Showing posts with label the future is nigh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the future is nigh. Show all posts

Monday, April 15, 2013

Polyamorous partner hires, redux

Peeps, we are one step closer to our goal of getting me and all my friends academic jobs achieving long-overdue equal recognition for all relationships.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Populism in journalism

Now your anonymous internet trolling sad stabs at wit important and informed tweets and reader comments that contribute immensely to 'the national conversation' can make it into the NYT. In fact, they can make up half the NYT article. Because why bother interviewing people who might lay claim to relevant insight or even just realize they are speaking to a reporter (what's that?) when you can just copy and paste the internet? And the article itself will be written in snark-toned adolescent blog-prose: "Mitford was being mischievous, except that she kind of wasn’t, since she was describing the way people actually spoke." Cute, except that it's kind of nauseating.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What friends are for

These are heady days for gender neutrality. I have been an advocate of gender-neutral pronouns since at least yesterday's blog post, but zheir general acceptance is an uphill fight, while this Swedish alternative is so much simpler and more intuitive. Rather than refer to someone as a he, she, or it, we can refer to zir simply as "friend," thereby achieving gender neutrality and world peace simultaneously.

For example, if I am mugged in Stockholm, I will yell out, "That friend! A friend mugged me!" When passerby ask me who mugged me, I will respond, "A friend! A friend did it!" When the police ask for a description of the suspect, I will say, "It was a friend. The friend was tall with blond hair." They will plaster the neighborhood with the detailed composite sketch based on my description and a headline like, "Wanted: Friend who is a mugger," or "Beware: Mugger who looks like a friend."

Later, when I have recovered from this, I will meet my friend friends at a bar, and we will discuss our friendships. One friend friend will say, "I know Hjalmar and Lotta are friends and friend friends like us, but are they friend friend friends?"
"I think so," another friend friend will say, "because I saw friend walking with friend last Friday after the bars closed, and you can imagine where they were headed."
But a third, more skeptical friend friend will counter, "But are you sure Hjalmar even goes for friends? I always suspected that Hjalmar was the kind of friend who preferred friends." This suggestion will cause general surprise among my friend friends.
"Are you implying that there is an appreciable difference between friends and friends?" the first friend friend will ask suspiciously. "That is not what I was taught in school."
"Yes, friend is right," another friend friend will chime in reassuringly. "I don't know what your problem is, but Hjalmar loves all friends. The question is only who friend's current friend friend friend is."
But the skeptical friend friend will press on, "No, I love all friends too, and I love love my friend friends, but sometimes I think I love love love only some friend friend friends, although I'm not quite sure how to describe what sets them apart from other friends and friend friends." These remarks will stir something closely resembling outrage among my group of friend friends, and one will even throw a glass of beer to the ground, silencing other nearby groups of friend friends and drawing their attention to friend.
"Friend, I don't think we can be friend friends if you believe things like this. Frankly, I'm not even sure we can be friends." A collective gasp will arise from the bar's friendly patrons. "In fact," this friend will continue, "I think we may even have to be..." friend will trail off for a few seconds as friend scrambles to unearth the archaic term from the recesses of friend's memory, "...ENEMIES."

Carl Schmitt would have been so excited to witness this spectacle.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The seven-body problem

Phoebe brings our attention to the following two-body problem, which reminds me of a situation I heard about last year in which someone got a spousal hire for a person to whom it turned out she was not (yet?) married. Or maybe it was he who got the hire for her; these people were not in my field and I'm not sure which was the "upwardly-mobile mate." Anyway, apparently this happens, perhaps especially when you make a point to refer to your non-spouse as "my partner," which is sufficiently ambiguous and politically-charged that it makes people anxious about looming discrimination claims. And this got me thinking about how the idea of a "spousal hire" could be broadened in other ways beyond just "relationship hire," particularly in ways that would benefit me.

Now, my partner is not an academic, so I can't really demand zir hire, but I do have some friends whom I'd really like to have as colleagues in the future. And in academia particularly, where dispersion to the ends of the Earth is the norm and yet the philosophical enterprise itself relies on sociability (see Socrates in the agora, Plato's Academy, Epicurus' garden, and so on), having friends amid the penguins or sheep who will be your primary neighbors is imperative. I don't want to be without my friends, but how to keep them close in such a competitive market? Of course, "friend hire" will never do on its own because it's corrupt to hire one's friends, but what about "polyamorous partner(s) hire"? Certainly no enlightened  institution of higher education continues to limit its conception of "family" to married couples with children, or even married couples, so why continue to privilege couple-hood at all? It's possible that polyamory would require somewhat more active "amory" than my friends and I presently engage in, but I counter that eros is primarily a matter of philosophical affinity, and any physical engagement is merely incidental. Besides, is the hiring committee in a position to demand proof?

And, as Phoebe points out, where a spousal hire could potentially bring under-represented populations to a faculty, it ought to be considered in a more positive light. I happen to have several female friends (and those friends have friends...), so just think of the boon to diversity, future potential hiring committees! You will never again have to go out in search of elusive females because if you hire Miss Self-Important, she will bring you so many ladies that you won't need to worry about gender imbalance until at least 2050. No more leaky pipeline with polyamorous partner hires!

So far, the only major obstacle to my plan is that it seems that ze has to be an outstanding and sought-after scholar to be offered even a regressive spousal hire, and in my case, that is unlikely. However, that is why I'm putting the idea out there now, so that enterprising scholar-readers of this blog better positioned for academic glory can begin paving a new road to progress and personal freedom. Also, when you do that, please remember this good turn I've done you, especially if I am unemployed and in need of some 'amorous' assistance.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Living in the future

It is high time to revive my old blog-tag, "the future is nigh," and put it in the service of all things southern California. Because if Joan Didion and (for different reasons) crazed techno-progress optimists are right, here is the beginning of tomorrow's America. But I have been exiled here from today's America (Washington), yesterday's America (Chicago), and also the day before yesterday's pre-America (Boston). And like Phoebe in New Jersey but with a slightly shorter (two-leg) commute to school, I am ambivalent to say the least about my new surroundings. But, as a matter of the public service to which I am so unwaveringly devoted, I bring you what you have to look forward to:

Of course, the traditional "Halloween tan." How could you forget?

Overheard in coffee-shops:
"I am a nature-ologist."
"Have you heard about design-thinking? Yes, design-thinking. It's a new way of solving problems that's, like, replacing the scientific method."

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sex math is hard

I promise maybe this is the last post about sex week, but the articles are just so great. So, this problem could be posed in the simplest of terms: when there are fewer lesbians than straight women, it's harder to find lesbians in any given population of women. Check. But it could also be posed in this amazing baroque way as the world's greatest math problem:
As a pansexual, Jinadasa expresses a desire to have relationships with both men and women, but she says that the small dating pool of lesbian and female bisexuals makes it much easier to date men. “It’s math: Let’s say I’m attracted to 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Let’s say there are 40 people in a room and I’m attracted to all of the guys and all of the girls. There are nine guys who are gay and one girl who is queer.”
Ok, peeps, let's put our thinking caps on. So there are 40 people in a room, and you are attracted to all of them, every last one, but you're still a woman, so the nine gay guys are not attracted to you (annoying! why can't they also be pansexual?), which leaves 31 people to potentially sleep with. It could work out with one of the girls, but that seems so...paltry. You are hot stuff, you desire everyone, can't a girl get some play? What about the other 30 people? Are they men or women? Now your calculator is giving you "variable undefined" as an answer. Maybe they are also pansexuals, so it's irrelevant? Or maybe they are all having sex with each other while you're busy doing this math, and by the time you finish and go back into the room, you'll discover that they all got tired and left, including that one queer girl you could've met instead of doing this complicated sex-algebra? Then, you'll realize that all you needed to satisfy your vast pan-desire was one person, queer or not, and in spite of being attracted to 40 people simultaneously, you're still stuck going home alone.

If only this epic story could one day appear as a word problem in the math textbooks of future children.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Barrel shooting: sex week

I have long been a skeptic about histrionic college shenanigans like Sex Weeks, but having read the recent Crimson coverage of its own Sex Week, I must say, I was not only convinced but inspired:
The more that people know about consent and the importance of respect in sexual relationships, and the more that sex is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice consent and respect.
Ok then! Drawing on this, I have created the official advertisement for Miss Self-Important's forthcoming First Annual Drunken Brawling Week:
The more that people know about fist-fighting and the importance of violence in social relationships, and the more that drunken brawling is seen as a positive, affirming thing, the more likely people are to practice fist-fighting and violence.
Incidentally, Drunken Brawling Week will also feature an event called "Unsupervised." I will leave you to infer what will take place at this event. The spokesperson, however, will take her cues directly from the quoted Planned Parenthood staffer and will provide the following reassurances to the audience at the event:
“We, as a culture, are not comfortable about drunken brawling. We are violent beings; it’s part of our nature...Drunken brawling is not bad, it’s not evil, it’s just risky...One out of four drunken brawlers in our country have a broken nose. ”
All of this is entirely true, and also value-free. We organizers of Drunken Brawling Week, we are not judging you and your drunken brawling proclivities. We just provide information and raise awareness. It's up to you to do what you will with it. We want you to have a good time, but a safe good time. Remember to drink lots of water and wear padding.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Online education

In doing some experiential research, I've been watching various free online "courses" and confirming my preconceptions of their ineffectiveness as a replacement for college and their similarity to many American efforts at "continuing education" - providing enrichment and a dilettantish sense of edification for adults. In the nineteenth century it was lyceums, in the early twentieth it was workers' groups, then community college and "extension" courses, now the internet. Everything is going to replace elitist traditional colleges with their high costs and selective enrollments, until it doesn't. This looks a lot more like the past than the future to me.

But anyway, that is not the point. The point is that watching videos of people lecturing is remarkably boring, perhaps because they're conveyed by a medium I expect to provide me with print and so get impatient when it instead delivers talking that is slower than my reading. (When I hear them "live," I can usually keep my eyes open better.) So I've read lecture transcripts instead. And mostly, meh, but I do have to say that Paul Freedman's Yale lectures on the early Middle Ages are surprisingly absorbing (in transcript form). Continuing ed and dilettantish edification for Miss Self-Important, who knows nothing about the Middle Ages, anyway.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A modest serious proposal for inter-apartment internet-sharing arrangements

I live in a building with at least 18 units, and each of these seems to have its own wifi network. Most of them have figured out how to secure their networks, but as is always the case with oldsters and large samples, not everyone is so adept. So Seb and I have been mooching off the weak signals of various neighbors for the entire year. This isn't all that convenient, since the connections vary in strength depending on where in the apartment one stands. (The bathroom is a particularly good location, but it's hard to stream Buffy episodes from the bathtub.)

Not that we're averse to paying for internet; we're just averse to paying Comcast $60/mo for internet when there is so much unused bandwidth floating around on all sides. I have proposed to Seb, who is always complaining about the unreliability of our stolen connections, that we send a letter to our next-door neighbor offering to pay half his Comcast bill if he gives us his wifi password. He is old and lives alone, and I doubt he's spending his hours on bandwidth-devouring activities like World of Warcraft (although that would be an amusing revelation). He has plenty of internet to go around.

Seb thinks this is a bad idea, but I think it's eminently rational. I suppose one could worry about personal data theft in such cases, but I for one don't have the skillz to steal anyone's data even when it's naked, and financial sites are encrypted, so I would have to possess the additional skillz of decrypting the stolen data. Using a university network on any given day is much more dangerous than sharing your wifi with Miss Self-Important. Maybe I will add this point to the letter.

In any case, this is my proposal. I think it could be implemented in many multi-unit buildings, and if bandwidth use were a threat to the environment like every other human activity seems to be, I could even make my neighbors feel guilty/virtuous for declining/participating in it. Has anyone tried this? Or, more importantly, would you try it if you received a note under your door from me asking you to?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Greatest hits of the '60s, '70s, and now the '80s"

This is the new tagline of the Boston oldies station, at least since the new year. There are two problems with this change. First, I happen to like the greatest hits of the '50s and want them back. Second, I was alive in the '80s. Oldies have always been an expressly historical genre, representing pop music that happened before I existed and thus was of interest to me for purely antiquarian reasons. (I mean, it's hard to explain how I was an antiquarian at age six, when I first started listening to the radio, but suffice it to say, I was.) Now, oldies and I have apparently converged. History has fused with the present! What outrage is next? My present will be the present's past? Oldies will represent my personal nostalgia instead of the nostalgia of old people? I WILL BE OLD???


Saturday, November 20, 2010

A call for returning to antisocial media

The proliferation of social media options underneath web text is beginning to drive me insane. Why do I have to "digg", "twitter," "stumbleupon," "like," "subscribe," "delicious," or "connect via Meebo" (also, Meebo???) to an article? Can't I just "read" it?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On ideal uses of Facebook: more babies!

The 34-45 set's infiltration of Facebook has brought little positive change to my user experience, unless one considers increased instances of "So and so threw a sheep at so and so" and "25 things about me" on the friend feed an improvement. They are weirdly earnest in their organization of profile information, and they're into passe stuff (sheep throwing, above). But. They have brought with them one great, compensatory thing--an incredible proliferation of old baby photos, which they, thanks to internet incompetence, have failed to make inaccessible to me. One instance of excellent consequences for oversharing.

I love old baby photos. Actually, I don't love baby photos per se since they typically focus too much on the babies (who all look kind of alike) at the expense of the lives of their families, but I love photos of childhood generally, which are generally better contextualized in some family setting. In addition to the weird '80s sitcom fascination, I have now logged at least as many hours looking through the family photo albums of distant acquaintances and complete strangers, and noting their paneled basements, their disheveled, toy-strewn backyards, and their massive, face-swallowing eyeglasses. Particularly interesting are the photos of people I know and people who grew up in places I know, but I've branched out to childhoods everywhere. They are--or were in the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, when most of these photos seem to have been taken--marvelously messy, mismatched, and unhealthy. People who appear to be very dignified and put together have all been caught either running around in their underpants with marshmallow goo in their hair, or supervising such escapades by their children from the vantage point of dented and torn lounge chairs in their backyards. This is endlessly fascinating! I know it's an obvious fact about both the nature of family photos and oversharing on teh internets, but before the great Facebook Emporium of Baby Photos, you could only know this by extrapolation from your own family photo album since you had very limited access to other people's.

I realize this interest is both a form of voyeurism and a surrender to misguided, possibly totalitarian nostalgia, but the photos--they're so charming! Some people, in their equally creepy enthusiasm to display these things to all the world, have even scanned and uploaded ancient photos of their grandparents as children, which I also LOVE. More photos, people--I want to know as much about your family as you do, even if I don't even know you. The history of even very recent private life is hard to pin down, as it should be, and even where knowing it is of no real use to anyone, seeing glimpses of it still makes me happy. Why is this? Just standard voyeurism and weakness for kitsch? What if we could establish a national online family photo album repository purely for its potential to get closer to completing the great, completely totalitarian project of reconstructing every minute of every life everywhere in America? If we could, I would be content, but unable to ever tear myself away from the internet again.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Department of Bad Ideas: Teaching reading through video games

Have I mentioned how overrated educational technology is? Yes, a thousand times? Here's to a thousand and one: video games are going to inspire stubborn children to read!

Can we even recall all the gimmicks in the last 15 years that were supposed to transform these recalcitrant non-readers into junior professors? There were all those summer programs that promised you free Pizza Hut or some junk if you read 300 pages in three months. I also remember Goosebumps books, which were all uniformly awful (primarily because they were all basically the same book with a different bogeyman copied and pasted into each incarnation--the man-eating plant, the neighbor who's a vampire, etc.), but were hailed as the next big thing in making everyone excited about books. There was Pokemon (which came with books of some sort, though usually with very few words, and what words there were were incomprehensible in the style of most translation of Japanese pop culture), fan fiction, graphic novels, movie tie-ins, Harry Potter, and on and on.

Every new kind of packaging was supposed to finally get everyone reading, and what seems to be plainly obvious is that reading is not for everyone. Literacy might be, but not literary habits. And maybe that's OK. Everyone doesn't have to love Hemingway for the US to be a culturally developed nation. At the same time, these proselytizing efforts have increasingly taken the form of the lowest common denominator of "reading" and "books," to the point where it's worthwhile to stop and wonder if reading any combination of words is always better than reading nothing at all?

There is a reason that Goosebumps is awful, that most serialized fiction is awful, that Pokemon is awful, that basically anything that librarians and schoolteachers try to market as a "gateway drug" to reading is crud. It's because librarians and schoolteachers assume that the reason that some kids don't like to read is that nothing "resonates" with their interests, and since the interests of children are crude and unsophisticated, so too should be their books. This approach seems to be belied by the high probability that no one has ever become a reader because of Goosebumps, while at least some people have become readers because of books that require somewhat greater intellectual and moral exertion than man-eating plants and farting.

So this brings us to video games as a means of encouraging reading. There is no logical connection between these two activities--in my experience, the only activity that video game playing encourages is more video game playing. This is not inherently evil (just mostly), but neither is it going to achieve the stated end. But! also! "some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players." And nothings instills lifelong literary habits like video game strategy guides. And indeed, the single instance this article offers of the connection between gaming and reading is that great bastion of literacy--the internet message board--"Noah also wrote about the games and other pastimes on a group Internet forum. “I was so surprised because he does not like writing,” said William Tropp, Noah’s father." Again, I have to wonder--how excited should we about every line of text a child reads? Is it an achievement that a child can establish basic communication with his peers, which is essentially what a message board allows, and which is completely different from understanding literature? Are food labels the next big literary thing?

Conveniently, the librarians rescue us from the quandary of celebrating crud in the name of literacy: “I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What exactly is reading?’” said Jack Martin, assistant director for young adult programs at the New York Public Library." When you can no longer defend your own ground, it is usually a good idea to pretend that your ground may only have been the collective delusion of your opponents. I understand Henry Jenkins's argument for transmedia story-telling, and I think some of his promotion of fan fiction and recreational media creation is interesting, but when he gets into his predictions for the glorious future of education based on collaborative multimedia creation, he makes the same error of confusing education with entertainment that the proponents of video games as literature do.

They make other errors, too. For example:
Holly McLaughlin, a senior at Kimball who played Civilization as a sophomore in Ms. Lord’s class, said that at first she failed at the game, choosing to develop culture and religion at the expense of roads and the military. Playing, she said, helped her gain a deeper appreciation for why leaders made certain decisions. “Rather than just reading about it,” Holly said, “you would understand everything about it, because you had built a network of roads yourself.”
Yes, I also loved Age of Empires in high school and played it obsessively, and sadly, it taught me nothing about ancient history. That's because a video game is sadly not history unfolding before you; it's the creation of video game designers. And if the designers want to make a game that can be won by "developing culture and religion," then they can do that, and poor Holly McLaughlin would never know the difference. If they want to design a victory that requires the ancient Egyptians to build a hydrogen bomb, they can do that (or, that's what cheat keys are for). The connection between a historical video game and actual history is whim, not fact.

Finally, there is this small error:
“Games are teaching critical thinking skills and a sense of yourself as an agent having to make choices and live with those choices,” said James Paul Gee.
So video games help you practice being alive in ways that actually being alive don't? Also, what being alive shares in common with literature is its interest in this phenomenon called mortality, whereby people die, usually permanently, and that's seen as a pretty big reason that people have to "make choices and live with those choices." In video games, however, you just get teleported back to level 1 to start over. In spite of Mr. Gee's intensive training in critical thinking, he seems to have overlooked this slight flaw in game reality.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Following up on my previous complaint that no one in Second Life is fat, I have re-fashioned my avatar to more effectively subvert SL aesthetics. Check me out:

UPDATE: I can't believe no one believes me when I say fat:

Monday, March 31, 2008


One should be suspicious of any discussion of a technology that describes it as either unequivocally good, or the beginning of the end of man. (Though if you must choose from extremes, I would err on the side of civilizational decline.) As I've written before, I think much of the popular hand-wringing about the effect of internet technologies on childhood is overblown and misdirected. For example, lots of newsprint is wasted on worries about online predators, who affect (in my generous estimate) about .01 percent of internet users, but seem Very Scary in the abstract. And while that's unfortunate, this kind of boosterism is even more so:
We're afraid. Our kids know things we don't. They drove the presidential debates onto YouTube and very well may determine the outcome of this election. They're texting at the dinner table and responsible for pretty much every enduring consumer cultural phenomenon: iPod, iTunes, iPhone; Harry Potter, "High School Musical"; large hot drinks with gingerbread flavoring. They can sell ads on their social network pages, and they essentially made MySpace worth $580 million and "Juno" an Oscar winner.
It's true; we are afraid. So afraid that teh internets is a big, scary blob to us that prevents us from differentiating between the demographic that likes "High School Musical," and the one that has iPhones and votes. I am 22 years old and work in communications, and even I don't have an iPhone. The children are not so advanced that they run the world through their Club Penguin accounts. Don't let technology's seeming complexity fool you into thinking they are geniuses and relinquishing your authority over them. Text messaging is really not that difficult. If you're tempted to hand the reins over to your kids because they know how to do it and you don't, I would advise just learning it instead.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down

I am increasingly starting to see how, beneath the sheer novelty of so much that is hailed as a radical liberation from social constraints--polyamory, say, or extreme biotech modifications of the body--people are just bourgie to the core. They're all about "managing" their relationships, and allocating their time in the most efficient possible way. In fact, I have seen this so much that I am ready to retire the term 'bourgie,' despite how much I enjoyed it just a couple of months ago.

Take Second Life: if the great potential of virtual worlds is that you can "be" anything you want in them, why do the vast majority of residents create avatars that slavishly conform to conventional (even vulgar) standards of attractiveness--giant muscles, giant breasts, 10-inch stilettos. There are no overweight avatars in Second Life (except me and David, whom I convinced to join, and who spearheaded our 30-minute virtual ugliness campaign). You might say that this is obvious, since people will create their ideal selves when given the opportunity, but are these not the same (white, upper-middle class, liberal) people who would denounce this ideal in the real world as oppressive or subjective or otherwise invalid? Shouldn't more of these people be fat and weird in the virtual world? Don't they want to undermine these prevailing paradigms of beauty with a few simple mouse clicks? But no, they're happy to accept your weird shape, but they just want to be hot and likable.

(I know there are many furries in SL who may at first seem like a group that is working against dominant ideas of beauty and ideal form, but I prefer to think of the furries as people who have a mental age of about seven, which seems like roughly the peak of human identification with animals.)

In addition, most people in SL are extremely nice. What is more bourgie than being nice? In the real world, perhaps, many people who are nice are that way because they fear the repercussions to their status that being mean might entail. But what is there to fear in Second Life? Your real reputation is not at stake, and you can always create a new avatar if your old one is tarnished. Unless, of course, the niceness is so deeply ingrained in your soul that it becomes a moral rather than a utilitarian principle (being nice for its own sake vs. being nice to get a cookie). Then, Nietzsche might say, you are lost forever to the slave morality.

So what are the sacred principles that people who want to overturn the status quo think that they're undermining?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I'm so much cooler online

In light of some less than stellar education documentaries recently (study engineering or betray America!), Frontline's Growing Up Online is commendably only a little bit overblown. A lot of it is old news rehashed--pro-ana sites, Goths-in-panties MySpace pages, etc--but it does at least make a compelling argument that the danger of the internet is being misperceived by adults.

While parents are busy worrying about extremely unlikely prospect of online predators raping their beautiful golden-haired daughters, the local technologically deterministic school is capitulating to their children's acquired ADD by installing LCD screens and computers into every classroom and turning education into a series of games, and countering student plagiarism by declaring cheating to be merely the newest skill required for the "media literate" work force (reading, however, has diminished significantly in importance). Parents who have evidently bought their children Sidekicks, laptops for their bedrooms, 15 different game consoles, and every other electronic gadget marketed between 1995 and the present express befuddled surprise when their children become immersed in the technologies and ignore them. And what happens online is largely a reflection of what happens offline in a children's culture from which adults are for the most part absent, and few activities seem to exist aside from re-enacting Lord of the Flies on a daily basis. (And who didn't love the precious and totally ineffectual anti-cyber-bullying mantra "stop, block, and tell"?)

It's kind of surprising how much of the documentary is adults just giving in to the exhortations of their children because they "know more" about technology, they're wiser or more clever than we give them credit for, or because it's just futile to stand in the way of the steamroller. More likely, most kids' knowledge of technology is fairly superficial--they can manipulate devices, but the hardware and most of the programming is a total mystery to them. Try asking someone what the internet actually is, and the chances are almost nil that you'll find someone who knows about servers and packet-switching (including yours truly). The Cafeteria Beatdown kids should demonstrate pretty clearly that they're barely wiser than a can of peas.

As for the steamroller of social change and social pressure, well, for one thing, the rapid pace of technological change doesn't prevent kids from sitting down and paying attention as much as these people seem to think. I was also immersed in the internet in high school, but when I discovered college required you to sit still for long periods of time, reading, writing, and listening to technological dinosaurs lecture with a piece of chalk, I didn't immediately die of boredom and flunk out of school. Even in high school, the best teachers were the ones with the best classroom presence (which usually meant the best lecturers), not the ones most submissive to the Will of the Technological Future. Social pressure is understandably harder to counter; if everyone spends all evening on MySpace, it's probably tough to convince one kid to relent. But they're your children and your students, aren't they? If all the pressure from adults can't counter all the pressure of their peers, what is the point of treating children as adults-in-training in the first place?

PS: You should appreciate my country song reference in the title of this post.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The annals of cyberstalking

Facebook as Teh Evil:
I’m as narcissistic as the next person, but I’m not self-involved enough to want to generate an online feed of everything I’m up to on the internet. And I’m certainly not interested in continuous updates of what other people are doing. In fact, Facebook threatens to ruin voyeurism altogether by institutionalizing it, destroying its whole illicit thrill and rendering it bland. Instead of a prurient peek into a secret world, it becomes data processing...

Because Facebook starts from the premise that people can be reduced to self-reported data, it implies that friendship is mainly a matter of having a high percentage of shared interests. But even a moment’s consideration of our actual friends reveals friendship to be a process, rooted in familiarity and perpetuated by the continually renewed conscious choice to find out what the other person is doing. Social networks seem to provide another forum for exercising the will to reciprocity, but it seems more like a way to evade them or render them so convenient as to be inconsequential.

In The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Vintage, December 2007), Lewis Hyde argues that gifts, unlike commercial exchanges, form meaningful relationships between giver and recipient. Commercial transactions are designed to be reciprocal and neutral, to cancel one another out and eradicate the need for gratitude or graciousness. “In commodity exchange it’s as if the buyer and seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of gift exchange. There is neither motion or emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn’t consume anything or involve one person with another.”

That lack of intimate contact or interpersonal obligation seems integral to amassing large social networks; it’s much more convenient to accumulate things without accumulating relationships. The fair, impartial exchange idealized in the market in which you get what you pay for (caveat emptor and all) is a way of stifling relationships that occur outside of commercialization. Insisting on a fair deal and making that the cornerstone of one’s morality seems reasonable enough at the flea market, but it’s probably not a way to secure friends. Still, the convenience of exhibiting our identity though collecting goods—through a series of choices in the marketplace—is similar to that of the isolation from ties and evasion of responsibility that we sometimes mistake for freedom.

But who wants to be free on those terms? Often I am secretly happy to feel obliged; it gives me a reason to get out of bed, a sense that I matter. But consumer society is set up so that if I wanted, I could live my entire adult life without having anything but frictionless, emotion-free commercial interactions with other people, and I’m embarrassed to admit how seductive this can seem sometimes—particularly in the holiday season, confronted with the task of buying gifts for relatives I hardly see, with no idea of what they would really want. How much easier it would be to write them a check for the amount I was willing to spend, dispense with the pretense of a relationship, and reduce it to the level of commercial exchange.

Consumerism encourages us to replace relationships grounded in gifts with ones grounded in the market, since commercial interests may then take a cut of the action that occurs every time people interact. Facebook, as Beacon demonstrates, clearly adheres to this ideology. Every bit of human interaction generates an opportunity for market mediation, allowing Facebook to extract profits.
The article doesn't take up the strong/weak ties distinction often made about social networking sites, but it does allude to what I primarily spend my time on Facebook doing: cyber-monitoring your life while avoiding direct communication with you (it's not necessary when you tell me everything I need to know via your status feed, right?).

Perhaps this explains why my friend count has been mysteriously shrinking recently?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My friends the strangers

Since you're all so obviously excited by this youth/media stuff (please, slow down the barrage of comments), I'm going to post even more on it.

Online social networking is said to be primarily for the purpose of reinforcing pre-existing relationships, but that can only happen when your real life social network is also online in large numbers. Where does this put early adopters of a technology? When a new site is launched or new software is developed, its first users by definition cannot use it to mirror their physical social lives (unless all their real life friends also happen to be tech geeks), so these sites must encourage cyber friendships at least initially. But at some point of critical mass, this seems to stop being the case.

For example, when Facebook first launched at the U of C, I accepted friend requests from strangers, but once Facebook had become entrenched at most colleges and most of my real friends had signed up, I decided that friending strangers was creepy and rejected such requests. (Conversely, such requests declined around the same time.) It was as if the understood purpose of the technology had changed from, "Look, we are playing around with this cool toy! No rules! Woo!" to "Now this is an extension of our social lives and so must be governed by a consistent set of behavioral conventions." In real life, it is not acceptable to approach strangers and ask them for personal information, and so neither was it on Facebook any longer.

And this understanding lasted until Facebook opened to the general public and older or non-college adults started registering. Even though they were entering an established site, they were still in some sense early adopters since, for them, Facebook did not reflect their real life social universes (unless they happened to be friends exclusively with college students and recent alums). And they subverted all our wonderful college student conventions by cluttering their pages with zillions of applications (a new feature added around the time of their entrance of which they did not know to be wary) and, yes, starting up the random friending process again. GoodReads is even worse. I get about one random friend request a week, usually from an adult, and I am totally confused as to why these people are out trolling for strangers with whom to share their reading lists, of all things.

Evidently, some people have yet to receive the "internet is meant to reinforce reality" memo.