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“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman

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As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.

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“Presenting honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars”*…

A self-contained four-man comedy troupe of writers/actors whose medium was the audio record, they created brilliant, multi-layered surrealist satire out of science-fiction, TV, old movies, avant-garde drama and literature, outrageous punning, the political turmoil of the Sixties, the great shows of the Golden Age of Radio, the detritus of high and low culture (James Joyce meets the found poetry of used-car pitch men) and their own intuitive understanding of the technological possibilities of multi-track recording. Their thirteen albums for CBS, recorded in various group permutations between 1967 and 1975, reveal them to have been at once the Beatles of comedy, the counter-cultural Lewis Carroll, and the slightly cracked step-children of Kafka, Bob and Ray, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stan Freberg, Samuel Beckett and the Goon Show.

Stereo Review

Firesign Theatre started to assemble during 1966 at KPFK, a freeform stereo FM radio station in Los Angeles, which was then a very new thing, during Peter Bergman’s “Radio Free Oz” show. Phil Austin and David Ossman worked at the station and would appear on RFO, while Philip Proctor, an actor friend the “Wizard of Oz” (Bergman) knew from Yale, was invited to join a bit later. The name refers to the fact that all four were born under fire signs in the zodiac, and to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. The late night Radio Free Oz show was so popular—and they were regularly gigging in Hollywood’s folk and rock clubs—that they were quickly offered a record contract.

There are four undisputed “classics” in the vast Firesign canon, all recorded between 1967 and 1971, titled (in order) Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like HimHow Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (which includes their most famous creation, “The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye”), Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, and I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus. Their first album was recorded in the same CBS radio studio where The Jack Benny Show was taped using vintage microphones and sound effects. By the time of their second record they were using 16-track tape machines in the studio, constructing tightly assembled radio plays with extremely creative sound effects and spatial cues that suggested time travel, watching something at a domed planetarium, being on a people mover, getting into a car where the inside is bigger than the outside and so on. These four records are the ultimate presentation of their unusual artform—literature as much as performed comedy that’s been carefully sculpted in a recording studio—but there are at least 20 other albums, dozens upon dozens of hours of live performances recorded onstage and during their radio shows, and TV and film work. Dear Friends, a 1972 released two record compilation of the best of their syndicated radio show of the same name is also considered to be a classic Firesign album, but being culled from live radio, it’s less elaborately constructed, and more spontaneous and improvisational. 

These five albums represent the cream of the crop and they are all masterworks of surrealist “theater of the mind” sci-fi counterculture comedy. There was nothing else like them, and the sole thing I can think of to compare them to would be the Monty Python albums. Firesign Theatre were often called “the American Monty Python,” but this comparison would stop at the Python albums, as Firesign were a strictly audio proposition for the most part, and certainly during their late 60s/early 70s golden years. [They are actually much more akin to lysergic Goon Show, of which all four of the Firesign Theatre were fanatical fans. In fact, Peter Bergman wrote some TV comedy sketches in London with Spike Milligan in the early 1960s.]…

These days, everybody is always listening to their favorite podcasts, at the gym, in the car, cooking, whatever, they’ve all got a podcast going on in the background. Why not think of the Firesign oeuvre as the greatest comedy podcast ever made?

Well, you’re in luck as all of the major (and much of the minor) works of Firesign Theatre are streaming from the exact same sources as that weekly true crime thing you always listen to. Spotify, TIDAL, YouTube, Amazon Music, Apple Music, all of them are pumping Firesign Theatre directly into your home. The four (or five) classic albums are super easy for you to listen to. Just a few clicks away from where you are reading this…

An appreciation of past masters: “Firesign Theatre’s ‘Dope Humor of the Seventies’” from @DangerMindsBlog.

* Firesign Theatre

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As we slip on the headphones, we might recall that it was on this date in 1987 that ABC premiered Max Headroom (which had originated on the UK’s Channel 4 in 1985). Painfully prophetic, the series followed the near-future exploits on the digital avatar of Edison Carter, a news host/reporter who hosts the most popular show on Channel 23.

As SyFy Wire explains, this future is a:

…dystopia in which several television networks essentially rule the world. That’s no exaggeration — the government knows all about it too, and plays along, while the networks do what they want without anyone to curtail their schemes. There are no “off” switches on TVs, so you can’t escape the watchful eye of the networks, who’ve even gone so far as to watch citizens through their TVs.

Each episode revolved around the various evil plans the television conglomerates planned to enact on the unsuspecting public. Network 23 is one of the major stations with the highest-rated “new” program, which Edison Carter himself hosts. Real-time ratings are more important than ever in this world, as they translate to money put toward advertisements. In fact, ads have taken over stocks in this world, making whoever performs the best on-air essentially the most powerful entity on the planet.

Every installment of the series is about the inner workings of the crooked conglomerates, up to and including advertisements known as “Blipverts,” which are completely capable of killing people just by airing on television. They’re meant to condense longer ads into a few seconds so the station can run more, but they’re much deadlier than that…

Catch an episode here.

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Written by LW

March 31, 2021 at 1:01 am

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”*…

Ducklings everywhere: the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews across Europe, from Mapologies (where one will also find the other names of Donald himself and of the Flintstones).

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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As we dunk on Uncle Donald, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1921 that Newman Laugh-O-Gram studio released it’s first (more or less) four animated films as a kind of demo reel. The first three were live shots of young director Walt Disney drawing a single fame; the fourth, “Kansas City’s Spring Clean-up,” was actually animated.

Laugh-O-Gram only lasted two years, but it was long enough for Disney to recruit several pioneers of animation: Ub IwerksHugh HarmanFriz Freleng, and Carman Maxwell— and, with Iwerks, to create Mickey Mouse.

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Written by LW

March 20, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return to us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood”*…

Nokia was dominant in mobile phone sales from 1998 to around 2010. Nokia’s slogan: Connecting people.

It was amazing to connect with people in the late 90s/early 2000s. I don’t think we were lonely exactly. But maybe meeting people was somewhere between an opportunity, something novel, and, yes, a need – suddenly it was possible to find the right person, or the right community.

So, the zeitgeist of the early 2000s.

I ran across a previous zeitgeist in an article about Choose Your Own Adventure books. They appeared and became massively popular at the same time as text adventure computer games, but neither inspired the invention of the other. How? The real answer may lie far deeper in the cultural subconscious … in the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

1980s: you.

2000s: connection.

2020s: ?

Zeitgeists don’t lead and zeitgeists don’t follow.

I think when we spot some kind of macro trend in establishment consumer ads, it’s never going to be about presenting people with something entirely new. To resonate, it has to be familiar – the trajectory that the consumer is already on – but it also has to scratch an itch. The brand wants to be a helpful fellow traveller, if you like.

I wonder what the zeitgeist of the 2020s will be, or is already maybe. What deep human need will be simultaneously a comfort and an aspiration? There should be hints of it in popular culture already. (If I knew how to put my finger on it, I’d be an ad planner.)

If I had to guess then it would be something about belonging.

There was a hint of this in Reddit’s 5 second Super Bowl commercial which went hard on one their communities, r/WallStreetBets, ganging up to bring down hedge funds. Then we’ve got a couple of generations now who grew up with the idea of fandoms, and of course conspiracy theories like QAnon too. If you squint, you can kind of see this in the way Tesla operates: it’s a consumer brand but it’s also a passionate, combative cause.

Belonging to a tribe is about identity and strength, it’s solace and empowerment all at once. And also knowledge, certainty, and trust in an era of complexity, disinfo, and hidden agendas.

Given that backdrop, it’s maybe unsurprising that the trend in software is towards Discord servers and other virtual private neighbourhoods. But how else will this appear? And is it just the beginnings of something else, something bigger?

1980s (you), 2000s (connection). What’s the 2020s zeitgeist?” From Matt Webb (@genmon)

* Marshall McLuhan

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As we double down on diversity, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider; he was born on this date in 1015. Better known as “J.C,R.” or “Lick,” he was a prominent figure in the development of computing and computer science. He was especially impactful Considered the “Johnny Appleseed” of computing, he planted many of the seeds of computing in the digital age– escpecially via his idea of a universal computer network to easily transfer and retrieve information which his successors developed into the internet.

Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC‘s Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation‘s Systems Research Center, noted that “most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick’s vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all.”

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“In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.”*…

Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”

When Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” sold at Christie’s in New York for $179 million dollars in May 2015, it was only the 36th time in the past 315 years that a world auction record had been set, and the sale raised questions well beyond the art world. How could a single painting be worth so much? Why is art so important to wealthy households? What economic and social factors could lead to enshrining Picasso’s colourful near-abstract portrait as the most valuable picture in the history of the modern world?…

Three economists offer an an explanation based on an analysis of art auctions dating back to 1701: “A History of the Art Market in 35 Record-Breaking Sales.”

* Jean Baudrillard

In this sense, therefore, inasmuch as we have access to neither the beautiful nor the ugly, and are incapable of judging, we are condemned to indifference. Beyond this indifference, however, another kind of fascination emerges, a fascination which replaces aesthetic pleasure. For, once liberated from their respective constraints, the beautiful and the ugly, in a sense, multiply: they become more beautiful than beautiful, more ugly than ugly.

Thus painting currently cultivates, if not ugliness exactly – which remains an aesthetic value – then the uglier-than-ugly (the ‘bad’, the ‘worse’, kitsch), an ugliness raised to the second power because it is liberated from any relationship with its opposite. Once freed from the ‘true’ Mondrian, we are at liberty to ‘out-Mondrian Mondrian’; freed from the true naifs, we can paint in a way that is ‘more naif than naif’, and so on. And once freed from reality, we can produce the ‘realer than real’ – hyperrealism. It was in fact with hyperrealism and pop art that everything began, that everyday life was raised to the ironic power of photographic realism. Today this escalation has caught up every form of art, every style; and all, without discrimination, have entered the transaesthetic world of simulation.

There is a parallel to this escalation in the art market itself. Here too, because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become ‘more expensive than expensive’ – expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant – the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.

The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation.

In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.

There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement’s sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second art market has much in common with poker or potlatch – it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil.

The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena

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As we appreciate appreciating art, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that (in order to create liquidity to finance the Civil War) the U.S. government issued its first official paper money. “Demand Notes,” the first federal issues of the Civil War, were immediately exchangeable in gold or silver “on demand” at seven banks spread across the country. They were quickly replaced by very similar-looking “legal tender” notes that could not be readily converted to specie. These issues were notable for the bright, dark green imprints on their backs, and ever since then American paper currency has been familiarly nicknamed “greenbacks.”

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Written by LW

March 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

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