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Malcolm Jolley: The risks and rules of the wine trade

Commentary

This week in the news was a report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction that stated: “No amount of alcohol is safe and that consuming any more than two drinks a week is risky.”

According to its website, the CCSA was created by an Act of Parliament in 1988 to “provide national leadership on substance use and to advance solutions to address alcohol—and other drug-related harms.” It turns out the CCSA was originally devised as part of the Mulroney government’s “War on Drugs”, which begat “Canada’s Drug Strategy” in 1987. This then pivoted to include alcohol on the advice of addiction experts who pointed out that it afflicted many more Canadians than any other substance.

I don’t know much more about the CCSA, though I imagine their idea of merriment is different than mine. I do know that anyone who does elect to consume alcohol ought to know the risks, even though my job is largely to extol the benefits, such as one might find them.

Dire warnings about alcohol are not new, as anyone who lived in North America 100 years ago could have plainly told you. As Edward Slingerland explained in Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled our Way to Civilization, we know that people have been making and consuming alcoholic drinks since there has been recorded history. And we also know that some people have been trying to get people to stop drinking them too.

Not-so-dire warnings are not new either. As Slingerland also notes, for most of human history drinking alcohol was almost always done in public, or at least company, and governed by ritual. Another way to say this is that there were rules. The rules kept you out of trouble, and the destructive properties of drinking alcohol, to both the individual body and mind and to the functioning of society as a whole, were kept at bay.

Many of these old rules seem to have dissipated over time. The CCSA exists in no small part because it is easy to purchase alcohol cheaply and consume it in the privacy of one’s home with no one around to remind the drinker of the rules, let alone enforce them. Even the ones that hold, like abstaining before noon, seem now encouraged to be bent. Witness the bottomless mimosa brunch, which is a far cry from a time when almost all Canadians spent Sunday mornings sober in church. 

No wonder many people now opt for Dry January, or some other discipline to impose on their alcohol habit. This is not new either, it just used to happen later in the year and be called Lent. By our forties, nearly everyone I know who still liked a drink would take some kind of regular break from it, even if was just one dry day a week. It’s a reset for the body and mind and a good long sleep before resuming fresh the pleasures of the grape or grain.

My view of the rules of alcohol is coloured by my view of the wine (and other drinks) trade, which I have orbited as a journalist and publisher for almost two decades. The risks of alcohol for members of the wine trade and media are compounded by two synthesizing factors. First, it’s unusual for anyone to become mixed up in it unless they like a drink. This often separates the professionals from the amateur connoisseurs; the latter might restrict themselves to temperate sips of only the very best wines.

The connoisseur may find pleasure only in the aesthetic qualities of the flavour and taste of the wine, eschewing the effects of the alcohol molecules that make up 12 to 15 percent of what’s in the glass. Even so, as Andrew Jefford notes, the mystic and transformative pleasure of wine is very much bound to its properties as an intoxicant.

The professional rarely has the luxury of only dwelling on aesthetics, even if she wanted it, because she will inevitably have to support and sell a wide portfolio of differing levels of quality and price in order to make a living, just like the journalist will need to taste as much as he can to serve his audience and satisfy his curiosity.

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The second compounding factor that raises the risks of alcohol drinking among wine professionals is accessibility. When being around open wine bottles is a requisite part of the job, it can make willpower weak and temptation strong. Any journalist or trade I have discussed it with understands this and follows their own code about when to partake, how much, and how to handle the volume of wine that needs to be tasted.

As a journalist, in the busy weeks in the spring and fall when winemakers and export agents trade around the world pouring their wares, it’s not unusual for there to be multiple events a week, sometimes more than one on the same day. There could be a seminar or a structured tasting that starts at 10:30 or 11 in the morning, an intimate lunch with a vigneron and the import agent after, followed by a big trade tasting with hundreds of wines laid out around a hotel ballroom.

Before COVID, I would often host visiting winemakers at my house first thing in the morning for a tasting and interview before they did their rounds to restaurants. On press trips, it’s not unusual to start tasting in a space at a hotel that’s set up right beside the breakfast room. A wine journalist’s job is to taste wine, and the producer’s job is to put it in front of them.

A wine professional must have rules because their slope is particularly slippery, and the wedge gets thick fast. And at the end of the workday, things loosen up and most (though not all) will stop spitting and start swallowing what’s in front of them—though almost always in the context of a meal, which is itself a good rule. Before then it is the greatest taboo to appear drunk at a trade event. That’s not because your colleagues will judge, or think unkindly of you, but because it means you can’t do your job; you’ve lost the script and might need some help doing the work to get back to the rules.

Harry Rakowski: Two decades into the social media revolution and we’re still learning the power of these platforms

Commentary

In 1997 America Online (AOL) executive Ted Leonsis talked about offering users of their website “social media, places where they can be entertained, communicate, and participate in a social environment”. The explosion of social media and its impact on how people interact has continued to grow. There now are an estimated 3.6 billion users of social media with many addicted to or negatively affected by its use.

How did we get so far so fast, and has the tide for social media turned?

On February 4, 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard sophomore, launched a social media website, soon to be known as Facebook, to connect Harvard students. Its success was explosive. Today almost 3 billion people worldwide use Facebook monthly, with almost 2 billion logging in daily. Three-quarters of users are between the ages of 13-44.

In October 2021, Zuckerberg announced that Meta would be the new name for Facebook, bringing together its apps and technologies under a new umbrella. The goal was to bring the Metaverse to life with a vision for developing 3D immersive technologies to improve online social experiences and connect people better and grow businesses. The reality has not been as exciting as the hope. CNN reported that Meta lost $9.4 billion in the first nine months of 2022 on its Metaverse products, with larger losses forecast for 2023.Facebook’s core business, while still very large, is also contracting, losing viewers and ad revenue to other platforms such as TikTok. Meta’s stock market value fell from over $900 billion at the start of 2022 to only about $305 billion on December 20th, a drop of about two-thirds of its worth.

Facebook has also come under increasing scrutiny regarding its negative impact on society after the exposure of improper practices by whistleblowers and increased scrutiny by regulators. In October 2021 Frances Haugen, a former lead product manager for Facebook’s Civic Misinformation team, came forward to share internal documents that proved how the company prioritized profits over the safety of its users and facilitated misinformation, hate, and calls for violence on its platform. She also stated that the company was lying when claiming it was doing everything it could to fix the problems. Misinformation is valuable for their bottom line. It is estimated that it gets six times more views than the truth. 

Another major challenge is how people’s vulnerabilities are exploited by links to advertising that generates revenue. Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan once said, “All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values”. 

An example of the problem is the significant relationship between time spent on social media and negative body image, especially in young women. Social media posts tend to idealize the thin body image of influencers with unattainable and unrealistic expectations. This leads to body shaming and self-confidence issues.

A 2017 Harris poll estimated that two-thirds of Americans edit their images before posting, thus presenting an idealized rather than real version of themselves. Facebook has been criticized for capitalizing on this by linking ads for weight loss to users who already have eating disorders and may simply be looking for a fitness program. 

Another large social media platform is TikTok, developed by the Chinese company ByteDance. It freely lets users share short videos that are often interesting or humorous but keeps them addicted to watching the site. The risk is that TikTok collects user data and information and likely shares it with the Chinese government. In China, the government only allows children to use its TikTok-equivalent app for educational purposes, and only for a limited time. Everywhere else, no restrictions on its use mean it is addictive and deflects people from real-life activities.

The app also obtains detailed information about your phone, with the risk being the collection of private information stored there. There is also a risk of your phone being more susceptible to hacking due to the app’s less-than-ideal technical safeguards. For these reasons, U.S. government agencies and many businesses prohibit installing TikTok on their work phones. These safety concerns may ultimately lead to further restrictions on its use and perhaps its outright ban. Personally speaking, I have deleted my account. 

Twitter was started by an NYU student Jack Dorsey in 2006.He originated the idea at Odeo, a podcasting company, to create a platform that allowed users to share short messages similar to SMS texts, but for free. The platform grew rapidly as an easy and convenient way to briefly message for personal and business communications. Its popularity grew as a source of immediate news and was used by celebrities, journalists, and politicians with growing numbers of followers. It was also seen as a way to better get around censorship by undemocratic governments. Eventually, Twitter was monetized by supported and promoted tweets and content. Donald trump used it extensively during his presidency to get around a sometimes hostile press. By the end of his term in office, @realDonald Trump had almost 89 million followers. Barack Obama, by comparison, had more with 133 million. Trump was banned from Twitter on January 8, 2021, after his role in the January 6 Capitol riots.

Twitter has two major problems. Misinformation is too easy to tweet without verification of authenticity, and there is frequent cancellation and removal of users, potentially implemented with political bias. In March 2016 Twitter changed its algorithm regarding tweets were presented, such that popular tweets or those accounts that were followed most were presented first on users’ timelines. While this increased use and retweets, it also created information echo chambers, where exposure to a broader range of ideas or points of view was diminished. 

The recent purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk for an astronomical $44 billion has unleashed both excitement and mistrust. Musk has about 120 million followers and is determined to be its biggest influencer. He claims that he bought it at an inflated price to fix it and the hate and disinformation it promoted. He said “ I didn’t do it because it would be easy. I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try and help humanity, whom I love. And I do it with humility, recognizing that failure in pursuing this goal, despite our best efforts, is a very real possibility.”

His initial actions have been chaotic, with mass firings, high work expectations, and the reinstatement of many accounts—including that of Donald Trump—and the removal of others, including some journalists. The recent release of select Twitter Files to journalists suggests that the FBI influenced Twitter regarding freedom of speech. We need to see all the files to be clear as to the level of influence politicized government agencies may have on social media. 

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Social media has become a dominant place where many people get their information. McLuhan also said, “The medium is the message”. He meant that the medium used to create the message influences how the message is perceived. 

There is also growing concern about how social media platforms can shape how people think and can politicize the information landscape by shaping how content is both promoted or excluded. It also makes political interference by countries such as China and Russia much more effortless. 

There is an ebb and flow to most trends. Has social media finally peaked and is now starting to implode both in terms of commercial success and influence? Too many people remain addicted to the pull of social media. It’s a two-edged sword: both valuable and entertaining while facilitating abuse and disinformation.

There aren’t easy answers to the tension between freedom of choice and protecting society from the undue and negative influence of powerful social media giants who too often value profit above social responsibility. We need to ensure greater transparency in how social media platforms select or reject content, and how they track our behaviour and unfairly monetize the interactions we have. We need to prevent foreign government interference and their manipulation of information on these sites. We also need much harsher penalties for inappropriate or illegal behaviour. Facebook has already paid over $6 billion in fines for privacy breaches, and more is likely to come.

The European Commission has proposed a new Digital Services Act package to restrict illegal online content, but the challenge is who decides? And by what rules?

Freedom of choice shouldn’t mean freedom to abuse, but restrictions can’t be used to politicize debate and still voices of reasonable dissent. Can self-regulation work much better? Can a frenetic Elon Musk get it right where a more established Mark Zuckerberg has not? Stay tuned.