Here's some dating advice for women who want to date men, from an expert, who claims to have interviewed tons of actual straight guys.
You want a guy to call you back after a date? The number one reason guys don't call back attractive, accomplished, interesting women is simple: those women were too challenging, too direct, and not soft and feminine enough. But don't despair. If you have tendencies in this direction, just be sure to "use softening words" instead of making statements -- preface your remarks with "I think" or "maybe" -- don't use your Blackberry, and be sure to change out of your work clothes into something girlish and flirty before the date.
There are a number of things to say about this, but here are a few.
First, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with wanting a partner of either sex who will be supportive and kind and warm, and I don't really blame a straight guy for wanting women to be those things in a certain kind of soft way. All people need a lot of nurturing, and it seems to me understandable for one person to have preferences for how another person manifests that nurturing.
So I don't think straight men wanting a date with these qualities is somehow evidence of a flawed personality. It reminds me of the irascible H. L. Menken and how he loved to sit and tell his troubles to an intelligent and sympathetic woman, and be comforted, and I think, "Well, yes, I can see how that would be very appealing and nice."
However. Replicate this desire across many many straight men in their preferences, and plonk the whole thing down in an already sexist, competitive society that rewards assertiveness and combat in the workplace and you have some major societal problems.
One major societal problem one is pretty obvious: women can either have dates or career success but not both. Aside from the obvious -- how sucky is that? -- there's also the deep problem of financial inequality and dependence. If a women takes a lower-paying nurturing job and a man takes a high-paying combative job, and then they split up or divorce of whatever, the woman is screwed.
I've hadn't had much personal romantic engagement with this whole problem, partly because I can't really avoid the direct interpersonal style. I'm a look-you-in-the-eyes kind of person. As a friend once said, "Uh, you're just not demure." The men in my life have liked that; I suppose men who wouldn't just kept their distance in the first place.
But it's definitely a thing. Certainly in the media it's a huge thing. Modern media almost always depict a dynamic in conformity with the pattern: in a movie or whatever, you're pretty much never going to see the straight-shooter, no weasel-words accomplished woman as the heterosexual love interest.
How did this become such a thing, and why does it remain? You'd think everyone would want their wives and daughters to bring in home the bacon, which would seem to cut in the opposite direction.
I really don't know. But whatever else you want to say, it sometimes makes me wonder if there's a connection between these phenomena and some aspect of the particular fondness some straight women have for gay men. Obviously these things are complex, but perhaps one strand goes something like this: many gay relationships show a model of male sexuality in which men are attracted to, and not threatened by, assertive and masculine styles.
So for a straight woman it's like, you can see a guy in action actually being attracted to the qualities typically associated with anti-attractiveness, qualities that for some women are pretty essential to their make up. It's appealing, even if it's at a distance.
Of course, the accidental philosopher, being a philosopher, can't help but also notice that the things you're supposed to do to be attractive to straight men are exactly the opposite of the things you're supposed to do to be a good academic philosopher.
For a philosopher, stating one's views in a non-assertive way, stating facts as opinions, and using weasel-words like "maybe" or "I think" -- it's a direct route to career suicide, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars.
Say what you will about the other humanities, at least they're generally safe spaces for uncertainty, weasel words, and indirect communication. At least, I think they are. Maybe.
Monday, May 13, 2013
Monday, May 6, 2013
The most ridiculous thing about driving is death. Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the US, and we're not so special here. In 2010 there were 1.24 million deaths worldwide, and in the US there were estimated 5,419,000 crashes, killing 32,885 and injuring 2,239,000. In 2009 in Canada there were 2,209 deaths 11,451 serious injuries.
Yes, there are some things that kill more people. But you gotta figure almost all of the driving related deaths were of people who were relatively healthy and not all that old. From that point of view it's a massive scourge, striking down innocent healthy yogurt-eaters right in their prime.
And how do we respond? Massive telethons? Public Service Announcements saying "Just Stay Home," or "Why Not Walk?" Billboards with the faces of sad children saying "Do it for me: take the bus"?
Obviously, no. Present modern life with facts about traffic-related fatalities and it's like the most massive global collective shrug you've ever seen. "Uh, yeah... So where's the Doritos?"
When future generations write the history of our Age of Affluence, won't their minds boggle that traffic is killing almost 6 times as many people around the world than leukemia, and no one seems to care? (I got that number by dividing the 1,240,000 mentioned above by the 209,000 mentioned here).
I found myself reflecting on these facts last weekend because I made an exception to my non-driving lifestyle and took a long drive to visit an ailing relative. It was one of those situations so common in North America where the distance isn't crazy but the bus is virtually impossible. I borrowed my friend's car -- which of course prompted great suspicion from the border guards: "it's your friend's car? Where's your friend, then? Huh? Answer me that, smarty!"
So I'm driving along and all I could think was "Wow, driving really brings out the worst in people."
There's this bizarro-world law of the jungle atmosphere on the road, where people are constantly pushing against the margins of the actual rules, and so you're constantly deciding whether to counter someone's aggression with your own or to acquiesce. I don't know why it's like that, but it is, and as a result you're forced into this weird junior high style social competition.
Put together the law of the jungle, the insouciance about death, and the peculiar kind of rage you feel when you're a driver among other drivers, and I think you're forced to the conclusion that there's something about driving that makes you feel aggression, rather than caring, toward other people.
It's easy to think of our problems with driving as a symptom rather than a cause of something, but I think the causal arrow goes both ways. Driving is crazy, but it also makes people crazy. After all, more driving, more crazy, am I right? Coincidence? I don't think so.
I love public transportation, and as I've gone on about before, one of the things I love about it is the way it encourages and facilitates a feeling of we're-all-in-this-together, a feeling you almost never have while driving, even if technically, we are.
I was once riding on a Greyhound bus that broke down, and a there was space for a few people on a bus that stopped to help. People started jumping up to be the ones, and then everyone sort of noticed that there was a quiet shy teenage girl in the back of the bus, with her cap pulled down over her face. A collective feeling arose that, though she hadn't spoken up, she should be encouraged to take one of these highly desired spots. And it was all arranged, and she did, and it was all fine. That's not something that can happen driving. Driving, you're like "OMFG that person in the car behind me is tailgating and texting. I hate them."
This is where the accidental philosopher, on encountering modern life, thinks: "Really? It's a condition of being a normal responsible helpful person that you are able and willing to pilot several tons of steel in such a way that with a moment's inattention, you could kill someone? "
Honestly, how did it come to this?
Monday, April 29, 2013
Fandom is based on things like buying records and things, showing up at huge arenas and stadiums, and being an anonymous admirer. Being a fan of Cheap Trick does not mean they're going to call you up to consult on song lists or invite you to hang out and talk music -- you pretty much have to be content to admire them from afar.
I don't know if I'm some kind of narcissist, or stuck in an adolescent phase of celebrity relationships, or what, but this non-reciprocity has always bothered me, and truth be told, I always wondered why it didn't bother other people.
Like if you're talking about some creative/artist fan object -- a musician, filmmaker, writer, whatever -- for me love and admiration for the artistic object (the song, the book, the movie) immediately makes me want to spend some quality time with the fan object -- the creator. Doesn't it for you? Don't you find yourself thinking that person has some special insight into life?
Well, I do. And it makes me want something back. It's not always easy to sort out what this "something back" is supposed to be, but sometimes it's more like friendship and sometimes it's more like parenting; sometimes it's like romance or sex; sometimes you just want to know they're there, listening to you, thinking you're special and awesome.
Often I try not to be a "fan," and to stick to just liking things -- this is an essential difference. For example, I read a lot of novels, and with novels I make a point of trying to read and enjoy them without becoming a fan of the author. Because it's necessary for the proper experience of a novel that you don't know too much about the novelist. Otherwise, you're just constantly like "oh I bet that character was based on her awful first husband!" and so on and so forth and then forget it, you are just not reading the novel in the proper way. This is, of course, itself getting harder in the age of social networking.
With some things, though, it is really hard to like the thing without becoming a fan. Do you know that NPR news comedy show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me? I love that show. I tried to stick to loving the show, but it was impossible for me to avoid becoming a fan -- of Paula Poundstone, of Maz Jobrani ... and most of all, of Peter Sagal, the hilarious over-caffeinated host.
But it's no good for me, being a fan of Peter Sagal. Because now I want him to be my friend, to crack his wisecracks specially to me over a glass of wine, to listen to my problems in life, and mostly just to think, reciprocally, that I am really special and interesting and awesome.
Sorry Patricia, that is not going to happen.
Now, you might think that in the age of social networking this problem is going away, or getting better, or something. Because it is no secret that social networking, and especially Twitter, are eroding the one-sided nature of fandom. Now anyone can aim their tweet at anyone else, and anyone can engage with anyone, and armies of fans have, if not access, at least a way of getting the attention of the fan object.
Is it the end of one-sided fandom? Does the fan concept now become reciprocal and mutual, the fan concept of my dreams?
No, I'd say the opposite is true. Now, the fan concept is more troubling rather than less. Because now, the one-sidedness of fandom isn't just built into the space-time continuum, like it used to be -- instead it results from actual choices of the participants.
Now, if you're a person with Twitter-wit (a Twit?), who can pack a paragraph of cleverness and humor in 140 characters, you might be able to get that reciprocity. If you could craft the perfect fan email, with the perfect combination of humor and emotion and narrative peaks and valleys, you might get the attention of that fan object. It can happen. The possibility of reciprocity and mutual recognition is there.
But that means if you're just some ordinary person, some humble blogger, some everyday looker-at-pictures-of-cats-on-the-internet, you're still basically SOL.
Which just brings home even more the essential sad truth of fandom for the rest of us: you're not special; you're just a fan.
Monday, April 22, 2013
|Jean-Louis Forain [Public domain], Forain, Scène de Tribunal, via Wikimedia Commons|
When asked why they don't like to attend class X, function Y, or social event Z, the explanation is the same: the other people one encounters at these events are just too annoying.
Is it possible that people really are getting more annoying? In the nature of things it is a difficult thing to say, but I would just like to point out this: IF people are getting more annoying, the reasons might be connected to another social trend: the new profound ambivalence about judgmentalism.
I would say attitudes both for and against judgmentalism are both stronger than ever. On the anti-judgmentalism side, people are passionately committed to a live-and-let-slive style, to the idea that it's never anyone's right to tell anyone else how to live, how to behave, what clothes to wear, how to eat noodles, yada yada yada.
But also on the side of anti-judgmentalism is the new extreme reluctance to express dismay with others' behavior in person, even when you're clearly in the right.
For example: I like to work at a university library, and I make a point of seeking out the "quiet section," and still there are frequently people who will not shut up. I mean, it's one thing to exchange a few sentences, but these people are carrying on whole animated conversations. However annoying they get, no one except me ever confronts them, or even gives them a frown or a side-eye glance. People just ignore it. BUT: when I confront talkers and the talkers quiet down, I frequently get thanked for intervening. People want quiet; I think they're just reluctant to express any negative judgment about anyone else's behavior.
I saw a particularly extreme example of this the other day. I was in a long line, where people were lining up in a particularly dumb way that took up all the space and didn't allow people to pass by. A young woman wanted to pass by, but couldn't; since they were all facing forward they didn't see her. All she had to say was "excuse me" and push forward. But she didn't. She just stood there with an increasingly annoyed look on her face, waiting, waiting, waiting for the way in front of her to open up. This is extreme reluctance to criticize others.
But on the pro-judgmentalism side I give you social media.
It's no secret that the internet is full of people judging, and expressing annoyance with, other people's words, thoughts, and actions. Sometimes it's in group form: "How typical of an X-type-person, to do offensive/thoughtless/clueless action Y." In that form, pro-judgmentalism often gets a pro-judgmentalist reply: "How dare you express a judgment about a group like that! It's unfair/a stereotype/generalization. Treat people as individuals."
Sometimes pro-judgmentalism goes right to individuals, with complaints about how friend X or acquaintance Y or colleague Z did something wrong -- say, by spending a lot of money on a wedding, or not spending a lot of money on a wedding, or being a vegetarian, or failing to be a vegetarian, or -- the classic of the genre -- breastfeeding incorrectly, failing to breastfeed, having opinions about breastfeeding, not having opinions about breastfeeding, etc. etc. etc.
One of the stranger manifestations of pro-judgmentalism is the intense bizarro judgmentalism about the bodies and behavior of celebrities. WTF is up with that? Is it all the judgmentalism everyone is refraining from in their ordinary IRL life that bursts forth in the having of opinions about the Kardashians weight and dating choices?
When did gossip pass beyond simple entertainment into the Zone Of The Ultimate Tribunal On Being An Acceptable Person?
It isn't too hard to see how anti-judgmentalism and pro-judgmentalism, especially working in tandem, can make being around other people difficult. Because on the one hand, the lack of basic simple reinforcement of good behavior like being quiet in the library and not standing in everyone's way means people are actually behaving in more annoying ways. And on the other hand, you know that whatever you do, you're being judged. Even if no one is saying anything -- especially if no one is saying anything -- there may be be opinions formed and traded and shared and written down about all the things you're doing.
When you think of it that way, it's a wonder we go out of the house at all.
Monday, April 15, 2013
|Harriet McBryde Johnson, a few years ago, before she died.|
Though I think that ultimately the answer to this question is yes, I find it almost impossible to reflect properly on the matter, especially in writing. We can't even ask the question properly, because we're so immersed in a world view in which vulnerability is bad.
The model of humanity that sees persons as individual atoms, as free agents wheeling and dealing with one another, ultimately looking to serve our own good, whatever that may be -- this model is so pervasive I feel like it's gone beyond serving as a "model" to understand people and is now attaining the status of common sense. It's just the go-to metaphor.
And in that model of personhood, I feel like the answer to the question about vulnerability has to be an obvious and resounding No. Of course it's worse to be more vulnerable. Because almost by definition in the model, to be vulnerable is to lose. You lose the opportunity to control a situation; you lose the ability to confer a benefit or pose a threat; you thus lose in the real sense your ability to get what you need.
These facts ground, I believe, part of the explanation for why people with disabilities are marginalized in our society in such a particular way. This isn't something I can say I have clear conclusions about, but the idea is that because incorporating people with disabilities into regular public life requires a conceptualization of humanity that can conflict with the model, it puts certain members of the general public into some kind of fight or flight mode.
Like: if you're going to spend resources constructing wheelchair ramps, making things visible and auditory, and so on, this raises questions about why we do those things for some people and not other things for other people. There are good answers to these questions, some of which have to do with fairness and justice and some of which have to do with other virtues. But those answers -- they don't fit very well with the model. Let's just say -- they put pressure on it.
I was thinking about some of these things a few weeks ago when I taught, in my Intro to Philosophy class, this excellent piece in the New York Times magazine, in which Harriet McBryde Johnson -- a lawyer and disability rights activist who was, herself, disabled -- described a debate she had with the utilitarian Peter Singer, over whether disabled infants that no one wants to adopt can morally be helped to die (or maybe simply killed) if their parents wish it.
Singer, a utilitarian who counts up costs and benefits, says Yes: the benefits outweigh the costs in such cases. Johnson, naturally, says No: it's unfair and discriminatory to adopt such a policy with respect to disabled infants when we clearly would not do so with other conditions that affect wantedness.
If you're at all interested in these questions you should read the essay -- she brings up a lot of interesting things. One of the things they both touch on in their discussion is the question of whether certain disabled people -- like McBryde Johnson herself-- are "worse off" than typical non-disabled people.
One of the things Johnson says about this is "Are we 'worse off? Not in any meaningful sense."
As I interpret her, I think Johnson means two things with this. First, of course it's true that some people can't walk or run, but those aren't activities in any way essential to human happiness. And second, of course it's true that some people need assistance with things -- she needs help eating and exercising her limbs and so on -- but this assistance is often not medical as much as just a bit more of the ordinary things people do for one another all the time.
Lots of people need assistance. It's not just children and old people and the sick and disabled. Think about all the moments of vulnerability in your life, where sadness or the events of your life made it seem impossible to put it all back together, or the prospect of doing what you felt you had to do just felt like too much. Really, the state of needing assistance is more like the norm than the exception.
Expanding on her thought about not being "worse off," Johnson writes,
"There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs."
I think she's absolutely right, and I think that one of those things they have that the world needs is a challenge to the individualistic model of humanity that forces us to see vulnerability as a bad thing.
Monday, April 8, 2013
|Ivana Kobilca, Ironing Women [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
I mean, it was bad enough when "self-help" meant taking baths with candles, drinking herbal tea, writing things down, and talking everything over with a therapist. But it turns out we didn't know the half of it. Who knew the main advice for a better life in the new millennium would be Problems With Work? Work Harder!
It's revolting. First we have things like this Thomas Friedman opinion piece, which, like so much garbage these days, argues that because of the changes in the way "jobs" are compensated and created, people should become their own job creators.
Here Friedman is particularly talking about education, and how it needs to teach students to be innovators -- so they can create their own jobs. Nothing against creativity, guys, but it's ridiculous and offensive to think that this is a scheme that makes sense for the majority of people. I mean, seriously? The ability to network, out-think your friends, amass capital, and show off the result at SXSW should not be requirements for a basic life existence. That is nuts.
Then, too -- even though this case is more complex -- the return of the Millennial Work Ethic seems to be at least one facet of Sandberg's Lean-In theory of feminism: that to succeed as a woman with a career, you must push harder at work just at the moments -- as, when you're first having children -- you might think of stepping back a bit.
Yes, Virginia, the solution to too much work is to just, you know, work harder.
But the thing that pushed me over the brink was this article in the New York Times about "giving" in the workplace.
Did you see it? Let me refresh your memory. The article focuses on Professor Adam Grant, the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton Business School who ... well let's just say he's just a guy who can't say no.
His research -- massively prolific and hugely rewarded -- has to do with "giving" in the workplace. His idea is that people are motivated by the rewards of giving. Because he practices what he preaches, the people he can't say no to are his students and basically any one around who wants advice, an introduction, a letter of reference, more advice and what have you.
It sounds nice, doesn't it? Like someone eager to help. But it's creepy.
First of all, it's one thing to take some powerful people with good jobs and point out to them the benefits of giving (and thus perhaps cooperation, though that word doesn't come up). It's another thing entirely to take a bunch of people at a call center and motivate them to work harder by showing them how their work is helping someone, and it's yet another thing altogether to show that bookstore employees who donated money to a fund felt more attached to the company than people who didn't.
As the reporter points out, it's a manager's wet dream: motivate your employees to do more underpaid annoying difficult work not by increasing their well-being or even by making their work more meaningful but by making their work seem more meaningful. And it costs nothing.
But even worse is the way "giving" really means doing stuff for people who are in your little business world.
In the best part of the story, the reporter tries out the credo of giving, starting with sending emails offering to help people:
The first time I exchanged those e-mails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way. Worse, those exchanges often even ended with the person on the other end wanting to meet for coffee. Coffee! Now I struggled to find a way to say, gracefully, that there was no way I could meet for coffee — not this week or next or the week after that, because there are only so many hours in the day, and if I do not get home in time to make dinner, my children will dine on Pirate’s Booty and Smarties, which would not make me feel helpful or productive or good.
Why doesn't Professor Grant have this problem? Duh: he has a wife who takes care of the kids and the home full time.
The article says Grant is "devoted" to his family: "he has dinner most nights at home and takes his daughter to a preschool activity on many afternoons. But he also works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11."
So now "having dinner most nights at home" then going immediately back to work is "devoted to the family"?
As the great Ninotchka said, "It won't be long now, comrades."
Monday, April 1, 2013
|If you've read any Victorian literature, you know that those equestrians also loved beautiful clothes. This is Anson Ambrose Martin (1787 - 1887), James Taylor Wray of the Bedale Hunt with his Dun Hunter, via Wikimedia Commons.|
Did you see Buzz Bissinger's essay in GQ about his clothing obsession? Probably you did. If not, here are the facts: Buzz B. got addicted to shopping for high fashion designer clothing, and spent like 500,000 dollars over a period of a few years. He bought men's and women's clothing, the flashier and more outrageous the better. The fact that he had been Mister All-American Sports Writer Guy makes this all the more surprising. In his essay, Buzz B. reflects on the relationships among clothing, sex, and the desire to feel alive.
The article is titled "My Gucci Addiction," and this leads you to think the article will be, like, shopping, shopping, freaking out, shopping. But I thought the narrative of the article was more like shopping, shopping, freaking out, shopping, sex, sex, sex, shopping. Which is, of course, much more interesting.
Although in certain ways the story Buzz B. tells is clearly one of becoming unhinged, some aspects of Buzz's B.'s experience resonated with me in a powerful way. Like Buzz B., I have been excited by exciting clothing, and like Buzz B., I've connected clothing with sex and sexuality for as long as I can remember.
Although I'm not sure I would ever spend 22,000 dollars on a coat, and though I can see why Buzz B. feels so freaked out by his own strange spiral, still I find the form of the desire -- for the perfect article of clothing -- to be one that is familiar and close to home.
Buzz B. finds the experience of buying Gucci clothing and wearing beautiful leather electrifying, and yes, he explores the possibility that what he's really into is S&M, or sex with men, or something. He makes clear that he is probably, in some sense, sexually bored in the way of the 58-year old man and that is all part of it.
So he tries some stuff. He has sex with men, and finds that despite the charm of gay guys, it's not really his thing, or at least, it's not the thing he's craving. He tries trips to sex clubs in Macau and Hong Kong: again, not really quite the thing. He tries getting further into cross-dressing, and that's not it either: it's not so womanhood but rather androgyny that appeals. It's not about sex alone, evidently, but rather about sex and clothing connecting him to desires and the feeling of the life force.
Obviously the frame of the piece -- of Buzz B. as a "shopoholic"-- is meant to showcase a point about gender: that while we associate obsessive shopping for clothes with women, it can happen to a guy, and here's what that's like.
What I want to say about all this is that the case of women is much more like this than is sometimes thought, and we all do a disservice to women when we interpret their clothing and shopping choices in a certain way.
When women become obsessed with clothes, it's often read in ways importantly different from the Buzz B. narrative.
1) It's interpreted as being "into luxury," in a way associated with feminine fussiness and consumerism.
2) It's interpreted as showcasing and showing off for other women.
3) Insofar as it's interpreted as related to sex and sexuality, it's interpreted not as an expression of sexuality, but rather as a tease.
With respect to this last, there's still something about a woman who gets dressed up in a high style and sexy way that makes people -- men and women both, I think -- say to themselves: well, she must be looking for sex, and if she isn't, all the dressing up must be an effort to seduce and manipulate people, to get attention, all in some problematic way.
What gets left out in these interpretations is, I think, just what Buzz B. describes: the desire to feel alive, to feel the surge of pleasure and energy and connectedness to life that beautiful and sexy clothing gives you. Sure, that can be related to a desire for a sexual feeling. But if the options on the table for actual sex are a problem, or bore you, or aren't all that appealing for whatever reason, that doesn't get in the way.
It doesn't get in the way because the connectedness to life is the mixed interplay of desiring and feeling desirable. This is different from simple pleasure, and obviously, different from the having of sex itself. It's also different from the simple clothing-as-signal of availability so often used in the common interpretations when women dress up.
I think one reason it's difficult to interpret women's choices in the more complicated way is that we are caught up in the picture of women's sexuality as responsive or secondary or focused on the desirability question for women that we forget about the desiring part of the equation. I think a second reason it's difficult to interpret women's choices in the more complicated way is that for all social and cultural changes of the last few decades, people are still bothered, upset, disturbed somehow, by the fact of women's sexual desires being just that -- desires.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clothes shopping.
Monday, March 25, 2013
|1994, when anti-search was king!|
Anti-search, of course, is finding what you were not looking for.
You might think, who needs anti-search? We've been taught to think of anti-search as a source of frustration and a waste of time. Like, if you're looking for maps of San Jose, and you end up at a Dionne Warwick video, you might be annoyed by that most 21st century source of annoyance: What, I have to Click Some More to Find What I Want? What an outrage!
But back in the day, finding what you were weren't looking for was a crucial part of what made the internet wonderful. If you were around, you might remember that giddy sense of suddenly finding that there were communities you'd never imagined, obsessions you'd never dreamed existed, and people who combined attitudes and interests in ways you'd never have thought possible.
That happens less and less often on the internet. Part of it is improved search. Part of it is the "walled garden" problem of social networking. It's been pointed out lately that the companies that enable social networking have an interesting in closing off access to information. If you want to view something posted on Facebook and you're not a member, you don't see that page. You see an invitation to join Facebook. It's no longer the open internet.
But it's worse than that. Because in addition to the control of information problem, you're just less likely these days to find what you're not looking for. You're seeing what your friends find interesting; you're using hashtags to find out about what you want to find out about; you're connecting with people you've chosen to connect with because you share interests and a point of view.
It's like Dear Internet, Plz Can You Show Me People Like Me? Thx!
The problem of walled gardens is compounded by the problem of missing anti-search.
We think of anti-search as a frustration and a waste of time because we've been encouraged by various forces to think of searching as basically a consumer activity. Like, "I'm looking for X." "Oh, here's X!"
In comparison, anti-search is surprise and and finding what you weren't actually looking for. In a way it's like the experience you often have when you're in a large city. I live in a large city, and one of the many things I love about it is the frequency with which I have the anti-search experience: seeing people and being taken by surprise, having no sense what's going on with them and no fixed framework to slot them into.
With respect to the practical steps we might to take to bring anti-search back into our online lives, it does seem perverse to make search engines less effective. But perhaps more of our time-wasting on the internet could be happen outside the walled gardens, outside the bookmarks even, just following links and seeing where they take is.
We might call it "surfing" the internet. Hey, just a thought.
Monday, March 18, 2013
|Great Fish Market, by Jan Brueghel the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
You know this column? Officially, it's the consumer complaints and consumer advocate column of the New York Times. But the author, David Segal, writes it with such style and aplomb that it goes way beyond complaints and advocacy. It's got everything: biting sarcasm about inept management styles, score-settling with companies who screw over their customers, and generally harassing the great harassers of life.
The Haggler has no fear. The Haggler names names. The Haggler calls a liar a liar and a thief a thief -- right there on the New York Times website.
For example, this true gem of the genre starts with The Haggler getting one of those robocalls meant to intimidate. "This is your second and final notice" the automated voice says, and it offers credit help.
Being The Great Haggler, instead of hanging up and cursing like the rest of us, Segal presses "1" for more information. He gets a guy on the line. He's got some questions. Simple stuff. "Sure I'm interested," he says. "Where are you located?"
Click. End of conversation.
On observing that even this "softball question" gets him hung up on, he gets curious, and with a little research uncovers masses of complaints, fraud and misrepresentation, and shady companies doing business under the name of other shady companies. Eventually he ends up with the names of two individual people, working out of their home.
I don't want to ruin the ending for you, but my heart lifted up when, after they stop returning his calls, The Haggler leaves them a voicemail warning them: this is your second and final notice.
The Haggler appears once every two weeks. This seems to me about .0001 percent of the consumer advocacy we need, want, and would enjoy. Speaking for myself, I'd read The Haggler every day. I'd read a whole newspaper that was just The Haggler.
However. Much as I love The Haggler, we all have to deplore the misbehavior that makes it possible. The conditions of the possibility of The Haggler: not good.
Those conditions, of course, include consumer maltreatment on the part of individual companies and institutions. But those conditions also include the non-action of various oversight and regulatory agencies.
In the case described above, a state consumer protection agency had actually done an investigation -- but when they found that the phone number was for a location that seemed to be a residence, they gave up. Since "there was no evidence of telemarketing," their investigation had "reached a dead end." They didn't seem to notice what, to The Haggler, was obvious through easily accessible public records -- that the the people listed as running this ridiculous operation were the same people listed as living at that address.
I'm sure there are many forces coming together to cause the decline of the responsible agencies to actually find and fight fraud, deception, and other kinds of misbehavior. Maybe one of them is the lurking idea that these problems are somehow self-correcting -- that if a business doesn't run itself properly, it won't get any business, so there's no need for oversight.
But as The Haggler's cases involving huge corporations like Samsung and Sears show, that's not the case. As the crazy foreclosure stories of the last few years show, that's not the case. There are all kinds of finagling, and there are all kinds of ways of hiding the fact that you're finagling. Good publicity: something you can pay for.
Just look at the Better Business Bureau, for example. This independent non-profit organization is supposed to encourage self-regulation by formalizing ratings and creating a mechanism of dispute resolution. But lately the BBB has been charged with simply rewarding payments with high ratings, and with rewarding companies who "address" disputes over refunds by taking "reasonable steps" -- steps like telling the customer, "No, I'm sorry we can give you a refund."
You can get all the details at -- you guessed it! The Haggler.
If the formal institutions that were supposed to deal with marketplace misbehavior had the resources and motivation to do what's necessary, that could free up David Segal to take on other interesting problems of modern life. Like writing a guide to life. Rule 1 can be taken from the instructions for writing to The Haggler:
Keep it brief and family-friendly, and go easy on the caps-lock key.
Good advice for everyone.
Monday, March 11, 2013
Obviously if what you've accomplished is in any way creative, forget it. If you've written a book, recorded a song, painted a painting, then you've taken only the first baby step. Next up: how are you going to reach out to your Friends and Followers?
But increasingly that problem is a problem with everything. It's not enough to do your job. It's not even enough to do your job and showcase your abilities and accomplishments at your job. Now you also have to show the world that the job you have is a necessary one -- that if no one did this, people would be sorry. You have to prove it's a crucial spot in a crucial industry. That's right: you have to do PR for yourself, your job, and the area in which you work.
Of course it's true in love and romance. If you're looking for love these days, it's not enough to be a nice person. It's not even enough to be a nice and attractive person who has a lot of friends. You have to be able to craft the perfect attention-grabbing profile. How else will you stand out from the crowd?
For me this is one of those things that once you start to notice it, you don't think "Wow, weird!" You think "Hm, why didn't that happen before?" I mean, if you think about the basic metaphor of modern capitalism, that we're all negotiating the best deal to get what we want, in all domains of life, what's the logical conclusion?
Right: that as the bargaining mini-corporations we all are, we all need PR departments. We all need to set aside resources for our advertising budgets. And we all need to monitor our brands.
Thinking about it this way, I got to wondering, what's next? I mean, there's nothing in the logic of that idea that makes it stop at a certain point. What's to prevent it from moving beyond "I need to get the attention of the book-reading public" to "I need to get attention from the emergency staff of 911?" The implications of the mini-corporation: where do they stop?
What's next in the March of the PR Penguins?
1. Please approve me for a walk in the park
Dear Department of Parks and Recreation,
I am writing to apply for permission to go for a walk in the park on the last Saturday in May. I realize with demand as it is, you can only grant a small fraction of requests. So let me assure you that I would be a most suitable choice. I'm twenty years old, and I recently received a score of 98% on Hot-Or-Not.com. I guarantee that I will bring an attractive date with me, given that my profile views on Match.com have skyrocketed since I posted photo results of my breast enlargement. I promise to tell my thousands of Twitter followers what a nice park you have! Thanks!
2. Doctor, can I have an appointment?
Hi, I need medical attention and I was hoping to make an appointment. Wait -- don't put me on hold! I'm not one of those annoying people begging for antibiotics for some bullshit flu or ingrown toenail. I promise I'm a most interesting case, sure to capture your intellectual interest, and, if treated effectively, to catapult your hospital to fame and riches.
I can assure you my disease is difficult to understand, but not too difficult: about a year ago I was featured on the "Think Like a Doctor" series at The New York Times and several people out of thousands were able to diagnose me from a brief write-up of symptoms. I have a blog with thousands of readers where I'll post about my progress, thereby increasing your visibility. Take me doctor, I won't let you down!
3. Mommy, Daddy, please stay my parents?
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I hope you will keep on being my mommy and daddy. I know I am bad some times and I don't do good at school. But weren't you happy when I scored more goals than Johnny Clark last week at soccer? And if I'm gone, who will make your dinner guests laugh by singing Qué Sera Sera with a peanut up his nose?
In case these appeals to pure sentiment are insufficient, let me remind you that the data show that last year 85 percent of your Facebook "likes" come from my friends and their parents, under direct instruction from me. The example of the Cabybara video also comes to mind. Those videos don't go viral by themselves, you know.
Sever our relationship, and you can kiss that ego-boosting fame and approval goodbye.
Hope we can work something out,
Your son, Jeffrey