In 1985 the renowned filmmaker Miguel Littín slipped into Chile disguised as a Uruguayan businessman. Aided by three European production crews ostensibly working on commercial films, Littín covertly shot footage of daily life under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose brutal 1973 coup had sent Littín into exile. In 1986 Gabriel García Márquez recounted Littín’s escapade in Clandestine in Chile, which New York Review Books has reissued in the original English translation by Asa Zatz (paper $14). The story is spellbinding, but it is less about political intrigue—there are just several accounts of close calls with carabineros—than the fortitude of an artist in the face of an implacable force. It is also a story of triumph. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Col. Aureliano Buendía fights thirty-two wars and loses every one. In May 1985 Littín managed to slip out of Chile with 100,000 feet of footage that was edited into a television documentary and feature film. Eighteen months later the Pinochet government burned 15,000 copies of Clandestine in Chile, proof that García Márquez had wounded the general who had deposed his beloved Salvador Allende. The point of view of Clandestine in Chile may be Littín’s—the story is told in his voice, its details culled from a tape-recorded eighteen-hour interview about his exploit—but its vision could only be that of García Márquez: “In the midst of the carnival of life and death, the Recoleta Bridge is like an indiscriminate lover, serving markets and cemetery alike. During the day, funerals push their way through the crowds. At night, when there is no curfew, Recoleta is the only road to the tango clubs, where the best dancers are gravediggers by day.”
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When Jaron Lanier goes online these days, he feels like a man on a gray flannel site. A pioneer of virtual reality, an early contributor to Wired and a Silicon Valley shaman, Lanier is skeptical of the hive mind spawned by the social-media technologies of web 2.0. The gist of his new book, You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf; $24.95), is that the freedom of the network—and networking—offered by web 2.0 titans like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook “is more for machines than people.”
Although his subject isn’t Soviet communism or postwar American capitalism, Lanier’s ire seems tinged with the spirit of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Social media, Lanier argues, is a form of repression that has strangled the limitless creative potential of the early Internet. Web 2.0 creates false, shallow needs that draw individuals into a tight network of impoverished, commercialized relationships that stifle individual expression and critical thought. “If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive,” Lanier says with some pique. That diagnosis stokes a jeremiad about the conflict between the “adventurous individual imagination” and the hive mind. Lanier’s rhapsodies about the former are often jejune and recall The Fountainhead‘s Howard Roark more than Marcuse, and García Márquez’s Clandestine in Chile is a chilling reminder that authoritarianism amounts to more than packs of trolls hazing people online.
When Lanier sticks to explaining the commercial dynamics of web 2.0, however, his observations are bracing and not easily dismissed. “Because of the enhanced network effect of all things digital, it’s tough for any new player to become profitable in advertising since Google has already seized a key digital niche (its ad exchange)…. Digital network architectures naturally incubate monopolies.” What’s more, “the combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given away without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.” To extend the thought: editors who justify not paying online contributors on the grounds that gratis articles provide invaluable exposure are not publishing journalism. They are grifters running editorial scams and killing journalism in the process.
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A grift of colossal proportions is the subject of The End of Wall Street (Penguin Press; $27.95). Roger Lowenstein’s book isn’t the first to suggest that the Great Recession is the result of the wholesale failure of the financial sector to allocate capital and manage risk, but its meticulous and exhaustive account of Wall Street’s role in creating the housing bubble that precipitated the crisis is among the best currently available. The book is essentially a study of capitalists making money without capital. Banks relied on excess leverage to buy and trade exotic assets—mortgage-backed securities, derivatives—whose value was inherently unstable. But the trades and fees generated by the practice of borrowing short and lending long were too tempting to resist. In the 1930s banks failed because they couldn’t fulfill depositors’ immediate demand for cash. In 2007 investment banks failed because, their losses mounting and lacking sufficient capital, they had to sell loans instead of making new ones, but the loans on their books had plummeted in value. (Lowenstein traces the reliance on short-term IOUs to bad ideas about efficient markets and asset maximization peddled by economists in the 1980s.) The End of Wall Street is also a stinging morality tale about bunco optimists and feckless CEOs. Lowenstein describes a lunch date of Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s at Manhattan’s swanky Le Bernardin. The bubble had burst, Lehman Brothers had gone under and Citi’s stock was in the single digits. At lunch Pandit was not impressed by the wines available by the glass; he ordered a $350 bottle of wine “so he could savor ‘a glass of wine worth drinking.’ ”