A Mass Market of Individuals

Shhh, I’m not really here.

Yesterday I listened to the latest episode of Note to Self, which investigated a tech startup called “AltSchool.” Founded by a former Google executive, AltSchool is “disrupting” elementary school by catering to each student’s educational profile and learning styles, tracked and measured using surveillance technology. Preliminary results seem promising, with highly engaged children partly directing their own learning, all with the help of their handy tablets loaded with personalized curricula.

The episode touches on many implications of this controversial model, and I’d be interested in an entire series on this enticing and alarming incubator. For one thing, the consumers (perhaps more aptly, beta-testers) are children, an ethical grey area the show doesn’t get into. Host Manoush Zomorodi and NPR education reporter Anya Kamanetz do highlight the fact that these beta-testers are not representative of the demographic realities of their communities, and question the business model of an educational institution that has to answer to shareholders. For his part, founder Max Ventilla argues that children should be allowed a period of no-holds-barred wonderment, and questions the idea that the world is a terrible place that kids need to be prepared for.

What stopped me in my tracks was the whole idea of personalized education.

When every child’s every unique preference and need is catered to so consistently, how do they learn to be part of a group? To compromise their unique needs with those of others? What happens to social norms in such a population? Do we rebuild them from a ground made of disparate special snowflakes, creating social norms from a cacophony of difference? I can see that working, I suppose. After all, that is what many coalitions attempt.

This can get into the dicey area of identity politics. The concerns of marginalized people who aren’t served by the status quo are important to take seriously. I admit that it can be easier for me to conform to existing social norms than it is for some people. Society and its norms should be questioned and challenged if society is to become egalitarian. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not saying social norms shouldn’t change to reflect the lived realities of the many types of people who make up a civil society. I’m simply wondering how children will learn social norms in the first place if they’re not taught to forgo their personal preferences in favor of the needs of the larger group. Without that guiding principle, we’d risk social chaos.

But maybe my alarm is off-base, and what really troubles me is that so many “solutions” to social problems are increasingly coming at things from an individual perspective. That and the fact that the organizations piloting these solutions are venture capital-backed tech startups that exist to turn a profit. (I do so wish they’d stop meddling.)

Pernicious individualization strikes me as a dangerous marketing ploy, as a symptom of a consumer culture so invested in getting people to think of themselves as special that they’ll buy anything to prove it, including a personalized education. This is a tech start-up after all. The same type of company that got us to go for a car service that exploits workers and dinner boxes that produce mountains of waste. It’s personal convenience at the expense of the public good. We’re allowing ourselves to get distracted from our collective consciousness of the structural problems that create symptoms like ineffectual schools.

As the individualization trend grows and consumerism takes over what were once public services (e.g., education) what becomes of our society? I maintain that a certain measure of conformity is critical to living and working with other people. And that systematic change, not micro-disruptions, are crucial to positive social transformation.

So enough with the money-grubbing disruption, the expensive band-aids that bill themselves as cost-effective lifestyle enhancements. Let’s instead identify our common needs and mold our institutions into something that serves them.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Technology

Hiatus 2016

Due to more pressing concerns, I will be unable to keep up with this blog for a few months.

I expect to return to what had become a (roughly) semi-monthly publication schedule in January, if not sooner.

Until then, be well and read widely.

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October 10, 2016 · 5:20 PM

Fear Briefing: Lawn Sign Signals

It wasn’t the first time I encountered the “Hillary for Prison” lawn sign, but the second. In the first instance, I was walking a friend’s dog around their neighborhood. In the second, I was walking around my own.

It’s no mystery to me that I live in an area populated with people who hold largely different political views than I do, but it’s a peculiar sensation to feel attacked by those with whom I’m otherwise on polite, if distant, terms.

I am usually able to dismiss bumper sticker discourse as inflammatory trollspeak, but these lawn signs struck a chord of fear inside me as I passed. It was the deep discomfort that comes from knowing you’re in enemy territory–or that the people occupying the territory alongside you would consider you an enemy if they only knew your beliefs. Those of us in the minority are often silent.

I’m lucky that this type of discomfort is a rare sensation. For me, that sensation inspires a blog post. For many in this country, that sensation inspires at best steeled resignation, but more often indicates it’s time to be on guard. For many, that sensation is uncomfortably familiar, and the stakes are impossibly high. That sensation could mean death.

Clinton’s candidacy, like Obama’s before her, incites the endemic hatred of the Other that underlines our country’s patriarchal, racist social structure. There’s a reason Clinton faces so much push-back, such odd media coverage. We, as a country, remain deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of a leader who is not straight, white, and male.

A lawn sign that implies the female presidential candidate might be a criminal springs from this discomfort. There are no “Trump for Prison” signs, after all. When you’re faced with the most qualified candidate in history, what’s left to attack but the aspect of her identity that sets her apart–albeit in veiled ways. An 11-hour hearing there, a rumor about a health crisis here, and a dig at her ambition (so unbecoming on a woman!) for good measure. Chip, chip, chip. And every so often, a thunk rings out, resonating in the hearts of those who share her gender. Putting us on alert.

Just as racism became more blatant after Obama became president, forcing our country to reckon with our shameful legacy of slavery and discrimination, I worry that a female president will inspire the misogynists to pour forth with their hatred more publicly than they already do. It’s painful to realize that this is how progress is forged–with a representative from a marginalized group coming forward, only to be pushed back by those so invested in the status quo that grants them a higher status that they can’t see there’s room for more people on the pedestal. And everyone who shares that marginalized identity is at risk.

People who display these lawn signs are angry that someone who isn’t like them might gain influence. They worry that it means the power they consider their birthright is being taken from them. These people have forgotten the important Kindergarten lesson about sharing, because our society teaches white men that their place is at the top, and there’s only so much room. So push those with the audacity to reach for the top back down. Defend the hierarchy at all costs! Try to elect the most under-qualified candidate you can find, as long as he is a he and pays lip service to your (fragile) identity and (very real) economic concerns. But for the love of a tradition that conveniently privileges you, don’t expend energy fact-checking or looking beyond your prejudices. That would be too much.

“Masculinity is always in crisis,” my history professor reminded us in 2006. Sitting in the safety of that classroom, I never imagined how viscerally gender trouble would manifest in the real world. Having come to consensus in class, I naively assumed the issue had been similarly resolved in the real world. And now we’re ten years in the future, and look what’s happening. Progress is not an arrow. Change swings every which-way. Those with power are loathe to relinquish it. So we work and work and work. We give up. We try again.

It’s those who are first to step forward who bear the brunt in public of what they incite in those who never imagined they’d dare to stand up. The scarcely concealed hatred underlying the hierarchy is forced to the surface, in full view. The bravery of those who go first triggers a fierce backlash, and the rest of us also bear the brunt, but in private. In conversation. In passing. Until we (hopefully) survive and count ourselves among those who comprised the catalyst for social change.

For now, I walk, and live, among people who can’t stomach the thought of a woman at the helm of our national government. And I am a woman. So maybe they can’t stomach me, either. I increase my pace as I walk past these signs, hoping their owners don’t notice me.

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Liminal States

This is a recent column from Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. The column is a monthly feature in my newsletter.

Quandary 

What are “liminal states,” and do they tend to vote red or blue in elections?
~from M.C. Mallet

Anthropological Explanation 

I was tempted to just leave this one as a joke, it tickled me so. But politics is not (entirely) a laughing matter, so I thought I’d tackle this quandary from two angles:

 

  1. Liminal states as a cultural concept [the part where I ruin the joke]
  2. Liminal states as those we think of as “undecided” (aka, swing states) in the context of U.S. presidential elections [the part where I answer the question anyway]
First, liminality as a cultural concept. In anthropological circles, this concept often comes from Victor Turner’s seminal work, The Ritual Process, wherein he describes the sequential components of ritual: removal from society, liminality (where transformation occurs), and return to society. We can apply this model of ritual to anything, from the grand pageantry of a presidential inauguration to the mundane exchange of insults over social media.

It’s much more complicated, of course, but what’s important in the context of M.C.’s question is that liminality is a state of being apart from the everyday goings on that comprise life as we know it. It’s a “between” state–not quite one thing or another.

Moving along to the second part of our analysis, this means that we’re talking about purple states! Neither red nor blue, purple states exist outside even the color-spectrum of hues that represent America. Until election night, when (enfranchised) residents of these liminal states cast their ballots, it won’t be clear which “normal” color–red or blue–a purple state will transform into, bringing it back into the normative cultural structure from which it had been set apart. Whew!

Now we can talk about these liminal/purple/swing states in more detail, and address the latter half of M.C.’s question, which deals with each state’s voting history. I’m only going to go back as far as 2000 because ugh, and also that’s when I remember this whole red-state-blue-state-drunk-state-pew-state rigmarole infiltrating our political discourse.

2000: Most of us remember Florida, but there were other undecided states that election, as well, principally New Hampshire. New Hampshire swung red that year, and together with contested state Florida, decided the election for the Republican candidate.

2004: Ohio turned out to be the liminal state that would decide the election in ’04, and it swung red. Pennsylvania and Florida were also purple at the outset of the contest, eventually swinging blue and red, respectively. (Fun fact: that year, New Hampshire swung blue.)

2008: The usual suspects (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylviania) along with often-purples (Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and my god there are a lot of states in the Union…) swung every which way that year. Florida went blue! Indiana went red! By the end of the electoral ritual, nary a territory was purple. (Liminal states rarely last, folks.)

2012: According to Politico, swing states included Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. All but the final two swung Democrat that election.

2016: This year, there’s been more discussion about the “Rust Belt” swing states. These states’ economies once relied heavily on manufacturing. Because manufacturing has, thanks to globalization and other nefarious forces, moved operations elsewhere, many Rust Belt states have become economically depressed. This has led to a voter base that is unpredictable as compared with their voting record. A few months ago, politicos were calling these states for Republicans, but now they’re not so sure. The point is, past elections won’t be as reliable of a touchstone when it comes to how likely each of these states is to vote Republican or Democrat come November. Especially since this year is [insert hyperbolic, apocalyptic  phrase of choice].

In conclusion, it’s complicated and I don’t know, and everyone should read widely and consider participating in the democratic process on every level they can stomach.

Miscellany
For those of you who are politically inclined and would love a more nuanced discussion of these types of topics from someone with an actual political science degree, I highly recommend you check out WTF is America, a newsletter by the delightful and intelligent Amy Diegelman.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Reconsidering the Percolator

This article was originally published in Issue 42 of Coffee Lovers Magazine, which is where you should read it because they have things like layout and pictures over there.

Reconsidering the Percolator

in defense of a misunderstood relic

Something’s missing in contemporary conversations about coffee. The one elision in Issue 41’s roundup of preparation methods was mention of the percolator, that much maligned icon of midcentury domesticity. To be fair, it’s easy to forget. Difficult to classify, percolation lies somewhere between immersion and drip methods. For people under the age of 40, “to percolate” is likely more familiar as a metaphorical phrase than a culinary process. To modern sensibilities, the percolator is at best shorthand for 1950’s homemaking; at worst slandered as an inferior method that commits unforgivable crimes against coffee. There is a third way.

Continue reading

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia