Pinterest and the acquisitive gaze

Pinterest indulges the fantasy that we can nail down a thing's meaning by "buying" it when we are actually destabilizing it further
I signed up for Pinterest without really knowing what it was, out of a general sense that it is important to reserve a user name on any service that's garnering attention. When I found that it was an image aggregator, I didn't understand what the fuss was about. Why would I want to serve as a volunteer photo researcher? How is Pinterest any different from those Tumblrs set up to display a mosaic of images? Is it supposed to be a Twitter of images or something? I couldn't imagine what I would use it for, so I sort of forgot about it. But recently Pinterest has entered the mainstream, as a para-retailing apparatus presumed to appeal mainly to women. The site's supposed femaleness has occasioned a lot of theorizing, some of which Nathan Jurgenson details in this post, as has… Read More...

Advertising and the health of the internet

Is it too late to imagine an internet without advertising? Is advertising the inevitable end point and meaning of any information that circulates?
Alexis Madrigal's article for the Atlantic about how many tracking companies are following us on the Web as we browse is extremely informative and raises a host of questions worth considering with regard to the practice (e.g. How many of these tracking companies are there? Does it make a difference if only machines have this information on me? Why does it seem creepy? Should creepy be appearing in academic studies as a term of art?). The most important of these, I think, derives from a claim he makes toward the end: I am all too aware of how difficult it is for media businesses to survive in this new environment. Sure, we could all throw up paywalls and try to make a lot more money from a lot fewer readers. But that would destroy what makes the web the unique resource… Read More...

Northanger Abbey and antisocial pleasure

Northanger Abbey wants to condemn consumerism and champion the right kind of novel reading, but it can find no stable premises for the distinction
  Though published last, Northanger Abbey was probably among the first novels Jane Austen wrote, sometime around 1799. While it's not regarded as straight-up juvenilia, it's sometimes dismissed as a slight and occasionally awkward mix of parody with the  "free indirect speech" approach she later perfected, a satire of Gothic novels that can seem obvious and unnecessary. Austen has some fun lovingly mocking the books of Ann Radcliffe and her ilk, while issuing a gentle warning not to mistake the intensity of Gothic novels' narrative suspense for truth. Readers must not go Quixote with them and start interpreting everyday life in their terms. But there is more going on Northanger Abbey than that. It's not merely a novel about reading novels and the dangers such reading can present to an "innocent" girl like Catherine Morland, the book's main character. That… Read More...

Predictive analytics and information camouflage

Marketers are mining our data trails to predict what we want and who we should be
Charles Duhigg's article in the New York Times Magazine and this excerpt from Joseph Turow's book at the Atlantic make for good companion reading. Both are about the rise of data mining for marketing purposes — the efforts to assign consumers a profile that will then determine their status in various retail spheres and what sort of deals they will be offered and ads they will see and what sort of service they will be offered and so on. Both give a sense of how our ingrained commitment to the values of consumerism then opens us to being further programmed in our habitual choices: consumerism is the maze in which retailers can hide the chocolate in the form of various goods. And scientists and statisticians are only too happy to treat us like lab rats we've become. Duhigg's article focuses mainly… Read More...

Precarity and “affective resistance”

Does precarity lead to resistance and political action, or simply more desperate and exploitable survival strategies?
The word precarity is becoming increasingly fashionable as a way of describing the effects of neoliberal policy. The concept expresses the sense that the state has broken its ideological promise (what Polanyi posited in The Great Transformation) to ameliorate the misery capitalism necessarily generates. The state tries to offload as much of the responsibility for maintaining a minimum standard of well-being for its citizens, while corporations simultaneously shift as much of the economic risk to their workers, offering little in the way of benefits, pensions, and security. Individuals are expected to bear the burdens imposed by recession and fend for themselves as much as possible in the economy, even as the destructured work sphere that results from post-Fordist reforms demands an intensified cooperation among workers. The stress of having to constantly cooperate and compete with co-workers at the same time is just… Read More...

Mansfield Park is melting in the dark

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and the perils of attention seeking
I've been reading Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which, as far as I can tell, is mainly about the varieties of servitude that early 19th century life had to offer women in England. That is to say it's about property, which is maybe why it's named after an estate and not a person. But it's also about rituals of attention, and the implications of servitude contained within them. The main character, Fanny Price, is a poor relation more or less purchased by her rich relatives, the Bertrams. Brought to the Bertrams' mansion as a child, she is then subject to serial humiliations meant to remind her of her social place while she is made over into an uncompensated servant who performs endless amounts of emotional labor (as well as running around and fetching things for her indolent aunt) without having the… Read More...

Selflessness and self-absorption

The space in which we can experience ourselves just being ourselves is disappearing. Here's what an old book about 18th century French painting can tell us about this
Art historian Michael Fried's 1980 book Absorption and Theatricality is about how French painters in the late 18th century started to paint people who are totally absorbed in the moment -- engrossed in what they are doing and oblivious to the possibility that they could be observed (by, say, the person looking at the painting). Fried tries to figure out why viewers of the time had such a taste for this. What made the experience of looking at someone who appeared oblivious to their presence so compelling? And was it any different from simple voyeurism? What, if anything, did it have to do with, say, the spread of literacy and of private solitary reading as a familiar and pleasurable experience? Since we are currently acclimating ourselves to a new culture-sweeping technology for self-absorbed pleasure, these struck me as interesting questions. As Nathan… Read More...

Facebook division of labor and the rewired society

I’m reading through the summary of findings of this Pew survey of Facebook users. (It is based on phone polling, so caveat emptor.) The point…
Chairman Zuck
I'm reading through the summary of findings of this Pew survey of Facebook users. (It is based on phone polling, so caveat emptor.) The point they are foregrounding in their report is that Facebook has "power users," which means that the division of labor on Facebook's social factory is uneven -- some active users work harder at building the network and feeding its flows, which makes using the site more engaging for passive users. Thanks to the Facebook freaks (and it seems that everyone is linked to a few of these), the less involved users have something new to see or do when they log in. Niemann Journalism Lab interprets this as good news for the old media business: If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or… Read More...

Notes on the “data self”

1. Identity is fundamentally multiple, incomplete, provisional, cyborg, contextually contingent, etc. Deleuze et al. are right about that. (See Turkle’s “Multiple Subjectivity and Virtual Community…
1. Identity is fundamentally multiple, incomplete, provisional, cyborg, contextually contingent, etc. Deleuze et al. are right about that. (See Turkle's "Multiple Subjectivity and Virtual Community at the End of the Freudian Century" for grudging admission of this.) But consciousness or subjectivity is unitary (we only think we inhabit any one given identity at a time), which can confuse things. We can end up thinking our self is as unified as seamless and consistent as our conscious subjectivity seems to us to be. This tendency to conflate the two can be exploited for ideological ends, as was the case in the consumer capitalist era, in which the idea that we are all unique individuals who have complete control over our identity (which is discovered and revealed rather than constructed) suited consumerist ideas about power and expression through choice in the marketplace.… Read More...

Assorted Thoughts on Social Mobility

Economic mobility is a different thing from social mobility, as any number of nouveau-riche tales of ostracized woe can testify to. Measuring whether one goes from one arbitrarily determined income bracket to another doesn’t tell us much about experiential changes; it doesn’t tell us whether one’s social circuit had changed, whether one’s children now go
Economic mobility is a different thing from social mobility, as any number of nouveau-riche tales of ostracized woe can testify to. Measuring whether one goes from one arbitrarily determined income bracket to another doesn’t tell us much about experiential changes; it doesn’t tell us whether one’s social circuit had changed, whether one’s children now go to a more elite school, with greater opportunities for sycophancy. Social mobility is often about establishing opportunities to be taken seriously by people with more status — or with more cultural capital, if you prefer — rather than raw income levels. Judging mainly by Victorian novels, it takes a lot of income to buy your way out of seeming like a striver when you begin hobnobbing with your betters. But the difference between economic and social mobility is easy to lose sight of in policy… Read More...

Return of The Managerial Demiurge

It sort of veers in a different direction by the end, but Žižek’s new LRB essay is actually a pretty lucid explanation of the terminology from autonomist Marxism, sewing the jargon together in a cohesive whole.
It sort of veers in a different direction by the end, but Žižek’s new LRB essay is actually a pretty lucid explanation of the terminology from autonomist Marxism, sewing the jargon together in a cohesive whole. Here’s his quick summary of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude argument: Only with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (production of ideas, texts, programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is ‘hegemonic’ in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘commons’: shared knowledge and new forms… Read More...

Wages Versus Progress

In what is ostensibly a news article on the Wall Street Journal front page today (“Revitalized Detroit Makes Bold Bets on New Models”) this sentence jumped out at me as being a clear example of ideology in action:
In what is ostensibly a news article on the Wall Street Journal front page today (“Revitalized Detroit Makes Bold Bets on New Models”) this sentence jumped out at me as being a clear example of ideology in action: Instead of having to spend a lot on labor costs and retiree benefits, they are pouring money into engineering and designing cars that can go head-to-head with the best in the industry. This proposition is not so much a fact as a story about how auto companies compete and innovate; it represents as factual the either-or choice that management supposedly faces: either the companies pay these (obviously extortionate) labor costs—never mind that they are the result of contract negotiations—or they contribute to technological progress that benefits us all. When money is capital—allegedly reinvested in the company rather than distributed to shareholders—it works… Read More...

Rioting Nonconsumers Duplicate

Duplicate. Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman’s response to the London riots: We are…
Duplicate. Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman's response to the London riots: We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty... It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops. From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common.… Read More...

Convenience of Streaming Services

An article at the AV Club by Sam Adams looks at the implications of Netflix’s streaming service and the growing popularity of Spotify, a music-streaming…
An article at the AV Club by Sam Adams looks at the implications of Netflix's streaming service and the growing popularity of Spotify, a music-streaming company. He begins with an observation that seems unassailable to me -- "Convenience and choice are the watchwords of the digital era, in which content must be instantly accessible and as quickly digested, lest consumers flit off to some more welcoming destination" -- but I was confused by the analysis that follows, which didn't really explain why consumers are so susceptible to novelty and what he calls the "convenience trap," the willingness to consume what's available as opposed to what is presumably good for you. Adams fears we may be "unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand." But what does that mean? Why does everything have to be graded? And does an unconscious… Read More...

Pret à mourir

I borrowed the title for this post from my friend Anton of Generation Bubble, who forwarded me a link to this NYT article by Stephanie…
I borrowed the title for this post from my friend Anton of Generation Bubble, who forwarded me a link to this NYT article by Stephanie Clifford about Pret à Manger, sort of the Target of sandwich shops, assuming Subway is the Wal-Mart. If you want to see a horrific application of all the principles of immaterial and affective labor, Virnoesque virtuosity, lateral surveillance, obligatory reflexivity, emotional management, gamification and so on, you need look no further. How does any company encourage teamwork? At Pret a Manger, executives say, the answer is to hire, pay and promote based on — believe it or not — qualities like cheerfulness. There is a certain “Survivor” element to all of this. New hires are sent to a Pret a Manger shop for a six-hour day, and then the employees there vote whether to keep… Read More...

Rioting Nonconsumers

Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman’s response to the London riots: We…
Is rioting an expression of envy, or something more political, or something that is ultimately inexplicable? From Zygmunt Bauman's response to the London riots: We are all consumers now, consumers first and foremost, consumers by right and by duty... It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops. From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in… Read More...