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Thursday, Dec 1, 2011

With the “social graph” ramping up, it was only a matter of time before recommendation engines would stop suggesting to us merely what we might be interested in and start telling us what our friends want. It certainly seems to make more sense and is far less epistemologically threatening. Rather than implicitly suggesting that we don’t really know ourselves and that we are machine parse-able despite all our deep interiority, the recommendation engine for friends merely lifts the burden of having to pay enough attention to them to get them a gift that’s not completely inappropriate. The WSJ‘s All Things Digital blog has details about one of Walmart’s algorithmic holiday solutions, called Shopycat:


Since gifting is a practice humans naturally struggle with, maybe algorithms can do a better job. After using Shopycat, Harinarayan learned his wife was a fan of “Game of Thrones,” the TV series on HBO. She has posted several times on Facebook about the show, but he hadn’t noticed. “Facebook is so transient and things flow by. Here’s a way to aggregate it all and put it in one place,” he said.


This seems to be the application that Facebook was made for. The “keeping in touch” and whatnot is all so much cover for the core functionality: allowing for the translation of the self into a shopping list.


I’m sure this should probably be hailed as an economistic victory against the deadweight loss of Christmas. More people will get what they want, and less time and money will be “wasted” figuring it out. But in an algorithmically airless world of perfect emotional efficiency, where every gift given is the right one and the risk of social faux pas are eliminated, I’m not sure what will be left of the holiday spirit, which seems to hinge ultimately on a generous amount of familial forgiveness. Bad gifts measure the distance we’re trying to close with more important gestures than bequeathing gifts.



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Monday, Nov 28, 2011

Today’s WSJ has a story by Emily Glazer about p2p personal-servitude sites like TaskRabbit (slogan: “Get just about anything done by safe, reliable, awesome people”) that allow people to post request for odd jobs and services. Need a latte but don’t feel like waiting in line? Need someone to bring you In N Out? Need someone to inflate hundreds of balloons for a birthday party? These services can help you find the most desperate person out there (or the sort of servant who suits your prejudices best) for a one-off job. Watching the scrolling feed of new jobs at TaskRabbit is like getting to hear the tentative commands of emerging petty tyrants in real time, people taking the plunge and indulging the fantasy of ad hoc aristocracy.


But the request for someone to “Bring some In N Out” seem to capture the spirit of the enterprise—a desire to find someone else to do something already designed to be expedient, but something that also has some inexplicable brand cachet. I want to eat a burger from In N Out, but it’s cool to like In N Out, so I want other people to know I am getting it—if I advertise on this site, then lots more people will get to know just how into In N Out I am! This is not so much about buying personal service—the site’s users almost certainly don’t have the habitus of a person who inherently expects to be waited on and would not likely feel that comfortable casting people more or less like themselves into some inferior caste—but rather about identity display. It’s a means to make consumption of personal service more conspicuous, which is probably a chief reason for TaskRabbit’s clients to be doing it.


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Friday, Nov 11, 2011

I’m not usually much of a fan of theater, but I would love to see this dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno, which ran in the New Left Review last year, be made into a comedic play. Dork that I am, it made me laugh repeatedly as I was reading, especially when Horkheimer first refers to Adorno as “Teddie.” I can’t tell when they are making fun of each other, but I suspect, probably wrongly, that it is often. Consider this exchange:


Adorno: The Utopians were actually not very utopian at all. But we must not provide a picture of a positive utopia.
Horkheimer: Especially when one is so close to despair.



I always thought that the distinctively compressed, nonlinear rhetoric of Dialectic of Enlightenment was achieved through careful addition-through-subtraction-style editing that removed all the transitions between ideas, but apparently Horkheimer and Adorno actually spoke that way to one another, trading gnomic non sequiturs in a spirit of stubborn one-upmanship. (Or maybe Gretel Adorno, who transcribed the dialogue, did some editing on the fly.)


There are many highlights—Adorno claiming he’d be happy to work as a lift operator in the post-revolutionary utopia; Horkheimer’s defense of being “inflamed by desire to touch a woman’s body;” Adorno’s intuition that American voters “would refuse to tolerate Richard Nixon as Vice President;” Horkheimer denouncing consensus as “repellent”; their weird fixation with riding motorbikes; the importance of preserving American drug stores—but much of it is about the necessity of work and whether people are simply deluded if they find any sort of work fulfilling under capitalism. They often seem to be debating what it is that freedom’s supposed to make people free to do. It’s not simply to consume more. Horkheimer mentions that “the opposite of work is regarded as nothing more than consumption,” which I take to mean that these are opposites that define each other in consumer capitalism—that the value of consumption (beyond subsistence) has no positive quality; it is only measurable in terms of the absence of work. And anyway, consumption has collapsed into production thanks to its ready transformation into circulatable signs. Adorno notes that “the enjoyment of speed is a proxy for the enjoyment of work,” which I think is borne out by the irresistibility of accelerating consumption to the point of information overload


If consumption is only “regarded” as the opposite of work, what would actually constitute nonwork under the best of conditions? And is work fetishization actually impeding the possibility for solidarity? Do we want to universalize work or overcome it or pass through one to the other? There is a lot to unpack in this passage:


Horkheimer: It is not just a matter of ideology, but is also influenced by the fact that a shaft of light from the telos falls onto labour. Basically, people are too short-sighted. They misinterpret the light that falls on labour from ultimate goals. Instead, they take labour qua labour as the telos and hence see their personal work success as that purpose. That is the secret. If they did not do that, such a thing as solidarity would be possible. A shaft of light from the telos falls on the means to achieve it. It is just as if instead of worshipping their lover they worship the house in which she dwells. That, incidentally, is the source of all poetry.


I love that “incidentally”. But is that the secret, that people get caught up in their personal pursuit of flow and neglect the possibilities, the necessity, of collectivity?


This is reminiscent of the passage in Marx’s Economic Manuscripts where he mulls over species being.


For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life.
The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. It is just because of this that he is a species-being. Or it is only because he is a species-being that he is a conscious being, i.e., that his own life is an object for him. Only because of that is his activity free activity. Estranged labor reverses the relationship, so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.


He is struggling with the same issue here, what to make of work’s necessity, and to what degree “making one’s life activity” means seizing upon oneself as a kind of property, an object for oneself. Alienated work means that our life activity has been turned into labor we sell for survival. But unalienated work still implies a kind of self-ownership. What is the ultimate goal that Horkheimer evokes, the telos? Obviously it’s not poetry, that’s for sure.


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Monday, Nov 7, 2011

As these articles from the latest Economist point out, retail loyalty programs—where you give a name and address in exchange for a card you present to get point-of-sale discounts—aren’t about loyalty at all. Instead they are a convoluted way for retailers to purchase consumer data so that they can use it to discriminate among them, targeting specific groups with ads and deals. Customers basically give retailers the ammunition they need to manipulate them better; perhaps shoppers enjoy such manipulation in the end, the game of discounts and the phony sense of “beating the system” that is in fact the system itself. As Karl Smith suggests in this post about the sorting effects of Super Walmart on a retail ecology, we want our shopping experiences to affirm our sense of our status: When Super Wal-Mart attracts the poorer customers, the shopping experience for those customers of the stores the poor people used to go to becomes more distinctive and satisfying.


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Friday, Nov 4, 2011
Is a middle-class job one whose work marks the employee with a certain class status, or is it one whose income affords the employee a certain lifestyle?

I started reading this essay, “What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?” by economist Arnold Kling, in which he argues his case for structural unemployment and the jobless recovery as a reflection of the economy’s need to “recalculate” how best to use its resources. He writes, “The economy is in a state of transition, in which the middle-class jobs that emerged after World War II have begun to decline.”


But what constitutes a “middle-class job”? How you frame the answer to that will dictate whether or not you would bother to care whether they disappear. (I suspect Peter Frase probably wouldn’t mind.) The question becomes more pertinent when you consider how much political rhetoric and policy revolves around helping the “struggling middle class” and when, as Kling suggests, the sorts of skills associated with the established middle classes are being increasingly automated. Some pundits argue that if certain “middle-class” skills are automated, new ones will become valuable, or at least valued in the market. Someone recently—I can’t find the link; damn you, new Google Reader!—was imagining we will in the future hire plumbers on the basis of how well they know philosophy. Matt Yglesias often makes this point too that increased productivity should lead to people developing ever more recondite and self-actualizing marketable skills: fewer cashiers, more cognitarians; that sort of thing.


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