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The death of Economic Man.

Animals seek and respect dominance, but humans put more value on prestige – good opinion rather than fear – which tends to confer the greater reproductive advantage. Heinrich describes the behaviour of prestigious leaders as “prosocial, generous, and cooperative … using self-deprecating humour”. Christakis has a fascinating chapter on leadership during shipwrecks. The effective leaders, such as Shackleton, depended on the authority won through good opinion conferred by their sacrifice of self-interest.

But this process can sometimes go wrong – as it has done in our own societies. Economic and technological shocks, combined with a culture of “you deserve what you get”, have created big winners whose behaviour is disproportionately influential. As these winners turn into Economic Man, bad behaviour becomes prominent: they buy yachts; they dump their families; they brag. In consequence of being disproportionately influential, these people spread immodesty and selfishness: their repellent norms become more prevalent.

Paul Collier on inhuman economics.

By “Economic Man” here Collier means the sort of “self-interested rational actor” used by things like economics and game theory… and which has not only no basis in things like human evolution and sociology, but in most cases actively works against them. Collier probably puts a bit too much emphasis on the biological determinism of human “genes” as pro-social but it’s not exactly wrong, either; humans evolved in groups, and we do terribly when completely alone. It’s literally not in our natures to exist like that—or, more accurately, when it does occur, it’s a terrible pathology—no matter what economists might try and say…

2020-01-29T14:22:33+11:0030th May, 2020|Tags: culture, economics|

Walk (don’t drive).

The city that banned cars.

I confess that after growing up in the suburbs, I had an aversion to inner city living for a long time. Until we moved, about five years ago, into a medium-density housing complex not right in the centre of town, but in a fairly well-developed part about ten minutes drive away. Being able to walk to basically everything—restaurants, shops, post office—was, uh. Eye-opening. I also stopped driving to work; just literally woke up one morning and decided to catch the bus, despite not having done so since I was in school. I’ve literally not driven to work since and, when the weather is agreeable1 I walk home; it’s about an hour and, with the exception of a short stretch next to a main road, is very pleasant.

Obviously there are reasons not everyone can go carless, and I do still drive, mostly on weekends.2 But… yeah. Cars. Fuck ‘em.

  1. And the air is breathable… []
  2. Our city is very spread out, and errands like going to the aquarium store are… not super conducive to public transport. []
2020-05-12T08:39:06+10:0025th May, 2020|Tags: culture|

Small art.

Mass media is, of course, produced by the rich and the privileged. It bears the stamp of their worldview (the odiously sentimental material about the family having to pull together to support the dad’s tech start-up in Pixar’s Inside Out comes to mind) and the clean, unadventurously crowd-pleasing aesthetics which are the typical result of the focus grouping process. To some people, the slickness of that production—the glossy cover of an official behind-the-scenes art book, the breathtakingly realistic but eerily lifeless CGI of Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes—has become synonymous with art itself as an idea. Even as they earnestly discuss the necessity of representation and the pain of its absence, they learn not to seek out or accept it unless it’s handed to them from on high by one of perhaps four recognizable branded corporate entities.

The sad irony is that the representation so many are so hungry for already exists. Outside the tiny, blinding spotlight of corporate media, there is an entire world of small, independent media made by marginalized creators and outsider artists of all kinds and reflecting their unique and idiosyncratic worldviews.

Gretchen Felker-Martin on small art.

I have been trying, not always successfully, to consume more “small art”1 and would strongly encourage everyone else to do so, too…

  1. Or, at least, less mass-produced corporate entertainment product. []
2020-05-12T08:39:06+10:0023rd May, 2020|Tags: culture, pop culture|

Laconophilia.

The Spartans, popular wisdom tells us, were history’s greatest warriors; in fact, they lost battles frequently and decisively. We are told they dominated Greece; they barely managed to scrape a victory in the Peloponnesian Wars with wagonloads of Persian gold, and then squandered their hegemony in a single year. We hear they murdered weak or deformed children, though one of their most famous kings had a club foot. They preferred death to surrender, as the legend of the Battle of Thermopylae is supposed to show—even though 120 of them surrendered to the Athenians at Sphacteria in 425 B.C.E. They purportedly eschewed decadent wealth and luxury, even though rampant inequality contributed to oliganthropia, the manpower shortage that eventually collapsed Spartan military might. They are assumed to have scorned personal glory and lived only for service to the city-state, despite the fact that famous Spartans commissioned poetry, statues, and even festivals in their own honor and deliberately built cults of personality. They all went through the brutal agōgē regimen of warrior training, starting from age seven—but the kings who led their armies almost never endured this trial. They are remembered for keeping Greece free from foreign influence, but in fact they allied with, and took money from, the very Persians they fought at Thermopylae.

Myke Cole on the Spartan myth.

Tl;dr the lionization of “Sparta” has nothing to do with the actual Spartans (who were kinda not very impressive) and everything to do with fascism and ethno-nationalism.

The article also taught me the terms “tacticool”, which describes the fetishisation of military (i.e. tactical) aesthetics by civilians, and “moron label”, a riff on molon labe (“come take it”).

2020-01-29T08:46:28+11:0021st May, 2020|Tags: culture|

Permalink.

That smart important take blasted out in a Twitter thread is going to quickly sink down though the chummy social media seas into the deep never to be seen again. Yes, some people might bookmark It. Others might bookmark the thread reader version. But this is no substitute for hauling those important thoughts out of the private social seas on to dry land of your own Blogging Island. Safe. Permanent. Secure. And most importantly — Linkable and Searchable.

The reality is, by the time the Labour leadership election roles round. The only content that people will immediately be able to find will be the takes in the mainstream press. And this is a major part of the problem.

Yes, the Chakrabortty take today in the Guardian is worth reading. But it isn’t the only piece/take in this moment that will be worth finding and re-sharing in 6 months.

It might unfortunately turn out to be the ONLY take that you can find that was useful reading produced in this moment. Written by someone and broadcast by an entity that already has a large platform. The mainstream media cannot continue to own the historical and indexible record.

It’s vital that more than ever we build out an independent media. The first step is to make your own media independent.

Start a damn blog.

Jay Springett wants you to start a blog.

Somewhat ironic that this take is already “out-of-date” by the time my blog queue will get around to posting it but, like. That’s kinda exactly the point. It’s still findable, and relevant, and there. Because it’s on a blog, and forms part of the historical record of a particular moment. And just because that moment has passed doesn’t mean the thoughts and emotions it elicited are no longer worth reading, and remembering, and learning from.

The constant ephemera of social media takes is damaging; to our polity and our discourse, to our fandoms and our political systems.

The history of your thoughts matters. Start a goddamn blog.

2020-01-22T08:36:19+11:0017th May, 2020|Tags: blogging, culture, social media|

What seemed all unknowing and candid.

There was something strange, I said, about the racial aspect of Instagram Face—it was as if the algorithmic tendency to flatten everything into a composite of greatest hits had resulted in a beauty ideal that favored white women capable of manufacturing a look of rootless exoticism. “Absolutely,” Smith said. “We’re talking an overly tan skin tone, a South Asian influence with the brows and eye shape, an African-American influence with the lips, a Caucasian influence with the nose, a cheek structure that is predominantly Native American and Middle Eastern.” Did Smith think that Instagram Face was actually making people look better? He did. “People are absolutely getting prettier,” he said. “The world is so visual right now, and it’s only getting more visual, and people want to upgrade the way they relate to it.”

This was an optimistic way of looking at the situation. I told Smith that I couldn’t shake the feeling that technology is rewriting our bodies to correspond to its own interests—rearranging our faces according to whatever increases engagement and likes. “Don’t you think it’s scary to imagine people doing this forever?” I asked.

Jia Tolentino on Instagram Face.

I mean, on the one hand, as a post-/transhumanist at heart I’m all for people modifying their bodies in whatever ways they want. On the other, as Tolentino quotes elsewhere in the article (from philosopher Heather Widdows): Choice cannot make an unjust or exploitative practice or act somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative

2020-01-16T09:10:58+11:0013th May, 2020|Tags: culture, social media|

HRizing friendship.

But these tweets aren’t all fun and games. The fact that this type of language has entered the lexicon of friendship, one of the few human bonds that hasn’t been devastated by the transactional logic of neoliberalism—and has done so under the guise of being considerate or politically correct—is alarming. Transactional language strips love, kindness, and empathy from the social scripts of friendship, the exact sentiments people need when coming to you for help, regardless of whether or not you can provide that help at that specific time. Neurodivergent people too need that love, gentleness, and empathy, which is why they usually straight up ask for it in ways neurotypical people don’t. The implication that neurodivergent people should seek to use legalese when speaking with friends implies that we can’t distinguish between being open and explicit with our needs and being cold or patronizing. The appeal of the managerial language of these texts is that they seek to avoid the scariness of opening yourself to the emotions of others and their messy vulnerability. But it is precisely that messy vulnerability which makes friendships difficult (especially to people like me who can’t even handle their own emotions) but also worthwhile and wholesome.

Kate Wagner is at capacity.

This is in response to some viral tweets from a while back, that posited various scripts to use when you’re not in the right mental state to assist friends with their emotional problems. Wagner’s thesis is not that scripts themselves are bad, only that the language of these particular scripts was… and that people mocking the latter often ended up mocking the idea of the former, which is hurtful to neurodivergent people in particular.

2020-01-16T08:50:16+11:0011th May, 2020|Tags: culture|