George Orwell in his seminal “1984” got it wrong.  Not totally wrong but he didn’t envision that corporations would rule the universe rather than governments.   Idle speculation or fantasy concoction that our corporations have more influence over our lives than our government?  Just today the new Red (Republican Majority) Congress introduced a bill to weaken Dodd-Frank for the second time in less than a week.  Their first week, by the way, since being sworn in.  So now tell me that America isn’t ruled by corporations?  This public policy initiative after the biggest worldwide collapse in 80 years just six years ago?  Are they nuts?  Not nuts, maybe, but definitely doing corporate bidding.  They, the corporates, get their way with tax cuts, slaps on their wrists for criminal behavior, fines instead of jail time.   Not so for the rest of us. 

Andrew Keen’s “The Internet Is Not The Answer” (my last post) explicitly lays out the damaging effects thus far of the computer/internet age we are in.  One could call these simply the unintended consequences of rapid technological change.  And rightly so.  But as Thomas Piketty points out in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” we’ve been through this before.  Not you and me, of course, but our forebears in the 19th and early 20th Centuries during the Industrial Revolution.  The rapid spread of new technologies back then – steam powered looms, the steam engine itself, the telegraph – massively disrupted societies in the industrializing world.  An entire agriculture based economy was fundamentally altered as people flocked to cities to take advantage of expanding wage jobs at factories and as production efficiencies increased.   Just as profound, and just as far reaching, if not more so since the world is a hell of a lot “smaller” toady than it was in 1900, are the forthcoming disruptions and upheavals fomented by our current technological advances.  I think “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” 

The pervasiveness of corporate intrusions into our lives is unarguable.  Take, for example, the New York Times.  Through algorithms or programs or whatever technology they employ, the NYT tracks the number of times I access their online edition.  Whether I access their site directly or through another site that links an article of theirs, they track me each and every time.  Every month you and I get ten times.  That’s it.   Any more than the sacred ten and I get an offer to subscribe to the Times but I don’t get access to the article I wanted to read.  I have to wait until January becomes February. 

Putting aside the “who pays” issue, what boggles my mind is the Times’ ability to track me without my knowledge and without my permission except for the 20 pages of eight point type “User Agreement” I was forced to agree to in order to read what is allegedly pubic information.  They are a newspaper after all.  Or you could take our still private health insurance system, if, indeed, one could call it a “system.”  Or you could take the fact that by law the Federal Government is forbidden to negotiate with our private pharmaceutical supplies over drug prices.  Or you could take the fact that today’s CEO’s earn nearly 400 times the pay that their workers do. 

The examples of just how deeply entrenched corporate influence is in our society is endless thanks, in large degree, as a product of our political system that is wholly beholden to America’s business community.  And this influence is not benign. Falling working and middle class incomes, falling educational outcomes, public funds bailing out Wall Street’s criminal behavior, more “job creating” tax cuts, students indebted for life to get a college degree, outsourcing of jobs – these are not zero-sum equations.  The convergence of the computer/internet age and the corporatization of American life is not the result of some economic invisible hand but is the direct result of public policies, or lack of same, to address the enormous changes taking place in our lifetimes as Piketty so clearly lays out. 

What hadn’t occurred to me, until reading Piketty, is how closely our times resemble those of the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  The societal changes that resulted from this technological revolution included the yawning gap between rich and poor, the growth of power in the hands of the wealthy, the strife and disruption across social groups, the growth of Socialism and Communism and bloody violence and death as “us vs. them” battles raged across the industrializing world.  We are, I think, at the very beginning of what is sure to be one of the most revolutionary periods in human history.  But right now, today, few in our pubic sphere seem to be aware of this or else we would be having this vital conversation.  And we are not. 

For a time, one can forgive the lack of public policies to protect people from the “unintended consequences” of the computer/internet technological revolution sweeping the earth.  After all the internet was invented in 1989, a mere 25 years ago.  But the strains on us, on our society, on the world community, are becoming increasingly self-evident as poor, working and middle class folks continue to be hammered economically.  As Google, and Amazon, and Facebook earn their profits by selling our personal information to the highest bidder without our knowledge.  As the unholy alliance between governments and the private sector (“Government is not the solution, government is the problem.”  “The private sector can do it better.”  “Capitalist Free Markets are self-correcting.”) continues to overrun our lives, raping us in so many ways that we are no longer aware of just how much we are owned by corporate America.   Our acquiescent to this ownership has become so commonplace, so banal and so obscure as to disappear from our collective consciousness. 

Where will it end?  What force will break this iron-clad fist around us?  Who will have the courage to say: “Enough already.  This is not right.”?  Who knows?  Hopefully it will come about peaceably – ala Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman (who, by the way has just been termed a “joke and an embarrassment” to economists in a recent Forbes article) – but if the Industrial Revolution is any indication, the harnessing of this new technological revolution will likely involve a large degree of struggle, strife, violence, bloodshed and death. 




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