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by Rob Horning

4 Aug 2009

Though it is part of the conspicuous flood of hype for the upcoming film Julia and Julia, Michael Pollan’s article about cooking shows for last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a fascinating look at the way food and cooking are depicted on television and what that indicates about America’s relationship to consumption in general. A few things I found particularly interesting:

1. Pollan talks to a market researcher at the NPD Group, which is ubiquitous in stories about retailing in the business press.

Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both. I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

I found it interesting that someone who is only interested in humans insofar as they are shopping would conclude that they are entirely fixated on convenience. The realm of retail is precisely where that potentiality in people is brought to the fore, rewarded, massaged. So it’s not surprising that the NPD Group won’t deign to measure an activity that runs counter to convenience, that it would prove “elusive.” So is the causality backward here? Does the market research and retail analysis start with an assumption of convenience as the desirable value (if that is the goal, then we can seem to solve our problems with shopping) and then impute it to human nature, as a way of shoring up what is an ideological tenet, not a universal psychological truth?

2. Rob Walker higlighted this paragraph, which jumped out at me too:

The historical drift of cooking programs — from a genuine interest in producing food yourself to the spectacle of merely consuming it — surely owes a lot to the decline of cooking in our culture, but it also has something to do with the gravitational field that eventually overtakes anything in television’s orbit. It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

The point is that commercial television’s main function is to make viewers into the sort of people who want to watch more and more commercial television. Any of its programs can be reduced to that agenda, ultimately, with the specific content of any show being something of a by-product, an alibi. As a free-flowing, ongoing form of media, television invites us to interact with it constantly; unlike other consumer goods it can refine the wants it satisfies in the process of satisfying them. Watching TV is like eating a meal that tastes great but makes you hungrier. To that end, television wants to provoke us to replace our concrete, direct activities with vicarious ones and demonstrate through its sensory manipulations that the vicarious experience (to paraphrase Baudrillard) is more real than real.

3. Nonetheless, I’m skeptical of this sort of argument: “You’ll be flipping aimlessly through the cable channels when a slow-motion cascade of glistening red cherries or a tongue of flame lapping at a slab of meat on the grill will catch your eye, and your reptilian brain will paralyze your thumb on the remote, forcing you to stop to see what’s cooking.” I suppose there has been a study where the brainwave or eyeball movements of participants are tracked and measured to demonstrate some correlation between pictures of food and limbic system activity, but nevertheless, I have a hard time conceding that humans are hard-wired for any sort of vicarious experience. Such explanations for the increasing amounts of vicarious experience in our lives seems to excuse various forms of media have interposed themselves into our lives and prompted us to consume images. And it seems imperative to investigate how the seemingly irresistible appeal of images is constructed and reinforced within the realm of images—how manipulation via images is a craft, an applied science. Our media are not neutral terrain that merely permit the unveiling of evolutionary mysteries; to what degree do they posit and condition those discoveries about the so-called reptilian brain?

4. Pollan suspects the appeal of cooking shows is that it vicariously fulfills our longing for meaningful work:

“You know what I love about cooking?” Julie tells us in a voice-over as we watch her field yet another inconclusive call on her headset. “I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure? Come to think of it, even the collapse of the soufflé is at least definitive, which is more than you can say about most of what you will do at work tomorrow.

Television presumably undermines the way in which such satisfaction might have been integrated into our leisure time in the form of craft-based hobbies.

5. Television is part of the culture-industry program of deskilling our leisure, or rather removing life skills from everyday, nonwork life and transforming them into hobbies for the few. Cooking, as Pollan suggests, has become another front in that war.

We seem to be well on our way to turning cooking into a form of weekend recreation, a backyard sport for which we outfit ourselves at Williams-Sonoma, or a televised spectator sport we watch from the couch. Cooking’s fate may be to join some of our other weekend exercises in recreational atavism: camping and gardening and hunting and riding on horseback. Something in us apparently likes to be reminded of our distant origins every now and then and to celebrate whatever rough skills for contending with the natural world might survive in us, beneath the thin crust of 21st-century civilization.
To play at farming or foraging for food strikes us as harmless enough, perhaps because the delegating of those activities to other people in real life is something most of us are generally O.K. with. But to relegate the activity of cooking to a form of play, something that happens just on weekends or mostly on television, seems much more consequential. The fact is that not cooking may well be deleterious to our health, and there is reason to believe that the outsourcing of food preparation to corporations and 16-year-olds has already taken a toll on our physical and psychological well-being.

Chris Dillow made a similar point in this post about cooking shows. He blames deskilling on “the spread of purely instrumental rationality - the idea that utility maximization consists solely in maximizing consumption for minimal expenditure of time and money.” Not only is it an animating principle of capitalism, instrumental rationality, as the Frankfurt School theorists insisted, is the lifeblood ideology of the culture industry. (See “Enlightenment as Mass Deception”) It also animates techno-utopian celebrations of the efficiency of the internet for all sorts of social-cum-commercial functions. In general, instrumental rationality alienates us from process and fixates us on the end product, convincing us that the time wasted in enjoying processes for their own sake is wasted since there are so many cool products out there for us to be enjoying in that time instead. Why cook when you can spend that time online hurtling through blog posts and YouTube videos?

This paper by JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler about consumer deskilling and agribusiness probably has lots of interesting ideas on this point, but unfortunately it’s gated. The abstract, though, is promising; it sounds like an academicized version of Pollan’s ideas:

The prevalence of packaged, processed, and industrially transformed foodstuffs is often explained in terms of consumer preference for convenience. A closer look at the social construction of “consumers” reveals that the agro-food industry has waged a double disinformation campaign to manipulate and to re-educate consumers while appearing to respond to consumer demand. Many consumers have lost the knowledge necessary to make discerning decisions about the multiple dimensions of quality, including the contributions a well-chosen diet can make to health, planetary sustainability, and community economic development. They have also lost the skills needed to make use of basic commodities in a manner that allows them to eat a high quality diet while also eating lower on the food chain and on a lower budget.

I’m attracted especially by the suggestion that consumers are socially constructed to prefer convenience.

Here (pdf) is another paper on consumer deskilling vis-a-vis food, drawing on the paper cited above and Pollan. It focuses on deskilling, and the problems we face in trying to reskill ourselves (a process, by the way, that the Food Network blocks while seeming to facilitate it): “By gaining experiential knowledge of food, food preparation, appreciation of taste and quality, and increasing food literacy, one renders the range of products and services offered by the industrial food system as both useless and undesirable.” In other words, you set yourself against a massive institution that controls most of our access points to the food chain, which means you are in for an endless headache until you are prepared to embrace inconvenience as an ethic of its own.

by PopMatters Staff

4 Aug 2009

We slapped an 8 on Gomez’s latest A New Tide back in April. The band is still touring this fine record and they stopped by Conan O’Brien’s stage to play “Airstream Driver” recently. Ross Langager said of the song, “lead single ‘Airstream Driver’ rides metallic sustains and irresistible rhythm as Ian Ball’s teeter-totter melody flits ahead before charmingly lagging behind.”

by PC Muñoz

4 Aug 2009

“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974

The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.

You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.

by L.B. Jeffries

4 Aug 2009

Often cited amongst game developers as one of the key texts to understanding how games can be better built, Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things is a layman’s guide to a simple idea. If you cannot figure out how to work something, it is the design’s fault, not the users. Technological gadgets, household appliances, doors, cars, anything and everything should be clearly understandable to a casual user if the design’s purpose is to encourage use and efficiency. The book begins this premise with an example of why bad design is so dangerous: Norman worked with the technicians at Three Mile Island who misread the controls just before the nuclear accident. Starting with that premise, he expands to how bad design causes everything from wasted resources in offices (you have to factor in time and money to train staff, the worse the design the more it costs) to the trivial such as confusing doors and the dreaded VCR clock. The book then expands this concept to explaining the basics of user psychology and how we interact with objects relying on previous experience, visual cues, and feedback.

Like a lot of engineering books, Norman often has to define complex concepts into a single term to keep the text legible. The difficulty of this necessity is picking a word that still means roughly what you’re talking about and is recognized by a casual audience. If you’ve ever read an article where the author is using some bizarre foreign word that you don’t recognize, forcing you to constantly recheck what the word means as it crops up, you know what I’m talking about. Here, Norman keeps things moving by using words that apply to their commonly understood meaning.

For example, he defines ‘affordances’ as “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.” (9) People have an instinctual relationship with materials and objects based purely on how they look, in other words. When we see a chair, we recognize that it is a place we could potentially sit. This is developed by a person’s mental models which come from experience, training, and instruction. The more aesthetically connected to an item’s purpose your design is, the more likely someone is going to do the correct action with it. That’s the gist of Norman’s book, but it’s a surprisingly complicated concept to put into action. Take the term ‘natural mapping’, which Norman defines as, “taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standards to [create] immediate understanding.” (23) An example would be your car’s steering wheel. To turn right in a car, you turn the wheel to the right. A person has a psychological predisposition to think something is going to work a certain way based off their past experiences, so the car steering wheel simply builds on that. Designing an object which ignores natural habit forces the user to create a new ‘map’ in their minds for how something works. He uses the example of a turn signal to demonstrate. You don’t adjust the turn signal to which direction you’re going because it only moves up and down. You instead form a new ‘map’ in your mind to think of left as down and right as up.

From steeringdevelopments.co.uk

From steeringdevelopments.co.uk

Norman points this out because the more you make the user develop their own understanding of an individual piece of technology, the more they are moving outside their past frame of reference and thus are going to be teaching themselves how to use your device. This is where visual cues and good design become very important: if your device is complex and features unfamiliar concepts, you have to make it so that it is self-explanatory. This is the bulk of the book’s tiny details and concepts: self-explaining designs. For instance, take a common door. Numerous things are being communicated at a user by the design of a door. The location of a door knob, for examples, tells me whether the left or right side of the door is the side it opens on. A push bar indicates that the user needs to push, a door handle indicates the user needs to pull. A push bar that does not indicate which side the door swings open on is flawed because users can potentially use it incorrectly. The only way to teach someone using a misleading push bar is force of habit, which takes time and familiarity. Although easily resolved in everyday life, Norman is quick to point out that during a fire a confusing door suddenly becomes a huge risk.

The book lists a variety of methods for inducing behavior through design. A physical constraint that makes it impossible to do something, like opening your washing machine while it is still on. A semantic constraint is a word on the door telling you to ‘Pull’ instead of ‘Push’. A cultural constraint is a limitation that society itself has imposed. Take the standard English keyboard. It was designed for typewriters so that letters which caused jamming when pressed together rarely crossed. It still persists in their electronic counterparts simply because we are used to it. Forcing functions are when a person must do X before Y can occur. You have to remove the keys from the ignition before the doors will lock on your car. This is to prevent users from locking their keys in the car.

From gettyimages.com

From gettyimages.com

Complimenting this range of design techniques are a list of common errors in devices and their origins. The basic argument he makes is, “Human thought – and its close relatives, problem solving and planning – seem more rooted in past experience than in logical education. Mental life is not neat and orderly.” (115) People often develop what Norman calls “selective attention” or how our brains zone out peripheral issues to accomplish a goal. Sticking a knife into a toaster, for example, is really dumb. People do it to get the bread out because they’re not thinking about the other potential hazards. You have to design with the reality that people organize their thoughts by what they want, not how to get it done properly. (164) As a consequence, in addition to providing visual clues and functions about how an object works the design also has to avoid conventions that lead to errors. A capture error is when the initial stages of an action begin the same way but then break off so that you cross into the wrong behavior. Dialing the wrong number on accident would be the common example. A ‘mode error’ is when the controls don’t make it apparent what is happening or worse, confusing because it only gives off a strange chime. Norman stresses that visual cues and feedback must reinforce to the user what they are doing and what is not working.

Among the common faults Norman outlines with design, giving in to aesthetics over function is his biggest complaint. Designing a kitchen sink so that it looks cool instead of making sense is a complaint he goes on about for a while. If you put the hot and cold handles for a sink vertically, so that like the turn signal you forget which does what, it is a huge waste of time. Put them left to right so that the user instead relies on the standard of hot being left, cold being right, is the better design. Norman expands this to a lengthy complaint about light switches and common controls for them. They often make no sense. How many times have you had to flip switches at random trying to figure out the right one for your goal? Although he only offers a solution of putting all switches in one standard location (by the door), he considers this better because the user will learn the controls through habit anyways. Standardizing their location is the least you can do.

From atariage.com

From atariage.com

How to apply these concepts to video games? You can already see a lot of these elements at work in the older genres. People playing an FPS expect it to behave like the last FPS they played. If I’m using an Xbox 360 controller, the right trigger is probably going to shoot and the left is probably going to aim from the shoulder. Crouching is usually pressing one of the joysticks. Start opens the menu. Everything else should be one of the four buttons. Games that violate these conventions often suffer, such as Mass Effect making the grenade be the Select button or Kane & Lynch using an auto cover system instead of mimicking Gears of War. Games that attempt to innovate in their design have both the problem of explaining new controls to a user while also teaching how the game itself works.

What is perhaps most troubling about this is that a new video game is by definition not going to do this well the first time. Norman explains, “It usually takes five or six attempts to get a product right. This may be acceptable in an established product, but consider what it means in a new one. Suppose a company wants to make a product that will perhaps make a real difference. The problem is that if the product is truly revolutionary, it is unlikely that anyone will quite know how to design it right the first time; it will takes several tries.” (29) An innovative game like Mirror’s Edge not achieving blockbuster sales is not necessarily a sign that it’s a bad concept. Almost every popular franchise on the market began with humble origins: Halo 3 is miles better than Halo in terms of design. At the core of Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things is the message that much like the user figuring out a strange device, designing things properly is an exercise in trial and error.

by Zane Austin Grant

3 Aug 2009

The first issue of The Invisibles introduces us to Dane McGowan and his isolated rebellion.  Dane’s background as a teenager from a British industrial town, raised in a single parent household sets him up to be a young nihilist, our favorite kind.  Fittingly, by the end of this issue, he has stolen a car, burned a library and a school, and seen the ghosts of two of the Beatles and a demon.  The above panel takes its sequential place after Dane has assaulted his teacher, who is trying to stop him from burning the school.  Earlier that day, the teacher had asked the class, “Can anyone tell me the name of the anarchist writer of ‘Mutual Aid’ who denounced the Bolshevik Revolution?’

It is appropriate that artist Steve Yeowell captures enraged Dane looking down on us from a skewed angle while yelling about Kropotkin, not only because it ties into that earlier question, but also because of the foundational Russian Anarchists’ popularization of ‘propaganda by the deed.’ Often misunderstood as a political strategy of using property destruction and violence as a scare tactic, more recent works like Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination have argued that these acts were used to create media around anarchist ideas.  The anarchists on trial would use their court time and final statements before execution to give speeches about their beliefs that were carried around the world by the increasingly global, news media. 

Though Dane is being built up as a smart kid who is lashing out, this moment feeds well into the relations of the sign system Morrison built with the series.  The Invisibles is well-known for its abundance of cultural references that resonate into the strange meta-physics he was proposing.  And though I read this work as metaphor, giving it less power than the realism Morrison has attributed to it in his interviews, one would be hard to argue that the series did not gain a significant depth from its use of affective cultural undercurrents.

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