January 31, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)

In many ways, television is the medium of irresponsibility, which is why the idea of adulthood within television is a contradiction in terms…."Grow up!" as an imperative means "behave and control yourself": understand your limitations and be reasonable and civil accordingly. One does not grow up on television. It is not in television's commercial interests to have one do so, because a free-floating mind is more apt to buy large quantities of La Choy Chinese food. But we are complicit in this as well, having found and tacitly urged on television a strange answer to our wildest dream. The question, how free can you be?, which bestrides the democracy as does no other, is in television rhetorical.
                                             Roger Rosenblatt, "Growing Up on Television," 
                                             Daedalus, Vol. 105, No. 4 (Fall, 1976) 

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

Photo credit: MTV

January 28, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)


Today the advice column of the web magazine Salon featured a letter from an employee whose boss is "crazy." Here's part of the letter:
She throws herself on the floor when she is unhappy about something — actually on the floor — and whines dramatically. She lashes out at the staff, then cries (tears) and apologizes. She berates people in the office or over the phone while prancing around the workplace like it is performance art. (Oh. I forgot to mention she is a failed dancer/actress.) She glares at the staff and makes backhanded comments about their outfits or their style, even their lunch selections.

She seems perpetually displeased with everything and complains incessantly to everyone about anyone not in the room. It is really exhausting. Sometimes she talks to her cat about us in a silly playful voice, but with an evil, maniacal face. It’s really creepy.

And her friends just placate her. They come into the office regularly to baby her and coddle her in soothing voices, as if her behavior is even remotely appropriate.
Salon's columnist, Cary Tennis, offered a few suggestions but admitted that quitting seemed the best, albeit unsatisfactory, option. Seemingly out of frustration, he mused a bit about the problem of inappropriate behavior in general; note in particular his reference to "effective democratic action": 
It’s really weird how there’ll be this one crazy person and no one person is powerful enough to stop the crazy person from being crazy. You’d think that “sanity” would prevail. But the crazy person has been granted magical powers. No one can touch her. Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is “being pragmatic,” when really, they are being damaged. And a pattern is being set. The group is failing to take effective democratic action. What if you were in a lifeboat? What if she were a terrorist? What if she were abusing children? Where is the dividing line? What is this terrible passivity that settles over people in the presence of the deranged?

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

January 26, 2012

Talking Technology!


Yesterday the New York Times published a comprehensive report on labor conditions at Chinese factories that manufacture products for Apple Corps. According to the Times, Apple had been publicly warned of unsafe conditions at an iPad plant where explosions killed four people and injured 77.

“If Apple was warned, and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” said Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advises the United States Labor Department. “But what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.” 

The plant where the explosions occurred is owned and operated by Foxconn, which also supplies electronics products for Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia, and Samsung. More than 120,000 employees work there, often putting in 12-hour days, six days a week. Banners on the walls carry slogans such as, “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow.” One of the employees killed at the plant made $22 a day, a relatively high salary by Foxconn standards. 

The Times article quotes a former Apple executive (speaking anonymously because of confidentiality agreements) as follows:

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice. If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?” 

A current Apple executive is quoted as follows:

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

[Speaking of exploiting labor, thanks to the Internet and various digital devices manufactured in China, readers of The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and, no doubt, countless other aggregators, as well as this blog, are able to read the New York Times article on factory conditions in China for free. This saves us the bother of contributing a penny to the salaries, pensions, or health care of the journalists responsible for the report, who interviewed more than three dozen current and former Apple executives and contractors. The image used to illustrate this post (taken at the Foxconn plant where the explosions occurred) was posted on the web without credit to the photographer, copied from Google Images, and also used for free.]

January 25, 2012

Technology Fixing Technology


One of my many unappealing qualities is a propensity to say "I told you so!" This comes to mind because yesterday the New York Times ran an article that affirmed the conclusion of a recent essay of mine for the technology blog, Cyborgology. I hasten to add that my conclusion was hardly earth-shattering; still, it's always nice to see science weighing in on the side of common sense.

The subject of my essay (an adaptation of an earlier essay posted here) was the problem of taking effective action to stop global warming in the face of our utter dependence on the technologies that cause global warming. After describing the various forces that comprise what I call "de facto technological autonomy," I noted that some scientists, in desperation, are beginning to examine various geoengineering techniques that might be used to reverse the problem without having to radically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.  

After listing a couple of examples of the exotic techniques being contemplated, my essay came to the following conclusion:
One looks for hope where one can find it, but the problem here is obvious: Even if they did work for the purposes intended, nobody knows what the unintended results of such radical measures might be. Technological autonomy is a process that proceeds without regard to original intention.
Two weeks after that essay posted, the Times' Justin Gillis reported on two new studies in the journal Nature Climate Change, both predicting that significant complications would almost certainly arise from the deployment of geoengineering techniques. Those complications range from unpredictable disruptions of various environmental processes to uneven distribution of the effects of geoenginnering, which could be a source of new international tensions.

Gillis' article concluded as follows:  
The bottom line of these studies is that even as they dive into research questions on geoengineering, scientists are perhaps inevitably coming to the conclusion that we would be better off limiting our emissions now rather than handing future generations a mess that may not be at all easy to clean up.

January 22, 2012

Talking Technology!

“Companies once felt an obligation to support American workers, even when it wasn’t the best financial choice,” said Betsey Stevenson, the chief economist at the Labor Department until last September. “That’s disappeared. Profits and efficiency have trumped generosity.”          
          The iEconomy: How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, New York Times, January 21, 2012

“Death, procreation, birth, habitat; all must submit to technical efficiency and systemization, the end point of the industrial assembly line."
           Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1954

"We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive said. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."
          The iEconomy: How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work

"The direction we are heading is reasonably clear...Left to unfold on its own, the worldwide division of labor not only will create vast disparities of wealth within nations but may also reduce the willingness of global winners to do anything to reverse this trend toward inequality – either within the nation or without."
          Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism, 1991


Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)

From a New Yorker magazine profile of Newt Gingrich's wife, Callista, by Ariel Levy:
On the press bus, [Gingrich] told me that Callista is "the grownup" in their relationship. "The woman is always the grownup," he said. "I think no matter what."

I asked Callista, who was sitting next to him, if she agreed. "Most days," she said, and laughed.

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

January 20, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)

Over the past decade TV chef Paula Deen has become the Queen of Comfort Cuisine, building an empire on mountains of fried chicken, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and butter cake.

On January 17 she appeared on NBC's Today show to make two announcements: she was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago and she has now signed a contract with a pharmaceutical company to promote its diabetes medication.

On Today she denied that her recipes contributed to her diabetes or that she had any responsibility for the health of her viewers. "I don’t blame myself,” she said.

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

January 18, 2012

You Can Do Anything! (Annals of Childish Behavior™ continued)

Saturday Night Live addresses technology as an enabler of one of our more annoying cultural manifestations of childish thinking: The idea that you can do anything!

(Warning: This link exposes you to a commercial before playing the sketch.)

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

January 17, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)

I can see this Annals of Childish Behavior feature getting quickly out of control. Here's another entry, from today's Daily Mail:
A grandmother was punched in the face and dragged around by her hair - after she asked fellow restaurant goers to stop swearing during her grandson's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. 

The 50-year-old had been attending the child's seventh birthday at the party venue in Dearborn, Michigan when she was attacked yesterday afternoon…

[Witnesses] told Fox 2 that when she asked people sitting nearby not to swear, 'They told her to ''shut the f*** up and turn around'''.

Witnesses then said that a man jumped over the table and began throwing punches and grabbed the woman by the head.

Annals of Childish Behavior™

In a post a few days ago, I quoted José Ortega y Gasset's observation that modern culture had been possessed by "childishness," a condition in which individuals and nations behave like spoiled children who believe they are entitled to everything and obligated to no one. I noted then that this sort of behavior also extended to corporate executives who "skirt safety standards for the sake of profit."

The following is from a January 17 report in the New York Times on the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Italy:
Cruise passengers are supposed to attend a safety briefing within 24 hours of boarding.

“We have never had any drills,” [passenger Emily] Lau said. “We were asked to go for a safety meeting, and it was nothing but a sales pitch for excursions.”
 A later report from the Times added that the accident had been caused when the Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, tried to show off the $450 million vessel to residents of the island of Giglio, where he struck a reef. The captain then abandoned ship before all its passengers had been evacuated, apparently unaware that fatalities had occurred.

Captain Schettino subsequently explained that his early exit from the foundering liner was due to an accident: he'd slipped on deck and fallen into the water. Transcripts from a telephone conversation between Schettino, floating in a lifeboat, and a coast guard commander revealed that the captain refused to return to the Costa Concordia as the evacuation continued because, he said, it was too dark to see anything. To that the irate coast guard commander replied, “Do you want to go home, Schettino? It’s dark and you want to go home?" An Italian newspaper columnist characterized the captain's explanation as "the cry of a child." 

Photo credit: The Daily Mirror

January 11, 2012

Andersen, Ortega, and the Decline of Western Civilization

José Ortega y Gasset    
As a fan of the late December thumbsucker – those journalistic attempts to take stock of the year's achievements in various fields of endeavor – I was struck by the marked pessimism of many of the 2011 entries. Two themes in particular regularly appeared: that the culture seems creatively spent, and that as a result artists are looking backward for what little inspiration they can muster. 

Jon Caramanica concluded in the New York Times, for example, that 2011 might be remembered "as the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history," a year when even the best of a legion of mediocrities "walked blindly in footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier." Similarly, Salon's Matt Zoller Seitz noted that the year's most talked about movies and TV shows were drenched in longing for an earlier, pre-digital age, before everything became virtual and people could actually touch – and feel – the world around them. 

The most ambitious attempt to take the temperature of the Zeitgeist was Kurt Andersen's year-end essay in Vanity Fair, "You Say You Want a Devolution?" The article's subhead accurately described the gist of his argument: "For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape – its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment – changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new."     

Kurt Andersen    
There's nothing new about nostalgia, of course, but the despairing tone of Anderson's article and those of his colleagues was unusual. By coincidence, they happened to appear just as I was finishing one of those classics of philosophy I'd long intended to read, José Oretga y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses. Despair was a dominant theme in Ortega's work, too. Indeed, although much in Revolt of the Masses doesn't go down easily today – the book is overtly elitist and Eurocentric – there are intriguing parallels between Ortega's major themes and those sounded by the December thumb-suckers of 2011. Timing has something to do with that – Revolt of the Masses appeared in 1930, just as the Great Depression was gaining momentum – as does technology.  

Ortega's central point was that the emergence of modern consumer abundance coupled with liberal democratic ideals had bestowed an unprecedented increase in the scope of opportunity, experience, and freedom available to the average citizen. That was the good news. The bad news was that this expansiveness had led to a similarly unprecedented degree of self confidence on the part of those average citizens – confidence that was wholly unearned and undeserved. The masses had come to consider themselves, Ortega said, fully capable of determining what course the state and the culture should follow, with disastrous results. As an aristocrat and an intellectual, Ortega believed an appalling degradation was ongoing in the conduct of public affairs.  The "sovereignty of the unqualified individual," he declared, had taken hold. 

Sarah Palin    
As I say, some of Ortega's opinions can be cringe-worthy – I understand why some critics consider him a proto-fascist – but the text as a whole contains enough qualifications to defuse, for me, much of that discomfort. For one thing, what made an individual common for Ortega had nothing to do with class and everything to do with attitude. Nonetheless, he was no fan of the cacophony that prevails in the modern marketplace of ideas. "The leveling demands of a generous democratic inspiration have been changed," he says, "from aspirations and ideals into appetites and unconscious assumptions."

It's those appetites and assumptions that resonate most clearly with contemporary concerns. Like Kurt Andersen, Ortega saw a central paradox in modern experience between the "plentitude" of available choices and our tendency to withdraw in response to that plentitude. An excess of opportunity overwhelms us. Part of the reason that is so, Ortega believed, is that we have pridefully abandoned any respect for traditional values, leaving ourselves with no standards to hold onto in the maelstrom of change. At the same time, the environment created by technology – 1930s technology, yes, but still potently disruptive – demanded that we adapt ourselves in ways no tradition could prepare us for. We become, he said, "what our world invites us to be, and the basic features of our soul are impressed upon it by the form of its surroundings as in a mold." 

H.R. Giger, “Work No. 456”    
Also like Andersen, Ortega believed the culture had lost its creative vitality along with its sense of direction. Modern life is a time, he wrote,

when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of all things, he is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance. With more means at its disposal, more knowledge, more technique than ever, it turns out that the world today goes the same way as the worst of worlds that have been; it simply drifts. Hence the strange combination of a sense of power and a sense of insecurity which has taken up its abode in the soul of modern man.

Ortega was at his angriest when he denounced the childishness of modern culture, a childishness that from his perspective afflicted nations as well as individuals. Conditioned by plentitude, he said, the masses take their comforts for granted and, like spoiled children, throw tantrums at any suggestion of restraint. "To spoil," he said, "means to put no limit on caprice, to give one the impression that everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations." 

Few of us, I suspect, would have trouble citing examples of childish behavior we encounter today, from cell-phone shouters in restaurants to the corporate executives who skirt safety standards for the sake of profit.

Another thing Ortega and Andersen share is an awareness that Western culture had cycled though periods of satiation and despair before, an awareness that failed to mitigate their apprehensions for the future. Andersen worries that Western civilization might be coming to an end "not with a bang, but with a long, nostalgic whimper." In translation from the Spanish, Ortega's premonition was odder, but no more cheerful. "Whoever has not felt the danger of our times palpitating under his hand," he wrote, "has not really penetrated to the vitals of destiny, he has merely pricked its surface."     

©Doug Hill, 2012

January 7, 2012

The Environment vs. Technological Autonomy

Just a note to say that Cyborgology published my essay today on the environmental implications of technological autonomy. The basic question addressed: Can we control global warming if we can't control our machines?

Again, this is a condensed version of an earlier post.