"PPPPlaying Through" (Four P's #163)

Springsteen, Social Contracts, Manchin, and the Metaverse

Music is memories. We remember where we were when we heard a song. We associate music with momentous, important, or emotional events in our lives. We can tell the stories of our lives through song. Songs can remind us, connect us, inspire us, heal us, and unite us.

This week brought back vivid memories of a dark time in our past, as New York (and the entire United States) commemorated the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the days, months, and years since experiencing and witnessing the trauma of that day, I turned to music as distraction, diversion, and healing. I've long talked about how Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" album resonated with me as relevant and cathartic, and it was not surprising to see Springsteen perform at the remembrance service in Lower Manhattan on Saturday.

That day changed the way I live my life, the way I listen, learn and love... but there are other things that remained importantly stable and consistent in the two decades since, including that love of music as well as the relationships with lifelong friends. That music is a part of me now, just like that day will always be part of us. Reminders. Inspiration. Unity.

Something Personal: “My City of Ruins”

While so many of us sought comfort in the post-9/11 days by spending time with each other, the COVID pandemic has been far more isolating. So after nearly two years apart, 12 of my college friends reunited for our first golf trip together this past weekend. It was a much-needed break from the every day grind we’ve all been experiencing.

It was also the return of an annual tradition going back nearly 20 years. In the past, we've played our "New York/Philly Golf Challenge" on courses from Scottsdale and South Carolina. But this year, on 9/11 Weekend, we chose to play closer to home, just down the Jersey Shore.

While Bruce was performing on Saturday in my hometown, we spent this past weekend in Bruce’s musical hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey. The boardwalk was full of families and friends eating outdoors, playing games, walking dogs, celebrating bachelorette parties, listening to music, reemerging and reconnecting with society. This was a different Asbury Park than I remembered. To be at The Stone Pony and Wonder Bar, listening to Springsteen music (and more), it just felt right. Like 20 days… 20 years… and 200 years had passed all at once.

The song "My City of Ruins," which Springsteen played at the first 9/11 memorial fundraiser concert and became a post-9/11 song for and America, was actually written about Asbury Park, not New York City. Over the last 30-40 years, the once-lively seaside town had fallen on hard times, broken down and impoverished. But within the last five years, public and private investments, a newly-repaired boardwalk, restaurants, shops, and hotels has rejuvenated the once-dilapidated town. The resurgence of Asbury Park is proof that we can solve problems rooted in poverty and social inequality, as well as a roadmap for how a focused community coming together, working together, celebrating diversity, can make a difference.

Something Practical: “The Promised Land”

It's a term we've heard a lot lately: "the social contract." Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract was written back in 1762, but it could have just as easily been written today. I'll assume that you either read this a LONG time ago, or are only loosely familiar with its concepts, but understanding and commitment to a social contract is critical for a fully functional civilization. It applies locally, nationally and globally. It is especially relevant when those who claim (falsely) that personal freedoms enable them to opt out of the vaccine and go mask-less around others. They are ignoring the social contract.

The Social Contract was written for a very different world, but we are falling short of Rousseau's vision. The vast majority of people today are not actively involved in the political processes that shape their lives. Most people aren’t even interested. Technology and the spread of both information and misinformation has far exceeded anything Rousseau could imagine. But now, more than at any time in recent memory, citizens are actively opting out of the social contract, choosing self-interest over common good. And that's NOT good. What happened to "our city on a hill,” our promised land?

Some key takeaways from The Social Contract:

  • Nations/states/countries are only legitimate when citizens freely consent to live in them. The opening line sets the tone: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” Laws and conventions require balance. They can be enforced on people and freedom can be restricted, but with cause. Rousseau posits that for a state to have legitimacy, people must submit to its laws freely. This is the social contract.

  • In a social contract, people are willing to accept constraints on their freedom because, in return, they enjoy greater peace, security, and prosperity than they otherwise would alone. People band together and agree to cooperate for the sake of their mutual benefit. Once we enter the social contract, we give up a great deal of “natural freedom” in exchange for the benefits of living in a community. We exchange our natural freedom for civil freedom, where the safety and material comfort that society affords allows us the freedom to pursue grander projects and higher forms of existence. Since everyone in society has the same obligation to the common good, the society itself has a will of its own, which he calls the general will.

  • In an ideal state, all the laws would be consented to by all the citizens because they would all agree that it's in their best interest to live under them. In an ideal state, the laws would be like a written record of everything the people collectively believe is good.

  • Whichever form of government a state institutes, it is ultimately accountable to the people. In practice, however, this balance is more like a rivalry than a friendly collaboration. In particular, the government is in constant danger of reneging on its obligation to the people. Government officials are, after all, only human and there’s always the temptation to abuse their power for personal gain.

Why am I sharing this now? As the current debates of the day in our society rage on -- mask or no mask, vaccine or no vaccine, planet vs commerce, pro life vs pro choice -- the inherent conflict is between the rights of individuals vs the "greater good." But as Rousseau said 250 years ago, legitimacy can only be acquired when citizens consent to live under a system willingly for their mutual benefit.

I saw it live and in person this past weekend. Even in a highly vaccinated state like New Jersey, what we saw in Asbury Park this weekend was alarming. . My friends and I took all proper precautions. We ate outside for every meal, and spent more time on the golf course than anywhere else. But I can honestly say that we were the only ones wearing masks indoors (that we saw). We drew many looks when wearing a mask into the bathroom at a restaurant. There was even a fired-up woman sitting at the hotel lobby bar making loud, disparaging comments about our masks and the "dangers of getting vaccinated. Do they really not know how airborne viruses spread?

I've been thinking about that woman for a few days now. I just don’t understand this stupidity. Claims of "personal freedom" from the unvaccinated are just baseless and uninformed. We must shift the ethical focus away from the 'rights' of the willfully unvaccinated towards the people who are doing the right thing. And while I'm glad that the government and companies are imposing mandates, no one is actually forcing her to get vaccinated. Not employers, not stores, not schools. If you don’t want to comply, stay home and watch Netflix. Start your own company. Home school your kids. But until there's a vaccine for kids, put your fucking mask on in public, indoor spaces.

Something Political: “Manchin on a Hill”

Our social contract is foundationally rooted in people’s ability to choose their own government. Representative government has been a cornerstone of the American experiment, even if more theoretical than actual. In reality, not everyone in the United States has equality of access or opportunity to vote. Over the past decade, Republican leaders in many states have passed legislation aimed squarely at suppressing voting rights, particularly among minorities. Gerrymandering, redistricting, and voter ID requirements have kept legacy power structures in place that inhibit social progress and the will of the people.

That’s why Joe Manchin, a longtime "Democratic" Senator from West Virginia, may be the most important person in the Senate when the Senate returns to session this week. Without exaggeration, the future of American democracy hangs in the balance. Manchin represents a state that has voted "red" in every presidential election this century, and is the ONLY Democratic Senator who has opposed party's For the People Act. Most recently, he has been working with a group of senators trying to craft a voting rights bill that will gain the support of at least ten Republicans so it can pass without changing the rules of the filibuster.

After rejecting the For the People Act, Manchin issued a list of the voting items he could support, which is will serve as the basis for a potential bipartisan bill. The onus then falls on Manchin to find ten Republican votes to get it (or anything, for that matter). The Senate rules currently require 60 votes to break a filibuster, which means Democrats in the split upper chamber need support from at least 10 Republicans to pass the bill. Manchin thinks he can find those votes, but there is no indication that even a handful of Republicans will support a voting rights bill. Mitch McConnell just won't allow it. If Manchin fails to achieve legislative success, the next question is whether he would support filibuster changes.

Complicating matters, these efforts are tied up with the work-in-progress infrastructure package currently being worked through Congress. It's unfortunate, but this infrastructure bill provides negotiation wiggle room for those who might need some incentive to vote for a voting rights bill. They call it “pork barreling,” but it's more like “highway and bridge barreling.” And what is getting lost in the politics is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect American democracy.

Something Professional: “Brilliant Disguise”

Earlier this year, a new term pervaded our headspace AND the digi-space at the same time. "Metaverse" has become a term that means different things to many people, but it becomes a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. It's a virtual world, but made up of real-life people engaging with one another. Think Second Life or GTA Online. Back in 2006-2007, when I was working at the NBA, we met with Facebook and Second Life very close together. While I wasn't totally sold on Facebook, I predicted that Second Life was going to change the world.  We could soon have meetings, engage in community conversation and buy stuff from each other. 

Wait, what? Isn’t it ALREADY happening?

In talking about NFTs and other digital tokens here in the newsletter last week, I teased the opportunity for the metaverse to make crypto the digital currency for a new generation. So now add another layer to the world of CryptoArt and dApps is the Crypto Metaverse!  In places like Cryptovoxels and Decentraland, you can spend cryptocurrency on virtual plots of land and build pretty much whatever you want. It could be a massive palace to display your art collection, a small storefront to sell your collection, and event space to stream live events, or a virtual meeting space for your friends and colleagues. Events and art openings are happening around the clock in the crypto metaverse! People from all over the globe can gather and see your digital creations. It's all pretty amazing. You can access these places the same way you access other dApps, with a browser linked to a crypto wallet.

Don’t be surprised to learn that brands are also carving out their own real estate in the metaverse, as well. BMW’s “Joytopia” is a virtual interactive environment that is still a destination, but the behavioral expectations around creating profiles/avatars, experiencing music and participating in events is coming on like an i8.

Still confused? Skeptical? This article is the best thing I read about the Metaverse, and I have probably  re-read it 30 more times over the past two weeks.

At this point, the possibilities are truly limitless. While ethereum and other cryptocurrencies will rule the metaverse as a “centralized decentralized” system, rules and structure will soon emerge. They must. I’ve already been scammed out of hundreds of dollars when buying NFTs and engaging in the metaverse. And fungible tokens AND non-fungible tokens will power the next great technical revolution. We make individual choices about how and where we establish our identity, and what that identity even means.

But it is all uniquely identifiable, and that's powerful. See you there (or at least a digital version of yourself)

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