Opinion | A Sept. 11 Conundrum

A lot of important words are being written about the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America, marking that major and tragic turning point in history.

For those of us who lived through the harrowing time in 2001, it is an event that’s indelibly seared into our memories, having taken in so many devastating images and videos — and raw feelings.

“Never forget” became a rallying cry to counter the heinous terrorist attacks. And we never have. Yet, today, it’s so easy to forget what’s most important to us.

Social media has a lot to do with that. As hard as it may be to imagine, social networks weren’t around in 2001. Now they seem to govern every news event we experience — from elections to troop withdrawals to how we think about that suitcase scene in “White Lotus.” News flies by on social media, we obsess over it, then we move on.

Social media records, chronicles, broadcasts. It forms, and then warps, our reactions and, more important, our memories. For example, the links between services like Twitter and Facebook and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol seem impossible to unwind. It’s a fetid chicken-and-egg relationship that we will be sorting out for years.

Today, when a tweet drops in the digital forest, is there anyone who does not hear it?

The early social media companies, now gone, came along in the years after Sept. 11. Friendster was founded in 2002, MySpace in 2003. They were followed by Facebook in 2004 and YouTube and Reddit in 2005. Twitter arrived in 2006. Snapchat did not exist until 2011. Nor, in 2001, did we have our mobile video cameras that allow us to feed the hungry internet beast.

Which is to say, social media had zero influence on the events of Sept. 11.

I brought up these issues with the former Times columnist Jen Senior on my weekly Twitter Spaces social audio hour a few days ago. She recently published an article in The Atlantic about a family friend, Bobby McIlvaine, who died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 that explores the longtime repercussions that his last analog journal had on his loved ones.

McIlvaine’s private words written on paper turned out to be the final thoughts of a young man before he dashed out of his apartment. They are a stark contrast to the highly performative nature of self-expression that seeps into everything today.

Is there a thought in 2021 that is not made public? Is there an idea that remains unrevealed? Is there any utterance that can escape being chewed over by the masses?

The answers to those questions are a definite no, but it’s worth remembering that it was not always like that.

What I did not expect in reading Senior’s narrative was that the internet reared its ugly head in the aftermath of McIlvaine’s death. His father, Bob Sr., coped with the tragedy of his son’s demise at 26 years old by diving headlong into the toxic pool of conspiracy theories.

Sept. 11 is perhaps the first major event that morphed into the kind of massive and intractable online conspiracy theory that has become so common today. While there were certainly others before — the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, alligators in the sewer, and more — 9/11 came right as social tech tools became popularized. Like many others, Bob McIlvaine Sr. was sucked into the conspiracy morass during his journey of grief, as he tried to figure out what happened to his son.

Senior writes about how the ever more radicalized father became quickly enmeshed in all kinds of online discussion groups and forums.

“My whole thesis — everything I jump into now — is based upon his injuries,” McIlvaine told Senior, referring to his son. “Looking at the body, I came to the conclusion that he was walking in and bombs went off.”

Senior then writes: “A controlled demolition, he means. That is how he thinks Bobby died that day, and how the towers eventually fell: from a controlled demolition. It was an inside job, planned by the U.S. government, not to justify the war in Iraq — that was a bonus — but really, ultimately, to destroy the 23rd floor, because that’s where the F.B.I. was investigating the use of gold that the United States had unlawfully requisitioned from the Japanese during World War II, which it then leveraged to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The planes were merely for show.”

Oh. No. No. No, sir. But it sounds familiar, right?

Vaccines that include chips embedded by Bill Gates? Election fraud allegations that span from China to Brazil to Rudy Giuliani? All of these are digitized rabbit holes that got their practice runs with Sept. 11 conspiracy theories.

These are not, of course, the kind of memories we should be holding on to. Instead, we should think of promising lives of endless possibility, like Bobby McIlvaine’s, cut tragically short. And that is the only thing we should honor as we move forward.

Should Amazon own Bond?

Right now, according to numerous sources, the Federal Trade Commission is twisting itself into knots over whether it should block Amazon’s acquisition of MGM. The e-commerce juggernaut’s $8.45 billion planned purchase of the Hollywood studio that owns the James Bond franchise was certainly an aggressive move, and many think Amazon should not be allowed to suck up the property at all.

Well, they’re dead wrong. While I am usually in the regulate-them-all group when it comes to tech, it’s really a mistake to try to make a case about too much power when it is a weak one.

The entertainment space has never been more competitive, as media and tech giants pour huge resources and attention into the sector. So, it’s natural for Amazon to want to grab some stuff, too, which is why it is paying — overpaying, many think — for MGM.

That, of course, is a lot different from the retail space where the growing power of Amazon is most definitely problematic.

For a long time, whenever anyone made this obvious observation, the company insisted that it controlled only a small portion of the overall retail marketplace. A few years back, I got regular calls from Amazon’s PR folks whenever I made even the slightest comment in public that the company sure was getting big, so much so that I thought they had a tracker on me that went off every time I said the word “Bezos.”

Not so much anymore. The numbers are in and there’s zero question that Amazon sits atop the retail universe like the commerce Godzilla that we all know it has become.

Fueled by the pandemic, the Seattle-based company this week surpassed Walmart in worldwide sales outside China for the 12 months that ended in June, according to FactSet. Amazon’s revenue topped out at $610 billion, while Walmart garnered sales of $566 billion for the year ending in July. And after hiring 500,000 new workers since the beginning of last year, it is likely to soon become the biggest private employer in the United States, too, passing Walmart’s 1.6 million workers.

While Alibaba holds its crown as the top retailer worldwide, largely because neither Walmart nor Amazon truly competes in China, it’s clear that U.S. regulators just got some nice numbers to use in their ongoing scrutiny of the company. Because while online shopping represents only about one-seventh of U.S. retail sales, it’s growing like crazy, a trend that has exploded during the pandemic.

Now Amazon is coming for the analog, too, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal that it’s moving into physical retail in a bigger way. That’s perhaps not surprising considering its acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, which has been followed by a bunch of other analog experiments, like Amazon Books, Amazon 4-Star gadget shops, Amazon Go convenience stores and now the larger Amazon Fresh.

In fact, a new Amazon Fresh opened in my neighborhood of Logan Circle in Washington, D.C., recently, only a few blocks from a Whole Foods. Unlike the older store, it is using its arguably cool “just walk out” tech, where you can skip checkout by scanning a QR code on Amazon’s app.

In the same way it’s creeped forward from books to other products since its founding, Amazon is next going to try some department stores to sell clothing, housewares, electronics and other goods. It’s perfect vulture timing since so many department stores, already on the steep decline, have been further kneecapped by the pandemic. There is a lot of commercial space for the taking, at low rates, and a slow but steady return of customers to the physical stores.

Most of all, reimagining bricks and mortar, while also figuring out ways to glean even more tasty data from shoppers, presents great opportunities for Amazon. This strategy also gives it entree to many more important brands, especially in high-end fashion, which have been loath to sell online next to, say, Amazon batteries.

A long time ago, I did an interview with the Walmart chief executive, Doug McMillon, who told me that he could envision big-box retailers like his — a Walmart supercenter clocks in at about 180,000 square feet — as 10,000 square-foot spaces where people could look at stuff and then order goods to be delivered to their homes instantly.

It was a great vision, for sure. It’s just that it’s probably going to be Amazon that pulls it off.

But the movie business — especially the streaming space that includes NBC’s Peacock, Disney+, HBO Max, Netflix, Apple TV+ and Paramount+ and more — is another beast altogether. Thus, efforts by progressives to shove Amazon in a one-monopolist-fits-all suit is going to hurt the more salient efforts to rein it in.

Amazon certainly does not dominate the video content space, and regulating as if it might someday would be a big unforced error by the newly installed chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Kahn, who made her bones making a case against Amazon as a retail and marketplace monopolist as a law student.

And if she does move against Amazon in the entertainment arena, courts will — quite correctly — smack the F.T.C. back, as they did in its initial filings about Facebook.

Let me be explicit: If you’re going to try to regulate giant tech companies — an admirable goal — you best not shoot and miss. The MGM deal is not anticompetitive. It’s just not.

Get off my Ray-Ban lawn, Facebook

Facebook announced Thursday that it was doing its version of Snapchat Spectacles — proving my theory once again that the Snap chief executive, Evan Spiegel, is the chief product officer of Facebook.

Facebook, the shoplifting social media company, has partnered with the sunglass legend Ray-Ban on a “new line of eyewear, called Ray-Ban Stories. They can take photos, record video, answer phone calls and play music and podcasts.”

Snapchat and Google have long trudged down this road with mixed results. I am not against the effort, but I am not thrilled that Facebook is using a brand that I have made my own for 30 years now.

While the new Facebook-whatever is using Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer model, and not my beloved aviators, the fact that I never got offered a test pair feels like I’m being trolled. In any case, let me say, having been there at the dawn of Google Glass, this won’t work this time, either.

The why is complex — I will relate my theories on this in a future newsletter — but it’s clear that the idea of Facebook selling what is essentially a surveillance device might be an issue of concern in 2021.

And … scene

I noted in my article on Tuesday that Apple was likely to have a “modified win” in its case against Epic Games. The verdict is in. While Apple was not declared a monopolist, and won on all but one count, including on the point that Epic, the maker of Fortnite, was in breach of contract, what Apple lost on was also significant.

According to the ruling by Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the company can no longer force developers to use only in-app purchasing. Apple has already been moving to this inevitability with the settlement of a class-action lawsuit recently, so it seems unlikely that the company will appeal further. This seems like a perfect ruling, cutting the app baby in a way that seems fair to all.

Lastly …

For those who missed this little announcement in my Tuesday newsletter: I’m hosting a virtual event on Tues., Sept. 14, for Times subscribers. I’m planning to chat with the Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Representative Cori Bush of Missouri. You can RSVP here.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected]

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