FORWARD BASE B

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Tag Archives: utilities

State Capitalism in the Internet Age

In 21st century societies, we must consider the commanding heights the state must jealously guard also consists of social media, search, and online retail.  The lords of facebook, twitter, google, and amazon are gatekeepers of communication with enormous power over culture.

While anyone would be wary of government control over these services, the obvious approach is to maintain these systems without interfering with their function.
They were developed in private shops just as the telephone was but likewise cannot remain solely private.

Social media in modern society is part of the basic communication grid like landlines are.
Would we rather have government or Zuckerberg with power over the telephone service?

Since we consider telephone a utility, how about we ask the same question about other utilities?  What if Zuckerberg could turn off your water or electricity if you say something he doesn’t like—Total Recall-style?
In real life, facebook is a private business that can refuse service.  The only real deterrant against dictatorial control is the potential for poor service to encourage the rise of competitors.  

However, when there’s an entrenched monopoly it is much harder for a correction to take place through market forces.  This is why, even though governments are flawed, it’s necessary to have firm regulations in securing these vital arteries.
For many, facebook is almost a prerequisite to participate in normal society.  Imagine if the DMV could refuse to issue you a driver’s license because they don’t like you!

The core problem is that some services are natural monopolies.  We refer to many of them collectively as “utilities.”  It makes sense to have an electrical grid, railroads, waterworks, sewage, trash under one organization.  These are domains where the barrier to entry is high and where bottlenecks mean competition can clutter or even cripple the system.  The last thing anyone wants is 20 different companies building competing pipelines or powerlines.

On the internet, no one wants to go back and forth between 20 different search engines. I’m sure plenty of readers here remember switching between webcrawler, altavista, askjeeves, yahoo, and about a dozen others before google got in front of the pack and never looked back.

Who looks back nostalgically to a time when you couldn’t get amazon’s low prices, unequaled variety, and numerous product reviews?  Remember when people got movies and video games hoping they’d picked something decent?  Or back when many people got thick consumer reports magazines in the mail?

Perhaps even more importantly, amazon’s natural monopoly of internet retail has become a platform for countless small merchants and authors.  Why not just make some regulations to prevent abuses and keep this mostly the way it is?  The government could even use amazon as a dial to control incentives for a micro-merchant economy.

It’s good to let a natural monopoly be, but as we can see with water or electricity, we can’t play the market game of price discovery.  The solution is to have the state regulate prices, allowing the monopoly a modest profit.  To some this might sound like some kind of commie plot, but just think for one second what the electrical bill would look like without government price controls.

Beyond prices, we should consider that an area’s water supply can’t be switched off on a whim.  Even when people don’t pay their bills, there must be fair warning.  This strikes no one as being outlandish or communist.  We intuitively understand that basic infrastructure must be protected by special rules.

While the natural monopolies of the internet are mostly free for users, we can see there are still prices in a less tangible way as we depart from an enlightenment-materialist mindset.
If we extend the anti-abuse principle we realize there must be strict anti-manipulation policies for social media and search just like there is for the stock market.

On Twitter, shadowbanning, promoting the tweets of dectractors while burying supportive tweets, or manipulating the list of trending hashtags aren’t that different from insider trading. One party rigs the game for unearned monetary profit, another tries to manipulate a collective culture to serve a private agenda.
Both are means of subverting the entire society.
Some kind of government SEC would watch over natural internet monopolies and punish those who try to cheat.

What cannot be allowed is for these private mass entities to run rampant with no control at all.  Even if we have a perfectly selfish ruler who just wishes to stay in power, ceding control of the commanding heights is dumb and suicidal. 

When was the last time the electric and water companies were a serious threat to the power of the state?
What about social media tycoons, big banks, the insurance industry, or the military industrial complex?
The answer speaks for itself.
The ruler who does not control the commanding heights creates a free market for the control of government.

US Leaning Towards Third World: No Electricity In the Capital

The air was heavy and oppressive with searing humidity as a cloud-swollen night sky boiled with lightning. It was about 11 PM, Friday June 29th, 2012.

As I prepared to leave for my job on the night shift, a massive wall of wind smashed into the neighborhood. The ponderous tree tops instantly accelerated into a frenzy; lights flickered and then died. Oh well. I shrugged. The same exact thing had happened again just a few days before. At work a generator had activated in response to the outage. The lights had been dim, an emergency light flashed on the ceiling, an alarm buzzed endlessly. Employees putting in hours of overtime far into the night had been frantically rushing back and forth hauling hundreds of pounds of meat and seafood off to the large freezers. As I performed my typical menial labor, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was a heroic protagonist trying to aid Soviet defectors aboard the Red October or busy fighting my way out of a research facility after an experiment gone horribly wrong.

This time was worse.
Even as I approached the door the streets were flooded within seconds. I grabbed a rain coat before wading out into the deluge but it provided little real protection.
This wasn’t rain as you would usually think of it. It did not fall. Rather, it was flung to the earth. It foamed and roiled as it struck. As I made my way to the metro station, I was actually thankful that the power was out. Swaying power cables were all around me and so was lots of water.
As I made the short walk, I was nearly forced to my hands and knees by the sheer force of the gusts. By the time I arrived, I was soaked through and had to wring out my socks…

Some geniuses who must have known hurricane force winds are not uncommon in the mid-Atlantic summer had decided on a brilliant way to implement an electrical grid: A random spaghetti of power cables running sloppily from house to house, many going right through the tree tops. Whenever a high wind arose, fast moving tree branches were sure to send broken power cables flying everywhere.
As it was, extensive localized damage was to be expected but this was somehow the least of it. Somehow stations and substations went down all at once. There was no backup plan nor any kind of temporary generator. Of the local power company’s 700,000 customers, over 400,000 were suddenly without electricity.
3 million people across the entire East coast and Midwest were without power.
The storm, while violent, had barely lasted half an hour as it passed through.

All this had happened in the midst of one of the worst heat waves ever recorded in the area. Temperatures soared into the triple digits.
I lived a full 3 days without access to electricity in these conditions. All of my perishable food spoiled and of course I couldn’t cook anything. In the worst of the heat, I had to sleep on a small stretch of cool concrete floor in the basement by the washing machine.

As I write this, there are still more than a million without power.
Perhaps a million people will be facing Independence Day without any electricity at home. In some places, 4th of July celebrations have already been canceled.

There’s no reason any of this needed to happen.
Things go wrong from time to time. Storms arise. But a massive breakdown of critically important infrastructure at the first sign of trouble tells us important things:

-The socially adept but incompetent have triumphed.

-If you’re just one of the peasantry you aren’t nearly important enough to be supplied with reliable utilities. Too expensive to plan a reliable system and maintain it properly? How much do you suppose it collectively cost ordinary people for all the inconvenience and spoiled food? The whole thing could be seen as a big ‘fuck you’ from the rich.

-Social atomization has progressed so far that the ability to work together to create functional public resources has vanished.

-The one thing a country like the US has long had in its favor: It’s been a decent place to settle for awhile and make some money. Reliable infrastructure is one of the key lubricants of commerce. If these basic services become unreliable, everyone has to spend their time and resources planning around it. The whole society becomes poorer. We have a phrase that’s often used to describe a society like this: ‘third world.’

-Loss of face and legitimacy. It is an embarrassment when a ‘developed’ country can’t even sustain an electrical grid in its Capital City.
The present system’s Mandate of Heaven is eroded that much more.

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