Thursday, October 6, 2011


It's always sad when someone suffers and dies earlier than they might otherwise have because of cancer. So I am sad that Steve Jobs has died. Of course, were he a nobody instead of a billionaire, though, I wouldn't have felt anything about it. I would have ignored his death like all the other strangers' deaths.

I am not much of a believer in the sorts of ideals Steve Jobs came to represent, and seeing the outpouring of gratitude in various media outlets for how he "invented the future" and so forth has made me feel more than usually estranged from the culture I live in. So forgive me if I come across as sour or surly. For his hagiographers, Jobs is an innovative, entrepreneurial genius who gave concrete form to the inchoate desires of the masses to live more beautiful lives. Indeed, he is the man whose marketing savvy brought us the gadgets that set us free to become what we wanted to be, the stylish silhouettes dancing in the old original iPod advertisements, opaque and indistinguishable in their solipsism.

What I see when instructed to appreciate the awesomeness of the world that Jobs helped created is a world full of atomized consumers enthralled by gadgets that promise to augment their lives but just as often compress them, reify them, codify them into quantified data. I see a superficial aesthetic anchored in fastidious fonts and hermetic product design that I am supposed to receive as a special consolation, a privilege of my era as wonderful as electricity or refrigeration. I see commercial products specifically designed to repel curiosity and DIY modification championed as harbingers of the triumph of the "personal." I see gadgets design to accelerate consumption and subsume more of everyday live to the anxieties of mediation represented as great enablers of productive self-expression. Apple under Jobs put a sleek, brushed-aluminum case on the ideology of consumerism and convinced us it had sparked some sort of revolution.

I have no special complaints about the functionality of Apple's products, though they are relatively overpriced. Their vaunted ease of use has only occasionally disappointed me, though I have never understood why I was supposed to be so grateful for it. Praising products for merely working seems to speak of our undue tolerance for broken, shabby things, not a generalized elevation of expectations. And outside of fast fashion, perhaps no company exemplifies the commitment to obsolescence more rigorously than Apple. No other company has been more successful in leveraging the media to make its perfectly functional products seem useless and outdated on a regular schedule. All hail "innovation"!

Still, my problem has always been more with the cult of Apple and of Jobs himself. To me, Jobs represented the tyranny of design, the soft command of seductive interfaces, the covert control through cleverly marketed convenience, the triumph of closed, hierarchical systems over open-source ones, commercial protocols and the ethos of the gated community over the commons. More than any other corporate executive, he commoditized creativity and sold it as a fungible status symbol. Apple is supposed to serve as proof that good design can drive capitalist expansion, that market competition will ultimately produce only things that are held by consensus to be not only utilitarian but beautiful. But one could also see this as a demonstration of capitalist ideology's advance -- it no longer needs appeals to utility and rationality to justify itself, but can presume its subjects will regard exchange itself is beautiful, that its logic can only but yield pleasure. Apple thus betokens a growing dependence on the market in order to experience pleasure. We must buy things to entitle ourselves to an aesthetic feeling.

That I own an iPod probably opens me to accusations of hypocrisy in some people's eyes. Complaining about consumerism but still shopping for things probably makes me a hypocrite to such people (if they are not straw men) too. If you participate at all in the status quo -- if it ensnares you as it is intended to -- you have no right to criticize it. It's incumbent instead to celebrate it. A cursory look at Twitter shows there is certainly no shortage of cheerleaders. When I listen to music, it doesn't mean that much to me if it happens to come from an iPod. But Apple ideology tells me it should, that he device is more significant than what it conveys. My reactionary response has been to fetishize vinyl.

Part of me feels viscerally an envy with regard to Jobs that marks the degree to which I've vicariously participated in the myth that has been built around him, in the entrepreneur worship, the fantasy of power -- of being able to alter other's lives and still be regarded as benevolent. Technology is a perfect vector for that sort of power, masking the agency of those who develop it and program it and representing that as irresistible progress. That instinctive envy engenders a deep skepticism of Silicon Valley, of the sort of people drawn to it, those who seeking technocratic means to dominate the world, impose a vision, dictate the contours of others' lives. Jobs worship perpetuates the idea that proprietary technology is developed for us, for our improvement and our needs, rather than for profit or for the egos of venture capitalists and self-proclaimed visionaries. It makes more sense to me, if you want to worship tech gurus, to choose someone like Linus Torvalds, though I doubt he'll be on the cover of Time when he dies.

Ostalgia at the New Museum (2 Oct 2011)

In the first question of this interview, philosopher Paolo Virno is asked to explain how he can regard Marxism as a "doctrine of rigorous individualism" -- particularly since the mandated ideology of the "really existing socialism" of Eastern Europe tended to emphasize suppressing individuality in favor of an elaborately professed fidelity to the collective. Virno quotes Russian linguist Lew Vygotsky in response: "the real movement of the development process of the child’s thought is accomplished not from the individual to the socialized, but from the social to the individual." That is, we must learn to think of ourselves as individuals within a given set of social relations, a process that Virno claims continues throughout adult life: " We constantly have to deal with the interiority of the public and with the publicity of the interior."

In many ways, the Ostalgia show at the New Museum, which collects work by artists who were raised in the Soviet Union or its satellite nations in the Eastern Bloc, deals with precisely this question: how does one express or capture that inner sense of individuality publicly, in a society that pretends to officially deny its existence? The show presents ironic support for the idealized notion that true individuality can emerge only under socialism: Despite the manifest material hardships, the artists evince a kind of hardy, irrepressibly idiosyncratic spirit that can seem sharper, more distinctive, more authentic to jaded Western eyes. It's easy, for example, to read the ad hoc creativity captured in Vladimir Arkhipov's images of improvised household gadgetry (e.g., a maraca made from foam rubber, scaps of leather, and a Fanta can; a tub stopper made from a bent fork stuck in a rubber boot heel) as proof that Eastern European living conditions forced everyone to be folk artists.

That is where the nostalgia (albeit vicarious) comes in for us: the wistful fantasy of a world in which glamour and celebrity don't exist, so no one is under pressure to develop their identity with fame in mind. In "Ostalgia," we see art made in a society without an art market, design devised not for a culture of consumer seduction but for individuals desperate for functionality. No crass commericalism -- the pursuit of distinction in these works is not about ego but simply the essential desire to show that one existed. The works have an ontological desperation that seems to purify them.

It's readily apparent that none of the ordinary people in the 1960s and '70s-era photographs by Boris Mikhailov are posing for him to improve their personal brand. The frank, earthy images utterly lack that kind of calculating awareness; they instead carry an erotic charge that depends not on conforming to commercially established beauty standards but on evincing a surprising singularity, a spontaneous particularity, as if they are only just discovering their uniqueness. Since Mikhailov's work was not sanctioned by the state, his subjects ran real risks by agreeing to pose (often nude). This tends to make them appear as co-conspirators in an act of subversive intimacy. The feeling of forbidden liberation is palpable. Rather than being objectified by the photographs (even though they were paid to model), Mikhailov's subjects seem instead to seize the opportunity to be truly subjectivized by them. The images allow them to express individuality for its own sake. Secret moments stolen from a surveillance state, the photos document poignant private alliances, anti-networking.

This is a far cry from what we are accustomed to in the era of social media, where the idea of secret moments is becoming unthinkable, regarded increasingly as aberrant and antisocial. It is hard to imagine achieving such intimacy or liberation as Mikhailov's images evoke in the time of Facebook, in which not only is everything permitted -- there is no repressive state forbidding personal expression -- but people are pressured to share as much of that everything as possible in a tolerated spirit of self-aggrandizement. Social media have turned fears of a surveillance state inside out and made self-revelation ubiquitous, automatic, virtually unintentional. At the same time, given the sorts of skills needed to secure the jobs reserved for the "creative class," we are forced to manufacture and parade an ersatz individuality, showcasing our flexibility and ingenuity, our ability to anticipate trends, our well-rounded sensitivity to the processes of cultural meaning making.

So despite our culture's emphasis on individuality, we don't generally experience it the way it's depicted in "Ostalgia". Instead we fret about the degree to which we are unique, make a fetish of superficial nonconformity. We are becoming used to the notion of an attention economy, in which our individuality is increasingly inexpressible except as a quantitative measure. It becomes harder to image a life that is obscure, and so such a life begins to seem as if it contains more reality. Ostalgia becomes a nostalgia not for the all-embracing social order socialist states tried to provide or their uneven successes in suppressing the effects of a class structure on ordinary people, but for the way such total systems left inadvertent room for a contested privacy that had monumental value. Now we just give it away through frictionless sharing, and many of us don't know how to stop it even if we aren't inclined to lend our consent.

Daron Acemoglu on political economy (27 Sept 2011)

While reading the first half of this interview with prolific economist Daron Acemoglu, I started to have the feeling that economics as a discipline is organized around neutralizing class-struggle arguments. (Or maybe it's a rationalization of the panopticon.) Its chief normative purpose can seem to be to account for economic disparities between classes in bland, obfuscatory language and analysis. Yes, he makes an interesting point about structural unemployment (men haven't received sufficient ideological conditioning to be prepared to take the low-wage service sector jobs that are actually available -- the "skills mismatch" that policymakers frequently mention) but he also seems to cloak the political stakes of economic policy in neutral language that makes the unfolding of the economy seem like an act of god, not the conspiracy of elites. For instance, the interviewer sums up Acemoglu's research on income inequality this way: "You said that trends in inequality can best be explained and forecasted by understanding interactions of five factors, all of which are constantly evolving in interaction with one another: technology, labor market institutions and policies, how firms organize production, labor market search and matching efficiencies, and international trade." It seems a very strange list to me, displacing the motive forces guiding those interactions and rendering the study of them passive, reactive. You see this in Acemoglu's response: " I think we also have made much more progress in understanding how technology changes the demand for labor and interacts with the organization of firms and of tasks." Yes, but who changes technology? And why? What drives the interaction? Who is doing the organizing? To what end? And so on.

Perhaps it's just naive of me, I was thinking, to expect answers to such questions. But then the interview concludes with a discussion of political economy that addresses what strike me as more relevant questions.
So there is much meaningful heterogeneity related to economic outcomes in the political structures of societies. And these tend to have different institutions regulating economic life and creating different incentives. And I started believing—and that’s reflected in my work—that you wouldn’t make enough progress on the problems of economic growth unless you started tackling these institutional foundations of growth at the same time.
That got me onto a path of research that has been trying to understand, theoretically and empirically, how institutions shape economic incentives and why institutions vary across nations. How they evolve over time. And politics of institutions, meaning, not just economically which institutions are better than others, but why is it that certain different types of institutions stick?
What I mean by that is, it wouldn’t make sense, in terms of economic growth, to have a set of institutions that ban private property or create private property that is highly insecure, where I can encroach on your rights. But politically, it might make a lot of sense.
If I have the political power, and I’m afraid of you becoming rich and challenging me politically, then it makes a lot of sense for me to create a set of institutions that don’t give you secure property rights. If I’m afraid of you starting new businesses and attracting my workers away from me, it makes a lot of sense for me to regulate you in such a way that it totally kills your ability to grow or undertake innovations.
So, if I am really afraid of losing political power to you, that really brings me to the politics of institutions, where the logic is not so much the economic consequences, but the political consequences. This means that, say, when considering some reform, what most politicians and powerful elites in society really care about is not whether this reform will make the population at large better off, but whether it will make it easier or harder for them to cling to power.
This strikes me as an anti-technocratic understanding of how power functions, and opens the space to address the issues that dictate policy and technology and so forth. Acemoglu adds, "When a very narrow group controls political power for its economic ends, it also is quite disappointing for economic growth. It doesn’t encourage new technologies to come in; it doesn’t allow people to use their talents; it doesn’t allow markets to function; it doesn’t give incentives to the vast majority of the population; moreover, it encourages the people who control political power to suppress many forms of innovation and economic change because they fear it will be a threat to their stability." This seems like a fair description of why people are occupying Wall Street.