Sunday, January 31, 2021

Bubble Brigade

People are unhappy unless they can manipulate their environment - even in negative ways.

What does a Capitol rioter, a model airplane hobbyist, a venture capitalist, a graffiti tagger, and a Reddit brigader have in common?  At first it seems like nothing, but then you realize they are doing something to alter their environment, even in a negative way, to get that feedback they are starved for.

I mentioned learned helplessness before - many times, in fact.  If you are a monkey in a cage, and nothing you do changes your life for good or bad, and random shit just "happens" to you - food pellets or electric shocks randomly being applied - you quickly become depressed.   It seems that animals need to have a sense of control over their environment - at least to some extent.   We crave feedback from our surroundings - some sort of indication that something we've done makes a difference.

And I opined before this is why people have hobbies and why it is so rewarding to fix things on your own, or bake a cake or make a meal, or sew a dress or otherwise create.   On the other hand, depression is usually demarcated by a stack of dirty dishes in the sink and empty pizza boxes all over the living room floor.  Nothing makes a difference, so why bother trying?

So the bored teenager from a wealthy family in Fremont, California, buys some spray-paint with his Dad's credit card, and "tags" a brand-new freeway from end-to-end.   It is ugly and destructive and accomplishes nothing - and eventually he is caught and given a stern talking-to by the judge (because his Dad is wealthy) and the county spends tens of thousands of dollars in graffiti removal.

At first, it seems this is an irrational act - and it is.  But on the other hand, it is a predictable one, for a bored teen whose life is marked by leisure and utter lack of struggle.  His parents want him to "get good grades in school" and go to college and somehow be successful - but don't really provide much of a roadmap on how to do these things.  We are fortunate that he only spray-painted a bridge, rather than shoot up a school.

Lack of feedback causes people to act out.  Not much in his life seems like valid feedback, but this graffiti thing - he is seeing instant results!   What he really needs is a hobby - an extra-curricular activity that produces positive feedback that isn't as destructive.   And that is why, traditionally, we've had these activities for teenagers - like sports, or band, or Boy Scouts.  And sadly, these are all things that have fallen from favor these days, as kids stay home and play video games instead.

It is, perhaps, why marijuana smokers end up in trouble. You sit around and smoke pot and don't accomplish much - it is a stasis drug, as I noted before.   So there is no feedback from the greater world, and the user ends up getting into a situation with a neighbor or a boss at work, or whatever.  It is human nature.

The model airplane hobbyist finds that feedback in a way that is not damaging to the greater society.  He builds a plane and when it is done, has the feedback of accomplishment.  And not surprisingly, in model airplanes - or even in full-size "homebuilt" aircraft - many builders immediately start on their next plane, once the first one is finished.  Flying the plane is fun and all, but it is the building that gives them the tangible feedback with their hands.

The venture capitalist, of course, is putting this effect to work, literally.  By taking risks and making investments, he is creating wealth for himself, and sees an immediate and rewarding feedback from his efforts - or a reward after years of work.  And that is one problem with investing - the immediate gratification isn't always there.  As I noted before, many a young person (including myself) puts a few hundred or a few thousand into their 401(k) and then gets discouraged when it doesn't turn into a million dollars overnight - or even after 30 years of steady investing.   Delayed gratification takes intellect to understand, and most of us need more immediate feedback.

The Capitol rioters are a case in point.   Many became absolutely giddy when they broke into the Capitol.  It is unclear whether most of them were bent on little more than getting in and wandering around, perhaps engaging in petty vandalism or theft.   Maybe some were bent on murder and mayhem - one dead Capitol Police Officer and several wounded attest to that.   But it is interesting to me that most seemed almost euphoric when they broke in - hollering and laughing the whole time and not sure what to do next.  They were getting feeback, long denied by Donald Trump and Qanonsense.   The Q people had been (and still are) promising big things to come, and when they didn't happen, well, it's like that old joke, "How do you keep an idiot in suspense?"

So after years of teasing and promises - and nothing of consequence happening in their lives - here was an event that was a catharsis for them - feedback from the real world, even if it was negative feedback and damaging to society as a whole.   These rioters are now discovering that their actions have consequences, and while I think a lot of them will get a slap on the wrist, like our graffiti boy, others may see significant jail time, particularly for assaulting and killing the police.  But even the least culpable will find their employment choices limited in the future - even the My Pillow Guy isn't hiring.

So what does this have to do with Reddit Brigades?  Brigading is a technique whereby things can be up-voted (or "liked" or "retweeted" or whatever) on social media, so that a posting moves to a position of prominence not only on social media, but the Internet as a whole. In the run-up to the 2016 election, for example, people were promoting memes of Hillary with the tagline "Crook" or something of that sort.  People were exhorted to "upvote" the posting, so that the image of Hillary would appear on Google if you Googled the word "Crook" - and it worked, at least for a while.  Google's algorithms include scraping social media.

To the person participating in such a brigade, the feedback is enormous.   We altered the internets!  And that seems pretty cool.   Pointless, but cool.  Of course, professional brigaders use "sock puppet" accounts which are manned by 'bots (programs) to upvote postings, which in turn insures they are featured prominently on the social media site in question.   Social media has been more aggressive in deleting these "sock puppet" accounts, which is why right-wing commentators are complaining they are losing Twitter followers in the last few weeks - most of these "followers" were not actually real people, but sock-puppet bot accounts run by the Russian Internet Research Agency.

The latest example of this, of course, is how Brigaders on Reddit are pumping stock prices on selected stocks that are being short-sold by hedge funds.  Gamestop, AMC theaters, and Blackberry are just three prominent examples.  All are companies that were struggling with changes in technology and consumer habits before CoVid struck, and are now nearly dead-in-the-water after CoVid.

Unfortunately for movie theaters, people have fallen out of the habit of going over the last year or so, and it will be hard to get people to go back, particularly if they just bought a new 84" television.  Gamestop? (EPS -$4.25)  Why go to a store when you can order online?  And while Blackberry did own some Patents on software that is being used by a number of tech companies, Patents eventually expire and there is no hot new product in the pipeline for Blackberry.

So these companies are circling the drain and the short-sellers called it right - but now have lost their shirts - or at least a shirtsleeve or two - because clueless "retail investors" (read: chumps like you and me) have bid up these stocks.   How will this end?  Not well.   The guy who started this - and there has to be someone who started it - made out like a bandit, as he bought Gamestop for a few dollars a share (or even bought an option at a few dollars a share) and now is slowly selling off at the peak.  No doubt he has already made his initial investment back, several times over.

The little people who paid hundreds of dollars a share, however, will get screwed.  Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually - likely within the next few weeks.   These companies are just not worth that much money, and eventually you run out of chumps to buy the stock, or tulip bulbs, or overpriced condos in Ft. Lauderdale, or whatever.

It's funny, but I explained this situation to Mr. See, as he hasn't been following it, and his reaction was, "Oh, we've seen this happen before, haven't we?"   Because in our lifetime, we've survived a number of bubbles in the markets - in stocks and real estate.  We've survived them all, made money on some, lost on others, but never got hurt too badly, because we never bought into the bubble mentality and sold out when we saw bubbles going down.

But this need to manipulate your environment - the need for immediate feedback - explains why these bubbles occur and why the media hypes a stock whose price has already gone up or talks about a market tanking.   The news media never reports a stock going up steadily over a decade and cranking out dividends like clockwork because that is not an "event".   Sure, once in a while on a slow news day, they might do a story about "boring" dividend stocks, but no one clicks on that.

So the problem is human nature - how our brains are programmed.  We need feedback - we crave feedback.  Without it, we slowly go insane, or at least become very depressed.  Now think about 12 months of "lockdown" due to CoVid and you understand why it seems the world is going a little crazy.  People want to see a reaction, even if it is a negative one.  The Anti-Vaxxer "Karen" Mom doesn't mind when you challenge her beliefs, she is hoping you argue with her.  The same is true for the guy flying the Trump flag(s) from his pickup truck - he wants to go on the "Trump Train" and ride through town in a parade of like-minded people and hey, maybe end up on the evening news!

I mentioned before that on our little island, we once in a great while get some bikers.  They come here, pay $8 apiece to get over the bridge, ride around and then leave.   What's the point of having loud pipes on your Harley if you can't annoy the locals?   They ride around our largely deserted island and get bored very quickly.   Utter lack of feedback just kills them.

That is, perhaps why some folks say the best way to deal with annoying people is to ignore them.  And sometimes that works.  You can't argue with a Qanonsense person - they want you to argue with them so they can talk about all the "evidence" of election fraud (which is always talked about, but never produced).  Or, you can preserve your own sanity and just walk away from crazy people.

Of course, the problem with that approach is that while it makes your life easier, the Qanonsense person now becomes even more isolated and spends even more time on Qanonsense sites, and just gets crazier and crazier - and before long, they are storming the Capitol or accumulating bomb-making materials.

I am not sure what the answer is to that, but at some point, you have to look out for your own self, and not sacrifice your life to "save" others who don't want saving.   It is depressing to be around crazy, depressed, or drug-addled people (and often these folks are all three - the "trifecta" of crazy).   We've had friends who succumbed to hoarding disorder, and it was sad to watch.  It was even sadder to visit their hoarder house and see the nightmare in person.  We just had to walk away from it.  It's OK to take care of yourself - after all, who is going to rescue you?

So what's the point of all of this?  Well, on a personal level, we need to take this need for feedback and put it to good use - and not negative outcomes.  I think if we can realize when we are being destructive to ourselves and our communities, and turn that energy around, we are capable of great things.

This also means that people need work and "jobs" more than they need another CoVid "relief check" or extended unemployment.  Funny thing, but last time around - in 2008 - we extended unemployment benefits for a year, and "OWS" protesters camped out in parks and set fire to McDonald's.  Once the unemployment ran out, people went back to work and the protests dropped off.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps people just crave feedback, whether it is from work or from a riot.