How the iPod is Killing Political Discourse

I was discussing gun control with My Not So Humble Wife the other night, and something strange happened. She’s mostly libertarian like me, but unlike myself, she actually believes in putting certain limitations on gun ownership. Tanks, for example, are straight off her list for private ownership (no, I am not kidding, this was a serious part of the discussion). I personally see no problem with it for several good and sundry reasons that I won’t get into now, so she upped the ante to nuclear weapons. I couldn’t name even a theoretical reason why someone might want a nuke (self-defense? sport? cocktail party conversation starter?), and I had to concede that even my tank argument didn’t apply. Let’s face it, if you need a nuke to defend yourself against the government, the situation is already well beyond salvageable.

This is when things got weird: we talked it out and came to a reasonable solution we could both be okay with. She conceded that the government didn’t need to have gun registration laws (it’s no business of theirs who owns which guns), and I conceded that certain classes of people (namely felons) shouldn’t be allowed to buy guns, so background checks are acceptable. I couldn’t get her to budge on non-violent felons, but my big beef there is with drug laws, and that’s a different issue anyway, so I was willing to concede the point. We also both agreed that waiting periods should be abolished, because the technology exists to do immediate background checks, and those checks should be done everywhere, including gun shows.

What’s so weird about all of this? Watch fifteen minutes, or even five minutes, of political television and then ask me that question again. Granted, we came from roughly the same starting place, but we still had some strong views that we disagreed on, and we both gave a little to get to something we could agree with. It’s called “compromise”, for those of you too young to remember what it looks like. And I blame the iPod for its absence in contemporary politics.

Sounds crazy, right? Bear with me for a little while and you’ll understand. When I was a kid, we had one TV in the house (well, two, but the one in the basement was tiny, black and white, and got crap reception, so it doesn’t count). It got exactly two channels: whatever my sister and I could agree on, and whatever Dad decided to put on when he got home. Occasionally, when I was very lucky, my sister would be at a friend’s house before my folks got home and I would have a few hours of TV to myself, but that was a rare luxury and one I didn’t count on.

Growing up like that I had to learn the art of compromise. Granted it usually involved a lot of yelling, screaming, cursing, and more than a little hitting, but that’s politics for you. What I didn’t learn was an attitude of entitlement, one that said I could have whatever I want whenever I want and everyone else could go suck an egg. That all changed when the iPod came along.

Don’t get me wrong, the iPod was and remains one of the greatest inventions in human history. The chance to have your music, your way, whenever you want wherever you want is a glorious thing. But it shapes expectations; people become accustomed to having what they want, without having to negotiate with others. It’s not like the boom boxes and ghetto blasters I had as a kid, when “sharing” music was a very immediate and sometimes involuntary experience. Facebook and other social media have only exacerbated the phenomenon; people choose the stories they want to hear, and they shape the media they are exposed to before and as much as the media shapes them.

This sort of “a la carte media” has expanded into all aspects of life. If you can’t find a cable channel that caters to your specific tastes, there’s a YouTube channel that will. Streaming radio will introduce you to new music, unless you skip past a song you decide you don’t like in the first few beats. And there’s a website out there dedicated to every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that aren’t.

What is the net result on politics? The politicians we elect reflect the media of our time. It used to be that politicians were like mass media: they appealed to broad demographics, even to the point of being criticized for chasing “the lowest common denominator”. But hey, at least they were accessible to everyone. Now every politician is like a personalized playlist, narrowly targeting key demographics with a hyper-partisan message, and who can blame them? The electronic graffiti that litters the walls of our social media pages screams for it, begs for it, demands the same hyper-partisan rhetoric they are only too happy to deliver. If we aren’t getting the politicians we want it’s only because we’re getting the politicians we’ve been asking for, and maybe deserve.

Why Can’t Johnny Read a Job Listing?

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in hiring lately, and I feel it is my job, nay, my calling to bring it to the attention of you, my faithful readers. I believe that this is a challenge that we need to address as a nation, else we will never be able to rise out of the economic mire we find ourselves in. That challenge is the apparent inability of our working age youth to actually read a job listing.

What leads me to this conclusion is the never-ending wave of applicants I have been getting lately who are under the impression that they can (a) work remotely or (b) work in a full-time position while attending school full-time. While I admit the latter has been done before and will be done again, the fact is that none of the people who I have interviewed thus far have been looking to attend classes at night, on the weekend, or in any other capacity than the way they always have, during the day and on their campus. Let me note, for the record, that the job listings in question have two commonalities: they are for PAID internships, and they explicitly state that they require the candidate to be present during normal business hours. (Yes, we do list the address of our business on our website. In several places. On every page, in fact.)

So can someone please explain to me why it is that almost every applicant makes a point of the fact that they want to work remotely, and almost every one of them seems to want to work in this role while attending school full-time on the same schedule they always have? I understand the world is moving toward “telecommuting”; point of fact, it has been doing so since I first started college… twenty years ago (I just recently had my high school reunion). There are some things that have not yet changed, are not likely to ever change, and if they do change that change is not going to start with an intern, especially if I’m paying them. If you happen to know someone, or even ARE someone looking for an internship or other entry-level position, please share the following tips about why telecommuting isn’t in the cards in the near future.

  • Sometimes things come up that I need you physically present for. Even in jobs that deal with “teh interwebs” there are things like meetings, strategy sessions, or even just the occasional random task that I will need you to be present for. Yes, I have heard of Skype. I’ve even used it a few times. Perhaps you’ve heard of “limited bandwidth”. We pay for what we have, and I don’t want to spend it on you.
  • Showing up every day proves I can trust you. Right now I have no reason to, because I don’t know you, and I’m taking a risk on you. This is the case with any new hire, from the CEO on down. The difference between the CEO and you is somewhere in the vicinity of twenty years of work experience and a few pages of references. And she shows up every day, usually before you do.
  • In the same vein, when you show up, I get a sense of your behavior and demeanor. I am entrusting you with tasks that I expect you to handle in a professional manner. In order to build confidence in your ability to do so, your professional dress and behavior go a long way toward that. Showing up on time and staying all day also help. When you work remotely, it is a sign of trust; for all I know you’re sitting around in your bathrobe playing “Angry Birds” all day.
  • Finally, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it doesn’t matter why I want you to show up. I am hiring you, not the other way around. Even if this were an unpaid internship, if you want the job, you get it on my terms. If you like what you are getting out of it, you take it; if not, you don’t. That logic is the same whether you are a cashier at a grocery store or the president of a Fortune 500 company. And quite frankly, in this economy I really don’t see someone going out for an internship being in a position to negotiate, especially not on this essential point.

Maybe I’m being too unforgiving, maybe I’m expecting too much. Certainly if I can’t find someone to take the job as offered I’ll have to re-evaluate my expectations and decide if I need to change the offer, or if I even need an intern that badly. But that’s for me to decide, not you. Until I do, you’re not doing yourself any favors asking for a job I’m not offering; you’re just getting yourself a one-way ticket to Trashcan Town, population: your resume.

We Need Some Social Media Etiquette

It’s a sad fact of the internet that it will never be civilized. Maybe this makes me sound like a pessimist, but I’ve actually been on the internet since before there WAS an internet (raise your hand if you actually know what a BBS was), and we had to deal with trolls even back then. It’s been over twenty years, and there are kids whose parents weren’t even old enough to be among those troublemakers out there now clogging the information highways and byways with their own version of “wit.” So let’s all accept that we will never be rid of these little minds and move on to the things we can control, which is our own behavior.

What particularly saddens me in this regard is that every few months something comes along that really shouldn’t require a new set of rules, and yet somehow it does. This is becoming more prominent as social media, the cancer of the internet age, continues to dominate the landscape in more and more mutated forms. It would seem obvious that certain basic courtesies should be sufficient to carry us from one platform to the next, and yet every time some new contender comes along to become the hot new product, people flock to it and begin the cycle of awful behavior all over again despite the fact that they themselves are complaining about that same awful behavior.

Speaking as someone who has, in fact, engaged in some of this awful behavior in the past, allow me to be the first to apologize and take the lead in proposing some sensible reforms. If we all voluntarily started to follow these guidelines, the internet would become a tolerable place. If even some folks (my friends) were to do this, I could at least enjoy my little corner of it.

First, please stop with the cryptic comments. “Well, that could have gone better.” Whether it’s tweets, status updates, blog posts, or anyplace else, you are not communicating, you are infuriating. It doesn’t engender sympathy; it just makes you look like (a) a needy tool or (b) a whiny douche. If you’re particularly lucky you get option (c), both (a) and (b). Whatever the problem is, just spell it out or suck it up. We will be here for you (we are your friends and family after all), or we won’t (in which case you really need to get some better friends, and maybe stop taking your problems to the internet.)

Second, please, for the love of god, stop “checking in” everywhere you go. I really couldn’t give less of a shit where you had lunch, or how many times you visited Bowl-a-Rama last month. And don’t tell me I can “just change the settings” on my social media; you are inflicting this on me, not the other way around, and considering how often Facebook changes my settings for me we both know that’s about as effective as voting Republican in Washington, D.C. anyway.

Third, stop perpetuating falsehoods. The internet is so full of misinformation these days it’s tragic, and the speed with which people assist the spread of this misinformation is mind-boggling. The only thing worse than the trolls who do it for fun are the people who honestly believe they are helping others. You are doing more harm than good, usually because you can’t be bothered to check your facts, and in this day and age that is inexcusable. Learn it, live it, love it. If you intend to post, forward, or share a single “fact” on the internet in the future, just look it up first. They aren’t infallible, but it’s a start.

Fourth, give some thought to what you do online. I know it’s easy and getting easier every day to do really amazing things in the cyber space, but that also means it’s getting easier every day to do some really annoying and atrocious things too. Given the entire history of humankind, which do you think is more likely to happen, especially when you don’t even give thought to what you do?

Here’s an example: say you’re on some popular social site that lets you post items you are interested in by category. We’ll give it a nice generic name, like Post-trest. Now suppose I can opt-out of following categories of yours I’m not interested in, like cooking. Hey, we both win. I still follow you, so you stay popular, but I don’t have to see a bunch of posts about cooking. But then you decide to start creating a bunch of random new groups like “Baking” and “Grilling” and “Things to Have with Some Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti.” Now I’m forced to decide between abandoning you and having my screen cluttered with disturbing images I don’t want. Nobody wins.

Finally, and on a related note, it’s time we all start treating online conversations more like real-life conversations, with some civility, respect and, dare I say it, a bit less extremism. Even those of us who think we aren’t trolls have certain issues that drive us right under the bridge (and not in that good Red Hot Chili Peppers way.) Remember that generation of kids I mentioned way back at the beginning? The ones who have no idea how to behave in a civilized conversation either online or in the real world? Yeah, I wonder where they learned that.

It’s not anonymity that turns people into raging asshats online; it’s a lack of immediate accountability. When there’s no threat of someone taking you to task in some direct and meaningful fashion, whether by throwing a punch or just throwing a drink in your face, people are more prone to become belligerent, bellicose, and a lot of other B words too. I’m not advocating for violence, either de facto or de jure, as a means of controlling behavior online. Rather I’m advocating for self-control, something that we could use more of in every aspect of our lives, online or not.