Archive for December, 2010


Posted: December 26, 2010 in Blogosphere, Culture, Debate, Philosophy

Longstanding tensions between the most perfect freedom of the individual and restraints on him or her for the good of society are the subject of a long philosophical and political history. At some of the blogs I read, debates have sparked considerable participation, but the perspectives are not drawn from the sociological and political realms. Instead, perspectives draw strongly on technology, media forms, and to a lesser degree, aesthetics. So while strictly political debate rages in other fora (which typically churn the waters but settle nothing), those to which I attend appear to be interested in understanding ourselves, even if only provisionally.

A most interesting discussion occurred at Text Patterns where the blogger has written a series of posts examining Clay Shirky’s various assertions, the principal ones being about the Wiki effect, crowd sourcing, and the wisdom of crowds, all of which are techno-Utopian and collectivist in character. Neither the blogger nor the commentators have really settled the matter, but there are many interesting contributions.

In contrast, at Vulgar Morality, where I have been a frequent commentator, the blogger frames, reframes, then states and restates his central thesis that the sovereignty of the individual with respect to self-determination and free agency is the central feature of moral philosophy. He frequently paints the proverbial everyman in valiant struggle against elites of one stripe or another who seek to exploit and/or control everyone not already within the oligarchical class.

I stumbled across the issue in my nonfiction reading as well, such as in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu and in The Age of Oprah by Janice Peck. Taoist philosophy is beautiful in its understatedness and balance, whereas postmodern individualism is crass and banal. For example, Ch. 19, para. 1 (and elsewhere) of the Tao Te Ching exhorts the follower of the Tao to eschew wisdom and learnedness to avoid causing others embarrassment by inadvertent comparison. This mindfulness of one’s influence on others and the social good derived from downplaying one’s own erudition stands in start contrast to the very modern notion of creating a personal brand and networking the hell out of everyone in ongoing, brazen self-promotion. Seeing how Taoism is borne of a peasant society and naturalist worldview that no longer exist, we are all stuck (for now) with postmodern individualism.

In The Age of Oprah, Peck’s historical synopsis of the therapeutic enterprise in Ch. 2 offers that ever since the development of psychology in the late 1800s, various forms of therapy for supposed mental dysfunction have arisen and been replaced with newer forms as culture and scientific research update and refine notions of mental health. The importance of changing cultural influence might surprise some. According to the author, Oprah coopted a wave of New Age, self-help gurus from the 1980s and early 90s when she changed the emphasis of her talk show from being one of the so-called Trash Pack to being one of neofeminist therapy, self-help, and uplift.

Although Peck does not say this, the really interesting thing to me is that while the therapeutic enterprise from its beginnings promised various types of self-actualization, freedom, and individualism, the underlying impulse was always normative, which is to say, collectivist. What passes for effective individualism is to be subsumed into the dominant culture, mostly as an effective unit of productivity and consumption (a worker and consumer, no longer a citizen). Certain outliers who achieve success through adept manipulations and a large dose of luck are granted true freedom by virtue of their iconoclasm, financial power, and celebrity, but the rest of us succeed only insofar as we avoid attracting too much attention to ourselves and our uniqueness. After all, everyone knows that the powers that be can turn our lives into a world of hurt through arbitrary, baseless accusations and disinformation campaigns, or if we’re really unlucky, being reclassified as domestic terrorists for our temerarious thought-crimes.

Optimized Gift Giving

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Consumerism, Corporatism, Culture, Tacky, Taste

Four years ago this season, I wrote a blog entry called The Calculus of Christmas, which argued that the holiday season is more an economic event than a family or spiritual occasion. That same year, it turns out, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos and his co-inventor Colin Bryar (the first and probably true inventor) filed a U.S. patent application for a “System and Method for Converting Gifts.” The application has now issued as U.S. Patent No. 7,831,439. Here is the abstract:

A computer-implemented data processing system comprises a user interface and gift conversion logic. The user interface is configured to permit users to order products using a network service, such as a website. The gift conversion logic is in communication with the user interface and permits the users to specify gift conversion rules. For each user that specifies gift conversion rules, the gift conversion rules define a manner in which gifts purchased for the user by other users may be converted.

In other words, Aunt Sally goes to Amazon and picks out a gift for your birthday, graduation, or maybe the Christmas holiday, which is then converted into Amazon credit (using “gift conversion logic”) for another gift more suited to the user’s defined preferences. It’s essentially an after-the-fact gift registry. The system can also be configured with the option to send a thank-you note. “Thanks, Aunt Sally, for your lovely gift of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which Amazon converted (along with other such thoughtful gifts) into a totally kick-ass gift of Grand Theft Auto.”

I learned about this uniquely awful idea from this Yahoo! news article, which contains this utterly graceless quote: “You know, Mary,” she said, “giving a gift is the easiest way to impose our taste on another person.” The article eventually disapproves of Bezos’ optimized gift giving scheme on the ground of etiquette, but there is little doubt that many who have already embraced the gift card as the best of all possible worlds will clamor for implementation of this further refinement that doesn’t even bother to pretend that the thought and intentions of the gift-giver matter.

One of the arguments used frequently to dismiss dire warnings of systemic collapse goes something like this: “Folks have been complaining about this for years (or decades, centuries, millennia), yet we’re still here muddling through.” Maybe the subject is economics, education, morality, crime, war, or even industrial and societal collapse. It hardly matters. The argument is so useful it can be deployed against anyone recognizing a problem or advocating taking action to change course or fix the problem — demonstrating concern, in short — by saying, “I’m not concerned because these warnings aren’t new.” Only the most labored thinker could possibly believe that novelty is what gives warnings force and that lack of novelty diffuses force.

I became aware of the arbitrariness of novelty long ago. Friends would ask, why do we need yet another recording of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony? Hasn’t that territory been amply covered? Similarly, why keep writing the Great American Novel (despite its presumed novelty)? To those who would put such questions, the preservation of a living tradition offers no appeal. Yet virtually every new technological development, contraption, or innovation is embraced with uncritical gusto. Why, for instance, would anyone want portable music in the ears 24/7 using first the Walkman then the iPod (or whatever device has now supplanted them)? Why be constantly tethered to the Internet by smart phones, iPads, and Netbooks? Is there no awareness or recognition that saturation renders experience banal?

If the previous paragraph is limited to arts, entertainments, and information, what of politics and history? George Santayana’s famous saying (which is often misquoted and misattributed) “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” has relevance here precisely because we constantly forget (though sometimes relearn) our own history. A great deal of that loss is by simple attrition, e.g., living memory of, say, WWII diminishes with each passing year. Another cause is shifting educational priorities. Hardly anyone studies Latin or Greek anymore, so that great body of Classical thought, which is the basis for all Western culture, is no longer understood in the original language. And as any language scholar recognizes, texts can be translated only imperfectly. Thus, the timeless wisdom on questions of polity and man’s relationship to the state so well thought out 2-3 thousand years ago is rendered too remote to sustain our interest. It isn’t new.

Those powerless warnings we hear never abate because immutable characteristics of human nature provide evidence of underlying truths that persist beyond every short-term attempt to jigger with things for maximal advantage.

Rents, Skim, Vig, Taxes

Posted: December 7, 2010 in Corporatism, Economics, Ethics

The New Yorker has a long and better-than-usual article about Wall Street investment banking. The article starts with the usual report-the-controversy approach, giving both sides to the question of whether Wall Street provides social benefits beyond the obvious enrichment of Wall Street itself. This is not an idle question, and the authorities cited for the negative case are Wall Street insiders and distinguished authorities on finance. The article is long on context and requotable quotes, but as is the tendency for journalism, it falls short of a conclusion on the central question. The preponderance of the article does, however, present the negative case, summarized by this quote:

Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity” — a comment that suggests it could be eliminated without doing any damage to the economy.

The positive case, rooted in notions of how markets and high finance ought to operate for the greater social good, is abstract and idealistic, handily putting it largely beyond irrefutable criticism. The negative case, rooted in how markets work in actuality, undeniably describes criminal activity. The proof of this conclusion is throughout the article but especially in the penultimate paragraph, as well as here.

High finance resembles a rigged game in which participants are forced to play only with the ball provided by the operators of the game. Terms vary with each such gamed industry: rents, skim, vig (or vigorous), and taxes. Another way of looking at it is that operators define their turf for the extraction of wealth and resources from any who happen to fall within established boundaries. Either way, owners and operators generally ensure their own piece of the action before remitting anything.

Ideally and abstractly (again), social benefit flows downstream from wealth transferred to the operators of the games, whether it be asset building, entertainment, safety, or the power of collective action. Call it the invisible hand, Reaganomics, or voodoo economics. It matters little, since it has never been shown to work justly or equitably. Nonetheless, we react to each scenario differently, rebelling against taxation as income redistribution, willingly gambling away personal wealth by dribs and drabs at casinos or in state lotteries in hopes of hitting it big, compelled into protection rackets, or acquiescing to theft by computer algorithm and Ponzi scheme. We are all captives to the power of markets.