven itself inextricably into almost every facet of our modern lives.  Indeed, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show the dominant theme was “The Internet of Things,” which apparently means having the your computers connected to everything from your automobile to your shoes and socks.

But before our self-driven vehicles ferry us off to the Internet of Things, this is what seems to be happening:  We are becoming insufferably judgmental. Amid all the LOL cats, cute kids doing funny things, “holy shit it’s winter!” apocalyptic weather commentary and everybody-is-a-political-pundit, etc., social media have given us all a medium by which we can mount our chariots of righteousness and hurl our flaming spears of judgment.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when I picked up on the reaction to an unfortunate pre-holiday incident at the Morton’s steakhouse here in Nashville.

What perplexed me about that whole scenario was the rush to pile-on — the branding of an entire institution with the inexplicable actions of a single individual.   As I said at the time, somebody fucked up, and the infinite troll parade used that as an opportunity to chase the whole company off the bridge.

All kinds of people – most of whom, I’d wager, have never been to a Morton’s, would probably not think about going to a Morton’s, or give Morton’s a second thought – chimed in with their insistence  that they would never go to a Morton’s.

You’re going to #boycottmortons? That was, literally, a hashtag meme.  Well excuse me…do you even know the meaning of the word?  Not feasting on an overpriced steak at Morton’s is not an act of civil disobedience.

What it is is a new  form of public shaming that I’m calling “opportunistic indignation.”  And it’s starting to show up a lot.

Shortly after the Morton’s incident, the whole “Duck Dynasty” thing erupted.  I tried to avert my eyes from that one, it seemed so absurdly familiar, but it was hard to avoid; everybody had an opinion one way or another.  Either Bill Robertson was a jerk for expressing his opinion, or his network acted capriciously for ‘suspending’ him from his show.

But there it was again, the opportunistic indignation: “I’ve never watched an episode of Duck Dynasty, I was never gonna watch an episode of Duck Dynasty, but now that this furry serial mallard assassin has said something I don’t agree with, I’m really never gonna watch his stupid show….”

For a week or so, we all got to express our outrage one way or another.  And then we moved on to the next social atrocity.

That would be poor Justine Sacco – a PR operative from England who tweeted something ostensibly racist before leaving on a business trip to South Africa.  When she arrived at her destination she discovered she’d set the world afire with her remark; her plane was greeted by virtual torches and pitchforks.

That’s how the world works now:  You publicly reveal some half-formed thought, and then you get off an airplane and discover that the greeting party is a lynch mob.

Has anybody thought for a fleeting moment, “boy I’m glad I didn’t say that”?  Whatever happened to “There but for the grace of God….”

By now my antennae are tuned in, and I’m starting to see it all over the place.  And then just before Christmas I found myself in the middle of a scene that could have come straight out of The Circle:

The Friday before Christmas — in a rare instance of poor planning — I decided that was the day to venture off to the Green Hills Mall.  Apparently everybody in Nashville had the same idea.  There was no place to park at the mall.  There may have been no place to park in all of Nashville.

After driving around the parking lot for about 20 minutes I finally decided to park in a space that was big enough for my car but not really a parking space.  I went inside, bought the gift I came for, and left.  Total time in the mall: roughly equal to the 20 minutes I’d spent looking for a parking space.

When I returned to my — admittedly, inappropriately parked — vehicle, I saw that the car in the — yes, actual —  parking space next my mine was occupied by its driver, who was doing something with his cell phone.  When he started his engine, I presumed he was about to leave.

I needed into get to the back seat of my car, and didn’t want to trigger an unwanted encounter between my car’s door and his moving vehicle.  So I waited a minute or so while he sat in the car, still fiddling with his phone, the engine running.  Finally I gestured to him to get his attention. He rolled down the window and I asked,

“Are you about to pull out?”

To which he replied, “You know that’s not a parking space, right?”

“Yes, I know. So I’m leaving.”  What else could I do at that point but vacate the space?

“Well, I’m in a parking space, so I’m not in any hurry…”

OK, fine.  Whatever.  So I wrestled my parcel onto the floor in the back seat, and got in the driver’s seat.

That’s when things got really bizarre:  I looked up and noticed that Mr. Parking Lot Vigilante was pointing his cell phone at me.  He was video recording me as I settled into my car and got ready to leave the garage.   And then he continued to film me as he followed me out of the garage.

Suddenly I was a character in a scene in “The Circle” and I’m wondering if the guy is going to use my license plate to track me down and post a video of my egregious holiday parking transgression on the Internet for all to see and condemn.  I wondered what the hashtag would be… #parkingviolator? #evildriver? #holidaymiscreant? I don’t think any of those are trending…

So that’s what I’m starting to see: opportunistic indignation and judgment in every comment.  Does it look like that to you? See if you can tune your own antennae.  Let me know if you think we’re becoming a culture of socially-mediated judgement, constantly watching others with the expectation that the watching will produce a more “acceptable” form of behavior like “The Circle” imagines.

Just please, don’t judge me for being so  judgmental.

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*I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d be quoting a pope in one of these missives, but…. there it is.  We live in interesting times.

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This post is a sequel to an earlier post entitled “Dystopia Now.”

Amelia White

Amelia White co-wrote (with Tom Kimmel) “Can You See Me Now,” one of my very favorite songs by The Waymores (trust me, it’s hard to chose).

Amelia has a new CD of her own material called “Old Postcards,” and put on a show at the Stone Fox in Nashville this past Saturday night to celebrate its release.

Amelia and Tom have both given me permission to use ‘Can You See Me Now’ on a project that I’ve been working on (stay tuned), so I figured it was only fair to get down to her show and document the event. See the rest of the collection here.

I don’t have a streaming music link yet to Amelia’s new CD.  In the meantime, listen to “Can You See Me Now” from The Waymores CD – or visit Amelia White on the web.

Here Comes The Sun

Olympus OM-D EM1, ISO 200, Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 lens @28mm; 1.5sec @f/22

I joined my friends Ken Gray and Kim Sherman at Radnor Lake for the sunrise on Sunday, January 12. Waiting for the sun to appear… this is probably as good a shot as I got…

Of course, as is usually the case, I saw what the other guys came up with and think they got the best of the situation.

Ken really nailed the actual sunrise, and got some great shots of the wildlife as well.

AndI love what Kim did with the sunburst through the trees.  Now why didn’t I think of that??

I wonder if that’s the way it goes with this business… does it always seem like the other guy got the better shot?  I’ll have to take that up with my therapist…

Polar Vortex in Pegram

My friend Ken Gray (yes, the same Ken, the bartender at McCabe’s who has been feeding me a blackened cheeseburger once a week for the last… oh, please, don’t make me count the years!) and I went out to the Narrows of the Harpeth, a few miles from my house, to see what the deep freeze earlier this week had done to the river. Seems it formed some ice:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen


flanneryThis is strictly for the benefit of the few dozen people who actual subscribe to this blog/site.

You may have noticed starting last month that you now receive notifications from an email service called MailChimp whenever I’ve posted something new to this site. That was a conversion from the Feedburner RSS feed I’d been using previously.  I probably committed some kind of ethical transgression by subscribing you all to a mailing list without your explicit permission, but I figured you were subscribed already; I was just changing the means of distribution so didn’t think that would require another opt-in.

I hope that’s OK, and if not, the “unsubscribe” link should be pretty easy to find at the bottom of the emails. Conversely, if you’ve serendipitously found your way here by some other means and might want to follow along, use the signup form on the home page.

Since I made the switch to MailChimp, I have been making a fairly concerted effort to gather some thoughts and post some observations to this space about once a week.  I hope to continue doing that for the foreseeable future.

I have been keeping a fairly consistent journal for the past year or so.  To the extent that it’s a habit now, it started when Ann and I were in Scotland together in October 2012. It might have had something to do with the time difference between Tennessee and Scotland, or maybe it was the changes in latitude… Whatever it was, I started waking up before the sun rose and typing notes and observations – and the occasional complete sentence – into my laptop.

Before that, prior efforts at keeping a journal were done mostly longhand.   I thought I was doing something pure and simple writing with pen on paper.  When I started doing it on a computer instead, I discovered that I could much more readily keep up with my own thoughts.

And every once in a while whole thoughts emerge, as they started to do with some regularity over the past couple of months, starting with Dystopia Now back in mid-November.  I’ve adopted a model of sorts – about 800-1200 words, or 2-3 pages of typed text in a Pages document.  That’s about how many words you’ll find in your typical newspaper op-ed column.  It’s also – hopefully – a quantity that doesn’t unnecessarily tax our digitally-fragmented attention spans.

So I sit down several times a week and just start to type, and after I’ve been at it for a while, I start to get a grip on the lightning flashes that light up my brain during a typical day.  If I stay with it a little longer I will often arrive at what a writing coach I studied with back in the 90s called “the transformation line” — when suddenly out of all the errant thoughts and jibberish an actual point begins to emerge.

That’s when what Flannery O’Connor says in the quotation above becomes operative.  I write to figure out what I’m thinking. 

I’d like to think that somewhere amid all these snapping synapses there is the occasional unique and original observation.  I am quite certain that we are at a pivotal point in human evolution.  We are in the midst of a massive transition that is dictated by new technologies, and I don’t think we’ve really got a firm grasp on what these new technologies portend.  And I think about that a lot.

This new environment does not come with an operating manual – and even if it did, I doubt very many people would actually RTFM.  In the absence of a comprehensible overview, we tend to think of new things in old ways, wrap new technologies in old terminology, and try to do old things with new tools.  Until suddenly the lights go on – and we find ourselves in a cage of our own making.

It is probably a stretch to think that I have anything useful to add to the copious – and at times quite strident – dialog that is emblematic of this new environment.  I don’t really know if I’m adding any meaningful signal that might rise above the noise – but I’m going to try.

I’m doing it anyway, so I may as try to be coherent about it, right?

That’s why I’ve been posting these occasional missives, and why I hope to continue doing so with some degree of regularity in the new year ahead.

I seem to be thinking something, and by writing, I have a better chance of figuring out what exactly that is.

And with some degree of diligence and consistency, maybe I can shed some actual light – and unlock the cage before we lose the key.

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I posted the Flannery O’Connor quote to my Facebook page last night, I’m getting more comments and “Like”s there than I am here – but apparently the notion does resonate with others.

Also, a nod to Jeff Goins, who first posted the Flannery O’Connor quote on his blog.



no_tobogganI woke up this morning thinking about Morton’s.  Yes, the steakhouse chain.

No, I was not lying in bed like some condemned prisoner dreaming of his last meal.

This was more like an object lesson in “be careful what you read before going to bed.” Because what I read just before the lights went out last night was this item about an incident last week at the Morton’s in Nashville:

How quickly can the insensitive actions of an employee destroy a restaurant’s reputation in the social media era? In the case of the Nashville outpost of Morton’s Steakhouse, it took about 48 hours.

I’d seen at least one reference to this incident earlier in the day; Morton’s was in the news — i.e. my “news feed” – which is decidedly not the same thing.  I pretty much sloughed it off as more of the usual daily noise/distraction until it showed up again in, literally, the eleventh hour.

When I woke up, with the light of the full moon pouring through my bedroom window,  this ridiculous business kept running around in my addled semi-consciousness: Something is not quite right here…

Now, I really don’t have any skin in this game.  I’ve been to a Morton’s maybe twice in my life.  In the almost 20 years I have lived here, I’ve been to the Morton’s in Nashville once, though I’ve probably driven by it hundreds of times.  I guess it’s part of my landscape, but as much as I am a healthy red-blooded American beefeater, I don’t tend to frequent high-end steak joints.  I”m more a “weekly cheeseburger” kind of guy.

The facts – to the extent they are readily discernible – are these: a large-ish party (16 people) availed themselves to Morton’s for a seasonal feast, running up a tab in the neighborhood of $2,000.  Near the end of the evening one of the guests, a cancer patient whose chemotherapy treatments cause some body temperature regulation issues (he gets cold), put some kind of wool cap on his chemo-induced, hairless head.

And then all hell broke loose.

If Zac Brown can appear in public all the fucking time wearing a wool beanie, what’s the harm in one patron with a medical condition wearing one in a restaurant?  There’s a dress code? Oh, please.

Well, once the story hit the Internets, you’d think that John Lennon had said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, or that poor Natalie Maines had questioned George Bush’s senseless march to an unjustifiable war.

Suddenly Morton’s, a company that has quietly gone about its business for 35 years – has become the pariah of the social media universe.

Hundreds of angry posts to Yelp.    A deluge on the company’s Facebook page. A firestorm on Twitter.

Most, obviously, from people who had no direct connection to the actual event.

Which leads me to conclude that this particular uproar has little to do with the unfortunate, zealous, and dispassionate conduct of one corporate employee whose governing principal was probably something along the lines of “I don’t want to lose my job.”

It is, rather, a disturbing illustration of the pernicious, unforgiving, mob-rule quality of “social” media.

This wasn’t just “that was a bad call.”

This was “Hey, somebody fucked up.  Let’s pile on!”

In a culture where the robber barons who 86’d the global economy all live free, we demand the head of a restaurant manager who thought she was doing her job.

It now appears that Morton’s corporate establishment has swept in and offered amends: they have made a contribution in the amount of the party’s check (~$2,000) to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital (Marlo Thomas, feel free to weigh in…) and are revisiting their policies with regard to suitable attire and appropriate local management response to transgressions therefrom.

More to the point: The patron whose haberdashery selection caused the furor in the first place has accepted the company’s apology and, in the spirit of the season, has expressed his sincere desire that nobody lose their job over the incident.  I hope the company accedes to the man’s request as a condition of their rehabilitation.

Yes, the manager who objected to the patron wearing a beanie in her establishment should probably reconsider her priorities.  Some kind of sensitivity training is probably in order.

But the people who have gone ballistic over a subject about which they have no actual connection… they should be ashamed of themselves.

For whatever it’s worth, this is precisely the kind of environment that David Eggers forewarns us about in The Circle.  It’s not in the future.  It’s now.

Apparently, in the age of “social media,” the expression “it’s none of your business” is no longer operative.

And I’m going back to sleep now.