Thursday, June 3, 2010

Who needs satellite radio? (16 August 2006)

I always thought satellite radio was a technology equivelant of Colecovision, something that would be obsolete before it ever gets real momentum behind it. So this WSJ report on the industry's doldrums fit nicely with my worldview: "Last year, XM lost $667 million, and Sirius lost $863 million. And Sirius is facing a potential exodus of subscribers as a clutch of promotional one-year trials soon comes to an end." Satellite radio seems like an intermediate stage before a real breakthrough that everyone can see coming, which is having portable Internet access sustained by a cellular-phone-type network -- why have satellite radio when you can have Internet radio?

That the satellite radio firms basically have to give away subscriptions through a variety of free-trial deals, and the fact that most people won't subscribe even when the hardware is built right in to their new cars tells you something about the inherent consumer indifference to this technology. There's just no real demand for it. Perhaps this is because everyone senses that a cell phone will likely be able to deliver everything a satellite radio feed can soon enough.

Also, it seems a lousy way to get music. Who needs satellite radio's multiplicity of channels when you can download a gazillion songs and plug an iPod into your car stereo? Wouldn't most people rather have 60 GB of their own music to play in whatever sequence they desire rather than a subscription to music someone else plays for you? I don't think most music consumers are willing to let go of the idea of songs a product one buys and owns; satellite radio and Napster's subscription service and other similar concepts try to sell people on renting music in general -- all of it, whatever music has been recorded. But people don't want all of it so much as they want to own a small piece of it and tend that small piece with care, curating their own musical museum of selfhood. The sort of music consumer who is not interested in the minutia of managing playlists and so on is probably indifferent to the added spectrum of sounds satellite radio affords and is content with FM. These customers need to be sold on the fact that it is commercial free, but I suspect that they probably don't mind commercials -- they pace one's listening experience, are probably found to be amusing in some cases, and at any rate spur one to act, to start scanning for something else.

Commercial-free radio can start to seem like Muzak, someone else's sound design intended to program my moods. Of course, everybody I know who has satellite radio just uses it to listen to Howard Stern. But others just download Stern on Bit Torrent and listen to his shows at their leisure on their iPods. How far can a cult of personality really carry a technology?

More than anything, though, I think radio is a local technology (traffic reports, weather, news, school closings, local talk radio, etc.) -- once it ceases to be local, responsive to local events -- once it no longer includes your theoretical participation -- it is easily replaced by prepackaged entertainment you can actually own.

Ticket auctions (15 August 2006)

This is old news, but recently Ticketmaster announced they would sell some concert tickets via auction, thus delighting efficiency-loving economists everywhere, as the Freakonomics writers detail. I have to admit, the idea made sense to me too, when I first heard of it. Ticket prices have obviously gone up precipitously (roughly 9% a year since 1996) and some (like "rockonomist" Alan Krueger) have blamed file-sharing, though I agree with Tony Vallencourt that this is just an alibi, that prices were raised simply because the market could bear it.

I'm sure in the old days, bands had an incentive in keeping prices low so they could build an audience (a.k.a. paying your dues, being a "hard-working" "blue-collar" band in the mold of April Wine or Kansas). But that is a relic of a time when local scenes were relevant, and entertainment choices were few. What bands need to build audience that way anymore, when the preferred method is Internet self-promotion? And the hallmark of Internet culture seems to be immediate viral fame that spreads quick and then extinguishes itself. And the popularity of American Idol–like shows may have undermined the notion that hard work and perseverance is required -- what is required, really, is winning a contest.

Maybe low ticket prices are loss leaders of a sort, designed to facilitate the sale of T-shirts and booze at the venue. Levitt writes, "Concert promoters like full venues. Big crowds buy more CDs and T-shirts, and maybe they also make the concert experience more enjoyable. So historically, tickets in general were priced too low to ensure a sell-out crowd, and the best seats were particularly underpriced." He theorizes that underpriced seats allow poor but rabid fans to invest the time in waiting out for hours for tickets to go on sale and there by get up front and energize the band with their fervor. With that system dismantled, shows will be underwhelming, as the front rows will be populated with the luxury-box crowd, those for whom having the power to get the ticket at all means much more than actually attending. The band, confronted with these scenesters will be too disconsolate to perform. That all seems a bit far-fetched, but I don't doubt that there are plenty who are more interested in their own prestige than any performer. (The rest of the crowd at arena shows are probably, at root, looking for an excuse to get high and get out of the house.) You see these people in the cordoned off areas of Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza, the backstage and press pass types who are excited by access, not by music. The Ticketmaster auctions let more people play this game of maneuvering, brokering and leveraging for position and measuring their accomplishment by the ticket (a positional good if there ever was one) and not by the experience it gives them entry to, which is sort of an afterthought.

It seems to me one may as well enjoy the competitive thrill of the ticket hunt. I already wonder if it's even possible to enjoy music at rock concerts; if I'm not annoyed by the crowd (I look around thinking, I'm one of these people? I feel like such a tourist) then I'm bothered by the bad acoustics of the venue or the impossible sight lines or the fact that the band is incapable of any improvisation and are basically replicating the record. Then I get tired of standing around and start wondering when it will end. Better to see unknowns in bars -- I can usually sit and drink even if I can't carry on a conversation, and it's typically intimate enough to allow me to pay attention, possibly be inspired to make music of my own.

Showgirls (14 August 2006)

In the Arts and Leisure section of today's New York Times is this requiem for the Vegas showgirl by Erika Kinetz. Since they represent an outdated version of what was culturally risqué, showgirls now seem harmless and quaint, imbued with the glamour that adheres to all things that are only really alive in nostalgic memory. They are like the adult-entertainment version of the Stork Club or big bands or the Charleston.

My suspicion is that showgirls are less these genteel relics than the vituperous Hobbesean strivers on display in Paul Verhoeven's film Showgirls, ("Nomi Malone is what Las Vegas is all about! She's dazzling, she's exciting, and very, very sexy!") putting up a disproportionate fight for a lowly rung in the entertainment business. After all, the job doesn't take much in the way of talent. As Kinetz writes of showgirls of old, "The purest of them did not dance; it was enough to be tall and alluring. Chief among their talents was the ability to parade around topless, in heels, up and down stairs, with lavish headdresses and elaborate decorations strapped to their backs." It seems fairly depersonalizing: "Though there are principal roles, the real appeal of the showgirl lies not in her individuality but in the way she is multiplied and refracted across the stage." This made me wonder whether this isn't the effect women are expected to have in general when appearing in public, generalizing a spirit of sex appeal, making it faceless and abstract, a potent free-floating force traveling among strangers and vivifying the ads and entertainment that rely on such libidinous energy for their ability to capitivate and convince.

Kinetz argues that showgirls are fading away because they no longer represent that ineffable ideal of unquenchable desire: "What’s changed since the show’s early days are attitudes toward women’s bodies, naked bodies in particular. Once upon a time the chance to gaze at these inaccessible beauties was rare enough to be titillating, while still respectable enough to bring the missus to. Today, however, the sight of topless women is no longer so shocking: they are a common enough sight in movies and on cable television." Blank and anonymous, the showgirls were desire purified of the particulars that might have thought you had a chance to make a connection -- the blank mask of a made-up face, the strangely generic uniform of fashion, the way women seem to disappear into their clothes but seem larger than life when elaborately dressed.

Kinetz suggests that dancers at high-end strip clubs now are now where you can find women who are "otherworldly, untouchable, too beautiful, too quick and too much in the light for the mere mortals watching them." I probably wouldn't have chosen those adjectives, but she's right to imply that performances in strip-clubs have nothing to do with identity or sexual union -- they are meant to separate the sexual urge from its conjugal and reproductive consequences and allow it to serve the aims of commerce. Commercialized sex isn't about sex; it's about commercials, about the seductive flow of money as it changes hands and getting turned on by that. Strip clubs are about exercising power through money, on both the client and server sides.

I don't think "attitudes toward women's bodies" have changed all that much; it's just that the sentiment of objectification is no longer quarantined to burlesque houses; it's celebrated as a peculiar form of freedom throughout culture. The desire one individual can stimulate in another is far less valuable to the GDP than the rootless and restless desire, generalized and free-floating, that comes from denatured sex appeal. The showgirl was the quintessence of this, but she has escaped the stage and appears everywhere.

Leisure counselors (12 August 2006)

The two-day weekend is something we tend to take for granted in America, as natural and normal as breathing oxygen or driving thirty miles in stop-and-go traffic to get to work. Of course it is of relatively late provenance in the history of labor, and I'm sure at the time, capitalists resisted shorter work weeks with all their collective might as if it would mean the end of all productivity gains. But now is no time to elaborate the lump of labor fallacy.

Anyway it's interesting to read about how it can feel just as unnatural to those not acclimated to it. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal had a story about yeoga kwallisa, or leisure counselors, that the Korean government has begun to use to convince Koreans that it is okay to relax on Saturdays. Though, as the article reports, most Koreans resist the idea and worry about the economic burden leisure will allegedly impose, in truth leisure is business; leisure allows workers to work as consumers and prop up the segments of the economy that rely on free time and boredom to thrive: entertainment, services, luxury consumer goods, lifestyle accoutrements.

Though the article highlights Korea, leisure counselors are by no means limited to nations new to shorter work weeks. In America we have an entire elaborate industry that tries to tell us how to relax and entertain ourselves; because the free time is not especially organic -- it's not a product of needing to take it easy after great exertion, it's no wonder we don't know what to do with ourselves and look for guidance.

And it's no wonder that we feel under pressure to enjoy ourselves, constrained and compelled by the fun morality Baudrillard writes about -- the imperative to manufacture distinctive signs of being leisured. Leisure, relaxation, basically don't come naturally; I'd like to think optimistically that this means we are inherently predisposed to be productive, which is why an economy's chief measure of success ought to be how well it provides people meaningful work, not solely how much growth it is capable of generating. This is basically a nostalgic attitude, I know, conjuring up some non-existent golden age where people worked until they were tired on things that made them happy and then enjoyed themselves with authentic folk culture, lost communal rituals. It certainly was never quite so simple, and who knows if we'd be able to experience that simple, limited life as pleasurable. The modern pleasures may have something to do with building new communities and new rituals from scratch, again and again.

The cost of beauty (10 August 2006)

Prodded by a new biography, Laura Miller at Salon surveys the career of Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. I've never read anything by Tiptree, but Miller does a good job of making it sound interesting -- Sheldon, who had a PhD in clinical psychology, was a woman writing as a man about female experience in a genre stereotypically held to be written and read by men.

By biographer Julie Phillips's account, Sheldon, unlike another woman with scientific interests who adopted a male pseudonym, George Eliot (who even general readers knew was Marian Evans shortly after the publication of her first novel, Adam Bede), remained cloaked behind the male persona and conducted lengthy correspondences with other science fiction writers as a man. Miller writes, "Those who exchanged letters with Tiptree felt they really knew him, and both Russ and Le Guin have confessed to being more than a little in love with him. 'Tiptree was a man designed by a woman,' Phillips writes, 'and that made him as appealing as any Darcy or Heathcliff.' " When she was ultimately exposed as a woman, she was not entirely liberated: "Sheldon wrote in her journal of Tiptree, 'I had through him all the power and prestige of masculinity, I was -- though an aging intellectual -- of those who own the world. How I loathe being a woman ... Tiptree's 'death' has made me face ... my self-hate as a woman.' "

According to Miller, Phillips makes much of Sheldon's youthful beauty, and the expectations it generated in both her parents and herself, citing this passage: "Alice had the bad luck to be extremely pretty. If she hadn't been, she might have given up the popularity contest. She might have studied harder, prepared for a career, and not cared what people thought ... Instead, she cared about appearances, practiced femininity and flirtation, and got addicted to the rewards for being a pretty girl." Of course, this contrasts with the famously ugly George Eliot, who frequently agonized over the idea of female beauty (consider the string of pretty, insipid characters punished in her novels) but apparently was free to pursue social and personal recognition through other channels. This also reminded me of the point I was trying to make a few days ago about the new Sesame Street muppet, the made-to-be-marketed Abby Cadabby, designed to appeal to "girly-girls." The producers want to justify the girly-girl character by arguing it reflects the wishes of actual young girls (just as, say, the Notorious B.I.G. merely reflected life on the street in his violent, crime-ridden, frequently sexist songs). But the wishes of the girls and their parents -- even if they reflect some in-born evolutionarily designed predilection for nurturing and passivity -- can nevertheless have the sort of effect Phillips describes in regard to Sheldon. Girls can be encouraged to become preoccupied with prettiness and the attention it easily commands in lieu of the attention that is more difficult to come by, in ways not immediately understood to be appropriately feminine. (Beauty can be hard work, harder than being interesting, but it's never hard to get attention with it once you've achieved it.) It may not be a zero-sum game, but still, when the kind of attention that comes from playing the prettiness game is sanctioned, some of the value of attention earned by other means is diminished. "The rewards of being a pretty girl" are not negligible but they are extremely contingent and could be withdrawn at any time. I find this persuasive, but that may be because it's a considerable consolation to the average-looking that beauty comes at some great psychic cost. But Miller's not buying that, anyway. She suggests that the beauty-as-distraction excuse masks a more pervasive and non-gendered problem of occupational focus, accusing Sheldon of essentially being a dilettante who couldn't commit wholeheartedly to any of her interests. That old "fear of success" strikes again.

Gendered behavior (9 August 2006)

Last week The Economist had a roundup on recent findings in evolutionary psychology, biology, and neuroscience concerning the innate difference between men and women and how these affect behavior. I find myself extremely resistant to the idea of in-born, hormonally produced, gendered behavior, in part because it becomes an all-purpose excuse for lazy stereotyping and rationalizing various inequalities. ("I can't help it; my testosterone made me do it. I'm from Mars.") It casts the pall of determinism over behavior we've been trained to see as expressive of our innermost soul, the behavior in which we exhibit desire, sexual or otherwise. But I think I also resist it out of a misguided wish to move to a realm where we can transcend gender altogether, which in practice means continuing the status quo where I'm allowed to ignore gender issues. Since maleness basically serves as the template for post-genderedness, I tend to smugly assume I'm not hung up on gender issues; all my male prerogatives remain the public sphere's default for what is expected, rendering the issues invisible to me unless I make a concentrated conscious effort to learn otherwise.

Anyway, one reason for gendered behavior is the flood of testosterone that hits a male brain in the womb seems to predispose it toward recognizing motion and mechanics; one study suggests testosterone-laden babies show far less interest in things like eye contact. Studies in which monkeys were given human toys showed that even in the simian world, male monkeys tended to play with trucks and female monkeys with dolls. Researchers conclude that this shows a female predisposition toward toys that permit nurturing behavior to be expressed, a predilection that makes sense from a Darwinian standpoint. Males prefer "toys that can be used actively or propelled in space, and which afford greater opportunities for rough play." The idea lurking behind that is males inherently need a forum in which to express their innate aggression. This implies also that men are inherently more "active", women more passive. One way around this dichotomy is to redefine the commonsense notion of "active" to avoid consigning female behavior to a subordinate class. But this bias would be hard to overcome when our culture's fundamental assumption about rational action (grounded in the prevailing principle of our economic system) is that it is rooted in selfish utility maximization, not nurturing support. This seems to invite the question of whether there is something inherently male about capitalism itself, territory I'm hesitant to venture into without brushing up on Shulamith Firestone.

Meet Joe Francis (8 August 2006)

I'll join the chorus and say that this LA Times story about Girls Gone Wild impresario Joe Francis is definitely worth reading. The word scumbag was invented for guys like Francis, and the story's full of astoundingly disturbing moments, including several wherein the reporter herself seems in physical danger.

Aside from being a pretty compelling exposé, it also offers a few theses about what has allowed the Girls Gone Wild talent pool to emerge.
Francis has aimed his cameras at a generation whose notions of privacy and sexuality are different from any other. Nursed on MySpace profiles and reality television, many young people today are comfortable with being perpetually photographed and having those images posted on the Internet for anyone to see. The boundaries that once contained sexuality have also fallen away. Whether it's 13-year-olds watching a Britney Spears video, 16-year-olds getting their pubic hair waxed to emulate porn stars or 17-year-olds viewing videos of celebrities performing the most intimate acts, youth culture is soaked in sexuality.
The author, Claire Hoffman, draws conclusions similar to what I've argued in the past, regarding attention-seeking as currency and media exposure as a proxy for social recognition in a culture that has discredited more humble, local sources:
This is so much bigger than Francis. In a culture where cheap and portable video technology lets everyone play at stardom, and where America's voyeuristic appetite for reality television seems insatiable, teenagers, like the ones in this club, see cameras as validation. "Most guys want to have sex with me and maybe I could meet one new guy, but if I get filmed everyone could see me," Bultema says. "If you do this, you might get noticed by somebody—to be an actress or a model."
I ask her why she wants to get noticed. "You want people to say, 'Hey, I saw you.' Everybody wants to be famous in some way. Getting famous will get me anything I want. If I walk into somebody's house and said, 'Give me this,' I could have it."
This desperation to be noticed seems to override what earlier generations would regard as the ABCs of self-protection. But protection may have a different meaning to them.
Have teenagers seized control of the way sexuality is marketed as a form of protection from our culture's overwhelmingly sexualized commerce? A wrinkle on the logic of "you can't fire me, I quit" that holds that a self-exploiter can't ever really be taken advantage of? That's what Francis himself seems to think.
But the women are changing, Francis tells me, and that makes him sad. In the beginning, when "Girls Gone Wild" cameramen first popped up in clubs, the women who revealed themselves seemed innocent—surprised, even, by their own spontaneity. Now that the brand is so pervasive, the women who participate increasingly appear to be calculating exhibitionists, hoping that an appearance on a video might catapult them to Paris Hilton-like fame.
This ties in to so-called pro-sex or third-wave feminism, that finds empowerment in women's direct appropriation of commercialized sexuality; women exercise a new freedom of choice in a realm once strictly controlled and delineated by a variety of punishments - shame, social ostracism and worse (still is, of course, in many non-Western cultures). The sphere of sexual behavior is no different than any other sphere, and feminism should expect women to be assertive, active, there -- perhaps especially there -- since this is a realm where women are often held to be naturally passive.
"I call Vicki Mayer, a sociologist and Tulane University assistant professor, for guidance. Mayer teaches a class on the nudity rituals that take place on New Orleans' infamous Bourbon Street. She has studied and written about "Girls Gone Wild," and she contends that it's simplistic to say that Mantra takes advantage of women. "For some women this is liberating, for some women this is something they do on a goof or for a lark to show friends they can, for some it's a way of flirting with the cameramen," Mayer says."
About the Girls Gone Wild videos, Mayer adds that "As much as it would be easy to see this as a simple relationship of men treating women a certain way, there are mutual relations of exploitation. I kind of feel like both sides could be seen as exploited." It strikes me that pre-emptive self-sexualization likely often results in this, not liberation and an elevation of human possibility for both genders and all the gender positions in between, but a reduction of possibility into reciprocal exploitation. Mayer points out that who wins in this sex war is not one gender or the other but the media company providing the stage for the struggle -- which translates into strip-club owners, porn distributors, sleazy style gurus like Dov Charney, and frat-friendly figures like Francis himself.

The story is certainly loaded against anyone's taking away a lesson of female empowerment from the existence of Girls Gone Wild; the girls who perform for the videos seem uniformly shallow and vulnerable. We also get an extremely disturbing account of one girl's experience in the Girls Gone Wild trailer; far from seizing "agency," she doesn't dictate the scene at all; instead the story suggests she is raped while drunk and rewarded with several pairs of booty shorts.

More on brand friends (7 August 2006)

Elizabeth Holmes of The Wall Street Journal apparently had the same idea that I did about the portion of MySpace "friends" that are actually ad pages, but being a real journalist, she actually interviewed some relevant people about the subject, like the executive in charge of generating profits from the phenomenon, and produced laugh-out-loud money quotes like this: " 'What we really struck upon is the power of friendship,' says Michael Barrett, chief revenue officer for News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media." He's probably not even joking. Perhaps he means that people are so enamored of the idea of friendship that they'll expand it to embrace all of their preferences. But if anything, the phenomenon is more a testimony to the power of social networking, which reduces friends to advertisements for oneself.

Holmes notes the conundrum of fans creating what are essentially ads for products without the company who owns the brand's involvement or permission: "A profile for Willy Wonka matches the feel of other fictional characters, listing his hometown ('the Land of Make Believe'), his occupation ('amazing chocolatier inventor extraordinaire') and his nearly 61,000 'friends.' But the Willy Wonka site is created by a fan, not the movie studio." It seems as though amateurs sense a demand for a brand friend and step into the breach when the company is slow to make one of its own (or doesn't want to pay News Corporation/MySpace for the privilege -- MySpace, incidentally, is beginning to resemble traditional media, with companies buying ad space within its domain). The demand stems from the urgency with which people must establish identity through brands by navigating their way through the coded social space they define. Without the brands, the language we have to speak our identity in a way we can trust people will understand is impoverished.

Third-wave feminist joins Sesame Street cast (7 August 2006)

Today's New York Times has an item in the Arts and Leisure section about Abby Cadabby, a new female muppet designed to be a lead character on Sesame Street. Reportedly, the character "has her own point of view and 'is comfortable with the fact that she likes wearing a dress.'" What a breakthrough; finally those women who like wearing dresses will get some attention in our culture, because heaven knows, it's hard for a girl who wants to conform to traditional expectations about gender. Liz Nealon, the show's creative director, wanted "a girly girl" to fill an underrepresented niche, since, she explained, "We have our wacky, and we have our gentle." So women apparently come in three flavors now; wacky, gentle and (the somewhat tautological) girly; this makes them slightly less flexible in terms of personality than a Dungeons & Dragons character, for whom there were nine alignments available (if you count "neutral").

Abby Cadabby seems like an attempt to mollify family-values critics on the right, who have targeted publicly funded children's television and who seem to regard any attempt to unshackle women from traditonal roles as an assault on the family and the future of the species. "Political correctness hampers creativity," Nealon tells the Times, which seems like a dead giveaway. So in order to be "creative" one must be able to work in the tried and true gender stereotypes that have been worked for centuries? Any reference to political correctness, the bogus boogeyman of the right, is a tip-off that pressure is being applied by conservatives, or that a conservative point of view has taken root that promotes conformity as freedom and paints subversion as doctrinaire. Sesame Street seems to have had a long history of not playing this game in the past; it's sad to see it undermine its reputation as a cultural niche where the Disney rules don't apply.

It's nice that the show wants a female lead character; it's counter-productive though when the reason is to turn that female character into a popular toy. (What else is femaleness good for?) The article sees Abby Cadabby -- pink and insectile; a kind of warmed-over feminized Harry Potter imbued with magical skills (a.k.a. feminine wiles) and designed to be able to look "vulnerable" and "beseeching" -- as a attempt to make a marketable female muppet that can be a new cash cow for the Sesame franchise and compete with Dora the Explorer. “There are so many cute things out there,” one of Sesame's product managers explained, “but in order to make them want one doll over another, I think the real deciding factor is how much they’ve connected with the Muppet from the show. And you’ve got to be able to capture that.” The best way to do that? Make a character who conforms to the ideals of many misguided parents who crave a feminine doll-child; then the child too can idolize and "connect" with this creature that obviously wins approval. The little princess in the household can play with her little princesses from the culture. Perhaps it's an unfair caricature, but this is what seems troubling about third-wave feminism in general (at least the aspect of it that champions the manipulation of femininity as empowerment, anyway); it wants to redeem gender stereotypes by seizing control of the way they are marketed. Gender difference becomes a kind of comparative advantage to maximize and exploit, making irreducible personal qualities into product conforming to customer expectations. Abby Cadabby is femininity for sale in doll form, and it is also an object lesson in how to manufacture the valuable product of femininity for yourself out of the raw material of your own body and sensibility.

The compulsion to confess (4 August 2006)

What do Secret deodorant, Greased Lightning household cleaner, and Game Show Network have in common? All three are eager to sponsor your private and personal secrets online on their websites. BusinessWeek has an item (behind a subscription wall) about this strange trend whereby brands hope to bolster their online communities by inviting people to use their sites as a place to both confess secrets and play voyeur.

This nicely collapses the "publicity is personality" movement of MySpace with advertisers growing need to induce audiences into doing measurable activities online in order to get paid. Apparently people are actually doing this -- 4,500 people at Secret's site, 10,000 at Greased Lightning. How desperate are these people for attention, even of the anonymous and personally embarrassing variety? Seems this is further proof that people are coming to the conclusion that the only valid form of social recognition available is in the spotlight of some pseudo-mass-media spectacle -- even if your online confession might be seen by no one, the fact that it might be seen by everyone makes it more valid than whispering it to your friend. Elizabeth Woyte, who wrote the item for BusinessWeek, wonders whether the sponsored confession phenomenon has something to do with the study that revealed that more Americans now report having no close friends. Perhaps it is because of the changing nature of friendship.

Ad-audience measurement is becoming more stringent at precisely the same time that friendship is becoming more open to measurement itself. Coincidence? My thesis is that ad ratings measure influence, and friendship for some has become largely a matter of measuring one's own impact on others. The two concepts are converging. Friendship is nothing more than a medium for word-of-mouth advertising.

No-frills Germans repel Wal-Mart (3 August 2006)

Recently Wal-Mart announced it was retreating from the German market and would sell all its stores there to a German competitor, the Metro Group (proprietors of European hypermarkets Real and Extra). This could be celebrated as a proof of the resilience of global diversity, as Reason editor Kerry Howley suggests. And for those in America who would like to see Wal-Mart's influence recede in their own country, perhaps there are lessons to be drawn from this, though Wal-Mart's scale and its already established discount-dictating power over producers for the American market make American defeat unlikely -- in fact WSJ online's "MarketBeat" cites financial analysts who think Wal-Mart didn't aim high enough: "However, its ventures in China and Japan haven't been as successful. Fast-growing India is another option, if restrictions on foreign investment there are eased. A.G. Edwards analyst Robert Buchanan said Wal-Mart will fare best if it focuses on markets where it has the potential to open at least 100 stores. "Just as the legendary Moby Dick had no business swallowing minnows, we believe Wal-Mart has no business operating 16 stores in South Korea and 85 money-losing stores in Germany," he wrote in a note, adding that Wal-Mart should also get rid of its 11 stores in Argentina."

Defenders of Wal-Mart like to point out that its successful not because of some nefarious conspiracy but because Americans like to shop there, and the company's experience in Germany may lend some credence to this idea. The story usually told about Wal-Mart is that it succeeded in America by appealing to lower-class customers' wallets, offering deep discounts on virtually everything. If this were so, you might expect the company to succeed in Germany, which, as this NY Times piece mentions, is home to consumers who are "one of the most parsimonious and price-conscious in Europe."

But Wal-Mart failed in Germany in part because they could not discount enough to compete with the so-called hard discounters, epitomized by Aldi, which has recently begun to appear in America. For Americans, Aldi can be extremely disconcerting for three reasons -- its stock is restricted to far fewer items than you'd expect in such a store, customer service is virtually non-existent, and virtually all of its products are unbranded. Germans were thrown by the inverse of these qualities at Wal-Mart: According to the NY Times article, "The company initially installed American managers, who made some well-intentioned cultural gaffes, like offering to bag groceries for customers (Germans prefer to bag their own groceries) or instructing clerks to smile at customers (Germans, used to brusque service, were put off)." But how "well-intentioned" are these gaffes? Even if you put aside the cultural insensitivity, you still have to wonder. The intention is to make money, a neutral intention at best. (If you see profit seeking as the baseline definition of rationality, than it is simply beyond evaluation.) German customers likely see these service wrinkles for what they are, extra expenses eventually passed through to them that also connote a fundamental distrust of the consumer, a belief that the consumer won't know what he wants without salesperson intrusion. As I've argued before customer service demeans both clerk and customer, it's a disguised form of petty surveillance.

Germans also reject the convenience of one-stop shopping, thereby nullifying the loss-leader strategy typical of American grocery retailers. The Wall Street Journal reports that Germans "are willing to buy laundry detergent at one store and then go to another to get a better price on paper towels. That behavior is called basket splitting." You can quibble over whether this is an efficient use of time, going from store to store to round up necessaries, but one thing such a default shopping mentality may ensure is that you don't waste time buying things that aren't necessary. Deliberately hewing to an approach that makes bargain hunting to be so ruthless as to be inconvenient is that it keeps you from buying on impulse -- the whimsical purchase being one of the most illusory pleasures promoted in America (an escapist thrill with no lasting satisfaction supplied and lasting consequences potentially for one's credit).

But what I found most interesting is Germans' relative lack of interest in branded goods: The Wall Street Journal notes that "Metro's acquisition of Wal-Mart's German stores has some retail analysts questioning Mr. Körber's logic. "It is in no way guaranteed that this will result in a vibrant hypermarket chain," says James Bacos, director of the retail and consumer-goods practice at Mercer Management Consulting in Munich, Germany. Mr. Bacos and others say Real must define a pricing strategy against Germany's so-called hard discount chains, stores that sell mostly private-label goods that cost less than brands and account for roughly 40% of the country's food sales. Like other hypermarkets, Real has had to lower prices of many basic goods to match those of hard discounters like Aldi Einkaufs GmbH or Lidl GmbH. But Real, like Wal-Mart, had higher operating costs than those no-frills chains. So Real partly offset its lost margins with higher prices on branded products, a strategy that backfired because it led many shoppers to think of Real as expensive. Real also cut prices more aggressively at some times than at other times, which further blurred its image in the minds of its shoppers." So in other words, retailers that rely on the mark-ups on branded goods struggle in Germany, where the consumers care more about price and trust their own judgment as to a product's quality.

All of these things probably boil down to convenience -- branded goods, one-stop shopping and customer service all involve a trade-off where the customer trusts in the retailer in exchange for the ability to be more lazy. Wal-Mart has managed to capitalize on these trends toward convenience the most, accelerating them with the momentum of its own success and increasing monopsonistic reach. American consumers would need to suddenly turn away from brands and convenience if they wanted to stop the big-boxification of society, a prospect which, with youth allegedly embracing branding as synonymous with personal style, seems increasingly unlikely. I'll venture a gross overgeneralization in hopes that it might make a point with a kernel of truth in it: German consumer behavior manifests one ideology of dignity, rooted in self-reliance; American consumer behavior exemplifies another, rooted in belonging to logo-laden cliques. Which side are you on?

Commonsensical slugs (2 August 2006)

The slug-rider phenomenon in the Washington D.C. metro area is not new, but it remains fascinating to reporters as an organic response to traffic congestion and state incentives to carpool. The premise is that solo drivers need a companion in order to take advantage of the HOV lanes. (HOV equals high-occupancy vehicle; "high" being two in this case.) Drivers would pass bus stops and try to pick up riders, who became known as slugs.

The article linked above connects the name to phony tokens used to bilk the subway system, but it seems an especially apt name in the way it encapsulates just how America views individuals who don't drive -- grubby, slow-moving objects. The article also lauds slug-riding as a "system of casual car-pooling that moves thousands of workers from the suburbs to the city, with no money changing hands and no official government involvement," thus enlisting it as evidence to support the libertarian fantasy of spontaneous order. But there's government involvement aplenty -- the state builds the HOV lanes, maintains them, and patrols them to ensure their utility. And they provide and maintain the "park and ride" lots for the slugs to ditch their cars.

Anyway, it seems the preferred market-libertarian solution is for private corporations to maintain the road system and to introduce variable pricing according to demand ("congestion pricing"), as was attempted on SR 91 in southern California. The D.C. HOV lanes are still part of a government-subsidized transportation scheme that distributes benefits bought by tax revenues to those who live in suburbs and drive cars (this providing an incentive to buy and drive a car, to take advantage of what government has made a priority, which in turn makes roadbuilding an even greater priority for government. And on and on the cycle goes.)

The slug-rider system seems less a marvel of spontaneous civil engineering than a desperate, anxiety ridden response to inadequate public transportation. When the MTA strike hit New York last winter and stringent carpooling restrictions were enforced, a slug system rapidly sprung up in the outerboroughs, but no one was convinced by this that the MTA workers could stay on strike forever. Though it initially seems cheering that strangers can work together to maximize efficiency, ultimately it starts to seem like a dismal state of affairs when you think about it, riding in a strangers car but (in some cases) being forbidden to speak, as though you had become ballast. Or waiting in the rain to be picked up and being rejected by drivers who can pass you by or refuse you passage for no apparent reason. Or finding yourself described as a bad driver on a Web site and having slugs refuse you. Slug evangelist David LeBlanc insists that in slugging, "What always prevails is common sense," but the phenomenon seems to prove that common sense has been delimited to instrumental rationality, to reducing other people to objects to be manipulated for your own convenience.

Zukünftiger Kulturkampf (2 August 2006)

Rob Walker's NYT Magazine piece about people who try to brand their lifestyle and view branding as an art form using consumer practices as the medium made me wonder this. If Walker's right and the struggle between the mainstream and some version of an underground is over (Now "we live in a world of multiple mainstreams and countless counter-, sub- and counter-sub-cultures") the next culture "war" may be between the cool types Walker profiles who are obsessed with their own identity and measuring their own impact on the world (and degenerated versions of these folks, the people I regularly deride as hipsters, ever fearful I may finally look in the mirror and discover I am one myself) and the people who reject that kind of significance and attempt a kind of anonymity that will feel more and more like freedom -- maybe the bloggers who remain hidden behind monikers exemplify these sorts of people, on as a large a scale as they'd ever likely aspire to.

This opposition seems to me to be the next reconfiguration of the perpetual struggle between an unapologetically selfish individualism and modest, hesitant communitarianism. Both will be searching for dignity, which the for wage-earners in this economy is noticeably lacking. Most people won't know which side they are fighting on, and many will think they are double agents; both will feel the need to continually reinvent themselves, the former in attempts to remain cool, the latter in order to escape the cool paradigm. The struggle will be commemorated in fits of urban renewal and boutique openings on the one hand, political activism and consumer "downshifting" on the other perhaps. On one side, the people who seek to maximize the number of friends they have in a list on a social networking site, on the other people who keep their social networks private or eschew them altogether.

Self-checkout and self-importance (1 August 2006)

Ever since I first encountered a self-checkout line, at a deeply dysfunctional Pathmark on Gray's Ferry Avenue in Philadelphia, I've despised them with an intensity that even I'll admit is entirely unfounded. So I was cheered by this Consumerist item airing one of my fundamental complaints about them -- rather than getting service you pay for, you do the company's job for them, for nothing. I don't think it makes sense to discount the prices for those who check themselves out, though, to answer the Consumerist's poll. I just think the self-checkout lines are like those panic buttons mounted on stoplights at busy intersections that have no effect other than to mollify the impatient pedestrian. The self-checkout is basically a giant pacifier for people who can't stand the enfeebling passivity waiting in line forces on them -- standing in line, after all, is what the Commies made you do.

Of course, the intolerant who hate lines are probably the same people who when driving execute pointless lane changes that only exacerbate traffic congestion while heightening the danger for everyone on the road. Self checkout is basically about self-aggrandizement; it's about having a moment where you get to seize illusory control over your situation and triumph over others -- the fools too lazy to get out of the line. With the self checkouts the company stages a little farcical drama in which you get to be the hard-working hero, pulling up bootstraps and rolling up sleeves and making the system work to your own benefit through your own effort -- "Get out of my way, I'll show you how to run a register." It's a petty sham display of self-reliance, but a little of that goes a long way for most Americans. It's not like we're going to go back to nature and self-sufficiency for real: consumerism --a fragile, collective process implicating all of society collectively -- is how we get what's necessary for our lives, so we'd like to dress it up with as much of the trappings of rugged individualism as possible.

Anyway, it's not just the egocentricity involved but the logic behind these self-checkout lines that infuriates me. The company seems to be saying this: "We can't hire employees who can operate a cash register efficiently, but we are willing to let you do their work for them and subsidize their paycheck with your labor." So unless you refuse to shop at such places, the time you spend in their lines becomes a kind of indentured servitude that you are "allowed' to work off in the self-checkout area. Meanwhile, the cost of the labor you are replacing is already priced into the goods you are buying, so you are purchasing a service that you don't receive and helping build the disincentives from it ever improving. The cashiers certainly know that if they work slower, they'll be able to do less work for the same pay while driving the most unpleasant customers to deal with -- the impatient ones -- away. As they are already staging a permanent slowdown (at least at Duane Reade they are), this only sweetens their rewards.

Perhaps if the self-checkouts replaced cashiers altogether, it would be different. But it is not as though this would improve efficiency. If there is anyone likely to be more befuddled by a cash register than a cashier, it's the average customer. Every time I've been in Home Depot, I've watched customers suddenly lose all intuitive grasp of how this thing called commerce works and be reduced to having to follow directions on how to scan an item with a barcode reader. And then they founder helplessly, trying to crack the credit-card-swiping puzzle. Hmm. Maybe if I lay it flat on the touch screen it will work. Maybe if I jam it in like it's a hotel door key. Inevitably they have to ask an employee how to do it anyway, only now you've turned the cashier who was too incompetent to do the job in the first place into a teacher (proving the old adage) whose communication skills now will determine how fast you can get home with your wet vac or your bag of nails.

If RFID technology fulfills its promises, affluent shoppers most likely won't have to worry about any of this anymore. They'll register a credit card with a store, which will be detected by an EZ-Pass-like sensor along with all the goods they are taking out of the store on any given visit. This will fulfill the retailer's most ambitious dream of loss prevention, making shoplifting virtually impossible while eliminating the primary source of loss, the clerk running the register. At this point the line between shopping and surveillance will have virtually disappeared, and the activities will be understood to suit each other perfectly, to be natural consequences of each other. Of course you want the retailers to know all your preferences and predilections, otherwise how else could they tailor their messages to you and save you time and energy? Of course its good that all your belongings are tagged and trackable -- it's what made shopping so convenient and hassle free, no more of those annoying checkout lines.

Brand friends (31 July 2006)

An aspect that sometimes gets overlooked about MySpace -- one which comes up in Rob Walker's NYT Magazine story about self-branding -- is that profiles aren't limited to people. Often people set them up not only for their bands or their companies or their projects or the cliques or whatever, but also for fictional characters from TV shows and movies, for abstract concepts, for historical personages. Befitting the essential narcissism of the Myspace page, one can make a friend list that is merely an extension of the self-definition aspect of one's profile -- it reveals nothing about one's flesh-and-blood friends, just more about what one likes, what one thinks is cool or funny.

You can compile friend lists that contain no actual humans but instead are composed entirely of brands, concepts, and fake people. This has the unsettling effect of suggesting that our social networks really do consist of little more than the manufactured products that populate the world we share, things that once used to merely facilitate contact between people. We talk about people we see on TV, or places we've been to shop, sales we have witnessed, in order to have something to talk about with each other. This stuff is the substance of our common culture, and friendships likely couldn't blossom without it, for better or for worse. For friendships built online, where local concerns and the incidents of everyday life don't come into play so much, these sorts of things are even more important -- likely lots of such friendships are built out of some specific enthusiasm for some piece of culture, a passion for some band or some writer or some book or some show. Now that piece of culture is a MySpace friend.

MySpace, by letting us befriend the concepts directly, pushes this phenomenon to the next level and eliminates the need for the actual conversation between people. Rather than talk about them, you can just add Old Navy and characters from your favorite Saturday Night Live skit to your friend list. When the add occurs, when Nigel Tufnel adds you as a friend, you can feature it on your main page and it is as though you've had a comraderie-bulding conversation about Spinal Tap with everyone in the world who might happen to see your page. This elevates the buttons and patches one might have put on a denim jacket to the conceptual level of "friend." By this process, you've made friend-building chit-chat into a kind of broadcasting, using the symbols available in the MySpace universe as "friends" as a new, simple language that anyone else using MySpace immediately understands. If you're really clever, though, I suppose you become the first to create a profile for some fictional creation that you know will have a following. And then you get the gratification of knowing your cleverness has been appreciated every time that your profile for, say, Leo Johnson or Mr. Lahey or Rerun gets friend requests. But the friend list, thrown open to brands and concepts and fictional characters and the like, becomes a groomed inventory of well-designed niche products; it loses all relation to an organic evolution of people who know and like each other.

So in our social networks, our flesh-and-blood friends get pushed to the back to make room for the pop-culture emblems that are truly significant, that more people can recognize and appreciate. Who really cares if you are friends with Jim or Jane or whoever. But if your friends are Sponge Bob and Babe Ruth and Alexander Graham Bell, strangers drifting by your page will at least know who they are. And other people who thought it would be funny to be Sponge Bob's friend will now be able to find each other and share their special sense of humor. If you want, you can limit your friends to ideas, images, concepts, brands that are known to be cool, or at least disguise your mundane actual friends in among the thicket of coolness. Thus the idea is disseminating in our culture that you can be friends with a brand, that a brand's demonstrable influence in our culture (its coolness) makes it powerful and charismatic and compelling, something you would reasonably want to be friends with.

This is what marketers mean when they talk about a brand's "personality." In a recent BusinessWeek article about new-media advertising, a Nike executive explains,"A strong relationship is created when someone joins a Nike community or invites Nike into their community." Brands want to be both your friend and the medium in which friendship can take place. They want to infiltrate at the micro and macro levels. I'll never understand what would drive someone to join an online marketing community, to be part of Planet Pepsi or whatever -- maybe it's a deficit of imagination on my part that I can't see the fun of hanging with other people under the auspices of some consumer product. What do you talk about in a Nike chat room once the fascinating subject of athletic shoes is exhausted? Are the friends you make via a shared passion for consumerism ultimately worth having? (Do we have any choice anymore?) It's like the CEO of Coca Cola said, his company is not in the business of selling sweet drinks, but is in fact a media company selling brand impressions -- Nike isn't selling shoes; it's selling community, and the community you used to think came naturally, for free, by virtue of the default localness of your existence in a particular space and time, well, that's been invalidated. You have to buy community through your brands these days, and you can start by getting them on your official homepage 's friends list.

And what does it mean though to invite a brand into your community? Are all the existing relations you have with real friends altered by the new terms of friendship your intimacy with a brand establishes? Old friends reciprocate by acts of mutual affirmation and acceptance, of demonstrating interest in the substance of each other's lives, not because it is extraordinary or anything unusual but because its comfortable, and because the curiosity about each other has become habit. But the new kind of friend -- the brand friend -- reciprocates through mutual promotional gestures. So friendship generally, if it remains true to the technologies that facilitate it, will lose its texture and consist of nothing other than shout-outs going back and forth. The best way to be a friend will be to make sure his name gets out there. Perhaps soon it will be the only way.

Ownership of time (28 July 2006)

Today I saw tourists filming their strolls down Fifth Avenue, as usual, and I started wondering if we have already reached a point where unrecorded experience has become negligible. Why bother doing anything that you can't record and transform into a souvenir, a precious object that proves your vacationing prowess and power?

Unrecorded experience, from this perspective, belongs to someone else -- your employer (who may have your time recorded on surveillance tapes), your family, the commuting gods, etc. -- and recorded experience is the objectified time that you truly own. In the rush for people to own their own leisure time, they seem to be skipping the direct experience itself, preferring to record it as it happens and enjoy it later, which suggests that unmediated experience now may seem less real than mediated experience.

We are used to seeing an event's appearance in the media as indicative of its relevance, as a potent symbol of social recognition. So it makes sense we would discount our own experiences that can't be so configured, and that technology would be seeming to head irrevocably down a path that allows for an ever greater amount of our experience to be digitized and stored -- portable digital cameras, etc. Perhaps eventually we will supplant our faulty natural memory with terabyte drives that store everything in a much more reliable searchable architecture.

Conspicuous cognition (27 July 2006)

Maybe Terry Eagleton is right, and we are now in a period "After Theory". But the generation of liberal arts students who were obliged to read Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, et. al., still remain, and some of them are now working critics. This, I think, explains the surprising amount of coverage that Green Gartside and his "band" Scritti Politti have recently generated with a new album. Gartside is almost too good to be true: You couldn't ask for a better subject upon which you could trot out all that poststructuralism you were forced to learn. At a time when theory was still fresh, Gartside started a band named after a book by the Marxist cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci, wrote a song that announced his love for Jacques Derrida (appropriately called "Jacques Derrida"), and slowly charted a course toward mainstream pop at its most synthetic without ever abandoning his frequent lyrical allusions to linguistics and psychoanalytic theory. Hence, there is a lot of postmodern praxis to explicate: the fusion of high and low culture, the intertextuality of social production, the reification of ideas in language, unstable irony, love as a metaphor for ontological and epistemological dilemmas epitomized by deconstruction, etc. Infuriatingly, none of this stuff makes Scritti Politti especially pleasant to listen to (as anyone whose given "Anomie and Bonhomie" a listen); suitably they are much better in theory than in practice.

The working critics of 1985, when Scritti Politti released its most successful album, Cupid & Psyche 85, were not interested in such stuff (and neither, likely, was the audience): David Fricke's Rolling Stone review, which was content to dismiss Gartside's lyrics as "abstract word games," seems to have set the tone in America. This album yielded the band's only U.S. hit, "Perfect Way," which managed to reach the charts despite being packed with puns on Lacanian buzzwords, lacks and voids and difference, that went over just about the entire audience's head. (I remember liking the song when it came out, but wondering if it was going to get me beat up. But that fear abated as it became almost an act of courageous subversion in my high school to stop listening to Boston and Foreigner and adopt a fancy for wimpy English pop.)

Now, as the articles linked above demonstrate, that is one of the first things noted about the song, suggesting something of theory's lasting practical impact on the mundane level of magazine culture. Part of what makes Gartside fascinating is that it remains unclear why he decided to saturate his songs with graduate-seminar material -- was there a subversive agenda at work, and if so what did he want to subvert, the complacency of the pop audience or the pretensions of the theory itself (which, of course, would instruct us to see him as doing both simultaneously)?

But even though critics are now willing to frame their discussions of Scritti Politti with references to Lacan and Derrida, they remain unwilling to take the theoretical ideas seriously, instead reducing them to superficial appliqués, tokens in a round of philosophical hide and seek. In other words they do a reductionist postmodern move on Gartside's songs and refuse to attribute any depth to them even while acknowledging their complexity. The generation of critics who mastered poststructuralist theory had no interest in carrying the revolution forward; they are content to know the ideas and deploy them dismissively in order to send a discreet message about their own educational capital: "I may be writing popular journalism, but I've cracked the spine on Anti-Oedipus too." So if theory can be said to have failed, perhaps it's because those who learned it and put themselves in position to disseminate its ideas only managed to see it as an intellectual status game. It may even have a Vebelesque aspect; we flaunt knowledge of theory we regard as worthless because it proves how much time and intellect we had to waste on something so apparently useless -- it's conspicuous cognition.

Fashion gravitas (26 July 2006)

Part of the success of the Us Weekly and InStyle formula rested initially in their ability to merge the functions of a celebrity gossip magazine with those of beauty and fashion magazines: Service pieces about makeup and whatnot would be enlivened by the presence of a celebrity endorsing one product or another, while simultaneously promoting the celebrity's own career, her own notoriety. But that formula may be in danger of exhausting itself, as the reciprocal promotions taking place are starting to become unbalanced. According to this Wall Street Journal piece, celebrities are out and supermodels are back in for the latest slew of fashion advertisements. "The pendulum's swing back to models reflects what some fashion marketers are calling "celebrity fatigue": A-list entertainers are so overexposed that 'there is a major lack of trust,' says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York consulting firm." (The Luxury Institute? That's probably not a bad place to work.) This risible statement presupposes that (a) supermodels are not overexposed and (b) people once "trusted" celebrities who endorsed luxury products, as though they weren't doing it for the money. It's not as if people are out there thinking: "Hmm, if that Jessica Simpson likes Pizza Hut, maybe I should give it a try; her opinion on such things seems pretty trustworthy." Trust wouldn't seem to enter into this transaction; it's just that some celebrities have enough glamorous status that the brightness of their star power blinds consumers to their motives and allows their association with the advertised product go unquestioned. And overexposure doesn't compromise trust at all; it just reduces the star's luster so that one focuses on the celebrity's greed and vanity rather than dreaming about the product making one as glamorous and exalted. Once stars are "just like us" they can't serve as signals of exclusivity.

No one thinks models are just like us. In fact, they seem inseparable from the product of fashion itself. One of the article's sources attempts a defense of the models' special talents: "They're professionally trained to be photographed incredibly well," a modeling agency VP claims, "They know which camera angles work." I'm sure that's a rare gift, and I'm sure the training is rigorous and uncompromising -- "No, you must stare off into space as though you are seeing nothing, nothing. Do you see it?" -- but I have a hard time believing that has anything to do with this. A much better explanation is probably that they are cheaper to use, and carry less extracurricular baggage (amazingly, this is alleged to be true even of Kate Moss). "Style experts say that models may convey more fashion gravitas and sophistication than screen actresses. 'They're specifically related to fashion,' says Sally Singer, fashion news features director at Vogue."

Fashion gravitas equates to the model's ability to be indistinguishable from the product, to be a product herself rather than a personality in her own right. Fashion gravitas is a kind of imposed amnesia: It's a matter of taking the posture being advertised with the utmost seriousness, as if no other definitions of style have ever existed, and having no agenda of one's own in promoting it. " 'We're seeing a return to the focus on the product rather than just the image,' says David Wolfe, a New York fashion consultant and creative director of the Doneger Group. 'People have decided that when they buy the image they are not really getting anything.' "

Now, no one thinks that's true; if consumers were no longer content to consume images, fashion magazines and the fashion industry would be in great danger of folding altogether. The industry consists of little more than images, and the attitudes and whims they are essential to establishing. What you expect to get when you consume fashion is a moment's respite from the ever-mounting insecurity that the world is passing you by. For a moment you feel ahead of the curve. Celebrities, apparently, have fallen behind it. But the substantiality, the use value, of the product is never in question; everyone knows there is none.

Culture and perpetual triage (25 July 2006)

I'm still searching for ways to clarify this idea of thinking through the network, this feeling that the Internet is suddenly a prerequisite for any meaningful thought or conversation. Commenter NotPhil helpfully suggested that when the latest thing is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail -- thus the advent of blogging leads to every idea suddenly seeming blog-sized. Kyril, another commenter, wonders if Internet-based identity continually needs to be reasserted in order to exist, that the sudden wide-exposure theoretically available to us online has the effect of making us acutely conscious of the possibility of our vanishing altogether. In other words, a new way to feel insecure and incomplete. I wondered in the previous post whether blogging and online presence weren't simply plays for institutional power despite the trappings of democracy -- the low bar (Internet connection, minimal computer savvy) to entry into the discourse. Perhaps it is all symptomatic of something Linda Stone postulates called continuous partial attention:
To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.
We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.
Such behavior seems a response to the awareness that we can always be missing out on something that is as close and inaccessible as our computer (when the power is not out) -- an eBay auction, a communique from a paramour, a forex trade, a breaking story, more funny videos of skateboarding accidents, more pictures of naked women with balloons, or whatever. The response to the Internet's inexhaustible opportunities for distraction or engagement or profit can be this fragmenting attention Stone describes ("a crisis management mode"), reacting the flood of culture with perpetual triage, trying to keep up with the categorization and tagging and prioritizing and blogging and everything else we want to do with the tantalizingly malleable data stream.

At first it seems the inverse of the fundamental economic problem of scarcity -- it seems as though we are being short-circuited by the sudden encroachment of the infinite into our minds, which are hard-wired to deal with limited supplies, to collect things, and to demarcate and taxonomize. But it's not that the problem of scarcity has gone away; it's just that for information and entertainment scarcity has shifted from the external world to the internal -- we have a scarcity of attention to pay, and it's a deficit that has overtaken us quite suddenly, in the grand scheme of things. (This places Stone's concern in line with Michael Goldhaber's notion of the attention economy.) We are not used to bumping up against the limit of our attention span, because for much of humanity's existence as a species, it seemed an unreachable horizon because the scope of most individual lives was so narrow. It used to take a long time to be confronted with the extent of what one would never know.

Perhaps attention deficits are perhaps better understood as sensory overloads. The brain's throughput rate can't keep up with broadband. So when I feel compelled to think in terms of the network, it is some attempt to reassert (an illusory) mastery over my attention deficit, to achieve a sense of greater throughput, to be conscious of having processed more data, of having capitalized on a sufficient amount of the endless stream -- to feel as though I am floating on it rather than drowning beneath it.

Street styles (24 July 2006)

Recently Slate had an item by Justin Shubow about street-fashion blogs, which consist of snapshots taken of ordinary people on the streets of a city with a few lines of commentary. I expected to loathe them the way I do the Sunday Styles section -- which I continue to look at anyway, either out of masochism or the cleansing refreshment of a five-minute hate -- but instead I found myself oddly moved, particularly by this blog from Helsinki. Taken in isolation, any of the self-referential comments the subjects make about their own fashions would have seemed gratingly self-aware and almost impolite; it's hard not to sound fatuous when describing your personal style. (An example: "I bought a jeans jacket for 50 cents from the recycling center, cut off the sleeves, dyed it, added the batches and made this vest out of it. My mother bought the jeans for me and I took the seams in to make them smaller. I don't go to shops. The only thing I buy is band T-shirts at concerts. My favorite piece is a pair of ultra loose boxer shorts in orange and green.")

You are almost forced to sound a little overly pleased with yourself and your choices, as if they were all adroitly calculated to accomplish precisely the effect you had hoped for. (Being pleased with yourself isn't a bad thing per se, but talking about it seems to threaten it by instrumentalizing it.) But reading a series of these personal comments, clicking through image after image, the people began to seem more and more artless and unaffected -- relative to each other they by and large seem clearly within the register of normality and not out on some unchartered ego trip. They started to seem self-effacing, almost embarrassed. In the face of public scrutiny and ambiguous social expectations, the individual's resourcefulness comes to the fore, an ability to take bricolage from discount stores or thrift shops or what their parents give them and perform a kind of aesthetic labor of synthesis with it all. A note of defiance toward fashion industry norms creeps in: "I like plain and simple clothes: black, white and red. I wear H&M and lots of second hand. If I had more money, I would still not change anything in my style." Or: "The problem with many good clothes is that when they become comfortable, they break down. Like this leather jacket which I found one and a half years ago. The badges have just come from somewhere, I and my friends have made the drawings on it." You read through enough of these and you start to really the anthropological approach to consumerism that, for instance, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood espouse in The World of Goods, where they argue that consumer goods "are good for thinking," that is, they are a "nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty." It's impossible not to be impressed as you click through the photos on one of these sites with the human creative faculty at work.

These street-style blogs are apparently carefully watched by designers, who draw influence from them. This gives Shubow a chance to trot out the canard that the movements of fashion are controlled by the masses rather than by haute couture arbiters or the whimsical decree of style czars.
It is, of course, no surprise that the fashion industry has already begun to use street-fashion blogs for its own commercial purposes—indeed, the Marxist social critic Walter Benjamin once accused the flâneur of being a "spy for the capitalists, on assignment in the realm of consumers." But ultimately these blogs should strengthen the leveling and decentralizing forces that continue to dismantle the once dominant fashion pyramid. The time is long past when a few couturiers could dictate international style from the heights of Paris. Thanks to the growing popularity of this new medium, it seems likely that a leaderless multitude will increasingly influence fashion from the ground—or rather, pavement—up.
I don't know about this. My suspicion is that fashion revolves much faster than people's natural predilection for novelty would dictate, and certainly no one prefers to be terrorized by fashion or style -- if there's one thing that these blogs make clear is that there is a vast difference between style as ordinary people live it, and fashion as it's conceived by the apparel industry and promulgated through its advertising and infiltration into lifestyle TV programming and magazines and such. That is why I find these blogs so moving; they capture a moment of down-to-earth self-awareness just as the technological and sociocultural web that moment is bound up in perverts it into something like its opposite, which in turn makes the moment of awareness and flattery into a moment of credulity. They have been prodded into publicly delighting in some private aspect of themselves so that it could then be taken away from them and made into a template, making them a stamped-out product retroactively.

Obviously I side with Benjamin on this question -- that these blogs don't do their subjects any favors. The blogs allow for their innocuous expressions of personality to be compiled, collated and distilled into bankable trends. Rather than being something personal and more or less spontaneous, the subject's outfit is recruited as an example of something the subject may not have been aware of. The subject is thereby estranged from herself and in a small way becomes primarily an object -- her image has slipped out of her control and now connotes something besides what might have been intended and is exploited by someone else. On the Helsinki blog, people over and over again say how they don't follow trends, yet they've been caught by the camera and put in jeopardy of becoming one. We develop a fashion approach to project our sense of subjectivity, but these blogs invert that and make the individuals objects to the very extent they've tried harder to be stylish than the average person. The harder they try to be individual, the more likely it is they will be reified.

So in other words, I subscribe to the co-optation model of culture, whereby the culture industry, through a kind of undirected, spontaneous-order series of expropriations (by a "leaderless multitude" of industry functionaries), attempts to eradicate expressions of personal style and supplant them with something that's identifiably institutional while remaining capable of signaling an ersatz independence and individuality -- something that says, "I play by the rules, one of which is, Be unique!" The reward for playing is a sense of power that comes from being influential within the institutional hierarchy -- what at some ultimate level motivates bloggers to compile these street styles in the first place, a quest for recognition on a scale that seems more significant than that which comes from mere personal exchanges. (This is how I felt before when I was without power, desperate to blog but unable to, yearning to think through the network, which could validate my effort.) One's struggle against trends and the "machine" and the culture industry thereby subtly slips into one's working at its behest, all while one's personal sense of righteousness is barely affected.

Low voltage (24 July 2006)

Having been on "low voltage" power for much of the week, I've been having a difficult time updating this blog, but it seems as though ConEdison, the local power company, has straightened things out after apparent bungling of preposterous proportions by management and utility workers working day and night opening, allegedly, every manhole cover in northwest Queens to try to determine what caused the grid to fail there. (No one in any of New York's other boroughs seemed to have any idea of the misery of more than 100,000 Queens residents, of course. Queens may as well be Mumbai or Area 51 as far as Manhattanites are concerned. They actually had to set up Red Cross aid stations throughout the neighborhood, but no one outside of Astoria seemed to have any idea what I was talking about when I would mention it.) Low voltage was something I had never experienced before, and something, in my naivete, I didn't think was possible. I had always thought that there no intermediate degrees between on and off. But for the past week I had semi-operable appliances: the lights were dim, the stove wouldn't light, the coffee grinder labored to crush the beans, the fan would rotate but only at a painfully slow rate. And my computer would turn on, but the cable modem wouldn't function. (Of course this probably makes me sound like a prissy prima donna. I had it pretty good compared to neighbors who had no power at all for nearly a week. All the stores and restaurants were closed in the neighborhood from lack of power, and frankly, I'll be afraid to eat out for a while, until all that now rotten food has a chance to be replaced.)

Without the Internet my computer seemed pretty worthless, a fancy gadget to play Minesweeper with. And the whole time the modem was down I felt a low-grade anxiety that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before -- it reminded me of dreams I used to have where I would be in high school but I wouldn't be able to remember my locker combination, and I would have to go through the day explaining why I had no books, no papers, no pencils, no understanding of what the hell was going on in all of my classes. Without reliable Internet access, I felt as though some part of myself had become inaccessible, or that I was stuck with some lesser version of myself. Suddenly the process of building identity and social life on the Internet seemed precarious to me in a way I hadn't really dwelled on before. I don't think the trend will reverse and people will become less reliant on technology for social life and self-recognition; most likely connection to the Web will become more ubiquitous and reliable as all devices (I almost typed desires) become wireless and a Wi-Fi network with multiple redundancies covers the globe. Access will likely be a matter of money, and those who are able to afford it will live in a socially enhanced world and those who don't will seem to disappear. I felt myself, in some small way, disappearing as I couldn't access my e-mail and so forth.

When I first had Internet access, when I would connect at 56K through my phone line, I felt as though getting online was diminishing me, removing me from the world of friends I spent most days with and depriving the world of the main way to access me, my land line. I reduced myself to whatever small little question drove me to the Web for that moment, for there was always a reason why I would bother (usually it would be to check baseball box scores). Then I would disconnect and resurface, feel fully present again. But in the past few years the dynamic has irrevocably shifted and I feel less than fully present if I can't access the Internet to see if anybody wants something from me, and to record little notions such as this on this blog or somewhere else where it might be seen.

I find myself thinking through the notion of the network, the access being a kind of prerequisite for the habitual ways I think about what I'm going to do. Without it, I felt like I was having a hard time simply thinking. The Internet is now a requirement for me to immediately deploy my thinking about whatever I'm doing in a way that feels useful (an illusion, I know); the old uses for my thoughts (whatever they were) don't seem as satisfactory. There I was reading my New York Times Magazine but having trouble concentrating. What's the point, I thought. It's not like I can even blog about it. I'm probably on the lunatic fringe of this, but maybe eventually we'll all be in this predicament, thinking of the entire Internet itself as the thing we need to tell our bright ideas to.

Derrida for CEOs (20 July 2006)

Derrida famously declared, "Il n'ya pas de hors-texte" -- there is no outside of the text -- a foundational postulate of postmodernism that points to the intertextuality of all culture, the absence of a transcendental point above the fray from which to observe cultural phenomena, and perhaps above all, the lack of ontology for things outside the manner in which they are represented -- that being, the "real," adheres somehow to the order of language, not the order of material objects.

Most people who never sat in a graduate seminar think this is nonsense, but I found some support for Derrida's dictum in a remarkable declaration mentioned in this AdPulp post. "Three years ago at Madison and Vine, Coca-Cola's then CEO stood up and told the room his company was not in the business of selling sweet drinks, but was in fact a media company selling brand impressions." That's a pretty astounding statement -- Coca Cola doesn't sell soda, they sell the name "Coca-cola" -- but it seems inescapable, self-evident, when you think about it. The material world recedes as the nebulous concept of the brand, which exists only as language, becomes primary. The products themselves are effluvia, arbitrary conduits for the brand, in which all value is stored. If we can't consume a product as an idea, as a lifestyle, as a set of prepared, intertextual connotations, we really can't at this point consume it at all. The water pours down our throat, but if it's not Evian or Dasani or whatever, we won't even notice it; it's is below the level of consumption and thus sub-real.

Lotteries and voting (19 July 2006)

Economists always like to complain that there is no real incentive for voting, since one vote (yours) never decides the outcome. As Steven Landsburg explains in this 2004 Slate column,
Last time around, about 6.5 million votes were cast for major party candidates in New York state and 63 percent of them went to Al Gore. Assuming an electorate of similar size with a similar bias, my chance of casting the deciding vote in New York is about one in 10 to the 200,708th power. I have a better chance of winning the Powerball jackpot 7,400 times in a row than of affecting the election's outcome. Which makes it pretty hard to see why I should vote.
The traditional reply begins with the phrase "But if everyone thought like that ... ." To which the correct rejoinder is: So what? Everyone doesn't think like that. They continue to vote by the millions and tens of millions.
Even for the most passionate partisan, it's hard to argue that voting is a good use of your time. Instead of waiting in line to vote, you could wait in line to buy a lottery ticket, hoping to win $100 million and use it to advance your causes—and all with an almost indescribably greater chance of success than you'd have in the voting booth.
Landsburg must be delighted then that the state of Arizona now has a ballot referendum to institute an award of $1 million to one lucky voter chosen at random. This seems borderline unconstitutional, but you can see the immediate appeal. More people will vote, and more people voting is a de facto good thing. But is it? Steve Benen argues that this is probably a bad idea: "The logic behind this effort is that higher turnout is an inherent good. I disagree. An unengaged voter, who knows literally nothing about the candidates or the issues, may feel inclined to cast a ballot on Election Day, filling a ballot with choices he or she made more or less at random, for a shot at $1 million. That person hasn't become engaged by the process or captivated by a sense of civic duty; that person is essentially throwing darts at a board for a chance at a cool million. Democracy doesn't thrive on more votes; it thrives on quality votes — an engaged electorate that knows the issues, studies the candidates, and cares about the outcome. Even if a lottery boosted turnout, and I suspect it would, what's the benefit? Who wins when a potential bribe spurs minimal action among those who would otherwise not care?"

But we can't assume that the new voters this scheme would attract would be any more poorly informed than voters who currently exercise the franchise. People already vote out of a misplaced sense of duty, seeing the civil action as a viable and laudable replacement for actually following politics and being aware of governmental issues. A better argument against this gimmicky scheme is that it debases the vote and makes it incidental to the contest, something like the Big Mac is to the Monopoly game piece. It implies votes are for sale for the infinitesimal amount that is equivalent to the odds-adjusted real value of $1 million lottery ticket. (One of Benen's commenters estimates it come out to around 55 cents.) If votes are for sale, you should get a lot more for it than that, especially considering how much lobbyists pour into campaigns in order to win those votes.

Don't talk like (18 July 2006)

I've been trying to pin down what is off about Carlene Bauer's story at Salon about the end of Sleater-Kinney. I too "still believe in feminism, and I still believe in the saving power of rock music," as Bauer proclaims at the end of the article, so why am I left feeling skeptical and unconvinced? Part of it has to do with the hyperbolic deck line: "The breakup of Sleater-Kinney signifies the end of an era when women made a loud and unapologetic noise -- onstage and in society." Has that era really ended? Was it really contingent on one semi-popular indie-rock band? Seems like the media is full of loud and unapologetic women -- Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter come to mind -- who soldier on even though their era is through. And must every female voice in the public sphere be assessed in terms of its volume (a.k.a. its "shrillness"), even metaphorically? Volume seems a dubious metaphor for having an influential and respected voice, suggesting it's a sheer quantitative rather than qualitative thing. And announcing someone's refusal to apologize, even in the context of praising them for it, seems to reinforce the notion that culturally speaking, apologies should be expected. It is as though Sleater-Kinney deserves praise for refusing to apologize for existing.

This seems a patronizing sort of plaudit. As does this: "Sleater-Kinney -- friends and artists whose friendship and art has nothing to do with expensive shoes and self-deprecation -- are quitting when they seem most necessary." Are female friendships really gnerally as shallow as this implies? (And can a band really be politically "necessary"? Why just them? Where was the love for 1980s progenitors such as Salem 66 or Scrawl -- who by the way might have been mentioned instead of bete noires Liz Phair and Courtney Love). It seems a weird way to praise a band that is also celebrated for having "never wasted time running other women down."

The article itself is a testimonial built on personal anecdotes, the kind that uses one's own emotional states in the place of more conventionally objective-seeming evidence (the kind of diaristic writing once ghettoized as "feminine"; perhaps blogging is eradicating that stereotype). This mode may be intended to fuse the personal and political, but it can come across as faintly narcissistic:
When I heard the news, I felt a burning need to see them one last time, though I was mindful of the fact that one must be circumspect when one is 33 and about to utter the phrase 'burning need.' Surely, one is being ironic. Surely, one has confused the feeling with heartburn. And yet, that feeling just won't quit. I've been listening to music and going to shows for more than half a lifetime now, watching indie rock devolve into backward-looking, fashion-damaged pop, while the culture grows ever more unwilling to admit feminism did anything but give women delusion, heartbreak and resentment. In this blue moment for indie rock fans and feminists alike, I need to pay my respects to three women whose noise never sounded like anyone else's and kept getting louder and larger the older they got.
Again size and volume are deployed as metaphors for significance, as though women were doomed forever to be judged in such terms. And the characterization of indie rock as devolving, as though it weren't always already devolved seems strange. Was there really a time when it was free of fashion? And are the non-mainstream bands percolating today really so different in terms of gender equity and fashion consciousness? Plenty of indie-rockers still subscribe to the "non-image" image and it seems like there are other bands around with women in them. (Perhaps Erase Errata is fated to become the new Sleater Kinney.) If Sleater-Kinney had any cultural effects, one of them would probably, hopefully, be the normalization of female rock bands -- that is the goal, isn't it? To take for granted women in rock? -- so why does the article make such efforts to champion Sleater-Kinney's singularity? If it is and always would have been an exception to the general cultural rule, then how can one take heart in its example? I'm not sure if Sleater-Kinney is being praised for being beyond gender somehow or for being extremely gender-specific. Were they great musicians who happened to be women, or are they great for making a specifically female music? (I know, probably both, even though they seem to contradict on the surface.)

Longing to see Sleater-Kinney perform one last time, Bauer writes, "I need to be reminded that my peers and friends are living correctives to those who believe that it's useless to free yourself from the bonds of biology, history and society, and that you can indeed live a life according to principles that pundits with nannies want to make you believe are quaint unworkable utopian relics of the '60s and '70s. I need to watch three women issue a billowing cloud of noise and in doing so defiantly redefine what it means to be female and an adult." Again, feminism is seen as defiance rather than an inarguable and inalienable standard, and it motivates joyous "noise" -- implying the music's power (and feminism's by extension, since Bauer equates them) derives from chaos and intensity rather than talent, careful planning and ingenuity. Not to discount the antifeminist forces Bauer alludes to here, which are all too pervasive, but if they are so wrong, why are Sleater-Kinney so exceptional?

Here we get closer to my short-sightedness, perhaps. I'll never truly understand the force of arguments from dimwits like Caitlin Flanagan because as a man I'm in a position to not really ever have to take them seriously. They affect me only indirectly. This is probably why I'll take the trouble to criticize Bauer, whose intentions are clearly good and with whom I largely agree, rather than write about Flanagan, who seems beneath contempt. This may not be a luxury women can afford. When I'm listening to music and not necessarily pondering political issues, antifeminism isn't like a shackle on me curtailing my possibilities, and I can hear Sleater-Kinney in an entirely different context, one in which the band need not serve as evidence of something larger than the music it creates. I never "need" Sleater-Kinney to do anything besides play good songs; I don't need them to remind me of anything else but themselves. Does that mean I'm not really hearing Sleater-Kinney's music, I wonder?

Real Friends (18 July 2006)

More on the precarious state of friendship. In this NYT Magazine article Ann Hulbert argues that recent data showing Americans have fewer close friends than before doesn’t necessary mean that we’re experiencing greater social isolation. Instead, she suggests that in response to the communications technology that puts us more in touch than ever with others, we may have “defined intimacy up” In one of many rhetorical questions she poses in the piece, she asks, “Could it be precisely because we’re more plugged in to a disparate array of people who supply us with information when we need it, offer advice and keep us intermittent company, that our standard of genuine closeness has become more exacting?” I don’t think I’m entirely sure about what she’s getting at here. Perhaps it is this: Since we have a broader base from which to draw friends and better filtering tools for selecting them, our chances are better of selecting friends who are like soul mates, and therefore we don’t need more than a few close friends to fulfill all our needs. If this sounds a lot like that modern invention, the companionate marriage, that’s not accidental. Hulbert hints at the end of the piece that our spouses may be all the friends we need.
When one-dimensional, functional relationships are ever more accessible, the desire to be known and to know another from all sides and from inside out may be lodged even deeper -- and may thrive closer to home. A century ago, another philosopher surveying a modernizing world, George Santayana, had already concluded that “the tie that in contemporary society most nearly resembles the ancient ideal of friendship is a well-assorted marriage.”

Another of her rhetorical questions investigates reasons for friendship. “Is friendship a matter of spontaneous sincerity, heartfelt reciprocity, mutual understanding, deep loyalty, moral obligation or shared passion — and can it last?” It seems to me that all of these things may or may not be part of friendship, and what’s more, who cares? Perhaps the essence of real friendships, despite the social networking tools that help define the various degrees of closeness and usefulness of our acquaintances, is that no sustained analysis is required for them to persist. Our commitment to our friends is typically self-justifying, habitual. Friendships are often these wholly unique relations that appear in midst of our decisions and choices as inevitable, given. Most friendships probably can’t bear the brunt of too much analysis; many might start to fall apart if we tried to find justifications for them, and that may be their whole point. The beauty of friendship is that it’s perfectly gratuitous.

So perhaps the crisis in friendship has been created by the way in which communications technology is constantly inviting us to classify and categorize and instrumentalize our friends. In being forced to compartmentalize people, we become alienated from them. When the rampant mechanico-technical rationality that drives Internet efficiency and productivity begins to invade on the few personal, intimate spaces protected from it, we notice.