Alban Goulden in conversation with editor and author David Beers
David Beers grew up in San Jose, California where his father was a satellite test engineer, and moved to Vancouver in 1991. His book Blue Sky Dream (1996) documents the utopian hopes and subsequent failures of the Silicon Valley version of the American Dream. He served as senior editor at the San Francisco Examiner, Mother Jones and the Vancouver Sun. His writing has won the American National Magazine Award and, twice, the Canadian National Magazine Award. After Vancouver Sun management fired him over an opinion piece in support of freedom of speech post-911, in 2003 he founded and was editor in chief of The Tyee, a much-awarded “progressive” online magazine. He lives in Vancouver.
Alban Goulden: You’re an astute, hard-hitting journalist. But I suspect there’s an avuncular philosopher in there somewhere. That’s the guy I want to get at. Please consider my comments as a contextual jumping-off point and take them where you will.
In Blue Sky Dream, you anecdotally discuss the disillusionment with and failure of the American Dream, specifically, the upwardly-mobile white American 50s-inspired fantasy that education and technology (memed in your book as the aerospace industry) offers a suburban utopia to those who’ve worked hard and therefore deserve it. And the rest of the world, in awe, following the American lead. Twenty years down the road from Blue Sky Dream, what is your take on this version of American exceptionalism? And now that you’ve been in Canada this long, how do you find the cultural zeitgeist here in comparison?
David Beers: Yes, the memoir was in part a meditation on optimism pumped up and then deflated. My family was one step shy of the Jetsons — in the ’60s through ’80s dad was a secret projects rocket engineer and we were pioneering sunny if sterile suburbia and we were living the future by defeating the Russians to make way for techno-utopia for the rest of the country. State-financed technology was going to be the healer, the aider, the expander of the middle-class dream. Instead Silicon Valley’s purpose has turned out to be to reap billions of dollars through “disruption” — and if that thoroughly disrupts the middle-class bedrock of America, so be it. I’ll brag a bit and say my 1996 book was prescient about this. I noted that as I was growing up there, Silicon Valley’s tech industry shifted from being primarily military driven to consumer oriented, a me-first ethos that preferred to pretend the state played only a minor role in developing tech. It rebuffed the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War — that in peacetime a similarly mixed economy could employ tech workers for the common good, solving social and environmental problems with renewable fuels, mag-lev trains, etc.
Instead, we got the uber-libertarian strain of techno-baron we see today in Silicon Valley, including PayPal founder, Trump backer Peter Thiel, who disavows any compact between citizen and state. As The New Yorker’s George Packer and others have well documented, Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism is Darwinian, widens the gap between rich and poor, and will hollow out the middle class via automation.
Optimism thwarted is an ugly thing. You see the result today in Trump’s America. War without end against terrorists fuels fear. As the rich get ever richer, and the state is revealed to be ruled by moneyed interests rather than some ideal of the common good, fake populists stoke resentment of the “other.”
So that’s a long way of saying, if the rest of the world is still dazzled by Silicon Valley and the America that makes it possible, be very, very careful what you wish for, given how America has squandered what made it exceptional.
As for Canada, I think in the election of Trudeau we saw the power of branding — everyone was invited to see the “change” they wanted in Trudeau’s fresh, young image. It has proven to be a mirage. And it will be a test of the generation that saw itself in Trudeau to call B.S. on his manipulation of feel-good imagery with so few real results.
So, to tie it to my theme in Blue Sky Dream — watch out for pumped up Canadian optimism that doesn’t deliver, and therefore curdles into scapegoating and disillusionment. I worry that we’re getting there in Vancouver where I live, because a basic assumption of the middle class — that your kids can grow up and live where you raised them — has been snatched away.
Goulden: For better or for worse, this planet is lurching towards a global culture. Perhaps as an understandable counter-reaction, the default to tribalism is powerful: people craving to be branded by a specific religion, nation, sports team, fashion statement, accent, music genre, political party, the beer they drink, or the dog they own. Identity consumerism seems to be The Age of Anxiety’s primary self-medication. What does this mean in terms of forming viable communities? Is there a middle ground to the oppositions of globalism and tribalism?
Beers: Community is a word pretty loosely thrown around these days. It used to mean that in order to belong to a community you bent to its will in some ways in order to reap the benefits of being a member. There was a quid pro quo that could chafe, and the prospect of breaking free of those restrictions is the powerful allure of individualism. Individualism pursued with maturity, a kind of sober existentialism, is admirable. But the individualism celebrated today is too often, in my opinion, an invitation to indulge your toddler id. That’s the childish strain of libertarianism I alluded to above.
And you’re right, marketing has coopted the individualistic urge by tricking us into believing we differentiate ourselves through the consumer choices we make. Tom Frank and others have nailed this irony.
What I see in the choices my twenty-two-year-old daughter is making gives me hope. She is global in her imagination and art and roams across borders. But she is very loyal to her community of creative collaborators — they are more a rag tag bunch than a tribe, I’d say. They include each other in their projects, and figure out, together, how to live on very little and be happy. They are principled, fairly clear-eyed yet hopeful. That seems a route to building up in oneself the resilience that likely will be key to getting by and being happy in a thoroughly “disrupted” economy wildly favouring the rich at the top and making “precarious” the simple basics like a decent home, decently paid work, and accumulating savings. The only choice left to you in that world is to be either a happy warrior, or happy as you can be on your own terms.
Goulden: For me, belonging to a community is a choice, whereas one is born into a tribe or must be converted to it (be reborn). What community have you chosen (as opposed to being converted or born into)? Why have you chosen it? How does it give you sustenance, support your voice?
Beers: Hmmm. Again I may torture the definition of community here. I’m the son of an idealistic, social justice minded Catholic mom and a rationalist engineer dad who worried humanity will be doomed if we can’t reckon with plain facts and take appropriate action — what he called “troubleshooting the problem.” So that led me, I guess, to wanting to be a journalist who deals in facts while consciously aiming to help catalyze positive social change.
In retrospect, I way over-estimated the power of facts, clearly and cleverly marshalled, to change political realities. Obama’s election was the high-water mark in my smug self-satisfaction — a smart, cool, reasonable black guy in the White House seemed to confirm my choice of joining the journalistic “community.” Trump’s election — and the fact that his Republican base still overwhelmingly supports him, has been a rude awakening to me. It shouldn’t have been, I guess, given Blue Sky Dream was a lot about myth making and the power of self-delusion — until and even after myths fail.
As someone who moved to Vancouver in 1991, I have done my best to commit my energies and spirit to this place — this city, province, and Canada as a nation. After my book on growing up in California came out, I decided to focus my journalism only on local and Canadian affairs, as a way to feel integrated into, and useful, to this society. That’s probably the closest thing to a conscious decision about choosing community I can think of. But I admit I did so for self-interested reasons. I need to participate in the society where I live in order to stay grounded and feel purpose.
Goulden: Many see technology as nothing more than entertainment and convenience. But the profound changes it has engendered has affected everyone’s sense of cultural identity in some way. What changes have you noted in your world as the result of technology, a tool that in its very creation alters the creator?
Beers: Wow. Where to begin on that one? You’re talking to a guy who thought he was late to the party when he founded a news website in 2003, because my pals had started Salon.com eight years earlier. Instead, we hadn’t seen nothing yet! Since 2003 we’ve had the rise of Google, the creation of Facebook, Twitter, mobile devices, one goddamn disruption after another. I spoke to a book industry group last year and instead of browbeating them with digital hype, I congratulated them on sticking with a proven medium that required mere tinkering. For me, trying to harness the ballyhooed promise of digital journalism has been a tortuous roller coaster ride requiring tearing up your assumptions and business “plan” every six months for 15 years.
Along the way, I had to drop my rosier assumptions about human nature. Go back and read Wired magazine fifteen or twenty years ago, about the time I started The Tyee. Wired then was the bible of techno-optimism. It was endlessly trumpeting digital tech as ushering the imminent arrival of the final stage of human liberation and enlightenment. As if everybody was just waiting for a tool to express their best civic instincts. Or else digital tech would make messy realities like governance irrelevant — that libertarian hallucination again. In those Wired issues, though, you won’t read any warnings about pernicious troll culture, fake news, Orwellian spying, digital echo chambers, the Dark Web’s depraved connectivity….
But here we are. I think the Internet, taken as a whole, is proving to be an enemy of deliberative, democratic decision-making by and for large populations, which is another way of saying it threatens humanity’s survival. And believe me, I know, that sounds pretty weird coming from a guy who founded, and is proud to have founded, a political news website.
It’s just that, as I alluded to earlier, my literary sensibility has always fought with my rational pragmatic side. And the literary side is winning these days, seeing tragic irony and inescapable paradox everywhere, instead of straight-forward agendas for achieving “progress.” In a sense, like my dad the aerospace engineer, I invested my idealism in a narrative of technological progress — the Internet — that hasn’t played out the way I dreamed it might.
Goulden: You once described the Canadian publisher Mel Hurtig as “…a nationalist in the best sense.” Expand on that, please. Is there a continuing role for such a person? If so, what?
Beers: Mel, whom I was lucky to have as a friend, dearly loved Canada the way a parent might love an only child. He saw all the potential in this nation — and fretted about the bad eggs we consorted with. He hated when we were conned or bullied into behaving against our self-interests, and he wasn’t afraid to give us a good lecture on how we could do so much better if we got our priorities straight and stood up for ourselves more. For example, he warned against Canada helping the U.S. with its crazy, treaty destabilizing nuclear missile shield. He warned against selling our cultural institutions — publishing houses, etc. — to foreign owners. He considered Stephen Harper an autocrat — un-Canadian of character — wielding his ruthless power to prop up an outdated, low-productivity, raw resource based economic notion of Canada’s future.
Mel believed we as a people have everything we need to be far more self-reliant, creative, productive and fair — a beacon to the world. Some people chided him as a guy stuck in the past who didn’t understand how great “free trade” was for Canadians. Actually Mel was trying to warn us about the backlash we now see among people who see the wealth gap widen and seriously doubt those deals were negotiated in the broad public interest, to benefit all. In the U.S., both Trump and Sanders rode that backlash.
Here, it’s truly ironic that Canada’s current Minister of Trade was a journalist who wrote a book called Plutocrats, supposedly an expose. Yet she now works overtime to push through Harper-era trade deals that will benefit, most of all, plutocrats. Real change would have meant someone more Mel Hurtig-like in her role.
Goulden: What is the future of publishing and other media in the digital age? Has the corporate model failed? Are we instead looking at fragmented “indies” — partly (or fully) subscriber-funded operations similar to NPR, PBS, CKUA, and the Knowledge Network that appeal to a focussed, niche audience? The Tyee seems like a good example here.
Beers: The corporate model is now the Facebook model. Media money lies in owning the means of distribution, and harvesting behavioural data from the audience and selling it to the highest bidder. The highest bidders for that data these days are corporations, who want to know how to groom more buyers of their products. But the ultimate customer, with the most resources and most incentive, will be governments. They will use such info to monitor their citizens and propagandize them. This may sound paranoid, but given Facebook so far won’t even admit it’s in the publishing business, won’t take responsibility for the content it distributes and profits from, why assume much stands in the way of the dystopia I just conjured?
Claims by Facebook or Google that they are engines of digital democracy and diversity is laughable. For example, The Tyee rarely registers on the Google News home page because…why? I don’t know. We don’t have the right secret algorithm. So we’ll run an important investigative piece, and under the heading of British Columbia, Google will showcase instead a Vancouver Sun piece on gardening. Because they have a bigger footprint, and Google, rather than supporting diversity, reinforces the bigfoots. Facebook is similarly a filter harming small independents. So while the Internet may make it easy to post information, the real issue in Canada is one of scaling up small sites to gain more audiences, and the twin, related barriers to that are resources, and discoverability.
That’s the reality and everyone knows it. But Canada, under Trudeau, is about to whiff on a great chance to lead the world in recognizing the threat to democracy posed by a failing corporate media and a starved independent small media sector.
Now that pretty much everyone realizes we are on the brink of a crisis, the question is what role could, or should, government policy play in making sure the citizenry is well informed?
To date, the same year the CBC seeks over a billion in funding, there has been virtually zero government support for independent digital news media in Canada. Trudeau’s government keeps in place barriers, in fact, to charitable funding or other ways of building capacity allowed all over the Western world. To be clear, I’m not saying The Tyee should be government funded. It has five revenue streams at least, the biggest is reader donations. But without going into detail, government policy has everything to do with how hard or easy it is to raise money for, and raise the profile of a Tyee-like entity. By the way, to give some perspective, the budget of the CBC could fund over 1,000 Tyees.
Now that the media situation here has become so dire, the government could use its funding leverage to force the CBC to become a platform for high calibre independent media. It could institute policies to help flow financing to independent media, and largely let corporate media suffer the results of its bad decision-making over the past decade. Instead, it looks like it will either do nothing, or funnel taxpayer money into a CBC that remains walled, and reward corporate media with bailouts that has enriched its top execs and financiers while stripping its journalism capacity to bare bones. The government seems to see a selfish benefit in having media concentrated, mediocre, and lacking diversity — posing less of a threat to its agenda, I presume.
See, this is the stuff that would drive Mel Hurtig crazy. We have all we need in Canada to create a vibrant, diverse, eco-system of digital news media. And if we believe what we say, the more vibrant conversation conducted via that media would lead to a stronger, braver, more innovative Canada.
But instead — and I hope I am proven wrong — it looks like we are going to rig the game to keep the CBC bland and walled, and give the edge to Postmedia, which is right wing run, and owned by a U.S. hedge fund which is relentlessly stripping the company of its cash and assets.
Goulden: In keeping with the crystal-ball theme, how do you see the processes of “progressive” politics, the environmental movement, and capitalism playing out? As of this writing, in Canada I’m noting an uneasy conflation of all of them in the NDP government of Alberta and the Liberal federal government. We may soon see the same thing with the NDP/Green Party alliance in British Columbia. Can these three philosophies become long-term bedfellows in the Progressive Left? Or is that a temporary aberration?
Beers: Thanks for raising that, because it’s probably the key question The Tyee was created to explore. We were tired of corporate media, and even the CBC, constantly framing political conversation as ‘left-right’ debates and in the process oversimplifying or just ignoring the nuances and tensions within progressive coalitions. Which is odd, given that in B.C. the tensions were so fascinating between militant labour, Greenpeace enviros, anti-poverty advocates, etc. So The Tyee has been a place where you could look in and see people of all progressive stripes trying to figure out how to get past their differences and achieve some collective victory. I think the conversation led to some fairly mature realizations — like the fact that Notley’s hold on power in Alberta of course depends less on what kind of a person Notley is, and more on the fact that Alberta is an oil state, much like, say Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. Its citizenry has been lulled into dependence on a single industry, which subsidizes its public expenditures to such a degree that citizens don’t really know the price of self-determination as a province. As writer Andrew Nikiforuk has pointed out, oil states disconnect the source of tax revenues from the citizenry, who as a result forfeit their role as final arbiter of the state budgeting and administration. Notley can’t change that culture overnight, no one could. She’s trapped in something of the same predicament that faces the new president of Venezuela.
The narrative that emerged over time on The Tyee that drew all political stripes into the conversation, from, say, self-reliant conservatives to environmentalists to labour progressives, was a narrative of transition from a fossil fuel economy to the next one. It recognized it wouldn’t happen overnight, it didn’t demonize people making a living in that industry now. But it recognized that we face limits. And we at The Tyee poured a lot of resources into documenting where citizens designed practical solutions to environmental and social problems. All of this conversation was informed by basic progressive values — inclusion, sharing, and social justice. But it was a mature, grown-up conversation that took place over a decade and half and, as such, I think, it’s a wonderful resource for the Green/NDP alliance as it explores policy options and message framing.
During that time in BC, we saw the BC Liberals doing all they could to replicate Alberta’s model, around LNG and fossil fuel pipelines. The Tyee ran critical reporting on that not because of any fetishistic opposition to “dirty” energy but because a new era of opportunity was in danger of being missed, and oil states infantilize their citizenry by disconnecting them from the tough conversation about how wealth will be created and shared. Now, the BC Liberals clearly liked the cronyism and simple mapping of political power that a one-industry state entails. My fervent wish is that the Green/NDP coalition carries through on what it’s signalling — a healthy skepticism towards the fossil fuel state model, and a willingness to treat BC citizens as grown-ups ready to discuss what it will take to fashion a diverse and sustainable economy.
Goulden: And finally: what makes you happy, David Beers?
Beers: I’m happy when the right people are happy with me, and the right people are mad at me.
Goulden: Well said. Thank you, David Beers, for your honesty, your intellectual forthrightness, and your clear respect for a discourse of ideas. »
Photo credit: Deirdre KellyFrom issue #77