Monthly Archives: May 2005

The game of life

More breaking cell-phone technology “news,” courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. I was thinking how I seem to write about nothing but cell-phone innovations lately, and was going to castigate myself for my futile Luddite obession with resisting it, but in fact, I’m not to blame here. The Journal continues to pump up these “developments” as if they are news, giving the air of triumphal inevitability to these technological tweaks, promoting the advance of cell-phone culture because it’s unmistakable good for commerce, if for nothing else. Today’s big news? “Videogame Makers Bet That Playing on the Go Will Be Hot,” a headline from the front page of the Marketplace section. The idea here is that your cell phone rings you with important information in immersive role-playing games you can participate in: “online play on the go,” so that the real world need not impinge on your fantasy world even when you have to go palces in that dreary real world. This is such an obvious fit for my argument that the cell phone is the anti-communicaton device whose real purpose is to encase you in a solipsistic, personally target-marketed bubble that renders all commitment to the outside world inconvenient, a scarily impersonal hassle that I won’t waste any words connecting those dots. But what’s important is not the idea that Americans might start playing fantasy games on the their cell phones. What’s important is that they already have; that cell phones make the responsibilities of everyday life take on a fantastic air of unreality. They encourage the idea that life is already a game, that everything is basically optional and provisional, subject to change at whim and a phone call from anywhere. Cell phones afford the illusion of autonomy and ubiquity, of God like power, that one used to only experience in immersive role-playing games, where you really do have unquestioned power over all the details of your existence in that world. The real world is not so malleable, no matter how urgently cell-phone makers and their shills in the buisness press argue that technology empowers you. The reality of life remains that one is embedded in social networks of power. If one is willing to deal with that loss of total autonomy, who knows what feelings of connectedness, spontaneity, surprise, and meaningfulness one might derive from engaging with something truly other and thus truly unpredictable. But the cell phone reviles all those things; it encourages you to choose the fantasy of total control over all circumstances and encasement in a bubble of one’s own narrow preferences.

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Class warfare

It was nice to see this morning that The New York Times has begun an inquiry into class in America, even if it was joined with all sorts of risible codicils qualifying class’s very existance, and ultimately endorsing only this tentative definition: “Class is one way societies sort themselves out.”

The article is full of mixed blessings. It repeated the discredited claim by economic ideologist Gary Becker (who also argues that addiction is a rational choice) that the children of the rich and the poor have equal opportunities in life in such a way that its later refutation seems in question. (Part of the bogus “balancing” style of reporting that equates lies with truth because one side of the political spectrum prefers lies.) It presents some compelling data about the degree to which class affects well-being (in terms of health care and education) but then undermines it by soft-selling it in the analysis, emphasizing instead Americans’ “optimism” about social mobility. We get the usual fatalistic bromides from interview subjects about being realistic and about how you can’t fix the system and how it’s “as fair as you can make it” and how in the end one can still work hard and get ahead, off-handedly pinning all the blame for social inequality right on the shoulders of the poor — if they can’t get educated or get health care, they simply haven’t worked hard enough. As usual, those suffering by this ideology of hard work are depicted as the ones espousing it and endorsing it.

We do learn that social mobility is lower in America than in Europe — thanks to winner-take-all economic policies of the oligarchic right, the “American dream” is now more easily fulfilled in Europe than in America. And even though it waffles about class’s existence, it does summarize the reasons why class consciousness is crippled in America: the surfeit of cheap goods, the stubborn materialism that leads people to ignore the invisible but overwhelming factor of social capital in policing class barriers. Class is less a matter of what stuff one has (that is itself an ideological notion of a consumer society; that we are all the same class because we can all own DVD players) than one’s habitus, one’s mode of reacting and responding to the world that communicates where you are in the hierarchy. Sometimes this is mystified as “aesthetic sensibility” or “charisma” or “social connections” or “etiquette.” But whatever it is called, it is the true hallmark of class.

The article also gingerly offers the thesis that Americans’ faith in social mobility is an ideology supported by shows like American Idol and The Apprentice, which attempt to dramatize meritocracy in action, and by rags-to-riches stories derived from Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger. But the article also opines that “fixed class positions … rub people the wrong way,” and then justifies why these people are right to wish class into the cornfield and pretend it no longer has any effect on them. You have to believe in social mobility in order to have any chance at it, it concludes, arguing for a placebo effect version of the classless society.

One can only hope that future installments in this series will explore further the way in which class privilege is hidden in America. At this stage there should be no debate that it exists; the only question is to explore the ways in which it works and they way in which is hidden, to quell the inevitable dissent that would otherwise result.

"Donkey punch"

I was recently forwarded an email message about activists who are protesting Cafe Press, a company who makes T-shirts and things celebrating the “donkey punch,” which (for those of you who don’t listen to Howard Stern and his ilk) is a maneuver by which a man surprises a woman with a punch to the head during sex when he’s about to come so that her vaginal muscles (allegedly) contract or to distract her so that he can sneak in some anal sex. Ha ha, right? (If you don’t think this is very funny, please share your views with Cafe Press: Call toll-free at 1-877-809-1659 between 7AM and 7PM PST. Ask for Candice in the Legal Department.  If they won’t put you through, her direct number is 510-877-1926. If Candice isn’t available, ask for Maureen or Lindsay.  Once you have a live human, explain why you are offended by the 225 “donkey punch” products currently in CafePress stores. Or write an email to: cup@cafepress.com, mjain@cafepress.com, fdurham@cafepress.com, and pr@cafepress.com.)

Now I doubt that many men who haven’t spent substantial time in prison out there or who haven’t been clinicallly proven to be sociopaths are out there doing this. And few men are going to be convinced by a T-shirt to start doing it. I’d like to think that the men who wear such gear never get laid anyway (and if they do, then their partners, if they are willing, should be asking themselves some hard questions). But that’s not the point, of course. These shirts are made, sold, and worn because they allow men to advertise a cavalier attitude toward women and sexuality itself, scoffing at the idea that it is anything but a zero-sum power struggle where you must extort your own pleasure from your partner at his or her expense. Phrases such as these, that commemorate sexual acts that rarely take place (if ever) are capturing a cultural fantasy that no one individual exhibits. Few men, left alone, conceive of this kind of pointless hatred for the women they are intimate with, but culture as a whole conjures this sentiment, which seems to be required for patriarchy, for a commercial consumer culture that revolves around misdirected libido. They reflect and redirect the humilation that society subjects many of its members to giving those some members a vested interest in its perpetuation — it’s funny!

Port-a-porn

I know I’m hopelessly retrograde in my thinking about phones, quaintly and antiquatedly believing their function is to allow one person to speak to another person at a remote location. I haven’t yet accepted that they are so much more than that, and that communication is really the least of their functions. Communication is so last century: what’s happening now is the phone as personal marketing manager, a device to allow advertisers to tailor things specifically to you that can reach you wherever you are and whatever you might be doing and help you transform any environment you happen to be in into a personal you-specific playground of desire. Wherever you go, your phone, your portable personal buddy, is there to reinforce that you are at the center of the universe and all digital roads lead to you.

Once it was the Internet that put you firmly of the center of the universe, and it was pornography — that solitary, masturbatory, self-contained form of libido management — that led to its rapid adoption as a media format. Now, according to a story called “Sex Cells” in today’s Wall Street Journal, pornography will also lead the charge toward the widespread use cell phones as tiny TVs. Thanks in large part to port-a-porn, spending on video content for phones is up to one billion dollars from virtually nothing a few years ago. In Asia, cell-phone users can play with “Vivianne” a “virtual girlfriend” and in Europe you can have live chat with strippers who get naked on the little video screen.

None of this is much different from what’s already available via cable and the Internet at home. But the essential difference is its portability, which allows one isolate oneself with his porn in increasingly private places — you won’t need to lug a laptop into the bathroom to masturbate in private. And you since you can carry your fantasy-gratifier around with you, it will always be there to pull you away from the real world, the world where social interaction is necessary, where it is not scripted by prearranged money exchanges and contractual expectations. It is a more enveloping way to not be where you are but to be in the phone world instead.

Intolerance

With the creeping advance of religious bigots on the fart Right, it’s hard to ignore how intolerant a country America is becoming, and how much more intolerant it may soon become if Frist succeeds in nuking the Senate and the judiciary corps is packed with activist judges who intend to legislate morality. We edge ever closer to a 21st century Test Act, where one must swear to believing in a particular religion in order to qualify for office. Then it will seem only natural to treat the unorthodox as second-class citizens, as individuals who really can’t be trusted with the levers of society because they fall so far out of the “mainstream of American values.” Certainly most religious folks are sincere in their faith, but just as certainly some wrap themselves in religion as demogogues wrap themselves in the flag, because it provides them an unassailable platform from which to pontificate. For those who feel required to bully with their faith via politics, religion is a pretense for power, as one draws personal authority from one’s special relation to the Almighty (a la the President, who purports to receive divine instructions). Morality is a zero-sum game for the intolerant, they feel secure in their god to the extent they can make others feel insecure in theirs.

Liberals like to congratulate themselves for their own tradition of tolerance, which typically amounts to indifference or patronizing ackowledgement of those who choose to reject the status quo or fail to conform in some conspicuous way. But this tolerance is ultimately a “soft bigotry” of its own, “a mask for moral laissez-faire . . . never extended to protect serious threats to the prevailing order,” as Martin Jay explains, articulating a Frankfurt school argument in his history of Critical Theory, The Dialectic Imagination. Tolerance is essentially a way of not caring if other people are persecuting some group as long as you can feel comfortable that you yourself aren’t. Tolerance of this sort is self-centered indifference to life as others live it — not in terms of what peculiar and concupiscent things they might be up to, not in terms of lifestyle choices, but in terms of what struggles they confront in simply trying to achieve everyday life. Tolerance ultimately means tolerating poverty and social injustice as well as pierced eyebrows and sex clubs. The sex clubs are the alibi for the poverty. (This may be what Michel Houellebecq was getting at in his novel Platform.)

It only emboldens the American Taliban (as blogger Atrios aptly calls the Republican right wing) when liberals are content with passive tolerance as a political outlook. It is quietist, uninspiring, negative, and a bit of a sham, belied by its own selfishness. No wonder the rigth attracts converts; they at least confront the world with their ideology and attempt to transform it into some kind of practice.

Hedonics

No, not ebonics, that right-wing scare word of the Political Correctness crusades of the 1990s. We’re talking hedonics, a controversial method of attaching a value to the increase in pleasure new goods are supposed to provide, which in turn can be weighed against periodic price increases to keep the rate of inflation down. I never heard of hedonics until the Wall Street Journal mentioned it yesterday in an front-page article about hidden inflation and its eventual effect on bond investors. (Bonds need to beat the rate of inflation to make sense as an investment, but if hedonic adjustments mask as much as 3 percent of inflation, then bond owners may actually be losing money in the long term without realizing it, finding themselves suddenly unable to get the anticipated value of their money in goods when the bonds come to term.)

I’ve spent this afternoon trying to figure out the rationale for hedonics, and just how it is one can measure the marginal pleasure afforded by innovation in the commodities on the market. Apparently, the gist is that there is a straight conversion possible that translates quality improvements into price reductions. A typical example cited by the irate investment bankers who tend to write/blog about this topic is a computer: If it’s twice as fast and you pay the same price, hedonics concludes that you’re getting twice as much for your money, and that the price of computers have been cut in half — even if what you are using the computer for hasn’t changed a whit. (My computers get faster but I keep “processing words” at the same stubbornly slow rate.)

Economists may have a sophisticated mathematical defense for hedonics as a regression analysis of some kind, but it seems like the adjustments ultimately boil down to introducing the deeply flawed psychology of utility theory into the calculations of the CPI, which ultimately affects how much grandma gets in her Social Security check, and how much your inflation-protected securities are really going to be worth. It may be that the value of money is always contigent upon one’s willingness to adopt that vulgar utilitarian mindset as a personal ethos. Money is only worth the joy you get in spending it, thus protecting its value is mainly a matter of protecting those pleasures that derive from it — which usually consist of trying to make more of it, faster. Thus back to the utilitarian bias again — more is always better, and too much is never enough.

Ideology and news broadcasts

Caution: what follows is an unmitigated account of my news snobbery. In the morning, my alarm clock plays the local NPR station, which from 9:00 to 10:00 is devoted to BBC News Hour, typically a very un-American roundup of news from a variety of international locales with no particular stress given to what America’s interest in these places might be. It’s insanely boring, and usually irritating enough to make me want to get out of bed rather than listen further. But usually it seems to me what news is supposed to be, dry accounts of unrest and upheaval in the world’s trouble spots along with accounts of political diplomacy and election results and that sort of thing. But this morning, several minutes were devoted to a news item about the first Rolls Royce imported to India since the British colonial rule ended. Whether this is newsworthy in any way is debatable — perhaps it could be seen as symbolic of the return of Raj style economic oppression, since all the fat cats of the colonial ruling class enjoyed driving Rolls Royces back in the day. But that was hardly the emphasis of the reporting, which took on a decidedly celebratory tone, and it certainly wasn’t the point of the interminable interview with the 33-year-old Indian millionaire who made the purchase. Oooh, how much did you pay for it? Do you enjoy its power or its prestige more? Where are you going to drive it, oooh? How fast does it go? It was an extended advertisement for Rolls Royce, a paen to heroic consumerism on an individual level, embedded in the heart of all this internationalist news about nation-states and mass peoples struggling under the yoke of poverty and tyranny and natural disaster, undermining the credibility to a degree of all that preceded and followed (which I, admittedly, didn’t hear from the shower).

Then on the train, while I was trying to open my Wall Street Journal without spilling my coffee or elbowinng the person beside me, I noticed that what he was reading was a page full of crime reporting in one of the tabloids — someone was shot here, someone else was shot there, cops did this or that, a lot of “dog bites man” stories, essentially. And it occurred to me why I’ve been able to continue reading the Journal everyday whereas I could never read a daily paper before — it’s because despite rejection the ideology expressed in virtually all of its content, I agree fundamentally with the paper’s ideology when it comes to its selection of what is newsworthy. There is no crime report in the Wall Street Journal — crime happens everyday and the specifics of it don’t really matter to anyone but its particular victims. There are very few profiles of individuals, but pages and pages of numbers, statisitical analyses, charts, graphs, and brief paragraphs detailing the doings of corporations. This is because individuals aren’t really capable of shaping the course of the world — the world is moved by numbers and corporations and by the host of social forces the Journal keeps tabs on — lobbying groups, coalitions of politicians, boards of directors, regulatory commissions. Nothing is sensationalized; because reading the news is not presumed to be entertainment.

The ideology of other papers, of most TV news broadcasts, is the opposite. The only thing held to be newsworthy is what happens to individuals, which is presented in the most sensationalized way to invite you to imagine it was happening to you or someone you know. It tries to place you at the center of allegedly dramatic events and glamorizes the agency of indiviudals even as it obfuscates causal relatinoships. The Journal always at least posits a possible explanation for events it considers significant — market movements, political pronouncements, etc. TV news, especially local news, usually dispenses with an explanation of cause and effect, reporting news as simply inevitable, encouraging viewers to wallow in fatalism. I believe that there is no worse thing a person can do than watch the local news on television; it distorts reality dangerously, implants destructive ideological tendencies of fatalism, sensationalism, racism, bigotry, insecurity, parochialism, and fear in viewers; and it flatters viewers for their ignorance. A person would be much better off letting her children do nothing but play Grand Theft Auto instead.