We’re All ‘Experts’ Now. That’s Not a Good Thing.

We’re All ‘Experts’ Now. That’s Not a Good Thing. 1

Happy New Year!

My family’s holiday season was far more muted than planned. Giddy from vaccines, we planned to gather in the Blue Ridge Mountains and then head to a celebration in a venue overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Alas, the Omicron variant made both trips too risky. After I initiated “The Talk” about risk factors, we ended up canceling all of our holiday plans.

The cancellation came not a moment too soon. By New Year’s Eve, Covid had swept through my networks with a ferocity I had not previously experienced at any point in the pandemic. I have enough privilege that my close circle has been relatively unscathed in the past two years. But this surge is different. For two weeks, I have had a Covid notification every other day. Omicron is so much more contagious than the Delta variant that it feels like a different pandemic, with new balances to strike.

The best piece I have read so far on how variants change our experience of Covid is by Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic. The gist is that we should assume Covid is not yet endemic. At the same time, we should admit that now is not like before. We have made significant progress with treatments that will make variants more manageable in the future. But the endemic future is not yet here, and our best bet for minimizing harm until we get there is producing high-quality information; spreading that information through public messaging aimed at how people actually behave; and mandates, mandates, mandates.

Speaking of high-quality information, it is time to continue our conversation about scams and scam culture. In a lot of ways, scam culture is the foundation of the misinformation and disinformation that plagues our public discourse on the pandemic. Over the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack what this means.

I read and watched a lot about multilevel marketing, confidence games, pyramid schemes and the recent history of scams over the holiday break. A lot of it was entertaining, but none of it satisfied my curiosity. I figured out that my dissatisfaction came from the way many of the analyses treated these scams as one-offs or individual phenomena when it is obvious that they all follow certain general patterns.

The Amazon documentary “LuLaRich” follows how the clothing company LuLaRoe built an multi-level marketing empire on garish leggings. That story has the same narrative structure as the 2015 movie “The Big Short,” based on the book by Michael Lewis about the 2008 financial crisis. Both stories feature the same kinds of people as the subjects of “Queen of Versailles” (2012), a documentary about how David and Jackie Siegel rode a time-share scheme to wealth and political influence. The 2019 documentary “Fail State” is “The Big Short” meets “LuLaRich” and time-share royalty, but the subject is higher education. It shows how for-profit colleges became a legitimate higher education scam. Off the top of my head, I can list a half dozen other institutional failures and the scams that capitalized on them: cryptocurrency, counterfeit goods, degree mills, spam, identity theft, phishing. From ugly leggings to a global financial crisis and back, all of these examples have the same social DNA: failing institutions, aspirational people and nefarious actors willing to exploit both.

My friends and colleagues respond to my mild obsession with scams in two ways. The most common response is that scams are just part of human nature: We fall for scams because human beings are greedy or stupid. Because my friends trend heavily left, I also get some version of, “They’re all scams because capitalism is a scam, Tressie!” I don’t disagree with either of these diagnoses, but Occam’s razor is boring. Any good carnival psychic can tell you that anything is true at the right level of abstraction. Some of us mortals, though, live below the fold of abstract universal truths. Human beings may simply be base animals who will trade their livelihoods for a wooden nickel ginned up by The Man to keep us all down.

But predatory schemes and institutional failures have looked different at different points in history. Those differences are not merely happenstance — they reflect the political, economic, and cultural realities of their times. They also reflect technological change. For instance, you had mail fraud in the 19th century, and telegraph scams were all the rage in the first decades of the 20th. One argument goes that scams are now more widespread because our communication systems are more diffuse: The internet has brought new kinds of scams into our lives and weakened the institutions that should protect us from ourselves.

When Covid hit, we were knee-deep in spoofed phone numbers slamming our cellphones about fake car warranties. We were wading through emails trying to steal our identities. We were triangulating Yelp reviews and Consumer Reports summaries with testimonials and marketing research just to buy a new mattress or an air fryer. We were checking out our own purchases at the grocery store and waiting on hold to replace the credit card that got hacked for the umpteenth time. We were staring, bleary-eyed, into apps that promised less “friction” in our everyday lives if we would just consent to tracking — not that we had a clue as to what exactly we were consenting to. The tiny boxes to “sign up” are labeled “terms and conditions,” after all, and not “Here is how we are going to farm your personal data for profit.” And when we complained — to a manager, to a clerk, to our spouses, to the internet — someone was all too glad to tell us how we could have prevented all of this if we had just become an expert in everything.

It is no wonder that so many of us think that we can parse vaccine trial data, compare personal protective equipment, write school policy and call career scientists idiots on Facebook. We are know-it-alls because we are responsible for knowing everything. And God forbid we should not know something and get scammed. If that happens, it is definitely our fault.

It does not have to be this way.

I revisited several books over the holidays to kick-start my thinking. One, in particular, is helpful for our discussion of scam culture. “A Consumers’ Republic” by Lizabeth Cohen is the best historical overview of the concepts of the consumer and consumerism. It is the book that first came to my mind when I was puzzling over why scams have scaled and diffused. Cohen gives us two concepts to mull over.

The first is the “citizen consumer.” Cohen says the modern citizen consumer is a “self-interested citizen that increasingly view[s] government policies like other market transactions,” and we judge the institution not by how well it serves those it governs, but how well it serves us personally. We are all, at this moment, citizen consumers. You can see this right now in debates over pandemic school closures. There are a lot of tensions at play in public education. Public schools are actually defined by those tensions, particularly the tension between schools’ need to serve the market and their need to serve the democratic good. But the pandemic has heightened these tensions. More people than I could have imagined want public schools to work like personal convenience stores that serve their needs at the expense of someone else’s.

The second concept is “consumerization of the republic.” This is the idea that we perform our greatest service to the collective good not by voting or organizing or performing mutual aid but by pursuing our individual private consumption. We buy, therefore we are. (That should be said in Latin for gravitas, but I do not have the energy for a translation app.) The point is that we “vote” by buying, and that changes everything. A consumerized republic comprised of self-interested citizens who exercise their civic responsibility by satisfying their individual consumer desires is one in which we can all be convinced that we know what is best. Here’s the connection to scams: Research says that the very best scams play on our overconfidence. So a citizen consumer who thinks he or she is an expert in all manner of everyday decisions is the perfect mark for an endless string of scams. That’s anything but an isolated social phenomenon.

We’ll continue to explore these ideas over coming weeks, but it won’t be “all scams all the time.” I can only take so much.

While not riling people up about scams during the holidays I finished reading an essay about race, gender and contemporary country music. I am not a country music fan so much as I am a huge fan of storytelling and craft. Pop music, R&B and hip-hop are all about the producer. Country music, Americana and folk music are about the songwriter. I like that. What I don’t like is how the genre has been divorced from its multiethnic roots to become what it mostly is today: a cultural playground for white identity politics dressed up as innocuous middlebrow culture. But a new wave of Black artists, queer artists, Native American artists and Hispanic artists are challenging country’s music’s latent politics in a big way.

If you want a delicious profile of one of the characters who prompted our scam culture discussion, you will want to read Olivia Nuzzi’s take on Dr. Mehmet Oz’s run for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania in New York magazine. I also enjoyed — if that is the right word for the feeling associated with a good essay about a constitutional crisis — a guest essay in The Times on the Jan. 6 riots by Jedediah Britton-Purdy. It makes a good backdrop for an academic panel commemorating Jan. 6 at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life. (Disclaimer: I am affiliated with the center, but I would likely participate even if I was not.) Information technologies not only accelerate scam culture. They also accelerate the networking of identitarian authoritarian impulses.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.