Sunday, February 28, 2010

The paranoid shopper (23 January 2006)

My favorite kind of store to be in is a thrift store, and not only because they are cheap. (In truth, they aren't so cheap anymore, thanks to the eBay effect; afraid their goods will be resold by amateur retailers, many thrift stores have applied a price hike across the board in the last year or two.) What I like most about them is how no effort is made there to cater to the consumer. It's just a hodge-podge of random stuff barely categorized and distributed haphazardly on the shelves and racks. The real hard-core thrift stores don't even have shelves; they just have clothing massed in a heap and you sort through and buy by the pound. If there's music, it's often the worst species available on the radio -- religious music or smooth jazz (religious music for the soulless suburbanite?). They are often in some semi-industrial or abandoned neighborhood, retro-fitted in something that used to be a grocery store or a hardware outlet; often you can see where the aisles used to be because the floors aren't replaced or resurfaced. They aren't doing a thing to "shop for customers." They don't give a crap about who I think I am or who I want to pretend to be, and that's just how I like it.

No strategies have been developed to make an "experience" for the shopper or to give their trip to the store an implied narrative through well-choreographed signage and a carefully sequenced goods designed to prompt certain "should I buy" questions in the receptive consumer. Sociologist-turned-marketer details a lot of these ploys in Why We Buy, a book I found extremely interesting, albeit in a counter-intuitive way. It's good to know what retailers have learned about shoppers' tendencies and biases, in their attempts to lull shoppers into a comfort zone, so that one can systematically resist it. If you are "comfortable" while you are shopping, you're probably in trouble, as this means you've let your guard down at precisely the moment it's most important it be up. Also, comfort comes at a cost. If you are experiencing some mellow feeling in some store, you're probably going to pay for it in some way, or will very soon. Shopping is an ersatz experience, an experience substitute; if you permit retailers to gull you into thinking it's an activity in itself, you've surrendered already -- you've given up on real experience, on having an actual life. It seems imperative to resist that at all costs, especially as the buyosphere expands and engulfs more and more of the space we inhabit. So when retailers learn from Underhill that shoppers tend to veer right upon entering a store, you should remember to veer left and avoid the trap set for you there. When Underhill points out that shoppers don't notice anything until they've acclimated to the inside of the store, often 20 or 30 feet from the door, you should remember to try to acclimate yourself sooner, get yourself braced up. When a sign has been placed to amuse you while you are forced to wait in some predictable way, ignore it. If there's a promotional video playing, for God's sake, ignore it. Amuse yourself weith your phone if you must. By denying retailers the opportunity to cater to you, you gum up their works and you just might get to see behind the curtain, see through to real costs of things, real discounts available perhaps, and most of all, you'll be having a real experience instead of some bogus fantasia. Make yourself comfortable in your own way; don't let yourself be sucked into the stereotypes about what we prefer that marketers like Underhill make convenient for us.

The sentimentality of property (21 January 2006)

You've discovered that a CD in your collection has gone out of print and is now selling on eBay for $75. Do you: (1) Get excited and immediately list it for sale, (2) appreciate the fact that its going rate is closer to the priceless value you place on it, and think how all of your collection will someday be so vindicated, or (3) regard the news with utter indifference? Both speculators and collectors love this kind of discovery, but for the opposite reason -- one enjoys realizing what the other enjoys more as a potentiality.

How one answers probably shows something about how far along one is toward accepting the digital future and how tied to the sentimentality of physical property one is. There's nothing romantic about a digital file (yet? CD's used to seem a lot more soulless) the way there is with a collection that you can contemplate in terms of size and extent. It seems likely to me that at some point one will pay a subscription fee to have access to just about everything that ever was recorded, and it will just be out there in cyberspace, rendering music collections moot. What will would-be music collectors do instead (besides blog about what they once would have collected?)

Shopping for customers (19 January 2006)

In an earlier post, I fulminated over the possibility of RFID tags being used to stratify shoppers and allow retailers to cater better service to less-thrifty and savvy shoppers. Retailers could then punish those shoppers who favor generic products and exclusively buy loss leaders and work to discourage them from returning to the store. This Marginal Revolution post explores a similar phenomenon (particularly in the comments) wherein Argentine clothes stores try to raise their cache by refusing to carry product that would fit fat people. Argentina passed a law trying to forbid this kind of de facto discrimination, forcing stores to carry a stipulated range of sizes. (America takes a different tack to shop for customers, using "vanity sizing" -- allowing size 6 to float up to what once was an 8 or 10 -- to soothe the weight-conscious.) Should the government take these sorts of measures? It hampers the retailers "freedom" to voluntarily sell whatever they choose to whomever they choose (so Milton Friedman would probably see it as a travesty as horrific as Social Security, the National Park Service and medical licenses), but worse, it dignifies the idea that being fashionable is some kind of necessary right that must be protected by the state. (As I pointed out yesterday, I would rather see the state stamp out fashion in favor of the uniform, Mao-suit style, then promote stylishness, which serves mainly to intensify social anxiety while clumsily signaling class prerogative. Fashion is a way to procure a pseudo-improvement in status -- "I dress cool!" -- while having no real improvement in class or living standards or earning potential -- "I live in a roach-infested tenament".)

One of the post's commenters writes, "plenty of store clerks will insult women customers to try to guilt-trip them into buying more cosmetics. Maybe they are also trying to get rid of customers who aren't slaves to fashion." The whole shopping-for-customers thing is something I never really considered, but explains a lot of the discomfort I've felt going into record stores (which usually follow an "annoy-the-squares" policy of blaring irritating music, hiring surly clerks and arranging everything by some crypto-Dewey Decimal system of genre classification that makes it impossible to find something as straightforward as a Badfinger album) and hipster clothes stores (whose clerks favor the blank, baffled stare at you when you enter the store and disrupt them from their narcissistic reverie). These stores, which trade in cool more than in commodities, have a vested interest in making sure the customers are what they perceive to be cool, so they set barriers to entry and encourage their employees to enforce them. These style-conscious wage slaves are more than happy to have an opportunity to exercise what little power they can ever expect to have in the world (no, I'm not bitter) and make a customer feel like a loser for wanting to buy something. All the choices these clerks have made in their life have been in pursuit of this kind of power, the power to feel more fashionable than someone else, regardless of whether or not that someone gives a shit. That sense of superiority has a value, a price, and the employees in their way get to set it and enforce it by policing the customer pool at their stores and shooing away those who aren't worthy of those Doc Martens or that MC5 bootleg. So perhaps these stores sell less, just as the Argentine stores lose out on more-zaftig clintele, but they can charge more via the increased status of what they are selling to those fortunate few permitted through the gates. Surely there is a graph to be made that could find the equilibrium between the price increase from cool cachet and the sales lost by this kind of discrimination, that could show just how many people it is optimal to humiliate.

The pleasures of no imagination (18 January 2006)

As someone who champions the drab clothing uniform, I was cheered by this story from Sunday's New York Times, which reports that people may derive more satisfaction from routines than from constant variety and the endless pursuit of novelty. "Happiness researcher" Daniel Gilbert has found that "people who indulge in 'false variety seeking' - that is, incessantly trying something new for variety's sake - are generally less happy than people who stick to their tried-and-true favorites." In other words, we should not try to cure boredom with a spasmodic pursuit of something new and distracting, but rather through an intensified return to the things we already enjoy. Boredom doesn't mean we've exhausted the potential of the things we know; it means we have lost our focus, probably because so many corporations have so much at stake in our losing that focus, in our embracing novelty for its own sake, in our chasing after fashion and feeling perpetually anxious and dissatisfied. And an entire industry exists to convince us that we should be dissatisfied with what we have and expect more. Or it means that we have lost the ability to process the massive amounts of variety we have access to. We can't organize ourselves in the face of it; we can't keep up. It reminds me of my friends and their unwieldy music collections; they spend the bulk of their time catagorizing it rather than listening to it; trading the deep pleasure of music appreciation for the shallower pleasures of sheer ownership. (Am I wrong to call one deep and one shallow? Can the distinction be sustained?)

But Gilbert's remark about his cargo-pants uniform can serve as a kind of motto: "My life is full of decisions, and any time I can eliminate one, I feel I have scored a victory." Choice for its own sake is not satisfying; it is not an increase in freedom -- in fact, it can feel like bondage to be burdened with decisions that involve no problem solving or creative thinking, with decisions that feel forced upon one but capricious changes and the whims of others.

It ties in to the "hedonic treadmill" problem -- the fact that we immediately adjust to whatever level of comfort we've attained and become disappointed in it -- and the invidious comparison problem, which makes happiness a relative matter. We are happy and satisfied only if we have what our peers have, not because we actually are getting some sufficient degree of satisfaction from goods themselves. It doesn't matter what we have if we're bitter that someone else has more. When these kinds of comparisons are harder to make, less obvious, not instigated by the opulence typically evoked in the media and advertisements or by the vast amount of information we have available to us through the Internet, people tend to be happier, and people will be freed to concentrate more on the goods themselves than what status they signify. You can listen to that Dylan bootleg rather than wonder if your friends already have it, and have more.

This is one of the more compelling arguments for leveling the distribution of income -- when the gaps between haves and have nots are smaller, everyone is happier despite the fact that material wealth for some will be reduced. Money doesn't make one happy; security and belonging do. Krugman, in one of the columns in The Accidental Theorist, argues that "American society in the 1990s is an engine that maximizes achievement yet minimizes satisfaction" -- in other words it foists corporate goals of growth on to individuals and leaves them with little means to switch the priorities back.

The Gang of Four is dead (17 January 2006)

Not the band, though there is something spiritually deadening about their comeback tours and their money-grubbing album, Return the Gift. I'm talking about the Gang of Four who started China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Yao Wenyuan, the last living member of the group, died a few weeks ago. During the Cultural Revolution Mao was deified into a living god -- Gang of Four cohort Lin Biao claimed "Chairman Mao is a genius, everything the Chairman says is truly great; one of the Chairman's words will override the meaning of ten thousands of ours" -- and students were encouraged to seize power from the state and persecute all bureaucrats and intellectuals for their recalcitrant bourgeois tendencies -- for falling back rather than pushing the permanent revolution forward. They were then typically forced to undergo painful public self-criticism, usually while groveling at the boot of some Red Guard thug. The idea seems to have been that complacency automatically bred "capitalist roader" mentalities and inhibited the development of a truly socialist superstructure to complement the command-economy base. Whenever I lament the fact that few take the politics embedded in all culture seriously enough, I think of the chaos of these events, their rabid and unhampered anti-intellectualism, and remember to consider more carefully what it is I wish for. The whole point of self-criticism and the social critique that might flow from it, is that you take it upon yourself; it's no good if it's beaten out of you. And it is no good to be forced to the country for proletarian re-education, as many students were during the "Down to the Country" movement, if no one can identify what anyone should be trying to learn. When one reads about this period, it seems like a grotesque version of the contemporaneous film Wild in the Streets, in which teenagers take over the government and force all the adults to take LSD and die insane in prison camps. The Cultural Revolution seems to demonstrate what happens when you fuse modern youth culture, sustained by the mass-media propaganda potential, with a self-aggrandizing political platform and behind the scenes powerbrokers who stand to benefit from chaos. It seems a model for terrorism in the name of Islamic fundamentalism (not to mention Christian fundamentalism -- is it so hard to imagine a paramilitary force from a megachurch somewhere being granted police power in some Southern state?)

Fear of haggling (17 January 2006)

Economics often assume consumers are driven by a very limited set of incentives: get more, pay less, and make the more be of the thing that will give you the most satisfaction. Built into these assumptions is the idea that the consumer will always be aware of and pursue his best interests. For example, he'll wake up in the morning, see that interest rates have fallen, and go right out and start that re-fi on his house. And he'll refuse to let money sit as cash when there is money to be made in a wide variety of tempting investments. And he won't pay ATM fees or overspend for coffee drinks and pressed sandwiches. But in truth, consumers don't do this, and some economists think there is something deeply wrong with them. Individuals can't be relied on to always make it the top priority to make a profit; they sometimes make the mistake of privileging some other priority. (Clever economists, however, can often bring any motive back around to maximizing marginal utility.) Fortunately, a corporation can always be counted on to pursue profit; it's the only motive it recognizes, and it serves to make extraneous any other motive the people who make it up might have, channeling only their "useful" profit-maximizing decision-making powers. Corporations are essentially people minus any of the impulses that aren't single-mindedly focused on growth and expansion.

In the most recent Economist, the "Economics Focus" column considers the problem, which may stem from the fact that markets are scary. "Consumers may doubt themselves, the products on display and the people flogging them." The president of the American Economic Association adds, "Opportunities for choice may be interpreted as opportunities for embarrassment and regret." Most Americans never have to haggle and would certainly shop a lot less if they did. Haggling puts the pressure on the consumer to be informed, and it makes overt the fact that shopping is not some win-win fantasy wherein they become kings and queens of the consumer-good fantasia, catered to with fun retail "experiences." Shopping is competition, and there are winners and losers. Consumers, generally, are the losers, as they typically lack the information necessary to compete (or they value their ignorance more than the cost it would take to correct it and don't mind overspending -- or they see overspending itself as a good, a sign of prestige). People need to be motivated to shop and given the "courage" to spend and make those heroic purchases; they need to be cajoled, prodded, harangued at every possible moment, from every possible perch -- look around, even on this page, at all the ads. No matter what they advertise, they all have this in common, they all think it's important for you that you are buying, they all communicate the message that you are no one if you are not.

So people aren't naturally inclined to want to see their entire public sphere turned into what Thomas Hine has called the "buyosphere" -- the place (mental or physical) where we understand who we are only in terms of shopping. We have the buyosphere foisted upon us, and our anxiety over the need to ceaselessly compete in it is defined away as something else. Soon we are told that shopping is natural, as fundamental to our happiness and as instinctual as sex.

What a consumer economy does is try to extend the competitiveness and the incentives of winning to all experience, to commodify it all and make the degree to which one "wins" be the primary measure of the satisfaction the purchase provides -- the "scoreboard" mentality that I've mentioned here before. But ceaseless competitiveness is exhausting and stressful, prompting indecision and evasiveness, attempts to avoid the market, circumvent its risks. The market has the effect of disincentivizing itself. But there are no alternatives to the market that we are willing to countenance. Thus as the article points out, economics, which used to take consumers as sovereign, now tries to figure out how to force consumers to fit the market system.

The aesthetics of globalization (13 January 2006)

Six years ago when I quit smoking, I started jogging, which meant I needed running shoes. Of course I bought NewBalances, because that is what a socially aware graduate student in a leftist cult like an English literature doctoral program is expected to do. I might not have been occupying the university president's office and chaining myself to any desks like the Students Against Sweatshops were doing, but I thought I agreed with what I knew of their principles. Children working long, grim days for ludicrous wages so that I could wear fancy cushioned shoes so I wouldn't hurt my tender little knees was a bad thing that I wanted no part of.

An old op-ed by Paul Krugman that I came across in his Accidental Theorist made me think of that again, because he is absolutely right about the nature of my motives. People like me were never troubled by starving farmers in Indonesia and Bangladesh, that was somehow appropriate to their lot, that was what tradition and fate consigned them to and that was where they belonged -- not that I thought about them at all; I was too worried about the brutal labor market in my own chosen field and preoccupied by such things as making my chess play better and completing my collection of Kinks records and Oxford Classics paperbacks of 18th century literature. (That Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph was a real score.) But as Krugman argues, "Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit -- and this makes us feel unclean." So we protest it to make ourselves feel a little cleaner, and we pay a fastidiousness tax to buy goods like NewBalances that are less tainted by such labor. This does the workers no good -- "As long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard" -- but it makes us feel good. Is there an alternative to industrialization based on low wages? Perhaps. But its existence or nonexistence was never a factor in my running shoes.

The disposable culture (12 January 2006)

This report comes from and is filled with fun, frankly stated facts. American households spend on average nearly $1,500 a week, and their aggregate weekly outlay is greater than the yearly GDP of Finland. Why so much spending? Part of the success must be humbly claimed by the advertising business, whose desperate attempts to keep Americans in debt have worked like a charm. Says ad man Peter Francese: "The fact is we desperately need consumers willing to spend every dime they make and then some on items such as $50,000 SUVs and million-dollar vacation homes. If Americans ever started saving money like those prudent Japanese consumers, countless industries besides our own would be on the ropes." Those foolish Japanese make the silly mistake of saving too much, thinking erroneously that there is something virtuous in it rather than consuming incessantly and driving demand for more disposable junk with which to deplete the planet's resources. And isn't marketing an admirable calling? Knowingly making sure people buy things that can't really afford and don't really need?

It's also a good thing, Francese tells us, that American households are spending more, because there are fewer of them, and the new ones being generated are in the lower classes. The problem with these lower class people is that while ads are often as successful in making them want to spend as they are in making their betters, the poor don't have anything -- like overinflated real estate -- to borrow on. "The danger going forward is that the formerly large middle class is shrinking, and we are depending on a relatively small fraction of affluent households to provide the bulk of future consumer spending growth. If the affluent, but aging, baby boomers begin saving more of their income for retirement, consumer spending could take a big hit. Also, consumer spending has kept growing in the recent past in large part because homeowners across the income spectrum have been able to borrow heavily against their homes' rapidly rising value. That strategy may not work in the near future if home values flatten, interest rates rise and banks get more cautious about consumer lending." The on-paper equity many have acquired during the housing bubble is what has allowed America to indulge itself with a negative savings rate. But if loan defaults trigger a rash of necessary home sales, the flooded market could see prices forced down and that equity vanishing into thin air.

Another threat to consumer spending: the fact that more women than men are going to college and acquiring the jobs such an education prepares you for. What's the difference? Women make less money than men across the board, meaning the more women employed in high-income jobs, the less money distributed to them in wages that could fuel discretionary spending -- the hidden costs of sexism.

It's worth considering the many ways American culture commemorates waste and demonizes savings and thrift and while still pretending it's a virtue. One of the reasons I've always been a skeptic about recycling is because it really serves as a rationalization on the personal level for systematic waste. It's okay to drink 18 16-ounce bottles of Diet Coke because look! I'm recycling them! Recycling is an alibi, a gesture that brings peace of mind for particpating in the disposable culture. That's not to argue that one shouldn't recycle, but it does seem like a token gesture.

Is blogging punk? (11 January 2006)

With its DIY ethic and it's occasionally anti-authoritarian bent, is blogging journalism's version of punk? This post from firedoglake suggests that it might be, and I sort of thought the same thing after I saw the Minutemen documentary. Here's what I said then: "What struck me most watching the film, though, was a comment one of the interviewees made about their songs: He noted how diaristic they were, how they would take a scrap of inspiration and transform it immediately into a finished scrap of song to share with the world, committing to it with total intensity for the moment that it's fresh, and then moving on just as quickly to the next scrap of an idea, the next moment of inspiration. No song is meant to stand in isolation, but all are part of the 'river' of songs bassist Mike Watt mentions, the ever expanding and multi-dimensional totality that made up their music's message. This sounds to me like the Minutemen were proto-bloggers. Blogging, of course, is DIY journalism and opinion making, a refusal to be passive in the face of current events. You want to participate in the conversation about ideas and you take your positions in public, serially, explaining them while they have a hold of you in as concise a form as you can, and then you move on, start somewhere else when the next idea takes hold of you."

Says firedoglake: "It's not that the movie business or the book business or the magazine business is dead, or that the blog world is any challenge to any of them, but creativity is a very fluid thing and when it becomes difficult to achieve any kind of satisfaction in a particular medium the quality talent will siphon off into an arena that allows it expression. I could stand at a magazine stand for 24 hours straight, reading every issue on the racks and not come across the clever, relevant, insightful things I know I can find in a half hour on the blogs." And she adds a cautionary note: "We thought punk rock and the energetic counterculture it produced would last for ever, but it didn't. It was over quite quickly. Enjoy the blogs while you can. These are the salad days."

It seems all too likely that like punk, blogging will be neutralized by being adopted by the established-media giants it seeks to subvert; already blog syndicates like Gawker and Pajamas Media have formed to consolidate and standardize a freewheeling medium, and eventually the unaffiliated voices will be impossible to hear in the sea of like-minded self-publishers all shouting into the cyber vacuum. Most people prefer filtered media; and when the novelty of unfiltered media is domesticated into something more coherent and pre-packaged, that is what will garner the most attention, and all the serious bloggers will conform to those standards, hoping to professionalize themselves and secure the respect they might expect and believe they deserve. But perhaps the crucial difference that the Internet makes in distribution and search capacities will forestall homogenization and co-optation. Maybe Battelle's book about the cultural impact of search engines will help me clarify my ideas.

Politics of obesity (11 January 2006)

Steven Shapin's New Yorker book review of some recent dieting memoirs makes the requisite points about the difference between what physiological health and social mores, pointing out that contempt for obesity is less a health issue than a moral issue. Right or wrong, fair or unfait, fat serves as a instantaneous proxy for lack of self-control and laziness, and while the health risks of obesity may be exaggerated, the repulsion many feel toward the overweight is not. In fact, hating "fat people" may be a way of hating women and minorities (who are disproportionately overweight by BMI standards) and feeling like a health-conscious hero instead of a bigot. Or weight, like race, may be an issue of class in disguise.

Shapin points out that "the key to the spread of obesity in America is technology-produced abundance. There are a lot of calories around; they're cheaper than they ever were; and they're more accessible as we move about in the course of a day. Our genetic constitution, having evolved in scarcity, was designed to store up as much fatty tissue as possible in rare periods of plenty, and, since we now live in permanent glut, nature has programmed us for obesity, some of us more than others." In other words, we produce more than we need in order to grow profits for capital, and the consequences of that growth is padding the bones and weighing down the lives of Americans who can't afford to complement their overindulgence with robotic exercise, the systematic destruction of productive capacity. Overweight people are an inevitable conseqeunce of social relations out of sync with biological parameters. That we then blame them for it merely adds insult to injury.

Technology not only allows us to produce more than is needed, but it changes lifestyles to encourage mindless, desocialized consumption, removing from eating the ritualized elements that once sanctified and controlled it. We don't share meals anymore, and the solitude of eating means we eat uncontrollably. "The social setting was understood to set moral limits on consumption. The shared meal marked the beginning and the end of eating: there was a time to eat and a time to stop. The meal defined the when, the what, the how, the how long, and the how much. You adjusted your consumption to those who were eating with you. You didn't have exactly what you wanted, exactly when you wanted it, and exactly as much as you might want. The marking, ordering, and, above all, limiting character of the shared meal remained largely intact into the twentieth century" But in the 21st century, that shared meal has nearly disappeared along with many of the other communal activities that once rooted society. The solitary meal is convenient -- you eat what you want when you want -- and thus it conforms to the general rule of technology, which seeks to atomize us, isolate us, leave us to our own devices, all in the name of making things more convenient for us. (Shapin suggests the car cupholder as the quintessential symbol of our culture, parallels the conclusions drawn in a Harper's "Annotation" piece on Campbell's soup-to-go.) Ironically, convenience leads to sloth and obesity, which is rather inconvenient when it comes to having a social life; thus the pursuit of convenience reinforces the rejection of social life upon which it is premised. Get fat, become unpopular, and then take solace in how convenient your unpopularity has made you.

Coat-rack commons (10 January 2006)

I'm always surprised at those restaurants and barber shops and doctors' offices that have coat racks where you are expected to hang your jacket, far away from where you will actually be sitting and with no one in charge of keeping an eye on it. The coat-check scheme extorts a tip for precisely that sort of protection, but these untended coat racks and closets hearken to a past era, quaint and small-townish, when the public trust was such that one wouldn't hesitate to hang your jacket properly and politely in its given place, as though you had gone to visit one of your friends' homes when you went to the Glendale Diner or the Country Place tavern. I don't use them, but I'm touched by them and their promise of universal trust. Public space could once be designed with such honor-system practices in place to provide social order; it is implicit in the way things were laid out and in the infrastructure of shared terrain, and one still encounters the traces of that regime in those regions that have remain uncorporatized. Nevertheless we bring the distrusting mentality brought on by corporate/anonymous space with us: You'll find me huddled in my parka in the restaurant, trying not to spill more coffee on it. Or I'll be putting my coat on in the narrow aisle and brushing the arms of it against unsuspecting patrons as they are trying to drink theirs.

The joy of giving (10 January 2006)

Craigslist is a strange information ecosystem: it's a place where strangers reach out to one another to offer free washing machines or spare rooms or anal sex. I don't look at it very often, but I am always fascinated by the stuff people are giving away for free, and the stipulations they sometimes put on it (must be a mother in need; must provide transportation; must take all of the issues in my Maxim collection). The stipulations are just a further development of the impulse that drives one to list something to give away rather than simply putting it in the trash. Because one bought something in the first place, one invests it with value that one then hates to see wasted or destroyed. "If I bought it, it must be worth something" -- the objects take on ego value, and throwing the stuff away would be like killing a part of yourself.

But on the other hand, purging ourselves of unnecessary things is one of the great joys of living in an affluent, materialistic society, almost as pleasurable as acquiring luxury goods in the first place. Perhaps it's generational and geographical to a degree (tiny NYC apartments), but most everyone I know longs to get rid of stuff, to streamline their lives, to get rid of the consumerist barnacles that have attached to their lives so as to better use the things that are "really essential." Thus we become preoccupied with the cyclical waxing and waning of our possessions, and we try to recruit others to share our primary fascination with our collection of junk by offering them some of it for free.

Of course if one has more time and energy, one can introduce market forces into the ebb and flow of one's belongings by turning one's life into a permanent yard sale, auctioning items perpetually on eBay (to some degree Craigslist's evil cousin). This allows the market to affirm the value of the things you no longer want but once did, it puts a price tag on that memory and allows you to let go of the material thing to which that price is attached. Someone on eBay pays the ransom, and you've happily shed one more barnacle without having to feel like you were ever a sucker along the way, buying something you didn't really need. The Craigslist giveaway earns you a different peace of mind, that you have somehow transcended money; you paid in the stuff you've shed for that feeling of being nonmaterialistic, outside economics. (But there is no "outside" of economics, as all behavior can be thought of in terms of incentives.)

The giveaways may also be an attempt to build community, to invoke an ethos of sharing in the face of the dominant ethos of hoarding and competitive acquisition. At some levels it may even turn into a potlatch of competitive giving -- you're giving a toaster away? Well, I'll give a microwave. Giving something away can serve as a pretense for meeting someone, a good faith gesture that invites reciprocation, but that runs counter to the ideology that true friendship is gratuitous, coming with no strings attached. But still, it seems liberating to stop piling the mountain of goods between ourselves and other people and begin to dismantle it by giving that stuff away. Too bad it just piles up somewhere else.

The look of music (9 January 2006)

I'm not sure if I am the exception or the rule, but as I was organizing the music on my computer into some semblance of order, trying to sort it by decade (so I don't have to scroll through 250 songs from the Complete Hank Williams and another 250 songs from the Roy Rogers collection or the Trojan reggae boxed sets every time I want to look for something to play), I realized that I don't have any idea what any of the bands I have filed under "2000s rock" look like.

For a moment I thought that maybe I was representative of the future, where free-flowing digitized music data signals the end of image-conscious pseudo-bands and the marketing of records by the amount of makeup the musicians wear. But then I returned to earth and realized that I'm almost certainly in the minority on this. I'd be happy if I never saw another semi-bearded 20-something holding a guitar ever again -- if that's what indie rockers even look like anymore -- but many people consume the image along with the music and would feel gypped if all the bands became anonymous. And since I don't go see rock shows, I have nothing invested in a band looking or acting interesting (hence I can listen to Wilco). But when I used to go out to see music, I used to be the first one complaining about the dismal lack of showmanship and charisma in most acts and yearn for Darkness-like spectacle and absurdity. I hated the idea of approachable, regular-guy rock stars and yearned for what I remembered from my youth, when rock stars equaled larger-than-life lunatics like Paul Stanley shouting his head off or Freddie Mercury in a spandex checkered bodysuit -- in other words, people who could have no place in this world off of a stage. If rock stars seemed like someone who would hang out with me, then they were pretty lousy rock stars -- the point is to live something extreme and decadent through them so you can go on with your ordinary, productive and comfort filled life. It means enjoying a vicarious evening of chaos so you don't have to actually live in a filthy apartment with a dung-encrusted toilet and a carpet dense with cigarette ash and spilled beer, like the one the Brian Jonestown Massacre appeared to inhabit in Dig.

The point is that pop music is an avenue for vicarious experience, and therefore the music is often secondary to the implied lifestyle of the "musicians" involved. So it makes no sense for me to pine for image-free rock, no matter how blinkered and band-blind my peculiar manner of acquiring music makes me. When you are no longer interested in the fantasies that go along with listening to pop, but you are still drawn to music, you probably at that point begin listening to virtuosic performances and classical music on NPR. Where does that leave me, then -- what do I get out of these bands with no image cluttering my hard drive? Honestly, not much; I can barely tell them apart,a nd they leave no impression on me other than to remind me of bands I've already liked intensely in the past, reminding me to go back and listen to them -- meaning digging through the piles of CDs collecting dust and ripping it afresh.

Retailers and adulteration (6 January 2006)

Because we are not in the habit of haggling (a happenstance greatly advantageous to retailers), we have the tendency to think there is a sound objective reason that goods are priced the way they are, that there is some relation to what they cost to make and distribute. But that assumption, though comforting when we are the heat of acquisitiveness, as it assures us that we aren't being taken for a ride, is in the end extremely naive, as prices depend not on costs but on what the customer is willing to pay. Affluent customers, because they don't need to count every penny of their disposable income and perhaps because they are most abstracted from the real cost of things, are easy targets for this kind of margin padding.

Tim Harford explores this phenomenon in regard to notorious price-inflaters Starbucks in this Slate article, which also features some helpful hints at how to get your coffee money's worth. He points out that the "short cappuccino" is optimal milk to espresso beverage, but it is rarely advertised or even featured on the menu because it sells cheaper than the venti monstrosities the company earns most of its profits with. Harford attributes this to Starbucks aggressive pursuit of "price-blind customers," the free-spending sybarites who have helped the company build its coffee empire. "The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a 'value' line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers who would willingly spend more. 'The bottom end of any market tends to get distorted,' says McManus. "The more market power firms have, the less attractive they make the cheaper products.' " That means that as the mom-and-pop coffee shops are bullied out of business by Starbucks, Starbucks can make their cheap but better cappuccinos more and more invisible to their own customers, steering them toward more wasteful product. And as supermarkets eliminate small groceries, they can make their generic brands seem like so many turds on the bottom shelf while encouraging shoppers to buy inflated brand-name goods.

This same principle extends into attempts to embarrass customers for asking for cheaper goods or pursuing promised discounts or using coupons and so on. If clerks are slow in processing these promises, other customers will do the embarrassing for them, growing impatient in lengthening lines as managers are summoned and register keys are futilely punched in searching for the means to actually take the 10 percent off as advertised.

The point is that retailers knowingly subdivide their customers into classes (and RFID tags should only make this easier) and they try to make their little class system meaningful to consumers with petty instances of preferential treatment that cost nothing when compared to the bigger profit margins they earn on these first-class dupes. They hope you'll resent the other customers when you are forced to worry about what they'll think when you complicate things at the checkout, rather than resenting the retailers themselves. But if the retailer is the only game in town, directing resentment at it won't accomplish much -- that's just one of the perks of monopoly.

Consumerism and contamination (5 January 2006)

Much of what philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his recent New York Times Magazine article about globalization seems like common sense upon a cursory read because it confirms what we want to believe already, that the globalization of capitalism is spreading freedom, and that consumer choices are a perfect proxy for liberty and result in a broader opportunity to live life as one chooses. These are things we already believe to be true about our own lives, that our frequent and habitual choices in the market every day make us unique individuals exercising boundless freedom. So to trap impoverished people in traditional ways of life or to condemn them for being attracting to the flexibility and convenience of Western consumerism's bounty would be unfair, and as Appiah seeks to emphasize, deeply patronizing: "Talk of cultural imperialism "structuring the consciousnesses" of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism's moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn't true." This rings true because we all intuitively resist the idea that our social context determines in any way our consciousness, that we are not inventing the lives we want for ourselves spontaneously with each passing minute. It is much more convenient to focus on the smaller picture, to be " taking individuals -- not nations, tribes or "peoples" -- as the proper object of moral concern" and work inductively based on satisfying case studies that demonstrate a consumer happily making decisions that feel and are meaningful to him. Yes, the individual may be the best arbiter of what behavior is authentic to him, and he can choose between Coke and Pepsi and he can decide which soccer stars to cheer for and what radio station to play and all of that but that doesn't change the fact that he is forced to operate within a system that uniformly rules over all these arbitrary choices, that decides for him that he will cherish these choices as the essence of his being, in lieu of political power or participation in traditional ceremony or some other proxy for cultural significance. The point is not that people don't like shopping. They do. The point is that shopping effaces all alternatives for cultural expression and recognition. That is the homogenity produced by globalization -- it doesn't mean we all drink Coke and listen to Girls Aloud. As Appiah himself points out, "different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development" -- and this is precisely what globalization obliterates without any concern for the differences among persons, leaving only one avenue to spiritual development, the market.

The uniformity produced is that we are atomized as individuals and abstracted from a community, which is extremely liberating on the one hand -- there is no limit to what we can buy, no traditions shackling us to a specific way of life -- but extemely alienating on the other. The framework that gives us direction in life erodes, the underpinnings for a meaningful, fulfilling life melt into the air as compulsory consumerism puts on the "hedonic treadmill" chasing after ever more exciting goods to give us self-definition.

To support his case Appiah trots out some straw men (the mavens of "political correctness" who want to ram traditional ways down the throats of people willy-nilly and who thrill at telling people what to do, no different than mullahs forbidding children polio vaccines) and deploys the old cultural studies canard that consumers are really producers who make their own meaning out of the neutral goods that industries supply to market, that this therefore means that consumerism is automatically empowering. But this line of reasoning assumes that goods come with some intended use, which obviously they don't -- manufacturers don't care what you do with something once they have your money and you can't show them up by "misusing" them -- by reading Dallas against the grain. Just as little girls decapitating Barbies doesn't do anything to upend sexism, contriving off-label uses for goods does nothing to end the hegemony of consumerism. Of course consumers are not dupes; they are given incentives to buy and these distract them from the way society is stripped of every other incentive that's now attached to a consumer good, that's not personal pleasure or convenience or self-aggrandizement.

Most tendentious is Appiah's implication that globalizing capitalism is inherently beneficial because the real totalizing system, Islamic fundamentalism, is the actual threat. How can he ignore the likely possiblity that globalization and fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin, that they reinforce each other, that Christian fundamentalism is not also a part of this. You don't have to be an acolyte of Jihad vs. McWorld to recognize that possibility. To just toss out the "you think it's X but it is really Y you should worry about" line of reasoning offers a misleading either/or scenario.

Ikea feeding trough (4 January 2006)

I've written before about how IKEA, with its family friendly day-care centers and cafeterias and all that, contrives a social-welfare aura that seems to transform their sometimes shoddy goods into highly marketable emblems of a better social democracy to come. Well, according to this item from German periodial Der Spiegel some people are taking the company's commitment to the social welfare quite seriously. "More and more people are starting to use the stores as an ersatz for social services and babysitting," the article reports, detailing how poor Germans use IKEA stores as soup kitchens. This leads to unlikely encounters across class lines: "The customers are a colorful mix of people: pensioners meet up with single-parents, managers with garbage collectors. 'The Ikea restaurant is a modern meeting point for all kinds of people. It's a sort of social living room,' says Gretel Weiss, who works for the magazine Food Service. Some people even celebrate their birthday in this 'social living room.' " So IKEA really is the town square for the consumer-driven social democracy of the future, where we all have balsa-wood bookcases and all the Swedish meatballs we can stomach.

RFID chips (3 January 2006)

Expect to hear a lot more this year about RFID chips, the tiny pieces of silicon that retailers can use to track each and every single piece of inventory, and which can also be used to monitor all sorts of our personal behavior -- anything that involves a consumer good, which at this point is just about every activity we perform routinely. This article from details some potential uses for these chips gleaned from patent applications: "the privacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering cites two patents and two pending applications by Goliath that envision extending the system to track individual consumers in stores and target ads to them at home by using RFID chips embedded in loyalty cards.

One of the patents, granted in October, for example, outlines using RFID readers to count how many consumers are exposed to a particular display or to identify consumers who 'closely identified a display for a predetermined amount of time' by reading their loyalty cards. The patent envisions consumers flashing their loyalty cards in the vicinity of the displays or, it adds: 'The card could be read in a shopper's purse.' The patent also covers gathering data about which displays individual consumers frequent in retailer databases to provide 'personalized incentives' and 'focus subsequent advertising material, such as direct mail.' " In other words, RFID is a first step toward the "disctatorship of the consumer" that Hal Hartley visualized in his film The Girl From Monday -- a society where the sum total of one's contribution to the economy, the amount of consumer demand one has evoked and discharged, is constantly being measured to calibrate one's standing in the world. RFID will be able to mark consumers with their class status and spending habits and thus make sure they get the preferential treatment their spending power should rightly procure. Meanwhile, everyone else will get shoddier and shoddier non-service, and will be like those line of chumps ringing themselves up on the confusing and demoralizing self-service check-out machines in The Home Depot. (RFID won't eliminate those machines; it just relegate the second-class shoppers without "loyalty" to use them.) Such tracking information would seem to allow a retailer to customize a shopper's experience, cater to him, make him enjoy shopping more, but this is the mere alibi for what it really allows: It permits retailers to demand fealty, and it enforces a more rigid stratification of the consumer public with the intent of sowing more inequality, more divisions between people who otherwise have common goals, and more conpensatory consumption to alleviate the pain. Happy new year!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Paradox of realism (30 December 2005)

Recently in Slate James Surowiecki wrote an assessment of the Xbox 360 in which he posits a "paradox of realism": "After a certain point, the more "real" a game gets both graphically and experientially, the harder it is for that game to seem real." This seems entirely accurate, because "realism" is more a special-effects selling point than an effective contribution to game-play, which often has more to do with abstract elements such as the rate at which the game becomes more difficult or the intuitiveness of the controls or the variety of tasks involved, problem solving levels, or the careful calibration of the player's frustration.

The most effective computer games are primarily reward delivery systems couched in some implied open-ended narrative. Truly successful games don't really need to leverage technology, they don't become outmoded, they don't make themselves obsolescent. But nevertheless we are expected to buy ever more sophisticated gaming equipment. Hence the ceaseless promotion of "realism" as an exciting thing to consume, as though one can't get reality simply by living one's own life. (Living our own reality perhaps doesn't give us the chance to consume contrived reality as a product, which is what realistic games seek to do.) Typically, the selling point of realistic games is that it is supposed to make you feel as though you are really doing something you could never do, like fight in World War II or do acrobatic karate or play pro football or whatever.

But as Surowiecki suggests, the more real something gets, the more the little flaws and inaccuracies bother us. Also, the more realistic the decisions we have to make, the more ungamelike it becomes, the more we are in over our heads, forced to solve problems that are not especially compelling (like how the hell does this controller work?). The more reality the game seeks to provides, the less imagination we have to bring to it, and the less willing we become to do any of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy fictional situations. Old games drew out imagination, new ones intentionally stifle it, and claim that stifling is what makes them fun. (How? Advertising and a pervasive ideology that holds that technological change -- new game systems that have tons more resolution and processing power -- is always for the better.)

The new generation of ultra realistic games purport to make us a more active participant in a believable environment, but in reality they take us from being players to being tourists. When a game is sold as "realistic," that translates into a promise that the game will do all the imagining for us and we'll be allowed to simply be tourists in the game's hyperreal world. Like the "convenience" goods the consumer society in general specializes in providing, it promises the contradiction of passive excitement, where you get to be enthralled as a spectator and so dazzled that you are fulfilled without having to make the effort of being engaged. Just follow the tour and the interesting stuff worth seeing will be presented to you -- no need to research your own itinerary. That is the trajectory game development takes, because that is the trajectory that society as a whole takes, technologically speaking -- such a course reinforces the passivity of consumers and leaves them more helpless to entertain themselves, more alienated from the real and eager to consume "reality" as a mediated product, more in thrall of manufactured entertainments that have a limited period of effectiveness and thus leave us compelled to always consume more.

Outsmarted by outsmarting advertising (29 December 2005)

One of the gut reactions to theories that invest ads with the power to control how people think or exert subconscious influence, ie, theories that advertisements actually work and convince people to do things against their better or natural interests (why else would it be a billion, if not trillion, dollar industry?), is this: Yeah, sure, ads might work on dumb people, on people who aren't sharp and analytical like me, but I'm intelligent, I'm paying attention, I'm not affected by ads. I'm smarter than they are. Of course this is silly reasoning; ads typically play off one's sense of intelligence to be persuasive, often flattering that intelligence with their own silliness, as in all the ads that simply reject the operation of logic altogether. But when you reject an ad with a sense that you are smarter than it, you nevertheless associate that brand being advertised with a feeling of power in yourself. The ad has done what ads usually want to do (when they are not taking the low road and trying to terrorize you, like mouthwash makers, or tire manufacturers or the Republican party) -- it has made you feel good about yourself and associated its product with that feeling of self-satisfaction.

In a short Economist story about telecom business in Somalia (it's great! there's no government there!) the chairman of a the leading cell-phone company there reported how the company had to provide low prices: "Pricing is especially important in Somalia, says Mr Ali, because so many customers are illiterate and immune to advertising." A very interesting point -- not only does one's education (using literacy as proxy here) make one more vulnerable to advertising, but one then bears the cost of that advertising in the form of higher prices. But what this suggests is that ads have a way of affirming the usefulness of education to the person who has it -- it flatters that person. As the saying goes, it's pleasant to know things and pleasant to know you know things; certain ads do what they can to remind you of that, and if you find yourself a Pepsi drinking fool as a result, well, so be it.

Update: This post from the Consumerist blog addresses some of the same ideas. This writer believes that ads are really "cool" and sometimes we don't notice it because we are too busy being unduly negative about advertisements ruling every aspect of our public sphere. "The loud braying ubiquity of advertising pretty much invalidates it without any effort on my part. I don't notice advertising anymore, unless it is advertising that somehow makes my life a little more surreal, or stupid, or silly, or magical. Advertising has oversaturated me, and consequently, I've built up sort of an existential immunity that prevents it from parsing at all. Which makes the occasional advertisement like the two examples above so striking, in that the guys behind it get that you can't just slap a placard up or buy some television space to really get people to notice anymore. Advertising needs to, well, actually be cool to even penetrate the anti-advertising bubble most of us walk around in." I think this is wrong in several ways: when advertising becomes part of the air you breathe, it need not be noticed to be effective. At that level of saturation, it begins to shape your very notion of what's possible, and it becomes harder to even conceive of alternatives to the pictures of happiness as consumer satisfaction the ads supply. No bubble can protect you from the advertising onslaught; when one feels impervious that is when one is most vulnerable, that is when ads have been taken for granted the most.

Also, "cool" advertising can actually work against itself, inviting too much intellectual consideration into one's reaction to what is being advertised. If you admire the cleverness of the copywriter too much, you might neglect the product altogether.

But what's most insane about this comment is that it suggests the writer wants ads to become more aggressive and invasive and illogical, that this writer is worried that ads aren't moving him like they should. He's (or she's; I can't tell) like a kid who has outgrown his cartoons, but doesn't want the responsibility of dealing with more sophisticated mediums. The writer comes across as a perfect example of the narcissist ads work so hard to create, the person utterly dependent on the commercial world for pleasure (reconceived as "entertainment"), the passive, aimless hedonist who waits whiningly for some advertiser to come around and stick the thumb back in his mouth.

Cheapening information (27 December 2005)

When the Internet first made mass anonymous music giveaways a reality with digital compression and newsgroup postings, I knew of people who would spend hours and hours in front of their computer obsessively -- maybe even religiously; free stuff was a matter of faith for them, a kind of God-given miracle -- downloading everything they could find, much of it stuff they would never listen to, and storing it on CD after CD as though the future of these songs depended on their devout archivism. It was as though the Earth was to be destroyed any minute, and they were hoping to take the collective output of Western society's musicians on the escape pods with them. I attribute this to a kind of collector's mania, a disorder brought on by a consumer society that emphasizes the pleasures of possession over use. But what they would tell me is that free music can't last forever, that eventually the Man would figure out how to stop it, and in the meantime they were going to get it while they can.

But the development of information technology continues to make it harder to control and possess rather than easier, and free music is always getting easier to access. Information is becoming impossible to contain, becoming almost sentient in its pursuit of free movement, or at least becoming, as was argued in an article in the most recent Harper's, like weather with its massive, uncontrollable and difficult-to-predict movements. Informational fronts sweep the earth, raining down obscure bits of knowledge in unlikely locales, visiting unwieldy information upon the terrain like a sign of God's wrath, sending Butterfly effects rippling through cyberspace at 11,000 kbps.

So the avenues for finding free music keep increasing, with peer-to-peer trading systems evolving into social-networking sites, and blogs, thanks to file-hosting services sich as Rapidshare and Yousendit, becoming veritable libraries of people's favorite music, making random individuals into so-many Santa Clauses, sharing albums ripped from cherished vinyl or advance copies snatched from industry insiders. The file-hosting technology is just catching on; many of the blogs sharing full albums have archives that only date back to October at the most. What Rapidshare allows one to do is upload an entire album as an archive file for free, regardless of size -- and widespread broadband access makes this time-efficient. So any record worth mentioning can almost as immediately be posted to share -- the data is already probably on the writer's hard drive (the massive increase in disk space also has abetted the great music giveaway) and a few clicks is all that is needed to send it out to the world. After one stumbles upon one of these blogs, one can race through their archive and then through the archives of all the blogs they link to, and so on and so on, and you can add fifty albums to your collection in a few hours. Add DownThemAll to Firefox as an extension, pay the 10 euros for a premium Rapidshare membership, and you can multiply that by 10, if not more. If you want to have a big, comprehensive music collection, and you own a computer with a fast connection, money no longer stands in your way, and time and knowledge don't really either. A chance Google link can alow you to harness the collective geek-knowledge of the entire world's legion of record collectors, and you can obtain in an evening records people once spent years of their life pursuing as personal grails, all without having ever having heard of them before. (Example: Search for once-difficult-to-hear Beatles Christmas records.)

Why do these people give away music? Why spend the time? Sheer altruism? Maybe that's part of it, a belief in some transcendent community that supercedes relationships created by the marketplace (as well as geography). And perhaps part of it is an anti-authoritarian sentiment, a grass roots anarchism against the hegemony of property. But most of all, it could be a benevolent kind of potlatch one-upsmanship, to build prestige by making the most boutiful gifts. You've given away every Beach Boys bootleg on your site? Well, maybe I should give away every Teenage Shutdown compilation. The more gratuitous and extravagant the gift, the more prestige it affords the giver. This gives record collectors a new way to use their collection: posting obscure LPS to the Internet and thereby earning admiration and gratitude. This reinforces the secret Alexandrine motivation behind every collection, to become a kind of personal curator to the world, to feel chiefly responsible for the cultural survival of the important things fortunate enough to be discovered by you. The MP3 blog of obscurities becomes a personal museum wherein to show off your exquisite taste and the depth of your holdings. The free audio files is just bait to get people to keep coming back and observe your shrewd choices and pay homage to your wisdom. The Internet gives collectors what they always need, what they live for, an ever eager audience to marvel at their munificence. They no longer need to lure like-minded people from the record store to their basement to hear them spin rare 45s. Now they can just start a blog and get a decent site-meter to track the traffic.

What is happening is that the prestige of the music itself is waning: what one has heard no longer even signifies effort or devotion or particular interest or knowledge. Anyone who finds a couple good blogs can have virtually every garage rock record recorded in the 1960s, and untold numbers of kitsch exotica LPs. But though knowledge of the music is becoming less impressive, less likely to give you an air of distinction, owning the physical LPs is gaining in prestige: who has the space? who has the diligence? who wants to spend the money for a purely ornamental artifact. Records are more than ever an object for conspicuous consumption, because their usefulness is becoming moot. So the cheapening of information through Internet technology has made physical ownership more impressive than knowledge. Owning music is better (for the purposes of wowing others, and in our competitive, status-driven society, what other purposes are there?) than listening to it. Cheap information, free music (and books and movies, etc.) only enhances the prestige of raw, unrefined brute ownership.

Wheat (23 December 2005)

The most recent Economist has a story on the intertwined history of the human species and the cultivation of wheat (with some thinly-disguised propaganda for genetically modified crops mixed in), a story that ends with an unexpected twist: Rising wheat yields and the defeat of famine in most of the world outside of Africa has revealed that "human beings may be the only creatures that have fewer babies when they are better fed." The article predicts that human population will seize to grow by 2035 and will reach its peak in 2050 -- it will never double again. The only places where population still increases is in the poorest places of the world: Burkina Faso, Niger, Somalia -- places where human life seems to be disturbingly cheap. Could it be that in more-developed countries people cherish and value their own lives so much that they feel no need to augment it by bringing into this world more lives? Prosperity may make it seem as though additional mouths to feed are unwarranted, can seem a subtraction rather than an addition to one's life. Or rather, is it that prosperity can produce technologies that defeat the instinct to procreate? Does it provide distractions and pleasures that make child-rearing seem the distraction? Malthus famously thought the world's population would be decimated by famine, but as this article suggests, it's ultimate ironic end may come by sheer surfeit.

Scrooged (22 December 2005)

Having experienced the stress of rote gift-giving and having lamented throwing away the well-meant but unwanted junk I've accumulated in holiday seasons past, and having gnashed my teeth in previous posts about the current negative savings rate in America, I enjoyed this faintly ironic article by Slate's Steven E. Landsburg in praise of Scrooge-like miserliness, which he spins as a refusal to destroy or consume the world's resources. Any dollar earned and saved is like a gift to the world, he claims, because you are not consuming in equal proportion to what you have produced. "Saving is philanthropy, and because this is both the Christmas season and the season of tax reformёit's worth mentioning that the tax system should recognize as much. If there's a tax deduction for charitable giving, there should be a tax deduction for saving. What you earn and don't spend is your contribution to the world, and it's equally a contribution whether you give it away or squirrel it away." It's like the invisible hand for gift-giving; you do nothing and think of no one, and yet you give and give to everyone the whole time.

Art as Ponzi scheme (21 December 2005)

The Economist can't get enough of MMORPGs, which are, in case you are not glued to your computer screen pretending to be an halberd-wielding elf, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. But the magazine has had a story on them in seemingly every issue this past month. Perhaps the reason is that business writer Edward Castronova (He works in academia but The Economist bills him as a gaming expert) recently wrote a semisensational book about these games (EverQuest, Ultima Online, etc.) regarding how real value is produced in these fictional worlds, such that there are people in China playing them all day long to produce things in the game that can then be auctioned on eBay for real money. This seems absolutely insane, because what is to stop the game's designers from introducing more game stuff into the fictional world at no cost or effort and selling it themselves? In fact, hyperinflation rules the economies of these faux worlds, because new value can be created with no natural limits.

The same thing is taking place in that other contrived land of imagination, the art world. Harper's this month has an excerpt from The Economy of Prestige, by James English (PopMatters reivew here), which documents how the "endless proliferation of prizes" the culture industry awards itself has destroyed our collective sense of artistic value. The prizes generate more prizes, highlighting new gaps in the firmament, some new similar microniche to exploit. Consequently, every culture worker worth anything has a list of prizes on their CV or resume to promote themselves, and the prizes themselves have no meaning beyond self-promotion, if they ever did. And that's the real point of prizes, in English's opinion. "The constantly reiterated charges of illegitimacy not only help to keep the prize a focus of attention but also foster the collective belief in some more perfect, less political realm of artistic judgment." Prizes are so obviously corrupt and self-serving that they make us dream of the awarding the real award, the one we would assign that would be based entirely on merit. And then we get to go out and do just that, with the ultimate prize: dollars. English writes, "The increasing self-consciousness of scandal suggests that today we find ourselves suspended between the enduring impulse to revere art and the rising temptation to regard it and the cultural institutions that surround it as a kind of vast and inescapable Ponzi scheme."

Anyway, artistic judgment is always political, always couches a system of values that transcends art and orders our social lives; that is why art has anything at stake, why people are interested in it in the first place. It manifests social values we are either trying to reject or promote or explicate or modify, and it provides a surrogate field, a MMORPG-like laboratory where these values are much more malleable than they are in reality. And like the "farmers" producing EverQuest characters in China and selling them for real money, the art world produces social ideas that escape their cloistered world and have a real effect on how lives are lived. Prizes are red herrings that make us think art is a competition, a pursuit of excellence, so that we don't notice its far more humdrum and insidious accomplishments -- it actually performs the drudgery of laying out what limits there are to our thinking, circumscribing what we can conceive as possible.

Death of local scenes (19 December 2005)

This paper by economist David Zetland explores the "negative externalities" of Google (which is econospeak for the bad things about Google that do nothing to prevent its becoming more and more popular). He points to two in particular: First, the loss of opportunities to innovate, since Google delivers so much information ready-made. There is no need to think through something to reach your own conclusions; Google skips you over to the many possible conclusions that have already been produced along the same lines. It pre-empts deductive thinking, encourages associative grouping via searches based on a few pithily chosen phrases. Just recombine the key terms of what you are thinking about, and see what's out there, rather than undergo the hard work of connecting those terms by the strictures and rigor of your own personal logic.

There is a real sense that there are no new ideas that anyone could come up with, and the best thing to do is to continue to link to other things already out there (much as I and millions of other bloggers do -- linking to each other or scanning stuff in). There is no sense in trying to add value, all the value is already in the Internet, and we can only ladle out a tasty scoop -- that is the most we can take credit for. Obviously this attitude is bad for innovation and the future of thought. But it's great for cataloging cool stuff like old paperback novel covers and photos of sexy 60s actresses and so on. There's a Flickr photo set already out there for anything that has ever been thought to be cool; you just have to hope it's not a private one. Still, this fact would seem to discourage one from creating their own Flickr set of cool scans, but that may underestimate the degree to which one's narcissistic sense of individuality and egoistic need to express it trumps the Internet's irrefutable proof that one is never original. (I'm sorry; I'm wafflng back and forth a bit.) Writes Zetland:"Google (and other Internet sources) have not affected our generation of new knowledge very much now, since there are still old things being uploaded, not everyone is connected, and the meshing of cultures (`a la Cowen) is still occurring, but the next stage can include a decrease in overall generation of new material (as old material is downloaded as sufficient) as well as the appropriate reduction in capacity that would follow." At some point, people will accept that everything worth uploading is there already, and things will dry up (theoretically, anyway). And then where will I get my fix of downloadable thrift-store albums?

Second, Zetland points out the loss of local communities of shared knowledge, i.e. the knowledge equivalent of destruction of local music scenes, which feed on their cloistered ignorance of what is happening in the rest of the world. Google gives immediate access to what the world has to offer on every subject imaginable, so ideas need no longer incubate separately in isolated communities, and those communities need no longer form. Even when local communities try to use what they know particularly to bar outsiders, Google militates against that, allowing anyone to snoop in and immediately disseminate local secrets. It even seems to be trying to organize local knowledge and make it immediately available via its annotated maps. Zetland thinks this could help preserve local culture, but it seems to be it reifies it into prepackaged boxes imported from the outside. And things like craigslist are certainly useful to community, but it supplants the functions of physical community space where who knows what might have happened had people been forced to rub shoulders with each other. (See my paean to public transport above.)

Zetland sees in the future "the one-size-fits-all ideal that management consultants, international aid organizations, fast-food franchises and other purveyors of commodities in the global marketplace often implement -- with poor results" taking over everything -- homogeneous solutions available in a package through the Internet will obviate the local development of solutions to local problems, and the idea that there are even local problems, unique to a particular place, may gradually disappear. This has already happened in the sphere of music: Since we can all hear the best performances now, "As a result, I claim, amateur or idiosyncratic voices can have a harder time being heard because their audience has defected, reducing demand. Supply fails when local creators (of music, ideas, etc.) build an expectation that their contributions will be superseded by superior outside sources and do not even bother to try. The spring of their inspiration can dry up, as the ethos defining their culture falls into disuse." There, in a nutshell, is why local music scenes have died. Local musicians may conclude that they must either try to succeed on a national scale or accept utter anonymity and be a drop in the vast ocean of Internet-distributed music.

Transit strike (16 December 2005)

Mass transit is one of the main reasons I live in New York City. Mass transit is one of the main things that makes me believe modern life is not a complete mistake. It is one of the last vestiges of shared public space, shared consciousness. The degree to which a city has dismantled its mass transit system is the degree to which they've regressed from society's peak. Then you are left with what a city like Tucson has, a bus system that is a physical manifestation of the class structure -- if you ride the bus you are poor, a second-class citizen whose time doesn't matter and who has no choice but to tolerate inefficiency in public transportation system that has become a kind of de facto charity, or a food-stamps program.

Public transit throws open unexpected possibilities (good or bad), is a launching point not just for your commute but for your imagination. Almost all of my good ideas come to me on the train -- something about being around strangers and considering the reality of their existence helps me concentrate, turns my mind in unexpected directions. I like the character in Repo Man who does all his best thinking on a bus and thinks owning a car therefore makes you stupid.

So the thought of a transit strike upsets my whole reason for being. In my mind I have wanted to side with the union in this, but I'm finding it harder and harder, and not merely because the reporting is so biased against them. I haven't read much about the nitty-gritty of the stand-off, but I find myself asking questions like there:Does a union exist to wish away technological innovation (the replacement of conductors with robots)? Does it exist to extort more taxpayer money (as the MTA is not a for-profit company -- it's not Wal-Mart, but a government entity)? Unions should protect the welfare of its future members, and they are right not to let the MTA divide the union against itself by having a two-tiered benefit structure -- I understand that. But the idea that they have the right to strand 7 million people is a bit unacceptable to me.

I've been told to see such an event as an opportunity, as a chance to shake up routines and learn lessons about what we take for granted. No thanks. Having tried to imagine the dystopia life would become under the city's contingency plan -- biking through freezing rain, lining up for hours for a LIRR train, or standing in a slug line at a designated carpool point/refugee camp -- I think I'd rather leave those lessons unlearned.

Like a virgin (15 December 2005)

Dittothis post from Tyler Cowen at the blog Marginal Revolution.
For some reason (psychoanalyze me if you wish), I find this one especially awful:
"For her 17th wedding anniversay Jeanette Yarborough wanted to do something special for her husband. In addition to planning a hotel getaway for the weekend, Ms. Yarborough paid a surgeon $5,000 to reattach her hymen, making her appear to be a virgin again.
'It's the ultimate gift for the man who has everything,' says Ms. Yarborough..."
This is reported to be one of the plastic surgery industry's fastest-growing segments, and yes that is in the United States. The article is from the 15 December Wall Street Journal, p.A1.
If this is a gift that impresses you, I'm pretty sure you have nothing, not everything. And while I'm sure someone out there would make the argument that women who elect to have this surgery are post-feminist pleasure-seekers expressing their "freedom" just like sex workers and strippers allegedly are, I'll go on the record and say that these women are insane to subject themselves to this (as insane as men who attempt to enlarge their penises with stretching machines or surgical enhancements). The depressing encroachment of the anxieties of the marketplace into the realm of our genitalia is emblematic of the commercialization of sex in general and typifies the way capitalism seeks to transform everything into a occasion for exploitation, producing misery that is then "cured" by some ersatz solution for sale.

Once we were all innocent of these sorts of ruses, but the worst thing about them is that when ideas like these spread (and I'm not helping things by reporting it here) they are impossible to efface from the realm of the possible; they are already in some senses, naturalized. And unfortunately, no surgery can repair our culture and restore its virginal state once these horrors are common knowledge, once they have assumed their place as yet another positional good, another distinctive commodity to posess.

No childhood left behind (14 December 2005)

First, the war on Christmas. Now, courtesy of, comes this report of dollmaker American Girl's attempts to "save childhood.", the centerpiece of American Girl's campaign, opens with this mini-manifesto: "Save unicorns. Save dreams. Save rainbows. Save girlhood." It includes faux testimonials -- "By 2010, only 2% of girls will dot their i's with smiley face" -- as well as suggestions for games, tips on dealing with bullies and body image and links to buy merchandise. The copy on the page reads, "The way we see it, girls are growing up too fast. From every angle, today's girls are bombarded by influences pushing them toward womanhood at too early an age -- at the expense of their innocence, their playfulness, their imagination."
Because we all know women have no imagination. Very thoughtful of the company to include fake accounts of how their product helps children remain childish, too. And the links to buy stuff, well, that's what being a girl is all about. "Parents know 'the American Girl products are something they can really do for their daughters versus just another thing they can get,' said a spokeswoman for American Girl." Yes, rather than merely burying them underneath an avalanche of toys, you can "do" a gender straitjacket for them by getting toys that prescribe traditional (and subservient) behavior patterns. May as well buy them a copy of Fascinating Womanhood as well.

If corporations weren't around to tell our children how they should behave, what their youth should be like and what memories they should have, they would really be lost; childhood after all is best defined by the marketeers who seek to exploit it. And if children grow up too fast, if they escape their age bracket before corporations have fully taken advantage of them at that stage and sold them all the expected junk, then "childhood" will truly be dead. We need marketers to enforce the age groups and their product-specific behaviors lest these concepts slip through our fingers. We wouldn't want our children to have grown up with fewer toys then they might have had otherwise right? How would we face ourselves as parents, if we couldn't at least fill a moving van with all the useless crap we bought for our kids once they are grown.

What's really disturbing about this is how the campaign is directed at parents who want to "protect" their kids from the hassles and ambiguities of growing up. It sells childhood as a prison, where your offspring can remain a compliant little treasure to be admired forever. It encourages parents to force their own childhood on their children, so they can later grow up with the same disappointments.

Etiology of hype (14 December 2005)

Everybody hates hype, yet hype constitutes a greater and greater portion of our public discourse. Why? Hype may naturally spiral, since in a climate of hype, new hype needs to be that more outlandish and hyperbolic. But what instigates people to create hype in the first place? At what point in our technological advancement as a society did word-of-mouth enthusiasm degenerate into the rote manufacture of hype for new products?

Hype serves a fundamental culture-industry need of generating demand for unwanted new products, permitting growth where none is necessary. No one needs a new rock band or a new film star, but the industry must expand the pantheon to establish new profitable product lines. Hence PR firms are hired to assiduously and relentless try to generate buzz for their clients. They saturate anyone with any kind of media reach with hype, trying desperately to create the illusion of significance for whatever they are hyping. This hype, obviously paid for and obviously indiscriminate and patently desperate, is easy for most people to dismiss. But it succeeds nevertheless, in a more indirect way, simply by polluting the atmosphere with its tropes. PR establishes the grammar for more legitimate forms of hype that are harder to dismiss, the "authentic" enthusiasm of "disinterested" tastemakers -- in indie music these consist of online journals, MP3 blogs, MySpace communities, etc., often written and produced by the original direct recipients of much of the PR hype. The bombast these folks reject becomes the standard for how they try to express their own actual enthusiasm for something. As any good dialectician will tell you, their reaction against hype absorbs into it the very values of that hype. The counterhype becomes simply a more evolved kind of hype, formulated along a priori principles provided by the very hype it seeks to obliterate.

A less abstruse explanation for ubiquitous hype can be found in the pressure to remain relevant. Let's say you're Pitchfork, and you've gained all sorts of notoriety for propelling the Arcade Fire to profitability. The taste of the power to move markets may not reveal itself as explicitly economic and capitalistic, it may reveal itself as a warm feeling of goodness, or even a satisfied sense of moral rightousness for having brought better culture to a wider audience, seemingly for the sake of the culture and not money. Writers at sites like this one and Pitchfork are in it for the love and undoubtedly have the best intentions of elevating the cultural dialogue, of bringing exposure to more interesting culture.

But in order to sustain relevance, in order to remain in that benevolent glow of having moved culture forward, a site like Pitchfork needs to repeat its success, nominate a new Arcade Fire. In other words, it needs to function like a record company and discover and hype the next big thing to keep people reading, to maintain its sense of power and significance. Here the "independent media," the trusted source for music information, and the evil profit-hungry record company have their best interests converge. And what once made independent media readable, the fact that it seemed like disinterested enthusiasts espousing unvetted opinions, becomes yet another distant arm of the culture-industry hype machine, the technostructure (to borrow Galbraith's term for the web of management types and their apologists that propels massive and complex corporations toward their profits without any individual ever confronting the larger implications of what he or she is doing) that decides for in advance what culture will be mass-produced and promulgated. Pitchfork's success allows it to become absorbed into the machine of hype generation; it doesn't protect the site from it. Success in our culture ultimately means collaboration with the technostructure; it means high-profile profitability. An independent voice cannot be preserved once success is attained, since success in our cutlure, by its very nature, means integration into this technostructure that guides the direction of the economy and the zeitgeist. Once your voice is taken seriously, it is part of the machine: it no longer "speaks truth to power" because it is power. Perhaps another way of saying this is that mass exposure transforms honest appraisals into hype regardless of the original intentions. The indiscriminate affirmative nature of a consumer culture inevitably invalidates all enthusiasm; at a certain remove all expressions of joy become hype, because our public space preserves no space for joy that is not at once profitable; no happiness without money is the inevitable ruling principle to public life under capitalism, the overriding shared value.

All word-of-mouth enthusiasm now aspires to become part of the technostructure, whether it knows it or not. The Internet is a massive tool for assimilating the opinions of so many different voices, and then rendering it into a group-think decision worthy of moving capital and dictating investment decisions. On the level of culture this means that when you blog your opinions, you are volunteering them for this assimilation into the hype machine. When you post to Amazon, you are asking to have your opinion be a sales tool. Technology has it made it such that an individual need not rest content influencing a few friends, but should seek a larger sphere of influence, to touch and affect total strangers. And the pervasive sense of the availability of this access, the constant harping on the blogosphere makes it such that everyone feels obliged to seek this power -- and the essence of this power, the language it speaks, is hype. Hype is the only way to speak in a public manner, the only way to be sure you are addressed a public sphere, the only way to aspire to general significance in a culture that has replaced civics with shopping.

What technology has done is subvert the intentions of word-of-mouth, making it a competition -- whose MP3 blog gets the most hits? It has integrated this interpersonal communication into a larger system, destroying its personal nature, and making such personal contacts suspect (why are they telling me this? whose hype are they repeating?). Pop-culture critics by their nature are generally content to be taste-makers and market researchers for the industry that fascinates them, whose levers they seek to pull. Reviewers have no reason to be negative or critical, because no one needs to waste their time reading or hearing about something that sucks. So the pressure to be heard amounts to a pressure to effuse about everything, to sweep everyone up in a cotton-candy fluff of phony positivity.

For those who don't want to participate in the hype of the now, there is the escape into nostalgia, the rehashing of old pop culture and its significance to hypes of years past. But the more enthusiastic one becomes about these things of the past that need rediscovery, the more one begins to spout hype all over again.

The aesthetics of silence (12 December 2005)

Dating is kind of hassle, what, with all that talking you have to do with the other person. And speed dating, yes, that keeps the chitchat to a minimum but there's still a lot of meaningless blather. That's why this is so brilliant. A speed-dating panel where you are forbidden to speak but instead stare into a strangers eyes for a few minutes. "Rather than condemn singles to yammering about tired topics like where they grew up and what they do for a living, Mr. Ellsberg created Eye Gazing Parties, events at which singles sit and stare at one another in silence for three minutes at a time." One of the many upsides of this is that it allows you to think more intensely and speculatively about the other person without getting hung up on whether your speculations have any connection to reality: "As Ryan Parks, a 26-year-old hedge fund research analyst from Brooklyn Heights, summed it up: 'Why are you sad? Why are you optimistic? You start asking yourself all these deep questions about the person you're looking at, and they're all so much better than the dumb questions of normal small talk.' "

Susan Sontag, in Styles of Radical Will, wrote a long meditative essay about art's long trajectory toward saying nothing, from refusing to communicate at all as a way of purifying itself, of reflecting the decayed possibilities for communication in the modern world and the essential emptiness of all possible subject matter, a rejection of thought and consciousness altogether. Maybe in his small way, this hedge-fund manager is taking a radical leap toward obliterating his own consciousness. This whole stare-dating could be seen as an egalitarian way for the most business-minded of us to participate in the iconclasm and nihilism of the art world on a lark. " 'It's not just a dating situation, it's a social experiment,' suggested Linda Minami, a financial consultant who lives on the Upper West Side." (Why are only Wall Street types involved? Do they know of a cost/benefit analysis of speech that discourages it?) It's strange that these people need to go to a bar for fits of concentrated staring. Don't they ride the subway? I have ambiguous staring contests on the train every single day, and I too find myself wondering why the people I see are "sad" or "optimistic." Silence is the preserve of strangers who want to stay that way; it opens up the imagination in a sense, but seals it off from the reality of these other people's lives that you simply couldn't possibly imagine.

This phenomenon seems a reaction and a rejection of what the Internet enables, endless discourse of ever-increasing intensity with no palpable sense of the other person. Staring gives you the palpable sense of the Other (cap O? Why not? A little something for the Lacanians), but nothing else.

Online predators (10 December 2005)

According to a feature in a recent BusinessWeek the new crop of teenagers (which they have coined -- get a bucket beside you -- "generation @") engage in as much social activity online as they do off, seeing the two states as seamless continuations of each other. On sites like MySpace they establish coteries to discuss the minutia that preoccupies them and allow themselves to keep score on the vast extent of their social networks. This quantifying of sociality is probably a bad thing, but that isn't anything new -- the computer just makes it easier to track how many friends you have and maybe its distancing effects have the paradoxical effect of allowing for deeper friendships amidst the ocean of nominal friends -- the quasi-anonymity allowing for more confidential disclosures, the Internet's niches allowing for much more sepcific and deeper shared interests.

What's troubling about relocating your group of friends to MySpace is that it allows it to be easily infilitrated by predators. Not sexual predators, but advertisers, who seek to sponsor networks and even specific groups, and worse, what BusinessWeek calls "influencers," soulless creatures who walk among us as if alive, pretending to be like us while being paid to promote a variety of goods the manufacturers hope will turn out to be "cool." Could it be that people don't mind these living ads impersonating human beings in their company? Do they laugh it off the way older generations laugh off TV commercials and promotional stunts? Is it really a good thing to have a tolerance for this kind of dehumanization?

Also, brands have already succeeded in linking themselves with cultural legitimacy, making their imprimateur necessary before a good or service will truly be taken seriously. Some already inspire cult like devotion, providing a conduit through which people can unite, but only and always with shopping as their primary shared goal. With friend groups online, it's that much more likely they will seek legitimacy in brands to validate the very basis of their friendships rather than in the quality of experience they actually have with the other people -- these friends brought to you by Pepsi, by Apple.

In defense of Sometime in New York City (9 December 2005)

In memoriam, my defense of one of Lennon's most reviled solo albums.

It's hard to understand why anyone would believe (as some do) that Lennon was the target of a right-wing conspiracy that culminated in his assassination. That is, until you hear this album, where he and Yoko make their leftist political views the subject matter of some of Lennon's most abrasive, confrontational songwriting (and that includes the wildly overrated Plastic Ono Band). It's almost inconceivable while listening to this record to think that Lennon would subsequently be deified in the commercial pantheon, that his image and his music would be used to shill for Apple Computers and Nike, though it would be wonderful to watch corporate America attempt to appropriate some of these ditties: perhaps the Gap could use "Woman is the Nigger of the World" in one of their choreographed multicultural TV commercial atrocities, letting girls gyrate over Lennon's primal scream of "We make them paint their face and daaance!" The political content on this album is so intense and inflammatory that most critics (who are typically quietists who foist on us a reactionary bourgeois aesthetics of political indifference while performing their roles as boosters for the record industry or apologists for the status quo) don't even bother to condemn it as propaganda, they simply pretend it doesn't exist. Of course it's obviously propaganda, unrepentantly so, and aided by Spector's unrelenting, overwhelming production, it tirelessly agitates for the causes of Irish independence, prison reform, feminism, and the right for Yoko to warble atonally for an eternity and have it be called music. The pleasure of hearing a major star go out on a limb for righteous causes is substantial enough, but the music is compelling, too, particularly Lennon's fiery takes on "Cold Turkey" and "Baby, Please Don't Go". And the 16-minute "Don't Worry Kyoko" is the ultimate room-clearer -- if you ever encounter it on one of those annoying jukeboxes with seventeen zillion songs on it, play it repeatedly.