Ruminations on losing a grip on the future

A few links I’ve been reading about the Web, journalism, entrepreneurship and work, with my commentary on each. It’s good to step away occasionally from the gauntlet of deadlines I’ve got over the next few weeks.

If I seem overly blue today, I’m just dismayed by some of the activities coming out of Washington that will have a very profound impact on so many aspects of our lives. At a pivotal time — with recession, wars and technological and generational change transforming American society — elected officials are determined that the interests of those who finance their political careers, and not the public interest, will be served above all. Or they’re pandering to full-throated populist cries to reclaim the country for self-professed “real Americans” resolutely moored to a mythical past.

The bright future that so many envision with the advent of the Web and a new class of entrepreneurship is at stake, and it’s on the verge of being squandered.

And it’s been raining unremittingly for the last week in Atlanta, with very little end in sight. I have forgotten what the sunshine looks like.

FCC Chairman Proposes ‘Net Neutrality’ Rules:

“This is not about government regulation of the Internet. We will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity, and entrepreneurial activity.”

While I am very pleased to see this happening, my quick reading is that the Obama Administration is making only modest changes. Will they really be effective against the likes of AT & T, Comcast and Time Warner? Or will corporatist claims of “big government” cause a similar pushback that’s taking place on the health care reform front? As a budding Web entrepreneur looking at some unappealing health insurance options, my belief in the “change” agenda is not all that strong right now.

As someone quietly hopeful of more enlightened government policy on a topic that’s so important to the future of commerce and free expression, I’m getting tired of settling for whatever can be negotiated. The roaring partisans who don’t even wield power have the upper hand because they shout the loudest.

The Story Behind the Story:

“In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.”

Mark Bowden’s treatise in The Atlantic certainly reflects the weariness many feel about the highly polarized nature of politics in Washington, and the media beast that ravenously feasts on such unrelenting acrimony. No neutrality here. Web mavens have been shouting at old print hacks like me to ditch bland objectivity, and they are right to make this complaint — to a degree.

But I’m afraid that hard-edged, partisan, highly opinionated media will grow wildly, because that “middle ground” is vanishing faster than we imagine. If a viable conservative alternative to the Huffington Post ever emerges, then Bowden’s doomsday scenario will gain even more traction.

MSNBC is veering closer to being the same shrill, unyielding “news” outlet for liberals that Fox News is for conservatives (as entertaining as both are, in terms of sheer preposterous bombast). This is is not good news, of course, for the fate of the news. “Blood sport” is alive and well. It will comprise the future of media, and a healthy portion of we now call journalism.

Gary Vaynerchuk’s Startup Advice:

“People are chasing cash, not happiness. When you chase money, you’re going to lose. You’re just going to. Even if you get the money, you’re not going to be happy.”

This is the very chatty Internet wine entrepreneur who’s made a mint doing what he loves, and he’s a prime testament to the “follow your passions” school. For all of his insights and energy, however, I find the message stale. Not every “passion” or niche is potentially as lucrative as what he does. And there are a lot of bandwagon-jumpers, such as all those professing to be social media experts, who tend to reach for the shiny new viral career thing.

Still, I do follow his advice because I am one of those “passion” people. I am simply not happy if I cannot delve deep down into that niche that I love the most, as small as it is. I just wish Vaynerchuk and others would admit that one’s chances of enjoying his success are limited if his wisdom is heeded to the letter. What is missing from these peppy pronouncements is the admission that folks have to pay the bills, regardless of their passions.

The Happiest Occupations:

“The findings, psychologists say, reflect the importance of being free to choose the work you do and how you do it, the way you manage your time, and the way you respond to adversity. Regardless of occupational field, the survey suggests that seeking out enjoyable work and finding a way to do it on your own terms, with some control over both the process and the outcome, is likely for most people to fuel satisfaction and contentment.”

A riff on the same theme as above. I do find myself encouraged by these findings, but with so many people unemployed and scrambling to provide for their families, working “on your own terms” isn’t a very practical consideration right now.

Working Class Zero:

“Where was the Tea Party movement when the tax burden was shifted from the high end to the middle? Where were the patriots when Wall Street, backed in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, rewrote securities laws so that the wonder boys of Lehman and A.I.G. could reduce home mortgages to poker chips at a trillion-dollar table?”

I’m not making any partisan claims here — neither major party offers much for anyone claiming to be an independent — but I’m fed up with all the ranting and raving about government spending and “socialism” that’s been dominating the political debate. This did not begin on Jan. 20, 2009. Or on Jan. 20, 2001, for that matter.

After reading James Stewart’s harrowing account of last September’s bailout crisis — we came closer to the brink of financial catastrophe than I ever realized — I cannot believe we have a political class, and a citizenry, still dug into the same entrenched positions, still making the same tired arguments.

Republicans decry big government when they did little to stop it as a Congressional majority, and with a president of their own party in office. They play to a Tea Party crowd that likes to draw Hitler mustaches on Obama faces when not Photoshopping him as a witch doctor, insisting he was born in Kenya and claiming he’s a Muslim.

Democrats refuse to make serious spending cuts to repair the financial system and economy and back up their costly health reform promises. They play to a union constituency that represents only a small percentage of American workers while paying lip service to entrepreneurs and small business owners who don’t appear to be any better off under health care mandates that could very well punish them more than help.

At least the majority is trying to govern, as opposed to those who obstinately want to block anything from taking place.

But this is no way to take a big step toward grabbing hold of the future. It is a guarantee of fumbling it away.

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