Fyre and the Age of Humbug
Last weekend, two documentaries emerged on the infamous Fyre Festival of 2017. The first is from Netflix, the second from Hulu. Trailers are below.
For those of you who missed it or only have a semi-comical memory of the Fyre Festival, this was a supposed music festival in the Bahamas created by rapper Ja Rule and Fyre founder Billy McFarland. Promoted relentlessly by internet celebrities, attendees were promised luxurious beach villas, gourmet meals and dozens of bands. Packages were marketed for as much as $250,000 with a typical package supposedly going for $12,000. Despite rumors that something was awry, about 5000 people bought tickets, of which about 500 made the initial trip only to discover that all the music was cancelled, their luxury villas were water-soaked tents and their food consisted of a few desultory sandwiches. It was an epic disaster that unfolded on social media to the delight of those who weren’t there.
The documentaries combine interviews, footage of the preparations for the event, footage from the attendees and commentary. Each covers some ground that the other doesn’t. The Hulu one includes an extensive interview with McFarland and focuses more on how Fyre became a phenomenon. It’s a bit too cute at times though (at one point, McFarland describes solving the problems as playing a game of whack-a-mole and it literally shows a game of whack-a-mole). The Netflix one covers more of the nuts and bolts of how the festival was supposed to work and didn’t. While they are not great documentaries, I ended up watching both as I was fascinated by what happened (if you want the short version, the Internet Historian has an 11-minute summary here).
Both documentaries end up driving home the same point: the Fyre Festival was not some outlier episode in our current culture. It was, in fact, in exact keeping with our culture. It was perfect representation of the age we are living in, what I am now starting to call the Age of Bullshit.
I don’t like to use profanity in posts, generally speaking, but I wanted to be very precise with what I mean here. I use the word “bullshit” deliberately, as explained by the book “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt. Here he is explaining why he uses this term instead of just “lies”:
For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things.
This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
A liar knows the truth, cares about the truth and doesn’t want the truth to get out. They are very specific about the truths and lies they tell. They are, in their way, very knowledgeable. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not really care about the truth but about what is most convenient to say in that particular moment. They may occasionally say something true. But this is entirely incidental. Their purpose is to make themselves look brilliant or insightful. Bill James:
“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.
“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.
“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”
Sometimes, however, bullshit is not that specific. It often comes not in the form of made-up facts and spontaneous pseudo-reasoning, but in vague reassurances of the bullshitter’s brilliance and expertise. As I explained in a post on my own site:
If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.
Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.
(To keep the profanity from distracting from my point, I’ll mostly use the word “humbug” for the rest of the post.)
There is something I would add to all of the above as a final defining aspect of humbug: we are suckers for it. We are absolute suckers for it. Humbug artists have an amazing track record of convincing people that they know what they’re talking about even when they absolutely don’t. Sometimes it’s as harmless as a sportscaster reassuring you that the outcome was predictable all along. And sometimes it’s a con man who bilks people out of their money, their time and their dignity.
Why are we such suckers for humbug? Two reasons, I think. The first is that humbug tends to be presented with a confidence that real knowledge lacks. People who aren’t dealing in humbug tend to be cautious in what they say and reserved in what they promise. They make caveats, they avoid bold sweeping conclusions, they acknowledge alternative explanations. And, for most of us, that makes us trust them less. It’s a kind of an inverse Dunning-Kruger effect. The stock broker who says, “Well, this stock looks promising. It could do well. It could also do poorly but it’s worth a risk.” will get no sales. The one who says, “I’m telling you, Doug, this one is going through the roof. Guaranteed!” will live on a yacht.
A good example: one of my first posts on this blog was about Steven Hayne and Michael West, two shysters who managed to convict a bunch of people based on pseudoscience and garbage. One thing Balko notes is that these men were successful because they presented their humbug with complete and absolute confidence. Real forensic experts — scientists who knew the field extremely well — were more cautious in their conclusions, which made them seem less credible to judges, lawyers and juries.
The second reason humbug works is because if often appeals to our vanity. In the David Mamet film “House of Games”, the con man Mike explains to Dr. Ford how the con works: “I give you my trust, you give me your money.” You let someone think they’re getting an inside deal. You let someone think they’re getting something exclusive. You let someone think they’re special. And, in return, they give … whatever you want.
These two factors — confident ignorance and appeals to vanity — are increasingly defining our era as the Age of Humbug: a time when we are easily fooled, grasp onto fads and trends, leap feet-first into narratives before the facts come out and, yes, end up cold and starving in the Bahamas because we listened to a bunch of social media stars.
Perhaps the apotheosis of the Age of Humbug is our current President. Trump is frequently called a liar, but that’s not quite what he is. If you read Frankfurt’s description above, Trump really is a humbug, making it up as he goes and saying whatever is convenient to the moment. Franklin Harris, more than a year before the election:
Richard Nixon lied. Bill Clinton lied. George W. Bush either lied or was lied to and passed it on. Hillary Clinton is intimately acquainted with the truth and wants no part of it.
Trump bullshits all the time, no matter the subject. Does he still believe thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11? Who knows? He said it, and he’s sticking with it. The truth isn’t something to avoid or embrace; it just doesn’t matter.
The same goes for illegal immigration. Trump speaks off the top of his head, calling upon half-remembered headlines and something he may have seen on TV. The details are unimportant because the truth is unimportant. All that matters is Trump says what he says with gusto, that he convinces his supporters he’s the fighter they longed for.
The news media can fact-check Trump and proclaim his pants on fire, but for Trump that’s just another baseless attack. Truth is irrelevant to the bullshitter. Trump gets that, so why can’t those losers at The Associated Press and The Washington Post?
And here is a supercut of him claiming to be an expert on … well, everything. Note what I said above: when someone is more interested in telling you how much they know than what they know, that’s a red flag that they are full of humbug.
Whether you think Trump is a great President or an awful President, his career has been defined by humbug. He makes things up as he goes. He claims to be an expert on everything and puts forward his ignorance with supreme confidence. And, like most purveyors of humbug, he appeals to people’s vanity. Trump University appealed to people’s vanity by promising to make them wealthy real estate moguls. Trump steaks did so by promising luxury food at “reasonable” prices. The Trump Shuttle. The Trump hotels. All of it sold by promising the trappings of a glitzy lifestyle for those with a not-so-glitzy budget.
Even his Presidential campaign appealed to our vanity. What was “Make America Great Again” but a statement that America was great, that it had been ruined by nefarious liberals and only Trump would bring us back to the greatness we were owed? Never did he talk about hard work, trade-offs, taxes or sacrifice. No, all these wonderful things were just going to happen. Trade wars are good. And easy to win!
And .. Trump’s humbug works. It worked enough to make him rich and famous. It worked enough for 60 million people to vote for him and put him in the White House. It works enough for his approval rating among his supporters to remain sky high. It works enough that when people who do know what they’re talking about contradict Trump, they’re branded as fake news.
Theranos, Vaccines and Hedge Funds
But Trump isn’t unique. He is the apotheosis of a society that has increasingly been defined by humbug. Consider:
- Theranos. A company that made things up as they went, confidently proclaimed their non-existent technology worked and suckered in millions by appealing to the vanity of investors looking to get in on the next big thing.
- Vaccine “skepticism”. A fraudulent study pushed with confidence by a disgraced physician. In this case not appealing to vanity but to people’s concern for their children’s health.
- “Alternative medicine” and fad diets. A field rife with fraud, sold by hucksters and appealing to our vanity that we can get healthy and skinny without effort.
- Enron. The self-proclaimed “smartest guys in the room” who knew nothing, made nothing but appealed to the vanity of investors.
- Various hedge funds and investment funds. Most notably Bernie Madoff, who promised “exclusive” investment opportunities that sounded too good to be true because they were.
- The 2008 financial crisis. An economic meltdown caused, in part, by self-proclaimed financial experts who had no idea what they were investing in. One of the biggest losses was posted by an elite trading unit at Morgan-Stanley that failed to realize they were betting the same crappy mortgages against themselves. And it was based on a housing bubble that talking heads on cable confidently insisted was not a bubble.
- Political Grifters. Political media personalities who spread lies and misdirections with impunity in an attempt to grift donations, book sales and media ratings. Again, appealing to people’s vanity by telling them what they want to hear about the other side in our political culture.
Humbug, all of it. “Facts” made up for the sake of convenience. Sales pitches and ideas put forward with undeserved confidence. And people who should have known better suckered in by their own vanity and greed (or in the case of vaccine truthers, their desperation).
Theranos is a particularly relevant comparison to Fyre. Like the Fyre Festival, Theranos was led by a charismatic fraudster who charmed smart savvy people into coughing up millions in their own money to invest in a product that they had never seen. Like Fyre, Theranos drew in investors by appealing to their vanity: convincing them they were paying millions to be part of a technology company that would be worth billions.
The Fyre Festival
That brings me back to the impetus for this post — the two documentaries on the Fyre Festival. Watching them really opened my eyes to the age that we are living in. There are a lot of facets to the Fyre Festival debacle: the absolute incompetence of management, the willingness of the festival organizers to lie and people’s willingness to be lied to, the unremitting greed of those in charge (in a stunning moment, McFarland, out on bail for fraud charges, starts up another fraudulent enterprise to try to milk even more money out of his victims).
But I think there is something deeper here and something the Hulu documentary goes into more in depth: the insidiousness of so-called “influencer” culture. This is not something I can comment on very well, being too old, too fat, too nerdy and too unconcerned with hipness to pay attention. But social media has filled with influencers — people like Kendall Jenner or Bella Hadid or others — whose job, apparently, is to influence people to buy things. In my day, this was called advertising and was seen as such (and indeed, Congress is now trying to crack down on influencers to force them to reveal when they’ve been paid to “influence” people toward a product).
What really made the Fyre Festival take off was the way the organizers captured the social media scene, filming an ad in the Bahamas with a harem of super models, getting “influencers” to hype the festival and blasting out their “brand” on social media. Some of these influencers later apologized, but the point is not that they got scammed too. The point is that they were and are pointing people to consume products they themselves aren’t familiar with.
Again: ignorance presented as confident knowledge.
And then there’s the vanity. That’s where the documentaries really shine, in showing how Fyre appealed to attendees’ vanity. What Fyre was selling was not a music festival, but an image. They were selling a fantasy that attendees could act like rich people — jetting off to a private island to party with celebrities. This is what influencer culture is all about — selling people the delusion that if they wear this brand or use this beauty product or eat this food, they too can be like Kendall Jenner or Emily Ratajkowski. They are sold the idea that they can feel as popular, as famous, as rich or as beautiful as the influencers without actually having to be popular, famous, rich or beautiful (in a revealing sequence, the Netflix doc shows a popular service that will let you sit on a luxury jet, pose like a rich person and get your picture taken).
This was the thing that Fyre most readily exploited. They claimed that tickets were $12,000 and that some packages were going for $250,000. But the typical price seems to have been more like $1200, sometimes as low as $500. What they were selling was less a music festival and more the idea that someone could have a $12,000 rich person’s experience for the bargain price of $1200.
And this was not McFarland’s first goat rodeo. His previous endeavor was Magnises, a supposedly elite credit card that promised exclusive access to events but turned out to be Ponzi scheme. His scam after his indictment was selling supposedly exclusive tickets to things like Burning Man and Coachella. Both scams involved convincing suckers that they could indulge like rich people without having to actually be rich.
And McFarland himself bought into this delusion. He took on the airs of a powerful rich CEO — expensive cars and trips with supermodels — without actually being a powerful rich CEO.
(This is another reason the Theranos parallel immediately struck me. Elizabeth Holmes was another person who was interested in the aura of being a powerful billionaire CEO — she consciously modeled her behavior, wardrobe and business practices after Steve Jobs — and not so interested in the hard work and genius needed to actually be a powerful billionaire CEO.)
Not everyone was fooled. One of the things that set up the disaster of the Fyre Festival was Comcast being alerted that he was a fraud and refusing to invest $25 million in the Fyre app parent company. And Calvin Wells, interviewed for both documentaries, started the FyreFraud account to try to raise the alarm. But it worked well enough for McFarland to milk millions out of short-term lenders and young people, steal free work from hundreds of Bahamians and lure 500 young people out to be part of the hilarious blazing pyre of incompetence in Great Exuma.
So has anyone learned anything from this? Of course not. Social media influencers are as popular as ever. YouTube is filled with “life hacks” that are nonsense. You can’t hurl a stone into the internet without finding some deal that promises a millionaire lifestyle on a thousandaire budget. The Fyre Festival will not be the last of these debacles. I think we will one day look back on it as just the first in a series of scams, the true herald of our entry into the Age of Humbug. The lesson here is not that millennials are suckers; the lesson is that we all are.
It is, perhaps, the supreme irony of our time that when we have access to all the information in the world literally in the palm of our hand, humbug has become more powerful than ever. We use this enormous informational power to buy into delusions and fantasies, to craft our own little reality, to put ourselves into a holodeck simulation of our own design where we are wealthier, prettier and smarter than we really are.