Category Archives: Technology

Wait! Before we eat…

Amateur food photography is nothing new. What else can be said about the now mundane practice of pausing before a meal to document it so the image can be shared and admired? Perhaps nothing, but I’m going to share the following experience, anyway.

About a month ago, I treated myself to a day at the Huntington Library. After wandering the gardens and visiting the Reformation exhibit, I decided to have some lunch in their upscale cafeteria. I took my tray outside to what I’ll call the veranda, because I like that word, and sat happily alone amidst people of various ages. That day there was a high school group visiting, probably a private school judging by their uniforms. The girls wore sweaters and skirts. (What’s with private school uniforms and skirts? Beyond the scope of this post…)

So there I sat, eating a passably tasty veggie wrap and enjoying the fresh air and the murmured conversation that filled it, when into my field of vision walked a trio of private school students with their own lunch trays. They selected a table at the edge of the veranda that overlooked the gardens, set down their trays, and sat. But as soon as they had done so they were standing again, each of them taking a step or two backward with their smartphones held aloft, attempting to properly frame their respective meals. After taking satisfactory pictures, they sat and proceeded to eat.

I took out my notebook and made a sketch of the scene, along with a few notes:

Huntington lunch man 2018

Daily documentation — visual — as cultural practice. The three girls photographed their curated collections of comestibles, making the quotidian significant, adding a layer of ritual (visual documentation) to another type of ritual (meal sharing), which will in turn be ritually disseminated on social media (sharing of the visual documentation of meal sharing — nay, meal plating).

Or does the ubiquity of such a practice mean that the quotidian is just that, and layering these rituals temporally is no longer in itself significant? When so many snap pictures of their food to share them in the pursuit of technologically mediated attention, is that not simply a mundane cultural practice?

No less meaningful, but meaningful in a proscribed, ritualized way.

I suppose I mean to say that it’s no longer art.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Technology

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

How to Lose a Mattress Sale

An epidemic of introversion threatens the very fabric of our economy. At retail establishments across the land, over-amped sales personnel are charged with accosting unreceptive customers, all for the promised pittance of commission. Pity the retail employee who must cram their square peg sales strategy into the black hole of the introverted customer.  

This unprecedented assault against extroverts has swept the nation, disproportionately affecting sales personnel who work on commission. This injustice cannot stand.  Forget for a moment the larger market forces creating the conditions of their oppression; this battle is best waged on the sales floor, with one-on-one combat. 

Too often sales personnel see the loss of an introvert’s business as defeat. To that I say: THIS IS VICTORY! What I offer is a way forward for our country’s under-appreciated and much-maligned extroverts. Read on, dear sales people, and discover the dawning of a new tomorrow that causes the lost promise of the 1950’s to tremble with jealousy. Continue reading

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Technology

Who Owns Our Social Capital?

Shortly after Apple debuted its version of “the cloud” four years ago, I wrote a short post contemplating the future of ownership. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the shifting meaning of ownership in the context of the social networks within which we conduct no small part of our daily lives. Namely, Facebook and Twitter.

In this intriguing piece from Pacific Standard, the author suggests we all start charging companies for our online data, conveniently eliding the fact that there are deeply entrenched power structures that would need to do an altruistic 180 for that to even enter the realm of possibility. Short of opting out of, oh, all services, how can consumers leverage any semblance of power to make such a demand?

Not easily.

To his credit, the author admits he hasn’t considered the economic implications of his idealistic suggestion, and indeed, he doesn’t seem to see the landscape of the current information/data market for his money-tree of an idea. Alas, capital is highly concentrated among the very companies he wants consumers to charge for the privilege of collecting, storing, and mining their data. How can those of us without that volume of capital, social or material, possibly set our price? We are at their mercy.

I’m of the cynical view that consumers, even as a united front, have little actual power to effect change. The means of production are too tightly wound around the hands of those at the top. They even control the means of communication and socialization. Besides, consumers would probably need social media to mount an economic revolution. It’s one of the most viable mobilization tools we have at our disposal. What happens when the services don’t like what their users are saying and doing with it and turn it off?

Conversely, what happens if (when?) ostensibly “free” services start becoming less so. As many have pointed out, corporations pay for the right to advertise their products to people using these social media services. But profit margins for Facebook & Twitter are slim to nonexistent. So at what point do these services re-evaluate and start making their monetizing more visible and felt by the user?

At what point in the process of monetization do people start migrating to new, “free” services? When Twitter figures out how to monetize itself effectively, how will that affect user experience? Will users rebel by leaving? Or will the service’s gamble pay off, with users having become so entrenched and loyal that it’s easier to stay & pay than flee for free?

It’s tough to predict, but one thing I’m pretty sure won’t happen (at least not successfully) is users demanding to be paid for their participation in these social networks.

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Filed under Contemporary, Power, Technology

Maximal Meta-Discourse, Engage: Ready (again) Player One

A few years ago, I wrote a response to a response to Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel Ready Player One. Without having read it. But my response was mostly about the intersection of capitalism and nostalgia, not the book itself. I stand by that post, but I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally read the book.

Let’s pretend this is timely. After all, E3 just happened, bringing with it renewed hype surrounding the Oculus Rift.

But really, I just want to make good and examine Cline’s debut novel on its own merits, not in terms of what Douglas Wolk found compelling, unsettling, or disappointing. Now I have my own grievances to air.

So if you’re so inCline’d, check out my review of the actual book over at my other site, “Books, not People.”

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Filed under Book Reviews, Meta, Nostalgia, Technology