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.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Natural Home Of Homo Economicus Is A Massive Surveillance State

Last term I taught a course in philosophy of economics for the first time. Early on, we read some passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. I wanted to initiate a discussion of the way Smith -- who was also the author of Theory of Moral Sentiments -- understood self-interest in context.

As we all know, Smith said "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." So I asked the students "If people are really just self-interested, why do they pay the baker at all? Why not just hit him over the head and take the bread?"

The first answer they gave was that if you hit someone over the head you'd get caught and get punished, so it would not be in your self-interest to do it.

That answer is surely right as far as it goes. But it doesn't go too far. What if you knew, or strongly suspected, you wouldn't get caught? What if you were stealing not from a baker but from some giant impersonal corporation? And what if you were right that you could get away with it?

A few people pointed out that it would still be wrong. "What if everyone did that? The whole system would fall apart."

This goes further. Morally speaking, it's a good answer, evoking both Kantian universalism and some of Smith's own ideas about morality and the point of view of an impartial spectator. But once you ask "what if everyone did that," you're in the realm of morality, not just self-interest.

This isn't a problem for Smith himself, since he embraced morality and understood self-interest in the context of a decent society." (You can read more about Smith's moral and political views in this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and in this scholarly paper.)

But in our modern world, you're likely to encounter people who think self-interest is the whole shebang, like the guy described in this article who said there is no moral high ground, there's just self-interest.

Now, OK, I get that this guy is not saying "it's all self-interest" in the sense of "it's all selfishness." Since he says that Mother Theresa was acting self-interestedly, we know he intends self-interest somewhat broadly, to include preferences people have for doing things for other people and not just for themselves.

Still, even if some people have such preferences, many people do not. Even people who do have them are presumably trying to set them aside when they're acting in the world of business, in which looking out for the other guy is a kind of transgression.

In fact, it's worse than that, because the modern person who allows their personal moral qualms to constrain their behavior is often treated in modern culture as a loser, someone who lets other people walk all over them.

So what about the reason for why you shouldn't just stealing the bread? If the moral answer is off-limits, then we're back to punishment: it's not in your interest because, and insofar as, you might get caught.

But we know what that means: for the system to work, you have to catch people. A lot of people. And for the system to be fair? You have to catch everybody. Or at least, enough people to put the fear of god into everyone.

A few years ago one of the Freakonomics guys noticed that if you put a letter in the mail without a stamp in the US, it will often get through. Why? "The reason is apparently the automated mail sorting machines fail to catch many letters that are missing a stamp."

On the blog, he asked readers to try to send mail without postage to see how much of it gets through.

One commentator responded,  "Are you using your blog to call for theft of service? I’m not against it, I was just curious." Another said, "Don’t encourage free-loaders."

Of course, stamps are just stamps. But what about large-scale fraud? Insider trading? Why shouldn't you do it? If the answer is only self-interest, you'd better be everywhere with your hidden recording devices, your search warrants, your coerced informants.

Back in the day, you might have tried telling everyone that doing the wrong thing is wrong because, well, it's wrong. But I think that ship may have sailed.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Is It Disenchanted In Here, Or Is It Just Me?

Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie confer at the start of The Hunger

The older I get, the less I find to be all "Ooh-Aah" about. I mean, as time goes on, I find fewer and fewer occasions to feel like there are "Cool Kids" I haven't gotten to know, or awesome alternative lifestyles I could have had if only I'd focused on conceptual art/guitar playing/modern dance in my youth, or amazing experiences that are just beyond my reach.

When I was younger it wasn't like this. When I was in high school I got obsessed with the movie The Hunger and I dreamed of being taken home by David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve to some impossibly beautiful and elegant home. And then when I was in college I read a book about Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol's studio, "The Factory," where hopelessly, stratospherically cool people gathered to be the it person of the moment and I thought with despair how I would never be interesting in the right sort of way for that sort of thing.

But now? Not so much. I see huge elegant homes and I think about the upkeep and the family infighting that money causes and how it doesn't matter if you're David Bowie -- your day is still basically made up of doing some things and eating and talking to the people you love and that's it.

I think about The Factory and I remember how even if taking a lot of drugs might be fun for a bit after a while it's just boring and you can either stop and feel awful or continue and become completely a mess and -- let's face it, I wouldn't last five minutes involved in a 45 minute movie that's just someone eating (From Wikipedia: "Finally, notice is taken of a brief appearance made by a cat").

On the one hand, Great! Right? No more being a kid with her nose pressed against the glass. It's true: it's awesome, because basically it means the things I really do want are the things I have. Yay!

On the other hand, it makes the world a little disenchanted. There's nothing like seeing things realistically to take a little of the magic out of it all.

I had always thought of this kind of disenchantment was basically about getting older. It's a classic middle aged trope, right?

But then last week I was on the internet and I started to get the creepy feeling that it's not just me getting older -- it's a world of disenchantment out there.

It started when I read that Exene Cervenka -- lead singer of amazing punk band X! -- had called the  Santa Barbara shootings a "hoax" and I was like "WTF?" And then I was reading the comments on that and someone made reference to Moe Tucker being a Tea Partier. And then I was remembering how Tucker was the drummer for the Velvet Underground, but also sang the sweet but haunting Lou Reed song "I'm Sticking With You" (released on the Velvet Underground VU compilation album).

So then I looked it up, and it was true -- about her becoming part of the tea party, and other distressing things. And then I was thinking about all the associations I'd had with Tucker's voice in that song and how they would never be quite the same now that I had this particular detail in my mind.

Then I thought about how the whole enchantment things is really so twentieth-century. We all know so much stupid crap about everyone else, now. Everyone's stupidities are out there on display, and the downsides of everything are obvious.

It used to be mildly possible to imagine your favorite cool person would actually be cool in person, but now it's like forget it. Now even when things are presented as glamorous, it's some fake-out version of glamor created for social media.

I know there's a school of thought out there in which disenchantment is characteristic of the last few centuries in deep and pervasive ways, rooted in basic structures of the modern era like markets and science and bureaucracies.

But I think my examples suggest there's something specially disenchanted about right now. Clearly the possibility of mass production was no threat to the possibility of being enchanted by Andy Warhol -- on the contrary.

What we have now though, brought on by various forces, is a keen sense of the drudgery aspects of all kinds of things.

It's a new, millennial disenchantment, just for us.