Chapter 17 - It Will Never Be the Same Again
In some ways 2021 was more challenging than 2020.
The pandemic continued to extend the uncertainty in our lives and the culture. And the political upheaval after the 2020 Presidential elections was unprecedented. I felt tired from the isolation and yet the vaccines that were emerging offered some hope that we would make it to a post-covid world in 2021.
Work wise, it got more challenging. Potential clients were still unsure of how to proceed and funding was still on hold for original media projects.
My year of work on the American Lodestar pilot came to an end at the close of 2020. America had become so polarized, there seemed to be no appetite to explore conservatives and liberals working together. Click on logo to link to the video animatic.
About the same time, I reconnected with Brett Thomas and his partner. They were looking to expand their Conscious Coalition network and thought my storycatching work and transmedia production work would be of benefit to their network.
Brett and I had done some good work together at Integral Life and he had introduced me to the innovation network folks that contributed to the first funding for Story Studio. Brett was also a bit of flake. He lived this very eccentric lifestyle and half the time I didn’t understand what motivated him, but he had always been a fan of my work so I spent some time with them to explore the possibilities.
Conscious Coalition was primarily involved with bringing fresh water wells to poor communities in Africa and Central America. They'd had some success, but like many progressive organizations they lacked the real funding they needed to be of greater influence. Perhaps they thought my resume would help with that. They also had tried to do some on-line leadership training for villages in Africa, but I thought the courses were an embarrassment. Typical of a white mans’ “gift” to native cultures.
One client of theirs did interested me however. Fight for the Forgotten was an organization based in Austin TX that was fronted by an ex-cage MMA fighter still struggling with addiction issues. He’d had an spiritual opening with a particular pygmy tribe in Africa and had spent some time with them. He had a book ghost written about his experience. The book had gotten lots of attention because of his MMA background from people like social media influencer Joe Rogan.
F4F was ready to expand their offerings beyond what they were doing live. I suggested that if we developed a cell phone app they could offer a worldwide community lots of virtual opportunities for engagement. They were also interested in the issue of “bullying” in the US and had done some live events at middle schools before the Covid lock down. My work dove tailed with theirs in that I was interested in how you could attract a worldwide community of participants through a cell phone network and have them self-publish their “day in the life” stories and requests for help to a global audience. In this case put the audience in the shoes of the pygmies and the kids being bullied.
It took about six months, but I ended up doing a project with them that in the beginning had great promise. I decided IF I could finally build the app platform I had been contemplating, I would commit my full time to Conscious Coalition network. I thought this might be my new network to replace the Integral Life community. This turned out not to be true. More on that later.
The Dysfunction of Progressive Organizations
The only reason I tell you the stories above is to note something that I found in play within progressive organizations. Overtime I began to wonder if this “blind spot” was going to impact any real reform we were all working towards.
If you set out to save the world, you enter a network of well-intended people that want to contribute. These groups can be organized as for-profit or non-profit. What they have in common is they are involved in creating or promoting some piece of what a more generative now and future could include. In my work at Story Studio I had clients that were involved in this. I also had interviewed global thought leaders from a wide range of cultural disciplines. Politics, economics, tech, personal development etc. As I worked in this network I noticed a couple of things.
1. They did not play well together. In the utopian visions of the future there is this notion of working collaboratively or achieving consensus among a group of like-minded individuals.
This always seems like a good idea at first. However, no one I engaged with really knew how to do it. The world of working on the now and future is also a field of scarcity for those on the bleeding edge. Too many organizations chasing too few dollars. As a result, even if a collaborative process had been agreed to, leaders in these organizations would often sabotage each other in the name of getting more funding or public notice for themselves.
For example, the work I did with some addiction and homeless organizations, they either worked on one issue or the other, regardless of the fact that they were often related. We would get comments from them that the addiction folks did not do homelessness and visa versa. In my view, this “territorial thinking” made little sense given the entwining of these two issues if you are seeking real change. (In other words, an “integrated approach”)
2. They talk a good game. My experience was on the surface they all talked collaboration or conscious leadership, but when it came to funding or press notices, they got really competitive with each other. Not that this was a surprise to me. There were very few models so far of working this out for the benefit of all .
I had spent the bulk of my commercial career in Hollywood. It had a very defined top down pecking order. You were constantly reminded where you stood in the food chain of power, or who had the juice and who didn’t. While these systems could be stressful I found them at least up front about the game. You could choose to play in that hyper competitive environment or not.
The issue I had with the progressive groups is that their destructive competitive instincts were hidden or expressed in a passive aggressive manner. This did not bode well for the evolution of our intelligence when you compared their pettiness to the autocratic forces that were much more single focused on their goals.
As a result of these factors I found the effectiveness of these progressive groups was limited. Too many perspectives and in-fighting stalled too many initiatives and left the playing field wide open to those that promoted a more authoritarian view of governance. Those folks didn’t have any trouble acting together. In a sense the alt right conned their supporters to give them money based on lies. The progressive groups however, also had a version of this. They promoted their audiences to support their efforts to save the world, but they really did not have much influence on those matters. Progressive groups spent millions of dollars on some strategy to bring about change, but really all for naught.
This experience did not come as a complete surprise to me. When you are playing in the now and future, there are a lot of well-meaning folks that have not grown out of their need to be the star. As one progressive evangelical leader told me… “They all want to be Oprah or Rob Bell."
I was more careful as time went on to pick collaborators who seemed to have a healthy sense of what it meant to work together for the common good. My worry in the political arena was that the slow response times these petty politics created would cause the groups promoting democracy to lose out to the more reactionary forces that were hyper focused and aligned on winning the day. In 2021 it remained to be seen how this might impact the direction America would go in the next three years leading up to the 2024 presidential election.
The Din of Disruption Continues
The world of 2021 was also full of noise and confusion. Part of that was obviously the unprecedented disruption caused by the worldwide pandemic, but it was more than that. If you ascribed, as I did, to the theory of cultural developmental you could see the new story trying to emerge out of chaos of the old order falling away even before Covid struck. In that disruption there was a rising wall of noise that could drown out even the most positive of stories.
Between the ultra-biased coverage of cable news networks and the weaponization of social media, individuals seem to be thinking and regurgitating in 5 line bytes, often times uttering the first thing that came into their brains. Trying to evoke real change in that kind of traffic pattern was hard.
The only notion I had was something being modeled in the personal development marketplace. Books, web courses and events/retreats that had been the mainstay of offering individuals options for personal growth had flatlined in their appeal around 2015. That didn’t mean that individual authors or teachers weren’t still having success, but the marketplace was over saturated with too many offerings that were alike. There was still good business being done, but the value of these intellectual approaches to learning seemed to be having less impact.
Many, including me, found these offerings did not support real long term change enough either personally or culturally.
Even though they had found an audience, these offerings didn’t really have the long term impact I had wanted. Many, including me, found these offerings did not in the long run support real change either personally or culturally. The notion of experiential activism evolved out of that inquiry for me. I came to believe that if you wanted to have more influence with a selected audience or individual, you had to do more than just make a documentary film or write a book. I had done lots of doc films and helped many others develop web courses and book outlines with this intellectual approach.
At the same time, the general move in the personal development marketplace was to evolve from an intellectual approach to personal development which included reading books, taking web courses and attending events/retreats to an experiential approach that used the latest technology to trigger the individuals emotional and psychological states. Three of these immersive innovations were augmented and virtual reality platforms and virtual metaverses.
I felt, these experiences, however they happened, had the potential to bring about some real movement towards something new. I reasoned that if you could put people “in the shoes” of an experience, a “change” in their story could take place by evoking their emotional and psychological states. It was much effective than simply telling them about it.
This approach was borne out by research being done in the use of VR environments to treat PTSD. Traumatized soldiers found they could lessen their suffering by re-living the event in a combat simulator. On the cultural level you could also “incubate” new approaches to societal challenges using a gaming simulation located in a "Star Trek" holodeck type of virtual environment. In these virtual simulators you could fail fast and often, and reach some sort of solution in a shorter period of time.
Because of my background in game design and creating participant based web communities, I had always favored getting people playing with each other rather than just telling them a story. The APP design I had been envisioning was one way to do that. I was also interested in METAVERSES that could offer so much more than a virtual environment for playing games or providing a marketplace to sell things. All this was emerging at the beginning of 2021 and would continue to play out as the year unfolded.
A bit of a regression. 2020 had been filled with unexpected surprises. At the end of 2018 I had left directing Integral Life to go out on my own again. I put together a plan based on my fairly large network of talent and contacts to create my own original properties. This was a risk because I would have no company to back me up, but I felt IF my next final chapter was going to be useful to anyone and meaningful to me, I wanted to develop my own creative applications again.
As we often say…”make a plan” and God laughs. My experience is… shit happens. Your plan will always be impacted by unpredictable events. Sometimes for the good and sometimes more challenging.
Just as I began raising money for Story Studio, some unexpected health challenges popped up for me. First issues with my prostate that required a major surgery to eliminate the growing blockages of urine flow in the prostate and then the discovery that the tissue they removed contained the beginnings of prostate cancer. (the full story in Chapter 15)
You never know how you are going to react to the news that you have cancer, until the words tumble out of your health care professionals mouth. It was a shock, but at this age (72) I felt differently about it than I would have when I was younger with so much still in front of me.
I liked to think that if someone or something suddenly called an end to my life at this point that I had done my best to contribute something to our world becoming more generative and inclusive. I had also taken advantage of the myriad of opportunities offered me to experience all life had to offer both professionally and in relationship with family, and some outstanding women and their children. As a result, I didn’t have much of a bucket list. My theory of the case was "do it now" you just never know what is around the corner.
At that point, I did more work on coming into some relationship with my eventual death. I found I had to look at how attached I was to my body and the myriad of experiences and memories that made up my life as David. My experience was at death your particular live pattern leaves the present matrix you inhabit as you move on to other realms.
All through 2021 as I got tested and re-tested to see if the cancer was still in remission, I knew at any moment that it could flare again. At this point one fear revealed itself. It was the fear of “disappearing.” It took me awhile to come to grips that on some day, we all leave our bodies and the world goes on without us. Hopefully, you have made some contribution to it and enjoyed its many unique wonders, but as they say… life goes on without you.
In 2017, I remember walking up to the roof of my Mothers building about an hour after she died with me holding her hand. I looked out at the hustle and bustle of the Oakland streets waking up to a new day and knew none of them were changed as a result of Mother leaving that morning.
I was. My brother and sister and the extended network of nephews and cousins were, her friends that were left certainly were, but the world was not for the most part changed. That didn’t mean she hadn’t had an impact. All her network of friends and family were forever enriched by her unique presence.
Once I felt okay about my “disappearing”, I relaxed. The world would go on without me just like it does every day as 150,000 humans die every 24 hours. Also, the notion of going home to a place that did not have the limitations or suffering that this realm had, felt promising. There is always more that can be lived and learned in a particular life, but that is always true no matter how long or short your life is.
In the midst of everything, Jennifer still had one client left and I had a new network of folks that looked promising. We thought the worst of the lock down was behind us when at the close of 2020 Matt’s demons emerged again. He had been in and out of a troubled relationship with a young women in Denver. He was living with us again and when the lock down took place he quickly lost the one job he had.
It was hard for us to sort out what was going on, but the girlfriend seemed flaky. Although Matt struggled with her, she was his only companion. When it finally came to an end he began to self-medicate again.
This time it was combinations of prescription medicines his therapist had given him to soften his anxiety. Also, too much use of a “natural” supplement he was taking as a replacement for heroin. His medicated state was much harder to pick up than the heroin use had been, but the behavior resulted in some scary moments where Jennifer couldn’t wake him up and we had to call the EMT’s to our home multiple times. I am sure our neighbors had lots of stories about us.
Jennifer’s still believed that if Matt was forced to find a life separate from us, he would fail. I had always known that if it ever came to a choice between Matt or us when he was younger, she would choose Matt for all the right, obvious reasons. But Matt was now 31 years old, and I continued to feel we were enabling him in staying stuck. And he would not ask for help even though his life was not working out for him. Not a great combination.
Most times when Jennifer got fed up with his stubbornness and his angry outbursts, I would try to suggest something different, but she would immediately get defensive and make it our problem. I learned again not to get sucked in. Not a good place for me to be. All the responsibility and no voice. In those moments, it felt to me Matt and Jennifer were the couple in some ways and I was the roommate.
In early January, Matt left the house supposedly to do some errands and did not come back. This seemed odd to us considering he was not seeing his girlfriend anymore. Dinner came and went and we went to bed. We were awoken in the wee hours by a panicked call from Matt that he was being arrested by the police. This was a repeat of a recurring bad dream from his past. He was not particularly coherent, and we could hear the police officers concerned he was over dosing. You can imagine the images that played out for Jennifer and me in that moment.
It turned out he had gone into Denver to buy drugs. Apparently, on the way home he had fallen asleep at the wheel and his car rolled off the highway onto to a side strip of grass. This kid always had his better angels looking out for him. Anywhere else on that road and there would have been a ditch next to the highway. He would have either rolled his car or veered and hit someone else.
All we could get out of the police is they were taking him to a hospital in Arvada for overdose treatment. Just the place we wanted to be during Covid. We pulled ourselves together and raced to the hospital. Jennifer, as you can imagine, was in a state. She went in alone when we arrived because of the lock down protocols and fortunately Matt had somewhat revived. They allowed us to take him home with the promise that felony DUI and reckless driving charges would be coming.
It was such a familiar replay of the old days. How someone as smart as Matt with so much experience with the negative consequences of his drug use (including jail time) could make such bad choices again and again was a mystery. It was only by the grace of God he did not hurt himself or someone else, but here we were cranking up his lawyer and beginning the process that would see him convicted and spend 10 days in a nightmare jail while receiving two years of very controlled probation. That is a story for later.
The world did not wait for us. The New Year started with a bang. On January 5th the special senatorial election in Georgia took place. Trump had flown in to do his usual barnstorming event and ended up discouraging his people from voting because he told them it was fixed. (His big lie)
This resulted in the Democrats wining both Georgia Senate seats which technically gave them a slight majority in the Senate. One a young white activist and the other a black preacher. (And we could say goodbye to Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader)
It turned out our initial excitement would be tempered as the year went on because two conservative Democrats decided to block most of Biden’s agenda for their own aggrandizement and reward, but that was all in the future.
The next day on January 6th, the Congress was scheduled to meet to certify Biden’s win. I was working down stairs in the studio when a news flash appeared on my screen about something happening at the US Capitol building. I walked upstairs and turned on CNN and was shocked by what I saw. A violent mob of Trump supporters was storming the Capital building and for reasons we would discover later, the Capital Police were being overrun and Congress members were running for their lives.
I had never seen anything like this before . There had been violent demonstrations on both sides in the 60’s about the Vietnam War and civil rights, but the storming the Capital with violent intent to stop Biden being declared the rightful winner was something new.
We would later see this violence up close and personal because of all the body cam footage the Capitol police officers provided. Five police officers died as a result of injuries or later suicides and one protestor was shot and killed. Many more were injured as the rioters used mace, bear spray and any metal pole or fire extinguisher they could find to break windows and beat the police.
Trump supporters roamed the halls of congress like teenagers on a prank.
They left violent messages, stole computers, and urinated in the hallways before they were finally pushed out of the building hours later. In some ways their lack of a plan once they breached the capitol building resulted in the energy of the insurrection dissipating by nightfall. Once again for all their angry rhetoric, they were clowns with no idea about what to do if they actually won the civil war.
Later, when they were charged and convicted, their bravado about being true patriots disappeared as they downplayed their participation or pretended it wasn't them in the footage. Violent and cowardly was quite a combination. We would see this pattern in latter events as even elected Republican Senators or Representatives pretended it was not them in the video that was captured.
And you might ask… where was the National Guard when the Capitol police got overrun? Or Trump, who earlier had told these rioters he would join them when they marched on the Capitol? By all accounts he was sitting in the White House entertained by the violence he had called forth.
Three hours later, because his sycophants at Fox News and his own kids begged him to intervene, he finally delivered a coded message where he told the rioters he loved them, but they should go home. And the National Guard? Someone had told them to stand down and not intervene. One of the high ranking military officers who made that decision that day was the brother of Michal Flynn who had advocated for federal troops to disperse the peaceful demonstrators of the BLM gatherings Little did we know then that this “stand down” order was all part of a much larger coup attempt.
Congressional leaders called the shaken senators and representatives into session that night after the Capitol Building had been secured. They certified Biden as the new president. The motion passed even though 160 Republican congressmen and women and a number of Senators voted against confirming Biden based on the big lie that the defeated Trump was pushing about massive voter fraud. This was AFTER they had all run for their lives from Trump’s minions. The depth of the Trumplikins pathology was becoming more evident.
On the surface this unprecedented attack on the US Capitol looked at first like it was spontaneous. It turned out that was not true. All the leaders of Congress initially condemned the violent insurrection for what it was. But what we would see in the weeks that followed was Republicans attempt to re-write history. They doubled down on Trumps lie claiming the rioters were merely taking a peaceful tour of the capitol building.
I never could have imagined that bad actors could attempt this in America and find support from elected leaders. And the real fear was the plotters were pushing forward to do it again at the mid-terms at 2022 or the next presidential election in 2024 unless they were held accountable. That remained to be seen.
In subsequent days Trump was banned from all social media platforms including his infamous Twitter account. This certainly made the news space quieter, but any notion that Trump was gone from the political arena was quickly dispersed. The Republican leadership could have finally broken with him over the attack, but their cynical political calculations still told them he could hurt them in their primary elections, so they all journeyed down to Mar Lago to kiss his ring so they wouldn’t lose their powerful and profitable jobs.
Why Is IT So?
If you wondering why… here are some thoughts. My work has taught me that everyone has stories that drive how they feel, what they think and ultimately what they do. These stories form the powerful lens that we all look through at the world. Everything is translated as to its meaning by these stories we tell ourselves.
The Republicans had been in the minority for some time. They had made little effort to expand their voter base over the years from working class and rural white people. It was only the antiquated electoral college system that gave them any hope of winning national elections by concentrating their disinformation in 6 to 7 red swing states, mostly in the mid-west. In a sense, they were paranoid they were losing power.
In the last two presidential races against Obama, they had run John McCain and Mitt Romney. Both decent men but boring. They had both lost badly. Trump on the other hand showed them something completely new. He lied and viciously attacked anyone who opposed him. Even when he was caught on audio tape suggesting that he loved abusing women he still survived. He was a big blustery phenonium but he changed the story of what a Republican candidate looked like.
I often thought that if Trump has seen his opportunity on the left he would have run as a Democrat. To him all that seemed to matter mattered was acquiring power and using that power to enrich himself and his family. A totally transactional relationship with America.
Now that he a lost, he didn’t fade away as most ex-presidents did. He created the next BIG lie that the election had been stolen from him. The Republican leadership still fearful of his ability to rouse their base, played along. They were willing to adopt Trumps view that it was all about winning and it DIDN’T matter what you did to do so. Even foment an insurrection that attempted to overthrow the American government.
The growing problem was this. IF one of the two major American parties was willing to stage a coup because they lost, America was in whole new territory politically. As we headed towards the mid-terms in 2022 and the Presidential election in 2024 there was a question that if either side lost would they claim election fraud. A democracy cannot exist if its citizens don’t trust the results of elections. As unthinkable as that thought was… here we were.
Underneath the Hood
As I continued to conduct our research using the Story Studio AI NLP analysis platform a couple of things emerged. The “cultural” war between conservatives and liberals promoted by the media on both sides was in a sense a partial truth.
There were certainly different visions of America to be sure, but that wasn’t new. AND it was true that the addition of social media to the mainstream discourse created a greater polarization in American voters than any time since the Civil War. While both of those stories were partially true, they was not the only thing fueling the current cultural split.
There were two deeper layers. All the talk about “saving” America in their own image by both sides was merely just coded messages for what was really driving the split. The true polarities were:
The disparity in wealth between the haves and the have nots
Some white people feeling they were losing their political power to people of color.
Have’s vs. Have Nots
America had been born with the unbridled optimism of individuals being able to pursue their dreams no matter who they were. Who and where you were born did not matter as it had in the old countries. The fact that America became that epicenter of innovation resulted in certain American’s from all kinds of backgrounds acquiring unheard of wealth. That was the attractor. How it played out was something else.
From the beginning the founders had worried about the undue influence of large business organizations or cartels (eventually called corporations) on the governance of America. These organizations had the money to buy politicians who would then pass laws and evoke policies that would benefit their bottom lines many times to the detriment of the rest of the country.
So, this was not a new problem, although it had gone through some cycles where big corporations were regulated and the middle class benefited more from what they created. But currently, the majority of the wealth in this country was continuing to be concentrated again in less than 1% of the population. When you look back at history, when this GAP gets too extreme, the people eventually light the torches and come after the monarchs or whatever they call themselves at that point. That does not turn out well for anyone in the short term.
Politicians and corporate CEOs on both sides of the aisle want to see their ‘business as usual” continue. They want to ensure the old model of capitalism continues to benefit shareholders rather than a new type of capitalism that benefits a much larger network of stakeholders.
As long as the corporate class is able to donate unlimited amounts of money to political candidates and campaigns, business as usual looks to continue with the wealthy and the powerful on both sides of the aisle pulling the cultural purse strings.
White Minority vs. Multicultural Majority
Underneath the wealth battle is the core creative tension that has existed since America’s founding. Our founders had a profound distrust of the majority of their electorate. Many could not read and were susceptible to the next strong man stirring them up. They worried that a mob of the majority could take control manipulated by the rich and powerful.
As a result, the right to vote in the beginning was only given to male land owners. The majority of them being of white, European backgrounds. The electoral college was also set up to certify national elections based on states “electors” instead of the winner getting a majority of the national popular vote. This system continues to this day and now allows for the possibility that a minority group could govern America legally. The very opposite of what the founders intended.
Eventually, the right to vote was extended to all men (still primarily white) and then to women and after the civil war to people of color, although this group really didn’t achieve equal representation until the Voting Act of 1965. The history of America has primarily up to now been the story of white men mostly holding the reins of power. This story is now being challenged as the population of American continues to become more multi-cultural with white people no longer in the majority.
It is a fact that the population of America is shifting to a multi-cultural majority. The questions is… will the transition from the established white power brokers to a multi-cultural democracy be accomplished… peacefully.
So, when you currently see white Trumplikins say they are saving America, they mean they are saving it for white people. When the Democrats say they are saving democracy, they mean they are protecting democratic institutions for a diverse population of Americans. Hence, the true cultural war. Mostly, white, Nationalist Christians vs. the multi-cultural population.
Will America be able to transition to a multi-cultural democracy or will it regress to white autocratic governance for a time? That is the cultural war that will lean America towards multi-cultural democracy or a white autocracy in the next three years.
The beat continued pounding as we made our way into the New Year of 2021. Former President Trump became the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives twice. The second time for inciting the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Later, it would be uncovered that he and his minions had a direct hand in planning the attack.
Of course, Trump was acquitted by the Republican controlled Senate both times. Initially leaders of both chambers condemned the storming of the Capitol as an insurrection, but within two weeks, Trumps followers in the Republican party tried to make light of it, saying it was just tourists taking a tour. You just can’t make this stuff up.
McCarthy, McConnell and other key Republican leaders actually called it right in the beginning, but made the choice later to support Trumps claim that the election had been stolen so they could remain popular with Trumps base. Power (and the associated money) seemed to be the only thing Trumplikins wanted. AND they were willing to put democracy at risk to grab power again. The Democrats on the other hand flailed about trying to counter this narrative, but appeared unable to.
A New Day
President Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States with Kamala Harris as Vice President on January 20th making history as the first female, black, south-Asian vice president.
There was still a real worry that January 6th insurrectionists would try to disrupt the swearing in ceremony or worse. The National Guard strung a heavy security fence around the entire Capitol Building site. It looked like an armed camp. Sign of the times and really very sad. Not since the Civil War had America seemed so divided with citizens having the intention to do violence to each other.
Into the Breech
Joe Biden and his staff inherited a government in turmoil. Trump and his cronies had made a mess of it. It was going to take some time to clean up and restore the various agencies like the Justice Department and the EPA that Trump had either co-opted or destroyed.
Meanwhile, the world was not waiting. In spite of the first of the vaccines becoming available, the pandemic continued unabated. All the uncertainty and tension around the politicization of wearing masks and keeping safe distances from each other further contributed to the mess. For the first time in memory, America did NOT come together to fight a common challenge. There were two camps each with their own story that benefited them. The American people were not being served.
On the international stage, Biden moved immediately to re-instate the United States in the Paris Climate Accord and re-upped with NATO. Re-joining NATO would have massive consequences in 2022.
What Was Missing
In addition to Jennifer and I re-upping our efforts to find more clients, I used my available time to work on Xtopia and DemocKrazy with my long time collaborator Lena Pousette.
In the isolation of the pandemic I really missed working with my creative teams. Lena was kind enough to work remotely with me as we laid out the Xtopia television series and the Metaverse design. The heart of the mission the Map Maker characters would take on NOW in Xtopia was protecting democracy from the autocratic forces that had begun their attack under Trump.
Shots a Lot
Jennifer and I got our first Pfizer vaccine shots for Covid. After all the uncertainty about how our immune systems would react to the untested vaccine, I had a mild reaction for two hours and Jennifer was fatigued for about a day. We had jumped through one hoop to getting back to normal.
I also got my three month follow up blood work results for my cancer operations. The results came back relatively normal so I had that going for me. The shock of having cancer in 2019 had forced me to consider my life would be shorter than I expected. Now, it seemed for the moment that was behind me.
I turned back to what this last chapter would entail. I certainly didn’t want to stop working. My analysis work with the Transmedia AI NLP platform gave me a unique view of the narratives emerging in the news and at the very least I wanted to pass some of that on to you in this exit interview.
Someday, you all will look back on this chaotic period. Hopefully my detailing some of what the culture was going through will help you not repeat our mistakes again in your future. I never thought I would question whether democracy would survive in America, but that impossibility suddenly seemed possible.
Retro Work Circles Around
As I began to look at the design for the Xtopia metaverse an old bit of creative work came back to play. When I had run Time Warner Interactive all those years ago we had developed the first visual chat platform called The Palace.
It allowed individuals to build graphic Palaces of their own on their computers and connect via the Internet with other people’s Palaces. Characters looked like smiley faces or Anime characters. Conversation was handled by Palace visitors typing text into comic bubbles that appeared over the heads of their avatars face.
As I went looking to see what had happened to it I was pleasantly surprised to find that a small cult of coders had kept it alive. The authoring system still allowed you to build a Palace so I began using it to test some ideas I had about what the Xtopia metaverse might be like. You just never know what survives the test of time, but if work is innovative like The Palace had been, there is a good chance it will keep, keeping on.
The Billionaires Club
In February, Jeff Bezos announced he was stepping down as Amazon CEO. What a ride it had been for him and us. Amazon had grown from a small startup bookstore in 1995 to a mega-corporate marketplace. Jeff had recently gone through a divorce and had coupled up with a new women he had met in Hollywood as Amazon was becoming a major player in the entertainment business. They even purchased the old David O Selinick/Sony studio where we had shot the Magic Pyramid in the late seventies.
He also founded his own space travel company called Blue Horizon and seemed focused on colonizing asteroids rather than Musk’s plan to put humans on Mars.
Bezos, along with other members of the Billionaires club like Zuckerburg, the Google Twins and Elon Musk had become the new mega titans. When it became time for them to transition from their disruptive startups to mature business entities they had a choice to do it differently than the predecessors had like Rockefeller, Getty and the railroad barons. They could have innovated a new system where they still made a bunch of money, but shared more of the created wealth with a much larger stakeholder network rather than just the shareholders. They could have used their great success to benefit the culture as well as themselves.
Unfortunately they chose the old zero sum corporate game of monopoly. The wealth they were amassing would fuel their boyhood fantasies about being Buck Rogers or cultural influencers. It was unclear what that meant to democratic institutions in America.
The Senate also confirmed Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, making him America's first openly gay cabinet secretary.
The progressive view of diversity and inclusion seemed to be making progress, but that was about to be challenged by a very alt-right Supreme Court majority. That story coming up.
President Vladimir Putin jailed Alexei Navalny, the leader of the “opposition,” after failing to kill him with poison.
This was a the beginning of a deeper crackdown in Russia on anyone that opposed Putin’s emerging imperial plans for Ukraine and beyond.
Trump's second impeachment trial began. There were some Republican leaders like the ultra-conservative Liz Chaney that tried to rally House Republicans to do the right thing. It was odd that she was one of the few Republicans that was willing to too call out Trump. She was removed from her leadership position as a result.
Five other Republican Senators broke ranks and voted for impeachment based on the events of January 6th, but that was not enough to convict and the Senate again acquitted Trump.
At the time Mitch McConnell said that Trump was not off the hook yet and would be investigated by the Justice Department and charged with felonies if he had broken the law. However, any thought that Trump was finished vanished as McConnell in the coming days would once again repeat his same old tired mantra that nothing had transpired during Trumps time in office. And he continued to pack the court with alt-right judges. The impact of that would explode in May 2022, but for the moment we just held our breath.
Deep in the Heart Of?
An unexpected massive snow storm hit Texas. Greg Abbott, the alt-right governor, blamed the power outages on green energy windmills when in fact it was his administration’s intentional lack of preparation in safe guarding the Texas power grid for ice and snow. This was a pattern in these emerging autocrats. Not only did they attempt to return America back to the white 50’s. but they were clownishly incompetent as well. Even the Nazi’s got the trains to run on time.
As a result of the extreme cold people died, others ran out of food. This was an event that we would see repeated in Red States with alt-right leaders. Focused on their culture war on LIBS and trying to raise money from their base to get re-elected they did not handle emergencies well. They were liars and fools like Trump had been concerning Covid. This was not a good combination if they ever got national power again.
President Joe Biden approved a state of emergency declaration for Texas in an attempt to help, but the costs of rebuilding the damage to the power grid were passed on to consumers by Abbot and others, not paid for by them, the people who had created the problem in the first place. Even after that, Abbot enjoyed healthy support from a majority of Texas voters. Go figure. This was the paradox that Democrats were up against.
The US death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 500,000 in February with no end in sight.
We got our 2nd dose of Covid vaccine. I had a bit more reaction this time that put me in bed for 3 hours. Then it disappeared. Jennifer was impacted for about 3 days. As America’s uneven response to the Covid pandemic continued, we had no idea if these vaccines would keep pace with new mutations.
The more progressive left in 2021 was busy trying to make amends for white Americans concerning the horrors of slavery and the decimation of native Americans. They seemed intent on applying their modern attitudes on racism to our founders who governed in a very different time. In my view, it was this mistake that led to handing the alt-right an issue which they dubbed “cancel culture.”
Cancel culture began as a uniquely left phenomena. Far left progressives attempted to make amends for the cultural failures of America by trying to redo history. There was nothing wrong in my view in re-visiting this history, and trying to make amends, but these progressives adopted a sort of mob mentality and relentlessly went after those they deemed as sinners.
If you didn’t pass these progressives loyalty tests and show the correct amount of contrition or heaven forbid you made students “uncomfortable” by what you were teaching, you became a target. Like any mob it often went too far. I always thought that college was when young people were supposed to get stretched into new views of the world. Here it seemed the cancel culture police was employing an unreasonable standard that could do real damage to any appropriate debate about America’s past sins. And this "sensitivity" on the ultra left gave the Trumplikins another issue to point to as the LIBS gone wild. Moderate Republicans and independents did not endorse these demands and that was a problem for Democrats on election day.
For example, as a result of the pressure these cultural police brought on the estate of Dr. Seuss, his publishers announced that six of his famous children’s books would be withdrawn from publication because they included language that was now considered by the cancel culture police as racist.
There is nothing wrong with having your own opinion about something. It is when you insist that everyone agree with you and attempt to force others to adopt your radical position that is the problem. I've never liked hysterical mob mentality even if I agreed with their position. Given the addition of social media, this cultural shaming reached new heights. A lot of it in my view, not healthy.
This was the beginning of a much larger trend that would also see alt-right forces attempt to ban books that included the word “gay” in them. They said that any attempt to teach children about different sexual orientations was an attempt to “recruit” children into a gay lifestyle.
So, cancel culture was busy on both sides of the aisle and would continue to grow as 2021 turned into 2022. Not a good sign for democracy. In spite of these continuing cultural dust ups or perhaps because of them, Deb Haaland was confirmed as Interior Secretary under Biden, making her America’s first Native American Interior cabinet secretary. That was a plus at least.
As the pandemic continued to impact the economy and put people out of work, Trump followed up by Biden signed a $1.9 trillion rescue package into law that distributed $1,400 stimulus checks to all Americans. It was something and that coupled with special pandemic unemployment payments took a bit of the edge off the suffering that was going on, particularly among the poor. However, once that was done the Republicans blocked any further aid being offered as they continued their campaign to ensure Biden failed. The fact that their refusal to do the right thing hurt the American people, even their own base, but it seemed not to matter to them.
Assault on America
In 2021, gun violence continued at a unprecedented rate. On March 16th a white gunman shot and killed eight people outside of Atlanta — six of whom were Asian American women who worked in Asian-owned massage parlors.
Later in March this epidemic of senseless violence came to Boulder. A mentally impaired individual, who was not a resident, opened fire at the King Soopers market with an assault weapon in the south end of Boulder. He randomly killed ten people before he was captured.
As a result of Boulder being a relatively small town, we all knew someone who had been impacted by the tragedy. Like so many crime scenes from around the country, Boulder residents created an impromptu memorial at the fence that was erected around the now blood stained market. People held vigils 24 hours a day at the fence for a couple of weeks.
You see these scenes on TV which is bad enough, but when it comes home to your town it is something else. I felt a deep sadness and outrage for a couple of weeks. All anyone in power continued to offer was their “thoughts and prayer” for the victims and their families instead of really addressing the increasing random violence in American society as a result of our obsession with guns. Even with the financial corruption that had been exposed at the National Rifle Association, their “friends” in Congress continued to block any common sense gun regulation the Democrats put forward. Shameful.
The alt-right autocrats liked to rail against foreign agents as the biggest threat to America in 2021. These foreign agents were always people of color. The data showed however that the largest source of violent acts in the US was domestic, white supremacist groups that were in bed with elected officials at the national and state level. These were the white individuals that showed up dressed in military body armor and assault weapons on the steps of state capitols were by far the biggest threat to American’s safety. And yet because they were white, the right didn’t count them. Some had made the observation that if the January 6th rioters had been black, they would have been shot on the steps of the capitol building by the same national guard that did not show up to stop the "white" people until it was too late.
We conferenced with Matt’s lawyer about the pending charges against him from his December arrest. Because of his past record there was little question he would have to spend some time in jail again. We were just hoping it would be days rather than months.
Addiction is a tough one. In spite of all Matt’s negative experiences with the police, including spending time in jail, he kept giving in to his overuse again and again as if he remembered nothing about the past consequences. What I had learned from my work with the addiction community during the filming of the Lost in Woonsocket documentary film is that you can’t think your way out of addiction. It takes deep emotional and psychological work to re-establish the guardrails that normal people have as it relates to moderation. Matt still seemed to think he didn’t have a problem and wouldn’t do the work to break the cycle. His lawyer pulled some strings and got his sentence reduced to 10 days in the Arvada jail. That was the good news. The bad news was this jail that had a terrible reputation, but that was all ahead.
AI News Reader
Primer AI, the company I had found that could provide me a AI driven news reader to help with our Story Studio narrative analysis work offered to run a test of one topic for free. This was an exciting development. Their AI platform could hopefully help us do deeper analysis of news topics and apply the emerging themes to transmedia media programming that would make a difference.
We picked the “first amendment” as our test query.
The first amendment conversation is at the center of the social media disinformation quandary that has impacted American’s trust of their news sources. If America no longer had a common set of facts to debate from, our democracy was in trouble. Most of the first amendment conversation however, even among reasonable people, descended quickly into the weeds of a multitude of interpretations.
I felt that many were making the false argument that the first amendment allowed anyone to say anything, including advocating for violence. This was not true. There had always been limits to speech that potentially could cause harm to others. Even though America allowed for more free speech than most nations, we citizens also had a responsibility to each other not to say or advocate for something that could cause others to suffer.
The classic example of this was crying “fire” in a crowded theater. IF there was a fire, then it was appropriate to warn people. But if there was no fire, the person who falsely raised the alarm was responsible for anyone who got hurt in their attempt to get out of theater. This was in my view, just common sense.
Attempting to create this kind of confusion and distrust in our news was a page right out of the autocratic playbook. And the big tech companies like Facebook had built their business plans based on creating conflict that drove more traffic and raised their ad revenues, so any addressing of the “news” was complex.
The thing to do was to step back and ask what kind of news we wanted in America before we got down in the weeds of how to do it. If it was a system that was filled with lies and intentional disinformation, then the unregulated system we had was fine. Not promising for maintaining democracy, but fine. If we want to re-establish trust in our news sources, then we had to design a system that insisted and promoted a common set of facts.
In spite of what many claimed was a complicated subject, we as a country had always demanded that newspapers and network television news shows have limits on what they could claim without providing proof from verified sources. These guardrails were included in the deals that we gave them in their exclusive operational licenses.
In comparison, social news media feeds were completely unregulated. We could change this IF we had the will and could find a way to counter the millions of dollars big tech companies were spending to lobby congress not to pass any sort of controls that had any financial consequences for them.
What Does AI NLP See?
The AI platform test results were spectacular. Once we fine-tuned our inquiry to give us the results we wanted, the AI search function gathered a huge database of articles from many more sources than I saw through Google search. One reason for this was that the Premier AI platform did not use my personal profile with its liberal bias when it searched.
As a result, I saw news sources from the Alt-right that I hadn’t seen before. This capability was an exciting development. In a an hour the AI NLP platform could do what it took us days to do and analyze through Google. It would put together a time line of the conversation (1st Amendment went back to 1776), a map of the peak activity points (dates) on that timeline, the major players involved and summaries of what they said or wrote. Peak activity usually meant there was some sort of disturbance in the culture like we were experiencing now. So, all that enabled us to do our selection and analysis of news stories in a fraction of the time time it took doing it by hand with Google.
The bigger advance however was the platform could tell us how an individual news item scaled. Was it being seen by 5 people or 5 million. The larger the reach usually translated into more "influence." It was reaching and being engaged with by more people. This "rating" allowed up to start thinking about scoreboards that would rate the current state of American democracy based on the news of the day.
The themes that emerged from this first inquiry into the first amendment conversation were exciting and depressing at the same time. There seem to be little imagination about how we could find a way to build trust in our news sources again, but I was determined to try.
Of the World
In May we saw the final withdrawal of America troops from Afghanistan. Our war there had been going on for more than 20 years following 9-11.
One of the reasons we had not gotten out before was the worry that the Afghanistan forces we trained to defeat the Taliban were not up to the task. Plus, there had been a huge amount of corruption concerning the billions of dollars America spent on the Afgan war that many times lined the pockets of corrupt Afgan politicians that were supposed to be the alternative to Taliban rule.
We had seen this pattern before in Viet Nam and Iraq. We choose to support autocratic, corrupt regimes that we said were in our "best interests", but instead we ended up on the wrong side of the revolution when the people eventually rose up. What we created in Afghanistan offered more opportunities than the Taliban to be sure, but the corruption was too much for the Afgan people to bear or trust. They didn’t want the Taliban, but they were also not going to fight and die for the leaders we had chosen and enriched.
Biden took the plunge anyway and announced we were ending our troop deployment in Afghanistan based on the advice of his intelligence agencies. This withdrawal became very problematic, very quickly. Once the announcement was made, the Taliban went on the offensive and the Afgan security forces we trained to keep them in check collapsed overnight. Some even gave the advanced weapons we supplied them with to the Taliban. In two weeks, the Taliban controlled the capital. This was another spectacular failure of our intelligence agencies like it had been leading up to 9-11.
This collapse of the Afgan government forces left only one way out of the country for the thousands of Americans and their Afgan supporters. The US military attempted to provide security at that airport, but tragically a bomb went off that killed 13 American soldiers guarding the escape route. This added to the outrage back home. In spite of doomsday predictions however from the Republicans, the majority of Americans still got evacuated with some of their Afgan supporters.
This was the Bidens administration first big failure. The skillful communications they had employed since he was elected shrunk to explanations that were vague and confused. The Trumplikins immediately jumped on Biden’s failure even though Republican presidents had been as responsible as any for the mess.
We had seen the same collapse in Iraq after we got rid of Saddam. We had the most powerful military in the world, but apparently no idea how to conduct nation building after the bad guys were gone. Both these efforts saw billions of US tax payer dollars disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials we supported to run those countries. Iraq is still in the middle of a civil war and the Taliban have already regressed Afgan culture to strict Muslim rule. Afgan women who had made advances under US rule, have been subjugated again to second class citizens.
America was not the only power that suffered from bad nation building skills. The Russians and Chinese had also failed miserably. This did not bode well for global security as these failed nation building exercises created more on-going conflict between democracy and autocratic rule around the world. It seemed we were still living into the dystopian movies we continued to make about the future.
As the world struggled with who it would become there was some seemingly positive news from the private space efforts of Elon Musk’s Space X. If I was twenty again, I think I would have followed the “space” career path rather than music/media focus that had been part of my coming of age. This indeed was the future and Space X had success after success in developing their re-usable rocket system and creating their “big” rocket for going to the Moon and Mars.
However, I wished I felt better about their founder. Elon was obviously a type of genius for activating future visions with his Tesla electric vehicles and his Space X dragon capsule system, but he, like a number of the tech titans was very underdeveloped as human being.
When he offered his advice on the challenges we faced culturally, his ideas were often immature or not well thought out. He seemed to crave attention like Trump, and that led him to make intentionally outrageous and sometimes dangerous tweets. If he took his billions and started buying pieces of the American culture, I felt that could be a problem down the road. He had demonstrated on numerous occasions that he considered himself above government regulations as if he was part of a special class they didn't apply to.
The other player in space was China. They recognized that whoever held the high ground above Earth or colonized the moon or the asteroids would have a huge advantage over others that didn’t. Although they had participated in some joint missions with the west in the past, every indication now was that they were going to go it alone and build their own space station instead of supporting the joint international effort and develop their own communities on the Moon.
Lacking any international agreements that covered space exploration and colonization, nations seemed poised once again to compete with each other as we had thoughout most of human history. When this had happened during the exploration of the America’s in the 1500-1700’s, European super powers at the time like Spain, Portugal, England and France fought devastating wars with each other for dominance. They also decimated the native populations in the process.
In some ways, the only reason France became our key ally during our revolution against England, was that they wanted to lessen England’s power in the new world. Cut to 2022. It looks like we might export the same violent, competitive instincts into space. On May 14th China landed its Zhurong rover on Mars, becoming only the second country to do so after the US.
I began my storycatching project with Fight for the Forgotten. This meant I was working in community with the folks at Conscious Coalition. It looked like this network might be the replacement for what I had lost when I left Integral Life.
However, very quickly we ran into problems. Like lots of progressive organizations, they were suffering from a lack of funding. F4F had been able to raise some money to assist pygmies in Africa, but their US project that targeted “bullying” in schools had been dormant since the Covid lockdown. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for developing a virtual way to continue that training.
Unfortunately, as we began to make some progress towards defining fundable projects, some folks in the network got nervous they were not going to get their share of what we raised. And Jason, the MMA fighter who had founded Fight for the Forgotten, only seemed interested in funding projects that would make him more noticed. As a result, the wheels started to come off. This project would wobble on for about 3 months and then end because of the in-fighting.
In June an author named Alexander Chatziioannou showed up in my email feed inquiring about “IT Came from the Desert.” In the past five years there had been lots of activity concerning this old hit game series of mine. This activity included the dramatic film released in 2017 that was based on my game and the mini-doc that I did for that DVD project that illuminated the behind scenes stuff about designing the original.
Alex was writing a book on Video Horror Games and wanted to include Desert. This began a long correspondence between us as he got increasingly interested in more of what I was doing now other than Desert. He maintained that the design I had developed for Desert was still light years ahead of other interactive movies. I didn’t know what to think about that. My “gaming” chops were now focused on metaverses.
These little retro journeys back in time always triggered some nostalgia for me. In the late 80’s and 90’s I was lucky to be a part of inventing a new interactive entertainment business. It was the height of my commercial Hollywood career that included music, film and then games.
Even though my interest in all that had waned as I proceeded with my attempt to make more of a contribution to the world, I missed the fun and excitement of having something I created go worldwide.
In my opinion, everything from 2000 on got much more complicated and disrupted. Perhaps my life prior to that had been blessed by growing up in a time that was relatively stable with lots of possibilities. Certainly, I was now chronicling the world careening towards a very uncertain future on so many fronts.
June also brought a reminder that us boomers were dying. All my collaborators for example on “Green Eyed Lady” were dead. I was the last man standing. Now this theme re-emerged in Boulder. David Hibbard had become a friend of mine when we moved to town. He had lived a remarkable journey as a doctor who provided his medical expertise in under developed countries. He was one of the kindest people I knew. That’s why it was so sad that he was declining from Parkinson’s disease. He had his good and bad days, but always shouldered on.
In the later part of his life he contributed to the death with dignity movement that was beginning to make itself known. He was part of a group here in Colorado that got legislative bills passed that made it legal to end your own life if you met certain terminal conditions. I became really interested in this work through David as one of the examples of our intelligence evolving. It made no sense to me that anyone had to suffer past a certain point if they didn’t want to. Certainly, that had been my experience of my mother choosing to die.
When my cancer showed up, this death option got very personal for me. IF my cancer had not gone into remission I was not keen on having additional chemo-therapy. I had watched my Dad suffer through it. There was NO quality of life in those chemicals. David’s death illuminated this story for me. I would miss his courageous spirit seeking something better.
Old Wounds Fester
The middle east had been a trouble spot forever. In 2021 it kicked up again. The region had been the poster child for conflict for thousands of years. The latest version of this passion play was triggered by the establishment of Israel as an independent nation after the second world war.
The Arab countries surrounding this Jewish state fought multiple wars with them. They were defeated each time, partially because we backed the Israelis. As a result of this on-going threat Israel maintained a war time footing and treated the Palestinians within their borders badly. In some not so interesting twist of fate, they had become Nazi’s to the Palestinians. The result was that peace in the region was always temporary.
There was a reason that the middle east is often cited in the end of the world prophecies as the final battle ground. In the June elections Prime Minister Netanyahu was finally removed from power. He had been under investigation for years on corruption charges, but had continued as a voice for Jewish extremism in this volatile land. There was some hope that the new Israeli coalition government would finally find a way to co-exist peacefully with their Arab neighbors but we would have to see.
Another wrinkle in this story resulted because Trump moved the American consulate to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv the capital of Israel. This was big snub of the Arab populations. Again, Trump had no sense of history or didn’t want to. Jerusalem was rightly claimed by three cultures as sacred ground. The Jews, Muslims and Christians. They had fought countless wars with each other and each had taken their turn governing it.
One idea that had been suggested over the years was making Jerusalem an open, international city. This was a reasonable concept, but one that was opposed by most who still apparently believed their side would eventually win. History is not on the side of that perspective. No one ever completely eliminates their rivals. The Nazi’s killed over 6 million Jews in World War II and still the Jewish people came back stronger than ever. Sometimes it seemed like we were so attached to conflict that it was the only thing we can imagine.
Follow the Money
On another front, the G7 members agreed on a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. That meant the big multinational corporations would at least pay 15% on their profits. This agreement was intended to stop corporations from moving money around the world to avoid paying nation state taxes.
This story hit me strangely. The pattern globally was to protect big corporations and let them do whatever they wanted. This seemed to be opposite of that. On closer inspection however, there were enough exceptions for low corporate tax countries like Ireland where US corporations did a lot of business to question the real overall impact in spite of how it sounded. The battle of the have’s and the have nots continued.
The Long Arm of the Law
Matt was scheduled to serve his 10 day sentence in the Arvada jail for his December transgression. He seemed relaxed about it until he arrived at the jail and experienced a rude wake up call. For openers, he was left in limbo in a bleak waiting room for an entire day before he was assigned to his cell. Jennifer and his girlfriend try to provide a friendly voice, but the reality of the jail system triggered Matt’s anxiety issues.
When Jennifer goes south like this it complicates our relationship. Nothing else exists except trying to help Matt. There had been a certain logic to that when Matt was younger, but now, as he often reminded us, he was 30 years old. Yet, seemingly incapable of managing his life. Matt barely survived, but like before the trauma seemed quickly forgotten. I was still not sure if the experience was enough to scare Matt on to the straight and narrow. This “triangle” effect between the three of us would emerge again in 2022 as our lives came to another crisis point because of finances.
At some point, another retro inquiry showed up. This one concerning the laserdisc arcade game I created in the early eighties called Freedom Fighter. This project had been my first attempt to design an interactive movie. In 1981 we partnered with Toei Animation in Japan to create the first truly interactive movie arcade game. The game was a breakthrough on many fronts, but because of the failure of laserdisc units to hold up in dusty arcade environments it had a limited release.
I don’t know why I went looking for Freedom Fighter footage on YouTube on that day. It had been part of these latest interviews like all my other hits like Desert, Voyeur and Of Light and Darkness. They were on YouTube. Hours of footage that someone had recorded and posted. In some ways it was the only way these projects could be archived as the actual technology they ran on disappeared. I always wondered WHY someone would spend hours capturing the game play I designed and posting it to YouTube but I was glad to have the footage.
I did find five or six clips of Freedom Fighter footage
More importantly, there were videos of actual arcade units that someone had restored. It turned out there was a small Freedom Fighter cult following that traded thoughts through a Reddit board. One name kept popping up so in a weak moment I messaged him on his YouTube channel and got an immediate reply. It turned out he had taken on the role of “historian” for the Freedom Fighter project and had been trying to find me for years. This resulted in me meeting the rest of the club and eventually they did an interview with me.
It turned out the few restored Freedom Fighter units were now selling between $20,000 and $40,000 each depending on their condition.
Why I hadn’t kept one was a mystery to me, but in all my moving around it had been impossible to truck it from place to place and little did we know it would survive the test of time. We did give a unit to Steven Spielberg when it was originally released in 1986 because he thought it was the best movie game he had played, but that unit was lost somewhere on the Universal Studios lot.
At the same time as I was walking down memory lane with Freedom Fighter, the Fight for the Forgotten project got canceled. The MMA founder emerged from yet another rehab and declared he wanted their money spent on a documentary film about him. This was a shock because I had committed fully to this network and had let other projects lapse. I wanted to create this global app in the worst way and the F4F project seemed to be the vehicle until it wasn’t.
This blip caused a bit of a crisis of confidence for me. Since Integral Life ended I had been trying to build a new network of folks to work with. Covid and all my associated health challenges had stymie that effort. Now, I was starting from scratch with no particular direction that seemed clear. This was also a concern that my Mothers money which had filled in where project revenue lacked, was diminishing way too fast for my taste.
This personal dilemma of mine was also echoed in the real world. We still could see no end in sight to the Pandemic lockdown and the only thing we knew was that it was not going to go back to the way it was. In a sense you could say I was aligned with the real world, but in my seventies that felt distressing. I had made the choices that had brought me here. No one else was to blame. How they were going to stabilize in the next chapter I had no idea.
It had been over six months since the last of our beloved cats (Baby Kitty) had died. Our original three Cat beings had shared a life with us for 20 years beginning on Whidbey Island. When they got sick in their old age it was traumatic. We were still recovering from their deaths in the midst of all the other uncertainty, when Jennifer decided it was time to get a new cat. She had befriended a woman who ran a rescue program that had dozens of cats they cared for. She interviewed with them and when she passed the suitability test (we actually had to do an interview on the phone) she found a striped tabby that captured her heart. NEO, as we called him, came home with us and provided some much needed light entertainment in the middle of all the stress.
NEO became Jennifer’s new obsession. When you rescue a cat you really don’t know their entire history. NEO bonded with Jennifer, but was very standoffish at first with Matt and me. A short time later Jennifer was at the cat store getting something for NEO when she texted me an image of another cat that looked exactly like my Zepher. The last thing I thought I wanted was another cat as I was trying to right the ship, but life does not wait sometimes for stability.
We visited him and he was, as advertised, friendly, funny, beautiful and only a year old. It turned out he had been found wandering around on the Navajo reservation and brought to Boulder. He had a bit of a wild streak in him from being on his own, but really seemed to enjoy the home we provided.
Circling Back Around
With all that in the background, I unexpectedly heard from my old partner David Todd from Cinemaware and Philips POV days. David and I not talked in years but here he was. It was nice to hear his voice.
He had retired from the game business and was living with his wife in Oregon. In our catch up, he told me the sad tale of his oldest son committing suicide. Ryan had always been somewhat of a fish out of water with real physical issues, but apparently it had gotten worse. Jennifer and I could relate. No matter how hard you try to help a child get back on track, in the end they have to do it themselves or not. In Ryan’s case it all became too much. That being said, there is no heartbreak worse than losing a child.
On a more positive note, I had left the interactive academy awards we had won together for Voyeur and Caesars World of Boxing with him those years ago. They were now packed away and he offered to send me the four that I had something to do with. Best interactive movie, best game design, best story for Voyeur and best sports game for Caesars World of Boxing. When they arrived in Boulder it was like opening a time capsule.
They reminded me of the excellent work we had done together.
Before I get back to what was happening in the world, more retro remembrances showed up. A woman at a Austrian record company called Infinite Fog wanted to license the Wilderness America album and release it again on super quality vinyl.
Out of all the albums I had created Wilderness America was the one I did not have a good digital master for. I only had the 50 year old two track audio tape masters and vinyl copies of the album. The licensing money was not that much, but I got a really good digital master out of it. Again, hearing that music after all those years reminded me that it was the last full album I had created before I moved on to the film business. After all those years it was in some ways a last lament that benefited seven different environmental organizations. The end of my first creative chapter.
My work with Lena on the Xtopia television show and the related metaverse led to us designing a fake portals called DemocKrazy and Bureau of Now that represented all the characters from Xtopia as if they really existed.
We reasoned we would experiment with driving web/social media traffic to these mystery sites modeled after QAnon game theory. This was all spec work and there was only so much time I could put towards it, but as of July I became officially concerned about democracy in America. I started to shift all my Story Studio interviews to that subject and searched for a way to make a contribution to that conversation while we pushed the big Xtopia idea forward.
I was also weary of the Covid isolation and the constant re-booting of my creative work. There seemed no stability in sight so I began to feel that perhaps this was another chapter ending. I had been on this save the world vector in the way I had been since I got back to Boulder after Random 1 for 17 years.
Integral Life had shaped much of that for 12 years, providing an phenomenal education, a community and a lifestyle that perhaps now needed to be down scaled if I really wanted to write and work with people on ensuring we had a democracy after the 2024 elections. This concept of the end of a 17 year chapter for me, Jennifer and Matt was a seed that got planted. It would come more into focus in 2022, but that seemed like a long way in the future. (It actually wasn’t given the speed of the cultural disruption that was enveloping us)
I cranked up my LinkedIN network searching for interesting people to interview about this sea change. I also thought these interviews might expand my network and lead me to the next big thing to do. Lots of people responded, but none of them seemed ready or able to pay me for my expertise. My age seemed like more of an issue all of a sudden. More on this recognition up ahead.
Firestorms and Other Climate Game Changers
In July over 130 wildfires, fueled by lightning strikes, burned through Western Canada following a record-breaking heatwave in North America that resulted in over 600 deaths.
California seemed like it was always on fire these days and there were also unprecedented floods in Europe.
The easy observation was that these unstable weather patterns were partly a result of climate change. The science was there, but it still didn’t seem to be enough to alarm a majority of the folks in the world. The predictions were that more massive weather events and fires were on the way. This ultimately would lead to increased migration of people out of the impacted areas. This migration, particularly in Europe was already de-stabilizing democracies as native citizens felt overwhelmed by foreigners. (people of color or different religious traditions.)
Future predictions highlighted this migration of people as a potential factor in the rise of autocratic governments that were not afraid to abuse foreigners or send them back to the hell holes they had come from.
Democracies are slow to move in such a crisis. Too many opinions can slow down any real action being taken. The number one cause of democracies collapsing was their inability to address overwhelming problems, thus losing the support of their citizens. In those times, citizens were willing to give up personal freedoms to have a stable autocratic culture. A devils bargain to be sure.
One example of an autocratic response to the current world challenges was the discovery that Israel’s NSO group had been using their spyware to target heads of state, activists, journalists and dissidents around the world that were critical of their policies or their abuse of the Palestinians. This disclosure telegraphed the rising awareness of something dubbed “surveillance capitalism.” States and large corporations now had the capability to manipulate their populations by stealing their personal data and using it to feed AI algorithms whose goal was to make the content addictive.
The Chinese version of this was a “loyalty” system that was based on data collected from Chinese citizen’s cell phones. This collection effort tracked everything from who they talked to, what they purchased and where they traveled. Their “loyalty” score could determine if they got a particular job or not or if their kids got into the best schools.
We had seen this movie. The dystopian tales we tell in our movies, television series and video games about the future all feature some sort of cultural control mechanism that tracks and manipulates the masses. This digital surveillance was not just the purview of sci-fi novels anymore. It was in the world for real. Like NEO in the Matrix, those of us who were awake had to figure out a way to combat this new development.
The 2021 Summer Olympics were also held in Tokyo, Japan. They were originally scheduled for August 2020, but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was great to witness the amazing performances of these athletes as always, the Tokyo games seemed like more of a corporate super event in keeping with the rise of the billionaire class.
An issue that arose at the games that mirrored the impacts of the larger pandemic culture was the mental health of the athletes. Individuals that compete at high levels are a special breed. What we see as a champion is often preceded by long years of work and sacrifice. Out of all the kids that start down the road of becoming an Olympic champion, only a few ever get close. The ones that do and achieve at a “gold medal” level of accomplishment accumulate levels of stress most of us would find frightening. Yet, they push through all of that until they don't. The case in point at the Tokyo games was Simone Biles.
Since Biles had burst on the Olympic gymnastics scene, she had been as near as you can get to perfect. All her competitors were measured against her. When we watched her perform we marveled at how she kept getting better. She had also been a reluctant witness about the sexual abuse she and other gymnasts suffered from the Olympic teams doctor. In spite of it all however, it was rumored she was going to try something at the Tokyo games that had never been done before by a woman. Then a strange thing happened.
In the vault event that she usually dominated, she appeared to get lost in the air in the middle of a spin and landed hard on the mat. Very unexpected for her. What finally emerged was that she had lost her confidence based on the trauma of her sexual abuse. It brought into question the stresses that athletes were under to achieve at that level. As an example, Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming champion also had a mental breakdown when he finished competing. We kept saying the culture was stressed like never before and in this case athletes were not immune.
By the end of July, 2021 the global death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 4 million. This was the biggest loss of life the world had seen since WWII, yet it seemed the news was just being managed as if it was normal. This would continue as the US alone had 700,000 dead by the end of July.
Ours is increasingly a celebrity driven culture like it or not. We seem fascinated by the successes and failures of Hollywood stars, politicians, news anchors, and the rich and powerful. Humans have always had a morbid curiosity concerning gossip about the “special” people who seem to live out fantasy lives.
With the explosion of social media platforms the celebrity news cycle went from 24-7 on cable to every 15 seconds on Twitter and Instagram. Obsessed is one way you could describe this behavior. It was even influencing who the Trumplikins picked to run for office. Trump had gotten elected partially because he was a TV personality. That seemed to be the new model for Trumplikins. It didn’t matter if they had any skill in governing.
Not that the alt-right had a monopoly on corruption, wrong doing or abuse of power. Certainly, Anthony Wieners infamous, viral crouch shot became the fascination of millions for a few heartbeats.
It also indirectly contributed to Trump getting elected. Hilary Clinton had used unsecured communication devices during her time at the State Department. Fox news and the alt-right minions beat the drums to “lock her up” for seeming national security breaches. The FBI thoroughly investigated the stray emails and found nothing compromising. Hillary and her people had been arrogant and stupid, but had not put the country at risk.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, with Hillary comfortably ahead of Trump, this FBI findings report seemed to put all the “lock her up” flak from the right behind her. That was until someone in the Southern District of New York office of the Justice Department got around to looking at Wieners laptop.
Wiener, in addition to auditioning his private parts on Twitter, was the husband of one of Clinton’s closest aides.
It was discovered that hundreds of emails concerning State Department business were on his laptop. No one knew if they were copies of the emails already examined or something more. 10 days before the 2016 election, with the race tightening, James Comey, then the head of the FBI, made the unprecedented announcement that the FBI were going to re-open the case.
There was an unwritten rule that the Justice Department never makes any announcements about candidates in the months leading up to a major election. In fact, the FBI did not announce that they were investigating Trumps connections to Russian assets at the time because of that. President Obama also did not want the Trump investigation to come out before the election for fear of it looking too political.
This is where history takes unexpected sideways turns sometimes. Comey, for whatever reason, felt it was his duty to announce the re-opening of the investigation even though it was close to election day. The Trump campaign jumped all over it. Even though 7 days later the FBI announced the emails were nothing they had not seen before, the damage was done. Trump was elected by 85,000 votes in three battleground states.
It wasn’t the only reason Hillary lost. A lot of events and personalities played a part in Trumps victory. She and her campaign staff had expected to win and didn’t even campaign in two of the battleground states she thought she had in the bag. She was incredibly arrogant, but in this case Comey, apparently because he was an attention junkie, threw the election to Trump.
Ironically, Comey later got fired by Trump for not being loyal enough in some strange karmic twist. Comey then wrote a book trying to explain the logic of his actions making the claim he was a hero for standing up to Trump, but no one was buying it. He would forever be known for getting Trump elected. For whatever reason, call it karma or just bad luck, America was stuck with Trump as president. What that meant at that point we could only imagine.
And the liberals were not through yet. Andrew Cuomo the infamous governor of New York stepped in it as well. He was one of the first governors to deal with Covid as it went rampant in New York city so in a sense at the time he was seen as a hero. His younger brother, Chris Cuomo, was a very popular outspoken CNN anchor with a big primetime following.
Governor Cuomo also had a reputation for being a bully and a hardnosed, old school politician. As a result, people respected his power and his ability, but he also had a lot of enemies. When it was revealed he had acted inappropriately towards women on his staff, very few of his “allies” came to his defense. Andrew was from the older generation of politicians that thought they
could still abuse their female staff.
Governor Cuomo took a hard line against his women accusers, even though there was ample evidence of his wrong doing. His brother Chris, did not report on the investigation on his CNN show at first. However, it turned out he did council his brother behind the scenes on how to blame it on the women. When this news broke, Chris Cuomo was gone from his CNN perch overnight. The alt-right celebrated. Chris said he did it because his family ties were stronger than his responsibility to his audience. The left lost an important voice on the news as a result.
When the Fight for the Forgotten work went away, I had to step back in August and consider I was literally starting from scratch in terms of developing another network with potential clients that would pay me as I worked on my original projects at Story Studio.
I had let some other possibilities go because of my committing to the F4F network. Foolish as I looked back on it. I think I wanted to establish a new work network so badly after Integral Life and the pandemic shut down, I wanted to believe that F4F was the one. I also recognized that I was tired of chasing clients that many times turned out to be dead ends.
The consultants gig that requires chasing clients is a never ending quest. The only way to get off that wheel is to develop an original property(s) that pay you relatively passive income from sales of web courses and books. Once, you develop all the videos and other materials for a web course or accompanying print asset, it pretty much runs itself except for the student forum part. I had helped many thought leaders in the Integral Life community do this. Why wouldn’t I do it for myself I wondered.
It is easy to say and difficult to do, but as I looked at what was emerging from the Story Studio work, there was also a “personal” piece that I was excited about. For a long time I had referred to the stories we tell ourselves as our: secret stories. This was because we are often unaware of them or don’t share them with others around us. AND if you are going to launch a personal web course, I knew the word “secret” was a big attractor in the personal development marketplace.
In addition to beating the bushes for potential clients to replace the F4F contract, I developed an outline for a Secret Stories web course and text pamphlet. I had taught interactive entertainment design at the American Film Institute and the USC and UCLA film schools way back in the mid-nineties when I was a big deal at Philips Media and Time Warner. Everyone wanted to get into the interactive entertainment biz back then and I knew just a bit more than most about what that meant.
I really enjoyed teaching. It forced me to consider what I knew and put it in a layered engagement so that students could understand it. So, here I was again all these years later. Developing Secret Stories as a web course or the basis for being a guest lecturer at a university seemed an attractive way to get off the never ending journey of finding clients.
Once I got the Secret Stories pitch deck and the course outline completed, I sent it out to the people I still knew that sold web courses to the public. I was aware that this marketplace had cooled off in a major way since I had sold courses at Integral Life in 2016, but I was not ready for the sound of crickets I got as a response to my Secret Stories pitch. Most of these past platforms were cutting back on new original work.
One teacher/marketer I respected did finally respond. He told me, even as he was moving on from web course work, he loved the idea and just as soon as he got his new pod/video cast launched he would interview me. That would introduce me to his big mailing list.
Here is a LINK to Secret Stories pitch deck which lays out an outline for a two hour master course that I would start the public engagement with. I also designed a 10 week course with an expanded version of the material.
I kept going back to the old adage I taught clients. If the story you are telling yourself is not working for you, change it. Becoming an author was certainly a different storyline for me.
Every I-Phone a Camera
It’s not lost on anyone paying attention that our cell phones have become image capture devices on a global scale for any “news” that is happening around us both personally and culturally. We now have footage from cell phones and bodycams that lets us witness what is happening “live” and distribute those images worldwide in a moment. We certainly saw the impact the bodycam footage had on the George Flood murder, the subsequent BLM movement and the sentencing of the cop that killed George.
Wars were also on this new menu of “selfies.” Cell phone footage in war zones took us directly into the madness of war and the damage it causes to all involved.
So, it was no surprise when the story of a young couples “drive about” emerged in late August that featured a radiant young woman’s adventure with her “boyfriend.”
As the story unfolded it seemed the young woman named Gabby had planned on streaming a social media “show” of sorts that would feature footage of all the stops on their grand, family van tour of the western states.
All seemed to go well for a while. From the footage she posted they seemed like a couple in love enjoying the beauty of the western American deserts.
However, her show suddenly stopped being posted and Gabby disappeared. Her family wasn’t immediately concerned. After all they were out in wide open rural areas with limited cell phone coverage, but when they didn’t hear from her after a few days they called the authorities. In a sense, her cell phone left a trail of clues of where she might have gone. The area from Salt Lake City, Utah north into Montana was searched. Police got lot of tips of possible sightings that suggested they had indeed driven out into a remote camp ground before her postings stopped.
The boyfriend also unexpectedly showed up back in Florida at his parents’ house. He had driven home to Florida in their van without Gabby and had not let anyone know he was back except his immediate family. They did not contact the police even though Gabby’s picture was all over social media and cable news. Something was badly amiss.
More footage surfaced including the police stopping the two of them at some point in their journey. (bodycams again)
In that footage Gabby was obviously upset about something, but was being evasive about what it was. You could see the fear in her eyes that something was not right. She mentioned that the two of them had fought and it had turned physical. Even then, the police let them go without really poking into what was going on. At the very least they could have taken Gabby to a protected place, but in one of those terrible moments they said…. “have a nice day.” The story took many twists and turns after that, too many to go into here but ultimately, Gabby’s body was discovered in the remote camp ground, dead from blunt force trauma.
The boyfriends family hired a lawyer to handle the questions that were being asked about why her boyfriend had come home without her. The news media camped out on their lawn for days. Eventually, her boyfriend escaped the house and appeared to head into a swampy wilderness area and disappeared. A huge manhunt was conducted. Eventually, they did find his body and a journal in which he admitted to killing Gabby in a fit of rage.
It was not an uncommon story of love gone bad, but the cell phone footage aspect set the stage for how these stories would be reported from now on. In some cases, the perpetrators would even use their cell phones to document their crime sprees as they happened. This included active shooter events. The media was only too happy to show the clips with the usual disclaimer that “you might find this disturbing.” A new era of citizen news gathering was upon us and I had no idea what role it would play in the dark days ahead.
A Post Covid World
Another new Covid variant emerged from India and yet another one from South Africa called Omicron. It seemed the world was learning to manage the millions of deaths in some strange “new normal” narrative frame. More people had died in the US than all our war dead from all our wars put together.
We had made a big deal (rightly so) about 3000 people dying on 9-11. As a result we went to war for over 20 years and built inspiring monuments. Yet 1 million people seemed to not register with the public in the same way. You would think with Covid touching so many families of all political persuasions that America would come together for the common good, but these were not normal times.
Something in my view was fundamentally shifting in this country and it seemed that many American’s just could not be bothered to do the right thing anymore. The right and conspiracy theorists like QAnon (brilliant game theory) loudly proclaimed their individual rights. Any suggestion that they had any responsibility to the people around them was met with the tired “give me liberty or give me death” slogans.
It was true that America offered the most individual freedom of any nation in the world, but it was also true the founders recognized that individuals citizens also had a responsibility to come together for the common good in times of war or a deadly pandemic. This second role of American citizenship was seemly being ignored by the red faced “patriots” that screamed their conspiracy theories at the news cameras. It was almost like they didn’t know how the countries system of governance was supposed to work. In turned out with a little digging I found that the mandatory “civics” training that I got in the 7th grade was now only required in 12 states.
The understanding of how our system of checks and balances was supposed to work seemed lost on many. The anger expressed by the mobs that stormed the Capitol on January 6th, turned out to be just that… a tantrum. If they had succeeded in their coup attempt, they apparently had no plan about what to do next.
It was sort of like Trumps ‘wall.” A great symbolic rallying cry, but a totally incoherent idea when it came to actually building it. We had seen the same thing happen when Bush/Cheney lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction as a rational for invading Iraq. Even though the military won the battle in record time, there was no plan for nation building once Saddam was gone. You could make the argument that the Iraqi people were worse off as a result of the civil war that continues to rage in that country. We had created a power vacuum with all our patriotic slogans, like the infamous one Bush uttered at one point dressed in a borrowed flight suit. “Mission Accomplished.”
What Was Behind Us
As we rolled into the fall I started hearing the phase “a post covid world” as if we had passed some unknown milestone that meant the pandemic was mostly behind us. Certainly, the new vaccines were helping and everyone was tired of having to wear masks and avoiding crowded public places, but Covid didn’t care. It just kept mutating into the next more infectious version and in spite of our best wishes, the number of infected continued to go up and down, but did not drop to zero.
I was curious about this “post covid world” story so I organized an interview series with a new diverse group of people I chose out of my Linkedin network. This group included business executives, artists, house wives and students. I wanted to know after nearly two years in isolation what stories they were telling themselves about moving forward in an Post Covid world. There were many opinions about our current state after two years of lock down.
Edited video of some the interview comments
Some felt that it had changed their lives a little, but most said it felt like their lives would never be the same again. Certainly, the uneven response to Covid in the US guaranteed that the uncertainty would continue. The covid case numbers would go down for a while, people would relax and then the numbers would go back up. And our response, having been heavily politicized, was quite different in red and blue states as if there were two Americas.
As I analyzed the interviews from this diverse cross section of people, it was clear we were in uncharted territory. What world would emerge as we came out of lock down was anyone’s guess.
It was interesting to note that in spite of the economic downturn that had really impacted middle class and poor people, the billionaires, big tech and the oil companies made record profits during the chaos. This was eerily familiar. In our dystopian films, television series and video games, the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer people was one aspect of the “corporate feudalism” that was previewed in those narratives. I re-doubled my efforts to create another narrative that could compete with this dystopian one and include all the good work going on around the world that was moving us towards a more ‘generative” culture.
Lena and I had been working on such a narrative in our spare time. We envisioned it as a dramatic television series with an attached metaverse gaming world. Each of these media types offered different ways to experience this new narrative. The dramatic series imagined a group of activists standing up to the wealthy, powerful folks for control of the culture. Our hope was that the audience would fall in love with the characters in the dramatic television series and relate to their suffering and their aspirations. We wanted to offer an alternative narrative to the dystopian, hopeless one we felt we were sliding into.
The attached metaverse was envisioned as an interactive version of the television world. Anyone could enter the metaverse and engage with others in cultural simulations that were incubating potential generative concepts in politics, economics, technology, relationships, culture and spirituality. The metaverse also “rewarded” people for getting engaged. It had its own blockchain system of value exchange. Nothing better than getting rewarded for saving the world.
We dubbed the project with the code name Epigraph. Real name... Xtopia There were plenty of independent artists working on some aspect of these virtual metaverse worlds and digital characters. Below is one we especially liked. The production value this artist demonstrates in his videos was done in his garage. This quality of graphic worlds had only been possible in prior years at the big production houses like Industrial Light and Magic. That put this level of creativity in the hands of millions.
Xtopia/Epigragh was a big vision. Lena had continued to write scripts since our days in the 1990’s when we collaborated on “It Came From the Desert” and “Voyeur.” I had been on a 20 year documentary media journey since then that included the Random 1 series for A&E, the Lost in Woonsocket documentary and Google Ocean. Although, the big XTOPIA vision was the goal, to get there we employed a transmedia approach that envisioned starting small by building an audience and expanding in ever bigger rings of influence as it gained traction. Ultimately we hoped this would lead up to launching the dramatic series and the metaverse gaming world.
Our mission at Story Studio since I left Integral Life in 2018 was to chronicle the stories we were telling ourselves about the now and future. From the many interviews with global thought leaders I conducted and the research and analysis of the news we did through our AI NLP platform, we mapped a broad spectrum of narrative themes in politics, economics, technology, culture, relationships, and spirituality.
The post-covid interviews raised the alarm for me that democracy in America might be in trouble. As a result of this concern we tightly focused our bad guys in the XTOPIA world as those that wanted to get rid of democratic institutions in favor of rule by the white, rich, minority. We began that conversation with our audience with a simple web portal called “DemocKrazy.” (link to)
Our intention with DemocKrazy was to offer the news stories emerging from our AI NLP analysis platform concerning the threats to America democracy and provide commentary about a narrative that could make sense of where we stood. We would also give them the Vital Signs scoreboard. Were our fears about losing our democracy founded in fact? Were our concerns about the autocratic forces on the right legitimate? If so, what could we do about it?
The DemocKrazy web portal was designed so that is was supposedly built by the fictional characters in the Xtopia television series and metaverse. We reasoned we would gather an audience on the site and use that as stimulus for pitching the Xtopia television series and metaverse to the powers at be.
When I looked at the big Xtopia project map we created, I was well aware for the first time I might not be alive to see all of it come to fruition. In spite of that we threw ourselves into it and I looked for younger people to train in case I could not make the journey to the promised land it illuminated.
In a transmedia world, the methods you employ to gain more influence are expanded from just creating a documentary film, game or podcast. The transmedia approach involves creating a “story arc” of the narrative you want to promote and then offering different versions of it in varied distribution mediums to the potential audience. The old advertising adage said people needed to see a new brand four times in different places before they began to pay attention.
I loved making documentary films and creating the stories on Google Ocean, but I had begun to ask myself if this was the most efficient way to go about influencing the audience. After all, how many times would I watch a 2 hour documentary these days. My limited, overloaded attention span screamed for a 15 minute version that I could follow up on for more in-depth exploration if I became interested in what it was promoting.
We also wanted the audience to have a more direct experience of the cause or narrative we were promoting instead of just telling them about it in a video or book. This “experiential” activism concept was not totally my invention, but it made sense to my game designer. IF people actually experienced the narrative and got rewarded for it, my belief was that they would really embody the importance of it rather than just having an intellectual understanding of it. The XTOPIA metaverse was one such vehicle as well as AR or VR concepts I was interested in that were still up ahead.
The Evolving News Marketplace
One of the things I noticed when I was analyzing news articles or social media posts about democracy in America was that they reported on fractured pieces of the bigger conversation. If you reacted to a Supreme Court ruling for example that impacted voters of color, you really had no idea of whether that moved us closer to autocratic rule or towards democracy.
I also experienced the frothy, heated discussions taking place on-line about regulating social media news platforms as confusing. Most of the participants were young and were unaware we had set boundaries on network TV news and newspapers in the past. These “dialogues” to me were examples of falling into the trap of the complexity of the “1st Amendment” rabbit hole without first asking what kind of news media environment we wanted that would ensure our democracy.
A democracy, by all counts, must vigorously debate the way forward from a common set of facts. In the last five years “the news” had become predominantly opinion driven programing based on alternative narratives that were not factual or promoted someone’s self-serving agenda. Often times they were designed to just suck money out of the audience these narratives were meant to scare. As I saw it, this was contributing to the feeling of hopelessness and despair that was growing in America.
Many of the people I interviewed or listened to on web panels or podcasts, particularly the younger ones, struggled with their desire for “free speech” while witnessing the damage that was being caused by the intentional disinformation in our news feeds. Some of these “voices” advocated for violence against school board members and county commissioners that in their view were not red, white and blue enough.
As a result, America was more polarized than ever and one of the factors influencing that was all the noise that was created around any attempt to make good decisions at the ballot box. IF we didn’t first decide what kind news we wanted in America, all our opinions about 1st amendment rights in my view were meaningless. Worse yet, they were paralyzing so no action was taken.
In my view, these free form conversations left us more confused than ever about what was true. This was right out of the autocrats playbook. All they had to do was sow seeds of uncertainty they believed would eventually cause citizens to trade their individual freedoms for a type of cultural stability controlled by them, the rich and powerful.
If we didn’t decide first that we wanted a common set of facts from which to debate the way forward, all the intentional “confusers” would distort the meaning of the 1st Amendment so that anyone could say anything, even advocating for violence against others or overthrowing elected officials. That is NOT what the 1st amendment allows.
Many who advocate for this distorted version of “free speech” say we don’t know how to safely regulate speech without trampling on peoples rights. In my view, this was simply not true. We have dealt with this in the past very successfully. A network television news show or a newspaper must have a least have two verifiable sources that back up any claim they make. If they publish a story without those sources, they can be sued for liable. The tech social media platforms had made an argument as the Internet came on line, that it should not be regulated like other news services so that it could find its feet as a new channel for expression. This law called section 230 is still in force.
In the beginning it may have been a good idea to encourage Internet development, but Facebook and Google now controlled 75% of the news and advertising marketplace. They are quickly becoming “the” arbiters of America culture. Make no mistake, WE know how to regulate what is promoted on cable and social media news feeds so that it is based on the truth. We just need to find the will to do it.
And the last question we should be asking ourselves is who benefits from an unregulated news environment. Answer: The tech platforms who have business plans that intentionally promote conflict to attract more eye balls and charge higher advertising rates. That’s why when Zuckerberg testifies before congress he wraps himself in the veil of the protector of free speech when he is actually the one who profits the most from not having our news based on facts.
For some reason I have always loved scoreboards. Someone a lot smarter than me said this about them…
“A scoreboard lets you know how you’re doing. Recent time spent with a group of exceptional leaders who have excelled in sports and life helped me recognize that the absence of a scoreboard can present significant challenges. There are two reasons why it’s important to have a scoreboard. The clock to tell you how long you have to act, and the score, to tell you who is winning.
As I was musing about a way to take the overload of news and summarize it quickly in terms how we were doing, something clicked. A scoreboard. Or as it came to be known: “Vital Signs of Democracy – monitoring threats to America”
But what would I base the current “score” on? What factors would determine whether we were leaning towards democracy or autocratic governance? I finally realized it was staring me right in the face every time I used our Transmedia AI NLP platform to search and analyze news stories for their impact on democracy in America.
There were approximately ten core factors emerging from the AI NLP analysis that seemed to be determining whether democracy in America would thrive or fail. How the results of these factors leaned over the next three years would determine which way America was headed. Some of them were obvious like voting rights. If all citizens could vote without any impediments then we leaned towards democracy. IF the various voter suppression laws aimed at people of color became the norm, we leaned towards an autocratic system ruled by the rich and powerful.
Other factors included:
Are the rights of ALL citizens to pursue the American dream protected, encouraged?
Would our system of checks and balances hold those that attempted a coup after the 2020 elections accountable?
Would our courts rule in the best interests of all Americans or just a small minority?
Would business pledge their allegiance to protecting democratic institutions or would they make a deal with the winner of the culture war?
Would we regulate social media platforms so they were rewarded for promoting the truth instead of disinformation?
Would our continuing responses to a common challenge be politized by either party?
Would life essentials like food, water, fuel and shelter available to all citizens at reasonable costs?
Would the benefits of innovative technology be available to all citizens?
Would America continue to ally with a consortium of democratic nations to
combat the power and the actions of authoritarian regimes?
Our AI NLP platform rates each of the individual news stories we were covering that week based on its content and then aggregates the individual article scores into a master number based on the expert results of our AI NLP platform analysis. I reasoned we also wanted visitors to the “scoreboard” engaged, so we let them rate the articles themselves and that collective wisdom is then aggregated into a “citizens score.” There were already other scoreboards like Freedom House, FiveThirtyEight and Rotten Tomatoes that give audiences a quick indicator of democracy, a politicians popularity or the worth of a film or television series. Why not democracy?
All this musing got rolled up into a pitch deck as I went looking for audiences of voters to test the scoreboard concept with and organizations fighting for democracy that could make use of it. It felt like it was going to be my contribution to democracy in the coming years.
Follow the Money
One of the themes I was particularly interested in out of these 10 factors was the role of business and/or corporations in deciding which way America was going to lean. The old adage, “follow the money” if you want to know what is really happening still was in play in my world. I did a bunch of interviews with business leaders and some interesting things emerged.
One was a perplexing paradox. On the one hand business wants to have a “stable” marketplace to sell their product or service into. Certainly, the economic disruption caused by the Covid Pandemic had shown us what happens when you have a disrupted marketplace. Folks all over the world were suddenly only buying those goods and services they felt they needed to survive the lockdown. Anything else was left on the shelves. Many businesses, particularly entertainment and food venues, suffered.
It’s one of the reasons that digital meeting platforms like Zoom prospered during the lockdown. People needed something so they could engage with each other until the lock down was lifted. The savings rates of American’s also increased. For years American’s had not saved much for a rainy day. During the first phases of the lock downs, savings shot up presumably to be held in reserve for an emergency.
So, most businesses were challenged by a disrupted Covid marketplace. That seemed to suggest the business would support democratic institutions that could manage the pandemic because they provided the greatest stability. Who would have predicted that America's response would be partial based on extreme political views. For years, rich people and nations all over the world had parked their wealth in America because they considered it the safest place. They did not want people in the streets from either side desperate to challenge the powers at be. Seemed like this principle made sense and for most it did.
However, when I talked to tech executives they weren’t so sure. In some ways their business plans that generated billions of dollars were based on marketing to peoples fears and insecurities. The data they collected on web sites people visited or products they bought were used to manipulate those users to buy more or support a cause. They championed chaos because it meant their advertising rates could go up as more people were attracted the latest dust up.
While it had always been true that Google and Facebook gave massive donations to both sides of the aisle, I kept hearing that tech folks were not sure they needed democratic institutions anymore to continue being successful. They certainly did not want any regulations that would limit what data they could collect or manipulate. One exec went as far to say that big tech corporations would stay out of the cultural war between democracy and autocracy and make a deal with the winner.
Their vision for the future seemed to suggest an enlightened oligarchy. One in which there was a strong central authority that could offer a stable marketplace, but at a cost to the countries citizens freedoms. The country of Dubai came to mind.
The royal family ran that country like a corporation. It was very easy to do business there or park your wealth as long as you did not openly oppose the agenda of the ruling family. It was a sort of capitalist system, but one without citizens having any real rights, just the permission to innovate or transact business that benefited the ruling class.
When the Trumplikins began passing voter suppression laws or pro-life laws in some red states, big corporations in those states initially made some PR fuss over these new restrictions aimed at people of color and women. For example, Major League baseball moved the all-star game from Atlanta Georgia to Denver Colorado in protest of new voter suppression laws. Unfortunately, most of the fuss died down and major corporations like Delta Airlines, FedEX and Coke went back to work in Georgia when the press moved on.
In Florida, where the Disney Corporation spoke out against new Trumplikin state laws prohibiting the word “gay” from being used in schools, Trumplikin Governor Ron DiSantos had the state legislature revoke Disneyland’s special tax district status even though it meant the Florida tax payers would have to pick up the tab that was calculated in the billions. The message seemed to be, you can do business here, but don’t criticize our policies or we will punish you. The very definition of an autocracy benefitting rich oligarchs.
As a result of these interviews and what we could see happening with business through our AI NLP platform analysis, we included their role in protecting democratic institutions as one of our 10 factors that would determine if American continued as a democracy or leaned towards something darker .
Continuing signs of chaos as the year progresses
What we called the “news” continued to report on the increasing insanity.
A student at a Michigan high school killed four fellow students, injuring 7.
This happened even though the student in question had already been identified as a threat and his parents called in for a conference. Whatever was said at the conference concluded with no one searching his backpack. He was sent back to class. Once there he pulled the gun he had in the backpack and proceeded to kill those around him.
Even with a system in place designed to pick up unstable individuals, that system failed miserably because the humans were not paying careful attention. In the end, his parents who knew his history and allowed him access to their gun cabinet were also charged with manslaughter. Unfortunately, it didn’t bring back the dead.
Kentucky was devastated by an outbreak of unpredcented winter tornados impacting victims in five rural states.
The White House issued the usual emergency declarations, but in my view Biden missed an opportunity to show he cared for people in red states by not using the occasion to push the yet unpassed infrastructure bill that included climate change mitigation. Here was a real life example of what people could expect from unprecedented weather events that would have rung true to those impacted. Sometimes the Democrats just seemed they got in their own way.
The Congressional Investigation into the January 6th insurrection seemed to get serious by issuing subpoenas to potential supporters of that passion play. True to form however, the main individuals who were served refused to talk to the committee and nothing much happened.
A few were referred to the Justice Department for enforcement, but no one was put in jail until they complied. There was great celebration when Garland took over the Justice Department from the Trumplikins who had used it to reward their allies and punish their opponents.
However, as time rolled by the question emerged… what was taking so long? Garland claimed they were building a case for the January 6th attack from the ground up starting with the people who actually invaded the Capitol Building, but they hadn’t yet touched the variety of folks who seemed to have some hand in planning the insurrection or had participated in the attempted coup, including Trumplikin members of Congress. The clock continuing to run favored Trump strategy of delaying any consequences until after the mid-terms where they thought they might control at least the House.
One story that was floated about why it was taking Garland so long was he didn’t want the Justice Department to look like they were going after individuals because of their politics. The cult that planned January 6th and the attempted coup were all Trumplikins.
In more normal times when America swung from moderate conservative to moderate liberal control that may have been the thing to do. But in the present environment when the Trumplikins had blown through any moderate guardrails, a different kind of response was called for. Its one thing to take precautions against a fire breaking out in your home. Its another to continue the planning effort as your house is burning to the ground around you. One real question I had was whether the majority of Americans would wake up in time to counter this Trumplikin move toward autocracy. Time would tell.
Doing it Legally
There was one school of thought we were tracking that claimed that those that had tried to overthrow the election, were now looking at where they had failed and were positioning themselves at the state and county level to attempt the next coup… legally. This was not a secret anymore, but the Democrats seemed to continue to wring their hands and let it happen.
All this was particularly inflamed by the 6-3 majority the Trumplikins now had on the Supreme Court. Trump had promised he would appoint judges that would overturn long standing constitutional rights like a woman’s right to choose. He now had that majority of “conservative” judges, but worse yet, 3 or 4 of them were actually radically alt right and seemed bent on re-shaping America so that the white minority ruled. If we had lost the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of autocratic attempts to take control of America, we indeed were in a much more dangerous place.
One example of this was the Texas Senate led by Trumpian Governor Greg Abbot passed a “vigilante” law that allowed anyone (not just a Texas native) to sue anyone that either got an abortion in Texas or helped someone get one.
This was clearly unconstitutional. It set up a system of private citizen enforcement of a woman’s right to choose that in the past it would have been laughed out of court. Instead this new Trumplikin court let the law stand… twice with no public debate. This method of quiet response was called a “shadow document.” It was a little used procedure for small cases, but here the new judges used it to violate the rights of women in Texas with no public process. If this was an example of what was coming, we were in trouble.
Another example of “we’re not in Kansas anymore” was the treatment of President Biden by the liberal press. By all accounts Biden had inherited a mess from the Donald. To top it off the pandemic still raged on, the economy was suffering and Trump was not going away.
Like Obama in 2008 who inherited the economic meltdown created by the Bush administration, everyone said that they would give Biden some time to sort it out. However, their old investigative instincts kicked in. In the name of being fair to Trump, they went after Biden for being too old, and not accomplishing what he had promised. Again, in normal times Biden would have been fair game, but these were not normal times. The real culture war was between democracy and autocracy and this progressive press assault on Biden, in my view, was playing right into the hands of the Trumplikins.
All though some progressive commentators did acknowledge that we were in uncharted territory, most of the progressive cable news channels joined with Trump TV (Fox) in taking shots at Bidens credibility. Like I said, in normal times this would have been fair game, but as some liberal commentators pointed out, the press should have been less concerned with their ratings and more focused instead on their right to express themselves as the free press.
Trump had infamously said “the press were the enemy of the people.” I always loved it when he said ‘press” he didn’t include Fox News and the alt right news services that influenced half of the American electorate. Very few liberal commentators ever corrected Trumplikins when they repeated this lie, so in a sense the image of a radical liberal press seemed true.
When Biden's approval ratings headed south, the progressive press went out of their way to point out the drop while ringing their hands about his impossible plight. Instead of looking at Biden’s popularity alone, they could have asked “as compared to what” a more relevant comparison.
David Plough, the famous Obama advisor, had been saying that IF the Democrats allowed the 2022 mid-terms to be framed by the right as a referendum on Biden, they would loose badly. If they made them a comparison between what Biden and the Democrats had done and all the Trumplikins had NOT done for the America people, voters would at least have a choice between democracy and something far worse. Democrats at this writing still seemed to be missing this point.
The New Territory
Here is the thing you need to watch for in the future. We all have our opinions about what government should and shouldn’t do. Since the Civil War, America had swung from moderate left to moderate right in terms of it governance. IF one party gained to much power, the voters adjusted the balance in the next election. This had allowed America to stave of other challenges to its democratic institutions over the years.
If however, you have one party like now (the Republicans) that abandons their moderate voice and tilts towards the extreme right and all its autocratic tendencies, the country’s political discourse is no longer located between the established guard rails where American’s could count on our system to re-balance itself if it got too extreme at either radical edge.
This seemed to be happening with Trumps denial of his 2020 loss. All of our instincts about how to cover the news were being challenged. The true press in my view could not just keep repeating the mantra "keeping the honest" in the way they had in the past. They needed to be, in my view, more concerned with supporting the continuance of democratic norms that included the “free” press and making the comparison to the autocratic system the Trumplikins were promoting. Failure to do that could lead to disastrous consequences.
Whose Senatorial Majority?
The week following the 2020 presidential elections there was much celebrating when Biden's win was finally confirmed four days after election day. It seemed America had dodged a bullet. Trump was defeated. The remaining results to be decided were the two Senate seats in Georgia.
Biden had pulled out a narrow, unexpected win in the state thanks to black women voters. The two Georgia Senate seats were headed to a special election because no one candidate had gotten a majority. No rest for the wicked you might say. If the Democrats could somehow win both seats (seemed unlikely at the time) they would have a theoretical majority in the Senate with tie breakers (50/50) being decided by Kamala Harris the democratic vice-president. This would give Biden a chance to pass his ambitious agenda.
What was hidden for awhile in that good news was that Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema the Democratic senator from Arizona had other plans.
A video was released in 2021 purporting to be a Republican operative describing Manchin as being in the oil companies pocket. This did not bode well for Manchin supporting Biden's climate legislation. Those companies were also running glossy ads promoting them as human energy companies. All of that was a lie, but not one that was surprising.
Senator Sinema was a weird case. She had been elected without doing much campaigning or participating in any debates. She seemed to enjoy support from big corporate money, so her brand of resistance was a bit different than Machin’s. Together however, they voted against the bigger infrastructure bill with most of the climate change measures in it and the Democrats attempt to get rid of the filibuster so they could pass voting reform.
Machin claimed he could work out bi-partisan compromises with the Trumplikins, even though there was no sign that it could be done. He failed in all his attempts, wasted a lot of time and in the end voted against most of Biden’s agenda anyway.
He, in a sense, seemed to be caucusing with the Trumplikins. Sinema the same. They even opposed the national voting rights act that would have overridden the voter suppression laws in red states and indicated they also supported overturning a women’s right to choose.
In the end, both of them were self-serving or believed the Trumplikins would eventually triumph and sought to be on the winning side. In the old days their behavior would have been written off to just “politics,” but with democracy threatened, they represented a real danger to democracy in America.
By the end of 2021 American Covid deaths passed 800,000. I still marveled how this new normal was seemingly being ignored by the American people. The anti-VAX forces responsible for many of the deaths were still going full Monty about the government infringing on their rights. It seemed they were continuing to claim the right to make their fellow citizens sick even when it was folks close to them that were dying.
As I kept saying the power of cultural stories we tell ourselves can sometimes be stronger than actual reality. The MAGA crowd was bent on reclaiming America for a minority of white people and the mere fact a million American’s had died of preventable deaths seemed was something they could live with in their desire for power.
Sports, a welcome distraction
Against the darkening cultural skies, sports provides some welcome distraction in 2021. The San Francisco Giants had risen from the ashes and won a record 107 games. That won them the west after a closely fought race with the hated LA Dodgers. However, they lost had lost in the playoffs to those same Dodgers on a bad call in the final inning of the deciding 5th game of the series. It was fun however to root for the black and orange again, which still included some old favorites from the championship teams like Buster Posey and the two Brandon’s having record years. This resurgence under new management boded well for the future.
The Warriors and the baby faced assassin, Steph Curry also emerged from a two year playoff drought. They had been decimated by injuries that ended their championship runs and the departure of super star Kevin Durant. They had the worst record in the league in 2019-2020.
In 2021 Klay had come back after two years of re-hab and they had added some young players that made them competitive again. They were a wonder to watch when they played classic Warrior basketball, passing to the open man, hitting 3 point shots, rebounding and limiting turnovers.
Unfortunately, this new Warrior team had a tendency to go to sleep for whole games or portions of games where they made mistake after mistake even though they claimed they knew better. If they did get into the playoffs, it will be interesting to see which team showed up on a game by game basis. They would not be able to lay back and pull it out at the last minute against the better teams.
On the college front, Bruce, Jane and I had been Cal football fans since birth.
We bled blue and gold as we had suffered through the bad teams and celebrated the few good ones. We all nodded approvingly when Lou and Mimi named their son “Cal.”
Against that backdrop college football was also undergoing lots of changes. Players were now being “paid” for their “likeness” and “brand.” Although, college players earning money was long overdue because Universities were making millions off their talents, there was still the question if individual players were now the focus instead of loyalties to teams.
The transfer portal also allowed college players to easily move to another school. This could impact the continuity of programs from year to year. Cal had always claimed they couldn’t recruit as well as other schools because of their high entrance standards. However, Stanford who had equally high standards had become a successful program so who knew.
With these changes, I had no idea if Cal would ever be competitive moving forward. We had already let go of our adult dream to see Cal play in the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl was now part of the college playoff system and no longer the traditional competition between the Big 10 and the Pac 12.
The 49ers had also re-surfaced as a title contender again.
We had reveled in the glory years when they made their 5 Super Bowl runs when Montana, Rice, Young etc. had been gods, but they were long gone.
They once again had a good defense and an effective offense, although their new “billionaires” stadium in Santa Clara was a horrible place to watch football and only the well-off could afford the tickets.
They had unexpectedly made it to the Super Bowl in 2020, but had lost after leading Kansas City in the fourth quarter. In spite of them doing better I didn’t have much faith in Kyle Shanahan as a coach.
He definitely had them playing better, but in key games, often times with the Niners leading, he would go sup[er conservative and end up losing.
He had been the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons when they had their epic collapse in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. And now he had done the same thing to the Niners. The question remained if he had learned anything from it. In the 2022 season they were also starting a rookie quarterback they had given up three 1st round draft choices for and there were already questions about his ability. Not sure where they were going or if I cared anymore.
2022 dawned with no cultural stability in sight. It occurred to me I had been mapping out projects like the Vital Signs of Democracy meter/threat assessment portal and Xtopia that would shape this last chapter I was living into. It remained to be seen if I was just writing this all up for future generations or whether I could find the funds to get them in the pipeline in my lifetime. As I kept saying, time would tell.
What was also clear to me was that a 17 year chapter was coming to an end in Boulder. We had quite a run since I came off the Random 1 television series with Integral Life and Ken Wilber in the mix for most of it. We had done a lot of good work, gathered the Integral global community like never before and made sure Ken’s legacy was in place. I had also learned a lot about my own personal development which was reflected in the way I told stories now. I reasoned at my advanced age there was always something more I could do to get closer to my better angels.
The pandemic lockdown had scattered the Integral community we were such a part of to the wind. The Integral Center that had been the focus of activities in Boulder was torn down to make way for condos. It seemed to me now that my path lay elsewhere and for the first time I questioned whether that continued to be in Boulder.
I still loved this town with the mountains close at hand, but in my loneliness during the lockdown I had really missed seeing my family and friends in California. Pre-pandemic I was on the west coast a lot on projects, but it had been two years plus since that had happened. I wondered if my path would lead me west in that direction.
Matt was still living with us and his relationship with his mother and the world continued to cause drama in our home. With the work winds changing, I wasn’t sure what Jennifer and I would do. I still loved her and the karmic reasons we had come together were still in play, but in my older age I just wanted less drama and more peace. I wasn’t sure Matt was ever going to take control of his life or whether Jennifer would let him.
I certainly understood Jennifer’s deep instincts to continue to make him her priority and perhaps that was the choice she would make vs. the two of us figuring out who we were to each other after 22 years. I had put my old pattern of leaving when it got tough far behind me, but did that mean I wanted it “tough” forever. Time would tell how all that would unfold with 2022 right around the corner..