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Tuesday, Jul 18, 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.


 


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Monday, Jul 17, 2006

I was touched by this Economist article and its report that some dreamers (you might call them money-grubbing, ecology hating real-estate developers, but I call them dreamers) have decided to sink millions in building surfing parks in landlocked cities and ski slopes in places whose thermometers never see the south side of the freezing point. While waterparks might be the “hottest artificial experience in the United States” according to the amusement park industry spokesperson the article cites, I’m more touched by those people who feel the need to go even further than building a roof over fake whirlpools and waterslides in their attempts to negate nature. And I also find nothing to impugn in the seemingly malapropist notion of “artificial experience.” Real experience is somewhat mundane, available to anyone simply by waking up. Whereas artificial experience, preferably in impossible man-made landscapes, is a testimony to humankind’s epic discontent with the given world and its restless efforts to alter it, even at the flimsiest prod of the possiblity of more amusement. It’s easy enough to find pleasure in nature as given—to enjoy a sublime landscape or a clear-running stream or a majestic ridge of mountains or whatever. But the desire to “beat mother nature” as Cleveland indoor-mountain-biking entrepreneur Ray Petro claims to have done, produces something of Promethean grandeur.


Criticizing “artificial experience” has the taint of class warfare about it—after all, as the positional goods of authentically natural leisure in genuinely recherché locales become more scarce, they become more the province of only the rich, and talking up the regality of such experiences serves to enhance their usefulness in creating distinction. Meanwhile the non-positional manufactured forms of leisure—engineering marvels in their own right—become contemptible because of the plebian taint they take on. I’m not usually one to champion the so-called democracy of mass entertainment and see something inherently cheering in whatever forms of leisure become popular. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by Disney World or its totalitarian approach to leisure, whereby attempts are made to control everything, including the patrons themselves. But there is something seductive about nature minus Nature, about nature reconceived as serving the sole purpose of pleasing us—rather than, say, destroying our forests with insects or our towns with floods. Of course, our own efforts may have turned Nature largely against us, but this only strengthens the allure of a fantasy that foregrounds our complete mastery over it.


The Economist writer snarkily opines, “Nature, clearly, is too inconvenient to fit the modern lifestyle,” and an insane and aberrently unquenchable desire for convenience may be behind some of these au rebours projects. Certainly there is the appeal of sheer decadence, as well, the implied luxury that comes from the Las Vegas-style idea that anything can be brought to you to serve your leisure. But the pleasure of simulation itself should not be underestimated—people don’t choose to visit these parks or Las Vegas or other manmade monstrosities because nature is inaccessible to them. These parks are intriguing precisely because they are human products, not in spite of it; they fire the atheistic dream of a world without any creator other than humankind itself, and that we can produce anything we want to, given the proper incentives and capital.


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Monday, Jul 17, 2006
by PopMatters Staff


FEATURED ARTIST
Lily Allen
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PopMatters review: Alright, Still


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Matt Friedberger
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Sunday, Jul 16, 2006

When I see an article like this one from BusinessWeek about Urban Outfitters’ recent struggles, my initial reaction is a delight akin to schaudenfreude. but I’m beginning to question why I have any sort of emotional reaction whatsoever. Yes, Urban Outfitters is one of the more annoying upscale downmarket retailers that sell commodified cool to the 12 to 24-year-old demographics. But their flounderings doesn’t mean what I initially assume in my blush of delight—it doesn’t mean that fashionability itself has become any less important to people. Instead, it simply means that fashion has proven once again its unreasonably powerful and inevitable fickleness, creating more economic losers (not to mention the few poor chumps who dropped the cash on clothes suddenly made uncool by forces beyond their control). And some new company, Zara or H&M or whoever, is picking up the slack for Urban Outfitters; the game has simply moved as it was being played, to paraphrase X. So I’m really just delighting in an increase of human misery, with no compensation anywhere in terms of the greater good—there are new winners and losers, but their proportion remains unchanged.


This realization leaves me one step away from conceding that in rooting against the promulgation of fashion, I’m rooting against prosperity in general, which is the essential condition for fashion to matter at the scale of mass-market retailing. This point of view assumes that the natural result of prosperity is the individual being empowered to pursue some kind of distinction, to express himself more publicly and thoroughly, with fashion-related goods being one of the main ways this can be pursued. But that seems true only because our society labors to link goods with social recognition and communication—we have a massive discourse-generating machine of ads and entertainment and so forth that imbues goods with connotations, with meanings. But meaning might reside elsewhere, in a different sort of (utopian?) society. I’m still holding out; I still stubbornly believe that there’s a better use for prosperity than peasant skirts and drainpipe jeans.


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Saturday, Jul 15, 2006

A few months ago, on a tip from BoingBoing probably, I downloaded a pdf of Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, which in the spirit of its subject, open-source “social production,” was being offered for free by the author as if it were software source code. I never got around to reading it, in part because a 350 page pdf is a little unwieldy, and tying up the printer with a document that big would attract unwanted attention even at my laid-back workplace. So I forgot all about why I was interested in it in the first place until I read Paul Duguid’s review in the TLS. Duguid frames his assessment around a Microsoft origin legend, in which Bill Gates stops tinkering with software as a hobby and seeks to make it proprietary, declaring in a letter toa computer club that no quality software will be written if no one can make money by doing it. Gates was voicing a principle that animates mainstream economics back to The Wealth of Nations, namely that the profit motive and market-organized comeptition are necessary to motivate people to take risks, innovate, and produce what people want—to make “quality”. Without the exercise of self-interest, enlightened or not, one’s efforts will be dilettantish, personally satisfying perhaps but nort socially productive.


Benkler, as his play on Adam Smith suggests, wants to refute that, and offer open-source collaboration as an alternative mode of social production to the invisible hand—open-source projects seems to develop through a similar form of spontaneous order, only they are not guided by the hope for profit but for a different kind of capital perhaps—recognition, influence, potlatch destruction of one’s own efforts, display of one’s skill, etc. Does this form of social production create an different kind of economy, based on the gift rather than exploitation for profit? That question is what intrigues me, because it promises a different model for human interaction and ethics than the “virtuous” selfishness that often seems to power capitalism. At the risk of sounding like a naive flower child, I’ll venture the uncharacteristically optimistic proposition that at least as many people need to adapt themselves to the cutthroat expectations of economic efficiency as find such selfishness natural; a singleminded focus on getting every last bit of utility you can at the margin often seems to run against human nature in a way that cooperation doesn’t. One of my operating assumptions (derived in part from Galbraith, in part from Frankfurt School theory) is that capitalist society must expend a great deal of effort naturalizing selfishness at the expense of collaboration and cooperation and the satisfactions of community; so those natural pleasures that tend to isolate us or focus our attentions on ourselves and the significance and importance of our individuality—that posit our uniqueness as a joy in its own right—are championed in our culture, and collective pleasures are suppressed, trivialized, or marginalized to “exceptional” occasions of holidays and festivals. One of the most off-putting aspects of conservative ideology is the low esteem it holds human nature, which it presumes to be base and selfish and Hobbesean at all turns, restrained only in spite of itself by the operation of the market and ruthless competition, the grim view of human nature expressed in Fredrick Douglass’s observation (which I’m plucking from the end of a BusinessWeek article on spyware): “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is full of similar “realism”, that it’s hopelessly naive to assume that the pursuit of individual power could ever be hemmed in by a feeling of social responsibility. And looking at the world, it’s hard not to believe that this is so. But when you contemplate the huge amount of trouble people are willing to go to to make the fruits of their labor available for free in open-source scenarios, whether they are writing extensions for Firefox or rewriting and correcting Wikipedia entries or providing free left-wing news analysis or preparing their rare unencoded albums for sharing on MP3 blogs, you get an injection of hope that there really is some utopian alternative just over the horizon.


As someone who studied Bakhtin and did a lot of fruitless thinking about the dialogic nature of texts, Wikipedia, which stages the struggles among different registers of discourse and the different agendas behind them in a text that is permanently unfinished and always changing, seems to offer a way out of the tendency toward doctrinal official versions, illustrating instead how culture can become more actively democratic at the granular level of texts themselves, whose uncertain status demands a more active participation from users. Of course, not everyone wants to be active and skeptical all the time, one of the attractive things about books, and cultural industry product in general, is that we could surrender to them and wallow in responsibility free passivity. This is one of the reasons, probably, why prepackaged culture so quickly obliterated folk traditions of communities and families making there own entertainment. After all, anyone can make pop music—anyone does, as demonstrated by the untrained muscians who write their own tunes and make up the bulk of popular music creation. We outsource that sort of creativity because it simplifies things, makes entertainment something that’s off-the-rack, ready-to-wear. We don’t have to stage a private theatrical like at Mansfield Park everytime we want diversion. We don’t have to have pencil in hand, making disputational notes while we read whatever we read, with a mind to correct it.


And as Duguid stresses, not everyone is qualified to be producing culture that other people should have to acknowledge. Open source sysytems work for software production, he argues, because there are already filters in place that get rid of the folks who will do more harm than good—namely, you have to know how to program and want to. But he wonders who will want to consume DIY culture instead of Hollywood quality. But he misses a crucial point—the entertainment comes not from consuming but from producing the music, the film, the texts, whatever—from working collaboratively with friends to make something. DIY culture is about the doing it, not about the enjoying it as a product later. Duguid assumes that consumers are only and merely consumers, that they by definition can only find pleasure through consumption; technology that allows intervention into existing media product allows us to become producers, to derive pleasure from activity rather than absorption.


Does this sort of production-as-pleasure move us beyond the profit motive (which seems to require passive conusmers as part of the circuit of capital) ina ny meaningful way? Will this always be a isolated realm of exchange, far down the long tail, as Chris Anderson speculates? Maybe I should actually read Benkler’s book for some ideas.


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