The Social Effects of Antisocial Media

I take my brisk daily walk listening to radio talk on a Walkman-like device or to podcasts including “Left, Right and Center,” “Studio 360,” “Radiolab,” “Motley Fool Money” and so on.

So, striding along recently I heard someone in my ear buds say something could never happen. I didn’t agree and said aloud, “Oh yes it can.” Probably pretty loudly since those doodads in your ears don’t let you gauge your own volume.

It was loud enough to make a woman on the other side of the street walking her dog swivel her head toward me, probably thinking I was yelling at her for some reason. Seeing I wasn’t she smiled slightly and carried on as if nothing had happened. I deduced that she had seen the gizmos in my ears and realize I was plugged into a different reality. My ear tech sent a social message.

Not long ago a man striding along the street yelling, or carrying on an animated conversation with thin air, or simply loudly wailing incomprehensible gibberish off-key would have been given a wide berth at the very least. He might have found burly men in uniform throwing a net over him and hustling him off for observation.

Today these antics are normal. He isn’t off his meds; he’s on his Bluetooth, talking to the office or stock broker, singing along with Kanye or Rihanna or, in my case, talking back to talk radio. The weird antisocial world created by all our devices is now taken for granted, even celebrated. Never better than in the fantastic Apple ad from last Christmas.

In it, the family arrives for a snowy visit to the grandparents. Among them is a nerdy teen who spends the whole time in the corner fixated with glazed eyes on his iPhone rather than on the festivities like everyone else. Until the punch line. Turns out he wasn’t a recessive loser in a world of his own but a tech genius who was recording the entire holiday and editing it into a video love poem to the family that he plays for them on the giant flat screen. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

This is sheer genius. It had the duel effect of a) validating the immersion of nerds everywhere in gear in preference to people and b) persuading the oldsters their creepy gameboy grandson is not the next isolated loner likely to go postal but is the next Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg likely to make a fortune. It must have sold a lot of units.

I’m not quite sure it captures reality, of course. In fact I’m pretty sure a lot of introverts on the internet are not going to be tech superstars but are going to remain socially inept sad sacks marooned in their parents’ basements. I’m also pretty sure at least a few days a week I should take my walk while chatting with family or neighbors rather than carry on conversations with my imaginary media friends.

Insofar as we are all increasingly isolated in our self-made tech bubbles we are not part of a larger community of actual humans. And cozy as it is, a virtual reality isn’t the actual reality. Despite its annoyances, so-called real life is also enlivened by human interactions – blood, sweat and tears perhaps, but also love, affection, give and take. Like space in “Gravity,” cyberspace may be a nice place to visit but a far too inhospitable and alien place to live full time.

A Tarheel Tale: Follow the Money

That was the advice of Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein if they hoped to unravel Watergate. It is still the key to understanding most corporate and political bad behavior.

Why is BP, a scant 5 years after befouling the water and beaches of the Gulf, back in business bidding for deep water drilling rights? Because it has deeper pocket to influence government and public perceptions than environmental groups. And because consumers want cheap oil, safety be damned. Drill, Baby, Drill. In short, money talks.

Why was GM fatally slow in admitting there was a problem likely to kill people with ignitions and air bags on some models? Because a company on the brink of bankruptcy and reliant on a government bail out didn’t need bad publicity. And once it ignored signs of trouble for so long the cost of going back and admitting the mess was getting higher every day. Money again.

Why in both cases were government regulators so lax or incompetent about policing the perpetrators? Well, for thirty years a relentless effort has made to demonize government regulation and the nanny state. Funds to do the job have been slashed at every opportunity by legislators whose largest donors are none other than the regulated companies. What kind of regulatory regime would you expect to get in such an environment? Once again, money will find a way.

Which brings us to the Duke Energy – Gov. Pat McCrory scandal in North Carolina. This case is so transparently about business calling the tune for government it’s almost comic. Duke is the nation’s largest electric power producer, headquartered in Charlotte. It has 14 coal fired plants in North Carolina alone which produce tons of toxic coal ash.

In February a catastrophic spill of 82,000 tons of ash from unlined pits built adjacent to the Dan River produced an environmental disaster that has poisoned 70 miles of river. This is business as usual for Duke which has made a habit of creating leaky ash pits alongside rivers and lakes including Mountain Island Lake, a source of Charlotte’s drinking water.

Duke has decided belatedly that the proximity of so much poison to the water source for a couple million people might have been unwise. So it has promised to find a better place to put the ash, this time in lined containments less likely to contaminate ground water. It should only take 5 years or so. Just don’t drink the water until then.

Why did Duke do this at plant after plant? It was cheap to dump ash near the plants, though they are often located on lakes or river which serve as drinking water sources. Cheaper still not to build lined containment facilities. Best of all, there was little threat state regulators would give them a hard time.

But the Dan River spill has caused a wee problem. It became a nationwide news story casting unaccustomed light on the increasingly cozy relationship between Duke and the state government, especially the NCDENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources). Could this chumminess have anything to do with the fact that Gov. McCrory before turning pol spent 28 years working for Duke Power?

Actually, McCrory might as well still be a Duke employee. In fact, he’s the Governor of Duke Energy. The company donated over $1 million to his campaign. It was rewarded with jobs for former Duke executives as Commerce Secretary, head of personnel and chief economic advisor. Not to mention the appointment as DENR head of John Skvala who is a climate change denier on record as believing fossil fuels are infinite and that his department’s job isn’t to beat up on companies that create jobs. Under his watch, he let it be known, DENR wouldn’t obstruct economic growth.

So when dozens of environmental groups combined to sue Duke over its lax and likely criminal behavior regarding coal ash, Skvala stepped in to preempt their suits by having the state sue Duke instead of the environmental advocates. It acted in the guise of environmental watchdog. But this dog was a pet, well trained by its masters at Duke and in the governor’s office to roll over and play dead. The state settled the case with a slap-on-the-wrist fine of $99,000, pretty painful for a $50 billion enterprise.

Obviously the fix is in and the motto of the state of North Carolina in its role as environmental protector is: Thanks for the Money and Spill, Baby, Spill.

Bracket Racket

Good news! You can win a billion dollars just by figuring out who’s going to win a bunch of basketball games in the upcoming March Madness tourney. That’s $1,000,000,000. A lot of zeroes.

A lot of bunk too. One way you can be sure is the fact that Warren Buffett, the sage of Omaha, is insuring the guy running the contest against the remote possibility somebody will actually win.

One of the wiliest investors in history doesn’t make stupid bets and this isn’t one of them . Insurance constitutes a bit over a third of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, includes 70 companies and produced $6 billion in operating income last year and $2 billion in profits.

The odds of somebody picking the brackets perfectly has been calculated at one in 9.2 quintillion. So don’t lose any sleep about Buffett being on the wrong side of this deal. Especially since the number of entrants is limited to the first 15 million to go online and sign up. Sounds like a lot, but the odds still vastly favor the house or Buffett wouldn’t be risking even one fifty-eighth of his fortune.

With a characteristic twinkle in his eye and tongue in cheek Buffett said if anyone is perfect at the time of the final game he can sit with him to watch the finale (and the crushing of his dreams, of course). “But I will not be cheering for him or her to win. I may even give them a little investment advice.”

Optimists will interpret that to mean Buffett will tell them how to invest their billion, but it is more likely Buffett will teach them his two rules of investing. Rule One: Never lose money. Rule Two: Never forget Rule One. Don’t those rules suggest Warren is pretty sure he’s on the winning side?

This is clearly all in good fun for Buffett and Dan Gilbert of QuickenLoans, the actual sponsor of this promotional stunt. Quicken is actually on the hook for prizes to the top 20 imperfect brackets, each of which will win $100,000 for a total of $2 million. But that’s peanuts and is less than it would cost to advertise during the tournament. The immense publicity has already paid off. And the gimmick promises to be even more valuable.

How? To sign up to play you give the QuickenLoans personal information and answer a questionnaire about home ownership. You can then look forward to a future without a billion dollars in the bank but with an endless stream of spam and other pitches for on-line mortgages.

In short, QuickenLoans is prospecting for loan customers from a pool likely to be rich in the kind of people who a) need money and b) think they can solve their financial problems by winning the lottery or picking basketball winners.

That’s a trifle sleazy if you think about it, perhaps even predatory since shooting the weakest members of the herd is hardly sporting. We all remember what happened the last time the gullible fell for fabulous deals on mortgages. And isn’t this a tad beneath the dignity of Buffett? But, hey, this is America. Let the Hunger Games begin.