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Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”*…

Employees at the BMIT data centre in SmartCity Malta, 22 June 2017.

Hot, strenuous and unsung. As Steven Gonzalez Monserrate explains, there is nothing soft and fluffy about the caretaking work that enables our digital lives…

The ‘cloud’ is not an intangible monolith. It’s a messy, swelling tangle of data centres, fibre optic cables, cellular towers and networked devices that spans the globe. From the tropical megalopolis of Singapore to the remote Atacama Desert, or the glacial extremes of Antarctica, the material infrastructure of the cloud is becoming ubiquitous and expanding as more users come online and the digital divide closes. Much has been written about the ecological impact of the cloud’s ongoing expansion: its titanic electricity requirements, the staggering water footprint required to cool its equipment, the metric tonnes of electronic waste it proliferates, and the noise pollution emitted by the diesel generators, churning servers and cooling systems required to keep data centres – the heart of the cloud – operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

But less has been written about those who work inside the machinery of the cloud. Though often forgotten, this community of technicians, engineers and executives is integral to the functioning of our increasingly digitised society. They are the caretakers of the digital, the wardens of our data, and the unsung heroes working tirelessly to sustain an ever-expanding array of digital objects, including our emails, cat videos, maps, non-fungible tokens, metaverse avatars, digital twins and more. The idea of digital caretakers might conjure science fiction images of empty, towering warehouses stacked with racks of automated machines. But these workers are very much flesh and blood. The silicon milieu they’re part of is as human as it is mechanical. From their vantage, the cloud is not merely an infrastructure they maintain, but a way of life, an identity, a culture of stewardship – replete with its own norms, rituals and language…

Explore that fascinating culture: “The people of the cloud,” from @cloudAnthro in @aeonmag.

Apposite: “The Maintenance Race,” from Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand)

* Kurt Vonnegut

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As we contemplate continuity, we might spare a thought for Richard Arkwright; he died on this date in 1792. An inventor and entrepreneur, he was a leader in the early stage of the Industrial Revolution. Arkwright was the driving force behind the development of the spinning frame, known as the water frame after it was adapted to use water power; he patented a rotary carding engine to convert raw cotton to ‘cotton lap’ prior to spinning; and he was the first to develop factories housing both mechanized carding and spinning operations, combining power, machinery, semi-skilled labor and the (then-new to England) raw material of cotton to create mass-produced yarn. Indeed, His organizational skills earned him the honorific title “father of the modern industrial factory system.”

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“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

From the cover of sci-fi magazine If, May 1960

Your correspondent is heading several time zones away, so (Roughly) Daily will be on hiatus for a week. Meantime…

Kelly Alexander on the very real way in which we are not only what we eat, but also what we imagine eating…

Despite the faux social science of trend reports, I have always been interested in the flavours that exert a hold on our collective hearts and minds. I’m especially intrigued by how the foods we seem to fetishise in the present – the artisanal, the local, the small-batch – are never the ones we seem to associate with the tantalising prospect of ‘the future’.

How do we know what will be delicious in the future? It depends on who ‘we’ are. For Baby Boomers who didn’t grow up on a diet of Dune-style scenarios of competing for resources on a depleted planet, it was TV dinners, angel whips and Tang – the instant powdered orange drink that became a hit after NASA included it on John Glenn’s Mercury spaceflight in 1962. That same year, The Jetsons – an animated show chronicling the life and times of a family in 2062 – premiered on US television. In one episode, mom Jane ‘makes’ breakfast for son Elroy using an iPad-like device. She orders ‘the usual’: milk, cereal (‘crunchy or silent?’ Jane asks Elroy, before pre-emptively selecting ‘silent’), bacon, and one soft-boiled egg, all of which is instantly beamed to the table…

For many students in my Food Studies courses at the University of North Carolina, the ‘future delicious’ conjures readymade meal ‘solutions’ that eliminate not just the need for cooks but the need for meals. This includes Soylent, the synthesised baby formula-like smoothies, or the food substitutes slugged by software engineers coding at their desks. It includes power bars and Red Bulls to provide energy and sustenance without the fuss of a dinner table (an antiquated ceremony that takes too long). Also, meal kits that allow buyers to play at cooking by mixing a few things that arrive pre-packaged, sorted and portioned; and Impossible Burgers, a product designed to mimic the visceral and textural experience of eating red meat – down to realistic drips of ‘blood’ (beet juice enhanced with genetically modified yeast), and named to remind us that no Baby Boomer thought such a product was even possible.

Such logic makes the feminist anthropologist Donna Haraway wary. It betrays, she writes, ‘a comic faith in technofixes’ that ‘will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children.’ To Haraway’s point, the future delicious tends to value the technological component of its manufacture over the actual food substrate, sidestepping what the material culture expert Bernie Herman described to me as ‘the fraught and negotiated concept of delicious’…

More tastiness at: “What our fantasies about futuristic food say about us,” from @howamericaeats in @aeonmag.

See also: “The perfect meal in a pill?

How do science fiction authors imagine the food of the future? Works conceived between 1896 and 1973 addressed standardised consumers, alienated by a capitalist society in pursuit of profitability. Were these works prophecy or metaphor?

* Jonathan Safran Foer

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that Nathan’s Famous, on Coney Island, sold it’s one-millionth hot dog. The restaurant (which has, of course, grown into both a chain and a retail brand) had been founded by Nathan Handwerker in 1916.

Nathan, eating one of his own

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 6, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Relationships have two key components: ‘being close’ and ‘feeling close’.”*…

The marvelous Matt Webb muses on Dunbar’s Number…

150, Dunbar’s number, is the natural size of human social groups. Robin Dunbar’s 1993 paper, where he put forward this hypothesis, is a great read – it’s got twists and turns, so much more in it than just the 150 number…

Dunbar’s number and how speaking is 2.8x better than picking fleas,” from @genmon.

Dunbar’s original paper is here.

* Robin Dunbar

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As we ruminate on relationships, we might recall that this date in 1954 was, according to the True Knowledge Answer Engine, the most boring day since 1900. The site analyzed more than 300 million historical facts and discovered that April 11, 1954 was the most uneventful news day of the 20th century. No typically newsworthy events occurred at all… though of course now the day has become a bit more newsworthy because it has the distinction of being so completely uneventful.

Photo by left-hand (license)

“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”*…

Mosaic of a boar hunt from the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina in Sicily, fourth century. Photograph by Laur Phil. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the early medieval West, from North Africa to the British Isles, pigs were a crucial part of both agriculture and culture…

Pigs were the consummate meat of the early Middle Ages. Horses and oxen have pulling power, cows and goats and sheep make milk and manure (and skin for parchment and packaging), sheep grow wool, and poultry lay eggs. But domesticated pigs were only destined to be butchered. It took them less than two years to reach their maximum weight, so efficient were they in converting whatever they found or were fed into meat. The osteoarchaeological record shows that farmers slaughtered almost all their pigs before they reached their third birthday, and many of them much earlier, with the exception of breeding sows and stud boars.

But pork was not the meat that everyone ate most. That distinction generally went either to beef or to mutton. Some people did not keep pigs at all: Greenlanders, for instance, and Jews and Muslims, as far as we can tell. There were also some Christians who did not own pigs—or at least, there were Christians who drew up wills that listed their livestock but did not mention any pigs. But because pigs were only ever raised for their flesh, they were a kind of metonym for meat more generally. Pork inspired rhapsodies, and even miracles; in Saint Brigit’s Ireland, tree bark was turned not into fishes and loaves but bacon in order to feed a crowd. And when the scholar al-Jāḥiẓ wrote a massive collection about animals at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, he had plenty of faults to find with pigs, both as a Muslim and as a naturalist. But he had also heard so many paeans to pork that he was fascinated by what it might taste like…

On the singular beasts of the Middle Ages: “Ubiquitous Medieval Pigs,” adapted by Jamie Kreiner from her new Yale University Press book Legions of Pigs in the Early Medieval West, in @laphamsquart.

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we ponder the porcine, we might recall that today is National Canadian Bacon Day.

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“Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid”*…

The Exorcist

It’s that time of year again…

Why do so many people voluntarily seek out entertainment that is designed to shock and scare them? What do they get out of it? A thrill, a jolt to the nervous system – or is there something deeper going on?

Horror movies come in various forms, which can be divided into two main subgenres: supernatural ones (think of wailing ghosts, rotting zombies or mind-shattering abominations from forbidden dimensions), and the more psychological (your masked-serial-killers and giant-reptiles varieties). Common to them all is that they aim to evoke negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, disgust and dread. They also tend to be enormously popular. According to a survey my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago, more than half of US respondents – about 55 per cent – say they enjoy ‘scary media’, including movies such as The Exorcist (1973), books such as King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) and video games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010).

What’s more, people who say they enjoy scary media really mean it. We also asked our respondents how frightening they wanted their horror to be. It might sound like a weird thing to ask – like asking how funny they want their comedies to be – but we wanted to test an old Freudian idea that the negative emotions elicited by the genre are unfortunate byproducts; a price that audiences are willing to pay in order to watch movies that allow them to confront their own repressed desires in monstrous disguise. But that’s not what we found. About 80 per cent of our respondents said they wanted their horror entertainment to be in the moderate-to-highly frightening range. By contrast, a measly 3.9 per cent said that they prefer horror that’s not scary at all.

So, fear and the other negative emotions are central to the appeal of horror, a fact not lost on the creators of horror entertainment. Surely you’ve seen movie trailers claiming to be ‘The scariest movie of all time!’ or promising to make you sleep with the lights on for weeks afterwards. More inventively, the US filmmaker William Castle once took out life insurance on his audience. If any audience member died from fear as they watched his movie Macabre (1958), their bereaved ones would receive $1,000 from Lloyd’s of London. (Nobody did die. But the gimmick surely drew more horror hounds to the picture.)

Unsurprisingly, given their appeal, horror movies are big business. In 2019, 40 new horror movies were released in North America, grossing more than $800 million in the domestic theatrical market alone. Likewise, the US haunted attractions industry is growing steadily, in 2019 generating up to $500 million in ticket sales. The following year, 2020, naturally saw lower numbers, but even in that year of COVID-19 lockdowns and empty movie theatres, horror movies broke all previous records in terms of market share. That development continued into 2021, with the horror genre now accounting for almost 20 per cent of the market share at the US box office. Evidently, people want scary entertainment, even when you’d think the real world was scary enough.

Despite the broad appeal of the horror genre, it is haunted by bias and prejudice. Many people, apparently, think that horror movies are dumb, dangerous or both – artistically unsophisticated, morally corrosive, and psychologically harmful, with a dubious appeal primarily for maladjusted teenage boys. But what does the science say?

Firstly, horror is not a particularly male genre. While boys and men are slightly more likely than girls and women to say that they enjoy horror, the difference is much smaller than many people seem to think. In our aforementioned survey, when we asked to what extent respondents agree with the statement ‘I tend to enjoy horror media’, on a scale from 1 to 5, men averaged at 3.50, whereas women averaged at 3.29.

Secondly, horror movies are not only watched by teenagers. Yes, the movies are often marketed to that audience, and the appetite for horror does seem to peak in late adolescence, but it doesn’t emerge out of the blue the day that kids turn 13, and it doesn’t disappear in older people either. An ongoing research project of ours is finding that the desire to derive pleasure from fear is evident even in toddlers, who universally enjoy mildly scary activities, such as chase play and hide-and-seek. Even old folks seem to enjoy the occasional thrill provided by mildly frightening media such as crime shows. The British crime drama Midsomer Murders (1997-) always seemed to me like light horror for seniors, with its eerie theremin theme tune and the inexplicably abundant, often startlingly grisly murders in the otherwise peaceful fictional Midsomer County.

Thirdly, there is no evidence that horror fans are particularly maladjusted, depraved or unempathetic. When my colleagues and I looked into the personality profile of horror fans, we found that they are about as conscientious, agreeable and emotionally stable as the average person, while also scoring higher than average on openness to experience (meaning that they enjoy intellectual stimulation and adventure). It’s true they do tend to score fairly highly on sensation seeking, which suggests that they tend to be easily bored and on the lookout for excitement. Maladjusted or depraved, though? Nope, no evidence.

If horror movies do not attract the maladjusted and the depraved, do they then create psychotic monsters? One might think so, judging from the moral panics that have surrounded the horror genre throughout its recent history, from Victorian-era concern over ‘penny dreadfuls’ – sensationalist, often spooky or grisly stories sold in cheap (one-penny) instalments – to modern-day media meltdowns over slasher movies…

There is no substantial evidence to support that concern – audiences know that what they are watching is fiction. The psychological effects of violent media are still discussed by scholars and scientists, but the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ model of media psychology has been severely criticised on methodological and empirical grounds, and now seems to have been abandoned by most experts. In fact, one recent study covering the period 1960-2012 in the US found that, as movie violence went up, real-world violence actually went down.

A taste for horror is natural and should not be seen as pathological. Kids who are attracted to monster comics such as Tales from the Crypt (1950-55) and The Walking Dead (2003-19) are perfectly normal, as are teenagers who love slasher movies or adults who enjoy haunted attractions. That taste makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. People evolved to be curious about danger, and they use stories to learn about the world and themselves. Horror stories specifically allow them to imaginatively simulate worst-case scenarios and teach them about the dark sides of the world, and about the dark spectrum of their own emotional lives…

Horror movies… can function as inoculation against the stresses and terrors of the world. They help us improve our coping skills, and they might function as a kind of enjoyable exposure therapy. There is also some preliminary evidence to suggest that people who suffer from anxiety disorders can find comfort in horror movies, presumably because these movies allow them to experience negative emotions in controlled and controllable doses, practise regulation strategies, and ultimately build resilience.

In addition to those psychological benefits, there might be social benefits of watching horror movies. Consider how scientists of religion have puzzled over the prevalence of painful religious rituals. Why do people fire-walk and pierce themselves with sharp objects in religious contexts? Apparently, one major function is that such psychologically and/or physically painful behaviours strengthen group identity and make group members more altruistic toward each other. You go through a painful experience together, which reinforces group bonds. It’s a similar story for horror entertainment…

Horror movies have gotten a bad rap, but watching them has surprisingly wholesome effects: “Fear not,” from Mathias Clasen (@MathiasClasen), director of the Recreational Fear Lab (@RecFearLab) at Aarhus University in Denmark.

* “Horror is a universal language; we’re all afraid. We’re born afraid, we’re all afraid of things: death, disfigurement, loss of a loved one. Everything that I’m afraid of, you’re afraid of and vice versa. So everybody feels fear and suspense. We were little kids once and so it’s taking that basic human condition and emotion and just f*cking with it and playing with it. You can invent new horrors.” – John Carpenter (in a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine)

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As we shiver, we might send bracing birthday greetings to Robert Alphonse Picardo; he was born on this date in 1953. An actor probably most widely known known for his roles as Dr. Dick Richards on ABC’s China Beach; the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH), also known as The Doctor, on Star Trek: Voyager; the Cowboy in Innerspace, Coach Cutlip on The Wonder Years (for which he received an Emmy nomination); and as Richard Woolsey in the Stargate television franchise.

But Picardo also has a distinguished resume in horror, having starred in The Howling (1981), Legend (1985), Munchies (1987), Bate’s Motel (1987), 976-EVIL (1988), Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Matinee (1993), Tales from the Crypt (episode: “Till Death Do We Part”), Masters of Horror (episode: “Homecoming”), Sensored (2009), Monsterwolf (2010), Supernatural (episode: “Clap Your Hands If You Believe”), Trail of Blood (2011), Don’t Blink (2014), and Mansion of Blood (2015).

Picardo serves as a Planetary Society Board Member and host of The Planetary Post.

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