Monday, August 18, 2014

Online Education and the Fragmentation of Society

For various reasons I recently agreed to make an online version of my philosophy of sex and love course. This is not a "MOOC" -- and it's not going to replace my on campus philosophy of sex and love course or anything like that. It's just going to be offered alongside the campus version in the regular way, through my university, with graduate students grading the tests and essays.

As I set about constructing the lectures that I would later read into the microphone, I noticed right away a certain problem arising: I couldn't know which parts of what I was saying would strike people as obvious, as new but plausible, as mysterious, as dubious, or even as offensive. It's something relatively straightforward to deal with in a classroom. But online? Not so much.

For example, one of the first readings we do in that class is Martha Nussbaum's paper "Objectification." Early on she refers to the ideas of the feminists and legal scholars Dworkin and MacKinnon, that the objectification of women is a huge societal problem and that it is deeply connected to sexuality and the depiction of sexuality in pornography.

It's a difficult set of ideas to explain briefly. I like to focus on the quote from MacKinnon that "All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water" -- which I take to mean roughly that because of the way society is set up, women are not only surrounded by objectifying practices, they often have to choose to be objectified to get along in life, and may come even to experience a preference for objectification -- to, in Nussbaum's words derive our "very nourishment and sustenance from it."

That's just an interpretation. In class, I like to bring up this quotation and ask the students what they think it means and what they think about it.

It's often a pretty lively discussion, because the ideas seem to some people kind of obvious, to others surprising but maybe true, to others completely obscure, and to others implausible.

It's in moments like this that three significant things happen in IRL classrooms.

First, the students who find the idea obscure or implausible can say why they do, and we can talk about it. As I was making my lecture, I realized how many different questions people had had over the years, and how the diversity of experience in our world guarantees the range of what seems "obvious" or "expected" will be vast. Since the world changes and there are always new students, I have no idea what, in the future, they'll be puzzled by or think is weird. If we're there in the classroom, they can tell me, and we can talk about it. Online? Not so much.

Second, students encounter first-hand the range of other student views. In some cases this makes more of an impression on them than anything I might have to say as the teacher. I remember teaching Intro to Philosophy years ago and we were doing a discussion about the existence of god and the problem of evil, and this one student said very in very strong terms that of course he was an atheist, that he had never believed in god, but thought that blah blah blah. And this other student was in my office the next day and his eyes were wide as he said "And that one guy -- he said he was an atheist, had never believed in god! It's kind of more OMG if it's your peer than some weird grown-up at the front of the room.

Finally, students - duh! - learn from one another. Almost always someone who finds the fish-in-water remark intuitive can explain to someone who doesn't why it rings true to them.

It  might seem that all of these things can happen in an online course, because ONLINE DISCUSSION. But I don't know. For various reasons it is difficult to replicate online the particular kind of constructive -- even interested -- back and forth that can happen when a bunch of people are in a room together.

Often, online interaction entrenches people in their own views. They see commenting as offering, rather than listening to, an opinion.

And so it occurred to me that if you start with a bunch of people coming from different viewpoints, the move to online education might erase, even further, the tiny opportunities we have no to exchange with one another in ways that make us see our commonalities as well as our differences.

In an online course, I can try to guess what will seem obvious to people, and try to challenge it through my lectures. But really -- those future people, who the hell knows what they'll be thinking?

Monday, August 11, 2014

We Are In Exile, From We Know Not What

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, via Wikimedia Commons

What if you were plucked up out of your life and sent to another planet where things were similar but just worse all around? What if the people were sort of like people here, only they were really slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? What if the natural environment were really harsh, so that just getting food and water took a huge amount of time and effort?

What if your travel transmogrified you, so that when you arrived, you too became slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? Suddenly you're scarred and mottled and covered in acne - and so is everyone else.

Got the mental picture?

Confession: sometimes I feel like that person now. I mean, I feel like I came from somewhere else, where beings were beings -- where intelligence and beauty were everyone's birthright and peace and pleasure had a proper home. The home planet. A better place. Then I look around at the human condition and think to myself, "My god, how do people live like this?"

If you think of humans as essentially noble intelligent creatures, the conditions we're living in are appalling. We're easily brought down by any number of simple viruses. We're a weird assortment of misplaced orifices and skin you can damage with a fingernail, without even the dignity of fur or a tail. We can't get our basic needs met without either enslaving other people or coming up with ridiculous gadgets. You get even two of us together and get us on virtually any subject, and we'll find something to disagree about. And our poor little feelings are so easily bruised. The icing on the cake: less than a hundred or so years of muddling through, BAM! It's over. No do-overs. No second chances. No probation, and no court of appeals.

I feel like it's the kind of thing you're not supposed to talk about in polite company. The Party Line, at least these days, is gratitude and appreciation. The idea that you're dreaming of better world seems vaguely politically suspect, something like a First World Problem.

And, indeed, I used to think I was in a small minority feeling this way so often, missing the home planet, that maybe I was depressed or sick in the head in some other way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it as a pretty common feeling -- it just has other names. What is heaven, but a home planet that's in the future rather than the past? Same for post-humanism. Same thing for any number of yearnings for Something Else.

And then I remembered reading in Proust about art and the way a painting could be an indication of something from a better world. This article in the Independent about Dutch art in literature confirmed my memory and put it in context. It's in The Captive, and the character of Bergotte is dying, and he goes to revisit Vermeer's "View of Delft."

As the article says, there is a tiny patch of yellow wall, so perfectly painted as to represent beauty in itself. And the yellow patch -- and particularly the perfection with which it is painted -- "appears to the dying Bergotte like a coded signal from a better world, 'based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again.'"

My garden-variety Disappointedness With Life, the tech geek's post-humanist Dream, and Proust's hearing of the faintest call from a world, unlike our own, of sense and beauty where we can finally live in peace and happiness -- these might seem like different things but I think they all speak to the same feeling, widely shared if not widely discussed.

It's the feeling of Exile from Something Else, We Know Not What.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On The Self-Satisfaction Of The Casually Dressed

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at The Kramer Is Now we have a belief -- not a confidently held belief, not a conviction, but still, a belief -- that whatever they might say to the contrary, the vast majority of people care a whole heck-of-a-lot about their clothing and appearance.

The Accidental Philosopher is an uninteresting case. I've always cared a lot about my appearance and I've never been shy to say so. I want to wear just the right sort of thing; I want my hair just so; I love a beautiful pair of shoes. I'm frustrated when my reality fails to measure up to my ideal, which it almost always does. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes: the blue and green dress I loved so much that after I outgrew it I wore it as a shirt; the crazy '70s backless one-piece jumpsuit; the first pair of high-heel sandals, purchased years after I started begging for them.

A lot of people are with me on that. But this post isn't about us. This post is about those other people. In particular, it's about those people who think, and often feel compelled to point out, with a hint of self-satisfaction, that they're the kind of people who really just don't care what they put on, as long as it's comfortable, warm, easy to clean. This post is about how we cannot cede to these people the moral high ground they think they're standing on.

A couple of years ago a guy wrote in -- I think it was to The Chronicle of Higher Education -- explaining exultantly that he just couldn't understand all this talk about clothing in academia and what to wear to teach class, because he just didn't care about clothes, in fact, he boasted, he just got up and put on whatever his wife bought for him and that was that. Voilà! Man, clothed!

In the comments a lot of people were already like, WTF?, pointing out that if a woman said that about husband it would be weird all around. But I found myself thinking more directly, "There is no way that is true."

Imagine if the wife had set out comfortable, warm, easy to clean pants that just happened to have giant red, white, and blue stars on them. Imagine if what she set out was made of skin-tight latex. Imagine if she set out a shirt that was comfortable, warm, and easy to clean, but just happened to have a visual depiction of the man's naked chest sewn on to the front. Do you think he'd just put these clothes on, go to campus? There's no way. I think he'd freak the fuck out.

Years ago when I was young I dated a guy who liked to say he didn't care about clothes. He was a jeans-and-T-shirt type. My own clothing interests he seemed to classify under the category of "Yeah, you never know what interests women are going to have." Any role my clothing might have played in his being sexually attracted to me was an issue swept under the rug and never discussed.

Then one day I borrowed someone's sensible and ugly winter coat. And gee -- it turned out this coat wasn't very attractive -- a fact that this guy eventually told me, going on to suggest, with an attempt at tact, that I wear something else. Hmmm. A little later someone offered the two of us a bunch of quality hand-me-downs. We had very little money and always needed stuff, so anyone who didn't care about their appearance would have said "yes" immediately. But I suspected this guy would not like these clothes. They weren't the right cut of denim. They weren't the right kind of shirt. There were brands suggesting class issues he didn't want to identify with. And I was right: he turned down the offer.

I don't blame him -- I wouldn't have wanted to wear them either. But it shows: in this case, "not caring about clothes" was really more about projecting a certain image of not caring about clothes.

And I think that is often true. Or, perhaps we can say more charitably, that it's not about projecting "I don't care" but rather about projecting an image identifying with a certain set of people -- people who aren't bankers, who don't read GQ, who've never shopped for a tie in their lives. I think this is probably right. And I think most people who "don't care about clothes" are hoping to project an image identifying themselves with a particular set of values, or to reject pretension in favor of simplicity or anti-elitism. Everyone can wear jeans and a T-shirt, you might say, so if we all wear jeans and T-shirts, we can all be the same.

That's fine. Admirable goal. But let's not get confused. It doesn't mean these people don't care about what they wear. They care a ton. They just care in a particular way. So right away, just forget that whole self-satisfaction that is supposed to be based on being Above All Of That. Nobody's above anything here.

And once we're clear that we're all in the same boat about caring, and it's just some people care about X and others care about Y, I think the hope that T-shirts and jeans are somehow inherently more closely associated with progressive values than other clothes isn't quite sustainable.

Look at it this way. For obvious reasons, women can't just opt into the whole "I just wear T-shirts and jeans." Women face relentless bizarre pressures to triangulate sexy-but-not-too-sexy-and-don't-be-frumpy norms. Unless she happens to be a hottie, a woman who throws on comfortable jeans and a T-shirt isn't going to command respect in the workplace and she isn't going to be found attractive by the men she's hoping to date. So it's never so simple.

Other people can't opt in either. Because of racism, black people have to craft their self-presentation just in the service of simple aims like catching taxis and not being harassed in stores.

Still other people, for all kinds of reasons, aren't going to be comfortable in the standard-issue-anti-elitist uniform. Maybe they grew up wearing something else, and jeans feel alien and strange.

So there's at least one sense in which that particular uniform rests on certain assumptions about conformity, and even on some white-guy-privilege.

Furthermore, when people wear all different kinds of clothing, and there's less pressure toward conformity, it's easier to be different: more people can feel like they belong, because belonging doesn't mean dressing the same.

If that's true, then the world needs the backless jumpsuit, pink boots, wearing some crazy stuff people.

So next time you see someone in a crazy outfit, don't think "I don't care about what I wear." Think, "Maybe it's time to buy some pants with giant stars on them." Dress all in blue. Or something. Fly your freak flag, knock yourself out, all of that jazz. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sitting Quietly In A Room Alone: It's The Boredom, Stupid!

Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein
By now I'm sure you've heard about those recent studies that found many people would rather give themselves painful shocks than sit quietly doing nothing. Reading about this research in the popular press, I was like "Can you say Rorschach Test?" It's like everyone who encountered the basic facts had their own spin on how to interpret what happened.

The facts are roughly these: when told to sit quietly alone for 6 to 15 minutes, almost everyone found the experience unpleasant, and many people -- in one case 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women gave themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sitting there.

The conclusion in the abstract for the actual scholarly paper says simply, "Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative."

OK, I admit to being a little bit surprised about the shocks -- but really, is it really news that people find it hard to sit quietly doing nothing? Almost no one ever does this by choice, when people do manage it it's a whole special activity called "meditation," and people who regularly ponder things just in their own minds for long periods of time are considered strange and even sinister. So: how is this a surprise?

After all, it's only been like three-hundred and fifty years since Pascal said that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

But everyone had their own ideas about the significance of the findings.

The Guardian, and some of the researchers quoted, seemed to emphasize the "being alone with your own thoughts" aspect of the whole thing -- as if it were the thoughts people were having that bothered them, as if people just use activities to avoid thinking about things.

This makes no sense to me. People are constantly thinking about things -- I mean, it's not like brooding and worrying are nineteenth-century activities.  The fact that people want to brood and worry while pacing, listening to stuff, and texting doesn't mean they're not brooding.

Many Guardian commentators wanted to pile on the whole "Kids Today! They Can't Think!" ridiculousness. Yeah -- I'm sure you guys all sit around alone contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics all day.

Predictably, The New York Times linked the whole thing up to the OMG modern society is so BUSY we have no time to THINK we're always RUSHING AROUND! As if we're the first generation in the history of the universe that spends a lot of time doing things and talking to other people.

Personally I was astonished that no one mentioned boredom. Isn't it just boring to sit alone with your thoughts doing nothing? I spend a lot of time thinking about things, but I'm almost always reading, typing, writing, talking, listening, drawing, or doing something other thinking-associated activity. Often I'm also doing other activities, like drinking coffee, or looking out the window, at the same time.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things doesn't mean I don't contemplate. I contemplate all the fucking time -- I'm a philosopher; I'm stuffed to overflowing with contemplation.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things is because sitting quietly alone in a room is BORING.

It might seem like this boredom hypothesis is less exciting or revolutionary than the "people can't be alone with their thoughts" hypothesis, but in my view that's not the case. Because the fact that boredom can make people crazy and self-destructive is a profound and unreckoned with truth.

Often our modern western theory of people sneaks in an assumption that beyond basic needs what people want is best described as pleasure or happiness. It depends on what you mean by those things, of course -- but given the depth of the hatred of boredom, it seems to me that pleasure and happiness are barely scratching the surface.

Interestingly, the Guardian subheadline for the story says "Report from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities tackles question of why most of us find it so hard to do nothing."

But as far as I can tell the report does nothing of the kind. The report tells us HOW EXTREMELY most of us find it so hard to do nothing, but it tells us nothing about WHY most of us find it so hard to do nothing.

In that area, we haven't really made any progress-- we're just back with Pascal, observing the human condition. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Economics Imperialism And Its Discontents: Altruism Edition

Family, by Mary Cassatt [Public domain], via Wikimedia  Commons
 As we've observed before, economists are famous for their calculated pose of mystification when it comes to activities we all recognize as ordinary parts of human life -- you know, like caring, playing fair, voting, etc. etc.

And it's not news that one of our human aspects that doesn't fit obviously into the economic toolbox is altruism. The economic agent is self-interested. Altruist people are other-interested. It's a real poser.

You might think that the differences doesn't matter much because economic modeling is about what we do in marketplaces, and in markets people pretty much are self-interested, or something like that. I'm a little skeptical myself -- but it doesn't even matter, because this easy-going, commonsensical answer isn't even the one people seem to be going with.

No -- instead we have "economics imperialism," which self-consciously attempts to use economic methodology to analyze all aspects of human life -- crime, family life, love, sex, you name it. It's "imperialism" because it's intended to colonize the other social-explanatory disciplines, like sociology. The idea of "economics imperialism" is to use the economic model of human behavior to explain and understand everything. Or, as the NYTimes "Economix blog used to say, "Explaining the Science of Everyday Life."

Before we get to the main point, let me just say briefly that the the epistemic and explanatory difficulties seem to me to be vast. Just for starters, consider this. The economic approach is supposed to be "scientific," relying on human behavior and observables and avoiding analysis of murky subjectives like mental states etc. But how is this supposed to work in explanation? Suppose someone does a surprising thing. How can you know whether a) they were behaving irrationally in trying to satisfy an unsurprising set of preferences or whether b) they were behaving rationally in trying to get to satisfy a surprising set of preferences? You always have one equation and two unknowns.

But whatever. Our theme for today is something different, to do with the massaging of preferences so they can be both self-interested and altruistic. You might think "altruism" means caring for others at your own expense. But in his canonical work on the economics of family life, Gary Becker proposes a definition in terms of utility functions: altruism is when one person is made better off by another person being made better off. E. g., a parent's altruism for a child is understood as the parent having some set of preferences such that when the kid does better the parent is more satisfied and thus better off. So -- as we get to below -- it's not really caring "at you own expense" at all.

You might put it by saying that "self-interested" doesn't mean "selfish": A's preference for B to prosper is "self-interested" in the sense that A will do better when B does, but it's not selfish, because it is, in some sense, other-directed.

So far so good. Becker goes on to derive a huge range of "theorems" based on his approach -- like the "Rotten Kid Theorem," which posits that an altruistic parent will (should?) structure incentives in the family to make selfish kids behave in ways that do not harm the interests of other family members. For example, if you promise to apportion your inheritance to your kids in accordance with their needs, siblings will be incentivized to help one another out  -- lest they get left out of the will because all the money went to the brother who never finished school and lives in a cardboard box or whatever.


1) In Becker's approach, every family situation considered consists of one altruist and a bunch of selfish kids. That is, there is no way to model a family with more than one altruist, which means there is no way to even talk about any of the vast number of life contexts in which there are two or more adults who care about one another.

There's a reason for this. As I said, the book is full of theorems. If you have more than one altruist you have multiple interdependent utility functions, and all the cool-looking and intimidating math stops working.

At one point Becker suggests a "wife" could be modeled as one of the "selfish children," but you don't even need this level of ridiculousness to see the problem: the whole thing rests on avoiding the state of affairs many people most desire, of equal persons in a loving and reciprocal home.

2) If an altruist gives something up in order for their target to prosper, you might think the altruist is worse off and the recipient is better off. But in Becker-land, you'd be mistaken! Indeed, since they're both acting in accordance with their preferences, how can you deny they're both better off? That would violate some fundamental economic assumption or other of what economic "well-being" is. 

Becker says the altruist is better off in the sense of receiving "psychic income" for her pains. It's a funny choice, no? You got the car, but I got the "psychic income," so ... we're good, right?

It's weirdest if you imagine it among equal adults who live on intimate terms. If one is altruistic and the other is a selfish bloodsucking vampire, there's no problem with the distribution of goods: they each got what they preferred, after all. According to the model, things are working efficiently and thus well.

3) You know how sometimes when there's a nicer business that tries to do a little altruism or do-gooderism or at least exhibit a bare and basic kind of community spirit, and it's surrounded by bigger and meaner businesses that take a more cut-throat, remorseless attitude, and the nicer business ends up having to take its little business lunchbox and go home?

Well as I reckon, if you use the economic model to analyze interpersonal altruism, you're going to get the same result. Imagine you're the baby bear of altruisism -- just right! -- but you're surrounded by bloodsuckers -- the "ticks" of modern society, if you will. Every time you engage with these people, you'll get a little more psychic income and they'll get a little more ... whatever selfish and self-oriented actual thing they want is. Money -- or food, or attention, health, prestige, etc.

Where will it end?

I'll tell you where it'll end. Eventually you'll be lying there stuffed full of psychic income, but the cupboard will be bare, and you won't be able to afford antibiotics, and you'll die of some easily preventable disease.

Someone may have tried to tell you that economic theories don't have moral implications. Those people were lying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Truth And Lying In Fiction And Non-Fiction

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Portrait of a Woman (formerly thought to be Madame Roland) via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday for the first time I read a David Sedaris story and found myself thinking, "Is that really true?"

Mostly I like David Sedaris. His stories are often funny and sad, and as someone who is frequently amused and sad at the same time, I'm always surprised how few things there are to read that bring the two moods together. Maybe that's why I like Philip Roth so much too -- though maybe Roth is more like "funny and angry" -- a notoriously easier combo to bring off.

Anyway, yesterday I read the story in The New Yorker about how he gets one of those step tracking devices and becomes obsessed with tracking his steps to the point where he changes his existing pick-up-the-garbage-around-town routine from a bike oriented thing to a walking oriented thing and that it now takes him around nine hours a day. He gets up to sixty thousand steps a day, which is twenty-five and a half miles, which is, of course, kind of insane.

I get that he's an obsessive guy -- and I get that one point of the story is how obsessive people can get obsessed with anything to the point where some number tracking some pretty pointless thing can nonetheless come to rule your life. 

But the story is presented in terms of an utterly pointless thing becoming a complete obsession. It's a little hard to believe. There was no connection to something else? Wanting to lose weight or walk more for health? (He does lose weight but that's presented as an afterthought.) It's just a random thing that happens to an otherwise successful middle-aged guy with a nice home and partner there to eat dinner with and talk to?

I don't think he is lying. But I started wondering if there hadn't been something left out, something that would make the story seem less strange, less striking and interesting, if it had been included. Like -- a way the obsession was connected to other things. I even developed the base suspicion that the obsession itself had been exaggerated on grounds that twenty-five and a half miles a day is a story, in a way that five miles a day isn't, really.

It's likely that one reason I had these thoughts has to do to the fact that I took a memoir class recently and for that class wrote some things about my life. For the first time I was giving serious attention to the process that starts with memories and turns them into narrative. 

Frankly, it's a somewhat creepy process. A good story has certain elements that make it interesting and fun to read. A particular narrative arc or structure. Engaging characters. An interesting setting. Memories aren't like that.

And when you put the memory materials into the narrative machine, you don't put in fake stuff, but you do shape the stuff you've got to make the story good. You are telling a particular version of things. Your version has to commit to all kinds of decisions about very murky things like: Did this cause that? What was that person like? Was some moment in your life primarily a turning point, a triumph over adversity, of a piece that came before, evidence of something characteristic,  typical or exception?

To me, this kind of "shaping" felt a whole lot like lying.

The weird thing is -- and I was acutely conscious of this taking the class -- that when you think for even a moment about these decisions, they're the same decisions anyone has to make in describing anything.

I don't care if you're writing a historical narrative or making a theory about things or people or doing a philosophy thing or even just writing a stupid managerial report: you have to figure out, from an endless jumble of random and disconnected facts and make endless decisions about which ones are important and which ones are connected and how to put them all together in a way that's meaningful.

So at some level, it's all just a big fake-out.

In certain ways, non-fiction narrative seems like a special problem. Because if you're crafting real events and facts for a narrative, there are many things that might pressure you into making the narrative be "about" something or other.

For instance, aren't you kind of sick of the "triumph over adversity" and "what I learned" narratives? They're such a big part of modern North American culture. When events and facts are massaged into this narrative, they're extra dangerous, because they're reinforcing an already overly represented idea about life: that yes, sometimes, it is possible to overcome obstacles or change. As they say in "Wag the Dog": "It's a story of loss and redemption!"

If it's non-fiction and it's one of these narratives, you risk being manipulated in a special way, because "oh that story again" allows the response, "But it's true!" When really -- well, you know.

And yet -- the matter seems to me complex. Because there might be times when only a true story will do.

I recently heard someone talking about how stories are used in social science to exemplify how certain theories would explain human behavior -- e. g. Mary found herself in X situation and because she had to compare Y and Z alternatives she used W method and found her answer. The speaker pointed out the ways these stories build in assumptions about human behavior that draw on, rather than challenging, stereotypes -- associated with gender, race, etc.

We use stories in philosophy all the time, to imagine things, carry out thought-experiments, or just give simple examples where real examples are too complicated. And it is so true -- there's a real risk of telling the stories in a way that just builds in an understanding of how the world is.

And I thought to myself that at least stories crafted around actual events and people have fixed points that can't be changed and have to be accommodated. So you can't just say anything that "seems right." There will be recalcitrant facts.

And this, too resonated with my memoir writing experience. You might want to say "X happened." But then you find for X to make sense, you need to explain Y. And then for Y to be comprehensible to the reader, uncomfortable fact Z has to be fit in somehow.

Looking back, that might have been my favorite part of the memoir experience -- you might be massaging reality to fit into a narrative, but reality is right there pushing back at you.

At the end of the David Sedaris story he talks about how his local council is going to name a garbage truck after him, and they call to ask what font he wants used. I found myself with a million questions about this part of the story. People name garbage trucks? Is that just a British thing or is that everywhere? How does that get decided? You really get to choose the font?

It's nice that with a true story there are answers to these questions, even if they're things you'll never know. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Is Culture Snobbery The New Resistance?

When I was a young person in the 80s I remember people talking about how "capitalism consumes everything" and how I was like "Oh, yeah I guess," but I was also sort of like "no it doesn't: what about punk rock? what about me and my friends with our thrift store clothes and bizarre hairstyles? what about protests? what about hanging out, not doing anything?"

Now, I feel like if you wanted to do a school project diorama showcasing the concept "CAPITALISM CONSUMES EVERYTHING," all you'd have to do is slap a giant glass dome over some part of the modern world and you'd be good to go.

Tbh, I didn't really see it coming. But more than ever it feels like resistance is futile. No matter what you do trying to challenge the status quo, the status quo has a way of eating that shit up and spitting it back out as a commodity.

Punk sensibility is now "personal style & branding." Protests feel like the symbol of resistance necessary to buttress the true power of the entrenched. And anything you do on the internet is valuable to someone in the form of data about you -- turning your quietest mood, your nostalgic thought, or your sexy imagining into someone else's dollars.

Plus somehow the internet, which started as the experience of connecting with a handful of other weirdos talking about something no one cares about with no one else paying attention, has become the opposite: a place where nothing really counts unless it's seen, and liked, and favorited, and making good stats.

The "hanging out" of the slacker generation, Gen-X, which was at least nominally anti-establishment and involved actual cafes and actual reading and actual talking to people, seems to have given way to social networking and watching stuff.

I don't know what the answer is but I will say that a quality in myself that I used to think of as conformist I now think of as resistance and it is this: I am a culture snob.

Yeah, that's right. I'm a culture snob. And I'm not ashamed to say it. I don't have a TV. I don't watch any "shows" or do Netflix. I occasionally go to the movies but it's usually high-brow shit like 8 1/2 or other international films. I don't read general interest or fashion magazines and I don't read the Huffington Post and I don't look at TMZ.

I read a lot. I like The New Yorker. I like to go to the opera.

When I was young I was inclined to see these things in the light of establishment activities and I was inclined to be a bit embarrassed by them.

I used to fall all over myself explaining -- and this is true, too -- that one reason I didn't have a TV was that I was a channel flipper, and I would flip channels endlessly, couldn't really stop flipping channels, even as it felt like my life was wasting away.

I used to fall all over myself explaining that I didn't have anything against trashy movies and stupid things -- it was just that I was easily bored and needed a high level of intellectual stimulation all the time not to fall into pits of ennui. Like I had a personality problem.

Well, no more apologizing.

Because while I'm obviously not naive enough to think that actual artistic things and actual literature are somehow outside the capitalism and commodification machine, I do think they offer something "entertainment" often doesn't, and that is the capacity to challenge and disturb you in ways you didn't expect or foresee or maybe didn't think possible.

My reflections on lifehacking last week got me thinking about the opposite of lifehacking, and I thought about that whole "slow food" movement and how there might be a "slow life" movement and that reminded me how many of my activities are, relative to most people, pretty damn slow.

This led me to check out the Wikipedia page on the "Slow Movement." Interestingly, while there's a "slow art" (which looks interesting) and a "slow media," there isn't really a "slow culture" in the sense of what it means to read and listen and look and think about things in general in the old receptive and open-ended way, where you might spend an afternoon reading a novel, or listen to a whole album, all the songs in a row, or whatever.

The Slow Movement seems to take as one of its antagonists things like Twitter, on grounds that OMG 140 characters? But I think that is a mistake. There's nothing wrong with Twitter as long as it doesn't take over your whole life. It's the way these things take over your life, so you can't do anything slow, that's the problem.

I now regard my own ability to sit down and read quietly like a rare and treasured thing that has to be nurtured and kept alive. I'm certainly not going to risk damaging it by, say, allowing push notifications on my phone.

Finally, I'd like to say that as a person who seldom consumes mainstream entertainment media, I'm frankly a little shocked by the scene out there. Isn't there so much sexist crap? Isn't there ridiculous racial stereotyping? Isn't there a lot of nationalism and violence and absurd Good Guys Fight Bad Guys And You're With Us Or Against Us?

Kids? Just say no. Slow it down! Culture snobbery FTW!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Lifehacking: WTF?

Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1652), Still Life. Via Wikimedia Commons

You heard about Soylent, right? That new thing where you mix a powder with some oil and some water and you shake it up and it replenishes your body with a mix of nutrients so you can .. um, do all the things people want to do when they can't be bothered to eat food?

You know -- like, Ensure for hipsters?

You can read about it in The New Yorker ("The End of Food"). I guess some young guys were trying to do a start-up thing, and their idea wasn't working out, and they were trying to come up with another idea, and they were eating a lot of ramen, corn dogs, and frozen quesadillas, and eventually one of them thought to himself Ah, If Only We Didn't Have To Eat. Food seemed like "a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile."

Soylent can be bought in a package but the formula is online and there are a lot of people DIYing their own. The concept of many enthusiasts is that Soylent replaces any eating you do to survive, so that the remaining eating that you do is "recreational." You might subsist on only Soylent for a few days, then go to Nobu with your friends and "eat" -- and really make an occasion of it. Woo-hoo.

This is an application of the approach to life associated with the "lifehacking" movement: as the New Yorker says, this is "devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing."

This is interesting because -- well, how can I put this nicely? It seems to me fucking insane?

What is "whatever you'd rather be doing" that is so great and so important that you can't be bothered to eat some food? I mean, we're not talking laundry. We're talking eating. It's fun. It's pleasant. It isn't all that time-consuming. What's so great that you have to get back to it in thirty seconds instead of twenty-minutes?

It's a perfect instantiation of the problem of the previous post -- of The Great Fun Crisis of the Twenty First Century. If you structure everything as either a cost or a benefit, you define out of existence the "just sort of nice and fun in a mild healthy sort of way," so it's irresistible to reduce costs and maximize benefits.

It's like a digitization of an analogue life. Sorry: sitting down to a baked potato or some pasta and a salad, talking with a friend or family member, what are you doing? It's neither the 0 of costs minimized or the 1 of pleasure maximized. So it comes out as irrational.

The New Yorker author, Lizzie Widdicome, after a few days drinking Soylent, finds on waking she's at a loss: she doesn't want to settle down to work yet, so what to do? She goes out for coffee. She sees someone order a bagel at her neighborhood place. She's envious: "Mmm, bagel with butter." But of course, she's not hungry, and she doesn't need the calories -- she's already had her Soylent. She concludes the experience this way:
... I knew that I was better off than the bagel eater: the Soylent was cheaper, and it had provided me with fewer empty calories and much better nutrition. Buttered bagels aren’t even that great; I shouldn’t be eating them. But Soylent makes you realize how many daily indulgences we allow ourselves in the name of sustenance.
I get what she's saying. But what are we, training for the apocalypse? Every moment, maximizing efficiency? It's like, bagels: not a perfect food! BUT: also not a good enough indulgence! Like if you're going to get your pleasure, you have to max it out.

The whole thing makes you wonder what the point is, in the whole meaning-of-life way, like what are we doing all of this for?  Honestly, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that for most people, the bagel with butter, and similar foods, especially if you eat them with other people, really are the meaning of life.

Enthusiasts of lifehacking clearly feel another call: they have things they need to get back to, STAT.

So: If lifehacking is about getting back to "things we'd rather be doing?" what are those things exactly? Sex? Dancing? Making music? Painting pictures? Taking care of children? Taking care of sick people?

Honestly those are answers I'd sort of understand. But they're almost never the ones that seem to come up. What comes up a lot is work.

I get that some people have to work all the time to make ends meet. And that is a serious social problem. The solution to this problem is not Soylent -- what, so rich people can eat food and poor people can suck it? No, the solution to this problem involves spreading the wealth around, more sensible social organization, investment in infrastructure. As is frequently mentioned, the world is making more food than ever. The problem is in moving it around appropriately.

And that, friends, is not a problem with a "start up" solution.

I get the impression, though, that a lot of people drinking Soylent just want to get back to studying, or coding, or playing video games. Why? Are those things really so great? Or is the problem competition -- that in a competitive society you have to do all the ridiculous time-saving things other people do if you're going to keep up?

Toward the end of the article the main creator of Soylent says admiringly, "Bucky [Buckminster Fuller] has a very important idea of ephemeralization, which is something almost as a ghost -- as pure energy or information."

Like the whole post-human thing, I am always mystified by this. What is it you're so eager to do that doesn't involve bodies, senses, being in the world, laughter, or romance? Is Minecraft really that fun?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Great Fun Crisis Of The Twenty First Century

Mary Cassatt, Woman Reading in a Garden, via Wikimedia Commons

This post is about the great fun crisis of the twenty-first century. You may be asking yourself, how is it possible that a culture that features binge-watching, cupcakes, professional wrestling and craft beer could possibly be a culture suffering from a crisis of fun? Well, I'll tell you.

The great twenty-first century fun crisis isn't quantitative. It's not a like a fun shortage, where you have to line up for fun in the style of the old 1970s gas lines. It's more like a crisis about the nature of fun. Fun and its friends are caught up in a special dilemma of our time, one rooted in creepy theories about preferences and the point of doing things.

One one horn of the dilemma is GOALS. I'm so sick of hearing about goals. You're not allowed to do anything any more without goals. I went to look into taking dance classes a while ago and there was a form for new students and it asked "What made you want to take our classes?" And there were answers for getting in shape, learning to dance for a wedding, hoping to make friends, yada yada yada. You know what was missing? Fun. I had to write it in.

God forbid you get interested in some physical activity without some goal in mind. Fitness people like trainers don't even want to talk to you unless you have goals. About a year ago I was mindlessly musing about how it might be cool to learn to swim in open water -- you know, for fun. I googled around for how to learn, and quickly found that nobody seems to swims in open water for fun. If you're swimming in open water, you're probably training for a triathlon or something. Not that triathlons can't be fun. But you know what I mean. If you're open water swimming to to train for a triathlon, you're not doing it just for fun. You have a goal.

Goals are fine as far as they go. But what we have is goal imperialism. The prevalence of goal oriented amusement means you can't even explain to people why you might be reading a book or going for a walk without some backstory about how your activity fits in to some life plan like "reading the classics in hardcover" or "trying to lose weight." It's ridiculous.

UNLESS, that is, you're willing to commit to something completely pointless.

The other horn of the modern fun dilemma is hedonistic pointlessness. The one loophole in the Rule Of Goals is that you get to do things that you do purely for pleasure, with no point whatsoever, just because the activity is hedonically perfect -- but only if the activity is hedonically perfect.

The Get-Of-Of-Goals-Free card can be played for anything you're willing to do as a pure pleasure. Binge-watch Game of Thrones, eat a pan of brownies, and no one asks you what your goals are. They get it: Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

But increasingly the loophole only works for things that are super double extra secret pleasurable. Why would you do something sort of mildly pleasant, engaging, constructive and healthy when you could be doing something ridiculous and Xtreme?

If you don't have the goal backstory for the pleasures of the reading or the walk, you get that quizzical look where people are like "Oh, so that's your very favorite thing that you like to do? That's cute, I guess." As if choosing to do these mild activities -- just for fun -- makes you some kind of culture snob or Puritan.

The more I thought about this, the more I noticed how its embedded in our whole way of talking and thinking about what we do and why. We use the language of preferences, costs, and trade-offs. What do you want to do? What are you willing to pay? What are you willing to do to get there? Work hard play hard! There's no room in there for just nice activities that are sort of pleasant and good things to do.

I don't know how the causal arrows go, but it's striking that our contemporary formal theory of what it makes sense to do -- rational choice theory -- takes as axiomatic that there are things you want, and there are costs to getting them, and the whole question is how much you're willing to "pay" to get your preference satisfied. So the problem is officially built in.

There's something about separating your life's activities into these categories that encourages the crisis of fun. If you're paying a cost to get something, you want to pay as little as possible. If you're getting a preference satisfied, you want as much satisfaction as possible.

So, for instance, if you're thinking about learning how to open water swim, or taking a dance class, you have to ask yourself either What Is My Ultimate Goal Here -- and am I pursuing it in the most efficient way possible? OR you have to ask yourself Is This The Most Hedonically Perfect Way To Spend My Acquired Preference Capital?

It's an odd fit for many of life's activities, and it's a terrible crisis for fun. I'm thinking this is why, in the end, I have a problem with a pleasant day.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What Is Up With People And Free Riders?

Hey you, people who get really upset about poor people as free riders -- are you out there? I got a question for you. WTF is up with getting so mad about poor people as free riders?

For those of you playing along at home, free riders are people who benefit from some scheme but don't do their part to make it work. Like if you jump the turnstyle, you're a free rider on the subway.

There's something about the idea that somebody, somewhere, might be getting away with something -- a little leisure time at work, a cake paid for with food stamps, whatever -- that for a certain kind of person is like waving a red flag. You can watch the indignation suffuse their faces as they sputter about Hard Work, Fairness, and Personal Responsibility.

Obviously, I get the abstract issue of the free rider problem. I get how if there are too many free riders things fall apart, and that's a problem. So in certain circumstances you have to act. If no one pays for books there won't be any, and that'll suck. I get it.

But for some perverse reason I do not get, the emotional intensity of the response always seems to me not only inversely proportional to the danger posed but also angriest at the people who might, after all, have a reason to free ride: people who are relatively worse off.

People inclined to laugh it off if a middle-class person is stealing from the cable company are somehow enraged by the possibility that a poorer person might be getting benefits without looking for work, or chit-chatting at their retail job when there are no customers instead of cleaning out the storage bins.

What is up with this? I mean, what difference does it make? You really feel the extra dollar a year or whatever you might get if everyone buckled down is something so sacred it outweighs the good of a shitty life being possibly slightly less shitty?

The one attempt I know to explain why there are strong emotions associated with the free ride problem has its roots in evolution: creatures who live in social groups are likely to live in successful groups, and thus reproduce, if they punish free riders. Many animals have some form of scorn or shunning of those who fail to reciprocate acts like picking parasites.

Though I'm sure there are other complex cultural factors at play, I see no reason to reject the evolutionary explanation as a partial one. But what's interesting to me is that while it might help explain the existence of the indignation against free riders, it doesn't really explain the intensity levels -- I mean, it doesn't really fit with the way the indignation reaches a fever pitch over issues like cake-bought-with-food stamps.

Those are the most impartial examples, in the sense that there isn't even any direct failure of reciprocity. And often they're virtually no threat to anyone's long term well-being. So why the outrage?

I don't know. The only thing I could come up with is that some people just hate poor people -- I mean, they have visceral feelings of irrational hatred for the less-well-off, and since there aren't a wide range of socially acceptable ways to express that hatred, they express it using the concept of the free rider -- which at least uses an argumentative frame that people understand to pose a problem.

Needless to say, many of the examples people get upset about aren't even "free rider" examples at all -- they're just people doing what they need to do to get along, just like everyone else. But even when there's genuine free riding, it's hard for me to get upset about a handful of free riders as long as the system overall is working reasonably well.

Who cares? It's tough to get a system with a lot of people to work reasonably well. You got a few people free riding on it, people who are otherwise struggling? Small fucking price to pay, dude.