Tag Archives: technology

Currently Contributing to my Brain’s (En)lightening Storm

Thinking about the larger structures that inform our everyday experiences has sent me into epiphanic raptures since at least my early college days. In the past few weeks, I’ve encountered several works that take a systems view of the pressing issues of our time. Taken together, they seem to coalesce around imagining what comes next for society and planet. At the very least they have all set my brain alight. I hope some of them do the same for you.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

A sample quote ~

We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us–but it might open our imaginations.

I first encountered Tsing’s work in my Intro Anthropology course, where we read In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. This helped us understand post-structuralist ethnography. Two years later in our “Commodities and Human Agency” course, I read parts of what was then her most recent book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. From Tsing, I learned about the critical value of studying the margins: of society, of economies, of history. Mushroom goes even further into this poststructuralist marginalia, incorporating multispecies perspectives into her meandering, riveting storytelling. She leans into the interconnection and impossibility of synthesizing competing narratives, recognizing the whole as mutable and somewhat unknowable. But always worth investigating. Her work, like much of the other work I’ll discuss in this post, allows me to envision a future worth creating and living.

The Next System Podcast on Capital Bias

Specifically, an episode about capital bias and transitioning to an economy driven by worker-owned enterprises. Marjorie Kelly reminded me why I got involved in starting a food co-op five years ago, and why Marx & Engels’ work on capital and labor is still relevant today. She challenges us to rethink the relationship society has with capital, and imagine how it might be different.

“You don’t eliminate capital any more than with feminism you eliminate men–you just change the power relationship.”

Kelly’s work on generative design and capital bias, not to mention The Next System’s larger project, accounts for causality and interconnectivity in our current state of economic inequality and ecological upheaval, among other seemingly intractable systematic problems. That people are committed to working through them gives me hope, and inspires me to join them in whatever ways I can.

Recent Reporting on Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Speaking of work and our ever-transforming economy, I was struck by two articles that dive into the implications of technological innovation: Mother Jones’ “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot” by Kevin Drum, and The New Yorker’s Dark Factory by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Optimistic these stories were not. But they do important work in further sounding the alarm about where AI and automation are leading our economy and society as a whole, and the fact that perhaps we should be putting policies in place to protect people and their livelihoods. Worker co-ops could be part of the solution, as could universal basic income.

Upstream Radio on Universal Basic Income

Upstream focuses on the social determinants of health, which means their work covers all sorts of fascinating topics, from climate change to the prison system to foodways to education. Its recent podcasts (or “documentaries,” to use their term) have tackled the various models of universal basic income and their potential effects on society. Like The Next System, they imagine the paradigm shifts necessary to enact more livable futures. Also like The Next System, their optimism inspires some skepticism: how on earth would our globalized economy shift away from capitalism? But they have intriguing ideas, and I’m willing to listen and learn whether some of them might be applicable.

Secret Feminist Agenda on Whatever it Damn Well Pleases

Hannah McGregor, co-host of the essential Harry Potter podcast “Witch, Please,” has a new show wherein she addresses current events, pop culture, academic topics, and much more via a feminist lens and in collaboration with intelligent guests. Secret Feminist Agenda has helped me rethink laziness and productivity, parenting, academia, accepting when work is “good enough,” how women are socialized to be cogs in a machine that extracts our labor for very little compensation, and most crucially, how to resist this by living differently in the world. It’s truly a balm in a world that is chaotic and overwhelming.

Hurry Slowly on Rethinking Work as a Sustainable Practice

Speaking of pushing back against the exhausting status quo, the podcast Hurry Slowly is interrogating the ways in which we can slow down and get more meaning out of our professional and personal lives. Guests share different workplace models that value a separation between life and job, reasons to limit smartphone use, and how to engage with nature as a restorative force. The overarching idea is to make a person’s productivity sustainable, and the strategies presented in these episodes are ones I plan to hang on to as I contemplate my future career moves.

Science Vs on Renewable Energy

Finally, I’d like to plug a recent episode of the podcast Science Vs, which asked whether it was possible to achieve 100% renewable energy. Far beyond renewing my desire to get more involved in combating the myriad ill effects of climate change, one of the show’s guests provided validation of my (admittedly rare) propensity to harbor hope for the future. When asked whether he would have children today, energy economist Jim Sweeney had this to say:

Absolutely…I’m not going to give up on the future because there are challenges. There are always challenges. I was born in World War II; my parents had children. So I don’t see that there is any reason for believing that we’re going to go to hell in a hand basket. We will have challenges there is no doubt about it.

All of the readings and podcasts listed above have reinvigorated my desire to go deep, learn more, and look for solutions to some of the major systemic problems society faces. I want more of the work I do to be geared toward building a future that values people and planet. There are many things to work on: climate change, economic inequality, educational access, gender equality, racism and xenophobia, environmental preservation–you name it, it needs some work.

Now to pick something and get started…

 

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Half-Baked Motherhood: Compromise & the Dough Boy

There’s a Pillsbury commercial that has been nagging at me to rail on it since late 2014. Here we are, three months later. No time like the present. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of this commercial, so a description based on my memory of having seen it once will have to suffice.

A Commercial Mother encounters the three members of her family as she makes her way through the house. She tries in vain to get the attention of each:

  • Child #1 cannot hear for the headphones that keep him glued to the TV screen on which he’s playing a video game.
  • Child #2 charges down the stairs, nearly running into Mom as she texts on her smartphone.
  • Husband is changing the channels on the TV in the kitchen.

Instead of snatching the devices away from these rude family members like a sane person would, Commercial Mom sighs with an exasperation meant only to underline her infinite maternal patience. There’s even a smile creeping into the corners of her mouth. Oh, family members–can’t live with ’em, can’t get ’em to acknowledge your presence. 

Suddenly, a solution!

We see her pull a steaming sheet of something presumably delicious out of the oven. One by one, each family member unplugs themselves, the irresistible aromas drawing them to the dining room. The closing shot sees them all sitting together, face to face at last. “Nothing brings them to the table like Pillsbury.”

My eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head. I’m really glad I only saw this commercial once, or Feminist Rage and also a very high ophthalmology bill.

As alluded to previously, what I had hoped this mother had done was confiscate the offending devices that were turning her family members into offensive people. Nothing brings ’em to the table like dropping all their technology down the garbage disposal. Also, if we’re being reasonable about things, maybe they could have had a family discussion about why it’s a problem when you don’t acknowledge someone who is trying to talk to you. But no. Commercial Mom gives in to the socio-technological forces swirling around her and tries a different tactic to reach her goal of familial engagement.*

The message of the ad is if you can’t beat ’em, bake for them. Sacrifice. Work harder for what you want. Embrace your family’s foibles. Aren’t people these days a riot, with their technology and lack of interpersonal skills? Why, we should reward them with baked goods–and not just any baked goods, but par-baked goods that make your life of thankless sacrifice a little easier, more palatable. To get what you want–which is, apparently, not respect, but rather the physical presence of your family–you need to meet them more than half-way. You need to meet them half-baked.

What might be most troubling about the existence (and persistence) of this representation of American motherhood and winking maternal “wisdom” is

  1. Many mothers (parents, really) must identify with this representation
    and
  2. These women haven’t yet pushed back to a degree that would manifest itself in market research

Ads are not a mirror of the real world, instead tending to lag slightly behind cultural trends and social mores. But they also serve to reinforce kernels of truth in the collective lived experience. Too much money is riding on the ability of this ad and its representation of modern family life to resonate with its target market for it NOT to have sufficient market research behind it. Market research that told the Pillsbury executives that a significant chunk of American parents feel like the mother in this commercial. A feeling of futility that only our product can alleviate!

Parents in general will likely identify with the mother–so the market research would have shown. You want to be a close-knit family, have quality moments with your children, but modern technology is getting in the way. Luckily, Pillsbury is here to save the day, offering up a product as a solution to the problem the ad offers up on a platter.

This convenient confection is just the sticky substance that will keep your family unit together. If you value your family–if you’re a good mother–you will buy it. Motherhood is a goldmine of social anxieties,and Pillsbury knows it as well as we do.

So instead of the mother laying the smackdown in this commercial–which wouldn’t really present a problem that a Pillsbury product could solve–and teaching her family about the importance of NOT BEING RUDE and RESPECTING OTHER PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THE PEOPLE WHO GIVE YOU THE LUXURY OF A MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE…we get get the tired trope of sacrificial maternal compromise, repackaged & refrigerated for those struggling to parent the iGeneration.

*I am not making judgments about real-life parenting decisions. In situ, I’m sure plenty of great parents pick their battles and exhale their anger instead of making every moment a teaching one. In this deconstruction I am taking issue with the way the mass-media represents motherhood and family life as a social structure in which the mother is disrespected and then rewards her family for their rudeness. A representation that holds up motherhood as self-sacrificing and somehow still rewarding. A representation that holds up as relate-able, emulate-able, and Good a person who takes shit and bakes it into cookies.

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We Cannot Prepare for the Future: The Inescapable Exclusion of Segments of the Population from Society on the Basis of Age*

Can we, the youth, imagine a time when we won’t know what’s going on? Because it’s going to happen.

Culture changes, usually. This is natural. In Western societies, these changes are intertwined with technological “development.” As different technologies and ways of doing things are adopted by society at large, the old are often left behind. Technology kills parts of culture, altering them to nearly unrecognizable states of being. As new technologies are taken up, not everyone can keep up. Those set in their ways are left in the dark, relegated to less participatory modes of existing in society. This happens especially to the older generations. Perhaps it is because they are not as involved in the development of these new technologies, these new modes of societal interaction. Perhaps they have hit maximum capacity when it comes to learning new things, to keeping up with all these changes by reading about them. After all, when you aren’t immersed in these changes, you start to lose the background necessary to comprehend all that comes after. The young inherit the earth, and infuse the society at large with their culture. Hegemonic change disenfranchises the older generations.

This will happen to us, too. Sure, we can keep pace with new technology now, but we won’t always be able to. There comes a time, for most of us, when we decide it’s enough: we have all we need; we can exist in a current mode. And we stop adopting the latest things. When this happens in one’s life cycle varies, but it isn’t a problem at first. Who cares if we don’t understand every little thing our kids or nieces and nephews are talking about? We’re functioning just fine as adults in the world, thanks. We have all we need.

But as we age, we become less able to care for ourselves. We rely on others, younger people who have kept abreast of cultural changes; who know the newest technologies. And their knowledge of the world suddenly overcomes our own: we are no longer in charge of ourselves. We do not know quite how to operate in this brave new world taken over by the young with their new-fangled gadgets and ways of communicating. This loss of control, of knowledge, of feeling like you can exist competently, invades even the smallest, most mundane aspects of culture.

A few years ago, a 90-year-old friend of mine complained that she could no longer do the crossword puzzles in the newspaper because there were so many words she did not know. Words like “iPod.” Trying to explain these words to her and what they represented in the culture just caused her to wave her hand at me, as if to suggest that keeping up was a lost cause. (She could still watch Jeopardy, though, turned up to ear-splitting level.)

At any rate, as members of the current youth generation, the ones employed in sectors that develop and/or use new technologies we feel on top of things. We don’t understand or use every single little gadget that comes out, nor do we understand every nuance of society shifts, but we still feel generally confident about making our way through the world. This confidence allows us to harbor the fantasy that all the changes we are living through are becoming the new status quo–and will remain hegemonic. But at this rate of change–or any rate of change, really, this cannot be the case. There is no way to prepare for how out of touch we will become as we age.

Just look at how things such as the car changed society. Entire infrastructures, ways of procuring food, distances considered manageable, all changed. Changes in media technologies are also a good example. Radio and television changed the way we learned about the world, and how wide a radius of the world we knew about. It changed the ways in which we interacted with people: family, friends, strangers on shows, even. And who on earth was prepared for what the internet has done? Talk about altering the fabric of society with a “simple” medium of communication.

We simply cannot conceive of what’s coming and the changes new ideas and technologies will trigger. The flip-side of this–or at least, a related consequence, is the loss of cultural knowledge. Those of use alive in Western societies today would not know how to operate in a world without natural gas, or telephones, or national voting systems, or any number of things. We do not as a society know how to grow food for our families, wear knickerbockers, or make candles.

Societal and technological changes are constant and mutually constitutive: there is no escape. Not from the loss of culture, from the generational disenfranchisement, from the often sudden incongruity of life experiences. We cannot prepare for how lost we will feel in the midst of future changes. Everything will be different: some things slightly, some things radically. But at least we can count on our grandkids or grand-nieces and grand-nephews rolling their eyes at our ignorant, old-fashioned ways.

 

*I’d like to extend thanks and partial credit to a friend of mine for originally introducing me to this phenomenon in 2006. Without her, it would not have occupied my thoughts and driven me to write this post.

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