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Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“Status is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world”*…

 

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of little fortune, must be in want of more social capital.”

So wrote Jane Austen, or she would have, I think, if she were chronicling our current age (instead we have Taylor Lorenz, and thank goodness for that).

Let’s begin with two principles:

  • People are status-seeking monkeys*
  • People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them, yet I seldom see social networks, some of the largest and fastest-growing companies in the history of the world, analyzed on the dimension of status or social capital.

It’s in part a measurement issue. Numbers lend an air of legitimacy and credibility. We have longstanding ways to denominate and measure financial capital and its flows. Entire websites, sections of newspapers, and a ton of institutions report with precision on the prices and movements of money.

We have no such methods for measuring the values and movement of social capital, at least not with anywhere near the accuracy or precision. The body of research feels both broad and yet meager. If we had better measures besides user counts, this piece and many others would be full of charts and graphs that added a sense of intellectual heft to the analysis. There would be some annual presentation called the State of Social akin to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, or perhaps it would be a fifty page sub-section of her annual report.

Despite this, most of the social media networks we study generate much more social capital than actual financial capital, especially in their early stages; almost all such companies have internalized one of the popular truisms of Silicon Valley, that in the early days, companies should postpone revenue generation in favor of rapid network scaling. Social capital has much to say about why social networks lose heat, stall out, and sometimes disappear altogether. And, while we may not be able to quantify social capital, as highly attuned social creatures, we can feel it.

Social capital is, in many ways, a leading indicator of financial capital, and so its nature bears greater scrutiny. Not only is it good investment or business practice, but analyzing social capital dynamics can help to explain all sorts of online behavior that would otherwise seem irrational.

In the past few years, much progress has been made analyzing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not as much has been made on social networks. Analysis of social networks still strikes me as being like economic growth theory long before Paul Romer’s paper on endogenous technological change. However, we can start to demystify social networks if we also think of them as SaaS businesses, but instead of software, they provide status. This post is a deep dive into what I refer to as Status as a Service (StaaS) businesses…

Eugene Wei (of Amazon, Hulu, and Flipboard, among other tech successes) on the implications of our hunger for recognition and rank: “Status as a Service (StaaS).”

Pair with: “Understanding Tradeoffs (pt. 2): Breaking the Altruism vs. Capitalism Dichotomy.”

[Image above: source]

* Buddha [Ittha Sutta, AN 5.43]

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As we contemplate our craving, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that a method for manufacturing elastic (rubber) bands was patented in Britain by Stephen Perry and and Thomas Barnabas Daft of London (G.B. No. 13880/1845).

In the early 19th century, sailors had brought home items made by Central and South American natives from the sap of rubber trees, including footwear, garments and bottles.  Around 1820, a Londoner named Thomas Hancock sliced up one of the bottles to create garters and waistbands. By 1843, he had secured patent rights from Charles Macintosh for vulcanized India rubber.  (Vulcanization made rubber stable and retain its elasticity.)  Stephen Perry, owner of Messrs Perry and Co,. patented the use of India rubber for use as springs in bands, belts, etc., and (with Daft) also the manufacture of elastic bands by slicing suitable sizes of vulcanized India rubber tube.  The bands were lightly scented to mask the smell of the treated rubber.

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Written by LW

March 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit”*…

 

Barnum

 

“Business is the ordinary means of living for nearly all of us,” P.T. Barnum wrote in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages. “ ‘There’s cheating in all trades but ours,’ is the prompt reply from the bootmaker with his brown paper soles, the grocer with his floury sugar and chicoried coffee…the newspaper man with his ‘immense circulation,’ the publisher with his ‘Great American Novel,’ the city auctioneer with his ‘Pictures by the Old Masters’—all and everyone protest each his own innocence, and warn you against the deceits of the rest.”

But…

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown—who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue—I pronounce him—no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool…

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, “The Great American Humbug.”

* Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

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As we honor honesty, we might send licentious birthday greetings to Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac; he was born on this date in 1619.  While he was a bold and innovative author in the 17th century libertine literary tradition, he is better remembered as the title character he inspired in Edmond Rostand’s noted drama Cyrano de Bergerac, which, although it includes elements of the real Cyrano’s life, is larded with invention and myth.

Cyrano was possessed of a prodigious proboscis, over which he is said to have fought more than 1,000 duels.  Surely as importantly, his writings, which mixed science and romance, influenced Jonathan Swift, Edgar Alan Poe, Voltaire– and Moliere, who “borrowed freely” from Cyrano’s 1654 comedy Le Pédant joué (The Pedant Tricked).

220px-Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac source

 

Written by LW

March 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Commercials are about products… in the same sense that the story of Jonah is about the anatomy of whales”*…

 

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In a civilization organized primarily around the funneling of capital to corporations, commercials offer a space of transcendent communion with the objects of our dependence and desire. They take place in a realm understood to be ideational without quite being imaginary—existing not in any one person’s mind, but ambiently, on a level of reality we rarely think to question, encoded in the daily order of things as neatly as the peanut butter aisle of a suburban grocery store. (This bare proximity to capitalism’s exposed nerves, combined with a habitual callousness to human dignity, is I believe why, in the recent words of A.S. Hamrah, “TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.”) These commercials embody and transmit all kinds of cultural norms, declaiming on the career-destroying horror of “even one flake” of dandruff, the correct way to manage a labor force, how women should interpret cough syrup viscosity, and so on.

Commercials also encode and preserve basic aesthetic and narrative conventions. Musically, they’re a trove of low-rent original product psalms, in styles ranging from quietly sophisticated poultry rock to funky rugged simplicity jams that sound like a person in a boardroom frantically describing the inner life of a coalminer. They introduce stock characters from discomfiting gym teacher to comic book nerd. They offer an education in America’s throbbing corporate epiculture, whose dark world they echo in a thousand ways—through who gets represented and who not, portrayals of nations and cultures, depictions of idealized daily life, enshrinement of a particular commercial landscapestyle parodiesintimations of eternitymessages of warningmessages of beneficence, and more—all calligraphed into air and sent streaming through the walls of our homes by giant corporate antennas…

From Ian Dreiblatt, “Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial of, Oh, Say, About 1990.”

[image above: source]

* Neil Postman

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As we take it all in, we might celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day.

In the mid-1920s fairies were used for all sorts of health education from bath fairies to fresh air fairies as a way to get kids to remember to eat their vegetables, wash behind their ears and get a good night’s rest. Unlike toothpaste today, that advertises fruity flavors and sparkles to get kids excited to brush their teeth, in 1925 it was probably quite a bit more difficult considering the pastes were mostly peroxide and baking soda. One advertisement was for a Fairy Wand Tooth Whitener. This product promised to brush away cigarette and coffee stains.  The ad was aimed at both children and adults, we hope!

Then in 1927, Esther Watkins Arnold printed an eight-page playlet for children called The Tooth Fairy. It was the same year Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “proved” his claim that fairies and gnomes are real and “verified” with pictures of two little girls surrounded by fairies. The world was ripe with imagination and primed to have a tooth fairy about to come collect the lost teeth of little boys and girls and leave a coin or two behind.

Arnold’s play began to be performed in schools the following year, and the tooth fairy has been slipping into homes ever since.  She (or he) started leaving nickels and dimes under the pillows of sleeping children. Over the years there have been variations on the theme.  In 1942, in an article written by columnist Bob Balfe in the Palm Beach Post, his children received War Stamps to put in their books when they lost a tooth…

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Written by LW

February 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes”*…

 

crime-perceptions

 

There’s a persistent belief across America that crime is on the rise.

Since the late 1980s, Gallup has been polling people on their perception of crime in the United States, and consistently, the majority of respondents indicate that they see crime as becoming more prevalent. As well, a recent poll showed that more than two-thirds of Americans feel that today’s youth are less safe from crime and harm than the previous generation.

Even the highest ranking members of the government have been suggesting that the country is in the throes of a crime wave:

We have a crime problem. […] this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk. (then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions)

Is crime actually more prevalent in society?… crime rate data from the FBI shows a very different reality…

More on a phenomenon that would simply be bemusing if it weren’t driving both personal and governmental action: “The Crime Rate Perception Gap.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles

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As we triple-lock our doors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Sesame Street aired episode #847, featuring Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  It scared children so badly that the episode has never been re-aired. (This, after she had appeared as herself in three episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, between 1975 and 1976– because Fred Rogers wanted his young viewers to recognize the Wicked Witch was just a character and not something to fear.)

220px-Sesame_Street_Margaret_Hamilton_Oscar_The_Grouch_1976 source

 

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept”*…

 

Robinson-DemocracyTruth_img

One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, TheWashington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”…

Princeton historian David Bell, reviewing Penn historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and History: a Short History

Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?…

Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”…

How does truth fit into democracy?  Read in full at “An Equal Say.”

* George Carlin

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As we contemplate context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1825 that the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency.  The election of 1824 had been contested by four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.  Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, and a plurality– but not a majority– of the electoral college vote… so the race went to the House of Representatives.  Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House considered the top three vote-getters in the electoral college.  That eliminated Clay, who threw his support to Adams– who prevailed.

After the election (the first in which a president did not receive the most popular votes; so far the only race settled in the House), Adams named Clay to the coveted post of Secretary of State– deemed “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson, who went on to form (what evolved into) the Democratic Party.  The Democratic-Republicans became the National Republican Party (AKA, the Anti-Jackson Party), then the Whig Party.

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Written by LW

February 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”*…

 

russell

Bertrand Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture.

 

Dismayed at the Nazification of Germany, the philosopher [Bertrand Russell] wrote “The Triumph of Stupidity,” attributing the rise of Adolf Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people—two qualities, he noted, that “usually go together.” He went on to make one of his most famous observations, that the “fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture, inspiring, for example, an opera song (from Harvard’s annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony): “Some people’s own incompetence somehow gives them a stupid sense that anything they do is first rate. They think it’s great.” No surprise, then, that psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger prefaced a 2008 paper she wrote with David Dunning and Justin Kruger, among others, with Russell’s comment—the one he later made in his 1951 book, New Hopes for a Changing World: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” “By now,” Ehrlinger noted in that paper, “this phenomenon has been demonstrated even for everyday tasks, about which individuals have likely received substantial feedback regarding their level of knowledge and skill.” Humans have shown a tendency, in other words, to be a bit thick about even the most mundane things, like how well they drive…

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

Stupidity, and what to do about it: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.”

* Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933)

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As we get smart, we might spare a thought for Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin; he died on this date in 1921.  A scientist and geographer, he combined biological and historical fact to arrive at his theory of Mutual Aid.  While an army officer in Siberia, he studied the native animals, made geographical surveys, and examined the effects of the Ice Age in Asia and Europe.  His investigation of the structural lines of mountain ranges revised the cartography of eastern Asia.

But Kropotkin is probably better remembered as a revolutionary.  He wrote a series of articles against social Darwinism and its tenet of the benefits of competition.  Kropotkin argued that sociability characterized animals; thus, he held, cooperation rather than struggle guided the evolution of man and human intelligence.  These beliefs led him to propose a decentralized, “communist” society– a form of anarcho-communism, his championing of which led to his 41 year exile from Russia.  He returned in 1917, but was disappointed in the Bolshevik form of state socialism (the centralization– and totalitarian quality– of which violently conflicted with his belief in decentralization, freedom, and voluntary cooperation).

220px-Peter_Kropotkin_circa_1900 source

 

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”*…

 

meme

Is there any way to intervene usefully or meaningfully in public debate, in what the extremely online Twitter users are with gleeful irony calling the “discourse” of the present moment?

It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.

This predicament is not confined to politics, and in fact engulfs all domains of human social existence…

Justin E. H. Smith rages against the machine.  Come for the righteous indictment of algorithmic culture; stay for the oddly redeeming conclusion: “It’s All Over.” [TotH @vgr]

But we might recall that Socrates (as reported in Plato’s Phaedrus) railed against the new technology of his time– writing– and its corrosive effect on memory.  Several readers of Smith’s essay have suggested that it is similarly “conservative.”  Smith engages those criticism here.

Pair with “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture.”

[image above: source]

definition of a “meme” in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

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As we muse on meaning, we might send epistolary birthday greetings to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; she was born on this date in 1626.  A French aristocrat, she is the most celebrated letter writer in French literary history.  Those letters– over 1,100 survive– as celebrated for their vivid descriptiveness and their wit.  Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.

Check them out at the Internet Archive.

200px-Marquise_de_Sévigné source

 

Written by LW

February 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

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