I’m on my way home from New York. At Bowery Poetry, I gave my first Culture of Possibility workshop, aimed at actualizing the ideas in my new books. As so often happens, everyone resonated with my critique of Datastan, the realm in which human being in all their delightful particularity are asked to adapt to the machinelike linearity of our own creations. Large and small, social systems seem to be designed by and for robots, and often, the choice to evade them seems foreclosed by circumstance. As I say in The Culture of Possibility, to the degree Datastan’s
…project succeeds, it makes us miserable. Machines have often been a boon to pleasure and freedom: if my home were on fire, I’m certain I’d save my computer, iPod, iPad, and iPhone before anything else. But I want to make use of them, not be controlled by them. If it were a pleasure to be treated like a cog in a machine, people would volunteer for it. Instead, those whose economic circumstances enable them to avoid interacting with public and private bureaucracies, customer service departments, and the type of assessment that allows a number to stand for one’s worth invariably employ a cushy buffer zone of specialists and factotums to insulate themselves from such diminishment. Everyone who can evade Datastan does. That doesn’t stop them from prescribing it for the rest of us, though.
As often happens, life throws up a handy example of whatever has seized one’s attention. Mine is trivial, but I find that it has lodged in my brain like a burrowing insect. Part of me wants to surrender to Datastan, to do what it demands in the hope of redirecting its attention away from myself. Part of me wants to fight it till my last breath. Stick with me, please, while I describe this teapot tempest. If you’d like to share what you would do, I’d love to hear it. Just drop me an email and I promise to respond. Here’s the story:
At the end of August, I moved. I closed my account with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the California public utility company. Not long after, two things happened. (1) I got a notice from PG&E that I owed a tiny final bill—$9.61. I went online and and paid it. (2) Before I’d moved, I’d called my bank to change my contact address and order new checks. One hitch: the person who took my new information had the checks—imprinted with my correct new address—sent to my old obsolete address. (Thank you, Mechanics Bank!) The checks were lost in the Post Office’s forwarding system and the account had to be closed immediately.
While my PG&E account was active, I’d set up automatic bill-paying from my bank, but as I said, I was forced to close the account. A month later, PG&E sent me another bill for $26 and change. This seemed odd, but I was busy and didn’t take the time to think; I just paid it. It wasn’t till a day or two later that I began to wonder why. I called the utility company. They explained that even though I’d closed my account, and even though I had already paid the $9.61 outstanding and owed them nothing, they’d submitted an automatic payment in that amount to my old bank. The bank had rejected it, since I no longer had an account. PG&E waited a month, levied a late fee and some other sort of fine, and billed me for $26-plus.
I had a very long and frustrating conversation with PG&E’s “customer service” representative, who put me on hold for ages to speak with his supervisor. But at long last, they agreed that yes, I had paid the bill, so it wasn’t right to rebill me and add late fees and fines. I would receive a refund, he said—and I did! A day or two later, I also got a call from another customer service representative assuring me that the matter had been resolved, that no further bills would be forthcoming.
Bingo! You guessed it! Another month went by, and while I was in New York this week, PG&E sent me a late notice for the original $9.61, once again compounded with more fees that tripled the price. I exchanged email with “customer service” (an impudent robot who consistently addressed me as “Arlene,” but failed to sign his, her, or its name). I was informed that “after further investigation, this was not a company error.” After the last of several fruitless replies, I started receiving automated phone calls from PG&E telling me I could pay my outstanding balance by phone if I didn’t want to do it online or by check. Perhaps the electronic tone of voice wasn’t as threatening as it sounded yesterday, but on the other hand, maybe they got Christopher Walken to record the message.
Here’s the thing: I have found this gnatlike annoyance so Kafkaesquely irritating that my mind keeps returning to it, even though I have far more pleasant or important or interesting things to think about. I’m tired from too little sleep on the road, which magnifies the discomfort. I feel tempted to pay the bill, thinking of it as the equivalent of a loan shark’s “vig”—in the movies, the shark threatens to break the hero’s fingers if he doesn’t pony up an astronomical interest every few days. PG&E—as the current representative of Corporation Nation leaning on my last nerve—threatens to break my spirit, one gnat-bite at a time.
Of course, each and every one of us has had to deal with far worse provocations, as—like the Borg on “Star Trek”—Corporation Nation has ways of persuading us to be assimilated when the stakes are far higher. I’m not wealthy, but succumbing to PG&E’s extortion won’t break the bank. I’m just afraid that each increment of giving into the machine may lead to another, until I am assimilated.
I’ve been fortunate in reviews and response to my new books. Most readers have gotten a lot out of them. Almost all their questions have focused on how to actualize my ideas. But one point that elicited opposition. Some people have told me that they share my analysis of the chilling effect of corporate domination of culture, but they cannot say so for fear of offending those who hold economic power over their own organizations. Others denounce “binary thinking,” despite the care I took to point out that “If you don’t like holding Datastan and The Republic of Stories in a kind of encompassing simultaneity—as two ways to look at the world, rather than two bins for sorting it out—don’t waste time arguing with it. The paradigm shift is real no matter how it is named. Just find a way to characterize it that works for you.”
A key concern I write about is how incidences of outright suppression inoculate us, inculcating acceptance, leading from censorship to a culture of self-censorship, from constraint to self-imposed submission:
We carry these [inoculating] experiences within our own memory and consciousness. As I write these words, I feel the class-warfare frame arise in my own mind. I have no doubt that the commercialization of absolutely everything is a common thread in all of our wicked problems and social messes: if no one profited from dirty energy, for instance, public investment in clean energy would already have made significant inroads into climate change. If special pleading by lobbyists and donors hadn’t influenced politicians to create so many opportunities to privatize public goods, unemployment and deteriorating infrastructure would not be such epidemic challenges; and so on. The prohibition against pointing these things out—or to be more specific, against naming the beneficiaries and culprits and showing how much of the expense of their self-serving actions is borne by the rest of us—is powerful. Some people may stop reading what I have written on account of the discomfort this triggers.
What’s required to see things clearly in the face of such prohibitions is refusal to accept the inoculation. This entails ruthless self-examination. What have you been reluctant to express for fear of disapproval? How often do you perform a mental calculation, ending with the bottom line that it’s not worth the risk to represent your own truths fully and forthrightly? Or not worth the hassle of defending others who do, even when opponents try to silence them? None of us is completely immune to self-censorship. But it can help to strengthen resistance to look at the remarkable extent to which a little bit of overt censorship can now go a very long way in suppressing freedom of expression. It can help to assert a refusal to go along, and to back it up with both speech and deeds. It can help to notice the discomfort that can arise when the prohibition is transgressed, and continue anyway.
A lot to hang on a minor instance of the power company throwing its weight around? Of course. But still…what would you do?
Time for a little Lucinda Williams: “The Awakening.”