The Age of Musterbation

by G. Murphy Donovan (February 2015)


“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”  - E. R. Murrow

Media icons are often given credit for thoughts that originated with their betters. The “nation of sheep” metaphor is an example. Thomas Jefferson addressed the subject in response to the Federalist Papers, long before Edward R. Murrow. And before that, herd similes might be traced to the Old and New Testaments. William J. Lederer wrote a book on the subject in 1961, a follow up to the best-selling Ugly American (1958).


Illustration by Chris Parks

Lederer’s lament focused on a passive electorate, arrogant foreign policy apparatchiks, and myopic politicians; the tendency of Americans to fail to educate themselves about issues and then throw good money after bad at home and abroad. In short, Lederer despaired of passive voters and venal politicians, a nation where profligate spending sustained failed institutions.  

Much has changed in the last 50 years, including language and internet culture. Neologisms abound, the most telling of which is “musterbation.” Albert Ellis coined the term to describe clients who feel that they “must, should, or ought” to do things that had no rational basis. Much online activity could be described as grazing, peeping, or musterbation. Just one vowel away from onanism, the musterbater is compelled to join, mimic, exhibit, and conform. In such culture, the poorly read are easily led.

Former Congressman Anthony Wiener (D/NY) might be a chronic musterbator, compelled to use the internet in ways that defy reason, reputation, and common sense.

The modern tax dollar still buys votes but few solutions. Indeed, popular music has escalated the zoological hyperbole in a bit of telling doggerel by Otep Shamaya:                         

                              We've become a nation of wolves, ruled by sheep.
                              Owned by swine, overfed, and put to sleep.
                              While the media elite declare what to think,
                              I'll be wide awake, on the edge, and on the brink. 

On the brink of what is the question? Clearly a herd culture is the dominant social artifact of the early 21st Century. The most obvious symptoms are the internet and associated “social” networks.

So who are the wolves today? Here we could borrow an analogy from the “Occupy” movement, that 99 percent majority alleged to be victimized by the wealthy one percent. Such comparisons are true to the extent that all politics, right or left, are dominated by a small elite, a “vanguard” of one sort or another: commercial, political, or military mandarins. Art, too, is fashioned by elites for the herd.

On occasion, a sacred cow is trashed and the herd is spooked. Salman Rushdie, the Danish Cartoon Press, Sony Pictures, and Charlie Hebdo might take a bow here.

The Occupy model is, however, poor arithmetic. Surely wealth is a consideration, but the middle class is as big today as it has ever been and America’s “poor” would be rich by any Third World metric. Nonetheless, the Occupy lament does help to distinguish between wolves and sheep.

Alas, the real difference is power not wealth. All wealth is power, but power is not necessarily wealth. The Clintons, for example, left the Oval Office claiming to be broke. And we may not have seen the last of that poverty- stricken power pair either.

Autocratic, inherited, or democratic power is difficult to parse today. The despotism of dictators seems to have been supplanted by a tyranny of democratic tenure. Here, again, the Clintons come to mind. The reality of all politics, in the end, is consumption. Neither wolves nor shepherds care much about the venue as long as there’s something or somebody to eat.

Apex predators breed and feed in industry and government. The National Security Agency (NSA) and Facebook are examples. Indeed, there’s a chicken or egg conundrum between the two. No matter, both operate with the same business model; a one-way mirror that monitors, collects, and exploits “meta data” for different ends.

The social network/sheep herding meme is not just another simile. Numbers matter to both every day. The digital and grazing worlds only make sense when the numbers are large enough. Facebook has a billion members and makes billions in advertising revenues on those numbers. Mark Zukerberg says he wants the world on the internet - and by implication, in the Facebook pasture too.  

Facebook is just one example here, but most telecoms, internet providers, social networks, or financial service companies are operating varieties of the same model, recruiting a large “voluntary” membership and then exploiting “metadata” (the antiseptic euphemism for behavior) for profit. Chaps like Zuckerberg are not your “friend” and he is not in your “circle.” Mark and his dot.com colleagues are the new elite, wolves, one percenter’s who have developed clever schemes to monetize your behavior - and your privacy.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and General Keith Alexander’s NSA are both fond of uniforms too. Zuckerberg‘s tee shirt, jeans, and hoodie are as symbolic as Alexander’s Class A bemedaled greens. Zuckerberg is suited to look like a hip populist just as surely as Alexander is dressed to look like a guardian, Big Brother’s goal keeper.

The infamous “back doors” of the telecoms, internet providers, and social networks are both collaborative and invasive. Hard to know whether industry or government is the worse offender. There’s no mystery, however, about who is getting buggered.

The Lavabit story is illustrative. Lavabit was one of the few secure internet companies that tried to provide email services free of snoops and data miners. Their motto was “privacy before profit.” When Lavabit’s owner/operator, Ladar Levison, refused to play catamite for FBI/NSA agents, Lavabit was forced out of business with an avalanche of subpoenas, court orders, gag orders, fines, and threats of prison time. After l’affaire Snowden, official Washington, including the judicary, fell on Levison like a ton of bricks.

Ironically, chaps like Edward Snowden are made possible by such federal excess. Contemporary whistle blowers and disloyalty are created problems. Federal mandarins, with NSA and FBI on point, are the top dogs on the internet, the most voracious wolves. Alas, their appetites and capacity for abuse are funded with federal tax dollars.

Predator and prey are separated by perspective, scopophiliacs and exhibitionists joined by uncommon interests. Self-consciously Orwellian language defines cyber space. Sheep are corralled as members, followers, or friends. ‘Search’ on the net is often described as “surfing” as if stroking a laptop or smart phone required skill or exertion.

Measures of merit in cyberspace are mostly about affirmation: membership, pseudonyms, likes, tweets, retweets, page views, site visits, or comments. Belonging and ego are the weft and warp of cyberspace. Joining the flock, growing the flock, controlling the flock, and exploiting the flock are the shared interests of the needy, seedy, and greedy alike.

The “tweet” is the ideal medium for sheep, hustlers, or underachievers – cryptic faceless bursts confined to 140 characters. Tweets are to literature what rap is to music.

Each social circle has different passwords as if privacy were really a consideration. In fact, social networks, the telecoms, police, and intelligence agencies are co-conspirators in the “meta data” roundup. The stealth of wolves is reinforced by anonymity of sheep.

Pseudonymous internet usage has little to do with privacy, or freer speech, and everything to do with mischief.

Hacking is an example. If there are no privacy standards for government or commercial voyeurs, why expect rogue sheep to worry about private or privileged commercial or classified information? Edward Snowden is not just the product of a culture of deception, but his revelations about NSA, like those about Sony Corporation, are a kind of poetic justice.

To mix some metaphors, a culture of wolves and sheep is sure to be a free fire zone. The age of musterbation is a target rich environment.

Mandarins like Zuckerberg might pay lip service to the privacy concerns of his Facebook flock, but in the real world ironies abound. Zuckerberg just purchased four neighboring estates in California to assure his personal privacy. Would that he and the rest of the cyber moguls had as much concern for the privacy of computer users,

The difference between political and commercial wolves is profound. The Director of NSA is an appointed official who serves at White House whim. Social satraps like Zuckerberg at Facebook, in contrast, are elevated by acclamation, thousands of stockholders and billions of sheep voting with each equity purchase or each new membership.

If you believed the recent Zuckerberg interview in Time (15 Dec 14) you might think that Facebook is all about connectivity, compassion, education, democracy, and globalization. Compared to Zuckerberg, former Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is an honest man. Zuckerberg’s hip hop, photo shopped double talk makes Weiner’s junk shots look like tweet candor.

The Facebook czar would have us believe that connectivity is more important than other human needs, things like: employment, potable water, good nutrition, civil society, or flush toilets.

Really, Mark? Giving internet access to the poor and semi-literate is like feeding infants flip phones instead of strained bananas. 

With Facebook you can “like” a post as much as you like, however, there is no button to click for disapproval, no way to dissent. On Facebook, the sentiment is yes or nothing, a virtual kindergarten for musterbaters. Internet culture is at once nurturing and infantile.

Cyber herding is a kind of electronic fascism in other ways. Try resigning from or removing a post from a social network, especially data that has been rebroadcast! Try restraining or identifying a bully or an obnoxious troll!  See how much help you get from providers, social forums, or the telecoms with civility complaints of any sort.  

Indelible membership is aggravated by the spread of real world political fascism over the internet. Just a few examples would include al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram – NPR or CNN. The virtual world is not fertile ground for peace, civility, or democracy either. Online games are a pathological subculture where blowback can be measured with shell casings or body bags at schools, theaters, and on the back streets of Washington, DC.

Indeed, cyberspace amplifies the science, reason, and morality debate. The internet has been weaponized. And like its nuclear, chemical, or biological cousins, another example of scientific and engineering vacuity, the moral void that asks what and how – but seldom asks should.

Zuckerberg’s world view is just another mutation of engineering arrogance refracted through a progressive lens, a view that confuses technology and the passage of time with progress. The ideological assumptions behind technical optimism are even more naïve. Democracy is not a default setting beyond the EU or the US. Zuckerberg may have been touched by the romance of Hegel and Marx, but he was never exposed to pragmatism of Huntington and Kissinger.

Kissinger argues that there are only two primal narratives in the political world: hegemony and balance of power. In short, the pragmatic politician either imposes his will or negotiates a modus vivendi. The first option is expensive, tenuous, and dangerous; the second requires patience, creativity, and mutual trust. Option one is a zero sum game and option two is a plus sum roll of the dice.

Like the political world, the internet is a clash of civilizations, a win/lose enterprise for guys like Zuckerberg, parsing the universe into firsts or thirds, developed or emerging, educated or ignorant, rich or poor. The “emerging” story is usually just another narrative, the marketing of wishful thinking at the expense of experience. Some social problems are insolvable.

The internet accelerates a binary tautology nonetheless, populated as it is by mustabators and manipulators, digital sheep and wolves.

Like the world of politics, the internet requires a narrative. The story line may have little to do with truth, fact, or reality. Like a fairy tale, acceptance is a function of skillful telling and guileless belief. Indeed, truth is a handicap in both worlds. No one wants to hear that they are being used or manipulated.

Alas, truth is a bitch. She doesn’t care whose feelings get hurt. Government and industry moguls, on the other hand are more circumspect. Federal or industry mendacity is not a vice in the information age. Lying is necessary - and apparently sufficient.

If modern Media is a “wasteland,” the metaphorical lexicon might be too shallow to characterize social network or virtual culture. Exhibitionists, voyeurs, thugs, and manipulators litter the digital landscape. Sixty years ago, the ugly American was a clueless State Department drone. Today, Media curs and federal voyeurs are the top dogs - and just as ugly.

“Those who know the least obey the best.” – George Farquhar

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The author writes about the politics of national security. He is an NSA alumnus. GMD does not belong to any social networks except LinkedIn where he has been a hostage for years. No amount of phone calls or emails have severed the link with LinkedIn.

 

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