The Tech Megamachine

As annoying as I find Russell Brand on occasion, in this case he makes a good point. The marriage of corporate and state power – technology and the monopoly on violence – which Mussolini called ‘fascism’ and Lewis Mumford called the megamachine, is getting closer and closer to a totalitarian checkmate the likes of which Hitler and Stalin could only dream of. While the purported ends of this power is far different (we hope) in putative democracies than for those dictators, it behooves us not to throw out Lord Acton’s admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That is to say, even in the best case scenario of enlightened despotism, good people can easily become quite unenlightened and arbitrary despots when shoehorned into the role. Or to modulate parlance, Marshall McLuhan understood the hubris that comes with the ability to manipulate. The mediums of communication and expression aren’t only constraining on the degrees of freedom for those bound by them, but also for those who construct them. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. When access to more data must be justified through results, then more and more events must be legible as actionable. Otherwise, the justification for such police powers is anemic, and easily refuted, with legitimacy possibly undermined. Thus, technologies of surveillance and violence themselves must give rise to more cases that allow the opportunity for violent intervention, or else risking their claim to providing actual services in the public’s interest.

The Ring commercial Brand reruns here is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has critiqued as building up a personal commodity bubble. Instead of, like any addict, acknowledging that we have a problem, and then working with others maturely to solve it, Amazon’s Ring video doorbell surveillence system markets an exclusively individual solution to what is in reality a preventable collective action problem. Ring’s commercial pitch goes like this: If there are robbers, keep them moving along, not so that they can improve their lives, and change professions, but so that instead of robbing you, they go rob your neighbor’s house!

Such galimatias attempts to gaslight you into thinking that it is inevitable that we live in a fundamentally unsafe world. Because if we believed that we could live in a safer world, we might be able to build that world. And you can bet, that world would not require as many cameras or police.

This gets to the heart of why Ring’s preying on nebulous fears which are brought on by the megamachine itself is so successful as a ploy. Because of the manufactured stochastic crime created by an every-man-for-himself system without safety nets or a healthy welfare state, inequality breeds both blue-collar crime (the type we’re all made to be afraid of) and white collar crime (which kills millions at a time through enforced poverty, impoverishing our environment, and harming our health behind the scenes). This is not to minimize the trauma to people of actual violent crime or thievery. Instead, it is to say that all of this is preventable – and not just by playing an arms race (or evolutionary treadmill) with robbers. Getting smarter systems just makes robbers get smarter, and the same amount of crime occurs.

Amazon’s wish is to make it so that only those opting out of their private neighborhood watch program get robbed, because they will be easier targets. So those opting out for moral, religious, or financial reasons from their racket then become left out of their ‘protection,’ and the insinuation goes, become the targets of least resistance.

“No, I think you’re in the wrong place.” As the video shows, the idea that would-be criminals are only in the “wrong place” rather than needing help for reform and redemption, cements the trope of cleverness. I’m clever because I have the Ring alarm system by Amazon, so I get off fine, but that poor schmuck down the street, well, he’s screwed. Such notions reinforce the tech megamachine, where you keep on having to buy into the racket because crime is inevitable, and just don’t let it happen to you. It is, what Davids Graeber and Wendgrove call a “failure of imagination.” It is capitalist realism, or crime realism, where those evil people out there are uncorrectable, and just bad people, rather than just victims of a broken system. With such pathological thinking comes the inevitability that crime stays constant (or increases, especially in election years!). Manipulating perceptions of crime, and stripping away access to human dignity so things feel more precarious for everyone, is the perfect catfishing for expensive subscription services of mass totalizing surveillance that Foucault could only dream of.

I’d be interested to see data on how many false positives Ring delivers to police; how many times the cameras have been hacked by perverts; how many times leaked clips of children playing have appeared on dark web sites; etc.

Ring touts itself as “Neighborhood Watch for the digital age.” There’s a long, racist history of the invention of Neighborhood Watch programs springing up in response to de-segregation and the policing of white spaces, which continues today. Shawn Fields’ excellent new treatment of this history discusses the abuse of emergency response systems, which rarely fight crime, but often lead to unwarranted police violence.

Skiing in the anthropocene

For my 41st birthday, my family went skiing at La Rosiere, in the French Alps. Today, I got to go skiing into Italy and back – no passport checks necessary! Truly a unique experience!

I hadn’t gone skiing for years, since I was visiting my friend Josh in the Austrian Alps a few years ago, and he lent me some equipment and we got 10€ lift tickets on a very snowy day.

In contrast, today it was blazing hot. It hasn’t snowed here in over 3 weeks, in January. And this is top snow territory for the French Alps – we’re within sight of Mont Blanc. This is just one more sign that things are out of whack climatically.

Despite the shortened seasons, threatening the livelihoods of those working in the ski industry, I see tons of cars everywhere; petrol fueled snow mobiles, helicopters, and tour buses; meat as the main offering on every menu. So far, I haven’t seen any public transportation (gondolas from the train station up the mountain, or electric buses) that would cut down on the air pollution here in these beautiful mountains. It’s car-centric, even in the mountains.

Clearly, the understanding of what constitutes ‘environmentalism’ is skewed towards denial, displacement, and sustaining the unsustainable. The idea that ski lifts and resorts are actually re-glaciating mountains with ‘snowguns’ (their word, not mine) is ludicrous. If people (like me) weren’t cruising around in cars (and others flying in) to sit on (likely nuclear-powered) electric ski lifts rammed into the rock of the mountain, maybe the mountains would have bit more snow, dontcha think?

I know that mountains are harmed through ski-lifts, artificial snow making makes things worse (even if they think it makes it better). I face myself as an ordinary human, not meaningfully destroying the environment, nor as some eco-saint. I am aware of the contradictions of living in a compromised world, and the absurdities even of downhill skiing (as opposed to cross-country, which is as far as I can see, a totally amazing, challenging, but eco-neutral activity). And yet, I indulge, just like some people who are effective and ardent environmentalists still occasionally choose to fly, or eat meat. I’m not an abolitionist, nor an austere monk punishing myself for having desires. I attempt to reflect on my desires, their cultural creation, the interplay of external and internal desires, wants versus needs, and balance to live a full and flourishing life dedicated to the flourishing of all life – which necessarily involves killing and damaging those I care about. I see this realism as part of a trauma-informed perspective on life minimizing ideology.

And that is why I implore and encourage all those organizations and companies and governments I interact with to do better. To design our choices better, to open choices, and to choose differently than dead-end necro-industrialism.

For example, La Rosiere spends about 1% on replanting trees that directly or indirectly were lost from their activities compared to their new Club Med resort, which they mislabel as sustainable development.

Of course, it is a good thing that La Rosiere gives a 15% discount on lift-ticket for taking the train. It’s a great motivator! But removing cars and asphalt from the streets in their little resort town would do even more. Except for the physically disabled, there’s no reason why people can’t take a train and then have an electric powered bus pick them up from there and take them to a carfree town up the mountain.


On some of the pistes, I saw trash. It would be easy to start a plastic-free norm by simply not selling any disposable plastic in the town, and with good signage about please, no gum wrappers, aluminum, sandwich baggies, etc. Of course, with wind and velocity, these things will find their way into the natural landscape, getting windswept off the mountain and onto protected grounds.

Another environmental commitment La Rosiere can make is going meatfree. Right now, the vast majority of food options are meat-heavy. Even just offering more tantalizing vegetarian or vegan options could have a significant impact of La Rosiere’s environmental footprint.

In the end, I’m really glad I went. My family got to go skiing for the first time, and much joy was had. We’re grateful for the experience. And we hope that it can become more sustainable in the future, setting a good example for all who visit.


In an Earth Day issue of Time magazine (April 26/ May3 2021), we have an advertisement from the RJ Reynolds (or Reynolds American) tobacco company “Natural” American Spirits proclaiming “in more ways than one, bees are worthy of our love.” Yes, we ought to love the bees, and smoke cigarettes made by BAT (the owner of Reynolds), the #2 largest tobacco company on earth. This is what we call “bee washing,” and companies use it because it works.

“Climate is Everything.” Smoke a cigarette, says Time.
NAS “maintains their own hive sanctuaries” and “is dedicated to preserving pollinators and their natural habitats” as they clearcut land and hire slave labor to grow their tobacco. *golfclap*

In my recently published paper “Colony Collapse and the Global Swarm to save the Bees: Sacred Relations with Bees in Film and Literature” I discuss how such instances of beewashing work, and why we are attracted to these pollinators, and why creating (and then abusing) a spiritual connection with bees comes so naturally.

“Beewashing” is using “save the bees” pleas to sell more product.

It works.

It resonates with people because for some odd reason, just like early Christian monks organized their monastery on the beehive, we know deep down that the fate of the bees and our fates are intertwined. As Einstein quipped, if bees disappear from the earth, humanity soon follows.

My paper looks beyond the rational reasons for why humans seem to be so captivated by bees – why we are willing to act for them, despite their puny size and relatively difficult to anthropomorphize characteristics (charismatic microfauna, they have been called).

I look at the documentary #QueenoftheSun and novel #FifthSacredThing by Starhawk as depictions of human-bee interspecies relationships based on love & reciprocity as indicative of the spiritual undergirding driving our defense of bees, and suggest such goodwill travels to other contexts. I conclude that connecting with people’s more theological and cosmological orientations is a successful way to motivate falling in love with the earth again, and attending to those aspects of the world deemed expendable in meeting our needs through industrial means. Such care and connection is not without it’s own illusions and perils, but remains an inextricable thread to solving our global climate crisis of meaning as well as material mattering.

Time to Clear the Air on EUR Smokefree Policies

From Erasmus Magazine’s misrepresentative title “Smoke-free campus: responsible decision or counter-productive?” for the very pro smokefree campus comments from students actually interviewed in the article to the irresponsible and juvenile “Free to Smoke Zone” cartoon, it appears that more than sentiments of staff or students, it is Erasmus Magazine itself which is against the inevitable. A national law prohibiting smoking on the campuses of all institutions of learning countrywide, EM’s attempt to foment controversy where there is little, is either just clickbait or jousting at windmills


Granted, EUR could have done better at communicating the law and what that means for students. This would have happened normally, but we are not in normal times.

Furthermore, there are a number of structural issues preventing a smooth transition to the current regulations. For example, at EUR there are no experts on tobacco control in the Smokefree Working Group. Only recently did the university form a “think tank” as an afterthought to address this oversight. In not putting the science of going smokefree on campuses first and foremost, the university has abdicated its responsibility to be science-based in its policy making. Instead, in shying away from actually affective, clear, and unambiguous actions, it is setting itself up to fail on every dimension. Lack of clear communication of the new rules and support for smokers is bound to make some smokers angry because they won’t know the details, and it won’t be clear what the rules or penalties are. EUR’s delay on this issue will also make nonsmokers upset because the national law says that people can’t smoke on campuses of educational institutions but EUR has not yet effective achieved, based on a cowardliness to stand behind clear and fair preventative measures and penalties. And EUR may even fail to comply with the national law, which could cost our university fines from the government, bleeding our university unnecessarily, when we have already suffered budget cuts. Plus, EUR’s potential failure to comply with laws sours our reputation versus business and governmental partners with whom we might pursue future contact.

Especially in times of corona, which is a respiratory disease, smoking will only make it worse. If we have social distancing on campus, lowering the quality of education and costing faculties untold hours of suffering in adjusting to the double responsibility of hybrid education, then we must certainly do our due diligence in not creating more disease vectors on campus. If we’re wearing masks to prevent viruses from entering our nasal passages, it makes only sense to get rid of non-essential pollution sources that weaken our immune system and predispose us to sickness. 

Hypocrisy at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology

The ISEE, or the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is an organization that one would expect to walk its talk. After all, it has been around for 31 years with its annual conferences, and is one of the most sophisticated and cutting edge of the biological medical sciences. Environmental epidemiology’s ability to aggregate data across many different scientific domains in a meaningful way, to build off of findings in genetics, population biology, medicine, and public health, is truly extraordinary. Furthermore, the field has demonstrated a commitment to addressing questions of environmental racism, classicism, and gender inequality, and is actively diverse.


Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?

I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?

I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.

The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.

Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.

Thanks for the trash, ISEE!

Which leads me to the point of my post.

I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.

And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.

Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:

(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc. 

(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)

(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change.
Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.

I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.


It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?

In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:

The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them.
We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies.
Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries.
There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise.
The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.

San Francisco BART’s Unpleasant Design

Introducing: The inverted guillotine

Having lived for the better part of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have put in my time on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. From it’s loud, overcrowded, clunky, and infrequent trains, to the spate of BART police shootings of young men of color, this privatized (militarized?) operation has a monopoly on public transport, and unashamedly has its will with the region with little grace.

The latest offense is the instillation of “skull crusher” “inverted guillotine” pop-up spring-loaded barriers, that could hurt or maim (it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).

Instead of pouring money into education, or helping the homeless, the Bay Area has now apparently prioritized metal spikes shooting up from their BART turnstiles. Way to go, gentrification!

The fact that “fare jumping” is solved by violence is telling. Instead of maybe just making the BART – a public service – into a public company, free for all riders, payed by a corporate property tax (or some other public funding in the insanely overpriced Bay), as many other localities such as Tallinn in Estonia have done, doubling down on menacing design elements further marginalizes the marginalized. BART really doesn’t lose much money at all on fare jumpers. Their financial mismanagement is sui generis. Yet, like all administrative classes, the propensity to pay themselves more to harm the poor is too tempting; it exculpates their responsibility for mismanagement (and points to the need for the region to re-buy the service to run it correctly), and instead finger-wags at “scofflaws” for being bad people, when all they really are doing is what is necessary to get around their own town when they haven’t benefited from the Silicon Valley boom.

The book Unpleasant Design discusses the epidemic of public infrastructure that makes being in public an injurious experience for those worst off. From bus benches in shelters that slope so you can’t sleep on them (you’d fall off), to “anti-homeless spikes,” sonic warfare (projecting odious or repetitive noises, like that corporately-engineered “hit” “Baby Shark“), ordinances against “sitting” or lying in public spaces for too long — rich countries, especially English-speaking ones, have declared war on public space.

London, UK. 10th June 2014. Anti-Homeless Spikes Protest outside Stock Photo: 70030582 - Alamy
Anti-homeless spikes

Unpleasant design takes what little of the commons are left – the nooks and the crannies – and puts money into destroying them to keep out “undesirables.” This racist and classiest action is often the result of gentrification; justified to keep the zoos of the rich free of those who can’t pay their entry fee.

These artists are tackling London's anti-homeless spikes head on
Activists in London combat the painful anti-homeless spikes

The psychological warfare of guillotine turnstiles makes the entire experience of public transportation less comfortable for everyone. Instead of dealing with the 80-20 principle that 80% or 90% of riders will pay no problem, and that there will always be a remainder of the population that for what ever (often very legitimate) reason cannot or will not pay, BART has chosen to harm the public, pushing more people into their polluting cars.

I’m sure before long, people will be defacing these violent turnstiles. And it is likely that the accumulated rage against BART will reduce paying ridership (despite their monopoly), actually bringing them less money than they had before–the exact opposite result than they profess to so-desperately and so-forcefully want.

The public outrage on Twitter is already loud and clear against BART’s weaponization of its service. Such aggrandizement activities miss the point of their charge: they are in the business in providing a public service, and some people can pay more, some less, and not at all. Perhaps peg BART tickets to income. Then the rich might pay $100 per ride, the poor the normal $3.40 trip, and the very poor nothing. That would be a fair approach. Our society is far from that enlightened thinking, sadly, even in that hotbed of *potential* San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and environs.

But let’s not deceive ourselves. There’s a reason why you can’t take the BART to Marin County: racism. Back in the 1950’s there was a plan in place to extend the San Francisco BART to Marin (North Bay), but because of vocal refusal by residents, it failed. And now, no easy public transportation (besides the ferries) go to Marin. The Bay Area is disconnected by design, an open gated community in a natural and cultural paradise predicated on class, race, and exclusion.

Have we not evolved as a city in 70 years? Are we still just as violent towards those less fortunate than us. San Francisco is a mess because of its wealth. But at least on this case of BART structural violence, the people are having their day of reckoning.