Tag Archives: NPR

Pets as Conduits to Health?

As I made my way to one of my regular dog-walking clients yesterday, I caught a story on the radio about a new study out of the Rand Corporation. Contrary to what the authors call “a widely held belief that children’s general and psychological health benefits from owning and/or interacting with pets,” there was no statistically significant difference between the health of children who lived with pet animals and those who lived solely with other humans.

Let’s side-step an interrogation of the study’s assumption that children’s health is a major reason adults adopt cats and dogs. We all have assumptions about the motivations of other people in our culture. For example, my assumption has long been that some parents and guardians see pets as a way to teach their children responsibility, aside from perhaps enjoying the company of companion animals themselves or wishing to reproduce the conditions of their own childhoods for their offspring. I cannot access the full study to see whether the authors cite any sources that back up their particular assumption. A quick glance at the references section indicates both an explosion of scholarship on pet-human relationships and that the authors likely have research to back up the assumption stated above.

Back when I spent a lot of time researching U.S. pet-keeping practices, I don’t recall reading or asking my informants about the reasons they chose to bring pet animals into their homes. This not only seems like a significant oversight on my part, but an intriguing line of research to pursue in the future. At the very least, I’m considering subscribing to Anthrozoös.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Contemporary

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

Poetic Interlude: Past Particle

A tale from the end of the Universe

The last particle
Torn asunder

Drifted farther

From anything
Before

Shredding

Silent

No companion
To share its dissipation

Not even consciousness
Remained to witness

Ultimate solitude

Preceded nothing


Inspired by this news story from August, 2015.

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Filed under Wordplay

Self-Awareness, Selfishness, and (No) Shame: Finding a Place in Society

On September 9, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a story about a woman who wanted to be a nurse and the challenges she was facing to become one. The story ended with the host saying that this woman was “determined to make a career out of helping people.” This triggered a realization that I am determined not to be ashamed of:

I don’t want to make a career out of helping people.

Continue reading

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Filed under Contemporary

Scattered Fragments and Other Musings

I’m in the process of working up quite a long piece on the complexities of the human-pet relationship as illuminated in a sometimes-trite picture book. It will appear soon. Dammit. But until then, I thought I’d get a few thoughts off my figurative chest and literal scraps of paper that have been waiting quite a while to be made legible, if not logical. None of them have inspired any real burst of verbose or coherent analysis, but they aren’t entirely worthless, either. So here they are for your consideration, fresh from the nearly-discarded notecards and stickie-notes of my car, in all their fragmented glory.

“Best Friends” Necklaces At least a decade ago, there was a(nother? probably) wave of “best friend” merchandise marketed at young girls–ages 9 to 13, say. Things like a set of necklaces that had half a broken heart each, one with the word “best” inscribed on the cheap metal, the other with the word “friends.” To state the obvious, these types of trinkets represent in a very material way the commodification of friendship, not to mention the performance of it. They had the potential to exacerbate the pre-teen drama seemingly inherent in female friendships (and inevitable falling-outs). Choosing to don or eschew a broken heart necklace could be as hurtful or meaningful as “breaking” a real heart or finally making a “real” friend. This commodification and fetishization of necklace and the ideas it represented put volatile meaning to things. But how do you explain all that to a twelve year-old?

Evolution of Art A now-forgotten segment on NPR about some art happening sparked a hastily scribbled note about conceptual art as prioritizing the making rather than the saving of a work of art. Art as process itself. An engaging-with art-making; participatory art. Making something lasting that can be saved or sold is beyond the point. Art as the performance of itself.

Performance vs. Static Identity Another NPR story dealt with the idea of “genius”–that at one point, the word was used in a very different way and that this difference has significant implications. To be general about it, “historically,” one was spoken of as having genius, rather than being a genius. It was a quality external to the self. Now it is a quality part and parcel of the self. This change in meaning seems to jive with quite a few things I’ve been reading lately about the shift from the external performance of personhood to the internal coherence of a static self. The shift to the concept of identity as an internal and fixed aspect of being. The self was not always such a concern–emphasis was placed, rather, on how one upheld the values of one’s community: it was more about service to one’s society than a concern with one’s inner being, which was not necessarily thought to be separate from the outside world or fixed. This shift is dealt with in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles as well as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America. Perhaps it is because both books deal with gender and trace its movement from being located in social performance to its current location in an internal and fixed identity that explains both author’s attention to this overarching ideological change. But to bring it back to the beginning, I think this shift that they both identify illuminates the changing meaning of “genius” with respect to its use. As the ideology of the self evolved into its present state, it became more acceptable/made more sense to use the word “genius” as a quality that one could posses as part of one’s identity. It was no longer some third-party muse that chanced upon the lucky individual, sparking a happy accident of knowledge production or art. (Yet another example of meaning deriving from use. Ling-anth!)

Beating the Dead Horse of the American Dream This is why I get angry and am not so hot for America much of the time: One of our most enduring (yet constantly refuted) national myths is that of the American DreamLand of opportunity for all, life liberty, etc. That it persists is the backdrop of my anger at our constant boundary-making, social policing, and general intolerance of difference. Sure, if we want to play the comparison game, other cultures and nations are “more” oppressive, but because of this myth I’ve been indoctrinated with, I feel we should do better. We should try harder to live up to this (impossible) myth of opportunity–which requires tolerance of difference. Especially in a capitalist society; some concession must be made to temper the inhumane hand of the market so that difference is taken into account. Is valued. Is given the space to create opportunity that looks a little different. We can’t just provide opportunities for those who follow our arbitrary rules. This makes “success” too unattainable. We must do better. Even if the myth is just that. If we keep telling it to ourselves and slamming it down and telling it to ourselves, shouldn’t we try to make it true, if only to stick it to all the cynical authors of the past 100+ years? (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald and Miller.)

Whew. Now to the recycle bin!

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