FSMichaels.com

I'm the author of Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything (Red Clover, 2011). I write about big ideas, culture, creativity, and the interaction of complex systems.
Posts tagged "Monoculture"

Thanks to Stefanie at So Many Books for a solid review of Monoculture, especially from the point of view of a soon-to-be librarian (given that I talked about changes affecting libraries in the book).

Some interesting conversation in the comments too. Take a look!

Today, the CBC reported the results of an economic impact study it had commissioned by Deloitte and Touche, in an attempt “to measure the value of having a publicly funded broadcaster in Canada.” The results? CBC was worth $3.7 billion to the Canadian economy in 2010.

This kind of blatant economic argument for a public service is the same kind of attempt to secure public funding that’s now common across schools, libraries, and social service organizations in an economic monoculture - a primarily economic argument that justifies why public funding shouldn’t be cut.

In the case of the CBC, the government is supposed to leave the CBC’s budget alone, not because of the broadcaster’s cultural contribution to Canada, and not because the CBC strengthens our national identity, and not because it brings attention to important issues that otherwise might not receive attention, and not because a national public broadcaster maybe represents the public good in an age of media consolidation and corporate influence.

No, in the monoculture, the government is supposed to support a national public broadcaster because it would literally cost them more if they didn’t.

If CBC did not have a parliamentary allocation and was forced to rely on advertising and other commercial revenue streams, the public broadcaster would contribute much less to the economy because it would be forced to buy more foreign programming, would crowd out private broadcasters and would contribute less to creative communities across Canada, the study says. It suggests that a solely privately funded CBC would also be forced to spend less on both news and Canadian programming.

In other words, economic impact becomes the final, and only, arbiter of value.

Earlier this year, the U.S.-based Pew Environmental Group released a report that said Canada’s boreal forest provides “about $700-billion in ‘services’ to the world every year.”(The U.S. is weighing in because Canada’s wetlands are considered a global conservation priority.)

That number includes “nearly $180-billion for the annual amortized value of carbon storage, $5.4-billion for natural pest-control provided by birds, $575-million in subsistence value for aboriginal peoples and $18.3-million in watershed services such as municipal water use. Some of that value is provided by the wetlands and peatlands, including $401-billion for the annual amortized value of stored carbon and more than $110-billion for flood control, water filtering and biodiversity promotion.”

When the economic story gets applied to the environment, nature becomes a provider of ecosystem services, and the estimated economic value of those services becomes the “why” behind our conservation efforts. In other words, we come to believe and argue that we ought to save the environment because it pays to save it.

It’s another example of just how legitimate the economic story has become across the board - we try to justify what we want to do environmentally economically, because in an economic monoculture, that’s perceived as the most legitimate way to make our case.

Then we develop policies and procedures that are based on those economic assumptions, and the monoculture grows stronger.

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Sources: Globe & Mail — Pew Environmental Group

When the economic story spreads into media (which it has, though I didn’t get a chance to cover that in the book), the news becomes about giving the customer what it thinks he or she wants and less about what a democratic citizen might need to know in order to function effectively in a democratic society. The news becomes about attracting eyeballs in order to build the biggest audience possible, and less about the communication of meaningful information.

That means you start to see lots of celebrity news and shock stories that are intended to make you tune in, and less investigative reporting and detailed journalism, which is more expensive to produce anyway, and not necessarily “efficient” (more on that below).

Happily, not everyone is on board with that, though it seems to hard to believe sometimes when 24-hour news channels seem to be spending a lot of time on information that doesn’t seem to really matter in the larger scheme of things. But there are pockets of people who are trying to live the independent life of society in media, and one group that’s doing that is ProPublica.

ProPublica is an independent newsroom of 34 working journalists headquartered in Manhattan that has been producing journalism in the public interest since June 2008. From their website:

Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. This is therefore a moment when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.

The business crisis in publishing and — not unrelated — the revolution in publishing technology are having a number of wide-ranging effects.  Among these are that the creation of original journalism in the public interest, and particularly the form that has come to be known as “investigative reporting,” is being squeezed down, and in some cases out.

The business crisis in publishing is making it increasingly difficult for the companies that control nearly all of our nation’s news organizations to afford—or at least to think they can afford—the sort of intensive, extensive and uncertain efforts that produce great investigative journalism.

It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms are exploding in the Internet age. But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources offacts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.

More than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor to do well—and because the “prospecting” necessary for such stories inevitably yields a substantial number of “dry holes,” i.e. stories that seem promising at first, but ultimately prove either less interesting or important than first thought, or even simply untrue and thus unpublishable.

Given these realities, many news organizations have increasingly come to see investigative journalism as a luxury that can be put aside in tough economic times. Thus, a 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. daily newspapers showed that 37% had no full-time investigative reporters, a majority had two or fewer such reporters, and only 10% had four or more. Television networks and national magazines have similarly been shedding or shrinking investigative units. Moreover, at many media institutions, time and budget constraints are curbing the once significant ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to handling their regular beats.

In 2011, a series of ProPublica stories was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and in 2010, one story won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. You can follow them on Twitter at @ProPublica.

The success of Red Bull defies logic in one important regard: It doesn’t taste very good. The amber-colored elixir’s taste has been likened to “liquid Sweet Tarts” or “cough medicine in a can.” (Although it does grow on you.) One early market research report in the U.K. put it bluntly: “No other new product has ever failed this convincingly.” Mateschitz [Red Bull cofounder] says he didn’t care about the taste issue then, and he doesn’t care about it now. "It’s not just another flavored sugar water differentiated by color or taste or flavor," he says. "It’s an efficiency product. I’m talking about improving endurance, concentration, reaction time, speed, vigilance, and emotional status. Taste is of no importance whatsoever."

An efficiency product in an age that endlessly strives for efficiency does bang-up business.

In return for his sickly sweet innovation, the world has made him very, very rich. Last year the privately held company, also named Red Bull, says it sold 4.2 billion cans of its drink, including more than a billion in the U.S. alone. That represents a 7.9 percent increase over the year before, and revenues jumped 15.8 percent to $5.175 billion.

In the economic story, this kind of drink isn’t really a drink - it’s just something that you happen to drink on your way to becoming more efficient, efficiency being a hallmark value of the economic story. In other words, the experience of drinking something becomes not an end in itself, where taste matters, for example, but just a means to an end - and that end is economic.

[Quote source: Bloomberg Businessweek]

In one of its last issues, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the magazine ENTREPRENEUR is busy suing entrepreneurs for using the word “entrepreneur” in their own businesses.

Since the early 1980s, EMI has sued or threatened to sue scores of businesses and organizations it claims infringed its trademarks. EMI won’t provide a tally of its targets, but it almost always prevails.

Scott Smith, a public-relations man in Sacramento, Calif., fought back and paid the price. A federal judge ruled in 2003 that he had to drop EntrepreneurPR as his firm name, stop publishing a quarterly compilation of press releases called Entrepreneur Illustrated, and pay EMI more than $1 million in damages and attorneys’ fees. “They crushed me, and I had to file for personal bankruptcy,” says Smith, who is still contesting what he owes the publisher.

EMI [Entrepreneur Media Inc.] goes after a broad spectrum of businesses, ranging from Internet startups to a fledgling clothing manufacturer. In 2001 it persuaded the nonprofit Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University to change the title of its quarterly alumni newsletter, The Entrepreneur. In 2004 it stopped 3Entrepreneurs, a San Diego apparel company, from putting the phrase “Entrepreneur Generation” on T-shirts, sweaters, and hats. At present, EMI is skirmishing with the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and Museum, a one-man website based in Glen Cove, N.Y., with aspirations of someday occupying a brick-and-mortar facility. “Entrepreneur is the enemy of entrepreneurs,” says the hall of fame’s proprietor, Mitch Schlimer, who began his career selling New York-style soft pretzels from a street cart with his grandfather.

So how does a company manage to trademark a word originally attributed to French economist Jean-Baptiste Say in the 19th century, so that it moves out of the public domain and into the private domain, becoming defendable intellectual property? Who knows.

A couple of days ago, the BBC provided a great example of the monoculture with this headline: "Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK".

The article highlights a major report commissioned by the government, the National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), noting that the “UK’s parks, lakes, forests and wildlife are worth billions of pounds to the economy.” The report is apparently going to be used to “re-shape planning policy.”

True to form (meaning as covered in the book in the environment section), the economic story applied to the environment is being touted here too for conservation purposes.

By calculating the value of less tangible factors such as clean air, clean water and natural flood defences, it hopes to rebalance the equation.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) welcomed the assessment.

"The traditional view of economic growth is based on chasing GDP, but in fact we will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature," said its conservation director, Martin Harper.

"Of course no-one can put a pounds and pence value on everything in nature - but equally we cannot ignore the importance of looking after it when we are striving for economic growth."

The NEA seeks to include virtually every economic contribution from eight types of landscape, such as woodlands, coasts and urban areas.

And in case you were wondering, the “value” of pollinating insects is 430 million pounds, and inland wetlands are worth 1.5 billion.

What it all means is that we’re coming to understand the environment and nature in a predominantly economic light: we’re starting to believe that nature is worth saving because it literally pays to save it.

In universities and colleges around the world, the economic story is still spreading. In many cases, that story is still not being accepted wholeheartedly.

On May 27, 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 800 faculty members at Texas A&M University signed a letter urging the Board of Regents to distance themselves from “a for-profit mentality” that they fear is being pushed by the conservative think tank known as the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

An influential member of the foundation’s board, Jeff Sandefer (an oilman who taught at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founded Austin’s Acton School of Business), had made “suggestions” to the University. Those suggestions, called “Seven Breakthrough Solutions,” suggested, among other things, giving faculty members raises based on student evaluations (a version of pay for performance, which in higher education, has been found to be problematic, because professors who give higher grades get better evaluations, which begs the question of the quality of education being received).

The Chronicle reported,

In an interview at the Acton School on Wednesday, Mr. Sandefer said he was reluctant to comment on what he sees as an overblown and politicized distortion of some “common-sense ideas” he put forth just to stimulate discussion.

"I think there’s a transformation coming in higher education, and the schools that get out front will have an advantage, but I’m not on a jihad to make people do things," he said.

"If you look at the numbers and the cost, higher education has to change. We have to find a better and, if possible, cheaper way to teach students."

Remarks posted to the university’s Web site by the Board chair said:

"From time to time, we will ask difficult questions about the productivity of our universities and agencies," he said. "We do so not because we have an agenda, but a responsibility … to ensure our universities, in particular, are as efficient, affordable, accessible, and productive as possible."

Those attempts to measure productivity include a detailed breakdown of the cost and earning power (record of bringing money into the university) of each faculty member. Too,

"Critics of the university’s efforts toward openness accuse the regents of devaluing research that doesn’t have an immediate commercial application or external financing."

The monoculture is found, of course, in the intersection between religion and social services. Churches are often involved in humanitarian work of one kind or another, but that focus on humanitarian work is, in some cases, taking on a decidedly economic twang, where profit - not a religious value like caring for the oppressed or looking after widows and orphans - becomes the pinnacle of humanitarian achivement.

Here’s an example of a relatively well-known American pastor (voted one of the 50 Leaders Under the Age of 40 to Watch by Christianity Todayin 1996) talking about capitalism as a social change agent on his blog. This was posted back in 2003, when the US was at war with Iraq:

"Yet [x]’s a kindred spirit, as I myself am the self-styled leader of Urban Ministers for Free Market Capitalism and Globalization. There are many members of my little club, but just like the many coalition countries that anonymously back the US and Britain in the current conflict, many of my cohorts are not ready to go public with their belief that making a virtuous profit could be the most humanitarian thing we could do in other parts of the world."

From The New Yorker, an article about author James Frey’s fiction firm, where MFA grads are hired to scribble away in the hopes of producing the next commercial wonder.

This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission…..

…..I later spoke to Conrad Rippy, a veteran publishing attorney, who explained that the contract given to me wasn’t a book-packaging contract; it was “a collaboration agreement without there being any collaboration.” He said he had never seen a contract like this in his sixteen years of negotiation. “It’s an agreement that says, ‘You’re going to write for me. I’m going to own it. I may or may not give you credit. If there is more than one book in the series, you are on the hook to write those too, for the exact same terms, but I don’t have to use you. In exchange for this, I’m going to pay you 40 percent of some amount you can’t verify—there’s no audit provision—and after the deduction of a whole bunch of expenses.” He described it as a Hollywood-style work-for-hire contract grafted onto the publishing industry—“although Hollywood writers in a work-for-hire contract are usually paid more than $250.”