Gut of the Quantifier

"Pics or it didn't happen" is a slogan for the end of sociality
I am finding Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine to be a very compelling and useful book, considering that we are now presumably entering the age of the smart phone. Zuboff details how the introduction of the "smart machine" -- i.e. networked computers -- into the workplace kicked off a new regime of clerical deskilling that made on-job interpersonal communication an even more precious resource. A greater proportion of work in production was turned into information processing -- "once mute material processes now translated and displayed as data --  and the definition of executive function as work that could not be automated and that depended on "feel" and the expression of authority in unmediated interpersonal communication was strengthened. Zuboff notes that The textualization of the operations that they supervised provided them with a wider, more accurate, timely, and… Read More...

Information inundation and social deskilling

The pace of social media makes consuming information a test of stamina, rendering comprehension irrelevant
Concentration is not thinking, though it is easy to elide them, particularly when we are mentally exhausted. And mental exhaustion is certainly not a matter of having done too much high-level thinking; our brain power can be depleted by mundane anxieties, nuisances, and other feats of petty focus. Concentration is attention sustained over time, a quantity; thought is clearly something more qualitative that is not reducible to time spent focusing. In Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine, an ethnography of workers whose offices were computerized in the early 1980s, clerks whose claims-processing jobs were automated complained of being more exhausted by their computerized work though they were required to remember far less information and do much less thinking and decisionmaking. "The knowledge demands of their tasks had been diminished ... but attentional requirements and responsibility had increased....… Read More...

Lonely and crying

The Bee Gees' art of inconsolable sadness
Since Robin Gibb died last Sunday I have been listening  a lot to the Bee Gees. Given the magnitude of their “third fame,” after the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack seemed to temporarily change everything about culture, the group is sometimes mistakenly regarded as nothing more than falsetto-wielding disco appropriators. But before that, the Bee Gees had a long, successful career as Beatlesque balladeers with a penchant for surreal whimsy and songs suffused with a melancholy so pure it becomes almost abstract. Their material from the late 1960s and early '70s, especially, is unabashedly fixated on loneliness and weeping, and the words lonely and crying recur with a mantra-like regularity. A cynic might suspect they had adopted the words as lazy emotional shorthand in lieu of sincerity, as if that means anything in the context of pop music.  “For once in my… Read More...

Dummy Discards a Heart

Mediated game playing saps games of their sociality
Sitting at a card table and playing bridge with friends is probably my personal-scale utopia. The scope of society is condensed to four people, a comfortable number when you mean to pay attention to all of them. The activity is highly structured, down to whose role it is to shuffle and whose role is to deal any given hand, but interwoven with conversational spaces that aren’t open-ended, making them not so arduous to fill. Everyone settles in. An easy rhythm of exchange settles in amid moments of deep concentration; the arcane system of bidding and carding signals between partners is complemented by a relaxed flow of asides and anecdotes, and everyone’s competitive impulses are restricted to the game. They don’t play out in obscure ways in the social interactions themselves. It’s probably hyperbolic to call games like bridge a “social… Read More...

Facebook and living labor

Yet another way to theorize social media as capitalist expansion
Around the same time I was reprocessing my ideas about social media into the jargon of Boltanski and Chiapello's The New Spirit of Capitalism, I was also reading Jason Read's The Micro-politics of Capital, a fusion of poststructuralist and autonomist-Marxist analytical approaches. The book — which I found immensely difficult but worth the effort — assesses the problems capitalism faces with regard to the production of subjectivity. This excerpt should give you a sense of it: At the foundation of the capitalist mode of production is the production of subjectivity in both senses of the genitive: the constitution of subjectivity, of a particular subjective comportment (a working class which is both skilled and docile), and in turn the productive power of subjectivity, its capacity to produce wealth. These two senses of “the production of subjectivity” do not or have not coincided in the history of… Read More...

Outgrowing oneself

One of the saddest parts of aging is realizing the cultural distinctions on which I once predicated my sense of self have become socially meaningless
A certain strain of neoclassical economics holds that subjective individual preferences have no ultimate analytical significance. This is the ideological upshot of a laissez-faire attitude toward taste: All tastes are just residual, a revealed preference for x over y, and the difference between x and y is immaterial, a local phenomenon beneath study. It has the illusion of significance to the individual, but from the Olympian perspective required to grapple with human socioeconomic behavior, it's just noise. One of the tragedies of getting old is seeing this perspective confirmed in the indifferent destinies of commodities that were once far more than mere commodities to you. Distinctions that seemed crucial, epochal, even existential, are slowly eroded until you are forced to admit to yourself that maybe they never existed at all. Or at best, the distinctions were not ontological, not in… Read More...

Presumed conspicuous

Social media make conspicuous consumption worse
In this post about zero-sum validation games in social media, Freddie deBoer expresses his frustration with people's refusal to let other people just like what they like. Even our purely subjective aesthetic choices are not allowed to be our own anymore. If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can't use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices. Nobody can leave other people alone anymore. Much of this antagonism is inescapable, given how status and class work in an ostensibly caste-free society. Our aesthetic choices have never been "allowed to be" our own. You might say that possibility has always been a utopian aspiration, a… Read More...

Thinking bad

Mark Dery's I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts captures the tone of pre-Internet ranting
Cultural critic Mark Dery is something of a Tom Wolfe for the BoingBoing set, writing cranky and sneering essays about sensationalistic or offbeat subjects, compensating for the narrow range of conclusions these topics tend to offer with rhetorical excess and a thick smear of knowing pop-culture allusions. In his most recent collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, Dery writes about, among other things, Star Trek slash fiction, Holocaust tourism, Chick tracts, Lady Gaga's intelligence, and spambot poetry. Some of the essays are stale because they are dated (feels a little late to be reading about the death of Pope John Paul II), but in general, they are not out to prompt you to think of their subjects in a radically new way, especially if you have already given them any thought on your own (e.g, YouTube Downfall parodies "dramatize the cultural… Read More...

Notes on “Notes on Hype”

Hype is as much a model for personal conduct as it is promotion for a particular good
There is nothing mysterious about how hype is generated: marketers and PR people coordinate with attention brokers on various media and relentlessly bang the drum for whatever it is they want to promote. But, as Devon Powers details in this paper about hype in the International Journal of Communication, hype seems mysterious because it comes with its own disavowal. It's "contaminated publicity" that infiltrates past one's defenses by seeming to refute itself; it tries to work by implying, "This thing has already been too publicized." It engages people not on the level of the thing being hyped — it tends to posit the idea that everyone already knows what the thing is basically about — but by evoking a cultural conversation, as if there is some alternate answer to the question "Why is everyone talking about X?" than "X was… Read More...

Heroic tedium and anti-nostalgia

This album doesn't suck
Warped nostalgia can take you to weird places. A few weeks ago, I suddenly started listening to this Van Morrison album Beautiful Vision, which I've owned for more than 20 years and never particularly liked before. Now I can't stop listening to it. Part of this is egotistical contrarianism. Most critics think the record is mediocre; the incredibly lame album cover may have something to do with that. It might be the worst cover ever for a musician who has impeccably bad taste in cover art. (Okay, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is probably worse.) It's like he is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: "See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That's how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing.… Read More...

Rigorous self-critique

"The desire to feel like an individual is a false need instigated by capitalism to make us productive in the social factory and to make us consume more in pursuit of a reified authenticity."
I found this written on a post-it note on my desk under a pile of papers, and I can't remember what it was supposed to be for. I think it might be the conclusion to an essay I may never have written. The desire to feel like an individual is a false need instigated by capitalism to make us productive in the social factory and to make us consume more in pursuit of a reified authenticity. Not surprisingly, I find myself persuasive, but this still has problems. Talking about the truth or falsity of needs is probably counterproductive; it doesn't change the fact that they are experienced and that they have behavioral consequences. Still, I was trying to get at the idea of individualism as a distortion of some inarguable human requirement of social recognition, which need not take the… Read More...

Value-seeking surveillance and The Hunger Games

Vicariousness as a system of control in The Hunger Games -- both the novel and the zeitgeisty phenomenon
I just finished reading the first book of The Hunger Games. Given my hobbyhorses, it's probably not surprising that  I read it entirely as a novel about the ramifications of having to live as if life is a reality-television show. [UPDATE: Having seen the film, that seems an inescapable interpretation.] That is, it's designed to appeal to teenagers (and everyone else) who all live with the unavoidable pressure of being scrutinized as a source of entertainment. The novel explores the effects of living under constant value-seeking surveillance, what it does us to know that someone is always trying to get something out of watching us (even if it's just marketing data) and not being sure how far we should play along with and play to the unseen eyes. Regarding it as a book about the pleasures of surveillance helps me accept… Read More...

Social graph vs. social class

Thinking about society as a network makes it harder to conceive of social change
I've hated the term social graph since Facebook first seized upon it in 2007 to try to legitimate and intellectualize their project of subsuming people's social lives. But it turns out the term, which describes the map of connections sustained by a network, may be useful in drawing a distinction between the sort of social organization that social media serve to reinforce and the class-based analyses they work to prevent. Social media support, obviously, a view of society as a network, in which individual "nodes" define themselves (and their worth) in terms of their difference from other nodes. Each individual's value lies in developing and expressing that difference, finding comparative advantage relative to others. There has to be something unique that you provide to make you worth linking to, though that uniqueness may consist of the unique access you provide to a… Read More...

Meritocracy and measurement myths

A quantified self is not a self better understood but a self reduced to fit the yardstick.
Michael Young's 1959 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy begins in 2034 with a puzzled member of the commanding elite of the future wondering why in the world various discontented factions of the meritocratic society could be contemplating a general strike. What justification could they possibly have for being angry, given that everyone is systematically is afforded a fair opportunity to thrive through rigorous and ceaseless testing. I imagine that some view the Occupy unrest in this light; our culture's well-groomed and highly educated elite could be looking out from corner offices in bank buildings down at Zuccotti Park, reanimated with what must seem like pointless strife, and think to themselves, What's with those people? They could work harder, achieve more, take advantage of the systems designed by human-resource agents to capture talent and reward it instead of griping about… Read More...

“To ‘blow one’s mind’ means to become more aware.”

Charles Reich's 1970 defense of youth culture illustrates the problems with the politics of self-liberation.
To prepare for the New Inquiry's upcoming screening of 1968 teen exploitation film Wild in the Streets, I have been reading The Greening of America, a 1970 book by Yale law professor Charles Reich that sought to explain the righteous ways of teenagers to the rest of society. Reich actually mentions the film in a chapter about how the "Corporate State itself is generating rebellion," calling Wild in the Streets "truly subversive." In Wild in the Streets, teenagers secure the right to vote, vote themselves into power, and have all adults imprisoned in camps where they are kept high on LSD until they die. In The Greening of America, Reich explains how most Americans are trapped in Consciousness II —  his jargon for the organization-man mentality, for the technocatic meritocratic Corporate system that made everyone into uptight, status-seeking drones with no "real"… Read More...

The master-smartphone dialectic

The strange idea that the smartphones themselves, and not bosses, are responsible for workers' compulsive smartphone use
In this week's Economist, the Schumpeter column — which deals with management issues — considers how elastic work time becomes with the advent of the smartphone. What was alleged to be a tool to empower individuals and cater to their convenience has ended up making them feel more harried and hassled than ever. The servant has become the master. Not long ago only doctors were on call all the time. Now everybody is. Bosses think nothing of invading their employees’ free time. Work invades the home far more than domestic chores invade the office. Otherwise-sane people check their smartphones obsessively, even during pre-dinner drinks, and send e-mails first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Funny how that worked out. Convenience not really convenient, but a veiled speed-up? How strange. But it's interesting who the management columnist wants to blame rhetorically… Read More...