Fyre and the Age of Humbug

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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  1. Avatar jason says:

    There was a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin, with his hair combed and neatly dressed, asks Hobbes to take his picture. Calvin was sitting on a neatly made bed, with the messiness of his room pushed away. The gag was that he was creating a “good” childhood for when he was a famous adult; I can’t remember if it was generic fame or if he was talking about a political career.

    Watterson wasn’t making predictions, but this strip offered a picture of social media’s humbug about a decade before social media existed.

    Even people who aren’t trying to be influencers (ugh), use social media to spread all manner of humbug. I think of a former boss who would post the “late night at the office” pics on instagram, when she probably didn’t arrive to the office until ten and was only working late because she procrastinated on whatever project she needed to complete. The same boss had a colleague cover her class when she was at a conference and asked the colleague to send her a pic. She then posted the pic to Twitter saying, “Look, I’m conferencing and teaching at the same time, y’all.” My colleague said the students were lost and didn’t understand what they were doing.

    There are even websites about people exposing the humbug posts: The sites showcase pics with the person saying “this traffic is killing me” when you can see from the reflection in their sunglasses that there is no traffic, or the “bae caught me sleeping” pics with a reflection showing that it’s a selfie. And don’t get me started on the tendentious political memes and their humbug. The most recent example was a post shared by a friend that said, “18 million illegal aliens are still getting their government checks.”

    I’m not one to blame social media for all of our society’s ills, but it’s an effective tool for spreading humbug.Report

  2. “Influencers.” A couple years ago both of my kids were just dying for some toy. It seemed kind of random to me, but these things happen organically, and always have. Fidget spinners are a recent example, but I remember when I was a kid the year that everyone was suddenly avidly into yo-yo’s, followed by the year when we weren’t. I figured it was something like that, and it was age appropriate and not outrageously priced, so they got them for Christmas. The actual products were underwhelming. Not an outright scam, but not nearly so ecstactically wonderful as the kids expected.

    Only much later did I learn that they had been pushed by some YouTuber. Kids don’t watch scripted TV shows nowadays. They watch YouTube videos. A popular YouTuber can have an utterly absurd number of fans. This is monetized partly by YouTube directly, with advertising being behind that. But a popular YouTuber can also have paid sponsors, for whom they flog products. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as there is transparency, but even transparency is problematic when the audience is kids who don’t yet understand how this works.

    I consider that disappointing toy a valuable life lesson for my kids. We have had productive conversations about media influences and conflicts of interest. My older one wanted good quality art supplies for Christmas this year. I don’t know anything about the subject, so I couldn’t tell you what is good and what is merely expensive. We had a good discussion, in which she showed a healthy skepticism about recommendations from YouTubers. I was very pleased.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      There was a channel on our Roku that was filled with YouTube toy videos, and Bug would watch the hell out of that if we weren’t paying attention.

      We deleted that channel. We got sick of him constantly asking for the latest stupid bit of Avengers crap, etc.Report

      • They will never get away from marketing. Rather than trying to isolate them from it, which will lead inevitably to wackiness when they leave the nest, it is better to teach them to recognize it and make the appropriate evaluation. That being said, I can sympathize with deleting a particularly annoying channel.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I’m a bit too old to really get the Instagram influencer thing. I’m a bit too old to understand Instagram generally. The latest scammer on Instagram was a woman named Caroline Carroway. As far as I can tell, she is a relatively privileged and pretty American who went to Cambridge for undergrad and got a British boyfriend. She turned this into 800,000 followers on Instagram and a book deal. The book deal fell through and know she owes 100,000 dollars to her ex-publisher. So now she is doing “creativity workshops/seminars” and they might got the scam alert via twitter.

      The “best” defense I saw for her was, “Caroline Carroway is not a scammer. She is just self absorbed.”Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        There is nothing to “get” about instagram. It’s just a platform for people to do the same things people have always done: pics, video, write, gossip, show off and try to be famous. There is really nothing new at all there. And i like insta for pic and video though i mostly follow runners and skiers. Even there people are well acquainted with the idea that we only the best, most inspiring pix.Report

  3. Avatar j r says:

    Great post! Th are issues that I think about all the time.

    I only saw the Netflix doc and one of the things that I took away, is that McFarland probably could have pulled it off had he just drastically downgraded expectations. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t move away from this vision of exclusivity. Theranos was similar. Elizabeth Holmes was selling a dream and she couldn’t settle for a more modest, and therefore more deliverable, product.

    I think that these are indeed metaphors for a larger American problem. We have expectations and a lot of those expectations are simply not going to be met. Let’s see if we are willing to take the writedown or we just keep deluding ourselves until things start to fall apart for real.

    Separately, I highly recommend the podcast The Dream, which is all about multi-level marketing. There’s a strain of ponzi that runs right through the American spirit.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to j r says:

      Concur, great post!

      Managing expectations is a big part of my job. Luckily, I work in engineering software, and not fadish productivity apps, so my customer base appreciates it when we are honest with expectations and don’t try to sell the moon before we know we can deliver.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I used to have a boss who loved SalesForce. Which is the most idiotic timewaster I have seen, rivaling FB. Why do you want me to be tracking my time for everything when I could be doing stuff? I know that probably 90% of the use of that software is people puffing up expectations.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Aaron David says:

          We still use SalesForce at work. No one tries to sell it internally as ‘The Greatest Thing’. It’s a tool, it has uses. Within the next year or so, we’ll be transitioning over to something else. Or, at least the sales and support teams will.

          The way software is marketed as being ‘life changing’ or some similar BS irks me. I’ve never had software change my life, except for the negative. Like being forced to use some craptastic productivity tool because someone else swallowed the marketing. That changes my life by adding additional stress and frustration that I didn’t have before.Report

          • I’ve never had software change my life, except for the negative.

            Troff changed my life for the better. Uucp and a couple of the applications that rode on top of it changed my life for the better. TCP/IP and the stuff that rides on it is a mixed deal.Report

          • It occurs to me that the gamification of everything, where you get “virtual trophies” for various stuff is a form of BS in itself. (I have a ResearchGate account, mainly as a way of getting a few papers otherwise paywalled. I uploaded a few of mine, because, hey, maybe someone needs them. I got an “achievement” the other day for a certain number of people having read a paper on which I was like third author, and it felt really…..weird, but also hollow and dumb. And I’m someone who is literally addicted to praise, having grown up being told she was a “gifted and talented” student).

            They also push us to have “virtual trophies” and crap on our BlackBoard pages for the students accessing a certain number of times or something and I just refuse. I use those pages merely to provide convenience for my students, so they can get the handouts or something if they lose their copy.Report

            • Avatar jason in reply to fillyjonk says:

              Blackboard does that? Ugh. I see our administrators pushing that nonsense soon.Report

              • Avatar fillyjonk in reply to jason says:

                Apparently it’s optional? IDK, our campus tech people were so excited about it when it first came out that they trooped us all in to show us how to do it and I was like “Whyyyy?”

                Also add in that a lot of our students are former military, non-traditional, people coming back after having been in the workforce. They’re gonna see through it in a heartbeat.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to fillyjonk says:

              The ‘virtual trophies’ are bad enough in video games (really, Steam, I love your platform, but unless your achievements are going to net me some cool new gear or a bonus level, I could really care less). Having them in any kind of productivity app is just condescending BS.

              I can only imagine them infiltrating engineering software. You’ve meshed your first computational domain, here’s a useless digital trophy!Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      One of the older organizers of the Fyre Festival, it was the guy with salt and pepper hair that looked to be in his forties or fifties, confessed that he remained a believer until the end because people remember Woodstock as a success rather than for the horrendous traffic, lack of food, and other failures. My thought was that the organizers of Woodstock were not trying to pull of an ultra-luxurious festivals for the hot and glamorous, so whatever flaws in their planning had a less of a chance of causing the entire thing to go awry. Plus, it was a more amateurish age and even famous and popular musicians didn’t like to be too mercenary because of the style of the times.Report

  4. Avatar Aaron David says:

    My paternal great-grandfather, Burt, was a con-man. And I mean a real one, not this Humbug silliness. He would take a shotgun, load it full of gold dust and shoot the walls of caves and such in the Arizona desert. Then, try to sell the land as having mining potential. Defrauding whoever fell for this scam. See, his actions set out to do this on purpose. To lie to with malice aforethought.

    All politicians, job seekers, potential dates, and humans puff up their best qualities and push down their failures. But these aren’t lies, they are selective truths. These are how we get through the day, feed ourselves and move on to the next. Do we want to tell everyone who asks us in the morning “how are you?” Well, coming down with a cold, had maintenance sex with the wife last night, told my kids that yes, I do love oatmeal like you should, yadda, yadda, yadda.” No, you answer, “I am OK” and move on. Does Shamwow really work, are subprime mortgages good? Well, depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

    My point is, there are differences in lies, and their purpose is just as important. Often, it starts with something small, that keeps getting covered up. Sometimes it is innocuous. Sometimes it is malicious. We have a legal system to use if and when that is the case. Otherwise, shrug and move on.

    Oh, and anyone who tells me a ribeye has more flavor? I know they are bullshitting me.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking all is lost” Gustave Flaubert. The key thing that struck me when watching the Netflix Fyre documentary was that I don’t remember being that gullible when I was in my twenties. It would never occur to me to think that this Fyre Festival was going to be really awesome because of some model in an ad. Even older people can be gullible.

    I think what unites all bullshitters past and present is that many people are looking for the magic bullet that would release them from their humdrum lives. The bullshit merchant is offering this to his or her marks. With this concert or hair styling product, your life will totally change. It will become glamorous.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I don’t know that stupid has much to do with it. With the level of social engineering these kids have been through, many of them never had a chance. Think about what it means to be in the age group that got social media in middle school.Report

  6. Avatar fillyjonk says:

    I think for individuals, a sense of humility can counteract the temptation to “humbug.” I think a lack of humility: of willingness to admit you don’t know, or that you are wrong, is one of the things that is rampant in our culture right now. And that it is almost certainly a bad thing. I know I am immediately suspicious of people who seem to “quick” and too certain with an answer, or who have simple answers or explanations to complex problems, or who keep persisting in their insistence that they are right when someone else challenges their version of the facts.

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in teaching-assistant training (Most professors don’t get a lot of on-the-job training of how to teach; I was lucky in that my grad school had a robust program for increasing the knowledge and skills of TAs and I think it helped me a lot) was “If you don’t know the answer to a question a student asks, be up-front that you don’t know.”

    A number of times in my career I’ve said some variant of “That’s an interesting question/I never considered that, and I don’t know the answer, but let me do a little research and get back to you” I figure it helps the student realize that nobody can know everything, and also (hopefully) it models for them what they can do if that happens to them on the job.

    But I had professors humbug at me when I was a student. And I remember how discomfiting it felt (I remember one prof’s “explaining” what the Ivory Tower was but apparently he had heard it as Ivy-y Tower because he got off on how most old college buildings had ivy growing up the side of them and I was sitting there in the class going “I don’t think he’s right but I’m not gonna put my hand up” and it was just very weird and very uncomfortable)

    Of course, I’m a “loser” who will never amount to anything (or maybe “chump” is a better term) because I’m unwilling to humbug. But maybe that’s OK.Report

  7. One thing I was thinking about more this morning: all of these grifts have their Cassandras, people trying to warn us that we’re being had. Theranos has an army colonel who realized they were not going through proper FDA channels, Fyre had Calvin Wells, Roubini and Buffet tried to warn us of the pending financial crisis, etc.

    We need to listen to the Cassandras.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      Problem is, there are a lot of HumBug Cassandras warning people because diverting attention serves their interest, and not from a sense of altruism.

      Like someone starting negative rumors about a company because they’ve shorted the stock.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Exactly, gold-bugs, peddlers of end of the world (or the end of the financial world), preppers, Fox News, real estate agents selling New Zealand bunkers etc… Humbug Cassandras are a whole distinct sub-species.Report

        • Avatar fillyjonk in reply to North says:

          Just the other day, I was thinking about how the progression seems to have gone rapidly from “Goldbugs” to “cryptocurrency enthusiasts” to “people promoting the new pot-based economy” very rapidly. Yes, there are now ads saying you can get in on the ground floor of the giant windfall that marijuana will be, and it people promoting this were like the last people I would think of being associated with weed.

          (I have complained at some length how the ONLY new businesses in my town in the past six months have been medical-marijuana outlets. There have to be close to a dozen of them, in a town of 15,000. I am thinking people are only seeing dollar signs and are not thinking, “Oh, hey, there might be some competition for this.” Especially considering that the small local pharmacy where I get my allergy meds also seems to be selling some of the stuff now….)Report

          • It is vaping shops around here. Medical marijuana is just phasing in. I will be interested to see if it is the next big retail trend.Report

          • Good grief. Are the dispensaries restricted in some fashion, like a dispensary can serve only a certain number of people with prescriptions? Or do they expect that “medicinal” will turn into “recreational” in practice? Here, post-medicinal but pre-recreational, what you overheard at parties went from “I know a guy…” to “I know a doc…”.Report

            • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Michael Cain says:

              I’m really really curious to see what will happen to the number of medical marijuana prescriptions here, now that people who don’t have a medical need don’t get much of an advantage out of having a prescription…

              I cynically suspect that it’ll turn out that at least 75% of the medical users were actually recreational users who “knew a doc”, but I hope to find out I’m wrong.Report

            • I suspect they’re planning on a pivot to recreational being legal, and my state legalizing it before the one immediately to the south of us (we are about 15 miles from the state line) and just like the casinos here get the sweet, sweet out-of-stater money, they’re hoping to cash in, too.

              I am strongly suspecting most of the places don’t survive; for one thing, even if recreational becomes legal I suspect there will still be “black market” dealers who undercut the official shops. And also it’s apparently legal to grow a few plants for your own use, though I don’t know how “picky” of a plant it is to grow.

              Some of it may also be people who are just cannabis enthusiasts who want a supply that is officially sanctioned by the government. I don’t expect those storefronts to last all that long either, ‘cos they probably won’t bring in as much money.Report

              • In the summer, it’s not picky at all — one of the reasons the use of hemp fibers was so widespread in history is that it’ll grow well under a very wide range of conditions. Every Medieval village in Europe had a communal hemp field that provided the fiber for clothing, rope, etc. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s I worked summers at a few-square-miles ag field lab that had been WWII ordinance storage. The ravines were still full of the industrial stuff, self-propagating from when it was planted in the early 1940s. Growing it indoors in the off-season is more complicated. Once mold and some bugs get in, they’re very hard to get rid of. Plus the electricity bill, even for LED grow lights.

                The black market dealers will have to compete not only on price, but on quality. The industry in Colorado has very quickly bred up plants that have higher yields and higher THC content. The quality of the product is also sensitive to proper curing, which has improved dramatically. The smuggling direction has reversed — instead of bringing Mexican “ditch weed” to Colorado, the cartels smuggle high-end Colorado pot to Mexico to sell to their more discerning clients there.Report

              • Avatar JoeSal in reply to fillyjonk says:

                There was a subculture in that area that used it as currency. I mean quite literally getting paid a days wage with the stuff on several occasions. (Early lessons in exchange rates)

                Probably the only place on the planet that had right wingish, free market, hippies. I could only imagine what their kids are like, maybe these are a distant echo.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      The entire point of being a Cassandra is that nobody listens to you. Beside what Oscar said about the Cassandras often having something to sell, many people don’t like listening to the anti-humbug people because they often seem like austere scolds trying to take away good fun. Humbug might be erroneous but it is exciting and sexy. What honest anti-Humbug offers is something entirely less enticing.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Siegel says:

      The whole thing about the Cassandra myth is that she was cursed to have no one believe her. Oscar is not wrong to point out that some “Cassandras” have their own ulterior and less than altruistic motives. Bill Akerman raising alarm bells over Herbalife and shorting the stock is a good example here. He might have been right but the fact that he stood to make boat loads of money if he was right did not help his cause.

      People want things to be true and people hate things that are boring. Kurt Anderson comes back to this again and again in “Fantasyland: How Americans went Haywire.” Theranos would have revolutionized medicine if it worked but no one wants to hear “these tests need lots of blood for a reason” that is boring and painful. Fyre Festival was as you note an attempt to get a really luxury experience at a fraction of the price.

      Some of the best ways to invest are very boring. I.e. through index funds and passively so you get a lot of who like to do riskier and more social investments like being a part owner of a bar or various real estate deals.* It is much sexier to tell a young lady that you are a part owner of a bar than you have some index funds that you put cash in.

      *A few years ago there was a story in Vox about Harry Reid’s real estate deals and schmoozing. Matt Y pointed out he would have made just as much or more money if he just parked his savings in index funds.Report

  8. Avatar InMD says:

    Good post and thanks for sharing. As an in-house attorney in a highly regulated industry I spend my life wading through humbug and humbug artists. I can easily see how something like the Theranos scandal could occur. It’s actually a testament to how well our regulatory bodies can work, even if it took them awhile to catch on. People were still hurt but it could’ve been much, much worse.

    One thing to also keep on mind on the Balko piece is that, while those individuals were particularly egregious, law enforcement forensics outside of DNA testing lack scientific rigor. Even DNA evidence comes with some caveats that rarely makes it into reporting on the subject.Report

  9. BTW – An alternative title for this post was the “Age of Spin” which I got from Chapelle. His special on that — also available on Netflix — is quite good.Report

  10. Avatar greginak says:

    This is a good post. I think you have got a lot right about the current state of America. I don’t have much else to add. I guess what strikes me is how people get caught up in how things are new or different because of tech. None of the dynamics of people are different for better or worse. How people work or get duped hasn’t changed but you slap an app to it and people think you discovered sliced bread. This could be a reason why tech people need to read a lot more humanities/fiction. Also a lot of us were told by their mom’s “if it seems to good to be true, it is.” That is not a bad lesson to learn.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Yeah, one thing to look out for in any sale being made to you is situations that flatter the recipient.

    Nietzsche was one of the first to come to mind. “Only smart people will read this”. (“Golly! I’m reading it!”)

    Also look out for people who not only flatter with how good you are but with what you deserve. Oh, my gosh. Can you believe that you have to die someday? That’s so unfair! Here. Try this. It’ll help.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yeah, one thing to look out for in any sale being made to you is situations that flatter the recipient.

      You just described most of the media and why it’s having hard times.Report

    • Avatar fillyjonk in reply to Jaybird says:

      The Emperor’s New Clothes is like the Ur-version of that, and also seeing through the flattery.

      I wonder if most kids hear those old stories any more. I heard ’em all from parents and grandparents but I remember being kind of startled about 10 years ago to find out that almost no one in a group of 10-16 year olds knew “The Little Red Hen” when I made a reference to it.Report

  12. Avatar JoeSal says:

    Excellent post.
    One of the great things about breaking away from democracy is living without the over arching effects and costs of other peoples delusions.Report

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