(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘society

“An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.”*…

We’ve misunderstood an important part of the history of urbanism– jungle cities. Patrick Roberts suggests that they have much to teach us…

Visions of “lost cities” in the jungle have consumed western imaginations since Europeans first visited the tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas. From the Lost City of Z to El Dorado, a thirst for finding ancient civilisations and their treasures in perilous tropical forest settings has driven innumerable ill-fated expeditions. This obsession has seeped into western societies’ popular ideas of tropical forest cities, with overgrown ruins acting as the backdrop for fear, discovery and life-threatening challenges in countless films, novels and video games.

Throughout these depictions runs the idea that all ancient cities and states in tropical forests were doomed to fail. That the most resilient occupants of tropical forests are small villages of poison dart-blowing hunter-gatherers. And that vicious vines and towering trees – or, in the case of The Jungle Book, a boisterous army of monkeys – will inevitably claw any significant human achievement back into the suffocating green whence it came. This idea has been boosted by books and films that focus on the collapse of particularly enigmatic societies such as the Classic Maya. The decaying stone walls, the empty grand structures and the deserted streets of these tropical urban leftovers act as a tragic warning that our own way of life is not as secure as we would like to assume.

For a long time, western scholars took a similar view of the potential of tropical forests to sustain ancient cities. On the one hand, intensive agriculture, seen as necessary to fuel the growth of cities and powerful social elites, has been considered impossible on the wet, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of tropical forests. On the other, where the rubble of cities cannot be denied, in the drier tropics of North and Central America, south Asia and south-east Asia, ecological catastrophe has been seen as inevitable. Deforestation to make way for massive buildings and growing populations, an expansion of agriculture across marginal soils, as well as natural disasters such as mudslides, flooding and drought, must have made tropical cities a big challenge at best, and a fool’s gambit at worst.

Overhauling these stereotypes has been difficult. For one thing, the kind of large, multiyear field explorations usually undertaken on the sites of ancient cities are especially hard in tropical forests. Dense vegetation, mosquito-borne disease, poisonous plants and animals and torrential rain have made it arduous to find and excavate past urban centres. Where organic materials, rather than stone, might have been used as a construction material, the task becomes even more taxing. As a result, research into past tropical urbanism has lagged behind similar research in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the sweeping river valleys of east Asia.

Yet many tropical forest societies found immensely successful methods of food production, in even the most challenging of circumstances, which could sustain impressively large populations and social structures. The past two decades of archaeological exploration, applying the latest science from the land and the air, have stripped away canopies to provide new, more favourable assessments.

Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China.

Ancient tropical cities could be remarkably resilient, sometimes surviving many centuries longer than colonial- and industrial-period urban networks in similar environments. Although they could face immense obstacles, and often had to reinvent themselves to beat changing climates and their own exploitation of the surrounding landscape, they also developed completely new forms of what a city could be, and perhaps should be.

Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today…

They may be vine-smothered ruins today, but the lost cities of the ancient tropics still have a lot to teach us about how to live alongside nature. Dr. Roberts (@palaeotropics) explains: “The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be,” adapted from his new book, Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us.

* John Ruskin

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As we acclimate, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.  (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese”*…

Well, one strategy, embraced by dictators worldwide, is to declare one of them the official national cheese…

It always surprises me that more people don’t know that pad Thai was invented by a dictator. I don’t mean that the authoritarian prime minister of Thailand, Plaek Phibunsongkhram, got creative in the kitchen one day. But he made pad Thai—then an unknown noodle dish without a name—the country’s national dish by fiat.

Phibunsongkhram was a military officer who took power in a coup and liked to compare himself to Napoleon. Establishing pad Thai as Thailand’s official food was one of many reforms he pursued to unify the country under his leadership. And it was remarkably successful.

The Thai leader is not the only authoritarian who took an active interest in his country’s cuisine. When successful, dictators’ food obsessions can change how a country eats and drinks for generations. Here, we explore the fascinating but unnerving world of dictator food projects…

Authoritarian food obsessions can have a lasting legacy: “The Dictators Who Ruled Their Countries’ Cuisines,” from Alex Mayyasi (@amayyasi), with a Q&A with chef-turned-journalist Witold Szablowski, who published How to Feed a Dictator, a book that tells the story of five chefs who worked for five terrible rulers.

* Charles de Gaulle

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As we contemplate comestible coercion, we might send comforting birthday greetings to Dorcas Lillian Bates Reilly; she was born on this date in 1926. A chef and inventor, she worked for many years in the test kitchen at the Campbell’s Soup Company– where she developed hundreds of recipes, including a tuna-noodle casserole and Sloppy Joe “souperburgers.” But she is best remembered for “the green bean bake”– or as it is better known, the green bean casserole— a holiday staple in tens of millions of households every year. While her recipe made good use of her employer’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, she believed that the French’s crispy fried onions were the “touch of genius” in the dish.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 22, 2021 at 1:00 am

“To ask whether the mainstream media has a conservative or liberal bias is like asking whether al-Qaida uses too much oil in their hummus.”*…

What we talk about when we talk about “the mainstream media”…

Everyone is constantly yelling about the mainstream media, and rarely are we referring to the same thing. Just take the recent whirlwind of news about Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York: A guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show said that the mainstream media, too busy hating on Trump, gave Cuomo a pass on his leadership during the pandemic. The Washington Post’s Max Boot wrote that Cuomo’s various scandals show how the mainstream media is tougher on Democrats than on Republicans. David Sirota, founder of the Daily Posterargued that the “media machine” was too busy celebrating Cuomo to cover him adequately. The Poynter Institute weighed in: “It might be time to dispel the thinking that the so-called ‘mainstream media’ is protecting” Cuomo. Brian Flood, a media reporter for Fox News, contended that the mainstream media went easy on Cuomo while he botched the early vaccine rollout. Meantime, Cuomo’s camp apparently believed that his bad press was manufactured by “a mainstream media desperate for clicks.”

There are many ways to think about what constitutes the mainstream media, if such a thing exists at all. It can refer, simply, to any newspaper or to your local daytime talk show; at its most pernicious, the “mainstream media” represents a conspiracy of gatekeepers. “The elite media set a framework within which others operate,” Noam Chomsky wrote. “That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures.” A popular academic argument describes the mainstream media as actors who wield “power over discourse,” which conjures a certain image: wealthy, white, male. As independent local news withers, and media companies become increasingly corporatized—under the control of large conglomerates and hedge funds—that critique rings all the more true. To Sheryl Kennedy Haydel, a scholar of historically Black college and university newspapers at Louisiana State, the term “mainstream media” remains useful as long as journalism has an equity problem. “The people who are the decision-makers, or even the reporters, don’t look like the nation you and I live in,” she told me…

To some, “mainstream” can be synonymous with “popular”; yet Fox News, consistently ranked the most-watched cable network, is perhaps the loudest megaphone ranting against the mainstream media’s “corrupt cabal.” In May, the Pew Research Center released a report finding “wide agreement” among Americans surveyed that a certain set of outlets are in the mainstream media: ABC News, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal; 73 percent said that Fox News belongs to the mainstream. Yet The Sean Hannity Show did not make the mainstream ranks. And among respondents who rely on Fox for political news, as well as those who tune in to NPR, majorities said they believe their preferred source to be mainstream yet different from most other outlets. HuffPost might be the mainstream media, the poll said, but BuzzFeed probably isn’t. The more one looks at the results, the more contradictory they appear.

What is clear is that those of us who use the phrase “mainstream media” have only a loosely shared understanding of reality, at best. And yet we continue to use the same term, one weighted with history, to describe a phenomenon that sounds assured and entrenched but is actually amorphous and dynamic. Perhaps the ambiguity of “the mainstream media” reveals something profound about the messy information ecosystem we’re in…

The history and the current state of a concept– “mainstream media”– that obscures more than it clarifies: “Inside the Lines,” from Savannah Jacobson (@srjacobson1) in @CJR.

* Al Franken

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As we honor honest inquiry, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that police raided The Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village, resulting in three days of demonstrations by members of the gay community that launched the gay rights movement.

A framed newspaper clipping covering the police raid hangs inside The Stonewall Inn (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 28, 2021 at 7:18 am

“The loudest of doomsayers, so often, carry the weightiest of sin”*…

A quick look at how some of the grimmest prognoses for the pandemic’s effect have turned out…

When misfortunes multiplied during the coronavirus pandemic, observers seized on a four-letter word signaling end of days for the largest state with one-eighth the U.S. population and 14% of its gross domestic product. “California doom: Staggering $54 billion deficit looms,” the Associated Press concluded a year ago in May. “California Is Doomed,” declared Business Insider two months earlier. “Is California doomed to keep burning?” queried the New Republic in October. California is “Doomed” because of rising sea levels, according to an April EcoNews Report. Bulletins of people leaving the world’s fifth-biggest economy for lower-cost states because of high taxes and too much regulation stifling business continue unabated.

No one anticipated the latest data readout showing the Golden State has no peers among developed economies for expanding GDP, creating jobs, raising household income, manufacturing growth, investment in innovation, producing clean energy and unprecedented wealth through its stocks and bonds. All of which underlines Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement last month of the biggest state tax rebate in American history.

By adding 1.3 million people to its non-farm payrolls since April last year — equal to the entire workforce of Nevada — California easily surpassed also-rans Texas and New York. At the same time, California household income increased $164 billion, almost as much as Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania combined, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. No wonder California’s operating budget surplus, fueled by its surging economy and capital gains taxes, swelled to a record $75 billion

If anything, Covid-19 accelerated California’s record productivity. Quarterly revenue per employee of the publicly traded companies based in the state climbed to an all-time high of $1.5 million in May, 63% greater than its similar milestone a decade ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The rest of the U.S. was nothing special, with productivity among those members of the Russell 3000 Index, which is made up of both large and small companies, little changed during the past 10 years.

While pundits have long insisted California policies are bad for business, reality belies them. In a sign of investor demand, the weight of California companies in the benchmark S&P 500 Index increased 3 percentage points since a year ago, the most among all states, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Faith in California credit was similarly superlative, with the weight of corporate bonds sold by companies based in the state rising the most among all states, to 12.5 percentage points from 11.7 percentage points, according to the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Corporate Bond Index. Translation: Investors had the greatest confidence in California companies during the pandemic.

The most trusted measure of economic strength says California is the world-beater among democracies. The state’s gross domestic product increased 21% during the past five years, dwarfing No. 2 New York (14%) and No. 3 Texas (12%), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gains added $530 billion to the Golden State, 30% more than the increase for New York and Texas combined and equivalent to the entire economy of Sweden. Among the five largest economies, California outperforms the U.S., Japan and Germany with a growth rate exceeded only by China.

Even with the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic, California cemented its position as the No. 1 state for global trade, with its Los Angeles and Long Beach ports seeing growth that led all U.S. rivals for the first time in nine years in 2020. Much has been made of the state reporting its first yearly loss in population, or 182,000 last year. Had it not been for the Trump administration preventing new visas, depriving as many as 150,000 people from moving to California from other countries annually, the 2020 outcome would have been more favorable.

Even so, Republicans, opposed to Newsom’s policies favoring immigration, criminal justice reform and greater benefits for housing, health and child care, want voters to decide whether he should be replaced in a potential recall election later this year. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who is among those running to succeed him, said Newsom, a Democrat, hurt the state’s small businesses.

That’s not what the data shows. The 373 California-based companies in the Russell 2000 Index, which includes small-cap companies across the U.S., appreciated 39% the past two years and 85% since 2016, beating the benchmark’s 34% and 67%, respectively. The same California companies reported revenue growth of 56% the past five years, dwarfing the benchmark’s 34%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. More important, California companies invested 16% of their revenues in R&D, or their future, when the rest of the U.S. put aside just 1%. 

Investing in the future is California’s way, the opposite of doom.

The Golden State has no peers when it comes to expanding GDP, raising household income, investing in innovation, and a host of other key metrics: “California Defies Doom With No. 1 U.S. Economy.” From Matthew Winkler (@Matthew_Winkler).

Someone ought to publish a book about the doomsayers who keep publishing books about the end of publishing

Evgeny Morozov

* Ta-Nehisi Coates

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As we check the facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1978 that the Rainbow Flag was flown for the first time during the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Created by Gilbert Baker, it has become a sign of LGBTQ pride worldwide.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 25, 2021 at 1:00 am

“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.”*…

In trying times, a positive attitude is more important– and harder to muster– than ever. But as the always-provocative LibrarianShipwreck observes, certain forms of optimism can, if they become pervasive, all-too-easily turn into problems in their own rights. Consider, for example, the flavor of the moment, techno-optimism…

There are moments in which it is difficult to feel particularly positive about how things are going in the world. Social cohesion frays. Politicians fail to respond to the crises of the moment. Social movements for justice are met with violent repression. History is suppressed. Xenophobic authoritarianism crawls out from the swamp to claim new victims. Looming environmental hazards grow closer. Pandemics are catastrophically mismanaged. The rich keep getting richer. The list goes on. It can be difficult to find a place in which to place your hopes for the future when the present seems so dire. After all, many no longer believe that god(s), or charismatic politicians, or social movements will save us. Granted, this has not given rise to widespread despair or nihilism (even if such sentiments can be detected at society’s edges), for there still exist certain forces that capture and channel people’s hopes and longings. And prominent amongst these is technology.

What follows is an attempt to consider some of the aspects and implications of techno-optimism. It is an attitude that has become somewhat taken for granted, which is precisely why it is important to consider what it is and how it functions.

It is hard to escape techno-optimism. For it is the attitude that one encounters nearly everywhere. This is not the just attitude of the press release, the advertisement, and the carefully produced launch event—it is the ambient music that plays in the background of daily life. Techno-optimism is the basic stance of a society in which people enjoy the fruits of high-technology, and though they may have some quibbles about specifics, are basically happy with the gadgets that surround them and resistant to the idea that any of these devices should be (or could be) turned off. It is an attitude that comes to be when a significant portion of a population have interwoven their faith in future progress with the idea of future technological advancements. Techno-optimism is a vision of tomorrow that sees only a choice between a high-tech metropolis and a desolate wasteland, and so (naturally) opts for the high-tech metropolis. To be taken in by techno-optimism one need not hang on a Silicon Valley CEO’s every word, it is sufficient to be impressed by the latest smartphone iteration. To partake in techno-optimism one need not dream of the singularity, it is sufficient to believe that since there is no alternative to all of these gadgets and platforms that one might as well be comfortable with them.

Techno-optimism has less to do with the individuals who hold the belief, and more to do with a broader societal stance that most individuals accept. And this stance—that societal progress is incumbent upon technological progress and that one should therefore be optimistic about technological progress—is fairly common.

In certain academic fields, scholars caution their students against falling for technological determinism. That being the overly simplistic belief that “technology drives history.” Granted, many of those same scholars, are quick to emphasize that technology matters, and can still be an important factor, but that social/political/historic/economic changes are driven by a lot more than just machines. Thus such academics work hard to show the ways in which history does not look like [Cause: new technology X] = [Result: social change Y], by emphasizing all of the things that take place in that “=” sign. What social conditions made it possible for that new technology to be taken up? Which groups pushed for the new technology because they saw it as a way of increasing their own power, and which groups resisted? What older technological systems were necessary for this new one to come into being? What economic forces made this new technology feasible? What were the various forms that this new technology originally appeared in before one particular model of it began to dominate? In short, those who study technology (at least in some disciplines), work hard to make it clear that technology doesn’t drive history. Indeed, in some academic circles, the charge of technological determinism is still an insult.

Alas, techno-optimism is to a large extent a belief that “technology drives history.” What’s more it’s a belief that technology has driven history in a good direction and that therefore technology can be trusted to keep driving history in that good direction. It is a straight line narrative of a world of improvement in which the abacus eventually leads to the smartphone, without getting overly bogged down in a story of Cold War military funding. It provides a worldview which is all highways with only passing attention being paid to the crashes that smolder on the side of the road (and with those being treated merely as stumbling blocks). Academics may bristle at the idea that “technology drives history,” but they find themselves trying to counter a belief that is fairly commonly accepted by the broader society. In fairness, it may be out of style for a person to declare that they think technology is driving history, but it is not at all out of style for a person to state that they consider themselves to be technologically optimistic—which is another way of saying that they feel cheerful when they consider the direction in which they think technology is driving history. 

At moments when social progress seems stuck, technology can provide an appealing alternative. After all, real progress on serious social issues can be slow and filled with backsliding, but over the last ten years the Playstation really has gotten better. To a large extent we find ourselves treading water, but the flashy gadgets affixed to our life preserver keep getting more impressive…even if we still find ourselves in this cold water. Techno-optimism keeps us waiting: waiting for the next iteration of a device, waiting for the next “big” gadget, waiting for the next update, waiting for the download, waiting for the tech company that will finally get it right, waiting for the technology that will finally fix the problems that have (up to now) proven impervious to easy technological fixes. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. But as long as we get to partake in technologies moving through their iterations, we get to feel as if we are moving as well. If our smartphone has moved ahead, than surely this means that we have moved ahead with it, because it is our smartphone, right? And that new smartphone might be a bit faster, it might have a better camera, it might work as an appealing status symbol, but where you were (where we were) with this new smartphone model is not particularly different from where we were with the previous smartphone model. 

The history of technology certainly demonstrates that there have been moments throughout history when technological shifts have made large significant changes. Though careful historians have worked diligently to emphasize that, contrary to popular narratives, those shifts were rarely immediate and usually interwoven with a host of social/political/economic changes. Nevertheless, techno-optimism keeps people waiting for that next big technological leap forward. The hopeful confidence in that big technological jump, which is surely just around the corner, keeps us sitting patiently as things remain largely the same (or steadily get worse). Faced with serious challenges that our politics seem incapable of addressing, and which technological change have so far been able to miraculously solve, techno-optimism keeps the focus centered on the idea of an eventual technological solution. And most importantly this is a change that will mean that we do not need to do much, we do not need to act, we do not need to be willing to change, we just need to wait and eventually the technology will come along that will do it all for us.

And so we wait. And so we keep waiting, for technology to come along and save us from ourselves.

Theses on Techno-Optimism,” from @libshipwreck. Eminently worth reading in full, even if– especially if, like your correspondent– you are a techno-optimist.

[Image above: source]

* Lewis Mumford

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As we interrogate our enthusiasm, we might spare a thought for Don Featherstone; he died on this date in 2015.  An artist, he is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo lawn ornament in 1957, while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now adorns lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.

170px-Flamingo_1
 A Featherstone flock

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